19 July 2015

Gaming With Kids

As is often the case, a forum discussion provoked this post.  This one involved people being creeped out by a GM of the original poster’s acquaintance including a couple 12-year-olds, neither being family members of his, in his campaign.

It’s not that society's "OMG but the CHILDREN!!!!!!" riff is getting surreal, it's that it hit surreal quite some time ago. Swear to God, I met a woman who bragged – bragged! – out loud to me that she had never yet failed in avoiding leaving her husband alone with their five-year-old daughter. Heaven knows how she failed to pick up on the shock and revulsion on my face that she would just assume her husband was a pedo-in-the-making, or if she had genuine evidence to believe he was, that she was still living with her children under a roof with him.

To me, the true creepiness and perversion is in the automatic presumption that the only reason a grown man could possibly have anything to do with a minor is for sexual purposes. If that's what any of you believe, I ask you to examine in yourselves why you're so obsessed with underage sexuality that this is the first thing you'd conclude, and to seek psychological help for your unhealthy obsession at once.  (This is my polite way of calling you an obsessed moonbat.)

Now alright – I know teenagers can be annoying, quite aside from the simple fear that having a teenager at your table would provoke the aforementioned obsessed moonbats into siccing the cops on you.

For my part, I’ve had teenagers at my table, and yes, well after college days, thanks. I'd take a player of any age who demonstrated to me a certain level of maturity, the ability to handle mature themes and a willingness to meet my regular schedule of pretty much all-day-Saturday on 2nd and 4th weeks. For the record, the most recent two players I bounced for immaturity were both in their 40s, and the oldest players in their groups at the time.

I have an anecdote. My college chorus allows alumni to sing in it, and I did, until moving back to western Massachusetts.  Six years ago, with an interim conductor, the situation was scrambled enough that I wound up as interim tenor section leader for the semester.  (I expect that they found the presence of a veteran greybeard who’d been with NUCS on and off since the 1970s comforting.) The vice-president invited all the other officers and section leaders to her place one night for a planning session and get-to-know-one-another evening, which wound up being silver-haired me – I was 49 at the time – and four young ladies. During the course of our chatting, the topic veered off onto dating, and one of the ladies mentioned her dismay at having a 30-something guy asking her out.

This was the point where I remarked, quietly, that my wife was 18 years younger than I am.

In the brief moment where all four gazed at me like shocked owls, one cleared her throat and asked, "What do you TALK about?" To which I answered that, well, you're all nearly thirty years younger than I am. What do we have in common, and what are we talking about?

Now leaving aside my cacklefest a couple years later when the original speaker, by then an alum herself and still with the chorus, admitted to me that she was dating a 35 year old guy – whom, happily, she married this past spring – I stand by my own statement. There is something deeply disturbing to me in the automatic presumptions that there is no way a grown man can be friends with a teenager without rubbing the front of his pants, that all grown men are might-be-perverted animals who can't be trusted, and that adults and children couldn't possibly have anything in common, any common ground or any reason to talk to one another civilly and socially.

And that includes sharing in this wonderful hobby.  Because, think about it: two of the original D&D players were children.  How old was Ernie Gygax at those first games ... 13? 14?  And Elise Gygax was his younger sister.  No one suggested, then or subsequently, that Gary Gygax was a sicko for that.

Honestly, some people need a reality check.

19 June 2015

My Pet Hates

We all have system elements that drive us nuts, and some that just plain drive us away from the table.  By way of further informing my dear readers (as Miss Manners would phrase it) of my gaming philosophy, here are mine:

Absolute Dealbreakers (I won't touch a game or a campaign with these elements, ever)

Alignment. The single stupidest, most insidious and by far most mismanaged concept ever foisted onto RPGs. Screw you, Gygax.
   
PvP. For every person energized by backstabbing and screwing his fellow players (and somehow, these people are overwhelmingly the screwers as opposed to the screwees), there's a gaming group that's been broken up over it. This is the most unforgivable sin in my own campaigns, always has been, always will be.

Hack-and-slash. Look, if all I want are tactical situations, I'll play a wargame. Heck, I'll play a console game – the graphics are a lot better and I don't have to shave, wash or travel to play one. I'm a roleplayer, sorry.

Random chargen. Think Monopoly would ever have gotten off the ground if you got to roll 3d6 x $100 for starting cash? Is there any other type of game other than RPGs where players start out with wildly disparate levels of ability or resources?

High mortality rate. I get attached to my characters, and I want to develop them. If they're just cardboard cutouts with a life expectancy of three game sessions, what's the point? (See Hack-and-slash, above.)

Lack of credible realism. I like gritty, realistic games. If you don't know your shit, or it's not reflected in your game, you really don't want me as a player. Trust me on this one.

Dungeons. It's no longer 1975. We don't use Trash-80s for computers any more, and we stopped listening to disco, and Earth Shoes are antiques, and the polyester leisure suits are all in landfills now. Why the pluperfect hell do these crapfests still exist?

Skills that work. The last time my wife and I attempted d20, she damn near erupted in frustration having failed nine straight First Aid rolls.  Look, if the sailor you hired has only a 50% chance to tie a knot, you're going to throw the incompetent loser overboard.

Jackass/agenda.  I refused to have anything to do with a game written by a fellow who got onto my Ignore list on a prominent Internet gaming forum almost twelve years ago, and who defines "arrogant, obnoxious prick" to me.


Probably Not. (I won't automatically rule these out, but they're huge strikes)

Character classes. Sorry, I don't need a label. Give me a point based system and I can decide for myself what skills I get, thanks.

Levels. Sorry, I don't need to train all at once at some artificial point, and furthermore have an arbitrary basket of arbitrary skills improve. Give me a point based system and I can decide for myself when and what to train, thanks.

All-male groups. Quite aside from that I like women around, an all-male group has a significantly higher chance of having a number of elements I don't like.  I can do without testosterone poisoning at my age.

Horror. It isn't that I hate the genre, per se – although it's no favorite of mine – it's that I don't think RPGs convey horror well.

Silly. I don't do that style well either. Slapstick isn't my cup of tea.

Fire and forget spells. It goes to figure that of all the magic systems in fiction, Gygax would have to copy the one author (Jack Vance) who used a fire-and-forget system. Screw you twice, Gygax.

Lack of walkovers. Sometimes the players make all the right guesses or have all the right luck. I want my decisions, skills and actions to have a material effect on gameplay. I don't want scenarios to be artificially prolonged just because the GM decided they ought to be and nerf anything that interferes with his timetable.

Overforced narration. Hello, there, we're the players, not you, Mr. or Ms. GM. If you want to do nothing but to tell stories, there are coffee houses and bardic circles that cater to that. If it's that you'd rather play yourself, go for it; I'll trade seats with you.

Over the top skill lists. You're seriously telling me I have to take skills in Abacus and Soldering and Isometrics on top of Merchant and Electronics and Fitness?

PDF only. I'm an old fashioned chap who likes a printed book in my hands. I've absolutely no problem with the outfits with PDF options, but if I can't order a bound hardcopy, I'm unlikely to use it.

BS having nothing to do with gameplay. I'm disinterested in the several pages of turgid twaddle by a gamewriter desperate to prove he can really write fiction, honest! I don't need two dozen pages full page color stills and character writeups of the cinematic party of the licensed property. I don't need a fifth of the book taken up by artwork and graphics. Since I am not six years old nor suffer from ADD, I'm capable of reading a book without dozens of (allegedly) pretty pictures to break up the text.

Major sections missing. If your game is missing a character sheet and an index, it's incomplete. If your SF game (say) lacks space combat rules, it's incomplete. I am disinterested in the excuses why ... especially since games missing such sections always seem to have plenty of the aforementioned art and fiction. The only reasons not to include such glaringly obvious sections involve carelessness, laziness, incompetence or obstinacy, none of which bode well for the rest of your rules.

"Fate" points. I don't want to handwave success, I want to earn it. I don't want a Get Out of Jail Free card any time anything bad happens to my character, I want to suck it up and deal with it.

