27 December 2014

Burning Out

Back in the day (college, and for a few years after) I ran an insane schedule.  There was a time I had four campaigns going at once – three fantasy campaigns with GURPS, one Champions campaign – and I was prone to frequent burnout.  I had to take a few months off every two to three years.

Then I discovered fantasy combat LARPing.  I'd been a GM for twenty years.  I did that about ten times as often as I was ever a player.  Not only did I want to play, but there was the sheer exhilaration of not merely sitting back in an armchair, holding dice and telling a GM what my character was doing, but by-God working my way through a forest, holding a cutlass and leading an actual attack against the bad guys.  Being physical again, as I hadn't been since I was a teenager.

It was full of awesome ... and it also took place on the weekends.  The summer I went full-on, starting a long stretch of 15-20 events a year, my carefully balanced two-weekends-a-month groups went blooey.  I called another "hiatus" -- this one lasted nearly a decade.

But ... combat LARPing is a young adventurer's game.  I'd been LARPing 14 years all told by the early 2000s, and I was a few years older than most of the others when I'd started.  The politicking had long since gotten to me, it was eating my life, and at age 42 (the oldest player in the game), the six hours of fight practice I was inflicting upon my deteriorating joints each week wasn't doing more than slowing the erosion of my skills. I got out.

So I wasn't being creative, I was bored out of my gourd, our social circle had almost all been in the LARP (and promptly vanished when we did), and my fiancee suggested I haul the dusty crates full of papers and gamebooks out of the basement and GM again. That was eleven years ago.

And that's the way to do it.  Burned out?  Your game just isn't satisfying, and hasn't been for a while?  Take six months off and walk in the woods.  Take in some hockey or soccer matches.  Play board games.  Do that volunteer work your gaming schedule sabotaged. Catch up on your reading, go bowling, hit a museum a day a week, whatever.  The official rules of that LARP were ceremonially read before every event, and Rule #1 started with "We should all be doing this to have fun."

I keep that in mind.  We should all be doing this to have fun.  If we're not, we should do something that is, and if that isn't playing RPGs, then it isn't.  No harm, no foul.  Honest.

Seriously, your friends will understand.  Heck, two of the players at the end in 1994 came back, and are in my group today.

20 December 2014

11 Odd Village Customs: Stuff You Can Use

(written for a competition on another site)

We gawked at the villagers, all in their best clothes, marching towards the field to the slow cadences of drum and pipes.  Dray rubbed the side of his head, looking as if he’d swallowed a bead of Dreamdrowse.  “Gwythar,” he muttered, “Am I still drunk, or did that old geezer really say they were all marching to ‘Judgment Day?’”

Me, I wheeled my mount around.  I’d heard it too, and if “Judgment Day” was in that bloody field, I was going to be galloping in the other direction fast as I could!

1) Strewing Day

Every year, on the festival of Barley Harvest (in the late spring), the village of Athelren holds a “hay-strewing” to fulfill the terms of a strange bequest.  Legend has it that a local woman left the field upon which the village’s temple to Ratri -- Goddess of the Shadows -- was built, so long as the villagers provided enough hay to cover the sanctuary floor on Barley Harvest, and did so within the span of an hour.  The reason for this odd condition is unknown, except for the jocular rumor that the woman was troubled by the squeaking of the congregants’ Darkday-best boots -- worn on the holiday -- on the basalt stones of the sanctuary!  An antique hourglass, fashioned of black walnut, is used to time the ceremony, and has a place of pride year-round in a niche behind the altar.

2) Judgment Day

Taking place a week before every solstice and equinox, the manors around the north Aldrya Valley hold local court.  Traditionally rotating around four of the central manors (Diamondblade in the spring, Redwave in the summer, Willowlight in harvest time and Moonfire in midwinter), this is far more ceremonial than a true criminal court, although locals lose little chance to daunt outsiders and travelers.  The people of each manor march to the host manor, led by two sergeants-at-arms bearing polished weapons and by two players with pipes and drum; behind them are two long garlands carried by the village youth -- flowers in season and greenery otherwise.  The stewards of the manors act as a collective court, ruling on disputes between residents of differing manors, as well as handling minor matters of hooliganism and vandalism.  After the court, a festive fair is held.

