Thursday, December 27, 2018

Toxic Masculinity

Or possibly Toxic Canininity.

I just got back from the dog park with Angus, my westie. If you don’t know westies - they are fantastic dogs - as cute as the dickens but very rambunctious. They love to play and run around and roughhouse and while they may look a bit like lap dogs do not be fooled. They are alpha dogs to the core. If there is any complaint about the breed it is that people often think they are getting something quaint and docile but…. Nope. Westies may be small dogs, but they are no less of a dog than any other breed out there.

(okay, so maybe he does like his naps, just like any other dog)

Anyways, Angus is getting up in the years so he is not nearly as rambunctious as he used to be, but we still like to head to the park to kabitz with the locals. He was having a good time today playing with the other dogs. One dog in particular enjoyed playing with him, a dalmation puppy about four times his size. They did the usual things - sniffed butts, ran in circles, barked at each other with their paws splayed out before themselves - two dogs having fun, nothing I haven’t seen a thousand times before.

“Hey Asshole!” someone shouts.

Was that shouted at me? I think while turning around to see who it was. About twenty feet away a woman is getting up from the picnic table, grabbing her dog’s leash and a few notebooks. She is probably a college student (it is a college town) white, stringy dark hair, glasses, sweats, probably about thirty to forty pounds overweight.

“You and your asshole dog shouldn’t be here,” she continues, “He’s too aggressive. There are other places, you know. You should take him there.”

At this point, I am kind of flustered. I really don’t know what she is talking about. I have been taking Angus to this park for over eight years. I know from experience what overly-aggressive play looks like and this is not it by a long shot. Yes, there have been a few times when I have pulled him out of the park, but usually because of other dogs playing too aggressively with Angus.

(Admittedly, he does look a bit like a fluffy bunny)

So she calls her dog over and snaps a leash on him. Things start to click together in my head and I slowly realize that she is accusing my dog of attacking her dog. Her dog who has spent the last few minutes running circles around us, tongue hanging out, about as happy as a dog can be.

“Hey! Hold on,” I say but she’s not listening, “you know what? You stay! We’ll leave!”

I am actually getting quite angry at this point. I am seething with derogatory terms spilling between my ears - thin-skinned liberal snow-flake millenial micro-aggression micro-manager - and I don’t like that either. I don’t want to be in the same park with her and so I pick up my leash grab my dog and shoot for the other exit, the one she is not heading towards.

And that is how it ends.

A perfectly good afternoon spoiled because somebody doesn’t understand what healthy play looks like. I was having a good time. My dog was having a good time. Her dog was having a great time. At one point he even jumped up and licked my face. She was the only one not having a good time and my best guess is because in her mind she was seeing nothing but violence, dogs attacking one another, threatening to rip each other apart like wolves, the downfall of civilization, the fascistic juggernaut of Trump’s America paving the nation over like a steam-roller. She may have even been wondering where my MAGA hat was at. Did I leave it in the pick-up with my confederate flag? I being a beardless white guy in my late 40’s living in Florida, of course.

For the record, I may live in Florida but I’m from New York. I drive a Honda Fit. I have an English Degree and voted for Clinton. Not exactly MAGA material.

But that’s what we have come to in this day and age. Suspicions are running high with a Nazi uniform hiding in every closet. So I took my dog for a walk around the lake and while doing so I couldn’t help but think about that boogie man of the gaming industry - toxic masculinity.

When I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s there was no toxic masculity. The people who trumpet the term would probably say that I was too steeped in it to notice. But. No. That was simple masculinity. We had macho jerks and bullies and kids who didn’t know how to play right. Actual assholes. They were not who they were because of an over-abundance of masculinity. They were who they were because they were genuinely bad people.

Masculinity is not a poison whose toxicity stands in proportion to its concentration. 

You can be super-masculine and still be a nice guy. You can also be an effeminite little twit and be as evil as Nellie Olson (yes, that is a Little House on the Prairie reference, ask your parents kids). But when you trumpet the phase “Toxic Masculinity” you are basically labelling the whole male side of humanity as something which is ultimately corruptive. Something which is only tolerable through a lack of intensity.

