Monthly Archives: September 2014
It has never been said that gamers are a healthy lot, overall. One needs only look at the stereotypes, with their bags of chips and two liters of soda to reinforce this notion. Or worse, go to a regional convention, where the vendors advertise ‘Gamer Sizes (3X+)’ and the venues can accommodate double-wide wheelchairs. There’s a certain logic to it, given that the more cerebral aspects of gaming are typically at odds with people who go out for sports in high school or make sure that they never miss their morning jog. And often the stereotypical game sessions run late, evincing the need for sugary, caffeinated sodas in fairly high quantities.
This is an awful lot of generalization, I grant, and there are plenty of people that I’ve gamed with who manage to keep from descending into pure and horrible stereotype. (If I’m being honest, I’ve managed to avoid gaming with too many people who are truly fat and slovenly, and I’m not sure exactly why. It could be that the type of gamer that most lives up to the stereotype are the kinds that I would rather avoid. Mayhaps, I am simply a narrow minded and pretentious sort. It’s hard to say.)
The standard outlook on gamer food is that a six hour (or more) gaming session is going to run long enough that people are going to get hungry sometime during play, and whatever steps are taken to remedy this should minimize an interruption of the game. The easiest way around this tends to be packaged food and beverage, which lands us firmly at the ‘Funyuns & Mountain Dew’ aspect of gamer culture. I’ve pretended that my main staple of chips and salsa is slightly healthier, but there’s not as much difference as I would tend to like to have.
In the past, different groups have made the attempt to undertake an actual meal together beforehand, which can kill up to an hour or more before the game starts. By the time you’ve decided on a place to eat, gotten a table (there’s never been much call to go for fast food before gaming in the different groups I’ve been a part of, for whatever reason), been served, eaten and returned; there’s a good chunk of time taken away from the session allotment. It’s not a bad solution, all things being equal, as everyone is guaranteed to have an adequate energy level for the upcoming session and it’s a step above the average junk food that might otherwise be available.
Or at least, it’s supposed to be. Prepared food, much like processed food, can leave a lot to be desired, depending. Not a lot of gamers that I know have a great deal of disposable income, so better quality meals may be up to debate. While I haven’t been subject to just running down to the local Taco Bell, I have to assume that there is a solid percentage of people that are willing to go to that extent. Besides which, my gaming group is solidly American, which means that any given restaurant meal could comprise over half a day’s requirement of calories and a good portion of the week’s sodium.
Naturally, there were some amazing options while I was living abroad, but that’s pretty much to be expected. I was living in an extremely cosmopolitan city, with the expected array of domestic and international cuisine as options. Even then, I knew people who would use the excuse of gaming and eating out to seek out the comfort foods that they couldn’t get otherwise. It was always a trip to see the Canadian guys show up with an order of takeout poutine that they found at a stall in the bus terminal.
The next logical option is to order food in. The logic here is that there isn’t any time wasted seeking food at some outside venue, and the delivery food can be eaten wherever the game is taken place. My experience has mainly come in the form of pizza or subs, but I’m sure that more civilized or urban-centered gamers could avail themselves of anything that could be couriered in from outside. The same problems apply with the nutritive value of American food that I alluded to previously, as they’re coming from the same general range of restaurants.
The final option, of course, would be to cook on-site wherever you’re gaming. This is the most generally rare version, to my personal experience, for whatever reason. In some cases, it’s because you’re at a public place, like a games shop or a library. In others, it’s because no one can agree on what sort of food would work for everyone’s palate. (So, going back to the pizza thing … I’ve found that, no matter the group, there always has to be two pizzas in a given order, since it’s rare to get everyone to agree on even that. Americans are sorta weird.) Elsewise, it’s because the gamers that I’ve run with don’t tend to be great cooks, overall. There are particular exceptions, but even then, the ones that can cook are pretty unlikely to please all palates. The quick and easy example of this was one of my good friends, who would make a point to cook up some amazing curry on occasioned sessions. There would always be one person who couldn’t handle the heat of this and would sullenly be sitting around with a takeout sub while the rest of us tore the holy hell out of our collective digestive systems.
The upshot of all this is that there tends to be a disconnect between the imagination that fuels the very hobby that we’re talking about and the amount of thought that goes into fueling ourselves while engaging in the hobby. I’ve lived on both ends of the spectrum of nutritional choices, spending my adolescence with soft drinks and bags of chips (and in one very weird incident, several dozen jelly-filled donuts that were to be divided between a mere handful of people) and slowly becoming a relatively fastidious consumer as I got older. I know that there are enough others like me, but stereotypes exist for a reason. There are still plenty of people that fall back to old habits when they sit down to throw dice. (If it weren’t for the weird influences of one of my regular groups, I’d probably down an unhealthy amount of canned soda at every single gaming session. As it is, there’s still too much Coke in my diet, albeit far less than it might otherwise be.)
While events conspired to keep us away from Star Wars last week, what with bizarre work schedules (one of the players had to be to work at 2:00am, being as his co-workers wanted to be out at noon on Saturday) and a gaming convention that another was traveling to, this week fell together nicely.
I’ve been putting together a campaign in broad strokes thus far, pulling details from some canned modules in order to give my players a feel for the worldset and the dice mechanics before we drop into the larger aspects of a metaplot. I’d read through a lot of the details of the various adventures from the different fora, lighting on a workable plot structure to hang the adventure from in the mean time. Since I’d played some of the different adventures as a player, I wasn’t interested in trying to run these same events for new players. (This is mainly because I had my own impressions and allegiances to the characters within, and running different characters through the places I had memories of seemed a bit … odd.) Right now, they’ve gotten about half-way through the third module and are gearing up for the final battle at the main villain’s base. It’s not a terribly complex module.
This adventure starts with the characters arriving on planet for whatever reason. I had short-cut the hook to force them to seek out the main conflict as part of their assignment, so it was no particular surprise when they found their main contact dead in an alley.
This was an element that annoyed me when I read the adventure originally, and as I was to find out, it annoyed my players in much the same way. The plot hook takes the form of broken and dying protocol droid that they find in an alley at the spaceport. The way the module’s written, this is something of a chance encounter which solidifies the main plot for the characters and brings them into the larger intrigues. For my purposes, it was one of the two droids that the characters were originally sent to make contact with.
As an aside, the plot has been coming together as such: In the first module, Under a Black Sun, the characters work for a syndicate that’s looking for a courier that betrayed them. This established the working relationship that I wanted to build out from there. The second module, Debts to Pay, sent them to a mining complex that their employer needed an update from. Being the only real colonization on the planet, I figured that the oridium was valuable enough that their criminal overlords would want a discreet way of moving it to a larger trading hub. This put them on the trail of a new astrogation route to facilitate the transfer. That’s where they show up in Trouble Brewing, as they’re looking for the droid that has the information they need.
It ends up being a little weird that the droid in question is an agromech droid, given that he’s got an extremely complex astrogation processor for a farm droid, but that’s weirdly nitpicky and well outside the threshold of care for most.
So anyway, they find this droid dying in an alley. The way the module is written, there is literally nothing that they can do to save the droid. He gasps out his message and expires on the spot. This is pretty annoying when it’s done with an NPC that the characters would otherwise try to save (Aerith from Final Fantasy comes to mind), but it’s even worse when it’s a mechanical being that logically shouldn’t have any volatile memory (think about how badly munged up C-3PO was in Empire). I tried to handwave it with broken memory chips and fading power supply, but I was greeted with a whole lot of annoyance about not being able to salvage the core workings and keep the droid intact.
More than likely, I shall retcon this particular detail so that they can bring the droid back to original function. It was a bit of a stupid element in the first place, and even I couldn’t make a good enough case that it made sense as I was trying to run the damned thing. I probably should have stuck with my original instincts and let the droid live.
There were a couple of random encounters to offer flavor to the spaceport of Formos, which were interesting and went a long way to give a sense to things. What I found interesting was that one of the players lit on the idea of the planet being strikingly similar to Pandora from Borderlands 1 & 2. I couldn’t refute it, being that it was a dusty and inhospitable sort of place filled with spacers, criminals and psychopaths. And given that I may end up basing a lot more adventures on the planet as they set up shop, I can use the references to my advantage.
