Saint Sebastian #2

Originally published in Fluxus Issue 10

Keep it short fatty

I recently bought Storm Cults for the Hero Wars system and was glad to find that it has a much cleaner and intelligent layout than the basic rulebooks. The book is well-sectioned and organised and (shockingly) contains a useful and complete index. Printing errors, spelling mistakes and other fundamental mistakes seem to have been stamped out and the book is a more enjoyable read than its predecessors as a result.

Of course tidying up the fundamentals has not improved the contents of the text much with all manner of forward and unresolved references still being made. I think that since Stafford's mind appears to wander uncontrollably he is a much better writer of web pages than text. The web is a medium that allows the reader to meander back and forth across the text, literally following the jumps in subject matter and cross-references as they happen.

Dying Earth

Dying Earth is a new RPG recently published by a British company. The fact of its nationality seems to make some people think that it is necessary to buy at least ten copies. I think they probably said the same about SLA Industries, which is what Dying Earth (DE), resembles in no small measure. Lavishly produced I have to wonder whether all the effort represented the wisest way to spend the companies initial capital. Anyhow I am drifting onto a tangent, I did not buy DE because it was British but because I was intrigued by the Quick Start rules and magazine that were released ahead of the game. Both seemed to have an a distinct feeling of time, place and most importantly self; they seemed evocative and distinctly different to conventional FRPGs.

What makes the game interesting in terms of the theme of this issue is the fact that half an hour after settling down to read my new game I had thrown it down in a fit of pique and have not yet returned to it.

So this isn't a review.

The relevant section of the rules that provoked the temper tantrum regards a meta-game mechanism. I detest such things anyway but this loathsome piece of charlatanism torn bleeding from the black heart of Victorian parlour games sums up for me everything that is wrong with the postmodern RPG:

The tagline is a line of dialogue that you are rewarded for delivering during play. The more appropriate your use of the line ... the more improvement points you'll get at the end of the game to improve your character.

The interactions of the characters within the game is the key point of roleplaying for me. There are also some narrative considerations but interaction is the key. This parlour game mechanism takes the holy grail and pisses in it. "Hey its just a game!" forget sense of wonder, or alienation or absorption into another world, it is all just a game after all!

Phew, thanks for that, for a moment I really thought I was a denizen of a dying planet far in the future. That would never have done.

Dying Earth, as it is written, is a pile of shit because it seems to forget that it is a roleplaying game and tries desperately to tell not just the GM what they should and how they should play the game but the players too.

In terms of the system it is not that bad a game but it seems to be locked into some kind of control freak mode. It bangs on about how word play rather than violence is the cornerstone of the Dying Earth. Which is interesting because in my copy I had to give up reading after one character has his eyes plucked out. That particular piece of eloquent, jocular word play was also preceded by the usual death, torture, flesh-eating monsters and more uniquely the creation of a (sexual) companion in the form of someone who rejected the creator. The Dying Earth series is very uneasy reading so it seems that the RPG is not only overstating its position in trying to tell both GM and player how the game should be played but also misrepresenting the original books themselves.

The Dying Earth RPG seems to be an extreme example of the GM having to modify their playing style in line with the rules system. In most cases of course the situation never really arises as the game is rarely defined by its rules, the ideal situation for most GM's seems to be that the rules become invisible, absorbed into the background of the game. Therefore the question of change in GM'ing style seems more logical in the context of setting of genre rather than ruleset.

For me the rules do not drive the game but for some groups the game is driven by the desire to "advance" the characters and therefore the rules for increasing the powers of the characters actually drive the game. This tendency seems to be what Dying Earth is tapping into, subverting the rule lawyer into enforcing some manner of roleplaying. Of course there is the question of how many rule lawyer style gamers are going to play an obscure little game like Dying Earth.

Allowing the rules to drive gameplay is generally the remit of what are referred to as "hack and slayers" but presumably phrasing the question: "Are you a hack'n'slayer?" seemed redundant. I recently read interviews with E. GAZZZYZZ GYGARRXX and Dave Arneson. Both were illuminating in their own way, Arneson recalled that GYZAXXXX wanted to write a rule for everything, every situation that could occur had to codified and set down in the One True Way. Arneson's view was that the GM's role was to smooth over the rules and adjudicate decisions that were not explicit in the rules, codification of the decision was only necessary if the GM felt it helped in future decision making. It seems to me that all of roleplaying has since divided into these two camps. For my part I side with Arneson, the rules are the crutch not the crux of the matter.