(Yes. Nellie Olson, the Darth Vader of Walnut Grove.
Look into those eyes and relent!)

If you look back at our entertainment from those days. Yes. It was very violent and hyper-masculine. To play Car Wars you put guns on hot rods and blew each other to pieces. With Battletech you put guns on giant robots and blew each other to pieces. With Axis & Allies you fought WWII over and over and over again without a single tear to shed for all the millions who died. When a character kicked it during a game of D&D? It was actually pretty funny - all because it wasn’t real - you looted the corpse, its player rolled up a new character and jumped right back into the game. People who did not play these games, who did not understand them, who just watched from the sidelines, probably shook their heads and wondered why it was so violent. Why did we seem to enjoy fighting and killing each other?

Here’s the answer.

The delight comes not from violence but from an exercise in strength, power and craftiness. If anything it comes from learning to recognize the worst possible situation and deal with it. The aggression and gore is there to make it seem real. On some primative level, play is a preparation for the future. It inspires confidence while erasing that fear of the unknown, of what might happen if this, that or some other thing should come into our lives. All without ever putting anything real at risk.

That is the nature of Play.

Whether it be in the dog park or at the gaming table. It may not seem very engaging or even healthy from the sidelines, but if you get off your butt and get in the game you might find that it is a lot more fun than it looks.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

What Just Happened

I think it started with a post by Stuart Robertson (although I can’t seem to find it now) where he was upset by the general immorality he had been seeing in the zeitgeist of the OSR. He was thinking about leaving it. Many people told him not to and I was among them. In fact I recall writing something along the lines of “If you don’t like it make a stand. Don’t let them push you off your playground.”

I had no idea I was talking to the owner and creator of the blue OSR logo, but apparently I was. With our encouragement, take a stand is exactly what Stuart did. In a very legal way he basically said that if you want to use his logo then you have to produce a product which is free all the usual toxic-isms: racism, sexism, discrimination etc. Actually let’s just call them the toxicisms. Afterall, doing so is reportedly now against Canadian law.

In-between Stuart’s initial concern and his ultimate action came this post by Venger Satanis. Of which I had the dubious honor of being the first person to comment on it, as well as the only person to find it funny. I did not know it was Trans-Awareness Week or that such a thing even existed, but other people did and they took offense. One thing leads to another, the straw breaks the camel’s back and Stuart then does his thing, easily dividing the OSR between those who think that it should be held to higher moral standards and those who do not want to be bound by what they perceive as a subversive liberal agenda.

Now, I don’t know Venger Satanis. I’ve never met him in person, but I’ve dealt with him enough online to say with some certainty that…

Venger Satanis is not a fascist.

A crass opportunist who will do whatever it takes to sell you a book? Yes. But he’s not a fascist. He’s far more likely to have doughnuts thrown at him than to throw doughnuts at others. Trying to pin him as trans-phobic is laughable at best. Have you ever even seen Alpha-Blue? It’s not exactly Mike Pence territory.

So what was Venger writing about? The clue is in the ridiculous pronouns he was asking people to use with his new identity: za’akier, za’a, zul and zal. This is a jab at Canadian bill C-16, an amendment prohibiting federal jurisdictions from discriminating on the basis of gender identity. Why is Venger interested in Canadian politics? Possibly because Jordan Peterson is, seen here giving what almost looks like a thumbs down to game designer and joy beaming fan boy James Raggi.

Jordan Peterson seems to believe that C-16 exists to legally enforce the use of gender neutral pronouns and will ultimately amount to people being fined (upwards of $250,000) for not using the correct pronoun which a person identifies with - even if those pronouns are made-up words like za’akier, za’a, zul or zal.