I did leave out a couple of things from the original text. In much the same way that every adventure wanted to refer back to Hutts, there are an awful lot of references to Toydarians in these modules. I have a great antipathy to any mention of Toydarians (the race that Watto belonged to in the abominable prequels), if only because they’re such a horribly racist portrayal. The same goes for Nemoidians and Gungans. Only Jawas are spared editing, simply because it’s comparatively subtle. Otherwise, there’s the notation that the spaceport lies near Kessel, and my experience of the Kevin J. Anderson novels are enough for me to want to avoid dealing with the rat’s nest that are the spice mines. (And the spice that comes from there is a lot more generic, rather than Anderson’s ham-handed attempt to bring the spice melange into Star Wars canon.)
Eventually, the characters find their way to the main cantina. There commenced an unnecessary amount of nattering about the nature of musical instruments in the Star Wars universe, none of which had any relevance to the plot. Such is the nature of my group, where they get caught up in minutiae at points. They talked briefly to an information broker, dealt with a couple of social encounters and chose to trail some smugglers back to their nearby base on suspicion of being connected to the larger plot. When their distrusts were borne out, they casually walked in and outright killed the biggest, meanest guy in the room.
Weird and anti-climactic moments are becoming part and parcel of the Wookiee’s methodology. Before they had gotten to the planet, the Wookiee had decided to upgrade his vibroaxe, giving it a serrated, monomolecular blade. This had the effect of combining nicely with its extant stats to reduce its threshold for critical hits to next to nothing and boost up the potential critical damage greatly. In practical terms, it meant that almost any successful hit was going to guarantee a critical hit, and it would be brutal in its application.
For Edge of the Empire, the Critical Hit table ranges to 150%, necessitating a percentile roll to determine severity. It is technically the only way that a character can outright die. Without modification, that means that a normal range only will bring you to 100%, which is serious but otherwise non-fatal wound. With his talents and modifications, the Wookiee was already sitting at a solid boost of +50% to any roll on the chart. And EotE has a rule that states if you trigger multiple crits, these just add further percentage boosts. With all of this in place, the final roll topped out the chart, triggering an instant kill on the spot.
This is not to say that a Wookiee with a cyberarm wouldn’t have killed the gang leader outright. It’s just notable that I never had to bother, since the Critical Hit was enough to drop him on the spot. And all of this happened before any of the assembled gang members could react. A seven foot tall mass of rage and fur walks into the room, decapitates their leader and calmly informs them which side their bread was buttered on. I couldn’t imagine that any of the assembled goons were suicidal enough to try putting up a fight as a result of this. They gave up without a fight, and the session ended roughly there, with the raid on the main smuggler base being set up for the next session.
What did I take away from this session?
Well, I have to admit that even if I think I can sell a stupid idea to my players, such as the irrevocably dead protocol droid, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Odds are, if I think it’s stupid when I originally read it, it’s probably pretty stupid when I try to make it happen in the game. Having the droid end up dead served no purpose for the sake of the story, so there wasn’t any reason to keep the players from being able to work their mojo and save its life.
Oddly, I think that may have annoyed my players enough that they just wanted to beat something in response. Where last session, they were fairly willing to do things intelligently, there was a greater tendency to want to bring the noise this time. (See previous notation on the dead gang leader as an example.) They had debated murdering the rest of the assembled gang members, until it was pointed out that the local Imperials might be willing to do something with them.
Finally, equipment continues to be the most important part of the game, trumping most things like skills or talents. The Wookiee’s vibroaxe made extremely short work of the one NPC, and there wasn’t anything I could throw out to slow that train down. Not that this is a surprise to me, mind you. My Selonian Bounty Hunter had a similarly tricked out weapon near the end as well, but I ended up using it sparingly. Between that and her heavily modified gun, there wasn’t much that I couldn’t bring down with enough concentrated fire and a little bit of luck. Sure, my Smuggler could talk the ears off a Gundark, but if shit properly hit the fan, the Selonian’s weapon load-out was brutal enough to back it up. The same thing was true of their ship-based weaponry. (Which also pointed to how important Attributes end up being alongside a properly built set of gear. But that’s a discussion for another time entirely.)
All in all, things go well. The next session will bring the end of the current module, and once that’s out of the way, I’m likely going to have to launch into unknown territory. I have a number of ideas in mind, but it’s going to hinge on what sort of direction the players themselves take. We’ll see what happens.
I learned something new this last week. (Okay, I learned several things, but for the purposes here…) Apparently, one of my game designer friends was first introduced to role-playing through an Adventure Game Book his mother bought for him at the age of seven. This caught me off guard simply because, over all the years I’ve known this particular designer, I’d never heard anything about this. It’s an interesting coincidence, as I have collected several of the same series and used them to introduce non-gamers to the hobby.
Adventure Game Books were an interesting facet of the mid-80’s, starting off with the Choose Your Own Adventure novels of the period, which were then adapted by TSR with the Endless Quest books, using elements of their own properties, but keeping to the formula of the CYOA series. There were also the Fighting Fantasy books, by Steve Jackson (the UK guy) and Ian Livingstone (both of whom are better known for founding Games Workshop) and the Hero’s Challenge series, written by Gary Gygax and Flint Dille. The latter two were more clearly influenced by the RPG hobby industry, requiring more of a formalized character sheet and occasional dice rolls. For most people, the Fighting Fantasy and Hero’s Challenge books are strange ephemera of the early days of the industry, probably best left forgotten. (Until looking it up, I had only the barest recollection of Hero’s Challenge, and I couldn’t have come up with the protagonist’s name for the life of me. This is despite having read through at least half of the series. It’s Sagard, by the way. Not that anyone was particularly interested.)
As far as I can tell, many of the properties faded out by the end of the 90’s, likely replaced by computer games of similar ilk. If nothing else, this obviated the ability to skip ahead to see which choice in the forked path would get you instantly killed. (Looking back, these books were intriguingly deadly, with roughly half of the choices in the book seeming to end in immediate murder due to faulty logic or particularly well-informed antagonists.)
For their part, many of these novel/RPG hybrids were passable, but I can’t say that they were fantastic. I always felt that Endless Quest books were much better than Choose Your Own Adventure, but for the most part, there was nothing terribly inspiring in the more RPG-driven entries in the field.
Well, with one exception.
The series in question is the Lone Wolf series, by the British author, Joe Dever. I found a copy of the third book in the series in a bookshop when I was in middle school, and I was fascinated. There was something particularly weird in its sensibilities, a sort of … Britishness … that filtered through the text and the baroque artwork. It wouldn’t be until years later that I found odd echoes in Games Workshop products. And I’ll be damned if I can adequately describe how it was different. It just felt foreign, for whatever reason.
The idea behind the Lone Wolf series was that the novels’ protagonist was the last of the Kai Monks, an order of mystic warriors whose order was devoted to protecting the vaguely idyllic land of Sommerlund. (I find it interesting, as I’m composing this, how much of the series I still remember all these years later. Like I say, I couldn’t have pulled out the name of Sagard the Barbarian had my life depended on it. I do remember that he fought a hydra in one of the books, though.) Naturally, there was an unreasoning and vile empire in the Darklands that sought to destroy Sommerlund, its armies of Giaks and Helghasts providing the main foes through the early part of the series.
What I still love about the series is that, as the books progress, you continue to advance your character. Granted, if you started the series partway through (as I did before I found the other, earlier books), you can artificially level up the character as needed, but there was a sense of real accomplishment and history to Lone Wolf as the series went along. You would start with a couple of low level skills and powers, but as you made your way through the books, more and greater abilities began to manifest, adding to the experience as things progressed. You actually had a character sheet in the back of the book, and it reflected the choices that were made along the way.
A few years back, Mongoose took a stab at building a full RPG out of the novels, converting it to D20 along the way. (The game books were essentially D10-based. It had a weird system where a page at the end of the book was gridded out, and you closed your eyes to stab randomly at the grid. This was the default way of generating numbers for combat and the like.) Only about five books had been produced for it, and eventually Mongoose lost the license.