Impenetrable jargon. I don't need some obscure polysyllabic term for every ability and game mechanic. (Yeah, WoD, I'm talking to you.) It's not even so much as needing a copy of Webster's handy to translate the terms during play ... if doing so does you no good, that's a large headache.

Half-assed attempts to emulate a skill-based system with a class-based system. Call them demi-classes, "Prestige" classes, what have you, but the end result is a system far harder to learn and far slower to play, if a GM has to flip through a splatbook every time you try something offbeat.

Lack of "light" options. I like crunch. I like a good bit of crunch ... but not nearly as much as I did, once upon a time. If a system crashes in ruin when you handwave modifiers or don't use every picky rule, I'm less interested.


So-called "social combat."  ... in most cases Just Another Combat System with the serial numbers filed off.  Look, we already have systems with tactical choice, CRTs and all those trappings.

Filler proliferation It's good that production values have increased.  It's bad that a lot of it is wastepaper.  I don't need a fifth of my book (and the count is that high) taken up with inch-wide decorative borders, full-page illos, long fiction sections and suchlike crap.  How about you chop the 50 pages that sucks up, just give me rules, and reduce the price of the book accordingly?

Watermarks/fonts I don't need fancy backgrounds on every page.  I don't need bizarre fonts, tiny type, or brown-colored print.  Don't worry so much about PDF thieves; worry about me not buying your stuff in the first place, because I can't read the damn thing.  A lot (daresay, the majority) of your customers aren't 20 years old any more, y'know.

Splatbooks Look. I know why they exist: so companies can make more money.  I don't even disagree with the principle.  It's the results I deplore ... that far from optional for those who love crunch, they've become essential; that they shoehorn New Stuff in whether it fits or not; that said New Stuff often conflicts -- and often badly -- with the core system, and more often than not was poorly playtested; that they provoke a rules armsrace for Ever And Ever More New Stuff; that the end result is a massive rewrite of the system to disavow much of the New Stuff, whereupon the whole cycle begins anew.  (Only without a large faction of players who declare Rewrite 2.0 to be suckass, and who insist on sticking with the “original” rules.)

New For The Sake Of New. The hobby's been around for approaching half a century.  There is very little conceivable that no one's thought of before.  Most of which IS "new" is in fact some old idea dressed up.  A particular pet peeve of mine is baroque combinations and types of dice resolution mechanics.  Look, it's a randomizer.  It's not revolutionary, it's not new, and it doesn't make any game stand out as Uniquely Kewl. 

27 May 2015

Helping the players out.

A couple forum threads about courtesy and status of PCs has provoked a bit of thought, which I'd like to share with my avid readers.  (Well, all few of you, anyway, even though I just went over 10,000 page views!)

In a lot of campaigns, the PCs are set up to be bumbling fools.  Even in the stereotypical "Dungeon Fantasy" games, with bog-standard cookie-cutter expectations players bristle if they don't find, too many GMs set them up to fail, socially.  Ignorant of customs the GM mentions only in passing if at all, ignorant of social cues and clues, a great deal of tension, angst and anger is often the result.

Now I think of all the customs and social cues I take for granted, as an American and lifelong New Englander.  You drive on the right hand side of the road, and you walk on the right hand side of the sidewalk.  The woman in the dark blue uniform, with a holstered pistol and nightstick, wearing a garrison cover and sporting a silver badge, is a police officer.  Someone dressed all in black, with a matching high collar with a small white rectangle in the middle, is a Catholic priest.  You greet newly met strangers with a handshake using the right hand, and "How do you do?" is a standard opening sally.  You cut meat at dinner with your knife in the right hand, transferring the fork back from your left to eat that meat.  You don't -- if you have pretensions to courtesy -- wear your hat indoors when visiting; you generally do keep your shoes on.

And so on.  So many of these cues are unconscious, reflexive and subtle that we only think about them in the breach.  So many of them are also deeply national or regional: not a single one I just listed pertains to traditional Arabic mores, for instance.

The way I see it, not even the best educated and informed among us are natives of the milieus most of us run -- or have worked out in realistic detail what all of the customs are -- and we don't have the level of immersion to notice what someone who isn't a 21st century Westerner gaming out of a comfy living room with a soft drink and a slice of pizza would. 

 There are any number of times where it's not merely the case that the PC should know a key bit of social/cultural information ("Okay, make a roll against your Savoir-Faire skill ... thankew") but would reasonably know it reflexively, and never normally botch or forget it. None of us need Savoir-Faire/IQ rolls to avoid spitting into open coffins, punching pregnant women in the bellies, saluting the dark skinned archbishop with "Yo, nigga," or failing to understand what the aforementioned blue-uniformed lady with the garrison cover, pistol, silver badge and nightstick is.

So I figure it's my duty to double-check when a player commits what I think is so egregious a social blunder -- well, short of the PC being portrayed as an ignorant lout -- that any informed member of the culture would reflexively avoid it, with a phrase along the lines of "You do understand that this is the Queen's throne hall, and her Chancellor is standing right behind you. Are you sure you want to do that?"



27 April 2015

NPC of the Day: Jake "Greywolf" Nelp

"Every day I don’t get up, the suits rip down another acre of trees.  I can’t quit."

Jake Nelp is an aging hippie. He grew up on a commune, and holds firmly to 60s counterculture values, morals and practices. The fellow lives out of "Betsey," his colorfully painted '65 Westphalia WV microbus, traveling between various Ren Faires, counterculture festivals and bashes like Burning Man, to hang out with like-minded individuals and sell knives. He forges and grinds his own, and has a wide reputation amongst festival regulars as a superlative knife maker, and as a friendly fellow who plays at campfires and always has a story to tell. It's enough to get by, and for him money is only needful to pay for gas, propane, food and knife-making materials: "the buck’s a prison of green."

He's also a practicing shaman, with a wide range of occult lore, and is a devotee of Carlos Castaneda (though he greatly prefers pot to mushrooms) and various Cherokee shamen. He's come up with his own rituals, which for some reason he does in jackleg Cherokee, and they do work: largely in the way of manipulating fire and spirits.  He'll only work with magic at night, and song.  Meditation, for him, involves putting on some 60s tunes (he's reluctantly given up his decrepit 8-track player for an iPod player), lighting some joss sticks, putting the lava lamp on, and smoking a bowl.

A few notes:

* Jake is used to living rough, and can manage out of a tent just fine. However -- and this is where the Chronic Pain and Slow Riser comes in -- he's over 60 now, and living off of Faire food and on a futon in back of his microbus has just taken a heavy toll; he's achy. A lot.  He loves being a drifter, but fears that his roving days are nearing the end.

* He is only a pacifist by philosophy. He's well aware that him and people like him get hassled a lot by the Man (thus the Social Stigma, and having an FID in case he gets bothered about the honking big knives he carries around), and that some folks aren't willing to live and let live. He is very fast for his age, knows how to use his knives, and won't shy away from doing so if he figures he must.

* The Contacts represent probably four types of people: a fellow knife-maker, a fellow Faire merchant, a fellow shaman, and that lady who bakes the awesome flatbreads at his old commune.


* He's something of an ecoterrorist.  The "Suits" are all that's wrong with the world, and them building highways and pipelines everywhere will ruin it if you aren't vigilant.  A natural gas pipeline proposal which would go through his rural home county -- going, naturally, from places far away thataway to the Big City far away that away -- is very much in his crosshairs, and he's making plans.

* His daughter Brooke is a pediatric surgeon at a teaching hospital.  They love each other very much, and spending the first few years of her life on Jake's commune (that given name is "Riverbrook," actually) gives her significant sympathy for his POV.  Still, she's made up a mother-in-law apartment at her home, hoping Jake will settle down with her.

ST: 11       IQ: 12      DX: 13      HT: 12      Move: 5

Advantages: Charisma/1; Contacts (4 points' worth); Less Sleep/2, License Perk (has an FID); Magery/2 (Night, Song aspected), Night Vision/2; Reputation+3, as master knife-maker, Ren Faire types, 12-.

