Descripción: The last-but-one issue of the imazine fanzine dedicated to face-to-face role-playing.
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Descripción: Mapa Conceptual NIC 37
EDITORIAL En gran medida, los artículos que integran este número, están visualizados, literalmente, por medio del recurso de la fotografía. Así por ejemplo, compartimos parte de las importa…Descripción completa
ye a r a n d a h a l f l a te ? It’s pretty unforgiveable, isn’t it? Not so much a late issue as another period of hybernation followed by a return from the dead. In this case, though, the return is different to my return after the long gap between issues 20 and 21. It has been evident that I can’t continue to produce imazine in the way I have been, not so much because of a lack of time (although that has also been a problem), but because I refuse to work on the zine unless I’m fully behind it. The fact that this issue is so late demonstrates that I haven’t been sufficiently motivated, energised, enthused by what I’ve been doing with the zine. So next issue (if there is a next issue) will probably see some changes. I started the zine originally to provide a place for discussion. Since then the Internet has come along and most peo-
EARLY 2002 2 2 4 6 9 10
Reviews Everway The Dying Earth RPG Hero Wars Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth The Fantasy Role-Playing Game
12 Abstraction v Mess Some level of abstaction is necessary in a game system, but how much? asks Paul Mason 14 The Need For A Free World An interview with Phil Gallagher published in Warpstone magazine demonstrates how ‘intellectual property’ is strangling one game setting. By Robert Rees. 17 Lingua Fruppa A look at the coverage of language in roleplaying games – and why it is so poor – with suggested solutions. By Gianni Vacca. 19 Colloquy The usual array of letters, this time presented with a little more of you, and a little less of me. Understanding of terms like ‘adequate’ and ‘zunder’ is not obligatory, honest! 27 Brilliance & Dross In RPG Artwork Artwork and rolegames have always been intertwined. Matt Stevens gives a personal view of the this tempestuous relationship.
ple now prefer their discussions at the speed of a net connection (and with flames to match). So I’m going to be thinking about how to modify the method of discussion I use in the zine, as well as trying to make it easier for me to edit. This issue sees much larger chunks by way of an experiment. On top of all this, this issue marks something of a break with tradition as I discover that I am prepared to publish artwork: though in this case as part of an article on the subject of artwork in rolegames rather than as decoration. Because of this art, and the extra length from letters, reviews and articles I believe the file is rather larger than usual; sorry about that. Oh, and in the ‘other news’ department, I’ve recently secured a new full-time job and will be becoming a father in February. So, little prospect of much extra free time... *
r e v i e w s ust about every issue I resolve to ditch the reviews section, and just about every issue something comes along that makes me feel I should postpone its demise. This issue, though, demonstrates the way I see things going in the future: fewer commercial promotions and more examinations of games from the point of view of what useful ideas we can obtain from them. By coincidence, and probably partly as a result of the long delay, the reviews are interelated, not only with each other, but with other contents of the zine.
Everway Dissected by Paul Mason But, but – isn’t this a crazy idea? I mean, Everway was a notorious flop: it has been unavailable for ages. Well, if I was merely doing a review, that would be true. As it is, the very fact that Everway was a flop is what interests me in taking a look at it. For just as Last Action Hero was a notorious flop that was nevertheless one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best films, there may be all sorts of precious nuggets to be found in the unlikeliest places. And with the release of Dungeons & Dragons third edition, helmed by Jonathan Tweet, who has wowed us in the past with such delights as Ars Magica and Over The Edge, this seems like a good opportunity to look at his ‘great mistake’ (why no review of Dungeons & Dragons? That’s a question you should be asking yourself, not me). In an issue of Alarums & Excursions over a year ago, Jonathan modestly commented on the subject of Everway that ‘It dates from a time when I thought I knew how to make something accessible to new gamers. (Now I’ve learned to test my assumptions rather than believe them.)’ That parenthetical comment is something I am very familiar with myself. It’s bizarre how a neat system or idea can translate into total rubbish as soon as it is exposed on the mountainside of actual play. In the case of Everway, most of the basic ideas are fascinating. Indeed, had it not been
pitched as a newcomer’s game, I suspect it wouldn’t have performed as badly as it did. Because the strange thing about this game is that it is a newcomer’s game, but one which requires an experienced referee to run it. In this examination of the game, I’m going to be mainly concentrating on two of the game’s features: the cards used to drive the mechanic, and the background against which the game is set. There are, of course, many other points of interest to be found in the game, but I think these two have the most to tell us about designing games of our own.
beginner’s luck But before I start concentrating on these two features, a word about the idea of Everway as a beginner’s game. There are many theories as to what is and isn’t required in such a game, and I wouldn’t like to claim that I have the answers. One thing I did notice, however, was that I found myself, while reading a large proportion of the main book, continually asking myself: ‘Yes, but what do you do? How do you play the game?’ Given the effort which was put in to make the game accessible by removing highly culture-specific information from the background, there is a tremendous amount of cultural information to wade through before one is given any concrete information on how to play the game. My impression of beginners is that what they crave, more than anything, is concrete information, specifics on how to play the game and what is expected of them. Like it or not, that means the game mechanics. And Everway doesn’t seem to me to make this information easy to acquire. A related point is the notion of using the four elements as characteristics. Firstly this is a culture-specific element, though this needn’t matter (it does, however, undermine the game’s carefully cultivated ethnicity – this is a background of many peoples, all of whom speak with an American accent). My worry is that the vagueness of the characteristics, while attractive to established players who will find such a means of describing characters full of resonance and possibility, will leave beginners nonplussed. Here I am happy to be contradicted by those who have experience running the game with actual beginners. But it does seem to introduce an unnecessary level of abstraction. Dungeons & Dragons, for all its faults, allowed a character concept to be
r e v i e w s ▼ Everway grasped rather quickly through its characteristics. Where it was weakest was with the vaguer terms, like charisma, which weren’t immediately graspable. But beginners could quickly understand ‘Your strength is 13, rated on a scale from 1 to 20’ (or 3 to 18 or whatever). Elsewhere in this issue I examine the notion of abstraction, and why I think it can so often undermine immersion in the game experience – or, to be more precise, in the gamed experience. It’s to do with the gap between the mechanics and the gamed reality they are supposedly representing. Everway makes an interesting attempt to close this gap by making the Elements and the Fortune Deck themselves parts of the background. Thus, while it might seem excessively abstract to refer to someone as having a fire score of 7, the game is set up such that we understand that it might be said of someone that she ‘is full of fire’ – thus that the system models a belief of the world’s inhabitants. This made me think that I should have had the courage of my convictions all those years ago when I determined to based the Outlaws system on the I Ching. Except… that only represents one particular (immensely popular, though not universal) strand of thought in China, and by basing the system on it I would have immediately set up a monolithic, arbitrary structure which wouldn’t have been comfortable representing certain other aspects of the culture. Everway does not suffer this problem, of course, since the background is synthetic, but it does mean that the background, for all its apparent variety, is likely to be a monolithic, arbitrary structure.
worlds apart Talking of the background, let’s have a look. For starters, it is unavowedly and unashamedly fantasy based. Having said that, it is ‘multi-planar’. Now I had better straightaway put my (collectible) cards on the table: I am suspicious of multiplanar game environments. It’s not that I object to the idea per se: Tékumel has multiple planes, but I don’t feel they interfere with the background. Rather, I’m suspicious of multi-planar settings because they so often feel like an excuse for background-hopping. Never mind the quality, feel the width. They obviate the need to root the player characters in a background culture, and to derive much of the story from interactions between them. In this respect, Everway is odd, and no mistake. While the author’s work on
Over The Edge suggests that the multi-planar setting is a deliberate attempt to minimise the necessity for background, as I mentioned above, you have to wade through dozens of pages of essentially background information before you even reach character creation. And there’s the setting of Everway itself, a Tanelorn (or perhaps a City-State of the Invincible Overlord?) for a new generation. It’s highly quirky, that’s for sure. The aspects I like about it (and this goes for the game in general) are those which go against fantasy tropes. Instead of awful fantasy names – Thrak the Barbarian and his ilk – all the names are words. This lends a mythic cast to the game, and extends its associations beyond European mythology and into some of the Asian, African, American and Australasian cultures depicted on the cards. I’ve seen write-ups of Everway games which really did seem to exploit this feeling to great effect. But mention of the cards brings us circling back towards the rules. The idea of a diceless game is not new (it had been discussed and done years before Eric Diceless’s Amber Wujcik hit the stands), nor, for that matter, are cards such a great innovation (the original never-published Games Workshop Doctor Who RPG was based on a card deck). But pitching an interpretative card-based system at the beginner’s market was certainly a brave move on the part of Wizards of the Coast. Was this a contributory factor in its failure? It is often imagined that beginners are put off by the dice-rolling in games, and sometimes they are. To replace dice-rolling with what amounts to resolution-by-Tarot-reading is a leap a little too great for me. My own, limited, experience is that beginners are far more disturbed by the vagueness, the lack of understanding of what game terms mean and represent than they are by the dice. The notion of a game representing a story is easy to grasp. More difficult, however, is becoming familiar with the way the game models reality – how the rules relate to the gamed experience. Funnily enough, as D&D demonstrates, abstraction isn’t necessarily a problem so long as it is clear. Those levels and characteristics may be nonsensical, but they have clear numbers attached and they can been assimilated with a little effort of willpower. Everway’s system, while in my opinion far more interesting, is going to be far more difficult to assimilate because it relies on interpretation, which superficially brings it far closer to the playground games and their arguments, which rules came to save us from. I could well be completely wrong here. But this is my feeling. Leaving aside the suitability of the game to beginners,
r e v i e w s ▼ Everway let’s look at the system itself. There are actually three resolution mechanics: the Laws of Karma, Drama and Fortune. Karma means that the referee decides all outcomes, based on the characters’ abilities and the situation. Drama means that the referee decides all outcomes, based on the needs of his or her plot. Fortune means that the referee determines all outcomes, based on his or her interpretation of a card drawn from the Fortune Deck. You’ll notice that there is a common element here…
chaingang blues Well, card-carrying advocate of player-power that I am, I was never going to find myself cheering a game which expends so much space in detailing a basic mechanic of ‘the referee decides all outcomes’. But digging a little deeper than my rather unfriendly characterisation, is there anything worth taking note of? Of course there is. The license to railroad that is the Law of Drama can quickly be wrapped up and disposed of in the bin for those who love such things. The Law of Karma is an interesting formulation of the proposition that many roleplaying game situations don’t actually need the rules to be invoked – the result is obvious in context. In some recent rules speculations in Alarums & Excursions I have extended this idea to players, and labelled it ‘privileged assertion’. That leaves us with the Law of Fortune. One consequence of this mechanic is that it cultivates the feeling that ingame consequences are being determined by in-game forces. So if we can get beyond my distaste at the idea that it is dominated by the referee, and perhaps accept player interpretation, we have an interesting random mechanic which operates within the game and which should therefore stimulate immersion. The draw of the Fortune Deck represents the way in which the turn of events might be considered by the characters. By analogy, think of the way in which gamers apply game terms to everyday events. If I knock someone’s beer over, I might comment that I ‘fumbled my roll’. Since the Fortune Deck exists within the world, its metaphors guide the way that characters consider the events around them. What better resolution mechanic? What this suggests is that in games in general, we might consider implementing mechanics which reflect, in some way, the beliefs of the culture in which they are to be implemented. This probably only really works in closed (ie fantasy) cultures, but it’s still worth a thought. I can certainly see using the Tarot in order to determine results in a Renaissance-based game (yes, I know it’s strictly anachronistic, but it certainly feels close), and I’ve already mentioned the possibilities of using the I Ching in a Chinese game. The main issue is how you actually implement the mechanic, and here I think is where Everway cops out rather. Its implementation of the Law of Fortune is little more than a souped-up version of ‘the referee decides’, which may sat-
isfy the railroaders, but does little for me. This doesn’t, however, mean that it can’t be made to work. For myself, I’m inclined to think that some sort of structured diffusion of power (a concept I’m exploring in my Alarums & Excursions ruminations) may do the trick. Though it was one of the greatest flops in roleplaying history, I nevertheless admire Everway and its creator for the bold steps it took in exploring alternatives. That I have problems with some of the directions taken is irrelevant; what is admirable is the way in which Everway opened up hitherto concealed gateways. The greatest shame is that its commercial failure may have frightened off other companies from innovation. And so we find ourselves in a world which has returned to the dungeon-bashing 70s, albeit in smarter apparel (courtesy, once again, of the versatile Mr Tweet), and in which d20 is the new standard. In such a world, I find myself warming to Everway and its foibles…
The Dying Earth RPG Reviewed by Matthew Pook Dungeons & Dragons owes a substantial debt to the author Jack Vance and his Tales of The Dying Earth. Gary Gygax has acknowledged Tales of The Dying Earth as the inspiration if not the source for the concept behind AD&D’s magic system. Further, some of the Dying Earth’s magical artefacts also appear in AD&D – most notably Ioun stones. Beyond this, the inspiration for D&D is more Tolkien than Vance and as far as the roleplaying world is concerned, The Dying Earth has been left far behind. All that is set to change
r e v i e w s ▼ Dying Earth RPG with the release of The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game published by a new English company, Pelgrane Press.
In A Nutshell Highs: Fantastic evocation of the setting through both rules and writing, with an engine geared towards role-playing not roll-playing. Lows: None really, but some may object to the more Vancian aspects of the rules – reversals in the fortunes of their character and occasional loss of control of their character within the game. Overall: A fantasy rpg in a different vein, not so much Swords & Sorcery but Chicanery & Sorcery that promotes the use of brains over brawn and where the play is as much about entertaining the group as it is about achieving objectives. If you love Tales Of The Dying Earth, then you’ll love Pelgrane Press’s Dying Earth RPG.