Which brings us to the present time. The Kickstarter for the new version of the game just concluded, raising a little over four times its original goal. (At some point, I may think about writing about a game that’s still in its funding period, but this isn’t where I’m going to start with such ambitions.) From what I’m to read, Joe Dever has a much greater role in the development of this version, and the rules are being developed out by some members of Cubicle 7, the same people that have brought us the latest iteration of the Doctor Who RPG.
Digression: As well as a score of truly amazing games that I honestly don’t have the money to get into. This would also include Qin – The Warring States, The One Ring, The Laundry, Rocket Age and World War Cthulhu. There isn’t a one of these games I wouldn’t love to add to my Library, but it’s a matter of money. (And the fact that they seem intent on trying to break my budget with the constant stream of Doctor Who RPG books on each separate Doctor.)
I picked up another one of their games, Kuro, a while back, and my desire to run that game borders on the obsessive. Japan and Horror and Cyberpunk? Why, only if you ask nicely. It’s so delicately tailored to my interests as to be a bit creepy at times. It was bad enough that Shadows of Esteren was keyed so closely into my particular tastes, but this makes me wonder who exactly is sitting outside my window at night, taking notes on the sorts of games I need made.
Finishing out over $100K, the Kickstarter built in some fantastic stretch goals and assorted goodies for the backers to throw money at. There were dice and coins, naturally, as these seem to have become standard fare in most current RPG Kickstarters (Q Workshop and Campaign Coins are making out like thieves these days, given that I’ve seen this on other campaigns), but they also offered up enameled tokens for a random number system (likely similar to the original game books) and cloaks for cos-playing purposes. I’m honestly fascinated by the idea of Official Kai Master Cloaks, but not enough to throw nigh on $200 at the concept. I have to think that there were several cloak orders, nonetheless.
There were also maps, running something like $20 for a set of four, but I had the feeling that they were going to be fairly small (seeing as they were printed on cardstock) and passed accordingly. And like Esteren, they also made a point of putting together a soundtrack for the game as well.
The most interesting bit was the Kickstarter exclusive setting book, which built out an as-yet unseen town designed by Cubicle 7 for the new edition. This ended up being bound into a book that was available as another add-on, bumped up to 128 pages and hardcover by the level of pledges. Had they raised another $10K, it would have ended up in color, as would the canned campaign that’s being shipped with the boxed set.
I look forward to seeing what the end result is. Cube 7’s done well by me thus far, in terms of Doctor Who and Kuro, and it’s honestly only financial considerations that have kept me from investing more heavily in their stock. As well, my experiences with The One Ring have been overwhelmingly positive (although, I think I’m more inclined to run a game of Ryuutama, if I were inclined to delve as deeply into journey mechanics), so it’s only a matter of time before I avail myself of games like Qin.
Well, at this point, I can safely say that this game is the high point of the week for a couple of people. The game ran smoothly enough for the first two sessions, but with the most recent session, everything seemed to come together in higher resolution.
A lot of it comes back to the way the characters were introduced and started to develop over the course of play. (See recent posts on Cliches and the related topics of Player Buy-In and Character Introduction.) All of my players were wholly on board with the game itself, but their characters were a bit more nebulous as they started out. A good portion of this had to do with the varying levels of experience with the system itself. I say this because, as I noted in the last entry on this game, two of the players are heavy Star Wars nerds who haven’t played this system. The third guy is less enmeshed in the deeper history of the Expanded Universe, but he’s played a lot of EotE. Of the three characters, his Wookiee with a Vibroaxe is a lot more clearly drawn and fleshed out. The Human Slicer and the Selonian Smuggler tended to be drawn in broader strokes, with the details showing up over the course of play.
In the case of the Slicer, a joking comment from the guy playing the Wookiee cast him as the hacker from Kung Fury. (If you haven’t availed yourself yet, check out the trailer on YouTube. I look forward to the final production for no very well established reason.) This characterization took hold, all the way down to the Nintendo Power Glove as integral to the character’s style. Now, it’s become a way to inject flavor into different scenes and pushes the player to come up with different aspects to role-play.
As to the Selonian, she’s growing into her role as the pilot and shifting heavily in that direction as the game goes on. That player hasn’t had as long in the trenches, having joined after the intro adventure, but the character is making more sense as play continues.
The Wookiee, in the meantime, is the de facto leader of the group, calling most of the shots and making decisions for the continuing campaign. Yeah, the player is far more used to the way I run Star Wars these days, but it’s fascinating to watch him key into critical plot elements as they pop up.
When we last left the characters, at the end of the second session, they were in the process of doing the initial survey of the mining operation, having discovered a number of dead miners immediately. There was no particular logic as to what had happened, but it had become immediately clear that something was amiss. When they picked up this session, they started digging into the causes. They discovered a deactivated administration droid who had been shut down for the sake of the main antagonist’s plots. Generally, the plot of the module revolves around the different essential droids of the operation deciding to rise up against the organics and escape. As such, the rest of the module deals with shutting the droids down or killing them outright to insure the survival of the mine. After all, they were sent here to collect the annual profits and make sure that everything continued to run smoothly.
This is where the module actually gets really interesting. Since all of the droids are largely essential to the operation of the mine, wiping them out as opposition is actually an extremely bad idea. If the players take this course, these are assets of the mine that have to be immediately replaced. (The end of the module almost requires a spreadsheet to keep all of this in perspective.) There’s a stock of money in the office safe, some of which is earmarked for wages for the mine workers, some of which is set aside for equipment needs and the rest of which is there for the crime lord. If the players choose a combat approach to things, this drains away extremely fast.
Weirdly, the module assumes worst case scenario on much of it, factoring the resolution in light of the characters being either greedy or careless. As such, there are contingencies for nearly every scenario, save that of relative success.
I’m pretty sure you can see where I’m going with this.
With a Slicer on the crew, the technical aspects of dealing with the droids shifted to the foreground. The first couple of droids ended up running afoul of jury-rigged restraining bolts and the careful application thereof. Once they got hold of the actual weapon that deployed the restraining bolts, it was all over save cleanup. The actual final confrontation was cut short by a delicate Stealth check from the bolt-wielding Slicer, followed by an unsubtle Coercion check on the part of the Wookiee. With the droid mastermind on the floor, they were free to start the various data restores to bring the droids back into general compliance.
As written, the module edges toward being a horror adventure. It’s been referred to as ‘The Haunted Mine’ by people I know that are familiar with the adventure, and there are plenty of aspects that can be played up for that purpose. Contrary to my general nature, I chose not to run it as such, since the most I could have expected out of it was to set the characters on edge with occasional checks against their minimal (and generally untrained) Discipline. For characters as low a level as this group currently is, it would have been an exercise in frustration, as I heaped Threat Dice on them for failed checks or accumulated Setback. Strain was already becoming a problem for them, to the point that the Wookiee was knocked out at one point and the Slicer was on the verge of passing out himself.
This is something that I’m going to have to play around with, as I go along. When another guy was running EotE, he handed out Strain on a fairly constant basis to correct for both our skill in combat and our ability to avoid it as necessary. I can definitely see the logic to it, given the parallel tracks of Wound and Strain, as a means to reign in power-built characters, but I know better than to rely on it too heavily.
As I go along, there seem to be a myriad of tethers that can keep characters in check. Wounds and Strain function directly on a round by round basis, where Obligation and Money can help to direct the overall arc of the campaign itself. If pressure needs to be brought on a group, it’s usually through the hook of Obligation, either by working to pay it down or through having an element of a character’s backstory show up to force direction. Money goes hand in hand with Obligation, often being interchangeable.
The end of the module assumes that the characters come up short on money due to having destroyed a good portion of the mechanical workforce and some of the materiel. Instead, they ended up paying out bonuses to the surviving mine personnel and coming out with more money for their crime lord employer. There’s nothing in the module to offer any suggestion of how to deal with this. Not only did they not screw up in the slightest, they came out ahead in all things. This was even after I made up a couple of expenses to upgrade the mine.