Disadvantages: Addiction / Pot smoker; Chronic Pain / Mild, 2h, 9-; Code of Honor (Counterculture); Disciplines of Faith; Farsighted (mitigated); Slow Riser; Sense of Duty: underclass; Social Stigma: Second-class citizen; Struggling, Vow (Oppose The Suits).

Languages: Speaks and reads Cherokee at Accented level.

Quirks: Cats are people; Don't mess with Betsey!; Dresses in stereotypical hippie attire; Loves his daughter; Pyrophile.

Skills: Armoury-18; Carousing-13; First Aid-13; Gardening-13; Knife-14; Mechanic (auto)-12; Meditation-12; Merchant (knives)-12; Musical Instrument (guitar)-12; Observation-12; Occultism-13; Public Speaking-12; Religious Ritual-12; Savoir-Faire (counterculture)-13; Singing-13; Survival-14; Thrown Weapon: Knife-13.


Spells: Affect Spirits-13; Create Fire-13; Divination-14; Heal Plant-13; Identify Plant-14; Ignite Fire-14; Itch-14; Plant Growth-15; Seek Plant-14; Sense Spirit-13; Shape Fire-15; Spasm-14;   Summon Spirit-13; Turn Spirit-14; Warmth-13.

Betsey is a ‘66 Westfalia VW Microbus camper.  Named after a lady Jake knew (her likeness is on the driver’s side door in a white bikini and glasses), Betsey is done up in lime green and liberally festooned with Peter Max-esque counterculture paintings and liberal bumper stickers.

Her interior is done in ash paneling, with handmade curtains in the windows (gifts from Brooke) and dark blue shag carpeting.  There are futons with homemade quilts in the overhead extendable camper and the back (used for a spare bed in need and for general hanging out).  Behind the macrame-and-beaded covered seats are a couple propane burners scavenged from a Coleman stove, a wash basin, a cutting board, and narrow cabinets holding cooking equipment, wooden and handmade pewter flatware and Jake’s fetish kit. 

On the walls are a bookcase, brackets for Jake’s guitar case, a CD player/radio and a modest stack of CDs, a battery-operated fan, a propane space heater and several dreamcatchers.  The bookcase has the following well-worn titles: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Hobbit, an omnibus of the first three Foxfires, Complete Guide to Camping, Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, the Pentagon Papers, the North American Field Guide to Plants, the 1972 Whole Earth Catalog, the Nelp family Bible, Carlos Castaneda’s Teachings of Don Juan and A Separate Reality, and the following Cherokee shamanic texts: the Kanâhe'ta Ani-Tsa'lagï E'tï, Origins of the Bear, and the A`yûn'inï “Swimmer”, Gatigwanasti, Ayâsta/Gahuni, Inâ'lï “Black Fox”, Tsiskwa “Bird”, A`wani'ta “Young Deer” and Takwati'hï “Killer” Manuscripts.

Beneath the futon is jammed with stuff (getting things out can be a chore): a dorm-size propane refrigerator, two grinding wheels, a portable anvil, a propane cutting torch, a number of canvas sacks, mosquito netting and spare tarps, as well as a 2-gallon spare gas can, a 5-gallon iron cauldron, Jake’s fetish kit, miscellaneous gear and food.


For further explanation of system numbers, check this link.

21 March 2015

Campaign FAQ

I've found this a useful thing, over the years, in giving a quick precis about my campaign, my setting and the system I use.  I think all GMs should use something like this, and I know I would've avoided a couple of campaigns in my time if the GMs had handed me one of these:

* * * * * * *

New Player FAQ                Celduin Campaign, RG Traynor, March 2015

Hello!  I’ve written this for prospective new players to clue you into what the style of our campaign is like.

What system do you play?  I was one of the original GURPS playtesters nearly thirty years ago – as well as a writer for Steve Jackson Games and several other gaming companies – and I’ve GMed it ever since. 

Ack!  Don’t they call that a hard system?  It isn’t nearly as tough or “math oriented” as its detractors make it out to be.  The real deal is that a dithering player can take forever over the choices available.  I recommend GURPS Lite, a 32 page free PDF from the Steve Jackson Games website at http://e23.sjgames.com/item.html?id=SJG31-0004, for a look at a stripped down version of the rules.  You don’t need anything more complicated.  Besides that, I require new players to sit down with me and tell me, in as much detail as they feel like, what kind of characters they want to play.  Character creation takes a great deal less time with me present to answer questions and give guidance.

Alright, I know GURPS.  Any changes I need to know? 
A number of them, including new Advantages, Disadvantages and skills, templates appropriate to my campaign, and a few other fillips (such as that I still use BSII missile rules for simplicity’s sake).  A number of skills, Advantages and Disadvantages are restricted or disallowed.  I have some house rules for things, but the gist of it goes back to GURPS Lite, which substantively I run; I'm not inclined to slow down play hunting and pecking through rulebooks for every last little modifier.  I have an edited version of GURPS Lite on my campaign’s website, incorporating the house rules, which I urge new players to download.

What’s your campaign like?  I run a Renaissance tech fantasy world, very loosely based on Kenneth Bulmer’s Dray Prescot/Scorpio series.  It is now getting into the Gunpowder Age.  Realism is a hallmark of Celduin, and you won’t see magical streetlights, orcs carrying hundreds of gold pieces and flying cities.  The current party (an all-mage group, an experiment that’s been going on for a couple years now) is based out of a giant seaport, and maritime and urban adventures have traditionally predominated.  Characters ought to be able to get along in a city and at sea. 
            
What’s the play style?  We have a collegial, laid-back atmosphere with a bit of socialization and digression – someone expecting wall-to-wall Action!!! will be disappointed.  (Then again, someone who can’t hack two hours of rip-roaring combat will be disappointed too.)  We’re also a crew of mature grownups and like to see like-minded folks.  I run a character-driven game more than a plot-driven game; of course there’s plot, and lots of it, but I want the players to tell me what they’re going to do far more than I push the plot into telling the players what to do.

When and where?   I run on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month; it starts at 11:30 and wraps up around 6:00 PM.  Good attendance is strongly encouraged.

Anything else I need to know?  We have a cat and a rabbit, and anyone with serious pet allergies should take notice.  This is a non-smoking apartment, and we’re not much for drinking.

14 February 2015

Playing child characters

So I’ve stumbled onto a discussion regarding playing child characters, and as usual, I’ve some thoughts on the matter.  And it’s been a couple weeks since I’ve had a good rant, so ...

There are obviously gamers who hate the concept like poison, and they’ve some ammunition.  Some have – or claim to have, anyway – encountered players who insist on baby-voices suitable for a barely articulate two-year-old.  Some profess incredulity that children could make viable adventurers.  Some profess deep personal discomfort in portraying children, and some mutter darkly about pedophilia.  So let’s take the objections piecemeal:

* First, let’s examine whether this dings our suspension of disbelief.   The notion that 11- or 12-year-olds are somehow completely incapable is very much an artifact of Western culture of the last century.  Before child labor and compulsory education laws took hold, children that young routinely worked on farms, in factories, hours as long and hard as any adult.  Were they as physically capable as adults?  Of course not ... but they worked to the extent of their skill and strength.  Indeed, the impetus of child labor laws in America came from factory owners preferring to hire such youngsters for clearing jams and making repairs on equipment in crevices and crannies into which larger adults couldn’t squeeze – tasks which sometimes resulted in those children being maimed or killed.

For other things?  How about marriage?  I just cracked open my 1946 almanac – decades into the “kids can’t do anything” haze.  In 1945, there was not a state in the United States where a sixteen year old girl couldn’t get married at will.  In twelve states, boys under 16 could get married.  In nine states, children under 14 could get married.

But on the battlefield?  As it happens, children as young as eight served as “volunteers” on European navies through the very end of the Age of Sail, and 12-year-old midshipmen were officers in the chain of command who as a matter of course led grown men in battle.  The last living combat veteran of World War I, Claude Choules, enlisted at 14 and saw action at 15.  At age 14, the great future shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu led his first army at the Siege of Terabe.  The youngest Hero of the Soviet Union, partisan Zinaida Portnova, was 17.  The youngest Medal of Honor winner, drummer boy Willie Johnson, was 11 at the battle for which he won his award.  In more recent times?  Heck, Wikipedia even has an article on the subject of child soldiers.

