Saint Sebastian Vol. 2, Issue 3

Oh Christ on crutches, there’s more computer stuff, I can feeling spilling out of me now. Is it games again? No? Thank god.

PCGen and Autorealm

I really like Free Software products. There is the feeling that if there was ever anything really annoying about the product I could change it myself and that if it ever started going down an upgrade path I didn’t agree I could keep with my old software safely and indefinitely.

The D&D Player’s Handbook came with a character generator that was very wizzy but really wasn’t quite right. PC Gen is a very rough product with more edges than a knife factory but it is most definitely right. Essentially it is a program that allows you to generate D&D characters. Everything else it does is essentially icing on this foundation.

Simply generating characters may not sound like much but actually a lot of hard work has gone into making sure the program works. With version 4.0 that process is complete and now, like Neverwinter Nights, the computer is pointing out all those rules I never knew but are indeed in the PHB when I double check. I have now reached the stage where if something goes wrong with the generation process I now suspect my own flawed understanding rather than kicking and howling at the PC.

In addition to being a stickler for the rules (and consequently generating correct characters unlike, it now turns out, a lot of our gaming groups’ first D&D PCs) PCGen is very, very fast. Once you get used to it of course. It has allowed my group to churn fourth level characters out for experimental games in under two hours where as previously a whole session might have to be dedicated to the task.

PCGen also has some nice little features, the most enjoyable one from my own point of view is the ability to select animal companions and followers and then have the program create PCGen versions of the companions that are linked to the main character’s information.

PCGen allows you export characters in both HTML and XML formats (in addition to text) which makes running character sheets a doddle. I use Mozilla’s multi-tabs to display one character per tab and then swap between them or let the player’s look at them as needed. The player’s ultimately want their own sheets for things like recording hit points, spells and possibly to take control of their characters. However as a GM I intend to keep using the HTML sheets because it stops the inevitable queries on saving throws and skill modifiers and allows the game to keep on moving with minimum stat questions.

With V4.0 PCGen becomes OGL compliant, which might be important to some but has led to some bizarre removals from the program. I can understand that some publisher’s might not want an easy to use list of all their unique equipment items in an open source program but WotC’s objection to having a random stat generator seems both petty and stupid. It also seems to confirm that OGL is nothing more than Wizard’s anti-competition license, they should stop fussing over their late and poorly received “E-Tools” product and get behind the fans who have managed to do the job for them.

Autorealm is equally tricky to use and certainly has not replaced my usual vector drawing programs as a map making tool. Essentially it seems to be a replacement for Campaign Cartographer (a product I haven’t used). The examples are quite impressive and it seems to have all the features you would want but actually putting together something simple like a village or a castle plan is still defeating me. The user interface is very involved and I get the feeling that if you are familiar with Campaign Cartographer you might be right at home here.

I did manage to master it enough to learn how to produce sheets of hex paper in various sizes though. I could create hexes suitable for d20 fights and the classic 5mm “mapping” paper at minimum cost. Combing the hexes with some drawing objects would suggest that both dungeon floorplans, fight maps and “travelling maps” would be possible. It’s hugely impressive in terms of potential but I need to learn a bit more “how to” before I can pass real judgement on whether it delivers on the promise.


After reading Paul’s comment about Trollin’ I knew I had to have it, particularly as I am a fan of Damien Hirst’s artwork. I pre-ordered it from Hothead Games and it popped through the post yesterday morning. It looks absolutely fabulous, very much in the Nobilis vein. I know that some people are often rather taken aback by Hirst’s art but he has really pulled out the stops and makes the book (no matter how slight it may appear from a page count point of view) a multimedia experience. The layout is quite avant garde but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It really is a game that you can leave out around the house and visitors are guaranteed to ask “What’s that?”. It has a meta-game mechanic that is vaguely similar to UltraViolence but without the RPG connection. It’s truly striking and original feature is the incorporation of people who are not playing into the game. It sort of really pushes the concept of an NPC to a whole new level. The scoring mechanism is way too similar to that in Baron Munchausan though and I don’t imagine it would survive one or two plays. The game experience is really main kicker and pay off – scoring just looks like an afterthought. One that I am definitely going to play when I find a few other players; at least I won’t have to GM it!

