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A discussion of why John Wick is not as smart as he wants you to believe…

I have returned from Gen Con.  The republic still stands.

Much consumerism was engaged in.  Many bank accounts were logically plundered.  And when you go with a crew of doctors, you begin to experience certain pangs of jealousy at their comparative wealth for such endeavors.  Alas.

I won’t bitch too much.  There wasn’t actually much that I would have liked to have purchased that I did not.  And most of what I bought was either at a steep discount or for someone else.  All in all, it was good.

Last time I posted (and no, I cannot immediately declare the hiatus over; there’s just stuff I want to talk about before it withers away to memory), I devoted the better part of 4,000 words to a tear down of John Wick’s Wicked Fantasy book.  The (tl;dr) version of this is that the book is neither dark nor dangerous, despite the cover assuring us that this was just such a revision.  The game implies that it is searching for the adult aspects of the fantasy for the grown-up gamer, when in fact, it largely fails to capture any such thing.  The “dark lens” that Wick views the world through seems to merely be smudged.

Again, I want to point out that I was a huge fan of the stuff Wick was responsible for during his tenure at Alderac.  Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea are both some of the finest games on the market.  This is one of the worst, if you judge it on the basis of what it promises versus what it actually delivers.  It is my disappointment brought on by this disparity of quality that has pushed me to rag on this product as I have.  (In fact, I still hold enough regard for L5R that I bought several books of the new edition to help round out my collection.  Thankfully, Wick no longer has anything to do with that line.)

In response to my previous post, Gregory wanted some further discussion of what Wick did wrong with the language in this book, something I railed at for a little while.  Apparently, I was wrong about my contention that no one wanted to hear me go into depth about what idiocy Wick’s ideas on linguistics are.

There are two parts to this discussion.

First, the chapter on Gnolls opens with a sidebar talking about how the mouths of Gnolls is particularly canine in nature and they cannot easily form the words required of other languages.  I see where he’s going with this, but in all honesty, this is the dumbest idea to attach to a fantasy race.  For one thing, D&D and Pathfinder knock the idea of language acquisition so far down the scale of importance that such things are mere skill adds, and every character would be able to learn a new language in the time it takes to level up the next time.  For another, it’s a magical world, not one of physics or biology, so this is one of those things that should generally be hand-waved out of existence.

Here’s why:  While it is possible to learn a language without ever being able to speak it, it’s one of the most unlikely things to happen.  In terms of realism, this is a lot harder to make sense of than the old saw of spending a month in the desert and learning French.  (i.e. Going out to adventure for a month and gaining a language when you return to town, as tends to be the way in D&D and Pathfinder.)  Language learning requires four main areas of focus – listening, reading, writing and speaking.  Reading and listening are the input methods for this, where writing and speaking are the output that’s necessary to make everything gel.  And the difference between speaking and writing is that writing is done without immediate feedback, placing it well below speaking in terms of language acquisition.  Over and over, this is something that I have encountered in my various linguistic studies and time as a teacher.  If you don’t speak, you don’t learn.  And to fully cement a language, you need to be immersed in it, where everything around you uses the language and you have to speak it to accomplish basic survival tasks.  For my own notations, I have studied a lot of French, but since I never visited a French-speaking country, I’ve managed to forget quite a bit of it.

So, there it is.  I have a huge problem with making it so Gnolls can only really speak Gnoll.  This is amazingly harmful for the species overall, since it stunts their development of linguistics to an amazing degree.  (There’s more about this, where the act of speaking moves a language from one type of memory to another and how it serves to motivate second language learners by the process of communication, but I think I’ve covered enough for my first point.)

Secondly, Wick seems to be utterly unaware of how few words a mere 250 actually is.

Let’s consider for a moment, shall we?  250 words is roughly the range for an average three year old child (meaning that more precocious children are like to know far more), and there are noted cases of Shetland Sheep Dogs (Shelties, for the layman) that know upwards of 500 words in English.  Already, we’re seeing a bit of a problem going into this.  Here you have an entire race that has access to less words than a real world dog.  Sure, Shelties can’t speak all the words they know, but there is communication already going on.  (And with time and research, I would probably go on about how hard it would be for a creature to acquire a language that has orders of magnitude more words, but that’s well outside of my range of interest on this.)

In comparison, the created language of Klingon has over 3,000 words in its vocabulary, and it has been proven to be inadequate for actual communication.  Reference the somewhat informal study by d’Armon Speers, a linguist that tried to make his son a native speaker of Klingon.  While he was in the process of teaching his son this language, Speers made certain that he was simultaneously learning English so his cognitive development wouldn’t suffer.  The kid stopped speaking Klingon at around three years old, simply because it was too difficult to communicate basic ideas and allow him access to his world.  And this is a language with over twelve times as many words.  Not only does this not make sense, it implies that Gnolls are functionally retarded as a species, since language development is tied heavily to cognitive development.  (This goes back to my notation of how difficult it would be to learn a language other than your own.  It’s already made very difficult by not being able to speak; throw in some learning disabilities, and it becomes outright impossible.)