Obviously the concepts of labor, the military and marriage in previous times revolved around "Can you do the job?" rather than around an arbitrary age minimum.

But okay, okay, This Is Fantasy, right?  You know, the trump card response that’s supposed to signify that it's okay to ignore real life?

Fair enough.  So let’s talk about fantasy.  Shall we start with Disney?  If I started firing off the top of my head on Disney movies alone featuring pre-teens in high-impact adventures, I think I could go twenty deep without pausing to breathe. Heck, does as little as a third of Disney's entire live action output feature young protagonists?  My wife, who’s on a multi-year quest to see every feature length film Disney ever produced, thinks that’s seriously lowballing it.  She thinks it’s as much as half.

And that ignores the dinosaur rampaging all over the premises.  The best selling literary series of all time – it’s only been outsold by the Bible – begins by focusing its attention on the exploits of pre-teen adventurers in a world where magic is real.  Many millions more than will ever hear of D&D have cheerfully bought in to the concept that Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley and friends are not only credible fantasy adventurers, not only routinely outsmart the grownups, but can compete in battle against adult Bad Guys ... and win.  To claim that the concept is inconceivable is, well, moronic.

* How about a couple other points?  That people use baby talk in playing kids?  Sheesh.  You know, I’ve seen a lot of people who roleplayed paladins as dimwitted thugs-in-plate.  I’ve seen a lot of people who roleplayed dwarfs as nothing beyond dumb and greedy.  I’ve seen idiot fighters, supercilious elves, cowardly mages and every other poorly played stereotype under the sun.  Somehow our games still include these roles, however much some folks suck at roleplaying.

That being said, I don't imagine the children most people want to play are four-year-olds. I imagine they're more often preteens, who are quite capable of tying their shoes and feeding themselves without mommy's supervision.

That some folks are very uncomfortable with the thought of playing children?  Great: then don’t play one.  (Oh, it’s that you’re uncomfortable with me playing a child?  Back to the "Special Snowflake" nonsense that anything you don't care for is something no one should ever play?  Too.  Damn.  Bad.  I don’t recall giving you a veto.  I'm going to play whatever I feel like playing, and I'm sure as hell not going to ask your permission before I do.)

* The pedophilia thing?  Deep breath time.

It's one of the great cognitive dissonances of the roleplaying world that it's considered acceptable to fulfill your fantasies about being a mass serial killer, a torturer, a batterer, a Satan worshiper and seventeen kinds of racial supremacist around a gaming table, but pretty much anything having to do with sexual matters is completely out of bounds. Don't get it. Never have gotten it.

Never mind that, though ... let's be serious. How many of you have EVER seen a campaign, EVER, in which ANY player has sought to indulge in screwing eight year olds? I've been doing this for 35 years now, played tabletop, online, freeform, LARPs, MMORPGs, and I've not only never seen it, I've never had a credible report from someone I trusted of the same.

Now I agree that in today's hyperparanoid environment, in which "OMG Something Might Happen!!!!!" is SOP, and in which a mother of my acquaintance bragged -- bragged! -- to my face that she'd never yet left her five-year-old alone with her husband, the kid's father – because, of course, of that sickening and depraved fallacy of What All Men Want Do To Kids – there are idiots who'd jump to that conclusion.  But c'mon. Aren't we all grownups here? Don't we have some measure of common sense?  What forces us to cater to the unbalanced paranoids among us?

To wrap up this long rant ... so, yes: if your campaign is set in the Western world in the 21st century, full-time child adventurers might be a reasonable suspension of disbelief issue.  (Although no one, I expect, seems to have told the fans of Spy Kids, The Sarah Jane Adventures, The Incredibles ...)  If it's set in any other venue, time period or milieu, it's no more reasonable than to freak out that a campaign has slavery, pandemic plagues, human sacrifice, genocide, institutionalized racism, or any such element that the West has seen off within its own borders.

Of course these roles aren't for everyone; I doubt they'd be for many people.  So what?

07 February 2015

The Corpora of War: Stuff You Can Use

A very longstanding feature of my gameworld Celduin is that -- many long centuries ago -- the religion of the god Upuaut (the fire/war god of the pantheon) imposed something of a cross between the Geneva Conventions and a code of honor on the conduct of mercenaries in war.  Subsequently interpreted and amended over the years, it's widely honored to the present day.



Honorable actions are not mandatory; dishonorable actions are to be always avoided.  Actions that are not dishonorable are legal, but not the path of greatest honor.  Obviously, some tenets are more honored in the breach than in the observance.

For those of you scoring at home, a “paktun” is a warrior of great prowess and honor, voted the accolade on the battlefield by the collective paktuns there present; they wear a distinctive silver medallion on a rainbow ribbon.  “Nikobi” (half-oath) is the contractual arrangement between mercenaries and their employer.

***************************************************


- It is dishonorable to betray your employers, explicitly or implicitly.  It is dishonorable to disobey direct orders.  Obeying the laws of the nation under which you serve is honorable; obedience of an order in clear conflict with the law is a matter of conscience, but following the order is the path of greater honor, unless the order itself be dishonorable.

- It is dishonorable to slay or enslave soldiers who have surrendered, or to directly assist those doing so.  It is honorable to disobey orders to do so.  It is not dishonorable to loot the defeated or conquered territory.

- It is not dishonorable, under threat of certain doom, to surrender one’s command to a superior foe.  To do so is a matter of personal conscience.  It is dishonorable to knowingly lead one’s troops into certain death, and honorable to disobey orders to do so.  It is not dishonorable to lead volunteers into such situations in order to protect a line of retreat.

- Lord Upuaut is our patron, and his servants and priests are honored by every true warrior.  It is highly dishonorable to knowingly harm any of His priests, or any healer or physician.  It is not dishonorable to defend yourself against an attack by a priest or physician, but you should seek to subdue him without killing.  Priests fighting in battle forfeit such protection.

- It is dishonorable to harm any civilian without just cause.  Being attacked by a civilian constitutes just cause; however, it is dishonorable to goad a civilian into attacking a trained warrior.

- It is honorable to care for your comrades, your weapon and your mounts before yourself, for they are your succor in battle. It is dishonorable to neglect your comrades in the field, the food and care of the troops you lead or of prisoners in battle.

- Mutual truces are sacred.  To violate the terms of a truce is blackest dishonor, and he who does so shall find that Lord Upuaut has turned His face away from him.  If ending a truce is necessary, it is dishonorable not to inform the enemy commander beforehand.  Heralds or emissaries must be given time to return to their lines, and if this is not possible they must be treated as honored guests, not as prisoners.

- The use of sorcery in battle, as with any other skill, is not dishonorable.  The use of necromancy is highly dishonorable, and its use in the field is just cause for the voiding of the nikobi.

- When captured in battle, it is not dishonorable to attempt to escape or to damage the foe in any way possible.  It is dishonorable to slay a recaptured escapee.  However, any escapee who breaks the law or slays his captors may be honorably dealt with as the laws require.  If parole is given, it is dishonorable for the parolee to try to escape.

- To disobey orders to perform dishonorable tasks is honorable.  It is dishonorable to do so without informing your commander why you are disobeying orders and without standing fast - if possible- to allow him to countermand.  If the commander knowingly persists in the ways of dishonor, the nikobi must be voided, for only a coward or a bandit remains under the charge of a dishonorable leader.  If there is dissension, the paktunsa must vote on the matter, a majority carrying.

- However, a mercenary’s conscience is his own, and to Lord Upuaut be the judgment.  It is honorable to convince a comrade to turn from the path of dishonor, but dishonorable to force him to do so.

- Honor and respect the paktunsa, for such warriors are blessed of the Lord Upuaut.  In return, a paktun’s actions and bearing must be worthy of respect, for he serves as an example to the host.  The paktun who acts in dishonor blackens the name of his host and his god; if he not repent of his evil, let him suffer just and sudden death.

