Dungeon Master


I'm always thinking of new RPG systems, and ... well, it's a stupid thing to focus on. It's like having great new ideas for fax machines. No one needs them, there's no demand, no money, no purpose. Shut up and play with Bitcoin or something.

Anyway ... It's a fantasy system, but designed for heroic myth, not post-Tolkien fantasy. A bit like D&D -- I want it to look familiar -- but with a different focus. Abilities are Strength, Dexterity, Spirit, Wisdom and Charisma. Strength indicates damage and resistance to it; Dexterity often you hit, and how hard you are to hit; Spirit how often you can use special abilities; Wisdom how many skills and special abilities you have; and Charisma ... well, Charisma is complicated.

I think Gygax confused matters when he made Charisma a proxy for charm and social skill. For most of its history, Charisma meant "favor," divine favor in particular. This was Weber meant when he talked about "charismatic authority": It meant you were given the right, by God, to throw out tradition and establish a new order. In our secular age this was translated into presence and personal magnetism ... but if you're going for an archaic atmosphere, Charisma's old meaning makes more sense.

Now D&D's clerics had a "prime requisite," Wisdom, and that score can indicate "divine favor" when combined with cleric (or druid or paladin) level. For me, though, that's part of the problem, the fact that it's only something clerics and their ilk have to worry about. However, just about every character in heroic myths -- from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Journey to the West -- is effected by their standing with the gods. Sure, they defy the gods from time to time, and sometimes they get away with it, but it isn't something they can ignore.

So in my game, I'm using "charisma" in this old-fashioned sense. How would it affect play? That's something I'll write about in another post.

This entry was originally posted at https://kent-allard-jr.dreamwidth.org/356830.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
captain danger?

Posting More? Maybe?

Not sure whether to post here or LJ, but I need a place for long-form content. Facebook links to everyone I know -- most of whom don't want my weird combo of political rants, comparative mythology, RPG experiments and middle-aged angst -- and Twitter is only good for links, jokes and expressions of disgust. (Hey, I like those things, but there's a time and place for everything.)

So here's mud in your eye. Cheers.
captain danger?

Latest Video Games!

First off the dock is The Long Dark, which I plowed through right before Christmas. Survival gaming at its most pure, you're stuck in the Canadian wilderness after "a geomagnetic disaster," and you have to stay warm, fed and hydrated. Animals will attack or (realistically) stay out of your way depending on your settings (I chose the latter). I lasted for a month or so (game time) before I crawled into a sleeping bag in a fishing hut and was told "you slip into the Long Night." Yep, I died! Not 100% sure why, probably from the cold (the hut didn't hold heat in as well as I'd hoped). Save files erased so I'll never know.

Next was Fallout 4 (no link because duh, it's Fallout 4). I really got into this, clocking over 140 hours which would be a record if it wasn't for Minecraft or, God help me, WoW. Maybe it was the pathos of the Sole Survivor's situation; I played a woman (as always), and a mother looking for her lost son is a potent story. The big reveal was disconcerting -- and not helped by a bug in the questline that forced me to use a cheat for progress -- and I avoided resolving the main story until I ran out of side-missions. But I enjoyed those missions, playing a ninja-type as I often do, maxing-out stealth and sneak-attacking enemies with plasma sniper rifles ... I also loved Piper, my favorite companion, who sadly rebuffed my advances (probably just as well).

Most recently I turned to Just Cause 3, a generous BD gift from wellgull and moonlightalice. Apparently the game was plagued with bugs, and got lousy reviews on Steam because of them, but when I started last week it was all patched up and I had no problems. The game is not a deep experience. You play Rico Rodriguez, Mediterranean Spider-Man with a bazooka, who returns home to "liberate" Medici (looks like Malta) by blowing much of it up. In sum: Soldiers over there, Kill They Ass. The island is extremely pretty, the game-play is repetitive but frenetic and fun. An enjoyable way to spend a couple afternoons.

The Source of My Annoyance

I feel bad that I don't update this journal more often. Hell, I feel bad for not doing much at all these days. Occasionally, though, I feel compelled to write something. Sometimes it's out of pride, other times it's out of annoyance.