On the whole, I don’t know squat about Jordan Peterson. I watched a few videos. I read the sample section of his 12 step book. There’s no way I’m paying $13.99 for the rest of it. As far as I can tell Peterson is an uptight academic who dreams of solid systems of heirarchy so he won’t have to worry about the unwashed masses trying to tear him down for being too white, old, male and straight. This fear could also be the reason why so many have latched onto him. If you recall from that infamous tiki torch rally in South Carolina, some of the protesters were chanting “Jews will not replace us,” but the chant began as “You will not replace us.” The big underlying fear being not about who is doing the replacing but of being systematically weeded out of the big picture of life.

Is this fear legitimate?

That is hard to say. Luke Skywalker may have been put out to pasture so Rey can take his place and Doctor Who may have regenerated into a woman, but does this mean that the board room in the General Dynamics building up the street from where I live has had all the men in suits replaced by women in suits? Probably not. Even with the news, it's important to remember that the media is not reality. On all sides what is shown is skewed to appeal to a certain demographic. We can never know the full extent of real reality. We don’t want to know real reality. There is only so much time in a life and that shit is boring. But does this mean that the pseudo-reality given to us by the media is unimportant?

No it does not.

Look at the 2016 election. It was long, drawn out and ugly. Clinton should have beaten Trump in a landslide. Why didn’t she? Because somewhere along the way the Democratic party either painted itself or became painted by the opposition as the party of diversity - a certain kind of diversity which saves a seat at the table for everyone just as long as you are not too white, old, male or straight.

Gee, where have we heard that before?

Oh yeah, Jordan Peterson. Who is probably making a mint off of it in book sales. How did Venger get interested in Peterson? It was probably Kasimir Urbanski with whom he co-hosts a youTube series Inappropriate Characters. Kasimir is an instigator and an all around obnoxious person, but even he is not as bad as he makes himself out to be. From what I can tell, Kasimir’s biggest fault is that he never learned the first lesson of Journalism 101 which is to always get confirmation from three different sources before assuming it is true. When Urbanski posts some bit of non-gaming news online it never seems to be more than a few clicks removed from Breitbart. He is living in their bubble, guzzling their kool-aide and quite happy to do so.

So in the end, I guess it was all political, and that’s a shame because for most of us gaming is an escape from all of that. Is this the end of the OSR? Will the movement fracture into small warring divisions which will eventually dissolve into the ether? That remains to be seen. But on the whole it is good to see that people still care about old school gaming. The worst thing that could happen is to have everyone shrug their shoulders and leave it for dead, which I don’t see happening any time soon.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Aquabats Super Game!

I've been feeling like crap all week. I hate August. If there is ever a month when everything seems to break down and go all wrong it is August. So anyways, news came through the pike that the Aquabats are having a kickstarter. If you don't know about it you do now!

Anyways, I am a fan and this cheered me up, so much so that I suggested online that someone ought to create an Aquabats RPG. In truth, it's pretty amazing that they don't already have one (something remains unmerchandized? IMPOSSIBLE!)

I honestly meant that someone - besides myself - should do this because I am busy with other things, but that is not how it often works around here. The idea took root and soon I was rabidly hammering one out. There are no lists of stuff, creatures, etc but mechanically it is complete. Will it work? I haven't a clue, but gosh darn it I would play this game.

A lot of it involves you and your friends sitting around the table, pretending to be Aquabats and resolving your actions by making silly cartoon noises. There are no hit points, no miniatures rules. I did eventually resort to using Pow points but on the whole I did whatever I could to avoid talking about numbers during game play. As necessary as they may be, nothing for me breaks the moment quite like talking in numbers.

What is it's future?

Once again, I haven't a clue. I would like to create a character sheet for it, but I do have other things to do and for Stolen Intellectual Property reasons building this game up isn't high on that list of priorities. Still, if you're interested, give it a look and tell me what you think. I'd love to hear it.

Should any of you actually play a game of it then you instantly achieve Super-Rad status in my book.


Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Adventurers Club

Want some old-school cred?
I gotchya old school cred right here…

This is from Dimensions ‘84 my Junior High School yearbook. I am the kid in the center shuffling a bunch of papers and notably - not - looking as if the entire party had just been TPK’d. Chris, the tall kid standing next to me, may have been the DM or it may have been me. We all took turns DM-ing different adventures. Honestly, I don’t remember the photograph even being taken. It was definitely staged though. One of us is probably standing so we didn’t have to sit with our back to the camera. We did push desks together to play on, but the surface usually wasn’t so cluttered. We probably did this for the photo because - D&D - even back then it did not seem right without wobbly towers of books and papers sliding around the table.