I had hoped to write some notes about constants in my GM'ing style but I'm over time and over page count so maybe I can return to it at some point in the future.

As bland as they wanna be

If culture games are the new One True Way then how come worlds with deep backgrounds and well-thought histories sell so badly compared to generic fantasy pulp settings?

Perhaps its is like asking why Titanic shifts more units than In the Mood for Love? Or indeed why any populist trash outstrips its more involving counter-part. That however sounds like sour grapes (or perhaps intellectual elitism) and therefore I would like to make one criticism of detailed game backgrounds that I think is valid.

The one problem I have with detailed campaign backgrounds is sacrosanctity. The GM is crushed by the weight and the vision of the world and can see no way of recreating that world with the same verve it was communicated to them by the setting information. Alternatively the GM cannot find any "hook" into the setting because the original designer or design team have specified exacting parameters of every aspect of the game world. Thirdly the setting has been sketched out broadly in vivid terms but the underlying detail in unsettlingly vague.

In each of these cases the originators of the settings have made their world a temple that none dare to enter. It may invoke a great deal of awe but its has failed the fundamental test of roleplaying and that is that it must be played. Novels are meant to be read but not gaming books, without being played and thus brought to life RPG books are sterile.

The generic fantasy that I am most familiar with is the Forgotten Realms - the setting that put the "bog" in bog-standard-AD&D-setting. In some cases the setting even changes its natural laws to be more amenable to the rules system. There is nothing particularly inspiring about the Forgotten Realms but is a masterpiece of producing a world that can be played. It leaves the vast majority of the setting blank but lays in a few good foundations that can be marginalised if necessary or become a helpful crutch to a campaign that is struggling to find its own tone. Towns and villages are usually dispatched with a few brutally short paragraphs but the writers sensibly remember that each paragraph should contain at least one discardable good idea.

The Forgotten Realms are so bad it is laughable that even the most novice GM would consider it sacred. Instead they can get down to the business of adding life to this thin stew.

It takes a handful of ideas to hold us back

This leads me to me second valid criticism of "culture game" settings and I stress at this point that the criticisms are levelled at the practice rather than the theory.

A bad bland generic setting throws a sharp contrast between the GM's lively creations and the rather drab background that surrounds them. An intense background can often over-shadow the GM's efforts leading to a drain in morale.

The difference is that the bland background allows the GM to take "ownership" of the setting. They take the background, mould and shape it and finally create something new that is in keeping with the background but which is better than it because of the contribution the individual GM has brought to the process.

The intense background however creates a competitive spirit with the GM where all the GM's efforts must be compared to the original elements of the background. The comparison, whether favourable or unfavourable, causes a friction that can quickly drag the whole game down.

Good, bad? Bad, Good?

My conclusion then is not to say: "bad/neutral backgrounds are the One True Way". Rather I would address a plea to all those who create game settings that are intended to be used by others to see what is good about both these kind of settings. The intense culture background makes the setting come alive and gives it depth. Remember though that if you want to write a novel then don't get side-tracked into doing RPG backgrounds. The lesson to take from the bland generic setting is that this is a shared act of creation and space should be left in the setting for the GM to seize ownership of part of the world and make it their own. One of the worst things in the RPG world is to see a pontificating god laying down pronouncements about this or that aspect of their world. Collaborate or die!

Open Gaming and the Free World

It seems to me that WotC has garnered an unreasonable amount of praise for their Open Gaming License. It seems surprising that such a transparent effort to de-comodify the rule system component of RPGs should be greeted with such wonder. Hold the press! Capitalist attempts to crush competitor's limited monopolies. Secondly the actual goods do not seem to be that much to get worked up about. Now I think that D&D 3e is an excellent rules system being both logical and intuitive. That does not stop it being in essence a revised version of the Pendragon system (that d20 on all the promotional material betrays a certain lineage) which in turn borrowed from AD&D.

The status of the intellectual property of RPG rule systems is laughable at best and black farce at worst. The Open Gaming Initiative simply acknowledges the ludicrous nature of the situation in the same way that the lack of legal action over the Magic patent did.

So, thanks for proving you have a sense of humour but here's the jig. If any company is serious about "Open Gaming" then let them come up with a license that allows the non-profit individual or organisation to reference their game settings. If they don't allow a "Free World" then Open Gaming is just another cynical ploy that only the over-excitable can get worked up about.