As I noted in the last analysis of EotE, the default assumption is that the characters are broke through most of the game, so it’s a little weird to consider that my players would manage to operate at a surplus. And I get the feeling that most people approach the game with this idea well in mind. Through the local grapevine, I had heard that another group nearby had caused their gamemaster no end of trouble when they managed to lay hands on a ship large enough to launch fighters out of. Apparently, this had flipped the power dynamic to the point that the GM no longer had any way to influence the characters in the directions he wanted. I’m intrigued by this idea, but I still reserve enough tricks up my sleeve to be able to keep even that level of materiel from being game crippling.
The next session or so are going to revolve around the third canned adventure I was planning to run, which will work itself into the broader campaign arc that I have in mind. Sadly, this week looks to be a wash, given that real world obligations have derailed most of the players from being able to attend. I haven’t decided what I’m going to occupy myself with in the mean time.
Notes on the life of The Librarian: House hunting continues apace. There’s nothing quite so frustrating as devoting the time and expense of several months, only to have nothing to show for it. I’ve personally looked at dozens of houses, not one of which passes my most basic criteria for dwelling. There are a lot of interesting places that I would have thought about putting money down on, but none of which were reasonably priced for the subsequent effort or in a state that I would be comfortable with at the outset.
Simultaneously, my gaming group of the last several years has finally broken apart completely. The married couple has left the state for lucrative post-graduate employ, the mainstay player has left for grad school on the other side of the state and one of the remaining members got to the point with his mental health that he needs to either get counseling or a serious medicinal upgrade before he’s useful in a gaming context. I’d lost two of my other mainstay members about two or three years back, around the time I started seriously looking to get out and move originally. I still have two groups remaining, but they’re more or less part-time, catch-as-cat-can agglomerations that I have to head out of the house to throw dice with. (These are the problems with having a library. You never really want to leave it behind, and when you do, there’s a tendency to bring half of it with you.)
None of this would be a problem, were the housing dilemma able to resolve itself in a slightly more timely manner. I had assumed that, by the time the group coughed out its last, I would have been able to pack up and start looking to establish a new gaming group in a new town, but it hasn’t happened like that as yet. Instead, I’m stuck in the awful interim period while I wait for the transition to take place.
In the mean time, I happened upon this blog entry, where Derek recounts an instance when he joined a new group of utter strangers in order to run a fantastic game. It’s an interesting idea, given that I’ve watched groups advance from strangers to close, personal friends over the years. He seems to contend that there’s a certain value to keeping people at a distance, just to allow the games in question to flourish without distraction.
And to an extent, I see where he’s going with it. One of the best games I’ve ever run had that as its core. It was a strange continuation of a long-running game that I had taken over from two preceding game-masters. There was a heavy sense of continuity for those who had played in any of the former iterations, and as such, I knew that I had to change it up pretty drastically to make it even remotely palatable to a new group of mostly strangers. There were stories that I wanted to tell in this milieu, and without going into overmuch detail, I engineered a reset for the game in order to be able to go in new directions.
Like the first iteration of the game, I set it on the campus of the university we were all attending, using familiar places and landmarks as a guide to what I was doing. And I built everything from there. Since most of the room were strangers to me and to each other, it had the weird effect of making everyone more familiar with each others characters than they were with each other. It actually took several weeks for the players to sort out the identities of the other players, apart from who they were playing. And as such, it was a wholly immersive game for everyone involved.
In this instance, Derek is right one the money. It was a great game, and much of what made it work was that everyone was a stranger to each other. As time went on, and people got to know each other better, the game did suffer a bit for the familiarity. It didn’t kill the game, but there was a drift of priority as time went on.
The thing that I hadn’t mentioned was that it was a group of about twenty players. When they were mostly unknown to each other, they weren’t as likely to be distracted by other things or caught up in non-game events. They were there to game, and I was able to balance it out with that many people because the focus was so tightly adhered to. Once this had started to falter a bit, it became much harder to keep everything in line. Slowly, people started to splinter off, I had to get the game back on track when important and plot-centric players vanished, and by the end of the year, much of the mojo had been lost from what originally took place.
So, on that note, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of Derek’s outlook.
For my normal purposes, however, I think he’s missing out on some very necessary implications. In my experience, I have had much better luck with established groups whose members I know what to expect from. This is why the slow dissolution of my current group is so troubling to me. I knew these guys and the various affectations or archetypes that they were prone to. One guy loved very intricate, well-defined tropes, but he hated any sort of social combat character in general. Another one was up to try most builds for the sake of personal experimentation, and he could be counted on to run a fast and loose cinematic game if the well ever ran dry on my part. Another one would try to build the biggest, dumbest creature to wield an axe and play it all to the hilt. And so on. I knew the sort of things that would entice them towards a plot in-game, so if I needed to drop a plot hook, I had an idea of how to shape it for maximum effect.
What this meant was that, on any given occasion, I could build a game to the specific tastes of my specific group. If I put together an adventure, I knew the sorts of things that I could put in to appeal to the players I knew would be sitting down at the table on a given week. By knowing the tastes and directions of the different people, I knew that this kind of game would work, where another kind would be shaky. A cerebral investigation game would fly with these specific players, where this group over here wanted high action and gunplay. I don’t think you would have as solid a read of the group’s tastes if they were specifically kept as strangers.
A girl I knew, back in the day, once said that, as soon as you have a solid crew together, you run as hard and fast as you can while the crew could hold up. Once it was gone, you wouldn’t have the same chances. She was referring specifically to Shadowrun, but the sentiment holds. When you have a gaming group that works together well and is able to take on the necessary roles within an adventuring party, be it an incarnation of Pathfinder or a rag-tag crew of smugglers in Edge of the Empire, you need to hold to that synergy. I grant that it could happen with a group that otherwise doesn’t know each other, but I’ve never found that sort of group to be able to hold together over the course of years.
And I certainly never found the same interlock in a group that keeps each other at a distance.
Lately, I find myself in a bit of a strange bind. Since I’m looking for a house, that’s taking a lot of my time and creative energy away from me. There are too many factors to balance that I can’t simply carve out the requisite time to be able to sit down and write. Or at least, not on the subjects that are required for a novel, per se. It doesn’t help that I’m in the pre-production stage of putting the new novel together. I finished the old one, distributed it with a couple of people and the process of building a query letter is also firmly in the ‘once-I-have-things-settled-on-the-house’ area.
At the same time, I’m finding myself with a stock of things to talk about, blog-wise. For the first time in quite a while, I have a surplus of blog entries written out, with more pushing in around the edges. I guess the habit of writing on a daily basis has sorta taken hold on me, given my previous rate of production here and on novel-related ephemera. At the same time, I don’t particularly want to go back to a daily deadline with these, since I know things are going to get in the way of my goals. A weekly entry seemed like a good idea, and I am loathe to break that schedule too badly.
As a sort of compromise, I figure I’ll put in an extra feature – a sort of post-game recap of the one game that I’ve got going at the moment. (Technically, I’m running two regular games, but the biweekly Carrion Crown game has been going for three years at this point, so I don’t know as that grind is necessary to talk about at length.) The game in question is a recently built Star Wars game, using FFG’s Edge of the Empire system. I’ve talked about the system at different points, and I only grow more fond of it as time progresses. As to why I’ve put together a new game of it, I’ll get around to talking about that … oh, next week.
The game has been running for two weeks thus far. I put together a new group, comprised of one of my current players, one of my old players from a little over ten years back, and the guy that originally introduced me to role-playing in the first place.
It’s … a bit of an odd group.
For what it’s worth (and like I say, I’ll get into this part a bit later), the current player is the last man standing of what had been a pretty solid group up until recently. When the last other player departed, we decided that, rather than scrap the idea of a regular Friday game entirely, I’d cast about to see what I could assemble from the other possibilities. The second player is a good friend of mine who had moved off to The Big City a little over ten years back, only to return about six months ago. I had largely fallen out of touch with him over the years, what with being in Asia and generally not having a lot of time to look him up when I wasn’t. Sure, my wife’s parents were less than twenty miles from where he was living, but I never managed to cross paths with him while we were there.