In my last entry I wrote about designing a fantasy campaign based, loosely, on sub-Saharan African cultures and legends. I said it was inspired by a discussion of The Witcher, specifically about its lack of non-white characters. Now agrumer commented on it, and I'm sorry I never got a chance to respond.

agrumer pointed out that The Witcher was a fantasy world, and many fantasy worlds (such as D&D worlds) are filled with silly and anachronistic elements. I'm aware of this -- and I'm no fan of The Witcher, or "generic" pseudo-Tolkien fantasy in general -- but I don't see that as something to emulate or extend.

I take world-building seriously as an art form of its own, and one of the principles is that fantasy worlds should resemble our own unless they have a good reason not to (and you have to explain why they don't). In our world, people come in distinctly different "races" because their ancestors come from geographically separated regions of the globe, whether by choice or not. Either they just arrived, or laws or customs have prevented them from interbreeding to the point that they're no longer discrete groups.

Now there's nothing wrong with having fantasy cities that are harmonious mosaics of different races and cultures. They've existed throughout history! But the critique of The Witcher suggested that all fantasy settings should look like that, and that is something I can't accept.

Still, I really do see the value in more diverse characters and stories. That's why I come up with my Africaesque fantasy setting. Of course, something like that can be considered "problematic" too. And today we have an example.

Once again, I feel forced to defend something I'm not all that fond of. Rowling's take on pre-Columbian magic is extremely vague and is all of four paragraphs. Still, it's clear that the "native appropriations" author isn't upset at this because it's too brief. She's upset that Rowling wrote about Native American traditions at all. As she says, "That you don’t need to know. It’s not for you to know." The lesson is: Don't write about Native American people, write about white people. But have more diverse characters!

This is what I find so frustrating about these topics. The approach is to assume people are being rude and insensitive (i.e., sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.) all the time, to see all actions -- including opposite actions -- as confirmation of this assumption, and use any attempt to argue against these claims as a personal affront. Then, those who embrace this approach think they're being model citizens! They're not being obnoxious, self-righteous jerks, they think they're changing the world for the better. It's no wonder we've seen so little progress over the past forty years.

Heralds of the Sun

Hey folks! It's been a long time, and I thought I'd write about my attempt to introduce creative D&D to a new generation.

A new gaming place called The Geekery opened in my neighborhood and they held D&D sessions every Wednesday. I attended one of them. The DM ran a short scenario, ended it on a cliffhanger and told us we were free to run own own adventures from now on. I emailed the DM and other players and offered to run a follow-up session, which I did the following two Wednesdays.

My games were jokey affairs, as I can never take standard "D&D Worlds" seriously. So the PCs delivered black velvet paintings to an Orc chieftain; got in trouble when a Gnome Wizard stole the chieftain's lawn ornaments; played "Dunk the Monk!" in a monastery; and sucked them into an inter-tavern feud based on the 1980 comedy Used Cars. Everyone seemed to enjoy the games, but I didn't feel I could up the comedy week after week. When the Joe -- the original DM -- offered to take over and run an Out of the Abyss campaign I happily let him do so.

We played Out of the Abyss for a few months. As he approached the end Joe suggested I run another published D&D campaign. To me, that would defeat the whole reason I gamemaster tabletop RPGs, which is to have a creative outlet. I want to create an environment and give others a chance to explore it.

So I returned to my old fantasy world, where Dominion of the Dead took place, but moved the action back a few decades and several thousand miles to the southwest, to a place that looked a bit like sub-Saharan Africa.

My reasons for doing so were two-fold. First, I had already established that something important had happened there: Anteron, the Lord of Light, had been grievously wounded and was cared for by a fisherman named Elo; Anteron rewarded the fisherman for his kindness by filling his mind with the text of a holy book, the Sanar. The parallels with Mohammad should be obvious, and I thought it would be cool to run a campaign where players are the followers of Elo/Mohammad, spreading the Word of God across the world by sword.

Second, I was responding to a silly argument I had on Twitter. (Is there any other kind?) People complained there weren't enough characters of color in The Witcher video game series. Now I never cared for The Witcher, and I understand the need for more POC in games, literature and other media, but I thought it was silly to expect the same diversity in a medieval setting as you would in an NYU graduate seminar. I said that if you want (pre-modern style) fantasy stories about people of color, write stories based on African, Asian, American Indian or Oceanic myths and legends. Since then, I decided it would be hypocritical of me not to take my own advice.