I also have no recollection of being voted “co-president” of the group. That was complete news to me when the yearbook came out. Maybe Joe Spoleti (not pictured) snuck it in there to get access to the dodgeball launch codes, or whatever it is that the co-presidents of after-school groups actually do. It says we were a club but we were really more of a group. Part of being able to use the school was an open door policy where anyone could join. There were no strange initiation rites. If you showed up we would set you up with a character and try to squeeze you into the game as best we could. Girls were invited but none dared to show, so it did remain something of a sausage fest.

(and maybe that was all for the better) 

Every Tuesday and Thursday (I’m pretty sure) we would meet after school in the social studies room and play for a couple of hours. Mrs. Dewsnap sat quietly at her desk in the front of the room correcting papers, undoubtedly listening in to make sure things didn’t get too out of hand. To her credit, she never intervened on any of our games, and to our credit things we never got so out of hand that she had to. We were good kids. We even had something of an unwritten policy where you never killed anything unless they had done something to deserve it, especially humanoids. In a strange way, I guess it’s kind of fitting that it all took place in the social studies room. Now if only actual human history could be so kind.

I moved to Red Hook in the summer of ‘82 and the Adventurers Club had already formed by then. I really had no idea what D&D was and had only heard of the game through news coverage of it being burned in effigy, but I needed to make new friends so why not? On the very first day of school I was invited to join. I became the party cleric (of course) and it was love at first die roll. I turned some skeletons with my holy symbol and never looked back. I don’t know what the Adventurers Club was like before 82, but I’m pretty sure it peaked around 83/84. Not many people had shown up for this photograph but I do recall games where we had like twelve kids all trying to play at once and getting absolutely nowhere. The idea that there could be a maximum number of players in a game hadn’t gotten around to us yet.

By 84/85 the group was on the wane and by the spring of 85 it was over. So my experience with the golden age of RPG’s perfectly fit into the stretch of Junior High and maybe that was the problem. We were eager to move into High School and become teenagers - cool in every way - D&D had not yet developed the stigmatism of being a nerdy pastime (that was the chess club, three rooms down the hall). Two of the guys in this photo were on the football team. In fact, we often had jocks playing with us if their favorite sport was out of season. Still, the things you do in Junior High just don’t fly when you get to the hallowed halls of High School, where the rule of cool is more autocratic law than mere guideline.

(Come to think of it, the Red Hook Junior High
 really does look a bit like a castle.)

Another problem may have lain in the games themselves. Specifically D&D, and that specious notion that when your character dies you have to start over at 1st level. No one wants to start over at first level when everyone else is 7th, 8th or 9th. Especially when most of your XP comes from creatures killed, and the way we played had all of the XP going to whoever delivered the killing blow. That was the way we played and we followed those rules a little too religiously. On the internet there is this notion going around that the Rules Lawyer did not exist until D&D 3.0 -  w  r  o  n  g  - oh so wrong. I think that for as long as there have been rules there have been rules lawyers looking to win on a complication. D&D exploded with content during these years. Between Dragon Magazine and Unearthed Arcana the rules bloat made playing the game nearly impossible. There were way too many instances of people stopping everything to look something up and then squabbling endlessly afterwards over what one thing or another actually meant. The idea of the DM being above the rules was another convention that was not a part of our mindset and our games truly suffered for it.

Far more insidious (more insidious that rule lawyers! Impossible!) I think the Satanic Panic also caught up with us and took its toll. There were a number of kids who truly loved the game but just stopped showing up for reasons they would not discuss. I am Catholic and the family did go to church every Sunday. In fact, I was actually a regular reader of the liturgy. But my parents were college educated and they knew hokum when they heard it. We never had that little talk about the perils of Satan & D&D. If anything, I think my dad got a kick out of the fact that I enjoyed something which in many ways resembled the school board meetings his job forced him to attend. He probably wished his meetings could have been as much fun. Yet, I do remember that at the end of Confirmation we were given a meeting with our priest and allowed to ask him anything off the record. The one question which commanded the whole affair was, “what’s wrong with D&D?”

