27 July 2014

Evil Deities? How come?

"I AM dark and evil!  Really!  Fear me!"
Poster: "The one problem with D&D's presentation of gods was always to me - how the hell do the Evil Deities get worshippers? Why would anyone worship Cyric, for example? I admit that settings did somewhat try to explain that, but I always thought that either they should be granting simply more power to their priesthood/cultists (while usually, to keep the mechanical balance somewhat, they don't), or they should be enforced by sheer power."

Well, there are one of four possible explanations, presuming you don't just dismiss the concept of D&D "Good" vs "Evil" as the arrant bullshit it is:

* Did Hitler think he was evil? Did Stalin? Pol Pot? Almost surely not. Just because we have an OOC system mechanic -- or just because the winners write the histories -- that proclaims someone "evil" doesn't mean that they think of themselves that way.

* The dark gods will have their due. Failure to worship them will bring their anger down on the land, something that has been proven time and time again. The people in the pews might be trembling with fear, but they come nonetheless.

* They attract the losers, the misfits, the powerless, the people with nowhere else to go, those who crave vengeance. The dark gods are real, everyone knows that. If you can't beat the ones who oppress and bully you, worship at the altar of someone who can.

* Haven't we all seen decades worth of players commit all manner of bestial and violent acts, all in the ostensible name of "Lawful Good?" The light gods, they preach Good, and Truth, and Honor, and Love, but look at the depredations of their followers! Isn't it just a pack of lies after all? The dark gods, though ... sure, they might be "evil," and there might even be some justice to the charge, but at least they'll never lie to you. They're honest about who and what they are.

20 July 2014

So You Want To Write These Things Yourself?

People have odd notions of pros in this hobby.  I’ve come across some startling fanboyism.  When I came to gaming forums in 2003, after an eight year hiatus from tabletop, a fellow proclaimed in one thread of the inerrant truths of Ryan Dancey’s proclamations, was shocked that I’d neither heard of nor was impressed by him, and that I couldn’t be much of a gamer if I didn’t Know Who He Was.  That no one else in the hobby in 1995 had heard of Dancey didn’t really penetrate the poster’s shell.

But that's because participants in this hobby place a huge, disproportionate importance on it  — it's the same syndrome that has SF conventioneers quivering in ecstasy at the mere sight of authors who didn’t crack the New York Times top one hundred best-seller list with the most popular books of their careers.   Some people just gasp in horror that the names of the Big Name Authors of the Games They Play aren't engraved in gold in the consciousnesses of every gamer alive, and it's natural to go on from there to assume that these people are figures of monumental importance and wealth.

Now this is in ignorance of what most game designers make; for my own part, I was a frequent guest in the modest two-bedroom suburban apartment of the president of a game company that had one of the most hugely touted supplements of the 1980s, and he made almost ZERO money from the hobby — the family income was based on his day job as an environmental services executive.  There might not be more than a couple dozen people who make decent livings as full-time game designers.  There might not be that many.

There’s probably a hundred times that many people who’ve been a semi-pro at some time in their gaming careers, which leads into another syndrome. What sports fan hasn't sat up in his chair and cursed the blunderings of the home team, insistent that the player or the coach is a bum, and that he could do better himself? This derives from the fact that a majority of the men and a growing number of the women in this country at one point in their youths held a baseball bat, kicked a soccer ball or threw a football. It isn't THAT hard, they think, and so they figure they know all about it.

In like fashion, many GMs write their own scenarios and adventures. They have a notion how it's done, and they then read a product and mutter, "I could do a better job."  Now very few of you have book authors as personal friends (counting people who’ve had genuine national releases from major publishing houses, my total is two) ... but gaming?  Eight published authors of GURPS products alone have been regular players of mine, or else I’ve played in their campaigns.  That figure more than doubles for writers for non-GURPS products, and we won't even discuss those I’ve played with in one-shots, playtests or convention runs.

