Saint-Sebastian Vol. 2, Issue 4

Background versus Characters

What is the best structure for a roleplaying book? I really think that the best form is the traditional multiple booklet format. One booklet for magic, background and characters, for example. That way you can read the material in your preferred order. Of course for the small hardback printing route (such as Sorcerer) that isn't so ideal.

In the single book case I think I prefer background first then character generation. Particularly if there are names and concepts that need to be understood because they are game as well as setting terms.

However I think I prefer the format whereby you begin with the legendary pre-history time when gods and monsters roamed the land. Then you have the information on the "Copper Age" or the start of known history. Then you move into the current age and the current people, forms of government, cultural conventions and so on. At that point I like to kick into chargen.

For me this is the optimal progression because you start with the wild kind of fantasy that is universally appealing and then you move from the outlandish to the progressively more realistic. Gradually you reach the point where the world has become the one the PCs are familiar with and will dwell within. Having reached their environment it then feels organic to go on and see how they "grow up" in their environment and how they fit in with the world that has just been introduced. This is the process described by the character generation rules.

New from Metazine

I have completed two new projects recently. The first is The Best of Delusions of Grandeur. Delusions of Grandeur was a great zine that ran briefly in the early Nineties. This anthology version is a selection of the best articles (purely in my opinion) including two original views on magic for FRPs, a piece on playing historical Arthurian games, a scenario, redacted letters column and more!

Tetsubo is a complete background and supplement for playing Japanese historical FRPs. The supplement was original written for the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay system (WFRP) but was rejected by Games Workshop. This version still uses the basic rules for the system but other than that is pretty much a comprehensive revision/replacement.

Neither of these have been written by me but I have edited, published them and will be selling them to boot. It is a different experience to be working on material not written by myself but does have the interesting advantage that I have no guilt whatsoever in boosting them. They are both fantastic reads and have been written by authors who have really connected with their subjects. I particularly enjoyed reading Tetsubo’s descriptions of the creatures from Japanese folklore, with BoDoG the dissection of Arthurian history and legend was probably the most enjoyable as you have a real sense of someone emerging through the fog of history and myth.


You have to be careful talking about the Firm That Must Not Be Named but the final act has come with all the melodrama, prickliness and self-justification that one might have expected. Having read Wallis’ comments on the end of HH one can only conclude that perhaps the company should have closed down sooner.

Some salient points include the urge to point out that if you start a company to publish your own games then perhaps you should actually do that. Stick to the plan and all that. Another is that it is pointless to start doing something you do not enjoy on the basis that you can transform it into something you will enjoy later. That is like marrying someone for the person you think you can turn them into rather than the person they are.

Finally there is the completely inexplicable vulnerability to critics. You would have thought that writing a fanzine might have toughened Wallis up a bit but apparently not. Of course there are always going to be people who hate what you are doing. That is where conviction steps up. Dissolving your company to become a freelance journalist is not really the same thing.

Modern d20

Occasionally you buy a product and then wonder why you ever thought you needed it. The new d20 Modern rulebook has certainly been one of those. In fairness it does have some nice moments in the rules for example the basic attribute driven classes and the rules for using vehicles and firearm combat. The sections on combat, skills and magic though all put me in a mood where I could either laugh at my own gullibility or want to throw chairs round the room in frustration. I bought the Player’s Handbook already but thanks for selling it to me twice.

The thing that really cracked me up though was that while the equipment section fetishistically namechecks every gun from the Walther PPK to the Python they refuse to use the name “James Bond”. On the basis of its intellectual property laws (and their slavish adherents) there is little hope for Western Culture.

A request for reviews

If any one has played the new GURPS games Transhuman Space or Hellboy or the RPG Ironclaw could you please write a review of them (any length). Similarly anyone who has read through the Ring of Fire supplement.