And it was not asked by me.

I was largely a silent observer. It was brought up and debated by those kids who were in the AC but had mysteriously dropped out. I actually felt bad for Father Coen because they had him pinned to the blackboard with something he honestly knew nothing about. There were actually many reasons to condemn D&D at that point, most notably the idea that you had to kill and steal to get ahead, but the best he could manage was the tired old line of “it involves, witchcraft and demons and magic and things you should not be playing with” which all boils down to “you don’t play the game because my higher-ups are telling me to tell you not to play the game.”

We may have been confirmed that day, but it was an indoctrination into a world where you say what you say to toe the line yet rarely ever say what is on your mind. Welcome to adulthood kids. I suspect the church lost some converts that day and the free thinkers of the world gained a few. Or at least, so I hope.

Last but not least, there was also the rise of the VCR and girls and after-school jobs and cars. And actually a whole bunch of other adultish things to drag us away. As John Cougar Mellancamp sang it best, hold onto sixteen as long as you can ‘cause changes came around real soon to make us women and men.

But for everything that went wrong during this period it was still dramatically outshined by all that we got right. The camaraderie, the friendship, the astounding feats of imagination. Gaming wasn’t pure escapism. It wasn’t any one of us alone, dreamily disappearing into the pages of a novel. When we joined forces on those Tuesday afternoons it felt like we were actually accomplishing something. We took our games seriously - sometimes a little too seriously - but we came out of them feeling bold, noble, mighty, proud.

And I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Junk'd is not Junk!

GO BUY THIS GAME. For no better reason than to keep Hankerin cranking out the beautiful craziness which is Runehammer games. Junk’d costs about as much as a gallon of gas and will probably give you far better mileage than whatever car crash game you may to be playing right now.

For the record, I have not played Junk’d. All I’ve done is read the rules and dreamt about it a bit. But I have seen enough to feel confident in saying that the writing is excellent. The art is spot on. The game is fun. And I absolutely love the idea behind the Ghostriders. It gives those players who are no longer in the race something to do besides sit around and wait to see who wins it. It also goes to show just how well thought out the game actually is.

(And is just wicked fricken cool!!!!!)

Junk’d easily circumvents one of the biggest problems with tabletop driving games which is the matter of accurately portraying vehicles designed to cover long distances in a short stint of time.

It simply doesn’t.

And that’s a good thing.

Instead it goes for the abstract, the engine power of your car does matter but it works in fits and spurts, only periodically moving you forward. Twelve steps forward and that’s a battle. Unlike Car Wars, you don’t need a free ping pong table to play on. Using micro machines you might even be able to play Junk’d in the back seat of an actual car. Think about that for your next road trip.

(Hey you kids! Keep it down back there!
Don't make me pull over!)

Vehicle design is super simple. It can be done in under a minute. And yet it still has a feeling of importance. The vehicle you drive will change the way you play the game. Maybe Junk’d doesn’t have enough meat on the bone to satiate any serious gearhead urgings, but at least you won't spend a whole evening beating a calculator to death to make one car.

Where does Junk’d falter?

When I said the writing was excellent, I meant the creative side. The instructional side is a bit iffy and even after reading it three or four times I’m still not completely sure I understand how the game is played. It is a turn based game and on each turn you make one of five dice pool rolls.

Engine - for moving ahead and powering to the end of the stretch.

Tires - for swerving side to side, changing lanes.

Ram - for slamming sideways into a vehicle beside you.

Guns - for taking a pot shot at someone directly in front of you.

Armor - for surviving being hit by gun fire or a collision.