- The blessing of the Lord Upuaut are upon the honorable mercenary, but His curse rests on he who acts with dishonor.

*************************************************** 

There's a great deal of debate on those points; you can see where the Code has loopholes and conflicting sections. Mercenary rapists have tried to argue, for instance, that their victims weren't "harmed" – there ain't no blood, is there?

On the more liberal side of things, there's a faction that holds that looting "too much" harms the victims.

There's certainly plenty of fodder for barracks lawyers and litigants back in the cities; on the latter count, some of the nations are extending a concept akin to sovereign immunity on mercenary companies under their hire, pretty much solely to ensure that they can hire companies for the next campaigning season.

When all is said and done, of course, there are companies which skirt as close to the line as possible, the operating principle being "how much can we get away with before the paktunsa vote to take us out?"

31 January 2015

The weather report: Stuff You Can Use

In my eternal quest for verisimilitude, I really like making sure weather is part and parcel of things.  Aren't storms part and parcel of thrilling adventures at sea?  Isn't it worth knowing whether it's going to be raining or not, going to be moonlit or not, when you try to get over the castle wall tomorrow night?

Now there are a couple ways of doing it.  I won't post any Random Weather tables; you can find them in carload lots on the Internet, and you don't need mine.  That's one, of course.

Another method is a surprisingly simple one I wonder why more GMs don't use.  Want random weather for your setting's area today?  Terrific.  What season is it?  Late spring?  Fair enough.  It's well into autumn here in New England as I type, but that's okay.  Fire up the weather site on your computer (you can find those in carload lots, too, and I use wunderground.com, myself) and pull up a town on the other side of the world.  So okay ... the weather report for Melbourne, Australia, right now has a daytime high tomorrow of 68 F, a nighttime low of 48.  They're predicting overcast with a chance of rain in the morning, and definite for the afternoon.  Light winds in the daytime, and winds from the WSW of 5-15 MPH after dark.  Morning twilight is at 5:30 AM, sunrise at 6, sunset at 8 PM, twilight until 8:30.  That's something you can get at a glance, and that's good enough to be going on with.

For my part, when I'm doing up an adventure, I work out the weather six days in advance, which doesn't take me very long -- 15 minutes or so?  The following is an example:

Weather for north and east coastal Avanari regions, next week:

1)    Scattered clouds    Morning fog                   

Silver Moon: waxing crescent, Red Moon: new, Blue Moon: waning gibbous

    High 79 degrees, Low 66 degrees
    Wind from the W, 11 mph
    Veering due south at night, 6 mph
    Waves 2 ft or less

2)    Partly cloudy        Light rain late                   

Silver Moon: half, Red Moon: waxing crescent, Blue Moon: waning gibbous

    High 81 degrees, Low 71 degrees
    Wind from the WSW, 12 mph and rising
    Veering SW at night, 25 mph
    Waves 5-7 ft and increasing

3)    Overcast        Light rain, squalls               

Silver Moon: half, Red Moon: waxing crescent, Blue Moon: waning gibbous

    High 73 degrees, Low 56 degrees
    Wind from the W, 27 mph with gusts
    Veering WNW at night, 12 mph
    Waves 8-10 feet ...

That's more or less what it looks like.  Wind speed and direction, and wave height, are important for my heavily-nautical campaign; they might not be for yours, although a 25+ mph crosswind is something of a suckfest for archers.  If I'm in a really complete mood, or the group's doing a planned night assault, I'll throw in when those moons are rising and setting, information I have on hand but don't often bother with putting out there.



24 January 2015

The Books of the Fallen Empire: Stuff You Can Use

I entered a competition on another site for submissions based around the notion of the Fallen Empire.  This piece, about thirty "lost" books a party might rediscover, won the top prize; I remain rather pleased by it.

It's a bunch of archetypes: most the names, and in many cases the flavor text as well, come from real world examples of those archetypes.  Feel free to gank at will, and use them to develop the archetypes for your own campaigns!


A Journal of the Plague Year: “Poor Tiranara was entirely in an uproar - another love sonnet talking about the “Dark Man” of my fantasies?  I soothed her, in the end, but Trinity, am I tired of repeating that I say what I must to satisfy the public!”

The seminal diary of a great poet/author, about whom most of what is known comes from the text (and interpretations thereof) of her works.  The diary conclusively proves that a lot of the critical presumption is wrong -- what people widely believe the author meant by this or that element is completely contrary to the author’s express intent.

Ab Urbe Condita Libri: “Being the Fourteenth Volume of the History and Lore of Mighty Selisengard, May The Queen of Cities Reign Forever!”

Some (or all) of the missing volumes from a celebrated monumental history (or encyclopedia) long believed to be incomplete.

Archimedes Palimpsest: The motion of the Whole is the same as the Sum of the Motion of its Parts; namely, that In cases when the fall of a rider on a white horse occurs, it is beneficial if one reads aloud the Second Precept Against Harm or completes a number of virtuous acts.”

An important lost work, known to scholars.  Some thrifty scribe took the last copy, scraped the parchment down, and inscribed an insipid, rambling religious text on the sheets ... but there are very faded marks of the original, and it might be able to be restored through sorcery of some sort.

Arzhang: “These are the signs of My Coming, and what which has been sent down to thee.  From Me is the truth, but most men do not believe.”

The holy scripture of a major religion, long lost and passed down only in oral tradition.  It may have sections contradicting in whole or in part current practice (which may have been corrupted in transmission), or detailing rites that have been forgotten, however consonant they may be with contemporary beliefs.

Book of the Watchers: “The man said to the woman, ‘You know what the priest is braying?  He says in his sermon that a comet is coming and that will be the end of the world!’”

A religious tome telling a familiar tale, well known to adherents of the dominant faith -- so much so that the faithful all recognize the familiar phraseology, and many can recite sections from memory -- but with numerous differences, in cadence, plot and characterization.

Bunnye Raising Fr Ye Victualles & Profite: “Linseed oil (raw, not boiled), 1 anker; gum camphor, 4 drams; oil of cajeput, 1 dram; oil of anise, 1/4 dram.  Mix with ye bunnye’s hay, 3 or 4 times daily.”

A hopelessly mundane book on a completely boring (or disgusting) subject ... only a section, two-thirds of the way through and seamlessly incorporated into the binding, details a dire prophecy or other warning, deliberately hidden there by the creator of the book.

Canon of Proportions: “If you place a spherical body between various objects - that is to say with sunlight on one side of it, and on the other a wall illuminated by the sun, which wall may be green or of any other color, while the surface on which it is placed may be red, and the two lateral sides are in shadow - you will see that the natural color of that body will assume something of the hue reflected from those objects.”

A massive series of notebooks, unmistakably in the hand of a renowned artist or scientist (despite being written in an odd mirror-image script), demonstrating that -- unknown to contemporary scholarship -- she was a genuine polymath, in complete command of many sciences and fields of study.  Included are many examples demonstrating that she invented certain things centuries before they became known to the culture - as well as some inventions not yet known to science.  Plainly they were compiled as a galley proof before publication, but there is nothing to indicate why they never were published.

Canticles of the Rose City: “Gandeleyn lokyd hym est and west, Be euery syde: ‘Hoo hat myn mayster slayin? Ho hat don this dede? Xal I neuer out of grene wode go Til I se sydis blede.’”

An epic song cycle -- or great work of fiction -- beloved in the present day ... and proving that it was written many centuries before its attribution to the person everyone had believed all this time was the author.

Casca the Mercenary: “XVII Kalends Sextilis: ... so when the whipping was done and that poor hook-nosed chap with the cross was dragged down the street, I sent Julia out to mop the blood off the cobbles - I’ve had poor business enough this week without that!  Marcian says the criminals will be nailed up just after noon, poor bastards.  I think I’ll go watch.  Aemilia came by at last - she’s newly betrothed to a fine young fellow ...”