As to the third guy, he and I had fallen out of touch a while back. After his first marriage ended, I’d tried to give him a hand getting back on his feet. It was one of those situations where no good deed went unpunished. I ended up writing him off before I went abroad, and it was only after his second marriage fell apart that we’ve been talking again. (These aren’t specifically related, but that was the impetus for him to reach out again and look to reconcile.)
I suppose it’s something peculiar to our local group, but the saying goes that we can forgive anything except a bad game. Oddly, the guy that coined that ended up running one of the worst games any of us had collectively been in, right before he melted down and burned his last bridge with the larger group. C’est la vie, I guess.
The first session had two of the three players, as one was coming down from dental surgery and begged off that week. We built characters, decided on the era of play and started throwing dice. I was running a canned adventure from one of the available official modules, just to make things simple. I’ve gotten into the mode of starting things off with the FFG stuff, just to test the waters and see what the players are up for. I figure I’ll run one or two more before deciding what direction to go in from there.
It’s an interesting notation, in its way. Fantasy Flight has done some fascinating things with the way they craft their adventures in Edge of the Empire. When I convinced one of my older players to run it for us, he dove directly into the canned adventures to get an idea of how the flow was supposed to go and to see what sorts of tempo the game designers had in mind. And the adventures that he’d lain hands on were startlingly good, even as far back as the original beta of the core rules. The module was fast, loose, action-packed and filled with really interesting locales from the various media of the galaxy. There was investigation alongside the shoot-outs, some ship combat and plenty of opportunity to play the action hero in the midst of it all. It was actually sort of impressive.
It also laid the groundwork for the larger plots that the GM put together. The important NPC’s from that adventure were tweaked into the other adventures, and it established enough of the backdrop that we could range about within the plots that we had already set in motion. Naturally, I took this success as a cue and worked up my new campaign with the same sort of ideas in place.
The first session was a simple sort of intro adventure, taken from one of the Free RPG Day modules that I never got the chance to find locally. (As an unneeded commentary on the hellhole that I currently live in, the only store to actually participate in Free RPG Day in my area is also the only one in about two hundred miles. There’s not much to go around, once the regulars have stopped in for their swag.) Since it was meant to get people buying the product line, it’s fairly fast and fun, geared toward extremely basic characters. I didn’t bother with the pre-generated characters that had been included, assuming rightly that they wouldn’t be terribly interesting or long-term.
What’s interesting, as I look over the pre-gens, is that none of these characters make any sense from the established rules that I’ve been using. I could understand it, were this an early beta or the like, but the rules were codified enough to release the core rules within a month or two. (Furthermore, they re-released this module on PDF after the rules had been out for a little while, and the pre-gens are still really, really weird.) A similar thing holds for the characters in the Beginner’s Game Box Set, where the rules that govern these characters are similarly weird. In the case of the Boxed Set, the characters are given advancement trees that are wildly dissimilar.
Digress, digress, digress.
The module itself is extremely simple and geared pretty heavily to the locales, rather than any intricate plot. It starts in media res, with the characters fleeing a data theft that they were given as a job. They’ve successfully stolen the data, the enemies were alerted to what’s going on and a chase ensues.
I wish I could say this went well. That is to say, the players had fun, but their characters suffered.
One of the players had power-built his character (which seems to be part of FFG’s philosophy in their pre-gens) by stocking most of his points into attributes and leaving the rest of the character to natural advancement. This ended up giving him a fairly respectable dice pool for most of the important actions. Being a Wookiee Melee Specialist, this meant that he was mainly focused on beating people with his vibro-axe. The other character was a stock human Slicer who had a scattering of skills, largely average attributes and some as-yet unnecessary talents. And for whatever reason, neither one could roll a success to save their lives. It was actually fascinating to watch.
When they finally made their escape, following two largely unnecessary combat sequences, they learn that they need to do some investigation and track their quarry down to wherever he’s holed up. And again, when it comes to throwing dice at actions, they’re able to maintain a legacy unmarred by success. The fact that they accidentally over-bribe a passing informant is all that leads them in the right direction. Doing so shortcuts the rest of the adventure and leads them directly to the main villain of the scenario.
Oddly, this is where everything comes together. They manage to succeed admirably in evading security, tracking the logical hideout of the bounty hunter and finding their way to him. Granted, they managed twice to accidentally set off the traps that have been strewn in their paths, but the end result isn’t changed much as a result. I figure this is going to turn into a tense scenario like the first combat, only to have the Wookiee hack the villain’s arm off and intimidate him enough to give up. They return the stolen goods to their employer without incident, and all is well.
There’s an odd aspect to this adventure, having read through a number of other modules and various suggestions in the core rules. The adventure that’s featured in the core rule book of EotE makes a fairly succinct point of denying the crew as much of their reward as they possibly can. When they manage to apprehend their target, they’re essentially told that they’re working for free or that actually making good on the money they were promised is next to impossible. Yet in the end of this module, the conclusion notes that they will come off with a solid amount of money without problem. By way of comparison, the reward is about five to ten times as much as the bounty the core book wants to deny them. And in a similar manner, the module I’m working the characters through now offers a similar screw job where they may be able to walk away with a tidy sum, but the consequences for doing so mean that they’re going to end up in much worse straits in the immediate future.
That’s the thing, though. I get that Edge of the Empire characters are supposed to be scum and villainy who have to work for their every meal. Between Firefly and Cowboy Bebop, it’s a common theme of the genre. What I don’t get is that FFG is going out of their way to make sure that they will never get ahead, no matter how hard they try. Or that when they do manage to do so, it seems like a pre-beta mistake in writing. Add into this the fact that decent equipment is the core of the game, and it starts to get weird. (By way of explanation, it’s been noted that investing several thousand into your gear will compensate for much of the early power disparity for the low level characters. A good gun or a set of custom armor will get a character much farther than skills or attributes alone. The same holds true for customized ship systems, but that requires a whole lot more outlay.)
That was the first session.The second session, which ran this last Friday, added our third player, likely the final addition to the group. This netted us a Selonian Smuggler, which makes it official – if I am involved in an Edge of the Empire game in any way, there has to be a Selonian involved somehow. My Bounty Hunter in one game was a female on the run from her clan, and a friend of mine played a Selonian Soldier searching for information on the destruction of one branch of her clan in the game I ran.
As I go along, I’m building out the crime syndicate that the characters are working for. At the moment, it’s shaping up to be a Rodian Crime Boss with a mass of scar tissue along the side of his head, a cybernetic eye and a propensity to quietly threaten them with untold consequence if they don’t manage to succeed. It’s going well, all told. I made a mistake early on, when I didn’t pay nearly close enough attention to the details of the module (and didn’t check on a specific mention in the module), so I’m going to modify the picky aspects of it for the subsequent modules.
One of the problems I have with the FFG adventures is that, if you aren’t completely aware of the reference that they’re making in the text, there’s a good chance that you’ll miss the larger backstory. The case in point that I was referring to earlier is the Pyke Syndicate. The module notes that they’re a group of spice smuggling crime lords, and the syndicate is made up of members of the Pyke species. In my skim through to prepare the adventure, I had missed the species angle to things and assumed that it was more of a family thing. When I started researching bits later, I realized that it was a reference to a Clone Wars episode that I had not watched and there’s much more to the syndicate than I had put into the adventure (and the build out of their criminal contacts). As such, the details that I built out specifically contradict the species and syndicate as they already exist. Since none of the actual Syndicate show up in the module (they’re more of a shadowy employer that works through go-betweens), it hadn’t been a problem. Now that I’m involving the characters more readily in these affairs, I need to retcon a couple of names.
As things go, the characters haven’t gotten terribly far in the module as yet. It opens out with the characters on their way to meet with their employer. (In the original text of the module, they’re working for a Hutt. This is another bit that starts to wear on me. I realize that the Hutt crime families are built out pretty heavily in the expanded universe, but it seems like about half the modules lead back to a Hutt in one way or another. In about six modules, I want to say that they mention four separate Hutt crime lords that the characters are either working for or running from.)