Actually, you choose one of the first four. I don’t think there is ever a reason you would voluntarily roll your Armor. With engine you move straight ahead as many segments as the best number rolled. With Tires, Ram and Guns it is good to understand that there are six lanes on the stretch and each are numbered. With Tires you may move into any lane you rolled the number of. With Ram you do the same but only if there is a vehicle there for you to hit (where that vehicle goes after you slam it is not so clear, maybe you ride on top of it?). With Guns you can shoot someone directly ahead of you, but only if you manage to roll that lane number.

Now, Tires I like, even if it leaves you in the awkward position of being unable to switch into the next lane over but able to careen all the way across the board. Yes, your steering wheel is made of silly putty.

Guns is alright, but I think you should be able to target anyone on the stretch of road just as long as you are able to roll the number of the lane they are in. Having to move into a lane and roll that lane’s number feels like a bit much.

Ram is the only roll that doesn’t sit well with me. Sure, it is basically a sideways version of the Guns roll, but it is a little too abstract. If anything, I think Ram should be like Armor, a defensive roll you need to roll a 6 on whenever you collide with something. Hit a wreckage, roll a 6 and you burst through it in a cloud of bent flying steel. Engine forward or tires sideways into another vehicle and both drivers need to make a Ram roll. Whoever rolls the lesser number gets junk’d (a tie junks you both!). Beat the other vehicle’s ram roll and that vehicle also get pushed backwards a segment to make room for you.

But that’s just me.

When it comes to games I’m like the Mikey the Life cereal kid. I’ll waste anyone who tries to come between me and my milk-soggy bowl of corn puffs.

On the whole. Junk’d is an excellent little car battle game that should hold the world over until another Mad Max movie gets made. It does not accurately simulate anything, other than the abject insanity of a Fury Road drag race.

And when the hell is another Mad Max movie coming out! Star Wars films keep dropping from the sky like so many malfunctioning satellites, and yet Fury Road 2? Come on Mr. Miller, hit the nitro already.

Dammit, where are my dice!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Kull the DM!

So, this past week I got in a conversation online about whether or not RPGs could exist before the 1970’s. I mentioned a fragment of writing by RE Howard which appears to have some of his characters sitting around a parlor and playing one. Thaddeus Moore wanted to know where it could be found so here it is. It comes from the back pages of Kull Vol.2 by Baen Books.

But I thought I would do Thaddeus one better by scanning in the pages, so here they are. The parts which I found most interesting at least. The rest of the fragment is just two more pages describing the history and appearance of Howard’s characters.

Yes, it is not much to go on, but there are some interesting points to be found here. Kull shouts out Score! So the imaginary game does have a win condition and is being played competitively. He moves an ivory figure which insinuates a game of fantasy chess. He tells Brule “my wizard menaces your warrior” which could be taken as “my bishop moves to where it could strike your knight” but why would you tell your opponent this? And when was the last time you played chess with three people? Ronaro doesn’t make a move in the game, but he is sitting at the table and described as one of its players.

Probably the most interesting bit is what Brule says on page 192. “A wizard is a hard man to beat, Kull, in this game or in the real game of battle-” Granted it was probably meant to be nothing more than a segue to Brule telling a story, but it does imply that you do not simply defeat a character in this game by knocking them over like a chess piece. That there might be some hit points involved, some special powers and the casting of spells.

If only Howard had written something about rolling dice!

My point is that the dream of the Fantasy RPG was there. I suspect that RE Howard while writing this bit of text wasn’t just thinking about a possible story but also about how cool it would be to have a game where he and his friends could play the characters in his fiction. Maybe that’s why this fragment never went on to become a full fledged story. When you’re writing, it’s easy to get derailed by a good idea.

The 1930’s would have been perfect for the advent of the TTRPG. Print technology was at its prime with only film and radio to compete with. Polyhedral dice did not exist but six-sided dice were plentiful. And of course, there was the depression. There would have been large numbers of people in desperate need of a cheap escape and stuck with more than enough time to play in a seemingly endless campaign. It’s easy to imagine Weird Tales printing a single issue containing nothing but the rules for an RPG written by its authors - providing anyone ever thought to do so.

And that’s the clincher.