A diary of someone ordinary, but who was witness to some significant historical event and has some startling eyewitness details (or, alternately, who just lived in a particularly extraordinary era).  There may be several such diaries, all from correspondents living in the same period, referencing some of the same events.

Dictionary of Forgotten Things: “There are fifty-four cities in the island, all large and well built, the manners, customs, and laws of which are the same, and they are all contrived as near in the same manner as the ground on which they stand will allow.  The nearest lie at least twenty-four miles’ distance from one another ...”

An atlas describing an unknown land in exhaustive detail, an encyclopedia with entries of people, events and/or creatures with which scholarship is unfamiliar.  The punchline is that these are fictional, intended to be fantastic inventions.  (I’ve noted that many players of fantasy RPGs have a hard time conceptualizing the notion of not-real myth and fantasy within their own gameworlds’ cultures.)

Dr. Chase’s Receipt Book: “Moisten a sponge with oil extract of paraffin, roll it in fine powder of borax, and push it onto the wound for several hours daily.  Make sure that the band holding it to the limb is of undyed, unbleached muslin or linen.  For an obstinate case, use an insufflation of powdered vegetable charcoal.”

A large book stuffed with old, forgotten techniques for a field (or several fields) of science, industry or magic which went out of vogue for economic, cultural or technical reasons.  The reasons no longer apply, due either to changing viewpoints, scientific advances or other factors: for example, a useful herbal preparation that ceased to be employed because of wide access to a substitute herb, one no longer in cultivation.

Gingerbread: “4 Kelusse: Dawn - No change.  8 AM - Golden light in the southern sky, tinged with green.  10 AM - Light much reduced.  Noon - Golden light completely vanished.  2 PM - No change ...”

A book of detailed research, compiling events and patterns pertaining to then-current events.  It was plainly a work-in-progress compilation, without evident conclusion ... then.  Subsequent well-known events and/or history complete the pattern, and it would make much more sense to a researcher now.

Gnostic Bible: “I said to the savior, ‘High One, will all the souls be led safely into pure light?’ She answered and said to me, ‘These are great matters that have arisen in your mind, and it is difficult to explain them to anyone except those who are enlightened.’”

An entire book -- or collection of chapters, tales and/or essays -- devoted to one of the world’s leading faiths ... and which completely contradict several major doctrines of that faith, or introduce doctrines hitherto unknown to it.  The work may have been excised from the canon centuries ago as apocryphal.

History of Cardenio: “Fabian. Your master is wondrously distracted. / Giraldo. I believe so, sir, but I have ceased to wonder at his wondering wanderings. / Fabian. Why? / Giraldo. It seems to be his habitual manner after escaping away from any damsel's chamber.”

The text of a long-lost play (or novel) popularly attributed by literary scholars to the greatest author in the culture’s canon ... unfortunately, there are enough stylistic differences in the actual text to place the authorship in doubt.  Or is it, indeed, the true author’s voice, and if so, where does that leave his known corpora of tales?

Libri Sibyllini: “To cast the Blaze of Glory, it is well to have long fingers, up to one shaftment at the maximum length.  This is necessary in order to attain the perfect flow for the second and seventh passes of the left hand ...”

An ancient book of magic describing new spells or new techniques for casting them.  However, the book was written before the long centuries perfected contemporary sorcery, and the book makes some dangerously flawed presumptions, subsequently discarded, as well as using long-forgotten units of measurement.  Alternately, there are spells within far more powerful than their present-day analogues ... and far more dangerous and uncontrollable as well.
   
Meretricum Vita: Some who were formerly convicted of heresy, and whom I confuted at the Council of Warwik, have dared to write to your Reverence that my opinions are neither orthodox nor in agreement with the Consistory. ‘The wife surprised me, coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl with my hands in her coats, and indeed I was with my mortar in her pestle. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also.’  What about this monstrosity merits anything beyond our calumny?” 

A legendary R-rated work -- whether fiction or non-fiction -- that was suppressed by the Powers-That-Be and has previously survived only in fragments, angrily quoted in more “decent” works as examples of the original’s immorality.

Mother Shipton Predictions: “The world to an end shall come, in eighteen hundred and eighty one.”

A book of collected prophecies from a “soothsayer” celebrated in ancient times, but long since discredited as a charlatan or madman.  The degree to which all the prophecies are useless is, of course, up to the GM ...

Pneumatica: “Let us now proceed to construct the necessary instruments, beginning with the less important, as from the elements. The following is a contrivance of use in pouring out wine. A hollow globe of bronze is provided, such as A B (fig. 6) pierced in the lower part with numerous small holes like a sieve ...”

Descriptions of scientific apparatuses which can be readily made by contemporary technology -- including steam engines, vending machines, wind-powered machinery, reciprocal pumps and the like -- but are unknown to, or forgotten by, current culture.

The Secret History: “When she had bared her nakedness, she would sink down to the stage floor and recline on her back. Slaves to whom the duty was entrusted would then scatter grains of barley from above onto the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat.”

A history of well-known events by a noted historian of the period ... only describing all the salacious, ribald and even obscene details he left out of his “official” history.  A litany of infidelities, crimes, backstabbings and betrayals, often from individuals held out to be blameless (or even prominent culture heroes) in standard historical canon.

Tironian Notes: “Sdn at fst rfsd Agn he tld hr of th hm in whch y wld lv, th rch frs + ivry ncklcs th he wld gv hr ...”

It’s not so much that the book is in an ancient language; it’s that it’s written in what was apparently a standard shorthand of the day, which removes many vowels and makes heavy use of abbreviation and then-current idiom, rendering translation extremely difficult.

Tombs of the Kings: “Seventh Fane, Eleventh Sepulchre - here was interred Lady Arathena Elyanwe, illegitimate daughter of Prince Alveron II, buried in a kimono of sapphire blue embroidered in gold and green, also with a sapphire set in a platinum ring, and holding a kidskin bound Canon of Changes, while ...”

An immense, dry work, listing in exhaustive detail every tomb of every noble in the land, the biographies of said nobles, every item placed in every tomb, down to the middle names of the daughters-in-law of the masons who mortared up the tomb entrances ... that sort of thing.  The vast majority of these tombs are well-known and looted ages ago ... but one obscure section references some no one has heard of before.  Right under the current sprawling royal palace, somewhere.  And there are two pages torn out of the book.

Wyzards, Ye Care & Feeding Of: “I demanded he give me cheese.  He glared at me, then turned back to scratching that paper with the feather.  Useless master, I served him out by performing my relievements in his bin of enchanted spices -- Worthless spirit, keep on writing my words or I shall bite you.”

A somewhat jocular diary/owners’ manual of wizards, written from the point of view of a familiar.  The kicker is that although the book is many centuries/millennia old, the authoring familiar is known to the party -- either the familiar of a wizard they know, or the familiar of the party wizard -- and the book is either unmistakably in the familiar’s speech patterns, or else describes the familiar accurately enough to make an identification.

Contes de la Mere Oye: “My father, he died - but I can’t tell you how / But he left me six horses to drive on my plough / With a wimmy lo, wommy lo! / Wimmy lo!  Wommy lo! / Jack sing saddle oh!”

The original manuscript for a commonly known children's book of rhymes and/or folktales -- apparently in the author’s own hand -- but upon close examination, has some significant differences from the modern-day text.  The book is also heavily annotated in the margins, in the same hand, which indicates that the author’s intent is something else entirely: a prophecy, a satire of contemporary political events or persons, secret arcane knowledge, and the like.

Freedom and Necessity: “You must choose how you, and even I, proceed now ... for I cannot.  I have trusted in that natural reserve and discretion that I know to be so strong in you, dearest Cousin, to keep the source and contents of this letter from the knowledge of any other, unless the time and company be such to recommend their revelation.”

An epistolary work, purporting to be the correspondence of two famous -- or infamous -- individuals, not otherwise known to have had a romantic relationship, but clearly indicated to have had a torrid one indeed.

The Music Lesson: “I met up with the Khibil around dusk, and we went over the plan again.  That took a half hour, no more.  Then we sat in the bar, saying nothing.  There were dancers, but the Khibil just sneered.  I guess he wasn’t much for that kind of stuff.”