Then there’s the corollary that, by obviating adjectives of all kinds, Gnolls are unable to rationally recite any form of direction or history to another.  The implication is that there is no method of differentiation, rendering all trees and rocks and opponents as being a single concept for each.  In doing so, there’s no ability to return to a place that they have been, since without such nuance, all things blur together.  Hells, at this point, they rank behind honey bees in most cognitive areas, since colors are also apparently off this list as well.  Past and present cease to exist without notational modifiers, and so on.  (And Wick also makes a point to note that Gnolls don’t really keep track of time.  Ugh.)  It gets stupid real fast.

Looking through the entry on Gnolls, it seems that about a third of the non-food language has already been defined by Wick in the process of yammering on about Gnoll Linguistics.  Further, another 10% of the non-food language just goes to talking about the moons.  As such, we’re up to about forty of our one hundred words, and honestly, we’re running out of any ability to actually interact with the world.  (It also should be noted that he defines many of the words using the verboten adjectives, which I find fascinating.  Why state such a stupid rule, only to immediately break it?  Or are we going to hide behind ‘running’ and ‘slow running’ as completely separate words, like the oft-repeated saw about Inuit and their extensive vocabulary about snow?)

Then there’s the notation that Gnolls are Charismatic, to the point that they gain a +2 to the Attribute at character creation.  This is such amazing idiocy, given the rest of the text and the noisome short story.  When he says that other races term them as dirty and unclean, I must immediately take issue.  I would accept that they have a bonus of some sort amongst their own kind, as Gnolls would be better disposed to dealing with other Gnolls, but how in six hells does a scavenger race that has clear analogues to hyenas get a bonus to deal with other races that view them as filthy or accursed?  It boggles the mind.

So, there you go.  Wick’s all caught up on defining these races according to their racial linguistics, and he doesn’t grasp the basic parts of how stupid his contentions truly are.  It’s one thing to take an interesting idea like a race guide and make it dreadfully dull treatise on language in the process.  It’s quite another to fuck it up this badly.

A Momentary Glimpse of Frothing Madness

In my digital travels, I occasionally happen upon certain reviews or responses to criticism.  I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition reviews in the run-up to publication, hoping that any of the hype will be worth listening to.  As it happens, there’s nothing to back any of the ‘greatest game ever published’ up, and my fears are that we’re going to be subjected to another sub-standard game that managed to ignore the feedback and playtesting that it went through in order to produce a vanilla game with vaguely updated rules.  (As far as I can tell, the ‘open beta’ nature of the playtest rules served as much to put people in mind of how Pathfinder successfully did their early marketing as anything else.  There are threads on RPG.net that talk about how a number of well-received game mechanics got arbitrarily cut; something that I’ve been hearing for a while now.)

An early post by i09, dating back nearly two and a half years, talks about how the design docs for D&D Next were aiming to ‘unify the D&D audience’ with the idea of a single ruleset that would take into consideration the play styles and complexity of the different editions of Dungeons & Dragons.  One discussion with Monte Cook invoked a session where players of differing levels of interest could play at the same table, even though one person had a character sheet with a half-dozen different stats and another had one that looked closer to a spreadsheet.  If it had worked, it would have done what the early indications had promised.

None of this early hype will come to pass.  The unification that had been promised was the brainchild of Monte Cook, and its day is long done.  These days, the biggest point of interest that seems to be touted is that there will be plenty of dragons in Dungeons & Dragons.

Um… yay?  Way to flex that brand, guys.

And yeah, I’ve been accused of playing with Edition Wars in my posts.  I don’t deny that I have favorite editions, but it’s not like I’m coming into this whole thing unaware or unwilling to flex.  I dislike 4e because I don’t feel that it is a product that fits my play style or the interests of my players.  But I will also note that I’ve tried my damnedest to find a hook for the system, even if I don’t agree with its design principles.  I don’t jump out of my chair to play OSR games because I’ve done my time in those trenches and see no reason to go back to that well.  I don’t begrudge people being able to enjoy the stripped down rulesets, but I don’t see them as being superior in any way.

And as a point of note, I’m not going to defend D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder as being the apex of game design.  I like them both very much, but each has their own flaws.  Pathfinder cleaned up a lot of things that I felt could have been better streamlined, so that’s good.  In the mean time, they left in a lot of things that I don’t outright agree with, and there’s a compiled set of house rules that our group keeps and abides by.  I’ll gladly listen to what people have to say about these particular iterations of the game, and more often than not, I can add my own criticisms to the fire.