3) Chase Day

An old tradition in the village of Ambleside holds that the rich fields around the community used to consist of wastelands, scorched and ruled by a terrible dragon.  The mighty hero Princess Verella Waflo Elyanwe, bearing the great battlesword Meldil, is said to have driven the dragon away in a ferocious combat lasting hours, redeeming the land for the ancestors of the villagers.  In the second week of winter, the local church’s bell is rung continually for the three hours the battle was said to take -- to “keep the dragon away” -- and mock combats and tourneys of skill are held amidst the clamor.  One custom for Chase Day is for village maidens to dye their hair to ape the blonde Princess’ flowing tresses.  The festival is commemorated further in slang; someone who makes a great deal of noise in Ambleside is said to be “keeping the dragon away,” and any young woman who practices arms with the village militia is called a “Lightdancer” after the pseudonym Princess Verella is said to have used in her errantry career.

4) The Feast of Wine

Many villages in the uplands of the Mithlantra wine growing districts practice similar customs during the Feast of Wine, which happens in the fall when last year’s vintages are first broached.  Traditional line dances are performed, generally by competing teams wearing colorfully embroidered uniforms (aping the realm’s military dress of four centuries agone) that are passed down from parent to child.  Each team leader -- the team’s “Captain” -- wears a close-fitting cap, each fashioned from the fur of a different animal, after which his or her team is named.  Part of the festival involves the Captains having a dance contest of their own, using long poles with which they mimic the fighting style of a duelist in stylized, improvised battles.  The losing Captains must pay a forfeit of half a gallon of wine to the winner, and the losing team members traditionally each give a silver penny to be shared by the orphans of any dancers deceased in the last year.

5) Blessing of the River

Every spring, on the first Waterday after the ice breaks up on the Aldrya, the manors of the northern Aldrya Valley have this traditional ceremony.  Legend has it that a man fell into one of the creeks of the watershed and was set upon by leeches.  Fearing death, he prayed aloud to Wavedancer, spirit of the waters, who swept the bloodsuckers away with a wave of her hand.  As an offering, he is said to have broken a rich cake in his hands and scattered the crumbs on the water.  Each cottage provides a small cake or loaf of bread for Wavedancer on this day, which the head of the household breaks into one of the local streams; tradition holds that the stream into which a household offers a loaf will draw fish ninefold from it during the year.

6) Packet Race

Some of the finest tea in the world grows in the mountain country of Arsiriand.  The “first flush” -- the first picking in the growing season of the topmost inch or two of the tea leaves, both the sparsest take and the most highly prized of the season -- is picked in mid-spring, and the day this is packed sees this traditional race to the lowland trading stations.  Samples of the new tea is packed into quart-sized stoneware bottles, each handed to a fleet footed youth; depending on how high the village is up the mountainside, the race can be anywhere from three to ten miles long.  The first one to make it to the trading station with the bottle intact wins a coin of gold (generously provided by the tea trading compagnia) and is looked upon with great favor in his or her home village, especially as a marriage prospect.  It is considered very bad luck to interfere with a runner (or for them to interfere with one another).  One bottle is always set aside, and kept displayed in the village’s tavern with those of previous years as part of the historical record of tea cultivation.

7) Binding Festival

This curious custom, now dying out except in a handful of villages in the Linaldan backcountry, is observed in the late spring.  Its ostensible reason, as far as historians believe, was to raise alms for charitable purposes.  The women of the village, on Lightday, will seize an unsuspecting (unmarried) man, blind him with a thick woolen cloth, and demand a forfeit of a coin to set him free; it is considered very poor sport to attempt to break free when surrounded.  The men, on the following day, practice the same bindings on unmarried women.  Those who lack coins -- or who do not wish to pay -- can pay a forfeit of a kiss to one of his or her captors, chosen blind and at random.  It is considered very unsporting for the kiss to last less than the time it takes to recite a brief prayer (30 seconds, about)!  The fun lasts until the village reeve blows an ancient horn, reserved for the purpose in the village tavern, at which time the village gathers for a feast and the collected coins are distributed to those who most have need of them.

8) Toasting the Trees

According to tradition in rural sections of the Aldrya Valley, the third Darkday of the new year is the coldest day on the calendar.  In order to preserve the fruit trees that are the agricultural mainstays of the district, toasts are drunk to their health on this day.  Villagers carrying lanterns and a jug of hard cider (generally provided by the orchard owners or local taverns) make the round of the manors’ orchards after dark.  The children -- who always find it a great treat to be allowed to stay up after dark -- run around screeching out traditional warding cries to fend off evil spirits.  At a designated tree in each orchard, a villager drinks a toast to the tree (often there is a traditional cup, saved for the purpose), wishing it good health and fresh life in the spring.  “Horn fill, horn pull / Give us two score bushels full!” is an example of the toast used, which varies from village to village.  Some villages are said to practice fertility rites after the toast, involving two young volunteers by the bole of the tree after the children have moved on to the next orchard.