Fractal Rules

Although Fractal Rules are Paul's idea not mine I think the idea of a fractal rule is one of the more insightful approaches for evaluating RPG mechanics. Several people have put forward the idea that one or another system already is fractal, which I think is missing the point. If there was a brilliant universal roleplaying system then I think it would have made itself apparent by now. The point of Fractal Rules is not merely to find the "closest fit" commercial mechanic and then use that system. The point is to reassess what place mechanics have within roleplaying and set down a set of criteria for new systems to ensure that new mechanics are truly fit for the purpose of roleplaying.

With that out the way I will try to explain (from my own perspective) the various flaws and merits of the current systems that have been put forward as "fractal rules".

Firstly there is confusion over universal mechanisms. If we think of mathematical fractals then what is important is not that the resulting system is constant at all levels but that it invokes consistent and detailed system regardless of the level. So in the case of Dying Earth the point is not that the mechanism be the same at all levels: i.e. throwing a d6; high good, low bad but that it describes more detail when required and less when that detail is superfluous. This is not the same as seeing the same level of detail at all levels (i.e. six degrees of success whether we are trying to set a mousetrap or sleep in the wilderness). It can be further reduced to saying "flip a coin, heads: good; tails: bad"; the use of a die is unnecessary. In the coin case I think it is easier to see that the mechanism is universal but not amazingly informative. The uniform mechanism is perhaps fractal but is the least interesting and useful of the fractal systems.

So is Everway fractal? Well Everway essentially is a refined case of the coin flipping method. Each card has too meanings: good or bad and it is the GM who decides which one the card is indicating. The trouble is that by making the GM the arbitrator of what the card "means" then the "tarot deck" system fails to be a mechanism and barely scrapes through as a rule. If the GM decides the interpretation of the mechanism then mechanism fails to resolve anything about the event under consideration. It adds no objective data to the decision and is really no different to the interpretative systems of games such as Amber.

Where Everway is fractal is that it uses the mechanism to decide events big and small. As has been pointed out a card can be turned (or a coin flipped) for each blow and parry of a combat or the combat can be resolved as a single event in the turn of just one card. The fate of nations is decided in the same way as the survival of a fox in winter, just as per the universal mechanism. The richness of the result generated by turning more cards to decide an event I do not dispute. My argument is that the richness is supplied by the interpreter not by the mechanism. So then onto Hero Wars, and I can understand why people have put this forward. The extended contest rules for example allow events of all magnitude to be abstracted in a very clever way. They also supply objective quantitative information about the result, unlike Everway.

Three points though: firstly Hero Wars has several different rule systems depending on the situation: group/single, simple/extended, uncontested/opposed. For me the Fractal Rule should in some way extend universally, Hero Wars sticks to the d20, Edges and Masteries system throughout all mechanisms but introducing Action Points only for Extended Contests lets it down for me. If Action Points could be extended into the more basic systems then I would definitely think that from a purely rules point of view they would probably be fractal.

The other two points stem from outside a consideration of systems though and instead from the aethestic point of view that these rules must be fit for the purpose of roleplaying. The Extended Contest resolves the whole event, it does not allow certain key moments to be "brought into focus". This is something that Everway does allow us, we can choose the frequency of turning cards and change that frequency when needed to either "zoom" into the action or out of it.

Secondly the Extended Contest rules work so well because they are very abstract indeed, it seems to lose the visceral "blow by blow" feel of systems such as D&D 3e. Perhaps I am wrong and the loss or gain of Action Points is equally exciting but personally the arid antiseptic nature of the Action Point system leaves me at one remove from the actions of my character.

So finally, Fudge, the author of Fudge clearly ran into the Fractal Rule problem but probably not in the articulate way that Paul has formulated it. Having created a clean elegant system for resolving human tasks based on fixed tokens of the English language and a variety of random inputs the author clearly realised that a "fast" tank and a "fast" racing car are not quite the same think. The introduction of Scale allows the essential mechanisms to be retained and a certain Fractal quality to be obtained but ultimately fails because the interactions of different Scales are mostly swept under the carpet in a "trumping" mechanism. Hero Wars handles things better in this respect as its Masteries do cancel out to simplify dice rolling and resolution but the magnitude of the different is retained in the Action Points.

I hope these points help to understand why the Fractal Rule system is still an ideal at the moment. Of course I am no more immune to having a "favourite" system than anyone else, mine being the Storyteller mechanism. It is easy to grasp, easy to explain and retains a consistent mechanism that results in quantitative and relative measures of success or failure. The trouble is it only works for dice pools of ten or less as even its most ardent admirer would be forced to concede and therefore does not scale in any satisfying way.