But in all of these, I’ve tried to put my time in on a game, usually through play, to get my facts straight.  Yeah, I’m an opinionated jackass, but I’d like to think that my opinions are based in experience.

Which brings me to something I ran across this last week.

Earlier, I discussed John Wick in terms of his newest Kickstarter, Wield.  I waded through the video pitch for the game, and I was treated to Live Action hand gestures and dopey conversations about ‘negotiation’ being the core of the game.  Initially, this upset me, as Wick is one of those vague legends in gaming.  Personally, I own probably close to 100 books that derive from his game design (namely Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea), the value of which I dare not even contemplate.  (Granted, some of those have gone down in value, which forms part of my hesitancy, but 7th Sea books go stupid expensive.  And being that I have the entire run of that, as well as all four editions of L5R, it starts to get pricey.)

See, I only really know Wick from his early days at AEG.  I had, up to this point, managed to ignore most everything that he did independently, although I was aware of Orkworld.  (One of these days, I’ll sit down and read through that one, just for the sake of a review, but his opinion of it far outshone anyone else’s outlook on it.)  And since I hadn’t paid much attention to his games or opinions since that point, I was hit squarely in the teeth by my very own lost expectations.

Since then, I’ve been reading about Wick through the memory of the Internet.  There are reasons that I keep this blog vaguely anonymous, so that anything I say herein is that much harder to attach directly to my own actual identity and presence in the gaming industry.  I also refrain from saying anything as amazingly stupid as Wick manages to.

Back sometime in 2000, Wick posted a rambling screed about his superiority as a game designer and a writer and a person and so on, the thrust of which aimed directly at the popularity and hype about Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition.  Part of it dealt with his hurt feelings about how Orkworld (including, oddly, a point where he intimated that if a reviewer was to receive a review copy, they’re obligated to give the product a glowing and verbose review), part of it went on about his opinions on the art and layout of the books, and part of it whined about how there were too many rules.  There was a point where I debated whether or not he would have liked the new edition better if he’d actually had the proper prescription for his glasses, since he talked at length about how badly his eyes hurt trying to read the text.

All of this is fine and good.  And if he’d stuck to such things, it would have been a valid opinion piece.  As it were, he rambled a lot getting to these points, but it’s an opinion, and there doesn’t need to be any support beyond ‘I don’t like it’ for it to float.  For what it’s worth, I stuck with it all the way through, waiting for him to dazzle me with some actual idea that would give me something to think about.  (In the mean time, I’m wondering if his editors at AEG were the reason anything he’d written was actually readable.  The signal to noise ratio was startlingly low.)

And then it got crazy.

When I say crazy, I’m not talking about the harmless ‘isn’t it crazy weather we’re having’ sort of crazy.  I’m talking about the sort of crazy that may or may not harm you as you look for a safe way to exit the room crazy.  Wick had already crossed a couple of lines when he was yammering on about how superior Orkworld was as a product, but I can allow for some disillusionment when you believe in a product, only to watch it fail.  The gaming industry was busily focused on something that will have serious repercussions for years to come.  It’s hardly a surprise that a fantasy RPG published the same year as 3rd Edition would get overshadowed.

The crazy I’m talking about here is the complete disconnect with reality that Wick undergoes in his screed, when he starts to yammer about how he’s going to revolutionize the gaming industry with this one new product.  He’s going to make everyone stand up and take notice, holding his superior game design up as being the golden standard by which all D20 games should be and must be judged against.  And since it’s already been published, it should be obvious that I’m talking about …

Wicked Press, What’s That Smell?

Seriously.  That was what was going to, in his words, make gamers ‘hold that book up at the steps of Wizards Central and shout at the top of their lungs: “Why can’t you make something this good?”

If you haven’t heard of it, don’t feel bad.  In fact, don’t worry too much about it at all.  I’ve seen occasioned reviews of the module here and there, and people have … liked it.  Sorta.  Enough to buy it and talk about it, but not much else.  It certainly didn’t change gaming from this point forward.  And it didn’t steal away the customer base from Wizards of the Coast because people saw how poor and uninspired a product 3rd Edition was.

At one other point, he also talked about how there were more people at GenCon playing the L5R card game than Magic and Pokemon combined.  So, yeah.  Delusional, perhaps to the point of derangement.

Why I Don’t Play Some Games With the Fans of the Game

Over the years, I’ve come to a strange epiphany on things, when it comes to the individual passions of gamers.  If the game in question is the one system or world for which they exist as a gamer, I’m probably not going to want to play in their sessions.  On the surface, it would seem like a great idea, being as they know the ins and outs of the dice and the world better than pretty much anyone around, but the reality is that they’ve gone beyond what can be gleaned from the actual text of the rules into a strange and shadowy underworld where only they know The One True Way.  Their various years with the source material have given them a very particular view on how things need to be done within the scope of the game, and woe betides any who stray from this.