Diana Jones

I was going to chip in a petulant comment about how badly underrated and misunderstood the Indiana Jones games is. Then I remembered a section of Jon Tweet’s website that inexplicably comes to the defence of Arduin a game he freely admits is simply a more complex redo of AD&D much like the online freeware RPG Quest which also has its fervent backers. I have come to the conclusion that almost all roleplayers have some game that they regard not as flawed and pointless but as quirky and misinterpreted. Seen in this light I think that I should instead just try and get over it… The unfortunate historical assessment of the engaging Indiana Jones RPG that is…

As for Sorceror winning the award I say congratulations! It’s fantastic to see more burying of gaming hatchets firmly in backs. At this rate I look forward to discovering who really wrote D&D before the year is out.

Those who write and those who play

I have a theory that you can always tell a background that has been created by a “live group” rather than an armchair gamer. Both backgrounds usually have the usual tosh about how the world came to be, what the gods got up to, who’s in charge, the recent history, la la la and all very beautifully written it is to be sure. At this point though the “active” setting will usually start talking about seemingly irrelevant things a great deal. Why city X never expanded onto the south bank of the river say, or how the annual pig sacrificing ritual is conducted and its wider position in the oral historical tradition. An absolute clincher in my mind is if this extremely detailed and incongruent piece of background suddenly trails off into a briefer overview before never being mentioned again.

This is a sure sign that some PC took an absurd interest in one aspect of the setting before realising that the GM was pretty much making it up on the spot and losing interest. I am always surprised by what interests players in a setting but I always think it is sensible to follow their thinking as to what they find interesting. It is usually what sets your world apart from the others. The armchair gamer often produces detailed and lovely settings but they lack the fine polish (or the disgraceful scuff marks if you prefer) a group of gamers bring with them and they certainly lack the day to day fine grain detail that guiding a group of people through the world brings.


Spike Jones, Mermecolion at a Picnic #195

I made the mistake of reading your article on writing d20 material. Bits that particularly caught my eye were:

a good fantasy D20 article or short submission (such as a monster or NPC or magic item for one of the many collections of such things that publishers frequently announce open calls for)

“Dungeon Master” is a term trademarked by WotC

if it’s obvious to an editor, it might be equally obvious to a Wizards of the Coast lawyer

The single most common piece of advice that experienced D20 writers give to newcomers is to put their D&D books under the bed while writing D20 pieces.

Another one of these is that WotC uses the second person… But in the SRD, that wording is changed to third person…

this is WotC’s game we’re playing, it’s not surprising that they don’t have to play by the same rules

If it’s not in the SRD, it’s not in play. Period.

Best thing to do is avoid fair use altogether, just to be on the safe side.

many writers have … been playing it for a long time… And that can mean trouble.

But really the whole thing was fantastic, I could have picked a favourite sentence out of each paragraph. It’s one of the great things about reading A&E that from time to time you sit back and think something like “hell, I should really write about all that’s wrong with the modern roleplaying industry, ‘open gaming’ and the joyless beings that serve both” and then when you turn back to the screen, bang!, someone’s done it for you. Now whenever someone asks me what I think of the roleplaying industry I can just hand them your article (with your permission of course, presumably in writing).

One aspect I particularly liked was your slamming indictment of unimaginative d20 publishers. Knowledge I presume you could only have gained by “working inside the system”. I was saddened but not shocked to discover that the publishers you mentioned felt that their work on hearth deities was so bland that they could be freely interchanged with no-one noticing the difference. Still, I understand your frustration, if the customers buy these bland, characterless and interchangeable “products” why should publishers go the extra distance of creating something distinctive, unique or, god forbid, vaguely original. I hope you persevere in your brave struggle to turn these blinkered companies around.

Jonathan Tweet, NR #105

The PCs in Ars Magica are outside of, and sometimes opposed to, medieval society. They are not part of the class structure. The magi are modern in their skepticism toward the church and state, which is convenient in a game played by modern people.

We introduced a sort of class structure within the wizards' society, with wizards on top and grogs (the wizards' soldiers and bodyguards) at the bottom. Perhaps predictably, some folks hated this aspect of the game.

I found these comments confusing. I wonder what made you introduce a class structure when the mages were in your view “outside of” the society the lived in. I think the statement is patently false though and misleading in the way you mention it. Mage chantries follow a feudal template with the individual chantry controlling both land and essence in a feudal style. The peasants who run the chantry owe their obedience to the mages, the mage apprentice to his master, the masters to the tribunal, the tribunals to the Houses and so on. It is an entirely conventional feudal structure which implies that mages occupy a similar position to the Medieval Catholic Church with a secular structure but an ecclesiastical responsibility. Mages may not owe allegiance to a secular ruler but they do create parallel rather than unique structures.

I am sure that others have pointed out that scepticism to church and state is far from a qualifying statement of “classless”.

Richard Iorio, Wandering Mind 3.