The setting for this game is that of the stories – the 21st Aeon, a time far beyond the distant future where our own time has been long forgotten and science and magic have become the same. The Sun, fat and reddish, hangs low in a mauve sky and is given over to the occasional quavering as it threatens to extinguish itself and the Earth with it. All acknowledge that the Sun is nearing its end and though none can say when, all have resigned themselves to their fate. Thus the time of the Dying Earth is not a world of great ambitions, but one where scoundrels and magicians explore, lie, cheat and exhort their way through ageless ruins, beast-filled forests and isolated communities with peculiar customs in search of magical artefacts, strange knowledge or if all else fails, a fine meal and a soft bed for the night. It is these scoundrels and magicians that the players will take as their characters, using their cunning, their wits and their persuasive tongues to survive and persevere, for as the old adage has it, ‘violence is the last refuge of the incompetent’. The Dying Earth RPG is written and designed by Robin D Laws, the renowned creator of Atlas Games’ Feng Shui, Hogshead’s Pantheon and Issaries Inc’s Hero Wars; and comes with a magic system designed by John Snead. Although the cover does little for me, Allen Varney nicely lays out the inside of this hardback book in black and white. Mainly illustrated by Ralph Horsley [whose work appeared in imazine many years ago – Ed], The Dying Earth RPG acts as a showcase for his art, a mixture of pen and ink and painted pieces. Many of these illustrations come with witty captions and quotes from the Dying Earth stories liberally sprinkled throughout. Only one thing lets the presentation down and this is Peter Freeman’s map of Cugel’s journey. It has bitmapped quite horridly and is rather difficult to read. Peter Freeman also contributes several pieces of fiction for those not familiar with the works of Jack Vance. These are rather successful in emulating the singular style of the tales of the Dying Earth. The game begins with an excellent first chapter aimed at both the novice new to role-playing, and the veteran gamer new to the Dying Earth. This is a necessity as there are fundamental differences in feel and tone between this and the more traditional goal-orientated fantasy rpg. These differ-
ences ooze out of the games’ rules, writing and advice. For example, players are asked to select a suitably exotic name, but warned that if they choose a mundane or anachronistic name such as Nigel or Sue, the gm has full permission to brutally slay the character within the first few minutes of the game!
The type of campaign determines the type of character the players design. A Cugel-level game provides characters with a few good skills and little in the way of magic who must rely upon their wits and guile to survive, whereas Turjan and Rhialtolevel campaigns are increasingly orientated to magically capable characters. Each level provides points to spend on Ability Ratings in numerous abilities – Persuade, Rebuff, Attack, Defence and optionally Magic. A style is selected for each rating or determined randomly to gain bonus points. gms should be careful here as it is possible for players to roll most abilities and thus gain a lot of points here, so I would recommend limiting the number of times that ratings can be rolled for. Points are spent on skills, health, possessions and resistances to round out the character. Each Ability Dating determines the Ability Pool for each skill and it is from these Pools that players spend points to accomplish things. Finally three taglines are noted down for the character to use within the game – more of those latter. The game system is very simple, and to be blunt, will not please everyone as it is highly random and there are no skills as such in the game to modify any roll. It uses a simple D6, with results three and below indicating ever-worsening failure. Likewise, results four and above indicating everincreasing success. Literally it is as simple as that! The first roll on any action is usually free, but subsequent rolls – if involved in a contest of skills, or the roll was not the result desired, each cost a single point from the appropriate Ability Pool. A player can go on rolling until such times as a contest is lost or won, or the Pool is emptied. There can be a bonus or levy to a roll because of a task’s difficulty or because the opposed rolls are employing Abilities include one style that might trump another. For example, in combat the Speed Attack style trumps the Dodge Defence style. In a persuasion attempt, the Charming Persuasion style is trumped by Contrary Rebuff style. Ability Pools can be refreshed through suitable actions and these are given for all styles and skills. The simple game engine reflects the ebb
r e v i e w s ▼ Dying Earth RPG and flow of a character’s fortunes upon the Dying Earth and means that characters with higher Pools are just as likely to fail as those with lower Pools. Their advantage instead, comes in the fact that they have more to spend from their Pool in subsequent attempts to buy off any rolled failure. One aspect of a successful Persuasion attempt against your character (from either an npc or another player character) is that you have no choice but to acquiesce to the suggestions put to you. The game strongly advises that you do so, because refusing gives the gm the right to take control of your character for the duration of the effects of the persuasion. Some players may object to this, but again it is very much a part of the books, and thus of the game. Magic, of course, plays a large part in the game with the campaign level also setting the type of magician allowed: dabblers at Cugel-level, Magicians at Turjan-level and ArchMagicians at Rhialto-level. Dabblers may know common magical tongues and a few simple spells or cantraps. ArchMagicians know this and much more, commanding the near omnipotent, but surly Sandestins, that have the ability to create almost any effect. This makes Arch-Magicians amongst the most powerful and learned of figures of the 21st Aeon. John Snead’s rules cover a simple, flexible and potentially powerful magic system, including guidelines for creating new spells and enchanted items. This is backed up with a grimoire of thirty-eight spells, most taken from the books, though six are original creations. They include the famous Excellent Prismatic Spray, which unlike its anaemic Dungeons & Dragons counterpart, is most deadly. A Magician or Arch-Magician campaign is a different prospect to a Cugel-level one. Designing a character for it takes longer as players must select their grimoires, build their manses and possibly create a Sandestin or two. Such campaigns are neither bound to the Earth nor the 21st Aeon, as the magicians search for knowledge, new spells and create new artefacts. John Snead’s provides good advice to run this style of campaign, especially how to stop potential abuses that the simplicity of the system can allow.
the parlour Beyond the rules, The Dying Earth RPG is stuffed full of information for both players and gm. Each has a separate chapter of tips that serves as a thoroughly useful and necessary guide to playing and running a Dying Earth game. For the Vance fan there are chapters detailing the places, personages and creatures of note, all culled from the books for the game. These seem to lack a little depth in places, but this is more a reflection of the tales themselves and matches perfectly the world and the slightly drawn characters that the players will role-play. The last chapter is a very Vancian adventure involving the characters in a town’s cooking and eating competition. gms looking for more information and adventures should check out The Excellent Prismatic Spray, Pelgrane Press’ magazine devoted to The Dying Earth RPG.
(Indeed they will be pleased to note that a copy of the first issue comes with the game). The Dying Earth RPG is for the mature gamer of a whimsical persuasion. Its aim is to have the players not just achieve particular objectives, but more entertain themselves and the gm. Indeed the only way to gain Improvement Points is to be entertaining! This is through the use of taglines, such as ‘Trust me to outwit this moon-calf!’ and ‘I could also make threats, were I not bound by the tenets of civilised discourse.’ Each player selects two and is given a third tagline by the gm from the game’s list taken from the books, but the players are free to create their own. When used at an appropriate and hopefully entertaining juncture within a game, the gm will award points to the user. If I were to think of a game similar to this, it would be Hogshead Publishing’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, as in both the aim is to be entertaining as it is anything else. The Dying Earth RPG is a more traditional rpg than Baron Munchausen, but still a thoroughly singular game all of its own. Once again Robin D Laws has written another excellent game, one that invokes its source throughout. For the fan of Jack Vance’s tales of The Dying Earth, this is an rpg they deserve to enjoy. For the gamer not as familiar with the books, but who are willing to try a game in a lighter, whimsical, but above all entertaining game, then The Dying Earth RPG is just the thing.
Hero Wars Reviewed by Paul Mason Cards on the table: I was never a great Glorantha fan. I admired the mechanics of Runequest and cannibalised them, but the game’s background seemed to me like a bit of a mish-mash. A very well-realised mish-mash, I grant you, but far from the mythic edifice it was claimed to be. I suspect the great achievement of Glorantha, like all such creations, is to touch on some mythic associations within the psyches of its admirers; thus its cues and references activate atmosphere and emotional reactions inaccessible to one such as I who has never experienced a Glorantha aficionado’s game. All of this is by-the-by, though. Although they are to a great extent inextricably linked, it is the mechanical implementation of this game that interests me rather than the cultural background. I don’t propose to examine the cultural background here save to comment on how the rules go about representing it. And since this is undoubtedly a culture game, and one that expresses some rules ideas that have hitherto only existed in the realms of theoretical discussion in magazines/usenet, or in homebrew games, my interest is considerable.
r e v i e w s ▼ Hero Wars Like The Dying Earth, also reviewed this issue, the game is primarily by Robin Laws. While my reaction to The Dying Earth was somewhat different to Matthew Pook’s (I found the character taglines – explicitly described as a mechanism to enable referee railroading – a mechanic apparently purpose-designed to inhibit or interrupt immersion) my review of Feng Shui should have made clear that I admire the way that Laws goes about innovating, attempting to extend the possibilities of roleplaying (though it’s a shame that in Pantheon he feels it necessary to indulge in snide comments directed at players who don’t dance to his tune). One more thing I should point out. Nowadays I find it very difficult to read roleplaying games. Wading through all the verbiage; trying to put all the explanations together into a grasp of the whole: it just bores me. Maybe I’m going the way of a certain famous British roleplaying publisher… but no, I still like roleplaying games themselves as much as ever. Dissatisfaction with the whole edifice of roleplaying gamerule explanation is one of many reasons why no progress has been made on my own Outlaws game for several years; if I am bored by the rules explanations of others, how much more will I be bored by my own? Caveats out of the way, let’s dive in to the Hero Wars. Iconoclasts will no doubt be distressed to learn that the main book opens with character generation. This raises some problems (how can you know who your character is if you know little about where they are?) but as the game is clearly aimed in practice, if not in theory, at established Glorantha buffs, it’s not unreasonable.
origins Character creation is one aspect of this game I like; I like it very much. But I would say that, as it is more or less the same system I’ve been using in practice in my own game for a decade. Three options are presented: writing a 100-word description of your character; writing a list of keywords; discovering your character in play. These three options span the divide between ‘design at start’ and ‘design in play’ without straying into needless complexity. All three end up supplying the traditional numerically defined traits and characteristics. What I like about this approach is its economy. You describe what you need to and don’t waste time on unnecessary details. The only wrinkles come in when characters attempt actions for which they don’t have skills explicitly defined: you can either assume that all other such skills are ‘average’ (the Outlaws approach) or you can have a system of defaults. When it comes to the rules themselves, we are in familiar Robin Laws territory. Roleplaying is best served by aping the narrative conventions and logic of film and television, runs the Laws Law. There is certainly something to be said for this. It does, at least, recognise that the goal of pure ‘simulation’, a hangover from roleplaying’s wargaming roots, is rather nonsensical (though I don’t think very many people actually advocate pure simulation). On the other hand, there are certainly some roleplayers like myself who don’t see any reason why our entertainment should be so determined by the demon box. So much of our life already is, anyway, and it sometimes seems there are many people for whom television is more ‘real’ than lived experience (Ally McBeal producer Alice West reputedly wired the White House to say that ‘I wish Ally McBeal and other shows could be there [in Afghanistan] to show them what the real world is like.’). Personally I want to explore the distinctive narrative conventions which emerge from the roleplaying method itself. But this is a stylistic cavil. How does Laws go about representing his televisual narrative structure within the game here? By betting, it turns out.
systems The basic superstructure of the mechanic is admirably simple. Skills are rated, with high being best. You roll a D20, and if you get lower than your rating, you succeed. For all the attempts to reinvent the wheel that we’ve had over the last 25 years, this basic mechanic is still all we really need. But one reason why people have been soldiering away at wheel-replacements is that this basic mechanic runs into problems at its extremes. Here, we have a sys-
r e v i e w s ▼ Hero Wars tem of ‘masteries’ which unfortunately introduces arcane symbols and nerd-notation into the mix (which is better: Fight 17 or Fight 5w2? Hardly intuitive, is it?). It does, however, enable the modelling of an immense range of ability level while maintaining subtle gradations between those of similar ability. Masteries enable you to ‘bump up’ your score, from failure to success, or from success to critical success. Thus someone with a score of 17 taking on someone with a score of 5w (the arcane symbol indicates a mastery) would have to roll a 1 to obtain critical success, while his opponent would get one on a 1–5, and would only fail on a roll of 20. What happened to the betting I mentioned? Well, this comes in when you decide to resolve something in an extended exchange. In traditional games, combat is an example of an extended exchange; instead of deciding everything with just a single roll, or an opposed roll, you extend matters. Hero Wars is admirable in that it extends the idea in principle to any opposed activity, and it makes some attempt to counteract the problems that led me to write about fractal rules. The implementation, though, is highly abstract, and this causes difficulty for some people. You have a certain number of action points (APs) and each round of an exchange one character stakes a number on that round’s roll. This is interesting in that it enables the simulation of relative commitment (though in a somewhat abstract way). The exchanges continue until one or other opponent is reduced to zero APs. Then you determine what it all means. Here is a problem. While you are actually rolling, the system is abstract. It isn’t really possible to decide in concrete, game-level terms what any particular exchange represents. Thus this system works fine for those who want to experience the game at a (narrated) distance, but runs into problems for immersivists. Laws provides advice on how to modify descriptions during a combat contest (basically it advocates vagueness rather than specific physical consequences) but it feels like what it is: a compromise to the system.
bookies As with all systems, there is a swings-and-roundabouts payoff here. The betting system does enable a number of very useful consequences. Instead of the usual tedious attrition of most game systems, you can model a more cinematic conflict of opponents sparring with each other before a final, decisive blow. Which is all very well so long as the conflict imagined by the participants matches up with the after-fight rationalisation. This system demonstrates perfectly the knife-edge upon which the whole issue of rules abstraction (discussed elsewhere this issue) is balanced. I certainly admire it, and I may even like it enough to try using it, but I can’t help feel that a couple of tweaks might be necessary… There is also the problem of the betting mechanic itself.