Early on, there’s a conflict between some Gamorreans and the crime lord over finances. It’s supposed to be a subtle thing that the characters pick up on as the action mounts, but the Wookiee noticed it right off and picked a fight with a couple that were waiting around for the action to start. Largely without provocation, he demanded to know if they had ‘paid the looking tax’ for loitering outside the boss’ mansion, beat them senseless and threw them at the boss’ feet. This had the interesting effect of shortcutting the action and removing a third of the adversaries from the upcoming fight. Needless to say, they had things well in hand when the rest of the group showed up.
Well, up to the point that the Wookiee got his arm cut off. Live by the sword, and all that. He took a chunk of Obligation and ended up with a cybernetic replacement (something that he had talked about getting anyway), and they were sent off to deal with a labor dispute at a mining complex. We called the session a little after they arrived, and I’m figuring that the rest of the module will be finished in another session.
So, what observations can I draw from the first sessions?
This is essentially the second campaign I’ve started for Edge. And as I go along, I’m more and more impressed by the ease at which the rules come together for new players. Character creation is ridiculously simple, the dice rolling is both fast and intuitive and most of the players are immediately familiar with the source material. The more I look at it, I think there’s an inherent assumption that most of the opening experience points are going to go into Attribute buys, as it’s the one thing that is actually difficult to do later. As such, it seems like the spread is somewhere around two to three of the six attributes are expected to have raised to three. If a player chooses to keep their attributes close to stock, it’s a bit of a disadvantage over both the short and long term.
For starting characters, there needs to be at least three players to have any balance. All characters need some sort of combat ability, no matter what. From there, it’s assumed that one character will be able to pilot, one will take care of technical matters (including first aid and general knowledge) and one will have the ability to talk. If any of these are not well represented, the adventures will get hung up in fairly short order.
Of my players, two are pretty heavy Star Wars fans. At the same time, they’re the two players that haven’t played this system before. The third player has been in two separate games, having built a number of solid characters, and he’s able to speed up the dice and move the action along for me. It isn’t as though the system requires a lot of heavy explanation as it goes along, but an experienced player helps free me up for other tasks.
…and I pushed this past 3,000 words. If I go any farther, I’m never going to get around to talking about Session #3, wherein the focus of the game starts to come to the fore. I shall pick this up next time.`
Browsing through other blogs, I came across this notation by Shane Runkle, on the topic of the omnipresent and frankly tired cliche of the tavern in most D&D-styled games. He laments the prevalence of this as a campaign starter and the tendency of GM’s to simply fall back on basic assumptions. We’ve all seen it happen, at least once in our collective gaming history, where the players have built characters, the GM has sketched out some idea of where the campaign is going to go and the introduction of the characters to each other is left to the ‘you meet in a local tavern’ with little else to propel the game forward.
There are a couple of interesting ideas at work in this.
Shane’s basic premise is pretty solid. If the GM is relying on this as the only compelling reason that the characters are a cohesive group, there are going to be some rather specific problems. For one thing, everyone has to buy in on the basic concept for their characters in the first place. Without that (or without the understanding of the buy in itself), there’s an immediate block in the road. The Admiral deals with this idea himself, in a post from this last April. And another one, less than a month later. (What’s interesting to me is that both Shane and the Admiral make use of the same Tavern Clip Art. Whee.) There are certain, tacit sorts of assumptions at play with the ‘start in a tavern’ opening, which Shane and the Admiral are coming at from different angles.
In Shane’s post, he takes it apart as being a lazy, cliched bit of nastiness; there’s an assumption on the part of the GM that the players have filled in all of the necessary blanks and he doesn’t need to do any real work. The tavern might as well be a blank, white briefing room on the order of what we saw in Men in Black. It exists as a prelude to having bigger and more interesting things taking place, as soon as the characters get the hell out of there. As such, there’s a tendency for the gamemaster to breeze past it, without investing any time in what’s going on. As I understand it, this is the crux of his argument, noting that there are a dozen ways for the GM to spice up the whole introductory sequence so that it takes on its own resonance in the campaign as being the first of a series of great and wonderful encounters.
With the Admiral, he sees it as being a sort of established trope. The players know what to expect with the opening shot of the smoky, crowded barroom, and they have an understanding of what they will do next. There’s a solid cause and effect relationship that moves along the different points. 1.) The characters meet up in a bar, which is either a logical extension of pre-existing working relationship or the foundation of a longer term alliance. 2.) The characters are then approached by a mysterious figure in a cloak, who offers them some lucrative opportunity that serves as the plot hook for the main adventure to follow. 3.) The disparate group of adventurers then depart to undertake the quest, according to the pre-defined rules that govern these fantasy worlds. The problem comes in when the characters reject this bare bones recitation of plot requirements and turn their characters against the adventure that the GM has set up. (It’s a variation on something I talked about in another post, where the character buy-in wasn’t enticing enough.)
Where the two points of view intersect, for me, is that any campaign opening has to cater to the players, as they are still in the process of figuring out their characters or how they fit into the larger adventuring party and the larger world itself. I can’t say that I wouldn’t fall back on the ‘you meet in a tavern’ cliche, but it would be in place for a reason, a bit of familiarity for the players to dwell in before everything started to go to hell for them. If I didn’t feel that I needed to give the players that backdrop to cast their shadows across, I wouldn’t bother. I tend to spend a fair amount of time in the early part of a game trying to get a bead on the specific motivations of the characters, as well as the kinds of plots that the players themselves respond to. In those situations, I’m less likely to force the characters into a situation when I can let them run around and work up the plots they have the most interest in. That way I can figure out what it is that the players want and work with them to make sure that they know what they’re buying into.
As Shane noted, it’s not that the idea of the tavern is a bad thing; it’s just that it can be done badly. The opening of a game has to have memorable instances, and without a dynamic and interesting setting, there’s no incentive to come back the next week.
Whatever form it takes, I can see the value of the well-established opening, but I don’t know as I will ever truly go back to it these days. It remains as a standard for the genre, recalling Aragorn and the Hobbits in Bree (and the updated version in Dragonlance, where the characters return to the Inn of the Last Home in Solace), and it serves well to many as the way their games started off originally. But like many things, I’m no longer twelve years old and starry-eyed at the chance to recreate the different scenes in my favorite novels. I’ve grown beyond the cliches, as it were, and nowadays, I’m looking for something that redefines my experience, rather than wanting to retread the old and familiar.
I guess that’s what I will end up taking away from all of this. The idea of starting a game off in a crowded inn, the smoke hanging low against the rough hewn roof beams and the din of a dozen conversations surrounding the newly founded company of adventurers, is one that appeals to the freshly initiated fans of the hobby. They latch onto this scene as one that casts them into the role of their favorite fictions, and they thrill to the idea of another place and time. As they grow and mature as gamers, they begin to revisit this idea. Starting off at a scarred and stained table in the tavern’s common room brings them back to their first experience with the hobby, and it whiffs of a nostalgia that has already started to fade. And then at some point, it no longer appeals, becoming trite and staid as they’ve already seen it a dozen times over the years. This is the point where it has lost its appeal and stands as the worst sort of cliche.
In the end, you have to know your audience and what they’re looking for in the game. They come to the table with a certain expectation, and for some, the first meeting in the tavern is all it takes. For others, the GM needs to actually try something new to keep them coming back.
In theory, this blog is supposed to be about games and stuff. Instead, I’ve been on a number of weird tangents of late, some of which are only obliquely related to the topic at hand. Sadly, Mormons and Molesters happened to take up my actual 100th post, and it isn’t even a Dogs in the Vineyard module series.
So, yeah. In reading through some of Gregory’s posts of late (I would link, but I’ve also made it a point to link to his blog in every single recent entry; I feel like a bit of a stalker these days), I happened upon an entry where he talked briefly about his general distaste for Halflings and Gnomes. This is something that I’ve dealt with in my own games, off and on over the years, and it was interesting to hear someone else devote words to the problematic nature of fantasy races.
… someone that isn’t John Wick, obviously.