Now maybe there's a preponderance of game authors in New England, but what's more likely is that there's a whole lot of them out there period, and chances that every one of you who is a veteran gamer has played with at least one. So you look across the dice at the Sunday afternoon run, and there's Joe Blow, who wrote a module for D&D and a few articles for Vampire, and you say to yourself, "Sheesh, he's not any better a gamer than I am. What makes HIM so special?"  The mere implication that he's making dollars from the hobby can either be resentment making, or fill you with the certitude that you can do it yourself.

Fair enough.  Just don’t expect riches.  For the great majority of us, selling a gaming product meant some nice pin money. One sale got me the down payment on a new economy car. Another paid for a modest vacation.  One (split four ways for the co-authors) bought me my books and materials for my last semester of college.  I’ve got a dozen RPG publishing credits, and all of the money I ever earned from gamewriting doesn’t total up to a single year’s worth of a full-time minimum wage job.

Beyond that ... every single gamebook I ever wrote came through connections.  I met the aforementioned game company president at the local gaming club; he’d just moved to the Boston area, and we’d both joined the same dice baseball league.  There was the game company president who had a serious crush on my first wife's college roommate (true story!).  There were the people who recognized my name from long-time writing in APAs.  I started writing for GURPS because the baseball-loving game president had received a courtesy copy of the playtest rules from Steve Jackson, he didn’t have particular interest but knew I was a TFT GM, and handed them over to me – that got my name on the radar and into the GURPS corebooks.

This is how a number of game companies winnow down the hordes of energetic wannabe writers. Few game companies – if any – have people reading through slush piles. They often have specific projects in mind, fitting into existing product lines, and as in any other creative field they'll hire someone they know (or someone vouched for by someone they know) over those newcomers. They are not at all interested in OJT, and expect professional efforts written to their exact requirements, submitted on or before the deadlines, no excuses.

Starting your own deal from scratch? It can be done, and we know of folks who've done it. Unfortunately, many of them already had capital they were willing to invest to print their stuff, convention hop to push their stuff, and keep the bills paid while they were trying. And for every indie success, there've been twenty small press failures, and fifty no one's ever heard of beyond the local college's gaming club.

(I've two anecdotes to illustrate the syndrome. The first is from the mid-80s.  The gaming club at UMass-Amherst had a fellow who designed a board game, called Dawn of Islam.  Sorta a Diplomacy/Risk style wargame with unbalanced sides; the Byzantine position was by far the strongest.  Except ... the Islamic player, early in the game, received four tokens called "Army of the Faithful" which were damn near invincible, and of course to conquer the rest of Europe he'd have to go through the Byzantine player first.  Very intriguing, very well designed, very engrossing, there was a session damn near every week.  Everyone said that the designer ought to get it published.  He never succeeded at it, and the only reason I know the guy's name at this remove -- Roger Adair -- was in asking clubbies of the era on Facebook a couple years back.  Roger's passed away now, and no doubt his marvelous game's been at the bottom of a landfill for a couple decades.)

(Second one is, well, me.  I started veering away from D&D very early, and getting very very variant indeed.  Typed up the result in 1981, brought it to UMass with me the next spring.  I was something of a nine-day wonder that spring semester, had more players than I knew what to do with ... either I was that good a GM or everyone else was that bad, eh.  That was the only semester I was at UMass, life events taking me back to Boston, but one of my players had a xerox of the system, and Tom was enough of a fanboy to GM it.  He was doing it years later, something I found out at a SF convention down the road.  Having moved on to TFT and GURPS by then, I inwardly winced that someone was still GMing that godawful melange, but gave belated permission, and furthermore got into Tom's hands a copy of my spell manuscript, the part he never had.  The last I'd heard, he was still GMing it deep into the 1990s.  Go figure.)

Not deterred? Fair enough ... give it a shot! Just make sure to keep your day job.

13 July 2014

Baiting and Switching ... Not.

So there was a thread once, where the OP put forth a proposition, based on indig tribes of Southeast Asia such as the Hmong or the Karen: that orcs were similarly folk who were pushed out of the better, nicer lands, who lived on the fringes of civilization as a matter of course, and who were far more stigmatized as Those Barbarians than anything else.  This wouldn’t be readily apparent to the players, who’d hold – and be expected to hold, as All Civilized Folk ought – the classic prejudices about orcs being nasty evil beings needing extermination.