This perfectly simulates certain forms of conflict but may be out of place in others. It may also fail the Jamie Test, in that it may lead to players spending a long time making decisions, and figuring out the odds, which can be very tedious for those not so inclined. Perhaps the most significant criticism comes from within the book itself. Describing events in the past tense, says the Narrator’s Book, ‘is death to the immediacy of a shared roleplaying experience’. The problem is that by introducing deliberate vagueness about the nature of actions as they happen, the system encourages a past tense view of things. One can rationalise this in some cases – in the heat of battle you don’t always know exactly how wounded you are – but it’s a rationalisation, and it isn’t appropriate to all conflicts.
experience One other system artefact I should mention is that of Hero Points. These are basically eeps writ large, with all the traditional characteristics (there’s a whole debate on whether you should get experience points for ‘good roleplaying’ which has been rumbling along for years) as well as the more modern ‘spend them to boost your chances’, and those who have a problem with eeps and luck/hero points in other games are likely to have a problem with these. For those of us who cannibalised Runequest in order to make Chivalry & Sorcery playable, the magic system was always the weak point. Hero Wars improves the portrayal of Gloranthan magic, primarily through its connection to myth, as well as to the surrounding culture (which Runequest did achieve to a certain extent). Hero questing was always the holy grail of Gloranthan gaming, the game always promised but never emerging, and Hero Wars presents the opportunity for characters to participate in, and even change, myths, in a manner that brings to mind Robert Holdstock’s seminal Mythago Wood (Hero Wars is too much of an auteur’s product to feature a bibliography, though). Actually a very large chunk of the basic book is devoted to detailing the different approaches to magic and how they work. This makes a very refreshing change from spell lists. The Narrator’s Book goes into more detail on heroquesting. As it now stands, this offers an interesting alternative to the primeval dungeon as a structured adventure setting. Indeed, here Laws has found a means of legitimising his beloved referee railroading, far superior to the Dying Earth’s treatment. Comparing the two, however, the dungeon’s structure is defined by its limited physical dimensions; within them it is based on freedom of action. Conversely the heroquest’s structure is a narrative structure derived from the re-enactment of myth: its very nature is restriction of freedom of action. Both methods have interesting philosophical ramifications. The heroquest, from a postmodern perspective, is interesting in that the activity itself is a ‘reenactment’ of an abiding modern myth: the concept of the universal mythic story described by Joseph Campbell in
r e v i e w s ▼ Hero Wars Hero With A Thousand Faces, and elsewhere. It may be worth asking to what extent the nature of a mythic reenactment is altered by a transcendent awareness of the enactment of a pattern (or were the myth-spinners of old also consciously aware of the monomyth?). The dungeon, on the other hand (and here I am using the term in its loosest possible sense), does not preclude the operation of the monomyth, but it does raise problems of its own. One more thing I like in Hero Wars is the extensive body of material devoted to integrating a character with the world background. Material about communities, followers, dependants etc ensures that there is no excuse for the sort of individualistic, alienated characters so anachronistically found in many roleplaying games. The game includes the idea of ‘hero bands’ to form a justification for the roleplaying ‘party’ and integrate it into the background. I suppose this idea originated with Runequest and its cults, and then came into full flower with the White Wolf games, but here it feels more natural than the mere taxonomy of its predecessors.
looks I haven’t mentioned layout, have I? Messy and uninspiring are the two words that spring to mind, though I do like the large paperback format. Unfortunately the sloppy typesetting leads to stray symbols appearing in the text which is confusing in places (especially when it is evident that they are meant to be other symbols: Ω and ° apparently represent fractions, but which ones?). It also leads to tables in which the headings are on a different page to the rest of the table! While the basic book usefully has headers which tell you what chapter it is, the Narrator’s Book adopts an annoying inconsistency in heading versos ‘Narrator’s Book’ and rectos ‘Hero Wars’. A moment’s thought would have revealed that the function of a running head is navigation. From the point of view of a reader it is far more useful to be told which section of the book a page is in, than which book (I imagine that most readers of the book will be sufficiently clear-headed that they can tell which book they are reading without being told on every page…). In other respects the Narrator’s book seems slapped together: horribly inconsistent spacing and use of dashes, for example. Overall, I only have the main book and the Narrator’s Book. In practice, to play this game properly you would need either additional books, or to do a lot of planning or improvising yourself. I think in terms of advancing roleplaying game design this takes two steps forward. I am inclined to say that it takes a step backwards because of its author’s penchant for railroading and TV analogies, but that is merely my own prejudice speaking. I’ve heard mixed reports on how effectively the betting mechanic works in practice; I think much depends on the level at which you want to experience the game. For those who operate at sufficient distance that abstraction poses no problems, Hero Wars has a lot to offer.
Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth Reviewed by Paul Mason It seems to be my fate with imazine that every so often a new edition of Chivalry & Sorcery rolls up, and I feel compelled not only to buy it but to review it. As with the previous occasion (imazine 33) I find myself having to precede my comments with a disclaimer. This time it isn’t that I have any personal involvement with the game – I’m glad to say that Francis Tiffany has taken over as the head of the C&S China project, something which will not only give it a fighting chance of coming out (which it wouldn’t had I still been weighing it down) but will ensure that its contents are as thorough as you would expect from a C&S supplement. No, on this occasion my disclaimer is because I simply wasn’t able to read the game through. I’m accustomed to skipping occasional bits when I look at a game, but here I went well beyond this. There were whole swaths of this game which I was just unable to read, and had to merely glance over before flicking to the next page. This is not, you may be surprised to learn, because of any fault in the layout of the book. It’s not pretty, certainly, and it does some ugly things with fake-italic fake-small capitals that didn’t exactly cheer me, but on the other hand it is highly functional. I’d rather more games looked like Chivalry & Sorcery, to be honest – unpretentiousness is a virtue. No, the reason I found Chivalry & Sorcery such heavy going is because this ‘rebirth’ is exactly that. It is a return to the authenticity which made the first and second editions legendary. In my review of the game’s 3rd edition (imazine 27) I applauded the rationalisation of systems, while bemoaning the way in which the game had been repositioned as a generic fantasy game, a pointless manoeuvre if ever there was one. Who on earth would imagine we need yet another generic fantasy roleplaying game? No, C&S’s strength always lay in its detail, and in its portrayal of the mediaeval setting, and I’m glad to say that this edition marks an emphatic return to that tradition.
r e v i e w s ▼ Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth At the same time, the rules rationalisation is retained – though I should note that it still remains about four levels more complex than I could bear myself. So why a new edition? Well, leaving aside the unfortunate legal reasons deriving in part from the previous publisher’s behaviour, The Rebirth sees a more thourogh-going exposition of the feudal background than ever before. While I am assured that there are still niggles with certain terms (‘man-at-arms’ for example, is apparently anachronistic: if used in the Middle Ages it would have meant a knight), overall it has been given a historical once-over. And the tables... by Crom the tables! I wouldn’t say that every page has a table, but I don’t think I’d be far wrong to suggest that the game has an average of one table per page (and at three 100-page books that’s a fair number!). It is actually these – along with the magic system which has had much of its previous arcanity restored – which are the reason I’m reviewing the game here. For while I cannot say anything much about the rules themselves (them being way too complex for me), the game does constitute an extraordinary resource for anyone who wants to add a bit more mediaeval verisimilitude to their games. And if you need extensive equipment lists, phobia lists or curse tables, you know where to go, right?
The Fantasy RolePlaying Game Reviewed by Paul Mason There have, inevitably, been a few ‘academic’ treatises on role-playing games since 1974 (though perhaps not enough for some people). Here’s the latest, subtitled ‘A New Performing Art’. You may remember an article on ‘art’ by Brian Duguid which appeared in imazine 34, and which provoked a slight argument afterwards. The article originally appeared in Interactive Fantasy in response to an article by Robin Laws (who wrote both The Dying Earth and Hero Wars rpgs, reviewed this issue). I printed it because I thought Brian’s points were right on the button, but of course the next issue saw a swath of ‘Is it art?’, ‘What is art?’, ‘Who cares’ letters. So you might expect that the mere sight of ‘A New Performing Art’ on the cover of this book would raise my hackles right away. Actually, no, because I don’t tend to scrutinise the covers of books until I’ve have a glance at their insides, and in this case I was intrigued to find that Daniel Mackay, the author, actually opens his text with quotations from both of the articles I mentioned above, and
goes on to quote such luminaries as Andrew Rilstone and Gary Alan Fine. So he is at least aware of the arguments that have gone on, and we can’t dismiss him as another ivory tower gimp desperate for publications, dipping his dick into whatever subculture he lights on. Indeed, as we read on in this book, we learn that Daniel is one of us. Which is a silly way of expressing the fact that he has run games, and although the book is written in standard academicese, he is unable to obscure his enthusiasm. In places, he even comes over as the classic gamer, regaling you with stories about his characters. So all of the superficial reasons one might have for adopting what was once dubbed (in imazine 13) the ‘Mason sneer’ wither on the vine and we can turn instead to the actual contents... Oops, no. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t comment on one little niggle. I know the Redmond pod people are taking over the planet, but in some corners of the globe it is still a little much to insert [sic] marks after every quotation which uses ‘which’. Those of you who use Word will know that it gets flagged by the grammar checker. Scant excuse for flagging it with ‘sic’, especially when done by someone who can’t spell ‘exemplar’ and doesn’t know the difference between ‘allusive’ and ‘elusive’. Hrrumph! Anyway, I’d like at this point to throw in an instructive quotation. In a sense, this is the book’s thesis.
The theater of the role-playing game restores the product art of popular culture while cloaking the process with the shimmering mirage of an alternate reality far, far away from the voluminous excess of the popular culture behind the mirage. Each role-playing games session—of people who think they are escaping to another world is, in actuality, a restoration, recapitulation, (sometimes) critical evaluation, and even recuperation of the buried social potential embedded in the forms of popular culture. Got it? I think it’s well worth thinking about. There’s no doubt that ideas such as these inform the design of games such as Over The Edge. And I think it is also supported by the experience of gaming itself. Interestingly, it also ties in with Keith Johnstone’s Impro, reviewed in these pages not so long ago. One of the main problems I had with Johnstone’s approach was that it did seem to be almost
r e v i e w s ▼ The Fantasy Role-Playing Game entirely based on recapitulation. So where does this leave me? In a similar situation to Foucault in his history of madness: chasing after an ‘Other’ which can never be attained. When the Other is grasped, it becomes assimilated and is no longer the Other. Foucault later realised that his attempt to conceptualise an ‘Other’ form of Reason was doomed, but that it was nevertheless possible to push back boundaries. And this is what I want to do with ‘culture games’. You might therefore expect me to rail against the thesis of this book. I don’t, because I recognise that as an observation of what actually takes place in roleplaying games it’s quite perceptive. Moreover, as with all talk of approaches, the boundaries are never so clear-cut. Even the most earthbound game, with character names plucked straight from Dragonlance, will nevertheless contain sparks of the numinous. My own games contain frequent recapitulations of popular culture, just as Mackay describes. Instead I’m grateful to this book for identifying more clearly the direction in which I want to strive. Mackay makes a compelling case for why people would want to play an imaginative game in such an apparently derivative fashion. While I accept this, I still want more myself. I want to escape from the limits of my own consciousness (this is why I find casual dismissal of the term ‘escapism’ somewhat annoying). As my comments about Foucault above demonstrate, this is actually an impossible goal, as the very act of escaping the limits of my consciousness pushes out said limits. Nevertheless the process carries with it something that I, at least, feel is of value. This thing is what keeps me playing rolegames when I nevertheless feel the urge to flee, as so many others before me have, to fiction or even computer games. Mihali Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow, describes how most moments of optimal experience (when you are engrossed in some activity that provides a real challenge to your skills) involve a loss of consciousness of self. The paradox is that after such experience, consciousness of self floods back in sharper than before. This is the sort of thing I’m after: a mind-expanding experience. Scoff if you will (but you might as well bugger off and stop reading imazine if you do), though roleplaying seems to have relatively little to offer in competition with, say, an evening down the pub, if you don’t aim for personal development of some kind or another. Back to the book. Mackay attempts to analyse the roleplaying experience, taking full account of its complexity. While his analysis can be a little opaque at times, resting heavily on ‘performance theory’ with which gamer readers may well be unfamiliar, it neverthless contains some fascinating insights. It starts by pointing out that not only is the in-game character constructed, but the player role is also a social consstruct. He goes on to explore the various levels (or ‘spheres’) of interaction. He does this by adopting an analysis of theatre developed by Richard Schechner, and it is here that I think
some of the rough edges enter the picture. One point, however, is clear: that roleplaying involves switching between multiple levels (‘frames’) through which the game is approached, and that skill in switching thus constitutes skill in the game. The frames in this book expand on the three suggested by Gary Alan Fine’s Shared Fantasy to:
1) the social frame inhabited by the person: 2) the game grame [sic] inhabited by the player; 3) the narrative frame inhabited by the raconteur; 4) the constative frame inhabited by the addresser; 5) the performative frame inhabited by the character. Most of the above are obvious, though I should explain that the ‘constative’ frame refers to those parts where the referee sets the scene, employing for the most part description. Mackay goes on to explore social implications and context for roleplaying, including references to the already mentioned Csikszentmihalyi. Some of the most interesting for me were where he refers to Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish in order to isolate the power structures at work in the average game. Experience points are identified as an example of one of the disciplinary structures within the game. He takes the metaphor further, wondering to what extent the power structure is used to inhibit player expression, and provide some fascinating real-world examples of where certain areas of expression (for example sexuality) appeared in one group to be informally prohibited Another interesting area of exploration is the game experience itself. Mackay notes that like a dramatic performance, a roleplaying game disappears in the act of becoming. He then identifies the way in which the experience is reconstituted in the memory of its participants, which I think is a very useful point, especially as it relates to that problematic phenomenon, the game write-up. Finally, as hinted at at the start of this review, the book tackles head on the issue of art. Mackay doesn’t shrink from pointing out the relatively recent, arbitrary foundations for our modern conception of art, and he points out ways in which, perhaps, roleplaying could be somewhat more than art. After all, the modern (post-Renaissance) concept of art is as something dissociated from everyday experience – though this, like most other things, is being challenged by postmodern artists. Roleplaying, at least in theory, operates in such a way as to bridge the artificial divide between art and life, performer and audience. When it comes right down to it, I don’t think this latter direction of speculation is all that important. I couldn’t give a toss whether people regard roleplaying as art or not. But performance is undoubtedly is, and Mackay’s book contains enough performance theory-derived nuggets to offer new ways of looking at roleplaying. And in my experience, new ways of looking at roleplaying can be very helpful in stimulating better ways of doing it. For this reason, at least, I recommend this book. I don’t agree with everything in it, by a long shot, but I’d very much like to see some of its points followed up.