For me, concision is a necessary part of any game that I run. I don’t like offering too many options to my players, if I can help it, since the embarrassment of riches tends to confound people when they’re first sitting down at the table. If there’s 30 different races, with 40 different character classes, an abundance of equipment options and a myriad of feats to shop through, there’s going to be an immediate vapor lock unless the player already knows what they want to do. If any of their choices come in conflict with something that someone else wants to do, it continues to go downhill from there. A lot of the time, it can go smoothly and even out in play, but I can point to a dozen different times when things only got worse in the course of a campaign.
One time, when I ran Star Wars, the character options were restricted to what they could do as Stormtroopers. This is one of those games which the players still talk fondly of, nearly ten years gone. Another game had them building out SWAT Team members in Dade County Florida. There was a specific focus, and it worked out very well. They had limits that they could work within, and by exploring these limits, the characters were some of the best they had made.
And when I talk about Pathfinder-styled fantasy (because, let’s face it, it isn’t terribly representative of most fantasy novels in the genre), I like to keep the options somewhat limited. There’s a laziness to many role-players, where they are content to hand-wave their character backgrounds into the ‘we met in a bar’ chestnut. Oh, sure. The elves hate the dwarves, and no one assembled likes orcs in the slightest, but for the sake of playing this game, we’ll assume that they all get along just fine. More often than not, these characters have no reason to get along together, and the act of blithely ignoring this aspect of the game becomes a ludicrous endeavor as soon as anyone tries to role-play their character in the slightest.
In play, this often meant that I largely removed Gnomes and Halflings from being able to be played in the slightest. In the past, this wasn’t even a consideration, since there were many campaigns where the entire group was made up of Elves of one sort or another. My reasoning then was simply that I didn’t like the races in general, but over time I came to realize that they honestly didn’t fit into the world that I had created. These days, I recognize that Halflings owe far too much to their Tolkien roots to sit comfortably with me, and outside of being allegorical Britons, I couldn’t see how they made any sense to the somewhat darker worlds that I had put together. Gnomes … yeah. They were worse.
Fast forward to the game I ran while I was living abroad.
I had been reading quite a bit of the Eberron setting books at the time, and I was fascinated by the governing precept that it was supposed to be a high action, pulp setting that was utterly compatible with standard D&D 3.5 (mainly so it would help sell its parent line of books). There wasn’t a lot of standard fantasy in Eberron, as it cleaved more closely to action tropes and steampunk sensibilities, but it tweaked itself to be able to accommodate.
In the mean time, my players wanted some sort of high action game of their own, and I found myself sick to death of the normal experience. I suppose this is what happens when you spend too much time behind the screen. This is about the same time I first conceived of the Stormtrooper game to avoid the bog-standard ‘rag-tag band of misfits’ that I had seen over and over again.
When I sat down to design a setting for the game, I did so with the governing thought of defying expectations. If these players were looking for scholarly elves in high towers of sorcery, I wanted to turn that around. If their idea of dwarves was subterranean miners with axes and beards, I wanted to build something as far from that as I could. But in the mean time, I let them build their characters as they saw fit. After all, I wanted them to be able to hold to their expectations as much as they wanted. The stronger such things were, the more interesting the reveal would be. They built out their characters without any assumption of what I was planning.
The basic idea for the game was that the characters were members of an expeditionary force sent to re-establish some vaguely mythical trade route to a southern continent. This allowed them the comfort of familiar character builds even as they became the strangers in a strange land. Naturally, this lasted until such time as they were shipwrecked and had to contend with the savagery and isolation of a lost continent.
I had worked together a fairly intricate history for the continent in question, casting it more along the lines of a sort of Thai or Indian motif of lost ruins and ancient civilizations. Back in high school and early college, I had grown enamored of the Yuan-Ti as a campaign-centered source of villainy, so I followed the logical threads of an ancient serpent kingdom from the mists of time for this new game. (This also allowed me to put together some truly wonderful source material, including some of the current sourcebooks from Wizards and a number of third party offerings.) I wanted to include a heavy psionic component, using Bruce Cordell’s various supplements of the era, and I had in mind to cast everything in a civilization that had rebuilt from the ashes of this long-dead empire.
In the end, I set most of the post-collapse culture as being directly based on the Yuan-Ti and their machinations. This meant delving into the alchemical basis of the race itself. (For those unfamiliar with it, there’s an old article that first appeared in Dragon Magazine about 25 years back, postulating the idea of Yuan-Ti creating an alchemical means to transform people into breeding stock.) In the process, I decided that the Gnomes and Halflings could have been the product of a similar mutagenic ritual, one that split them off from their genetic forebears – respectively, the Dwarves and Elves of a standard Western Fantasy game.
Naturally, the different races rose up and overthrew the Yuan-Ti empire at some point. And of course, they weren’t able to wholly eradicate all of the influence of their hated masters, else there wouldn’t be any interesting hooks. There was a brief period of peace, when the four races lived in relative harmony and built a new society in the aftermath of the lost empire. I say four because the humans became something of an outcast race, due to their implied collusion with the Yuan-Ti masters. (For my own mythology, I kept them as being breed stock, through the graces of alchemy. Yuan-Ti could still breed true with their own kind, but they favored fresh genetic lines.)
At some point in the post-empire history, agents of the Yuan-Ti fomented war between the Dwarves and the Elves, one that largely destroyed the Elven civilization. The Dwarves left the remnants of the Elven nation, retreated to the coasts and built great cities of geomantic power and majesty. In this world, they were the masters of an extremely precise form of hermetic magic that crossed over into fantasy physics. The Elves, when their civilization was at its height, were more inclined toward artistic and chaotic forms of magic.
The Halflings, once they had been freed from their bondage under the Yuan-Ti, had retreated to the high mountains to live in relative seclusion. The Gnomes continued secret contact with the mummified Yuan-Ti remnants, acting under the auspices of their dead masters. They made their home deep beneath the earth, receding into myth as the centuries passed. And the servitor races of the Yuan-Ti, the degenerate LIzardmen and Troglodytes, dwelt on the fringes of the different societies, content to live as they had in relative barbarism.
Being a game in D&D 3.5, I built the races out according to Favored Class ideas. This pushed Dwarves into being cast as Wizards, Elves as Barbarians, Halflings as Monks and Gnomes as Necromancers. (This last one was a bit of a headache, but I believe there was a Necromancer class in one of the side books. It didn’t particularly matter, as I wasn’t figuring to ever let one show up as a Player Character.) Each race also had its own favored material, where most of the armor and weapons were cast in that particular motif. Elves had once used glass (and it would show up as remnants of the older civilization), but in the present, they used living wood as the basis for their weapons and armor. The Dwarves, logically, were prone to using metal of a given sort. Halflings had perfected a sort of magically hardened ceramic, and the Gnomes used bone of a similar cast.
I spent a lot of time on the world, to the point that I would occasionally run the campaign as a fresh idea to new groups for various purposes. What was most interesting was that Paizo’s Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path ran through a lot of weirdly parallel ideas, to the point that I doubt I will ever try to publish this setting. It’s a little disheartening, but at the end of the day, I can point to things in their game design that I feel I could have done better.
So I have that going for me. Which is nice.
It comes as no real surprise that I have studied a lot of literature in my time. This is one of those things that turns to be wholly inescapable, if I think too long on it. My father is the rare sort that is happiest pulling engines apart or operating heavy machinery, yet his love of poetry extended to casual recitation of his favorites and the occasioned writing of silly verses when the mood struck him. (For those of you deeply and truly interested, his own style was similar to William Hughes Mearns, but his preference tended heavily toward Robert Service.) In the mean time, my mother has never been seen without a book within reach of one hand, a cup of hot tea at her elbow. I could recite Macbeth’s last soliloquy from memory well before I knew anything of what it or the surrounding play meant.
These were the type of people that raised me.
So naturally, when I read something that requires some thought and digestion, my first inclination is to reduce to some referential line or idea from something that I read or heard. (Somewhere around here, I have a pin from Hot Topic that reads, “I speak in movie quotes and song lyrics.” It wasn’t that I needed to have the pin; it’s more that it was unthinkable that I didn’t already own it.)