The OP somewhat presciently said that this would either work well or piss everyone off, and it did: starting with other posters, who raked coals of fire over the idea.  The OP was accused of “cheating,” of having a “social agenda,” of baiting-and-switching, and of breaking the expected D&D paradigm.  One poster, rather colorfully, compared the “humiliation and embarrassment” of the situation to showing up at your boss' wedding in a clown suit.

This is not an unusual reaction in gaming circles ... IMHO, more because their own worldview was threatened than any other factor.  Now, yes: if the OP's was running straight D&D, with published dungeon modules fresh out of the shrink wrap, and advertised a hack-n-slash campaign, then yes, messing with people's (completely OOC) preconception of How You're Supposed To Be GMing Those Races is railroading.  I'm equally willing to acknowledge that a number of game systems have fixed settings with defined notions of the setting's races. A Pe Choi in Empire of the Petal Throne, a troll in RuneQuest, a dwarf in Warhammer, a gargun in Harnmaster, we have a good idea how they're to be portrayed.

For my own part? I think the notion of orcs as the fantasy world's 'Yards is a smashing one. Beyond that, I'm a GM. I get to set the standards for my setting. I can adopt whatever moral standards I bloody well feel like adopting, I get to define my world's orcs however I please, I am not bound by any fictional source or player expectation when I do it, and all the rest of you get to do the same around your own gaming tables.

Beyond that ... not everyone plays D&D 4th with a (say) Forgotten Worlds setting.

Let me repeat that: not everyone plays D&D.

Orcs are presented in different fashions in other systems. GURPS has its own take on them. Harn has its own take on them. Warcraft has its own take on them. Shadowrun has its own take on them. Warhammer has separate spins depending on whether you're doing Fantasy or 40,000. The claim that orcs are monolithically, irredeemably evil throughout the RPG world is flat out false ... and doesn't even apply to D&D, which has had orcs as playable PC races in more than one edition.

The notion, therefore, that "changing" how orcs work in your campaign is by-definition a bait and switch is bullshit.

And when this is a "reveal," and the whole point is that the general perception of the world might be wrong ...? Err. This isn't an epic screwjob. This is a plot twist.

06 July 2014

How To Do Your Own Age Of Sail

The Mayflower II, the only ship in this article I've ever been on.
To the verisimilitude fan, published RPG settings get a lot wrong.  I’ve ranted about this a fair bit, but there’s no example so stark and startling as how badly and consistently gamers get ships wrong.

You’re all gamers, and you know how seafaring in RPGs is depicted.  It’s right out of Hollywood movies of the 18th and 19th centuries, classic Age of Sail tech.  To a degree, this is understandable: medieval and Renaissance depictions of Arthurian and Biblical legends put folks in clothing, armor and weapons that would’ve fit in perfectly in contemporary culture.  Moreover, filmmakers have budgets, and cinematic ships are almost always drawn from the pool of replica Age of Sail vessels out there.

This is reflected in gaming: ships are often depicted as huge, with 19th century cannon, ship’s wheels, sleek keel:beam ratios and all the trappings of the Age of Sail.

But we do know a lot about those earlier vessels.  Want to do it right?  Ditch damn near every movie you saw.

First off, ocean-going medieval vessels are small.  The largest of them topped out at 200 tons, their accommodations could charitably be described as “spartan,” and they weren’t overwhelmingly seaworthy.  They didn’t hold that many sailors, nor that many provisions – the navigational standard was to coast hop.  Check out some of these links for examples of cogs, and carracks, caravels and fluyts that replaced them in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance eras.  Take the Mayflower II above, a Renaissance-era fluyt.  Being a Plymouth-area native, I've been aboard her several times.  Imagining over a hundred passengers AND their livestock AND their stuff AND the crew on that teensy vessel, for two months yet in the North Atlantic autumn, just blows my mind.