Ultimately, my answer to it all was -No- at least here in the USA the TTRPG could not have existed before the 1970’s, the reason being that you need the tumultous revolutionary thinking of the 1960’s to open people’s minds to where the playing this game - which comes in a box but has no board, a game with no winning condition, a game where you play with your friends rather than against them, a game where you and your friends pretend to be elves - is possible. Even in Howard’s imagination he cannot totally escape the idea of games which have an end and a winner and a competitive nature. It’s easy to forget just how rigid people's mindsets were in the 40’s and 50’s and presumably every decade leading up to the 1960's. In the 1950’s, when Elvis was caught shaking his hips on the Ed Sullivan show the world exploded with moral outrage. This is not a world which is ready for Dungeons & Dragons.

Even back in the 1930’s, if I remember right, pulp magazines were treated like pornography. They were kept under the counter at the local drug store, meaning you had to ask for them by name and endure the disapproving stink eye of whatever American Gothic caricature happened to be working the counter that day. So even if Weird Tales had produced an RPG it would have never encountered the massive success which D&D did in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It would have been frowned upon into oblivion. Just like the weird pulp fiction of Howard’s time, it would have become a niche hobby enjoyed by scattered bunches of basement dwelling weirdos.

(Not that there is anything wrong with that.)

In my comment to the post I also joked that you had to be stoned to enjoy a game like D&D. I did not mean this literally. Marijuana & Dungeons & Dragons do not mix. Well. But there is no overlooking the mind-expanding influence of psychedelic drugs on the culture of the 60’s and 70’s. Even if you never went near the stuff, the counter-culture did and they in turn took over the culture itself, opening people up to at least contemplating ideas which just a few years earlier would have been strictly taboo. While it is easy to think of D&D as a cultural vanguard, the game was more of a cultural coat-tail rider. The reason there are oriental monks in AD&D is thanks to Bruce Lee and the popularity of Kung-Fu movies. The mess that was psionics? That probably came from doing bong hits while watching In Search Of (well, how would you explain AD&D Psionics?). Gygax and friends were basically cultural trash compactors. If it was popular, if people mentioned a desire to have it in their game, they found a ways to squeeze it in there.

So if Vietnam had not been a thing for the hippies to rebel against. And if those rebellious hippies had not latched onto fantasy fiction - Tolkein in particular - as a metaphor for what they were trying to do by defying the establishment and living differently. And if bands like Led Zeppelin had never latched onto what their fans were reading and helped revive Tolkein in the popular imagination?

Well, maybe the TTRPG would still come into existence, but it would not be the same kind of game that we play today. It is doubtful that it would have ever been anything more than a small-skirmish version of a larger wargame. Think Call of Duty sans the computer. It would have been a game for the cadets at West Point to play and study as a battle simulator. And for those of us who stumbled into TTTRPGs because of D&D’s early success? There’s no telling what we would have done with all that free time, but we probably would not have enjoyed it nearly as much.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Number Resolution


Actually it does.

In fact, most paint dries with greater excitement than the matter of number resolution, but it’s still something I tend to think about far more than I should. And that is pretty much what I write about around here.

Number Resolution. It’s like the screen you’re looking at. The greater the number of pixels the computer manufacturer packs into the display the finer a picture you will recieve, and yet the more work it demands of the computer processor to project it up there. With tabletop RPGs - for me at least - number resolution does the same thing. It comes in three flavors: High, Medium and Low Resolution.
1d100. This is the truest view of what is going on with most core mechanics. You have a number range from 0 to 100 with 50 being the universal average. It’s high resolution because it allows you to add something as small as a +1 for an ultrafine adjustment of character chances. It’s also the most demanding. Quick what’s 87 - 36?

That took you a little while now didn’t it? And here is the problem with high resolution, unless you are of a mind-set which easily swims through seas of numbers the game is going to grow tedious and exhausting for most people. The game needs to truly be special to justify the math. Of course, you could resort to using just 5 point blocks, but if you’re going to do that you might as well use….
1d20. 2d10. 3d6. This is where most games reside. Those 5 point blocks become single points on the range from 1 to 20. Quick! What’s 17 - 7?