So the campaign is called Heralds of the Sun, and you can see the player handout here. I've been delighted by the players' response, which has been very enthusiastic. They never considered the possibility that you could take a rule set, introduce minor changes and use it for a different type of setting. (Of course this is WotC's fault, not the players'.) I'm proud I got a chance to show them this alternative.

"Tonight We Kill, To Show How Peaceful We Are"

Benji Netanyahu: "They sanctify death, we sanctify life. They sanctify cruelty, and we mercy and compassion. That is the secret of our strength."

... and that, of course, is why we have to bomb Palestinians into the Stone Age.

This the kind of "logic" you used to see all the time from anti-Muslims in the U.S. "Islam isn't a pacifist religion like Christianity, so we Christians have to send the Air Force to kill the motherfuckers."

Lord knows who's responsible for the murder of Yifrach, Shaar and Frankel; Israel will attack Hamas because it feels like attacking Hamas (and any civilians that happen to be in the way). Then again, I'd say the government of Israel shares responsibility for their deaths, because those teenagers shouldn't have been in the West Bank in the first place. But that point of view isn't considered acceptable anymore.
captain danger?

A Plea to Video Game Designers: Save Anywhere

It's been a while since my last video game update, partly because I haven't found many games that strongly appealed to me. The three that I've played the most have been Dragon Age: Origins, Just Cause 2 and Far Cry 3. The first was a bit dull, and had enough annoying features that I eventually lost interest. Just Cause 2 was fun in a goofy way, but game play was repetitive so I dropped it, too. Then there was Far Cry 3.

I loved FC3. It had a great story, beautiful graphics, an open game world, and handled stealth better than any game I've seen since Thief 2. I enjoyed it immensely. Nevertheless, I stopped playing about 3/4 of the way through. Why?

It was a story mission. You had to swim to an island, kill a bunch of pirates, and enter the headquarters of the pirate leader, Vaas. Vaas sets the building on fire, you have to escape, then fight off all his troops. After defeating them, you have to go into a warehouse where Vaas surprises you and stabs you in the stomach. Then you enter a dream sequence in which you have to shoot a huge number of Vaas clones. If you survive that, you complete the mission.

Only the last part is particularly difficult; everything before that is time-consuming but relatively easy. Unfortunately you can't save before the Vaas fight. If you get frustrated and take a break, you have to go back to the very beginning, swim to the island, clear out the compound and so forth and so on. It requires a big block of time, and prevents you from mastering the one tricky part of the fight through constant repetition.

At least this is an epic battle with one of the game's big villains, and for most of it you're playing the game, not watching cut scenes. It was better than the mission that drove me to quit Saints Row IV. You had to travel to the quest site, go through a series of cut scenes and quick-time events, survive a ridiculously easy battle and then go stunt-flying through trap doors, for which you were given no opportunity to practice. If I could've saved my game before the stunt-flying I might have completed the mission, but that wasn't an option. I felt terrible quitting Saints Row IV one-third of the way through the game, but I wasn't enjoying myself anymore.

So I ask game designers: Please let players save anywhere, or at the very least have a save point for each scene in the mission, particularly if you're introducing new game play.
captain danger?

Horrifying and Revolting, If Done Right

xanoside posted a Death Wish clip on Facebook recently, and out of a sick sense of curiosity, I followed up watching Death Wish III excerpts on YouTube. My god, it is a masterpiece of awfulness. It would be horrifying, revolting and disgusting, a reflection of the evil, stupid machismo of the 1980s, if it wasn't so preposterous and laughably amateurish.

Today, supposedly, many folks watch Death Wish III for the unintentional comedy. But not all. Read the YouTube comments (rarely for the faint of heart, I know) and you'll find stuff like "this's what we need to clean the scum off the streets!", "God Bless the 2nd Amendment!" etc. etc.

It reminds me that Poe's Law could be exploited for interesting stories, and not just parodies. Sometimes I think it's useful to take a morally questionable trope and drive it straight off the cliff of decency and good sense, if only to see who takes off his cowboy hat and screams YEEE-HAH while hurtling down the ravine.