Secondly, the science of shipbuilding hadn’t evolved very far.  The fad for medieval European shipbuilding was for very high “castles” both fore and aft, quite suitable for the boarding tactics of the time and reminiscent of land fortifications, and which survives in the nomenclature of today’s “forecastle.”  As cannon became common, they got jammed onto these top-heavy ships in appalling numbers and in appalling sizes – stability calculations being centuries in the future – and as you can imagine, an all-too-frequent occurrence was overburdened ships just toppling over and sinking on the spot.

Thirdly, they were a lot fatter than you imagine.  Remember that ship deck plan you downloaded from that gaming site?  It’s almost certainly crap.  The keel:beam ratio (translation for you landlubbers: how long it is vs. how wide it is) runs as much as 7:1, which is about what you expect for 1870s extreme clippers that couldn’t possibly carry armament or a military crew and could do only one thing well – sail in a straight line, very very fast.  I don’t say it isn’t useful to the designers of gamebooks, who can jam three grid plans of a 7:1 ship onto a single sheet of paper.  It just bears no resemblance to reality.

The ratio for medieval ships were much more often along the lines of 3:1, and even as chubby as 2.5:1.  This made for a craft that could haul more cargo, and could handle rough seas better, but it doesn’t look very 19th century.

A number of innovations hadn’t yet been invented.  Smaller ships (such as cogs) were steered with tillers, just as you’d see on modern-day pleasure boats, or with large and inefficient steering oars.  This didn’t work very well when ship sizes grew, and the whipstaff was invented – only in the 16th century.  (The modern day ship’s wheel wasn’t invented until the 18th century.)  The familiar anchor shape you think of wasn’t invented until well into the 1800s: medieval anchors didn’t have shanks, and the arms were straight instead of curved.  Stern-mounted rudders weren’t common until well into the Middle Ages.

(By the bye, all of this refers to European seafaring, with which players are likely to prefer for aesthetic reasons.  Chinese and Arabic seafaring of medieval times were much more advanced.)

I’ll touch on pirate ships, a major topic of gaming sail.  Contrary to popular belief, there isn't a particular ship design called "pirate ship." Pirates used just about any hull they could get their hands on, although they favored sloops for their maneuverability, speed and ease of repair.  Far more often than otherwise, these ships were usually small.  This flies in the face of Hollywood, which favors large replica vessels and broad decks onto which you can pack a satisfyingly large cinematic battle as well as cameras and tech crew, but there you have it. 

As to that, Spanish treasure galleons were very seldom used as pirate vessels; they could pack a whopping lot of men, but they were ponderously slow and needed outright shipyards for maintenance, something unavailable to most pirates. When galleons were used by pirates were in full scale assaults by outright fleets, more along the line of amphibious invasions than the normal run of piracy, and those assaults were things of legend that happened once or twice a decade.

Deckplans?  That’d be a bit of a problem.  NO library will have deckplans for a 17th century ship or earlier smaller than a third-rate (about the size and armament of a USS Constitution-sized heavy frigate), for that matter: the earliest sloop deck plan that has been uncovered so far dates from 1717.

A book I own and strongly recommend is Deane's Doctrine of Naval Architecture, published by the Naval Institute Press. Sir Anthony Deane was a prominent naval shipwright of the 17th century, and the Doctrine was written at the request of his patron, Samuel Pepys (the famous diarist, who was at the time the First Lord of the Admiralty), to explain ship design and building to the educated layman. Among other things, the book has exhaustive statistics of every ship on the Royal Navy list in 1670, and I mean exhaustive – I can crack the book open and give you for every possible rate (and where listed, for each one of the ships in the Royal Navy) the length and number of every single scrap of rigging, how much it cost to completely rig or provision the ship, how many guns and anchors they had, every possible dimension ... to a degree that would blow the mind of the most anal dungeonmapper alive.

In particular, using Deane's stats and given the range of guns found on pirate ships of the day, the heaviest pirate ships would be around 90' by the keel and 28-29' by the beam (for a 40-gun ship that could man around 200 men), and generally getting no smaller than a 4-gun smack that could man about 30 men and measure around 44' by the keel and 11-12' by the beam.