That was a whole lot easier. This is the same problem from above changed from high to medium resolution and rounded down (because we always round down). Some of the fine granularity has been traded in favor of greater speed and die rolling possibilities. And yet it still has enough variance to let things like the difference between a sword and an axe matter to its players.
1d10. 1d12. 2d6. Roughly speaking every 10 points of high resolution have been reduced to 1 point of low resolution. Quick! What’s 8 - 3?

Wait for it. Come on!
You can do it!
I believe in you!!!!

Note that the answer is half of what it was in medium resolution and a fifth of what it was in high resolution. Unfortunately the game is getting pretty chunky at this point. A +1 matters immensely, but because of this you cannot simply throw them around without good cause which will cause a loss of distinction.

We could go lower, and there are games out there which have done so. Rolling just 1d4 or flipping a coin to determine an outcome, but for me this loses the whole point of replicating reality and the influences that things have upon each other.

That is the hard part. It’s actually something I’ve been wrestling with right now. As a game designer I love the idea of high resolution. I’d love to create a game where you could actually build your own suit of armor with greaves (+3), different layers of mail (+2 +2 +2), full helmet (+8) or possibly just an open faced helmet (+4) and it all adds up to your armor class. But. That takes a hell of a lot of time to design let alone play and most players are fine with picking a suit - chainmail, platemail, scalemail, etc. - and moving on. There is also the matter of what people are expecting from the game itself. I think of TOON from SJGames.

(Because I always think of TOON, the screensaver of my mind)

TOON is a great low resolution system. You could convert the number system to a high resolution 1d100 experience but it would slow down the action to the point where you might feel like an animator drawing an actual cartoon frame by frame. You would probably have to pay people to play the game at that point. Even as a medium resolution game TOON could still be overbearing. TOON is good for one night single-shot events. Nobody turns to it looking for the long evolved campaigns that D&D provides. TOON campaigns are measured in hours, not days. TOON runs on 2d6 and speaking as someone who has played many games of it, I’d say it does so perfectly.

Most games don’t talk about why they choose to use the dice that they do. I’ve heard a lot of people defend the use of d6’s by saying “they’re common dice, they can be found anywhere, most people have some laying around the house and they will be more likely play my game if I use them!”

You’re so cute….

But think about this for a moment. Dice of different shapes and sizes are more prevalent now than ever before, and the sad fact of the matter is that most people will gravitate towards the major label games and possibly spend years there before they ever bother with the minor label games that (presumably) you and I produce. This means our players will probably already have a big bag of dice at their disposal.

There is something to be said about the tactile affair of rolling dice. The d6 does a very nice job coming to a stop after a roll, which is probably why the d30 never caught on. It also has a home-spun feel to it, which can work for or against the system at hand.

Then there is the matter of the number of dice involved in the roll. I’m not a big fan of the single die roll. I think it feels strangely weak and insubstantial. Meanwhile the thunder-like clatter of seven to ten dice hitting the table all at once may sound impressive but it is also kinda of annoying trying to pick through the results. And yes, I have not even begun to address the matter of dice pool games, but hasn’t this blog post gone on long enough?

So ultimately, between the three resolutions I think high resolution is the most ambitious but also the most risky as far as the time it takes to design the game and people’s reluctance to play it. Maybe for hard sci-fi games which can play off the technical appeal of large numbers.

Low resolution is just the opposite. It can come together quite quickly an be fun to play, but like an 8-bit video game from the 1980’s people may be willing to play it once but I can't imagine them playing it too many times. People are going to want such games to be small and limiting oneself in such a way is not always easy.

Medium resolution? Well, there’s a reason it is the industry standard and it’s not just because it was there first. Medium resolution does a good job balancing simulation with playability. But. There are so many medium res games out there that you need to offer something truly special to separate from the pack.

So what do you think about all of this? Why does your game use the die roll that it does? Am I spot on or totally off my rocker?

Oh, and just because I can. One of my favorite bits from Ren & Stimpy. Remember kids, play with dice, not electricity!