9) Kandrice’s Day

“Two in front and two behind,
Wavering in storm and sea,
Lovers wish yourselves to be,
Sealed with tokens sure to find.”

This cryptic charge from the famed seer Sana Kandrice Ravenswing has been long remembered in her home village of Alfirin on the Warwik seacoast, provoking a custom even in her lifetime held around her birthday in late winter, which has spread up and down the coast within the province of Vindelka.  The young unmarried men of the village will spend weeks carving or scrimshawing elegant tokens out of shark’s teeth or bone, and the day before the festival cook them into fruit tarts or pastries.  These are all put on display at the church (or the common room of the village tavern) in groups of two rows of two.  The local maidens are encouraged to use traditional divination methods to discern which tart holds the token of the young man she most favors; these include the throwing of bones or polished rods, the dropping of candle wax drippings into cold water, casting aromatic herbs into flames and watching the smoke, and myriad other methods.  On the day itself, the young ladies each pick a tart, and it is said that the fates look kindly upon her marrying the young man whose token is within the tart she picks ... although a great deal of trading surreptitiously often takes place.  In any event, each group of eight -- the four young men baking the pastries in each double row, and the four ladies picking them -- are considered bound by the choices, almost as if they are kin, and can ask one another for aid or favors in the next year.

10) The Fire Dance

Held on the day before midsummer on the north Warwik coast, this fair is a joyous festival, marked with feasting, agricultural trading and gift-giving.  The cap of the festival is a traditional dance by the village’s seven best dancers.  Each one, a half hour after full dark, appear in a customary costume wrought of gull feathers, dyed in riotous hues and with a feather cape.  The dancers bear torches to the coastline (preferably on a cliff or other promontory, if available) and perform a stylized dance, all in a line, weaving between one another interchangeably while waving the torches around.  It is a dangerous dance, and part of the prowess of the performers is displayed by seeing how close they can come with their torches to one another without actually setting one another on fire.  The origin of the Fire Dance is believed to stem from the old suppressed custom of “wrecking,” where coast dwellers lured merchantmen into the rocks with false signals so that they might turn scavenger on the shipwrecked cargoes, but folklorists do well not to mention this to the villagers, who take strong offense at the suggestion.   

11) Graveyard Day

North Point is a veritable wasteland, thrust out into the sea and scoured by winds; it is a bleak and unlovely place, with only firs and spruces for foliage.  The only protected dell in the village is the local graveyard by the Manannan temple.  Every spring, on a day colloquially known as “Graveyard Day,” villagers come to plant flowers around the graves, and it has become something of a local competition amongst the schoolchildren, who “adopt” graves and turn them into veritable gardens.  A great deal of the children’s spare time is taken up with weeding and grooming the grave plots, a task not appreciated by a certain minority of the village folk, who believe the practice impious.

14 December 2014

R-E-A-L-I-S-M: The Hated Word

 "Realism" is one of the dirtiest words in RPG Internet discussions.  Has been for years.  D&D fanboys
are especially touchy where it's concerned (understandably so, given D&D), as well as the various pedants huffily proclaiming that "fantasy" CAN'T be "realistic," and that we ought to be using "verisimilitude" or "emulation" instead.

(Whatever.  "Realism" is the word in common use.  When I addressed a condolence card to a friend who lives in the state southeast of mine, I didn't address it to "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations."  I mailed it to Rhode Island.  If you can't work with terms in popular circulation, the heck with it.)

So by this point I have a sticky response to the issue, which originates from a RPGnet discussion several years ago.  To wit:

I think the real question here is, "why do you consider the mechanics nonsense"? We're talking an imaginary dwarf, with 100 imaginary hit points, falling off an imaginary cliff, taking damage that is, also, imaginary. If the designer finds it desirable that a character could fall off a cliff and survive, it will be so. If not, for whatever reason, it will not be. (The first mention of "but it's not REALISTIC!" gets you kicked. This is all *imaginary*, remember?)

If I had a dime for every time I've heard this over the last couple decades, I could pay all the bills this month.