Mess a designer’s dilemma by paul mason
What are some of the problems involved in abstracting game systems? What effect does abstraction have on the game and how do you decide if it is necessary or not? ow do you deal with money in your game? Do you keep track of every coin carried by your characters? Do you represent every trivial purchase and expenditure? I don’t think it’s too presumptuous of me to expect the answer to this question to be no. On the other hand, in my experience, relatively few roleplayers represent money in completely abstract terms. It was quite a wrench for me to switch to this model for Outlaws, turning spending power into, effectively, an ability, rather than a matter of how many taels you happened to have written on your character sheet. In the Sengoku game I’m playing in at the moment, money is effectively abstracted, but that’s just because we don’t explicitly concern ourselves with it. When I (which is to say, my character, the shðmyð Kamiya no Kiyotomo) recently had occasion to buy a consignment of muskets from Tanegashima gaijin, we didn’t worry too much about the precise quantity. I simply said that I’d take some gold (which I didn’t need, as it happened – the gaijin betrayed us, so we fought them off and nicked the muskets). In this article, though, I want to consider this issue of the level of abstraction, not only as it applies to money – which is the area in which I’ve encountered it most glaringly – but in systems in general. I think it’s one of those areas with hidden depths, and perhaps unexpected conclusions to be drawn. For starters, let’s return to this issue of money. For a long time it struck me as odd that, no matter how much a set of rules was simplified, no matter how abstract task resolution became, personal finances still came down to bean-count-
ing. There would be that box somewhere near the bottom of your character sheet in which you would record the number of gold pieces your character possessed. Although I went along with this state of affairs, I was often disappointed with it, because it suffered so obviously from that bane of roleplaying games: the bias towards ‘adventuring activity’. What I mean by this is the skills system which has 30 different combat skills, but a single generalised skill for engineering. This can be defended in terms of what is required in a particular game – the focus of events, but it is patently ridiculous from the point of simulation. And while pooh-poohing simulation has been de rigeur in the roleplaying community for many years, it’s hard to defend a system of anything other than the most elementary complexity without appealing to the likes of ‘realism’, ‘believability’, ‘consistency’ or even ‘genre-authenticity’, all of which secretly require a minimum level of simulation to function. As with all such things, an extreme state breeds a reaction, and so I found myself with an abstracted finance system. What mattered, when it boiled down to it, was whether you could afford something that might have a material impact on the game. If you could, that was enough. So the obvious solution was to have wealth represented as a skill, and all purchases rated for difficulty. Any purchase of difficulty less than the skill could be bought without further worries: otherwise a roll would have to be made. Neat and simple, with little bookkeeping – who could ask for more? And to be honest, it does work cleanly enough. The systems I want to use are those which can be ignored easily by common consent, being called upon only when the referee or player sees a point in using them. And this fits the bill admirably. The trouble is that there is something missing. It’s something that always bothered me about D&D, so I don’t see any reason to stop worrying about it now. It’s to do with a distancing from the events portrayed. Any game exists somewhere along a continuum between chess at one end and full-immersion virtual reality at the other. While there may be occasions when it may be better to move chessward, I find that roleplaying has more to offer when it tends more towards immersion, and that means representing things in terms that feel real. Any abstraction comes at a price: the
a b s t r a c t i o n ▼ enactment of distance. In most cases the price is worth paying because the alternative would be tedium or rules complexity which would interfere even more with immersion and involvement (not to mention enjoyment, which strangely enough does seem to be the main point of the whole business). The consequence of the above is, however, that when an abstraction is not being done in order to save you from a greater evil, it shouldn’t be done at all.
direct problems Coming back to my example of money, I think the main problem was that my exposure to traditional roleplaying had brought me up to feel that any direct representation of money within the game had to be bean counting. With my particular aversion to accounting (it was part of my bachelor’s degree) I wanted to avoid it at all costs. Yet I have noticed over the last few years that something is lost when money is no longer directly represented within the game reality. It seems to diminish the story, to make it feel less authentic and directly experienced. While I don’t like making such analogies very much, I am inclined to consider that such abstractions are rarely found in novels. This means that what I want now is to have the direct experience without the bean counting. This is trickier than it might appear at first thought, but if it can be achieved, the principles will be of use in all kinds of other situations. First of all, then, I should consider some of the problems with direct experience, that I have so far labelled bean counting. The first is the necessity of writing everything down. In the ‘adventuring’ days, just about the only activities involving money were obtaining treasure in the dungeon, and buying things with it. Even that could become rather tedious, but once any pretence was made at representing everyday expenditures, something had to be done. Here abstraction came onto the scene. Everyday expenses (and in some cases income) could be stated as average sums, or rolled for or whatever. So we ended up with a combination of bean counting and abstraction. This certainly didn’t keep me happy, mainly because it increased complexity. A second problem is the elusive nature of direct experience itself. In the case of money, it’s a fiendishly complex subject. If I were to try to represent the reality of 12th century Chinese money correctly in my game I’d be looking at a 500-page section on money alone. I kid you not. The various discount rates available for different forms of currency; the ambiguous nature of ‘flying money’ (proto-paper money); taxation laws and privatised minting: it’s bad enough having to boil it down to some sort of workable abstraction. As a roleplaying system it would be unworkable for all but the world’s most anal-retentive accountant. A third problem, oddly enough, is the potential for argument that direct experience raises. One consequence of my
living in Japan is that I have gained a greater appreciation of the purposes of vagueness. Many gaijin rail against Japan’s notorious vagueness, but it is there for a reason. Where there is vagueness, there is the possibility for two conflicting perceptions of reality to coexistb peacefully. Such an attitude is not very popular in the absolutist West. Westerners, though we may pretend otherwise, are One True Wayers. Although the use of vague terms in our games may lead to argument, the notion that some kind of precise specification, tying matters to concrete details, will obviate it is evidently flawed. There’s not only the problem that every historical game faces, of the pedant who knows more than the ref (or thinks he does). There’s the science fiction game facing the onslaught of physics or engineering graduates. There’s any game at all facing an anthropologist… and so on ad nauseam. Given these problems, and the fact that Hero Wars, by the golden boy of rolegame design, Robin Laws, basically uses a money system identical to the one I’ve had in Outlaws for five years, why do I now find myself rejecting abstraction? The answer is relatively simple. Every time the game rules abstract a game situation, you are pulled out of the narrative. This probably doesn’t matter much in Laws’s games, which are more about representing genre and impressing others with one’s own genius. But I’ve played enough charades, fictionary dictionary and Whose Line Is It Anyway?inspired games at conventions that I don’t especially need such an approach to invade my roleplaying. I want an immersive experience. I want what Mihali Csikszentmihalyi describes as ‘flow’.
vague problems Unlike these postmodern prodigies who can effortlessly dwell on multiple levels of game consciousness, I find that anything that draws my attention to the artificiality of a game inhibits my ability to immerse myself in my character, and thence in the story which is being discovered. The more abstracted mechanics are, the more they draw my attention to themselves rather than whatever it is that they are supposed to represent. This is an old problem. Original D&D abstracted human adventurers into ‘character classes’, and the arbitrary limits this entailed was one of the great turn-offs for many who, like me, rejected the game after a few years of play. It is instructive to note that in many cases this aspect of D&D was ‘solved’ by redefining the game world to accord with the rules. Thus character classes became fixtures of the fantasy worlds people played in. Is it any wonder that the majority of post-D&D fantasy fiction is such a load of crap? The problem can be observed most clearly by trying to describe the events of the game. A cliché of roleplaying was always the nerd who insisted on collaring you and describcontinued on page 16
the need for a free world ast year phil gallagher, one of the writers behind the original wfrp books and former Company Secretary for GW gave an interview to UK fanzine, Warpstone. The result was published in Warpstone 10 and if you have not read it, while I recommend picking up a copy, do not worry as I’ll be reproducing some of the more interesting parts here. Generally the tone of the interview was that of someone who is generally given an understanding press; if Warpstone was an adversarial periodical in the imazine style I think Phil might have received a roasting for some of the more dodgy statements he made. For me the interview was shocking, partly because of the candour but mostly because despite frequently decrying the rpg industry you often think that its problems are those of the ‘system’ rather that the result of those who work within it. Early in the interview, Phil answers the all-important question; do you game?
I have two small children and the demands of fatherhood make it difficult to spend too many weekends playing games … These days I can’t make the commitment to a regular slot for role-playing. At first glance this seems a normal answer, echoed countless times in the imazine letters column. ‘I used to be a gamer but then along came the job/girlfriend/spouse/kids/ life’, something I’m sure we’re all familiar with. Hold on though, isn’t Phil meant to be working with a games company? Surely if his personal time is so crowded there should be plenty of gaming in his work hours?
[I’m] now all round in-house legal person—beats working for a living, that’s for sure! … I keep tabs (in, hopefully, a quiet unobtrusive kind of way) on Hogshead’s proposals and drafts. Right, so Phil is the kind of gamer who doesn’t game but can tell others what constitutes a good game. Phil seems to embody a certain attitude. Business can be considered purely in abstract terms, a ‘process’ that leads subsequently to ‘proƒt’. The fact that in the abstraction the
or why Phil Gallagher is so wrong by Robert Rees
purpose of the business is lost does not bother ‘business’ people—after all it is all business at the end of the day isn’t it? The impression given is that Phil does legal stuff for a games company but really it could be any old thing. ‘Hey, I do legal stuff for a cheese cracker firm. It sure beats working!’
abstraction So Phil isn’t a passionate committed gamer, get over it! Well no, I refuse to accept this for two reasons: ƒrstly it makes for bad business. It’s unusual, perhaps, to take this tack but from my own observations of British industry and business it seems that the worst kinds of managers and executives are those who are disengaged from their product. All too often the abstraction of business allows people to hide away form the fact they are producing actual goods or services that they themselves would not use or even want to use. I would think it the saddest thing if a copywriter could not bear to read their own advert, a car manufacturer drove another company’s car, a sausage maker would not serve their own bangers to their children. That’s pride and involvement in your business but beyond this you have to be interested in the whole field you work in if you want to excel. How do my competitors’ products work? Are they better, easier to use, more innovative? Could I imagine ever using something other than my own product? The reason GW has released W40K umpteen times in the last decade and studiously failed to create a new area or concept in the gaming field is because they are increasingly referring only to themselves. By failing to engage their competitors in a constructive and critical commercial dialogue they are stagnating, relying on the old tricks on ever larger scales to get them through. [Such stagnation has led them to success beyond the dreams of Livingstone—Ed] Secondly, how can Gallagher make informed decisions about the activities of his licensees when he has only the memory of what they actually do day to day? If Gallagher
a f r e e w o r l d ▼ last wrote a rolegame in the Eighties how can he have something meaningful to say to a modern rolegame publisher? Indeed Gallagher then goes on to admit that he has little to contribute:
I’ve tried to stay in touch, but won’t pretend to have my finger on the pulse. It seems to me that more than anything it’s become a players’ game—belonging to the gamers rather than the publisher. Despite this the mindless hand of the corporation keeps a firm grasp of the helm.
The control is about quality and consistency. The artwork is very precious to us. New illustrations have to be consistent with the world and of a comparable quality. Translations have to use the same terminology as our own translators of Warhammer. Otherwise the licensee can do what they like … I don’t like surprises! Every licensee has to get approval before they publish. You see? As long as the artwork is good then you must be getting something kosher innit just? You’ll probably notice that imazine doesn’t have that much artwork, stands to reason it must be rubbish. Already the Gallagher theory of quality is benefiting you in your everyday life.
I’d be very reluctant to let someone casually introduce a new race to w f r p , say, or to publish a Nippon or Cathay supplement. The very fact that they were entering uncharted waters would attract so much interest that the pressure to please everyone would be overwhelming; and yet, of course, it isn’t possible to please everyone. The ultimate corporate conservatism bound up with surprisingly nihilistic pessimism. You cannot please everyone so why should we even try?
Apart from that … it does not have to be bound by what we publish for Warhammer. Ahem, maybe with such a vested interest [Robert is in the process of publishing Dave Morris’s Nippon supplement for wfrp] I should not be trying to rock the boat. But goddamn it I’m not the only one involved in a half-life project. Warpstone is constantly adding bits to the wfrp universe and I bet they have not been run past Phil! Wake up Foody! Can’t you see that by editing a wfrp zine you’re doing the whole of roleplaying fandom a disservice? You cannot please everyone so why do you constantly try to please some people?
fan effort Seriously though, and this is the crux of my argument so bear with me, reading this kind of thing makes you reassess the relationship between commercial roleplaying publishers and roleplayers. wfrp is a ‘player’s game’ dropped from its original publisher because:
Games Workshop is a business … It has a responsibility beyond that of the individual gamer … a bloody awkward sod who can never be satisfied … to its shareholders … looks what’s happened to the r p g companies … Steve
Jackson Games, White Wolf, Chaosium? … r p g publishers who are happy to stay small and exclusive So when the game is finally unearthed essentially by dint of the effort of its fans why the hell should the original publisher suddenly re-appear from the wings and get to decide whether this supplement gets made or whether that scenario should be ‘allowed’ to be published? Now do not get me wrong, all of the above is legal and the only complaint I have with it is from the ethical and moral dimension of things. Still, why do we allow companies to use the law against us like this? Why do we as gamers allow ourselves to get given such a raw deal? When I first read the interview I could not understand how the editorial team of Warpstone could bear to finish the issue let alone put it all into print. How could you find the will to continue when some ex-rpg writer could shut you down if he does not like your artwork? The truth is that when a writer, sorry, when a gamer creates something that is used in a roleplaying game they should realise that what they create is only the original image of something, not the totality of it. At the time the interview was published I was writing a wfrp scenario for carnel; I decided to try and change the background and setting damn sharpish but let us use it as an example. In the scenario there is a character called ‘Keenan’. I made him up and barring any subconscious plagiarism the character is original. Now technically speaking I ‘own’ Keenan. I can proceed to write new scenarios, fiction, biographies, etc. with him. I can also make badges, posters and any other kind of Keenan merchandising I want to. If Keenan becomes popular enough I could even ™ him. The one thing I cannot do though is tell you who Keenan is. When (if) you play my scenario you will not encounter ‘my’ Keenan. The gm might add an accent, a mannerism, change the description of his clothes, appearance. Keenan’s motivations might change or his life story might be tweaked subtlety. In short the gm will put their own particular ‘spin’ on the character. One reason why roleplaying is not clearly identifiable as ‘Art’ is that it is unconventional in respect of the fact that it is a collaborative process rather than an object that is consumed or ‘transmitted’ to an audience. The gm and the players create the ‘thing’ (space, construct, entity, idea) known as the ‘Game’. The creator of any material used to create the Game is reduced to a ghostly third party, they are not authorial figure that an artist is. This is the essence of ‘Punk rpg’ for me. It is a philosophy that guides not dictates what roleplaying is. It is whatever you are doing with your games now.