For example, take a Walking Tall-style vigilante picture, in which a small town sheriff takes on a gang of criminals. One of these crooks, though, will be the sheriff's rebellious son. After the sheriff beats the gang, have him take his son into the woods, tie him to a tree ... and shoot him dead in the face. Cue soulful music and roll credits.

Another idea I had was a comedy called King Fitness. Tagline: "He whips America into shape ... Literally!" I don't have a specific plot in mind, just set pieces, such as gladiatorial "hunger games" in which high-BMI draftees have to kill each other over tins of protein bars, and stress tests with old folks racing through fields of cannon fire. Who cares about details? As they say in Hollywood, the story writes itself.

Could I write these scripts? I doubt it: I'd probably go crazy spending that much time pretending to hold beliefs I despise. Still, I see value in such works, both artistically and socially. It would be like holding a Sociopath Convention, if only to see who shows up.
the ancients

Game of Thrones

Kimberly and I have been watching Game of Thrones, and we both like it, although she likes it more than me. (That has more to do with personality than different tastes. Kimberly, bless her, just has more enthusiasm for life than I do.)

I was told the show was a giant rape-fest, and that (blessedly) turned out to be untrue. Still, I'm not sure I can keep up enthusiasm for a show in which every decent person is murdered and every rotten scumbag triumphs. Yes, I know life isn't always fair, but Game of Thrones manages to make the Middle Ages look even worse than it was. I heard GoT was inspired by the War of the Roses, and I'd guess that Joffrey Baratheon is the stand-in for Richard III. The thing is, Richard was only on the throne for two years, as he got a reputation as a sociopathic back-stabbing bastard and it earned him a lot of bad press. Call me an idealist, but even in the Middle Ages there was a limit to how much torture and beheading you could get away with.

That all being said, Game of Thrones is a fascinating show. It has great characters, and the world of Westeros is an interesting one. One small quibble: Like most fantasy worlds it has a hopelessly exaggerated sense of time-scale. We hear the Night Watch has defended Westeros for 6,000 years; that's longer that recorded history in our own world, the length of time between us and the European Neolithic, and I can't imagine any human institution surviving that long. Tolkien's world had a similar scale, but at least he had immortal Elves interacting with humans, and Westeros has no such influence. It's a small point, and doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of the show, but it stands out for me sometimes.

The Ugly Politics Bill Clinton Helped to Erase

Recent viewing included two documentaries, The Central Park Five and Èvocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, along with a famous episode of Hill Street Blues, "Trial By Fury." They reminded me of the angry politics of the 1980s, which in the Northeast was obsessed with crime, drugs and urban decay.

Guys like Ed Koch fed off that environment, sneeringly referring to the Central Park Five as "alleged" perpetrators, "even though we all know they're guilty." (They weren't.) Morton Downey Jr. went farther -- Èvocateur has footage of Koch saying he wouldn't go on Downey's show because "it looks like a lynch mob" -- but not as much as you might think. When I first saw Downey it was a death penalty episode, which he introduced by saying, "What we should we do with criminals? HANG 'EM!" Since Koch won the mayorship with an ad that said "I'm for the death penalty. Are you?" I don't see a huge difference.

Pat Buchannan was interviewed for Èvocateur and said Downey was a precursor to Hannity and Glenn Beck. This may have been true on some levels, but the audiences were very, very different. The Morton Downey Jr. Show was filmed in New Jersey, and audiences looked like Jersey Shore rejects and Sopranos extras. It had little presence in the South -- Kimberly, who grew up in Georgia, had never heard of the man -- which may have shared the politics, but would've hated the bile, the screaming and the calculated rudeness. They would've rejected Downey, just as they rejected Giuliani twenty-years later (and will probably reject Chris Christie next cycle).

No, when crime declined in the 1990s and Bill Clinton brought Democrats back to the White House, the audience for that sort of thing disappeared. Clinton moved right on crime and welfare, leaving the GOP to oppose him on issues like gun control and gay rights, taking positions Jersey or Long Island suburbanites didn't care about or found actively repellent. (That episode of Hill Street Blues had the cops coercing confessions from a pair of black men, with the show's approval; but it also featured a sympathetic, if embarrassingly cliched, portrayal of a gay prostitute.) The cult of Reagan was taken up by Southerners, and the Republicans became a strictly regional party. Altogether it's a change for the better.