Well, yes, it's all imaginary.  So why use cliffs, or indeed any recognizable terrain at all?  Why not adventure in big fluffy masses of amorphia?  Or just teleport to anywhere we want to go, and imagine it to be anything convenient to us?

Why should we use perfectly recognizable medieval weaponry?  It's imaginary, isn't it?  Don't limit yourself, hit the enemy with your kerfluffmezoz or your wheezimithuzit!

And since it doesn't have to make sense, we don't need to have these pesky movement rules, besides which we all want to be Matrixy and John Woo-esque, don't we?  Tell your DM that you're running through the air and phasing right through every intervening tree and foe to hit the Big Bad with your wheezimithuzit, and better yet you're doing it before he cut down your friend, because since it's all imaginary we don't have to use linear time either.

No, I don't care that I rolled a "miss."  Skill progression is one of those boring realism constructs, and I don't believe in it.  Let's just imagine that I hit the Big Bad whenever I need to, and for twenty-five hundred d8 of damage, too.  Encumbrance is boringly realistic too, so I’m ignoring it, and I’d rather imagine that my snazzy quilted vest protected me like the glacis armor on a T-72, please.

Alright, show of hands.  Why don’t we play our RPGs that way?

It’s called suspension of disbelief. We put our games into recognizable settings that mimic real life.  We use swords in fantasy games because we have the expectation that such milieus use swords, and those swords do the relative damage of a sword instead of the damage of a 155mm mortar shell because that is our expectation too.  Our fantasy characters wear tunics and cloaks, live in walled cities or sacred groves, and scale ramparts where the force of gravity pulls us downward, not pushes us up.  We have an expectation of how fast we can walk, how far we can ride, and how long we can sail.  All these expectations are founded in -- wait for it -- reality.

To the degree we ignore these things, just because, we lose touch with suspension of disbelief.  If the ten-foot-tall Big Bad hits a peon with his greatsword, we expect the peon to be in a world of hurt; we don’t expect the sword to bounce off.  If the party wizard shoots a fireball at the orcs’ wooden stockade, we expect that it might catch fire; we don’t expect the wall to grow flowers instead. 

And if an armored dwarf takes a gainer off of a hundred foot sheer drop, we expect to find a soggy mass at the base of the cliff.  We sure as hell don't expect a dwarf boinging around like a rubber ball, happily warbling, "Bumbles bounce!"

That there are a great many gamers who want their rule systems to reflect reality, rather than ignore it -- so that we find ourselves constantly sidetracked as to issues of WHY suchandsuch doesn't make sense, or because the GM has to explain how come the dwarf isn't a soggy mass -- ought be a surprise to no one.

Why is it such a surprise to you?

07 December 2014

The Big Bad's Exit Strategy

My job, as a GM, isn't to preserve the life of the bad guy. It's to provide the players a fun gaming experience.

Take one of the classic plot elements: the party has run down a den of Evil Henchmen, destroying the operation and killing or otherwise neutralizing all of said henchmen. Huzzah, they take the clues and info they've gotten from the scene and have dashed off.

Flip that around: you're a PC. You've got some manner of base: either it's your home base, or it's some operation you have going, or it's the manor you were given when the Queen knighted you, or it's the business you bought with the proceeds from two adventures ago, hoping that it'd make some cash for you. And you drop in to check on it, and the place has been tossed and trashed. The staff you hired are all dead or vanished. The guards you hired are decaying piles of gore.

So what do you do? Shrug, murmur "That's life," and go on your merry way?

That's exactly what most PCs expect the Big Bad to do, in any event.

Hell with that. If I'm a PC, and my satellite operation was trashed and everyone killed, and I have no idea who did it, that's going to change real frigging fast. I'm going to hire a wizard to do divination magic/check security footage. I'm going to spread some coin around the neighborhood to see if anyone saw or heard anything. I'm going to do my level best to find out if there were any survivors, and I'm going to be very interested in speaking to any. I'm going to increase security on anything else I have going to the limit of my capability. I'm going to get some investigators on the pawnshops (or going through Craigslist ...) to see who might be selling my stolen valuables.

And I'm going to set the best ambush I can for those bastards, so that I can put their severed heads on the graves of my people, and prove to the survivors that no one screws with me or them with impunity. There won't be frontal assaults ... I have no problem with a crossbow/rifle in the back of the head at 50 yards as one of the bastards is walking down the street, or a spear coming up through the privy hole.

If I don't have the juice to do those things? Then I haul out my exit strategy. I hear Linalda's Pool is peaceful this time of year.