habeus lud(icro)us All game companies try to claim the Game. WoTC, WW, GW – they are all the same in this respect. They say that as they created the rules or the characters or the background of the
a f r e e w o r l d ▼ game they, in fact, own the Game. The truth is that the minute that any of these elements were created they did not assume the immutable nature of Truth. The written words were not the ‘fact’. The fact was that each reader of the original manuscript creates instantaneously a copy of the original idea that is uniquely their own. My Keenan becomes hundreds of Keenans, each slightly different. At most a commercial product creates a mutual foundation for the Game. It is a collaborative bridge between the participants. Any attempt to claim ownership of the whole
entity is unjust. Any attempt to control the Game is unjust. Furthermore any attempt to control the recording of the Game is unjust. If I play a wfrp game set in Cathay and record the result as a write-up, supplement, scenario, whatever, GW should not and in fact does not own the result. It as a body has become a witness to the creation of my players and myself. Companies need to accept that they are not producing consumables, they are in collaboration with us – the gamers. We need a free world and we deserve a free world. *
▼ Abstraction v Mess ing his xth level fighter with a +y sword. A key point about these descriptions is that they were codified in rules terms. What fantasy produced prior to D&D describes people in ‘levels’ and rates magic weapons with a number? Just as my goal in character creation was to take a description of a character containing no rules terms and translate it seamlessly into the rules (this is also the approach of Hero Wars, reviewed this issue), I also want the reverse: I want a game experience that is remembered without reference to mechanics. While there may be some dice rolling involved in the actual play of the game, it is entirely subservient to the in-game ‘reality’. This is to say, using the terms of Daniel Mackay’s book (reviewed elsewhere this issue), I want to privilege the performative frame, the level of game experience inhabited and activated by the character. Thus, wherever necessary, the terms used at other frames of experience in the game (such as the game, narrative or constative frames) should correspond to those of the performative frame in order to minimise dissonance. It was dissonance that led to my dissatisfaction with an abstracted money system. Characters who should have been talking about strings of cash were being represented by rolling against levels of wealth. In fact, it’s interesting to note that within the game we did start referring to strings, taels etc, even though these weren’t explicitly part of the abstracted system (and D&D has shown how this sort of thing can break a system). How do we encourage this immersion, this privileging of the performative frame?
resolution problems So far I’ve been bouncing back and forth like a pinball against a couple of targets: abstraction is bad; direct representation is bad. How is this all to be resolved? Well, the resolution obviously has to be some sort of compromise. That’s hardly a revelation. Is it possible to specify a little more precisely what sort of a compromise we need? My solution involves a quality which I am going to dub expressibility. What this means is that any abstract game mechanic should be directly expressible in in-game terms.
‘Directly’ means without the aid of tables, or any calculation more difficult that a multiplication by ten. Obviously there is still a grey area, but I think the idea of expressibility makes it easier to establish principles on which a decision can be made. So, to return to my point of departure – money – I find myself accepting that some sort of abstraction is necessary if we are not to see our game disappear under a mound of financial details. Part of this abstraction can be achieved by simplifying our representation. In Outlaws, for example, I quietly forget about the complexities of varying discount rates for different commodities, and the variability of exchange rates for different forms of coinage. Some of these can be reintroduced, if necessary, as spice in a scenario (as long as the inconsistency problem can be skilfully avoided). But overall they add far less than they take away. The remaining abstraction should be guided by the principal that it could easily be converted to in-game expression. These means that rather than the Outlaws and Hero Wars approach of rating purchasables in essentially skill-system terminology, they should be rated in price terms within the game, and any superstructure of game abstraction should be built on top of this. Questions of wealth and income can profitably be represented by an abstract number, but when it comes to buying little things in an inn, if it’s worth representing at all, it should be represented in terms of the actual monetary units being used within the game. This may seem unaesthetic, in that it may well lead to a non-unified system. But as has become obvious, a unified system is something of a conceit, an imposition of an external abstract form upon a multifaceted in-game reality. The implications of all this for rules design in general should be obvious, and it messes up a lot of grand plans. At the same time, once we (and I probably mean ‘I’ there, because most of you are way ahead of me and never were seduced by the pristine form of a unified system) rid ourselves of an obsession with form, it provides opportunities. Actually, it doesn’t even mean that we have to return to the ramshackle ad hoc mechanics of AD&D as it’s probably still possible to develop a core mechanic, so long as we remember that rather than impose our core mechanic on game reality, we have to use it to express game reality. *
lingua fruppa Language in Rolegames by Gianni Vacca
introduction This article is a mere rant on the subject of linguistic realism, or at least verisimilitude, in a pseudo-mediaeval frpg campaign. I know it does not make any sense to write about realism with regard to frpgs. In a universe where beasts breathe flames, men can walk through walls and, above all, where resurrecting dead comrades is routine, the word ‘realism’ should be avoided at all costs. Nonetheless, I shall try and establish what limits we can put to linguistic delusion, by drawing on what – after all – is the source of all these imaginary worlds: ours, and more specifically between antiquity and the Renaissance.
language in rolegames: ouch In all fantasy worlds, settings, or campaigns, we’re always served the same junk food: a common language. I know of no single frpgwithout this fundamental myth of ‘common’. Even in Outlaws, a culture rolegame, we are given the following:
In modern China, a large proportion of the population understand Mandarin Chinese, as it has been propagated as a standard language by the government. This certainly wasn’t true in the past: Mandarin (which was far more complex than it is now) was, as the name suggests, the language of the bureaucracy. Ordinary people would speak different languages, some of which were related, others of which were as dissimilar as French and German. I decided to have a ‘standard’ spoken Chinese to make play easier. It is true that it would be most difficult to teleport round the world, to infiltrate enemy strongholds, to disguise oneself, to chat with gods and demons alike without this artifice. Ninety-nine per cent of commercial adventures being based on like stories, it would be naïve to assume game designers would make an effort to take some more linguistics into account when designing their games. Yet this is what I expect whenever I buy a game or game supplement. If we analyse the history of our world (i.e. the source, avowed or not, of frpg worlds), we realise that there never was such a thing as a common language. In antiquity, for instance, there were certainly fewer languages than today, but there were still many, and extremely diverse at that. Ancient Egyptian had nothing to do with Persian, which in turn had
N o t e : This article was originally written in French for the French fanzine Holobar Soir in 1992. I quite profoundly modified and expanded it – rather than simply translating it – for imazine.
nothing to do with Phoenician, which in turn had nothing to do with Cretan. That is why scribes played such a major role; they not only knew how to read and write (which was already something of an achievement in those days), but most of them also knew how to speak foreign languages, which made them invaluable for diplomatic or commercial missions. I expect to hear the usual counter-example of the Hellenistic world or the Roman Empire. Well, in Alexander’s empire, as in the successor states, only the upper classes spoke Greek. In each province, the people kept speaking the language in use before the Macedonian conquest. In Ptolemaic Egypt, for instance, if Greek was the language of court, ethnic Egyptians still spoke their language interspersed with Greek, yet purer and purer as you travelled far from Alexandria. The same situation could be observed in the Roman Empire. Only the ruling classes spoke Latin (and not always! At certain times, it was trendy to speak Greek). People usually spoke a patois consisting of their original language mixed with Vulgar Latin, and all the less Latinised as the conquest of the land was recent. In those provinces that had been conquered a long time ago, people spoke Gallo-Roman, Liguro-Roman, Veneto-Roman, Rhaeto-Roman, etc. In Britain, people still spoke Celtic; in Africa, Berber; in Illyria, Illyrian. In Rome, people spoke Vulgar Latin, as in the colonies that had been settled with war veterans who had been given some land as their ‘pension savings’ (which explains Swiss place names such as Romanens or Römerswil). But even in the very heart of the Empire, in Southern Italy and in Tuscany, people were not really speaking Latin. We must not forget that it was the triumphant Christian religion that brought back Classical Latin, which was all but lost, for liturgy, communication between prelates, etc. But even this Church Latin cannot be considered in any way the ‘common language’ of Mediaeval Europe. At the time, there were even more languages than to-day. In the Kingdom of France, for instance, people from Picardy and Burgundy, or from Maine and Champagne, were unable to understand each other. As for Brittany or Lorraine, the languages there were altogether foreign. If common understanding was very difficult between Paris and Compiègne (100 to 200 km), and impossible between Paris and Toulouse (800 km), I would like it to be explained how it could be possible between places several thousand km away (like, say, Damara and Chondath in the Forgotten Realms). This is why I advocate using, for frpgs, a system at least as good as the
lingua fruppa ▼ one in merp. Every country has its language(s), and its inhabitants understand more or less the neighbouring dialects. Intercomprehension may vary between very good and none, depending on the linguistic family each dialect belongs to. For instance, there are way more chances of intercomprehension between two langue d’oïl dialects than between a langue d’oïl dialect and a langue d’oc one.
writing systems in rolegames: oouch! Another thing I simply cannot stand (even more than this ‘common’ thing) is the way tsr (for instance, though I doubt other companies did any better) tackled the issue of writing systems. In the Forgotten Realms booklets, only two or three alphabets are presented, and they are ridiculous. I fail to see why the languages of the Forgotten Realms should be written using 26 letters just like Latin or English. If we have a short look at the way European languages that do not use Latin script are written, we can see that, of course, the alphabets they use do not number exactly 26 letters (Greek: 24 letters; Russian: 32 letters). And yet they are IndoEuropean languages, and I guess very much closer to English than any imaginary Damarese or Thavyan language. Even two extremely similar languages like Italian or Spanish do not really have, on a close inspection, the same alphabet: in Spanish, they use the letters ñ and ü, which are not used in Italian. I could go on at wish (German ß, French ç, Scandinavian å, all kinds of accents, umlauts, tildes, cedillas...). Also, letters take on very different values depending on the language (compare the English, French, Spanish and German ‘j’s: they’re all pronounced in a different way!); some letters are mute, other are not always pronounced the same way... The issue is almost beyond comprehension. And cannot be dealt with, as in tsr’s material, in two or three lines of text. Once more, merp defines what is acceptable, with logical and diverse alphabets (runes, Fëanorian letters, all having different values depending on the language or the age they’re used... this is good!)
place names in rolegames: yikes!!! Another laboured constant (yes, another!) in almost all fantasy worlds is the utter stupidity of place names, and especially of cities. I’d say at least half of all frpg cities are named Xwzlz, Yawalla, Zglur’k, or maybe Rhunge. What people do not seem to have understood is that place names do have a meaning. Our ancestors just did not go round and randomly distribute whimsical names; usually, the place name was created after its owner, or it could have been a short description of the place or of the kind of produce it would yield. Some of these names are, as of to-day, still extremely clear or at least quite clear (e.g. Maidstone); others can only be deciphered by linguistically skilled people
(e.g. Champreveyres in Switzerland means ‘the priest’s field’). But, and I know I am repeating myself, all place names did originally have a meaning, a meaning that was rendered obscure by the passing of time and by pronunciation – or even language – shift.
solutions Whingeing is all and good, but what about any practical solutions? We saw that contemplating a single, universal language for a whole universe was more than unrealistic. Yet this does not mean that we should consider each and every frpg world as a potential Babel. I propose the following system: all the languages of the setting are divided in groups; every group is divided in subgroups; every subgroup in families. There is no intercomprehension between groups. There is next-to-no comprehension between languages pertaining to different subgroups within a given group (one might recognise the most ancient words, like the names of numbers or family ties). There is little intercomprehension between languages pertaining to different families within a given subgroup. Then there is slight intercomprehension between languages pertaining to the same family. To illustrate my system, let me use Italian, of the IndoEuropean group and the Romance subgroup (for gaming purposes only; this is not a scientific article). Compared with Italian, Turkish is from another group (Altaic): no intercomprehension. German is from another subgroup (Germanic): next-to-no intercomprehension, one might notice that drei and tre are similar, as are mutter and madre, but that’s about the farthest you can get. French is from the same subgroup, but not the same family; one might be able to explain that he’s hungry or thirsty, or that he wants to know the way to Saint Denis. There is going to be misunderstanding aplenty (comedies draw inspiration from such situations... so should a skilful referee, and put the too-confident party on the wrong foot). What about writing systems? According to the ones in the Forgotten Realms booklets, there are no runes for ‘ch’, ‘sh’, ‘th’, etc, and the latter are written, just like in Latin script, ‘c+h’ or ‘s+h’! I am wordless in face of such profound incompetence. Ancient or mediaeval languages always went for syllabic writing systems or for alphabetic scripts – yet always phonetic ones (in Old English, ‘light’ was pronounced as it is in German to-day) – or for logographs. Game designers and referees, please bear this in mind! No more ‘c+h’ runes to write ‘ch’, create a new, additional one. Or maybe decide that in a given alphabet the sound ‘ch’ is represented by the ‘k+j’ combination. Be inventive and consistent. Also devising a phonetic alphabet is very useful for naming people and continued on page 26
c o l l o q u y nother bunch of letters for you here, this time in some quantity because of the delay in the publication of this issue. This means also that many of these letters are rather old, and I would like to apologise in advance to anyone whose views are thereby being misrepresented. Just call me an ‘immoral butcher’; it’s all the rage nowadays. Still, butcher or not, you’ll find more letters intact this time, and less intervention from me. It happens occasionally; make the most of it.
hors d’oeuvres Ian Marsh I liked the new layout. What happened to the content? You’ve become as bad as I ever was...
• Well, the content is still all about roleplaying games. Is it possible that ‘what happened to the content’ was that it continued to be about roleplaying, while you were looking for something else?
Rob Alexander I am pleased to say that although I have suffered a total loss of interest in tabletop gaming, I still find Imazine to be fine and readable. I also wish it to be known that Imagine is the first thing I have won in over a decade.
Robert Rees I liked the idea of ‘Zundering’; almost as good as ‘adequate’.