A diary detailing the theft of several works of art, magical artifacts or crown jewels, well known to the modern-day world.  The problem is threefold: first, they are not known to be stolen; second, a plainly ancient book has details and elements that fit only in modern-day times; third, the author (or another principal character) is known to the party -- the description is unmistakable -- but with a completely different personality than that depicted in the book.

Physiologus: “The shark is an amphibious animal: that is to say, it does not take in water, but breathes and sleeps and brings forth on dry land - only close to the shore - as being an animal furnished with feet; it spends, however, the greater part of its time in the sea and derives its food from it, so that it must be classed in the category of marine animals.”

A bestiary which describes known monsters and/or animals, with a lot of the details not only being wrong (or just differing from conventional wisdom) but glaringly so.  Many other setting details are surprisingly off-kilter as well ... to phrase things in 21st century terms, “Iowa” is situated by the sea, the “Grand Canyon” is north of Canada, and the “raspberries” given as the favorite food of sparrows are bright green and the size of softballs.

Trebatius Testa: “If any evil into which one has made, it is the right song and judgment. Let it be, if any man be evil, but if any man be good?  I deny any praise to the Emperor, for he knows the difference no more than does a swine!”

A play, story, ballad or other work of fiction, known to modern-day connoisseurs, which appears to be in this case the prototype of the work.  In the original, it heavily defames the rulers, Beautiful People and/or aristocracy of the period ... and is bowdlerized just as heavily to strip the salient details out in the final version.

Unaussprechlichen Kulten: “I hath dreamed the dreams of the Serpent-Folk, and communed with long-dead reptiles, and eagerly watched through the Ages the unending sorrows and suffering of mortalkind. I await the day when the hand of doom shall rise, and cast aside the remnants of a jaded, decayed mortalkind: and Those who Crawl and Slither shall again inherit the World.”

A detailed dissertation -- in monograph form, handwritten, even in an era of printing -- of one or more awful Pariah Cults, examining their practices and doctrine in nauseating detail.  Historically correct references to contemporary places and events are given, as well as allusions to how contemporary known figures are Secret Initiates.  The only hitch: the historical record makes no reference to the cult/s at all.  Anywhere.  Completely unknown.




17 January 2015

Small Town Horror: Stuff You Can Use

On one of those sites where people chip in on a list, there was a thread concerning elements you might find in a small town, suitable for a mystery or horror campaign. 

I don’t GM horror.  I think it’s a uniquely difficult milieu for gaming, and I believe it takes a rare player to manage.  But I seem to have a knack for producing these little bits, and I know small town New England intimately.  Herewith my own entries, for your edification.


1) There's a stereotypical country store (fitting into the milieu), with four elderly men sitting on the porch, smoking pipes. But they don't talk. They never talk, except when directly addressed, and then only curtly and briefly. They are always there, from just after sunup to just before sundown, they always sit on the porch in the exact same order, and they just stare at the street traffic ... including one who’s plainly blind, with a cane, but staring anyway. Puffing silently.

2) There are no pets. Anywhere. No dogs, no cats, no parakeets. There is evidence of pets - the occasional dog house, the bird cage in Mrs. McGarry's window, the bin of rabbit food in the feed store - but no critters. Except by nightfall, one can hear the occasional cat yowl or dog bark ... but never see any.  If the PCs bring a pet with them, it will go bonkers the moment it breaks the town line, berserk and doing its level and continual best to Get Away.

3) The perky young sales clerk behind the counter of the five and dime is a different one every day. She's friendly, wholesome-pretty, hourglass-figure, is always a cheerleader at the local high school, always an orphan (living with an uncle and aunt), always a parishioner at the Congregational church over on the corner of West and Bridge Street ... and looks blank and confused if asked who was clerking there the day before.

4) Speaking of Bridge Street ... the bridge crosses the Mill River, where the old abandoned furniture mill is, right up against the mountain. No one ever goes there, and no one in town will talk about it except to reaffirm that everyone stays away, because, well, they "just do." The local police will drive across the bridge once per shift, do a donut, and come right back across, losing no time to do so.

5) There's a modest town green, with a band gazebo, an old war monument, a public drinking fountain built a century ago ... and a weathered sandstone menhir entirely jarring and out of place amidst the 19th century granite and decor. On the menhir is a bright yellow ceramic 1950s style bowl. Broken. It's always there, no one will talk about it, and the villagers will gasp in horrified consternation if anyone touches it. Even so, they'll plaster strained smiles on their faces, won't talk about it, and try desperately to change the subject.

6) Every 66th day, the high school sports teams change IDs. In December it was the Red Raiders; now it's the Lakers. Completely new name, completely new uniforms, completely new mascots, for all the school's teams. Booster club jackets will suddenly change to conform. It will be as if there never was a difference. The town's weekly newspaper will have sections clipped out of the back issues at the library which would indicate the old names ... or they'll be replaced.

7) Something you tell one person seems to spread to the rest of the town instantly.  Mention on your first trip into the town to the waitress at the diner as you're paying your tab that you're a writer for the Patriot Ledger, when you cross the street to get a pack of smokes at the corner store, the proprietor affably says, "My, bein' a reporter must be an excitin' job, eh, sir?  I keep reading of all them criminals in your paper!"

8) At six minutes past 7:00 pm every day, all the residents above the age of ten, all at once, break into a couple of verses of a song popular on the charts ten years before. It is a different song every day (and a very discerning and musically apt PC will realize that the first initial of the song title the first day is "H," the second "G", the third "F", slated to count backwards to "A" during their stay), and no one sings for longer than about fifty seconds. If asked why they do it, the PCs will get answers ranging from "We just like it" to "This is just something we all do."

(Yes, this is indeed the 66th minute after 6 PM.)

9) All the televisions in town, be they old-fashioned analog sets with dials or digital jobs with remotes, lack Channel 2; they all start at "3." The only exceptions are three sets, all with navy blue cases; one in Town Hall, one in the Congregational Church basement used for social hour, one in the local barber's shop. In every case, the PCs will be told the sets are broken, and they will be prevented from examining them, physically if necessary, violently if it comes to it.

10) No family name in the town's two graveyards seems to have any living relatives in the town now; even townsfolk who claim their families have lived there for generations have no one buried there. If asked, they will say "Oh, Grandpa Leach was buried up around Ballardsville" or some such other location, but even if a PC goes to the Ballardsville cemetery to investigate, no such grave is found ...

11) There's some relatively common plant (dandelions, say) which grows right up to, but not into the town; the break is sharp enough to accurately demarcate the town line. Locals will shrug and respond "Tain't never tried, mister," or "Plant some your own self, if you've a mind," or some such; in any event, they're blandly incurious.

12) Digging into the soil with a shovel, below about seven inches (trowel depth), will produce a slightly ringing tone, as if you're digging into metal-laden soil. Nonetheless, the dirt doesn't look or feel any different. Digging into the dirt across the town line - even inches apart - has no such sound.

13) Tree sap for all trees in the town, no matter the kind, is unusually runny and ruddier in hue than normal. Any local products made from tree sap (maple sugar and syrup, for instance) will have a similar tinge.

14) There's a popular vanished brand in town, one no longer extant in the real world. The men use Hai Karate aftershave, ailing children are dosed with Peruna, the local auto dealership proudly peddles 2014 model Packards and Nashes, the grocery store has Lucky Strike Green on sale and the breakfast cereal aisle sports boxes of Quisp and Quake. The brand is plainly up to date, the product is new and sound, and the labeling carries all appropriate current dates, up to and including bar codes even for products that vanished decades before such things were mandatory. The locals react to questions about the same way you would if a stranger dashed up to you and blurted out "Omahgosh you're drinking Pepsi, where did you get that??" If pressed, a salesman will say "Well, mister, they come on the delivery truck every week with all the other new stuff."