And so it was, reading over the strangely revelatory notions in Gregory‘s post involving Marion Zimmer Bradley. In short, he talks about how he has come to wrestle with the idea that one of his novelist icons ended up being a horrible person in their own private life, and in the process, he tries to figure out how to feel about this. Until I had chanced upon this entry, I had been largely unaware of any of the furor that had surrounded one of the grandes dames of fantasy literature. Much of this owes to my general unfamiliarity with her work; yes, I own many of the recognizable books, but for me, that just means that I’ll get around to reading it when I have some open space on my calendar. Unlike so many, I never read The Mists of Avalon at a formative time, so I hadn’t even marked her death some fifteen years ago.
As I’ve been pondering the conflict of great works and broken artists, I find myself turning over the epitaph delivered by Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interrèd with their bones.” (In double-checking my references so as to not misquote, I found out that this quote lent itself to an Iron Maiden song, a Charles Bronson movie and a Star Trek: Enterprise novel that apparently starts out on my 183rd birthday. The internet is a strange place, filled with odd coincidence.)
Like I say, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Since I didn’t have a particular stance on Bradley’s work, I can’t say that I have to examine any of my deeply held convictions about her or what she’s produced. Instead, I’m faced with the idea that anything I read from this point forward will be tainted with the understanding that she was violent and abusive and insidiously warped. The troubling details of how she apparently supported her husband’s pederasty and covered up for his indiscretions when it suited her only feed into this growing distaste, as do the off-handed mentions of the orgies that were stock in trade for the fantasy writers’ lifestyles of the time. (Not, I suppose, that any of this comes as a surprise; after all, I have plenty of knowledge of and exposure to Heinlein. Which is probably why I don’t hold his works in that high a regard, unlike so many.)
Biographical criticism is a wholly legitimate form of literary critique, dissecting a particular work according to how it parallels the life of the author. Most often, it lends itself to slightly more historical authors, as a means of discerning the specific role that the times they lived in played in shaping their writing. I’ve spent a lot of time reading through various biographical sketches of different authors, making sense of why they spent their focus the way they did.
Some of the emergent critiques of Bradley, in light of these allegations, find themselves noting the power dynamics in her works and how the characters may reflect certain aspects of what she was accused of. Yes, rape and abuse and this sort of thing was part and parcel of the era that she was trying to model, much as it makes sense in the context of George Martin’s work, but knowing what we know now, it takes on a certain horror. In a similar vein, it’s going to be hard to go back to certain volumes of Robin Williams’ work in light of his suicide. I’m fairly certain that What Dreams May Come is going to play much differently – a movie about the redemption of suicide, knowing that the main star ended up killing himself. Already, I’ve seen discussions of the Beltane rituals in The Mists of Avalon shadowed by Moira Greyland’s own recollection of abuse, and the filter casts the whole book into question for my purposes.
Before this, the closest I had come to considering what role the author played in my decision to peruse their works came from Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game. For whatever reason, I had never read the book while I was a kid, even though I believe that it was a favorite of my rather Christian aunt. (Perhaps this was part of the reason.) It wasn’t until Card began mouthing off about the offensiveness of homosexuality that I even took notice of who the writer was or what relevance his works were said to have.
There’s a strange sort of inversion at work here. Card makes a point of speaking out about the horrors and perversion of such lifestyles, where Marion Zimmer Bradley’s husband, Walter Breen, dedicated an entire book to exploring the modern and historical context of pederasty and its Greek antecedents. Where Card is comparing gays to pedophiles, Breen was trying to make a case that consent laws were against the natural order of things. For whatever it’s worth, I find both of these extremes to be equal in their own distasteful ways.
Throughout my life, I’ve found that the more that I know about a person that I would otherwise admire, the more I have cause to actively dislike them. This is something that the internet has managed to bring to the fore, given the instant and irrevocable transfer of information. At one point, I found myself reading a lot of webcomics. While living abroad, I would dedicate myself to at least an hour of internet perusal a day, between news and current events and the plethora of webcomics that were available. And what I found was that I enjoyed the comics far more when I knew less about the man who was writing them. But as has become standard for the comics, there’s inevitably an attached blog.
One that stands out is a science fiction story that I started into well after it had become famous and plowed through the archives in my spare time. I enjoyed it for what it was, namely a silly space opera that tried to inject actual hard science and speculative thought. It had its moments, and it was fairly reliable about its updates, which was nice.
But as I went along, I made the mistake of reading the author’s contributions. More and more, I began to see what a weirdly close-minded person he was, fostering an attitude of smug superiority over published authors and produced TV shows, since he held himself to a higher standard than they did. More and more, I found myself distracted from the plot of the comic to be infuriated by the progressively anti-intellectual leanings of its stridently Mormon writer. He would find one thing that offended him about a popular movie and urge that his audience avoid it because it conflicted with his outlooks. And his audience would use this as an echo chamber to tear down movies they had not seen, finding the one excuse they needed for their particular confirmation bias.
As a biographical notation for my own experience, I need to take a moment to point out that this is the sort of thing that I utterly and completely hate – which is why I’m spending this much time thinking about Bradley. I hate confirmation bias, to the point that I will read particular things that offend me, just so I know enough to engage it properly and talk of why it bothers me. (This goes back to both of my parents. My father, a lapsed Lutheran, and my mother, an extremely well-read New Age atheist, both felt that they had to understand the fundamental nature of the Bible to reject it. Biblical studies on my part were never discouraged by them, since they figured that I would come to similar conclusion with any amount of thought.) Most of the time these days, this comes in the form of deeply conservative commentary or the bizarre libertarian or anti-vaccine literature that circulates these days, which far too many of my social media contacts seem fond of. I’ll read through it, pick apart the flawed logic and go on with my day. If there is worth, I want to know it and judge for myself, rather than rely upon a commentator to digest it for me.
So, when I found this writer talking about how something that I enjoyed was a horrible thing because of some reason or another, that was fine. I read through his reasons and took what I could from his opinion. But when he encouraged others to take his judgment on a work and avoid coming to their own conclusions, I took offense. I made a solemn sort of vow to myself to not make this man any money through my consumption of his works, and I walked away. It had been a long road to this point, where I’d managed to brush aside his smug superiority and terrible customer service, but in the end, I was done with it all. (True story: Some years back, I had made a point of going to his booth at a convention I was at, with the idea of buying a couple of things and talking to him about some aspect of the comic. When I got there, he was far too involved in talking to someone he was working with to pay me any mind. I suppose that, if I had shown enough interest to dole out a couple hundred dollars, he would have made the time for me, but I take a dim view of such mercenary attitudes. He had made a judgment about how I looked or how much money I was likely to give him, and he treated me like shit as a result. Even so, I still kept reading his comics, despite this particular black mark. Seriously, it was the point where he urged people to believe as he did that did it for me.)
Not that any of this has to do with being a Mormon, exactly. Card feels the way that he does about gays because of his position on a Mormon council. I have to assume that the other writer holds similar outlooks, given the fairly apparent strength of his beliefs (given the way that it shows up in his blog), but there’s honestly no evidence one way or another. It’s just a weird coincidence that both of these writers have managed to get under my skin in different instances, and they both happen to be part of the same religious sect.
Sadly, I fear that the most that will come of this will be the standard sort of slacktivism I’ve become prone to in the past. I find myself horrified by what I have learned about an author or an icon, and I go out of my way to not support any sort of work by that person. It’s a particularly meaningless gesture on my part, as it causes me to not buy something that I wasn’t precisely likely to buy in the first place. Here I am, having gone this long without buying much by Bradley, and my best course of action is to not take any action. I’ve done the same sort of thing with not buying chicken sandwiches from Chick-Fil-A, a fast food place that I’ve never bought from, and refusing to watch Ender’s Game, which I had very little interest in bothering with anyway. I keep on not doing something that I wasn’t going to do anyway, and by taking this vague and meaningless stance, I could almost convince myself that my stance has relevance.
Instead, I will likely pick up both The Mists of Avalon and Ender’s Game from the library, read through them and return them in a timely fashion. If nothing else, it saves me money that would otherwise go to game books, and I can safely tell myself that I haven’t put money to people that I don’t feel deserve it.