Tom Zunder Nice issue, best in a series of good ones. Good wodge of reviews. Layout... well if you must Bill Hoad must die Hiya Bill!
• Nobody zunders like the master...
Kociak aka Kitten As for the reviews in this issue, while I find their content both amusing and informative, I am somewhat surprised by the amount of space devoted to Dragon Fist, as it seems neither a seminal work nor a very major release (or a possible
'cult classic,' for that matter). I suppose the reason is its Oriental setting, which you seem to be quite fond of, but I would have still preferred a shorter rebuttal (as this was basically what it amounted to).
• Oh no – that wasn’t a rebuttal! By my standards it was pretty favourable. The main reason for its inclusion was the Asian setting. And the opportunity to discuss some general issues relating to this idea of publishing ‘culture’ games which appropriate elements of an Earth culture yet locate them in a fantasy setting.
Robert Rees I was deeply insulted by Matthew Pook’s insinuation that I actually read Imazine. Of course I don’t! Writing letters to Imazine is the job of my crack team of untrained drunken monkeys. The very idea! I do think that this is another competition time though. If anyone can answer Matthew’s question and my own pet vexation ‘Why do so many people called Robert write letters to Imazine?’ then I would be happy to chip in part of the prize. How about Lords of the Rising Sun by Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson?
• That, like most of the other Fabled Lands books, is apparently something of a collector’s item. Feel free to enter the competition if you like...
Jeff Diamond I am offended at your remarks regarding my alleged use of big breasted alien cat-girls to sell copies of my sci-fi rpg, Orbit. There are also some excellent ass shots inside the book.
• Jeff is issuing a more ‘professional’ edition of Orbit soon, and has released another game, so check out his web site at http://www.geocities.com/~allianceprime/
George Pletz All this heady talk about games and gaming has really started me to wondering how you run a game. Have you written about this and I just missed it? How one runs things is really indicative of what one wants from a game.
• If that’s the case then I apparently want interminable journeys from a game… I’m reluctant to write about how I run a game. I don’t think I’m very good at it, for starters. On balance I prefer being a player to being a ref, though
c o l l o q u y ▼ when a bunch of improvising players start bouncing things off each other in my games I might change my mind.
Robert Rees I liked the ‘immoral butcher’ tag, sums up your letter editing style to a tee. Didn’t Traveller have Mazon guns? I think they damaged the crew but not the ship by squirting overly complicated game design theories through the target’s intercom system.
Ashley Southcott I thought Imazine had died around February after its nonappearance, the reasons probably being uni work and efforts towards your forthcoming Masters thesis. It was thus a nice surprise to find it had merely gone into fandom’s no man’s land for a while. Incidentally, shouldn’t the Imagine guide have gone to Robert Rees as part of his hobby elite initiation kit? Having first looked at Puppetland when it came free with an old copy of Arcane it seems that John Tynes has come up with a genuinely novel idea – for a roleplaying game. I suspect it was never thought of as a potential boardgame, yet the subject matter might make for an entertaining one. Being disposable would you recommend it to newcomers precisely because it can be immediately picked up?
• Never having seen the H*gsh**d edition, I can’t really recommend it.
art & character George Pletz Most of the talk about gaming I have had in real-time life is more about how things went and how they can be improved. Never has it come done to someone saying too arty or not geeky enough. And to extend even further, no one has said there is not enough culture or ‘hey this doesn’t follow genre convention.’ All the players I’ve had, from good to poor, either grasped what was going on intuitively or didn’t. Much of rpg as I have played it and seen it played is an unspoken. When something is askew or missing, you know it. Sure I probably missed out on a lot of good insights but I learned as much from running something as I had from playing in other people’s games.
Robert Rees As a good post-modernist I am suspicious of art’s need for consumers to act as an audience. Art is one-way communication from artist to audience; the audience is often shack-
led to the role of consumer. That’s why I hate all the exhibition rules about no touching, no photographs, no fun – just admire the greatness of the elite. Roleplaying is a collaborative system in which you rightly point out the roles of creator and audience become hopelessly muddled until the distinction is almost irrelevant. I think the question is not so much is roleplaying art? As shouldn’t art be more like roleplaying? Bill Hoad’s suggestion that roleplaying has no right to bring raw emotion to the player’s seems daft to me. What is he suggesting? That rpgs introduce only rarefied emotion or no emotion at all? From the outset rpg have relied on the player having a strong emotional connection to their protagonist in the game. I might be able to agree that creating a game that has deliberately been structured to offend the players might be poor taste I cannot really agree that you have to set out to ‘disconnect’ the players from the game though. The latter seems pointless, if I were to play a game of CoC that genuinely had me feeling proxy fear through my character I wouldn’t call foul on the gm for introducing ‘raw emotion’ I would be more likely to congratulate the gm for running a great game. I couldn’t agree more that not all art is ‘one step removed’, perhaps that is true of well-known or familiar art where its status as ‘art’ precedes its content. Perhaps also true of abstract or abtruse art where the meaning of the piece takes time to unravel but there is far more art that connects on a visceral emotional level before acquiring an intellectual level. In the latter I would offer examples from Hurst, Chapman brothers, Goya, Otto Dix, Picasso; examples of the former Richard Long, Picasso (again – too prolific and varied for his own good), Warhol, Henry Moore. Straddling the divide Pollack, Vietnam photographers... what the fuck is this? Art Today? More generally music often connects purely on an emotional level and rarely on the intellectual level. Performance art ditto.
Kociak aka Kitten I'd like to point out to Robert Rees that it was Marcel Duchamp rather than Piet Mondrian who exhibited a urinal entitled ‘fountain.’
• Apparently this is Art Today. And why not?
Andy McBrien I thought I’d send some thoughts on different approaches to playing characters in roleplay. Our last session got quite heated which has lead me to thinking about this aspect of play. You could perhaps simplistically split the issue into two broad camps: those who play their characters such as to make what they say ‘in character’ sound like they (the player) really mean what they’re saying, i.e. when another char-
c o l l o q u y ▼ acter pisses them off they might call them ‘a fucking dickhead’, in other words say exactly what the player really would say if he was pissed off by someone. The other camp are those who play their character such as to make what they say ‘in character’ sound like they (the player) do not really mean it (though their characters do), i.e. the player makes it clear that they are just pretending in the situation being played. For example the player might call someone ‘a pointy-eared old-aged fairycake’, thus making it obvious that the sentiments expressed are not directed personally towards another player. As you might expect, I am very much of the former camp. From my experience the first approach compares to ‘method acting’, and the second only to ‘ham acting’ (given that roleplayers are usually crap actors). While in the ‘method’ approach you obviously will not be talking in the style of your character: this is sacrificed. But what is expressed is done so with conviction. All attention is concentrated on making it seem as real as possible. In the ‘ham’ approach, the player makes sure that nobody confuses the sentiments expressed for their character, with those of themselves. But he sacrifices some conviction in the way those things are expressed. The key thing about the method approach, I think, is that you are not trying to pretend to have particular feelings/emotions. You just express the feelings you have (as a player), assuming the conditions described for your character. This means that when another player ‘in character’ pisses you off, you (the player) get pissed off with them. If they haven’t pissed you off, you don’t try and roleplay/pretend that they have. Cutting the number of pretence elements of a game down to just those necessary for the needs of the game, is very much what I advocate in roleplay. Another example of this is excluding players from the room when their characters aren’t present, so the players don’t have to pretend they don’t know stuff that they do know. I suppose the method approach relies on the players having a certain amount of confidence in their roleplaying, so that when things do get really heated they are really enjoying it, rather than just getting really upset. I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m revising my attitudes to roleplay, one of the things I do is look back to my best roleplay experience as a player, when everything clicked. And use this as a sort of model to test whatever idea I’m thinking about. One of the chief elements of the example I go back to, is that although me and another player got completely pissed off with each other, instead of the roleplay suffering as a result of this, it sort of got pushed further than we had gone before. So we ended up basking in all the excitement instead of frustrated by our inability to roleplay. One of the really exciting things about it was the discovery that losing control was nothing to do with bad playing: in fact it was good playing. It was something to promote not something to avoid. But that’s not quite right. Losing control is a problem.
What I should have said is expressing emotions you feel as a player is not something to be avoided (and regarded as poor roleplaying) but is to be promoted. Provided they are the result of identifying with your character. If the player (as well as his character), is completely pissed off about something/someone it doesn’t mean the he’s lost control/isn’t roleplaying. It isn’t a problem. It’s good not bad! That’s what I meant. This makes it sound such an elementary matter and no doubt it’s completely obvious to very many players. But I think it is an issue worth highlighting because it’s not obvious to everyone. The really exciting discovery was that losing control is not a problem etc, etc... provided you keep roleplaying ‘in character’. What motivated me to write was not the idea to convert those who prefer the alternative (equally valid) approach to playing a character. What I was shooting at was the attitude that ‘if the player isn’t pretending then they aren’t roleplaying’ (and then are thought to be a problem). My own attitude (the immersive approach) is that the roleplay tends to be better the less a player is pretending. What I see as a problem are situations where players identify ‘out of character’ influences on the way a character is played and see this as not roleplaying. But I suggest it’s much more productive if it’s not reacted to as a problem even when non-character issues are obviously influencing how the character is being played. For example if John is pissed off because he had to go for the chips again and then plays his character pissed off, the other players can either suggest he’s not really playing his character, or they can accept that the character seems pissed off. It is of course better if outside influences don’t intrude so much on play (John is not roleplaying very well). But they inevitably do to some degree and it’s better to play with them rather than let play break down as a result of them. The most productive attitude is to avoid letting ‘out-of-character’ issues dominate the way you play your own character, but to accept that they will influence the way the other characters will be played, and that their emotions are valid whatever way they are played.
layout Sergio Mascarenhas I’ve read your column with interest, since this is one of my preferred old issues about rpg design. I must say that I agree with most of the points you raise. For instance, the idea of an introductory fast-play section is something that I think should be standard fare by now in rpgs. In a sense, I learned this with my first rpg, Runequest II boxed set which included the Basic Role Playing game booklet. This was a short, fast, wonderful way to introduce
c o l l o q u y ▼ a new player to the game. Yes, it had no setting or adventure, but it allowed one to understand the rules, and then just move on to more complex issues. The key thing is that, in order to do this, the whole game must be developed around a core set of basic concepts, instead of being an accumulation of disparate elements. Most companies seem to be heading in this direction anyway, at least to a certain extent, by providing free, rules-lite modules. A second aspect where I agree with you is the idea of a game book as a reference instrument. It seems that, as rpgs departed from their wargame and boardgame roots, they also departed from some basic game design rules that great wargames and boardgames seem never to forget. One of the things that was lost is the notion of scalability. Many boardgames and wargames have scalable rules: Both rules and scenarios are organized according to complexity and depth, so that the player learns to play while playing, each step leading to new rules and new scenarios that apply those new rules (while the players can re-play the scenarios in the previous steps with the new rules, and get new twists in their gaming experience). I think that rpg rules should follow this example, and be organized according level of complexity/depth; and that any scenario should be playable at any level of the rules. This means that players can do two things: learn the rules step by step, alternating rules acquisition with playing; decide at which level they want to play. So, we may have two players playing fighters where player decides that he wants to play combat the basic level, while the other player wants to play combat at the advanced level. Or a player may want to play combat at the basic level, magic at the advanced level, and social interaction at the intermediate level; another player wants to play combat at the advanced level, no magic, but alchemy at the intermediate level, and social interaction at the basic level. One of the problems with rule book design is that, when they undertook the ‘literary’ paradigm, they chose the wrong paradigm (novels and storytelling). I mean, this paradigm may be valid for actual play, but it’s completely wrong for game books. Game books should follow two other paradigms instead: one is the one you mentioned, reference books. This is useful for presenting rules and the system. The other is journalism writing. This is to be used for presenting setting material. Another thing that people writing rpg books should familiarize themselves with is the techniques for producing books intended for distance learning. After all, many players are distance learners: they buy a book, read it, and attempt to play without a tutor. (They may also learn with a playing group, but usually suffers from the fact that the focus is on playing right away, without taking time to learn how to play... unless the gm is also learning the game.) Finally, what I would like to see is a book that: 1. Presents setting information separate from system information. Of course, system information should be illustrated with situations that comply to the setting.
2. Organizes both setting information and system information in a simple-to-complex way. 3. Has two types of indexing: based on complexity vs. based on content. What I mean is, one may separate info by levels of complexity: In this case we have, first the simpler rules for all the different aspects of the game, next the intermediate rules, next the advanced rules. Or one may separate info by content: magic, combat, social interaction, etc. The ideal game will have both these types of indexing. This means that it will have pagination, tables of contents, and indexes based both on content, and based on complexity. Of course, the book as sold would be organized according to order of complexity, since this facilitates learning, but latter the player would be able to separate the pages of the book, and put them in a binder organized the way that suited his tastes (he may even separate the sections he knows he is not going to use). What’s more, this ability to separate different info would mean that, even if setting and system info would be separate (see 1 above), it could be alternated along the book, in order to facilitate the learning of these two components. Latter the owner of the book could organize it according to his tastes, either combining setting and system info, or separating it all together. I know that this can be hard to do, and involve difficult pagination issues, but I’m sure it can be done.
John Morrow Concerning your comments that: a ‘Better to have four sentences on a topic, which can be found very rapidly, than two pages which take time to find.’ b ‘What culture game requires is as much detail as is necessary for what’s happening, and no more.’ I think you are implying (but not explicitly clearly stating) a very important point for all role-playing settings. The material in a role-playing setting book should be relevant to what the players will be doing in the setting and should not focus on elements that no normal person would worry about. When someone gets off of a space ship onto a new world, they want to know what the weather is like. Instead, most space games leave the players and gm with planetary orbital distances from a primary star, all specified in exact detail. Player: What’s the weather like when I step off the ship?’ gm: Well, the planet is 1.1 au from a G0 primary with a 17 degree tilt and 2 moons and... Player: But is it hot or cold outside?