15) The local weekly newspaper is a county-wide paper, supposedly printed at the county seat ... but it doesn't actually exist outside of town, and the address on the colophon is on a street that was redeveloped into a ten-acre wide shopping mall (the clerk at the county Registry of Deeds snorts and says "Heh, Oliver Street's about where ladies' lingerie is at Steiger's now, pal") decades ago. Nevertheless, the local library has musty old issues dating back forty years or more ... and, doubly creepily, the paper's "Town Talk" section has ongoing columns and articles for at least three other towns that don't exist, but for which locals can be found to claim to have relatives living "up that way."

16) There aren't any local maps. Anywhere. Markets don't sell any, the police and firemen shrug and claim they don't need them, the clerk at the assessor's office sighs heavily and admits she spilled a coffee cup on hers last week, and they're still waiting for a new one from the printer's.  Word is that you can scavenge one from the library, but it was printed in 1851 ...

17) When you walk into the five-and-dime, the store's playing musak - but the instant you walk in, the musak flips to stereotypical horror movie incidental music: cellos playing a loud DUM DUM DAAAAHHHH, oboes in minor keys, a quick violin pizzicato. After a short tympani roll, the horror theme music stops, and bland cheerful pop musak more typical of such places resume. The aforementioned perky young clerk, if asked about it, says "Yes ma'am, I sure heard that. Last time they played music like that was, gosh, the day there was the accident at the sawmill."

18) The town's cemeteries prominently display war dead, whether through notable monuments, sections where Revolutionary War (WWI, Great Patriotic War, the Boer War, etc.) dead are clustered, wars noted on headstones. Plainly the town is heavy on military service - the aforementioned monuments list a few dozen names apiece - but one notable war is conspicuously and inexplicably absent. An American village will have a Civil War monument and a Vietnam War monument, but no WWII monument and no sign of WWII casualties or involvement, for example.

19) There are three times as many of a particular business as a town that size, in its location, could possibly support. A small town far away from highways with four (seemingly thriving) gas stations, for instance. 

20) There’s a key element of national history that the locals seem to get badly wrong.  For example:

Oldtimer: Why, it's true, ma'am. Clark County only rejoined the Union in 1955. Big flap about it up around the county seat back in the day when them reporter fellas found out it'd been exempted from Reconstruction, yes'm ...

Bewildered PC: (interrupting) ... err, but, sir, this is Iowa - the state never seceded in the first place!

Oldtimer: (furrowing his whitened brow) Ma'am, I don't know rightly what to tell you. We never had much t'do with the lawyer fellas up to Des Moines. (takes a puff from his pipe) Anyway when the reporter fellas up at the county seat found out the county'd seceded in 1866, why they ...

21) The shabby Congregational church the PCs investigate (or the town clerk's office, or the Chamber of Commerce, etc ...) has two completely contradictory pieces of computer equipment up and running: a top-of-the-line Gateway FX quad core overclocked gaming PC and a WiFi hookup with a 30 year old Panasonic KP dot matrix printer. The clerk sees nothing amiss in this, claiming that she doesn't know much about these computer things, or where the wireless router might be ...

22) March only has 30 days. Every calendar in town says so, every reference book backs that up, and somehow all TV, radio, cell and transmission reception starts going on the fritz on the afternoon of the 30th ...

23) No one in town wears blue. No article of clothing has a scrap of the color in it, or wears any logo that would. That aside, blue is used in common decor, draperies, paint, wallpaper and everywhere else about as often as it would be in anywhere else.  Inexplicably, “blue jeans” are still called that, even if they’re scarlet or mauve.

24) Any items made of silver or silver-plated that the characters bring with them start to tarnish, and tarnish unnaturally fast. Items that leave the PCs' possession cease to do so.

25) One of the town's two cemeteries is decommissioned now; graves started petering out in it after WWI, and dates on headstones thereafter became quickly and increasingly sparse. The second to the last date is 1955 ... but there is one single headstone, not in any unusual spot or sequestered at all from the other graves. According to the headstone, the person there died the day before his or her 100th birthday ... and though the date of death is 1986, no grass grows on the gravemound.

26) Cars are visibly around, about as many as the locale would normally support. Locals can be seen cheerfully washing and waxing them, they are in carports, driveways and on sidewalks as appropriate, and Slim down at Slim's Garage gives you a friendly wave before going back into the SUV's engine to finish the tuneup. Cars all see reasonable signs of use: baby seats set up, a styrofoam coffee cup in the holder, books and papers in the backseat, mud or frost in appropriate seasons. Yet no one is ever seen by the PCs to drive one, and none are ever visibly on the roads, although the town's one traffic light changes at appropriate intervals. The PCs can also hear appropriate car sounds ... horns outside their hotel window, the sound of an engine revving around the corner ... but they will never see one in motion, and should they dash to investigate, the most they'll ever see is someone getting out of a newly parked vehicle or a cloud of exhaust fumes just around that corner there ...

Should the PCs stake out a spot where they know a car should arrive soon - that friendly couple Dave and Karen, say, with Dave due home from work in a few minutes - either Karen will get a phone call from Dave apologizing, but his sister's not feeling well and he's going to run over her groceries, or Dave's silhouette will suddenly appear through the window, and he'll reply blandly that sure, he just got home from work, why there's his car in the garage right there.

The locals will universally assert that they do, indeed, drive, that deliveries are made, that the bus comes through twice a day to the city ... although they never will say "Look, there goes one now." They will react much the same way as you would if some nutcase came up to you and insisted that no cars ever drive by in your own hometown.

27) After school, every afternoon at the same hour, a bunch of kids are in the junior high’s schoolyard, playing duelist with boffer weapons.  One kid is plainly superior to the others, winning every fight, even against odds.  The next day, that kid is still out there; all the other kids are different.  The next day the same, and the next one after that.  If that kid is ever to lose (either through PC interference or some other machination) the new winner is there the next day, all the kids are different, and the cycle begins anew.  On that first day, the old champion stands at the edge of the schoolyard, looking on with bleak, redrimmed eyes.  If approached, he’ll run like the clappers.  In any event, the PCs will never see him again.

10 January 2015

Logic ≠ Tactics

Eh, a couple short rants, while I'm at it ...

Logic doesn't necessarily equal tactics; we don't all play our PCs as if they were game board pieces.

I think back to all the years I played in a boffer fantasy LARP. My character was a national leader and the game's most powerful ritual magician, and furthermore was played by a fellow who was 42 years old in my final season, with badly deteriorating knees and wrists, and the second oldest player in the whole game.

It was strategically stupid for me to be on the front lines. I could've directed traffic far better from a safe rear position, and reserved my powerful strategic spells for cool, considered uses. I am not ten feet tall, and couldn't see over battlelines to know where each and every good guy was, at each and every moment, and how best to aid him. The fog of war worked on me as much as on anyone.

But there were considerations. It was important for people to see me out there, taking the same risks as they were, doing the same things they did. Folks are less likely to complain about hardships if they see someone much older than they are doing the same things.

And I really didn't want to be a REMF. I wanted to buckle some swashes and get out there and fight, and even if my wrists couldn't handle heavy fighting any more, I could still use a bow.

So why should I play any differently in tabletop? My characters have motivations that might not be cool and considered, and drive my actions in directions a chess master might not select.

03 January 2015

Undead Estate Law

I've spent a bit too much time in estate law, and a concept that's always tickled me is how sentient undead in a culture (beyond "Ahhh, it's a filthy necromancer, kill the blasphemer on sight!") would affect that.

At what point does a decedent's will kick in? When he dies? What if his corpse is walking, talking and plainly competent to make decisions? Does being a controlled thrall under the sway of a more powerful undead factor in, and if so, at what point can the court appoint a receiver or a guardian? (Is being a thrall a legally enforceable contract?) And if you rule that you lose control of your property the moment you die, how does that play in to resurrection/revivication magics or processes? Sorry, our kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with a disestablished church, and our probate laws can't take into account your theological differences between raising someone from the dead and raising someone from the dead as a vampire, Your Eminence.

Man, it isn't that the heirs of a dead millionaire would burn his body. It's that they'd burn his body before the flesh was cold, make the ashes into bricks, then blow up the bricks.