I enjoyed the pieces about Lustria and Dark Continent. DC seems to be a difficult product, even for those who bought it. I feel that perhaps they should have split background and rules because a lot of people are buying it for an insight into Colonial Africa.

Lustria was possible the best part of the Warhammer world. The distinct mix of farce, derivation and fantasy pulp that was the signature of Warhammer writing in the Second Edition actually managed to produce something with a life of its own there. It’s a shame the promised supplement was never published. I wonder if a draft remains that could be looted for that original freewheeling feeling.

Culture, setting and rules

Rather than quote bits and pieces from the last issue of Fluxus I will try and answer a few of the very pertinent questions Paul asked as a block.

Firstly, I don’t think it is necessary to understand a background before playing it. This might sound a contradiction with some of the other views I have expressed here. I essentially prefer always to play and if there are only a few hours of session each week I am eager to get as much gaming done there as possible. Often this leads to the creation of stupid or inappropriate characters, sometimes is just leads to entertainingly eccentric and unusual characters. I always like to work in a collaborative frame work so that if something is not working out, like a character, or a piece of the setting is confusing or misunderstood then the whole group decides where to take it. I don’t a setting should be necessarily be a definitive standard of how the game should be played.

Tekumel seems to be an example here, most hardcore Tekumel fans seem to run hardcore culture games where as when I read about Professor Barker’s game it seems to be full of really ridiculous events and happenings like the underground railway system. The game sounds fun but it seems to really show the influence of the pulps on Barker. Clearly he does not regard the game as purely one of cultural exploration, the culture and the world has to be right, yes, but after that it becomes a platform for what the players and the GM find entertaining.

I think a lot of people who might be interested in Outlaws might want the background of a real historical China but I imagine they will want a lot of Crouching Tiger high-energy action as well. I don’t they would be making a wrong decision here.

Ultimately I think the best games involve understanding a setting to the extent that all participants in the game have a shared understanding of what the setting is and what it contains. This does not necessarily have to occur prior to the start of a game though. I can recall some games where I have misread or misunderstood the background and then been confronted by a player who has read the “correct” version. Making a decision as to whether to change the way you have been playing the game can be difficult and of course could have been avoided by careful prior study. Happy accidents do occur though and sometimes the shared understanding that has been built up is more appealing than the new canonical background.

So, will people want to play Outlaws, well I think so, not least to find out what it is like to play a game that has been written about for so many years without actually being written.

As for imposing a style of play on groups, well I don’t think it is worth it. Far more productive would be to include the writeups of Outlaw games that have appeared in previous issues of A&E. Saying “look at how I play the game” is much more attractive that declaring “this is how you play the game”.

If you believe that rules result from defining the world and then expressing the world’s reality in terms of game mechanics then the best solution for explaining the world would seem to be the rules! But rather than character creation maybe instead presenting a character (preferably one from the stories) and then using that character to explain the rules via examples might be more appropriate.

After that character creation can be used to explain how the character came about. After that the background can be explained in terms of “so and so’s world” and “so and so’s friends and enemies”. It’s possible to see how such an approach could be used to create the structure of a Robin Hood RPG without having to explain and summarise the stories at the start of the book.

Sorceror takes a vaguely similar approach, rules, character creation, sample PCs and then the “allies” demons. However it fails to introduce a character that the reader can begin to identify with until Harry Scarborough on Page 35 and I think for the casual reader that might be a mistake.

Personally I don’t necessarily care too much about rules, systems and points. For me a new game should really be about trying to persuade you to play it and point out how it is different from all the other games in the first 25 pages. Having recently read Agone and Exalted I was surprised to find the latter’s usual White Wolf Woffle surprisingly short and palatable. By the time the description of PCs came up I was primed for some special epic characters. Agone, while generally suffering from poor translation, does at least have a few strange ideas that confirm that we are no longer in Kansas. The one that particularly struck me was the idea that the world existed in a permanent twilight due to a conflict between the gods that had resulted in the destruction of the sun and the betrayal of the entire season of Autumn. A few other ideas would have been interesting but were rendered in a very confusing way, presumably in translation. These included the idea that the GMs are members of one of the in-game conspiracies and that the rulebook is actually their guide to the world and the society they are members of. The players/PCs are actually their puppets that they are going to manipulate into achieving their goals in the world. That’s a clever little joke when you think about it. Another is that the eponymous Agone is actually seems to have been a traitor to the (GM’s) society and helped give away its secrets while making himself a wizard-king. Unfortunately it is not clear whether this is bad or good and therefore it is unclear whether the title of the game is a warning or an example of what can be achieved.