George Pletz As someone who recently ventured into game design (and decided to leave it to the professionals. House rules is one
c o l l o q u y ▼ thing, design another.), I found this article particularly insightful. Since I am not entirely familiar with some of the games mentioned, I, as a reformed gurpshead, have something to add. One of the interesting gimmicks about gurps is how they do this bait and switch manoeuvre on you. They try to sell you on this ‘your only limits are your mind’ and then proceed to sell a ton of supplements. In the end you are have a gurps library larger than your D&D library. How they got me had a lot to do with shoving ‘this is the only book you’ll ever need except...’ philosophy at every turn. (We won’t even get into how gurps is the ideal system for people who started out playing D&D but got sick of it.) I admit it, the idea of the one book system is up there with ‘these are guidelines not rules’ as a desired trait. Truth is that for gaming companies to make money, so says the conventional wisdom, is to get you hooked. How many one book one system games can you think of? One book systems are cult items not franchises. I detected a certain distaste for games which latch onto genre conventions. It is to be expected with your advocacy of ‘culture’ games. I can understand the frustration but the thing that is good about games like Feng Shui is that is more universal than so many so called generic rpgs. Sure you have to ignore the backstory but that is generally the way it is if you want to create a new thing opposed to play into a canon. Outlaws is more about a setting than a system? One of the many insightful ideas I have gotten from the new breed of games, indie and otherwise, is that rules and setting are linked. gurps and D&D are the same in that they are about shoehorning one into the other. A good system is fused to its setting. It seems to me that an ideal system is one that mirrors the world you want to play in. While this does show the universal idea to be bunk, the downside is that allows for the game world to be the ideal world for the busy and harried gamer. And that means money for the company. Not to get all anti-capitalist on you but one of the appeals of rpg is the inexpensive nature of the hobby. (And yes it has been made known to me how relatively cheap gaming is but then again there is movies books computers and living costs to account for. I couldn’t be that interesting a gamer without these things.) This rule and setting relation, in my mind, brings up, as it does in your article, the fiction element in game format. Maybe I am the only one on the planet but I wish there was less fiction in games. And this has nothing to do with quality, which is fair at best, but instead with the fact that gaming is different than fiction. Writing for a game is like writing for a weekly television not a novel. You have real people putting demands on you in a game. They have wants and needs! Game fiction perpetuates this idea that a gm tells players what to do and they do it. It is deceptive. I’d sooner read examples of play than stories. This dovetails with your idea of the example scenario which teaches mechanics and gets the player accustomed to play. And play is the thing. I don’t care how cool the system
seems in the reading it comes down to how it plays. The format of a rpg comes down to getting across how a game will play out. Demo-ing a game is the only ideal way to know if a game is going to fly or not and the format should focus on getting us to that point as swiftly and easily as possible. Which brings up an interesting problem. How to make a game that is interesting to the novice as well as the experienced gamer? And I am not sure if another cleverly written ‘what is roleplaying’ chapter is going to cut it. Much of this talk of explaining a system or game does more harm than good. It makes it seem unnatural when the ‘art’ of telling a story is actually one of the most natural things a society does. So how do we demystify the game to seem natural and not some sort of arcane divination or mathematical equation? To be honest I don’t know. Perhaps this is why roleplaying will be a fringe hobby. How do you tell people at large that anyone can be an actor or a writer? (if that’s even true...)
• Even though you managed to slip Laws’s Law into the middle of that comment, I will forgive you, George. Perhaps telling people at large that anyone can be an actor or a writer is the problem? We are constantly seeking to legitimise roleplaying by making analogies with other forms, as you do with t v , and as many others do with ‘storytelling’ or whatever. I can’t help feeling that the more we do this, the more we constrict our possibilities, and dilute the form. While it is no doubt true that ‘anyone’ can be an actor or a writer (usually a crap one), shouldn’t we rather be saying that anyone can be a roleplayer?
George Pletz I was looking over the New Outlaws New Layout article again the other day. I had an idea about layout. You were talking about trying to express background and mechanics in a measured holistic way. I detected a slightly disparaging tone on the use of colour and ‘fancy’ design tricks, so I am not sure of how any of these suggestions will go over. Couldn’t you do a split column page with one track being mechanics and the other track being setting? If not that what about opposing pages with every other page being the other track? ( ie Page one setting, Page two mechanics) It would make locating information a little easier. Maybe certain sections of the book could be in one of these styles every set number of pages. Well at least it is not as busy as overlays of colour coded boxes, the first idea I had. This of course should be in tandem with a good detailed index. Most games which have indexes read like the indexes found in the back of appliance manuals. Simply useless when it comes to the nitty gritty. Other aesthetics like rules briefs at strategic locations as well as easy on the eyes fonts also seem crucial. I can see that presentation of rules in an user-friendly pattern is key but, if the structure of the book were somehow symmetri-
c o l l o q u y ▼ cal, for lack of a better word, then the density of the material would be evenly distributed. My quick example of ‘informational density’ is First Edition dmg with all its information weighted at the centre with its not as dense intro and outro bits. Not that you’d noticed with that awful tiny print. Another element of this density is how you see the book in your head. Most rule hunts are not leisurely searches but mad by the seat of your pants dashes for pertinent information. Don’t you hate when you think you know where something is but it isn’t there where you thought it was? Finally running a game again , I am using highlighters, post it notes and a rule ‘cheat’. It is like an open book test where opening the book is a sign of defeat. Opening the book means the rules aren’t taking. A structure which could be grasped intuitively would go a long way towards welcoming people inside.
• After the fear and loathing I had to overcome before wading into the games I reviewed this issue, I find myself in total agreement with you. I want a rule book that is easy to read, but rarely read during a game.
Ashley Southcott Your comments on ‘getting people started’ are laudable, but I have yet to see a game which does this and still manages to contain enough about the setting to reveal how to play a character according to his place in that setting’s society. Take Pendragon. This goes to huge lengths to emphasise a character’s place in Arthurian society. Is this in part because its rules and background are interspersed? It doesn’t immediately spring to mind as a game which gets its players immersed in minutes in part because of its organisation. Ars Magica is another example that, in going all-out to emphasise the setting and pcs’ social positions in it, misses the chance to get players started immediately. I have no problem comparing boardgames and roleplaying games. When you buy a boardgame, the setting and the board layout are both explicit and immediate (well; they are on any game I’d spend my money on). The challenge therefore is to transfer this explicitness and immediacy to narrative games. Granted that boardgames impose a certain linearity on play, but a rules setup that insists on your going to jail and not passing Go isn’t a must. The artwork on a boardgame constitutes not just a selling point but also conveys a feel for the setting in which the game is set. I’m suggesting something similar for describing settings. I can live with short fictional pieces to ‘set the stage’ but this isn’t an ideal solution and doubtless unpopular with Colloquy’s regulars. Decent artwork for a game, and I don’t just mean industry-published games is one idea I’d like to bandy around, properly supported by rules on task resolution and combat (which are down to personal taste). I’m toying with the idea because good artwork allows you to get a feel of the setting without having to wade through 10-
point text. Participants’ different views on the setting viewed through the artwork are a possible conflict area, of course. If you’re really not looking at the rules much during Sengoku games, why gripe about its rules layout? It sounds very much like you’re merely adapting the game to your group’s style and referring to the rules whenever you’re uncomfortable with making a personal judgement. In transferring your ideas for teaching roleplaying onto paper, I think a minimalist rules preference (or at least a style where a minimum of rules in published systems are used) is now one taken by the majority of experienced gamers. Most games seek to encourage non-slavishness to their rules (funnily enough, unlike boardgames which rely on adherence to the rules to make them work). Going back to character generation, however, why bother with background in any detail? Old hands will probably say ‘because a character’s background helps explain his actions and define who he is’. Not necessarily. Insane characters’ actions are defined by their warped viewed of the world, which may derive from a freak event, e.g. falling into a snake pit or losing one’s family during an earthquake. It strikes me that defining a character closely is better done in play, since his actions in front of other characters in part contribute towards his definition. You can see this through npcs’ reactions in social situations, but I’m also thinking of other pcs’ reactions to a character’s behaviour within the party. A ‘discovery’ style of character generation merely serves to bolster design-in-play over design-at-start. Show me a socalled disposable rules setup that insists on defining a character’s past. I understand why the likes of C&S and Pendragon go to the lengths they do to define a character, but would argue that defining a character to the nth degree – particularly at the beginning – takes something away from the player’s freedom to play. You will correctly have spotted the magic concept ‘limitation’ (been there, discussed that). The length of time these systems take to complete detailed definitions is, of course, one of the reasons they remain very small niche games. I guess players of such games adapt those parts of lengthy cg systems they like and discard the rest – what was your reaction when you played Pendragon? As to your conclusion that a brief indexed set of notes on background is preferable to two or three chapters in a rulebook, this is all very well at the beginning, but sooner or later everyone’s going to want more. Conventional games respond to this with supplements; is this really a viable route for Outlaws?
• It’s been too long since I played Pendragon to have a clear recollection of my reaction, but I don’t honestly recall its character generation being overly long and detailed – not in the C&S league, for sure. The last point is dead easy – one of the reasons for basing Outlaws on the world rather than constructing some artificial simulacrum is so that the game’s ‘supplements’
c o l l o q u y ▼ will be the huge corpus of published material about China, a suitable selection of which appears in the Outlaws bibliography.
systems Robert Rees On ‘interesting results’: more thoughts, one thing that annoys me about a lot of combat systems is that they often involve a lot of mechanistic calculation to finally resolve the fact that someone has been hit for 1 hp damage. I think it’s okay to have involved systems providing they ramp up in complexity as the result becomes more critical. For example I don’t think any armour resolution should become involved unless it is actually going to save your life or offer the difference between being mauled or being able to continue another round. As a side issue as laptops and mini-computers (Palm tops) become more prevalent is it possible that complex statistical calculations can be hived off to machines that simply have the initial conditions entered in and then feed ‘critical moments’ to the gm for incorporation in the narrative? I think the problem with ‘gaming geeks’ (and this is purely a personal perspective) is that they see the game as being the alpha and omega of the gaming experience. It is the system that matters, the stats of the character and so on rather than the experience of the game itself. I think it must be rather liberating to have players that are not used to roleplaying but are willing to be open-minded and take the game for what it is rather than having to draw from the ‘corrupted’ pool of gaming geeks who enter the game determined to ‘win’ or build ‘kick ass characters’ rather than go with the game as it stands and see where it takes them. With these people I firmly side with Robert Irwin (after all us Imazine non-readers must stick together) I don’t know how to create a meaningful dialogue with these kinds of people. There is a mental block as they understand roleplaying to be the tangible – books, rules, dice – and I understand roleplaying to be the intangible – the resulting narrative. Then again maybe it’s just my poor social skills. One incident sticks in my mind though: I went to my local university gaming club intent on running a kind of sci-fi game with some home-grown rules based on fudge. I tried to interest people but no-one seemed that interested and they said they would rather play AD&D. I couldn’t get across the idea that the game wasn’t in the rules but in the scenario I was going to run. In many ways I thought I would have been better off with complete novices who would have accepted that there were some rules but that they were not wholly relevant and that the rules would work around the character concepts they came up with once they had heard the background. I think the failure to explain to get across the ‘point’ of the game and my failure to think of an alternative tack to
get the idea across have contributed in my inability to return to an organised gaming club and try to recruit more players. I just have the feeling that unless I say something like it’s set in then I’m not going to persuade people to give it a go. I have also noticed a certain amount of prejudice based on not using the ‘right’ rules for a setting. For example recently I have been running a Greyhawk campaign with the Runequest (Avalon Hill) system – even with my established players this seems to cause concern.
culture John Morrow In many articles on writing science fiction and fantasy, authors and editors say that you can only change so many things in a setting before it becomes impossible for people to keep track of all the changes and you should establish those changes early and quickly. Many suggest only one or two changes. Similarly, if you try to change too many cultural elements on a person playing the game, they will find it difficult to grasp any of them. If someone needs to become an expert on a culture before they role-play, it will be difficult to find players. And if even only the game master has to be an expert, it will still have only limited appeal. For better or worse, I think that when other people play Outlaws, they will probably drop out large hunks of authentic Chinese culture that they have trouble grasping and stick with the basics. Fiction and role-playing games are (once you get beyond the visceral mind-candy level) about exploring issues and events in a milieu that is clearer than reality. Since few people are experts at everything and since these media are limited by the failings of language to fully convey an experience, they work by emphasizing the dramatic and important. Why do so many science fiction and fantasy settings have mono-cultural races despite the fact that most 20th century Americans would be horrified by a non-fiction book that says ‘All blacks are X’ or ‘All Irish are Y’? Because identifying a culture with a race serves much the same purpose as putting a white had on the good guys and a black hat (or dark goatee moustache) on the bad guys. It removes the uncertainties and vagueness of reality and makes sure that everyone gets the same point the same way. Is it cheap and obvious? Yes. Does it have impact, though? Oh yes. The book The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham makes quite a few suggestions that are sure to annoy someone who doesn’t like cheap literary devices. Among them, he suggests don’t use real people in your story (Chapter 7), don’t have things happen for no reason (Chapter 10), and don’t worry about being obvious (Chapter 26). Those sections
c o l l o q u y ▼ (along with a few others) make the point that fiction isn’t reality and that you need to take liberties with reality for the fiction to seem worthwhile and even plausible to the reader. What may seem obvious or important to you when you are writing can easily be lost on a reader unless you hammer it home. What seems real or even is real can seem inauthentic or fake to a reader when presented on a written page. They might not get that the bad guy is evil to the core unless you have them kill one of their underlings or wear a black hat, even if you feel you are being too obvious. Otherwise, they might actually start sympathizing with the bad guy (as I often do on Star Trek: Voyager) because the bad guy has a valid point to make or an understandable motivation. In several science fiction writing books, they discuss the role of aliens. In short, most agree that if aliens are too alien, the readers will be unable to relate to them. But why have aliens at all? In many cases, the purpose of an alien is largely to take an element of humanity and amplify it to make it easier to explore. If I discuss race relations using real races, people are going to be influence by sympathy for their own race. If I move a race relations story into elves and dwarves, I don’t have to worry about people being too close to the issue to get the objective point. Remember that historical and non-Western cultures are more alien to modern Western thought. In his essay ‘Living
the Future: You Are What You Eat’, Gardner Dozois writes (while describing ‘Rome in space’ Star Trek), ‘The Roman Empire was vastly more complex, contradictory, surprising, and multifaceted than the simplistic version we get from television, movies, and bad historical novels. And the people who inhabited it were as different from any citizens of 2100ad are likely to be. In fact, the Old Egyptians and the Old Romans would be more alien to us than most authors’ Martians.’ While I’m not a fan of over-rating the similarities between rpgs and fiction, I do think there is a parallel here. And the parallel is that in order to get the effect you are looking for, you often need to emphasize things to an extreme, much in the way that stage make-up emphasizes facial features so that the person in Seat 19 ZZ can see the expression on a stage actors face during a scene without opera glasses. And you often need to simply things so that people won’t get lost in the details, much as a talking points list or outline can convey important points more quickly than an essay. It is a matter of compensating for the limited time and data transmission speed of language.