Lisa Padol, This not the zine you are looking for #136

I enjoyed your write ups of the Everway games but I did find the out of character asides and snippets of conversation very jolting. I thought they would have been far better as footnotes. Interestingly I did find that they produced an interesting piece of practical postmodernism.

Brian’s out of character asides that he had recognised the plot but that his character was going to play along with ignorance is a classic postmodern strategy, the character that realises they are in a story but continues to abide by the genre convention. It is sort of liking writing a detective story where at the end the detective admits that he solved the mystery in Chapter Four but just enjoyed fucking with everyone’s heads.

It is personal peeve when players insist there is a plot to my games and not only that but they have sussed it but what the hell they’ll play along for the sake of the game. I have a habit of trying not to reveal “what really happened” so sometimes I have to endure people who insist that they figured it all out when in fact they don’t seem to have understood the first thing about the game I was trying to create as a GM. More about that later though. I would have been tempted to “fracture” the narrative if I was running the game. When Cub became a full shapechanger and returned to the city I would have added another seeker who had arrived in the meantime who had come looking for Fauna. Instead of falling for Cub Fauna could have been swept off her feet by this new questing hero.

Hopefully at this point the neat circular (and Modernist) story arc would have fractured and Brian would be forced to reassess his position. What will his character do? Will he fight for Fauna’s love and become her true companion or retreat? Either way Brian would hopefully had to reconsider his perception of the game, did Cub act because Brian wanted to close the story or did he do so because of the validity of his own feelings?

It is a tough thing to do in a one off convention scenario but I think it is better that the players walk away with something to think about that having a neatly resolved story. A good roleplaying session, like a good fantasy novel, should always leave you with a feeling of “but what happened next?”. I think the feeling is key to getting people to turn up for session after session.

This whole train of thought though neatly links to another problem I have been pondering recently. When an arc or a session is over it is quite common for players to throw out questions like “what was really going on there?” or “could that have turned out differently if we did X instead of Y?”. I always find myself in a dilemma here, my instincts tell me that there should be no sudden deus ex machina and revelations. For a start I often think that the players might be distinctly disappointed if the wonderful explanations they have created for certain events are revealed as simply botching a Listen roll or mistaking one NPC’s name for another1. Another reason is that often the games we play simply evolve from the interactions of the PCs and the NPCs. There is often no “plot” as such or indeed much to reveal except the basic parameters of the scenario such as “the king didn’t have any money to pay you so had to double cross you somehow”. Occasionally I have had players who have insisted that there is in fact a plot (one player went so far as to say something along the lines of “this way to the plot”). At first I thought of them as problem players and tried to gently point out that there was no grand plot that the game was simply the result of the other character’s trying to fulfil their character’s goals in life. Of course this lead to problems as most players who find “plots” can get very frustrated if there isn’t one. I suppose a grand plot is a staple of most roleplaying. Secondly once I got over myself and just kept my mouth shut I quite enjoyed the fact that if you are determined that there is a plot then you will surely find it. All kinds of odd and irrelevant incidents can be wielded together to construct a grand plot. If you ever read The Dumas Club then I will ruin it for you now by saying this same thing happens in the book. It is a fantastic postmodern novel if you ever want to read one and I haven’t really spoiled it for you as it is extremely well-written. So in short, these days I let “plot” players find their own plot and simply keep mum as to whether they interpretation is right or not. Occasionally when I do construct a modernist plot I am equally baffled when people still completely misinterpret it despite it being put in there more or less for their benefit.

Players construct their own story in their interpretation of events. In truth this is a complement if you were trying to create a postmodernist game as it proves there was no one universal narrative (as is artificially created when you reveal “The Truth).

Sometimes though I feel quite bad about not spilling the beans about what was going on or things that the players have misinterpreted. After all most players are friends and several players are also GMs who like swapping notes on constructing scenarios and campaigns. Not only that but when players are really involved in a game you can feel like a heel for keeping your cards close to your chest. Therefore like every extreme position I advocate for Gming I fall off the wagon and give in to the temptation to go on about how cleverly I put together some story element or unravel some knot of truth and deceit the players have carefully woven. Interestingly enough though I notice that players are very rarely interested in the themes of the games even though they are often the major thing I spend time on when creating games.

So I suppose I have a question to the player readers of A&E asking what they feel about a GM who refuses to explain anything. Is it fair, frustrating or would you think that the GM was just as clueless as yourself, perhaps even using the infamous random plot validity method2? Do you feel that the GMs Epilogue is part of the gamer’s contract. Would you feel cheated if you found out there never was a story out there at all except perhaps for conflicting goals between individuals?

Richard Iorio, Wandering Mind 3.02

Thanks for the review of Three Fingers, a book that I had seen on the comic book store shelves prior to the review but had persuaded myself not to buy. Upon reading your review I bought at the earliest opportunity. Unfortunately though I am not so sure I can join you in your praise of the book. Possibly this is due to the import price of £12 making it on a par with graphic novels and reprint collections. At that price I felt the plot was too slight and conceit too quickly annoying.

The constant used of fictionalised versions of fictional characters really irritated me after a while. Dizzy for Disney, Rickey Rodent for Mickey Mouse, it just went on and on. For me it felt like the author was continually shying away from connecting his story to the real world. I would not have been surprised to have found him using “Amerka” instead of “America” or something equally ludicrous.

The sudden appearance of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King (or perhaps Mickey Lennon Duke) also surprised me. For a start I had thought that perhaps the “toons” were some kind of metaphor for blacks in Hollywood (after all Rickey Rodent is discovered singing and playing the piano in Harlem) and that the Three Fingers were a metaphor for skin lightening procedures and the like. The link with the civil rights movement actually meant that I was reading a level of depth into the story that isn’t there. Blacks are instead an equally oppressed but distinct section of society. Without some level of allegorical meaning I found Three Fingers and the “Ritual” in particular too silly to be really enjoyable.

The artwork was excellent though and the depiction of the ageing, senile and decrepit toons really had a sinister yet humorous tone.

I think it would have been better in a conventional comic book rather than the unusual long rectangle format personally. I am not very disappointed with it (although it might well get sold off fairly soon) but I do not think it is a patch on James Kochalka’s Monkey versus Robot for example.

On the subject of Star Wars; having recently watched the Lord of the Rings Extended DVD version I realise that one thing that is ruining the Star Wars films for me is the fact that unlike the original films there is some serious competition around this time. Lucas has some good actors in his cast but he does not use them very effectively (Ewan McGregor for example is so badly underused that it verges on criminal). Lord of the Rings has plenty of human interaction and scenes made poignant by the often genuine feelings surrounding the onscreen relationship. Very rarely do you have actors having to play a scene in an empty blue room. I also think that Lucas has gone totally overboard on the digital aspect of the film. Yes the computer animation is impressive but it is still clearly computer animation. Both Moulin Rouge and Lord of the Rings show that computer images still have to be mixed with real actors and physical sets (and models) to achieve truly strange or transcendent film images.

One very definite example is the use of animals: Arwen’s ride through the forest to the river would never have worked if the Ringwraiths had been computer generated. There are all kinds of nuances in the physical actors riding that help make the scene seem desperate and scary. On the other hand at the climax of Attack of the Clones when the heroes fight the creatures in the arena pit there is no real feeling of tension because their opponents are so obviously not there.

Of course you are also right that the script is inept and the story lacks narrative drive. Perhaps the whole package is just terrible.

1 I try very hard not to correct a player if they have grabbed the wrong end of the stick, I prefer to wait until an NPC is available to correct their mistake if necessary to ensure the game’s integrity is retained.

2 Everytime a character makes an assertion role a die: 50% chance the assertion is true otherwise it is false. Insanely complicated stories will usually unfurl until the game ends or dies under the weight of accumulated paradox.