• All of which brings us to the end of another colloquy with plenty to chew on. While I can’t promise the next issue any time soon, I do imagine it won’t be as late as this one. If it is, I’ve probably folded.
▼ Lingua Fruppa places (see below). Depending on your gaming style you might or might not value immersion in the imaginary world you are playing in. If, like myself, you do value immersion, then verisimilar character and place names are paramount for the gaming experience. For games who are not featuring a well-developed background (ie not Tolkien’s Middle Earth), the burden is on the referee. The first step is setting up a limitation in sound patterns for any given language or culture of the game world. In the real world, for instance, if you meet someone called Arnaldo or Roberto, you’ll guess he’s from Southern Europe or Latin America by the very sound of his name: lots of vowels, and liquid consonant clusters. This can be achieved in an easier way if the referee has already devised a phonetic alphabet for each language/culture of his world (see previous paragraph) – he’ll have a pool of phonemes to draw from to create names, and this step then is limited to creating rules as to how names are built (e.g. no names shall end with a consonant, or all male names shall end with an -a). The second step is deciding how people are named in each culture. In the real world, for instance, most Europeans have a name and a surname. Americans love the additional middle name (or initial), whereas Russians have a patronymic. Arabs may go by a variety of names, and even change their name in the course of their lifespan to reflect an important event (the birth of a male child). Most Asians also have a sur-
name and a name (in this order), the surname being used more frequently than the name. Primitive cultures tend to use a given name only: in a village of sixty, that is usually enough. They still can resort to a variety of tricks to show family ties (e.g. all names in a given family might begin with the same sound). The third step is creating place names. The difference with the previous step is that this one is for ‘internal’ use by the referee, it is not aimed at players. As explained in the first half of this article, place names do have a meaning, even if it may be lost to contemporary people. The system I use for my own campaign is as follows: just as with character names, I devise a few patterns or rule for word creation. Then I draw up a list of the most common words for each language (colours, terrain, numbers). I then create place names randomly or on sound combinations I like. Most place names would be the equivalent of ‘big stone’, ‘John’s farm’, etc. To reflect the passing of time, some territories are given place names of a dead or lost language; some others are applied known linguistic transformation rules (d’s become th’s, t’s become ts’s, whatever). Again to keep verisimilitude and consistency the referee must always apply the same set of transformation rules to a given territory/language culture. If you end up with names that do not look like anything familiar from fantasy literature or frpgs, it might well mean that you were successful. *
Brilliance & Dross in RPG
A RT W O R K ears ago i saw a small gallery exhibit of pulp magazine art from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. As I looked over the paintings, and admired their power and imaginativeness, I thought of the art in roleplaying games. Decades from now, when we’re all dead or doddering, will rolegame artwork hang on gallery walls? Will future generations admire it, and marvel at the genius of our work, and wonder why we never appreciated it at the time? Or will rolegames gather dust in musty attics, to be regarded as little more than period curiosities? I hope rolegames will be cherished and admired long after the campaigns have ended and the rolegame ‘industry’ is mouldering in the grave. But this will only happen if people who never play the games can appreciate our work. The long-term prestige of our hobby may depend largely on the books and magazines we leave behind, and their capacity to fascinate or entertain a non-gaming audience. Two factors are of critical importance: the quality of their prose, and the quality of their artwork. In this article, I’m going to look at the artwork in roleplaying games.
pabulum and professionalism Like most roleplayers, I think the majority of rolegame artwork is crap. On the other hand, and again like most
by Matt Stevens
The Cthulhoid unpleasantness of Erol Otus (top) meets the authentic pulp nastiness of M A R Barker’s Tékumel (bottom)
roleplayers, I think at least some rolegame illustrations are fairly good. But when we get down to cases and try to separate the best work from the shit, I find I often disagree with many roleplayers. Most rolegamers, it seems, judge artwork on the basis of its realism and professionalism. They condemn the amateurish scribbling of the early rolegames, comparing them unfavourably to the slick colour prints of today. I’m not sure that rolegame artwork is getting any better – in some ways, I’d say it’s actually getting worse. The problem isn’t the skill of the artists, which has improved greatly over the past 25 years. Unfortunately, professionalism alone isn’t going to produce great works of art, and we have to recognize that if we want to promote greatness in the future. We could argue for months over what makes a ‘great piece of art’ great. But for the sake of argument, I’ll say that a great piece of artwork intrigues the spectator. It should catch her attention, fascinate her, show something she never saw before. This ‘something’ can be an unusual subject, something fantastic or surreal. It can also be a strange juxtaposition of commonplace objects, or mundane things portrayed in unusual ways. It can even refer to a perplexing expression, a look that resists easy interpretation. A great piece of art should provoke interesting questions, without providing simple answers to them. I don’t know if there’s been any truly
brilliance & dross
All technique and no soul: Todd Lockwood’s ‘Tordek’ from 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons
▼ ‘great’ roleplaying art, but some of it has been strikingly inventive, even if the vast majority has been bland and unimaginative. The problem, unfortunately, is that as roleplaying artists have become more professional, and the industry has grown more commercially savvy, bland, corporate pabulum is becoming even more prominent than it used to be. It’s important for us to recognize that much of today’s rolegame art is worse than bad. It’s ordinary. The quality of draftsmanship has improved mightily since the late 1970s. Clearly, there are lots of people in the industry who know how to draw. This makes it all the more tragic when they produce work of little or no value. Take the artwork in 3rd edition D&D Player’s Handbook – please. An illustration by Todd Lockwood is reproduced above. It’s a picture of a dwarf with an axe, a shield, a bow and a shitload of armour. This dwarf is given a name, ‘Tordek,’ but it’s unclear why he’s different from the thousands we’ve seen elsewhere, from Lord of the Rings calendars to DragonLance paperback covers. He’s a generic short, stocky guy with a beard. So what? Wizards of the Coast spent thou-
sands to give us a Player’s Handbook with full-colour illustrations of Tordek and his fun-loving friends, but it’s unclear what, if anything, we’re supposed to get from them. Todd Lockwood obviously knows how to paint the human figure. His draftsmanship compares favourably to an old tsr artist like Darlene Pakul, who drew that notorious bat-winged succubus in the first Dungeon Master’s Guide. But Darlene’s plump, cowering demoness titillated thousands of teenage boys. ‘Tordek’ will never titillate anyone. You could replace his portrait with a photo of a tractor or a piece of cabbage and no one would notice the difference. I could fill this entire issue with mediocre art from two generations of roleplaying games, and heap scorn and abuse on every wasted artistic opportunity. It would be far better, though, to point out the best published work, and give well-deserved praise to artists who transcend the ordinariness of so much fantasy art. In the next few pages, I’ll point to some of the work I respect, and suggest some paths we might pursue in the future.
transcending naturalism You’ll almost never see rolegame artwork that transcends a rigid naturalism. We may talk about creating a ‘new art form,’ but our art is decidedly reactionary. We act as if the 20th century – or hell, even the late 19th – never took place. It’s too bad. While one could make an argument for naturalism in rolegame art – one could say it helps make the fantastic seem real, a vital role in a roleplaying product – one could also argue that naturalism can never completely mirror the worlds of our imagination, and a freer approach may be more evocative of other worlds and other cultures. At the very least, in our efforts to evoke alternate realities, we should draw upon whatever sources of inspiration we can find. By ignoring all Western art after 1850 (not to mention the indigenous traditions of Africa and the Americas), we’ve cut ourselves off
from a huge visual vocabulary. Those who transcend the limits of naturalism should be commended for broadening artistic possibilities. Some of the earliest art in roleplaying games was more inventive in this respect. Consider Erol Otus for example, an old favourite of mine. His work was crude, sometimes even revolting, and I would never claim that he was consciously attempting to ‘transcend naturalism.’ He probably couldn’t have penned a ‘realistic’ work if he wanted to, his technique was far too primitive. Still, I find that many Otus drawings catch my attention, and stick in my mind far longer than other early rolegame artists do. His style evokes the exotic and the macabre in a way that few other artists can match. His depictions of the Cthulhu Mythos in Deities and Demigods (see previous page) fascinated me far more than the much more professional illustrations in the Call of Cthulhu rulebooks, and I believe it’s because his folk-art grotesqueries suited the Mythos far better than later naturalistic works. Another early rolegame artist who deserves a mention is Professor M A R Barker, the visionary behind the world of Tékumel. I’m not particularly fond of Barker’s later work, in Swords and Glory for example, which are often little more than pin-ups of topless babes, rendered in a dull naturalist style. His more ambitious works in Empire of the Petal Throne, however, deserve lavish praise. Check out the illustration on the previous page. You might respond with knee-jerk hostility to the naked woman in the corner, but it shouldn’t blind you to the power of the work. The masks, which seem to float in the darkness, are an imaginative touch, and there is a palatable sense of horror and dread to the scene. It’s unfortunate that so little work in today’s rolegames can match the power and imagination of this primitive, 25-year old sketch. Luckily, there are a few artists today who transcend the limitations of naturalism, and it’s clear that this is a conscious choice on their part, not just a product of limited skill. Dan Smith is one artist who should be familiar to all
brilliance & dross and dread. Weber opens the window to a sinister alternate reality, one overcome with darkness and decay, but also with a striking, eerie beauty. She shows us how a well non-naturalistic style can evoke a fantastic world and make it real. I haven’t seen as much of Amy Weber as I’d like to – she’s only credited with three vision cards in my Everway box. Based on the work I’ve seen, though, I’d say she’s perhaps the most talented artist in role-playing games today. I sincerely hope we get to see much more from her in the future.
evoking other worlds Dan Smith’s monochromatic moodiness (above). Everway atmospheres from Amy Weber (above right). Feng Shui action depicted with fauvist tendencies by Aaron Boyd (right).
▼ of us. You can find his work in just about any recent gurps product, and in my opinion he deserves all of the work he gets and more. As you can see, in the illo above, Smith uses strong blackand-white contrasts to great effect. He’s also one of the only rolegame artists who combines collages of photo-realistic images with pure abstract design. Smith’s style, unique and easily recognizable, hip and ironic yet unsettling all the same, contrasts favourably to too many artists in the industry, who produce works of cookie-cutter sameness. I look forward to seeing more from him. While Dan Smith’s work can be found all over the place, other artists worth noting are harder to find. As far as I know, Aaron Boyd has only been published in Daedalus’s game Feng Shui; I don’t even believe his work was reprinted in the Atlas edition of the game. Considering that the Atlas edition has only black-and-white illustrations, though, this was probably for the best, because Boyd’s trademark is a loose technique with an inventive use of colour. Boyd appears to be one of the
few conscious modernists in the industry. His style is clearly inspired by Cezanne, and possibly the Fauves as well. I look forward to seeing his work elsewhere. Another artist who deserves fulsome praise is Amy Weber. Like Aaron Boyd, she hasn’t had much work in the industry. I’ve only seen her illustrations in Everway’s ‘vision cards,’ one of which is reproduced above. If Cezanne inspired Aaron Boyd, Weber seems to take her cue from Marc Chagall. But while Chagall painted blissful allegories of his Russian childhood, Weber’s images seem inspired by nightmares
Good work can be done in a naturalist style, but it requires more than just the ability to draw realistically. Most rolegame artwork is mediocre not because it’s naturalistic, but because its subject matter is dull. That portrait of ‘Tordek’ (previous page) is typical: Someone posing with his weapons. Just about every rolegame illustration is either (a) a portrait of someone with a weapon, or (b) a combat scene. Thank the Gods for creature catalogues and monster manuals, because they’re the only reliable sources of imaginative artwork in the field today. Still, some artists do good work in a naturalist style. What sets them apart is not their naturalism per se, put their skill in composition. Consider Jim Halloway. His figures are crudely drawn, but I think he’s better than at least 80% of today’s rolegame artists. What sets him apart is his imagination, his sense of humour and (again) his talent for composition, all of which are clear in his illustration for Gangbusters. Another genuine talent is Stephen Fabian, like Halloway a frequent contributor to tsr products. Fabian is one of the few rolegame artists who seems comfortable with landscapes. You would think landscapes would be a natural subject for fantasy rolegames, but most artists, sadly, would rather draw half-naked barbarians pounding orcs into oatmeal. Fabian’s paintings, dreamy and imaginative, show us what rolegame illustrations can do: they can
brilliance & dross Fabian, works largely in landscapes, but he also seems comfortable with scenes of everyday life – as in the illo on the left, a depiction of peasants in the fields. (A refreshing change from the usual sword fights, gun-battles and Fireball spells.) As the illustration shows, unusual perspective is an O’Connor trademark – most rolegame action scenes are strictly eye-level affairs. O’Connor makes peasants in a field look impressive, while his competitors draw the Battle for Algiers and make it as exciting as Madison, Connecticut on a Sunday afternoon.
new ways of seeing What distinguishes the best rolegame artists from the mediocre ones? If you could summarize the difference in one word, it’s imagination. The good ones show us things we never saw before, while the hacks churn out the same stuff over and over again. Luckily, imagination isn’t an inherited trait, like eye colour or blood type – it’s something that can be developed through experience. I think most artists in the field can produce good or even great works. They have the technical skill; they just need the courage to experiment with new ways of seeing. Only by doing so can they produce artwork that will be admired by future generations. *
Peasants in a field brought to life by Walter O’Connor (top), Gangbuster wildness from Jim Halloway (centre), and plane but farfrom-plain landscapery from Stephen Fabian (bottom).
▼ evoke other worlds and make them real. The illustration above, from the Manual of the Planes, is a good example of his work. Walter O’Connor is another artist who deserves praise. O’Connor, like