Naturally, none of this applies to me.  If I love a game, I’m obviously the best person to run it.

All joking aside, this particular phenomenon is one that I’ve run into more times than I really want to admit to, and each time it crops up, I quietly sidle away from the conversation and make a dignified retreat.  There’s nothing that I can add to the discussion, and the longer I manage to linger on the periphery, the more likely it is that I’m going to just advance an unpopular theory.

I’d edged around the subject with my post on Werewolf, but in its way, I ended up actually first encountering the idea with a group of Axis & Allies players, of all things.

A friend of mine had been talking about how he had a steady group of Axis & Allies players that met on a regular basis to play, managing to keep a monthly game going on since high school.  They’d played all sides so many times that they tended to shortcut a lot of the opening moves and knew each others’ strategy well enough to plan out most of the game from the first selection of armies.  Since I’d wanted to hang out and casually throw dice on a game that I had only played once or twice, this pretty well killed my interest.  I was looking to sharpen up my understanding of the rules, and they were debating higher philosophy.

Now in this instance, it was a case of skill and experience that scared me off, as much as the ingrained ways of playing the game that the group in question had settled into.  For RPG’s, similar principles apply, but the practice delves much more into the thematic outlook of the play group.

In the case of my Werewolf game, I ran into conflicts on a couple of occasions, when the players felt that the way the game unfolded was at odds with their perceptions of things.  One player, in an earlier game, ran headlong into the general incompetence of the other characters.  I’d specifically gone out of my way to allow the players to build their PC’s in whatever ways made sense to them without any experience with the game.  I would answer questions, but the larger issues and game essential tweaks were left out.  This was to attempt to get an organic character out of the new guys, rather than one that was optimized for the system.  I wanted a group of largely unaware Garou that had no idea why they were being initiated into the World of Darkness, rather than one that mysteriously knew all of the skills that were necessary for Being A Werewolf.

This meant that skills like Primal Urge were left at zero, in favor of skills that actually made sense for the mortal life of the character.  (For those who are unaware, Primal Urge serves as the skill that allows the Garou to physically shift into, well, werewolves.  Without this skill, it’s a lot harder to transform.)

This fit with the scope of the game, where the characters are the scattered foundlings that were largely ignored by the greater Garou society.  To the experienced player that knew how to best build a character for the game, this was wholly maddening.  He had a narrowly ascribed outlook on what was needed for a workable character, and to watch the new guys flail around without better direction was almost unthinkable.

Then there came the player I referenced in the previous post.  He’d come at the game from a Live Action perspective, and the ways in which I put together an end-times game made absolutely no sense to him.  He’d come in with the idea of a lot of inter-tribal conflict, and when it was a weird conspiracy to herald the Apocalypse, he was pretty well lost.

The worst example, however, came with the locally based groups that focused on Legend of the Five Rings.

I like L5R.  But since I’ve actually spent time in Japan, my outlook on the game is nothing like the local perception of things.  The local people sink into the novels and the fanfics that arise out of the game, to the point that its lore has become integral to every aspect of the game.  If a newly built character doesn’t conform to the carefully defined history that the rest of the people know backwards and forwards, it’s pretty well unacceptable.  (“Obviously your ancestor wasn’t at the Battle of the Three Rivers, since my old character was in that game and the official fiction tells us that there were no other members of the Unicorn Clan that survived.”)

It gets a little weird.

At the same time, it’s what works for that group, and the way they play isn’t wrong.  My group has spent a lot of time with games like Exalted, to the point that they know the particulars of that setting better than most.  They would be unable to drop into a new game of that, since their ideas of the way that world works would set them at odds with most.  It’s just how it happens.

Using the wrong game for the right story

I had intended this as an aside in my previous post about Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, but it occurred to me that I might as well spend a little more time on the idea and give it a little space to breathe, in case someone wanted to emulate my ideas overall.

As noted, there’s already a game system in place for running games set in George R. R. Martin’s world, replete with fantastic rules for intrigues, all manner of setting details and plot hooks, and a solid system to work everything with.  But since this is a relatively recent thing, I’d already given time and motion to a back-up system.  Go figure.  I started reading the books back in 2003, and about halfway through the first one, I was already trying to figure out what sort of personal touches I would give a game, were I to run the saga in some way.

At its heart, Game of Thrones is a war story, one that comes in the aftermath of two previous wars, the aftereffects of which have scarred the main characters heavily.  Robert sits upon the Iron Throne only because he was forced by the events of the previous war to take control.  Ned serves Robert because his loyalties to his family and his fostered brother demand that he must.  He is forced out of retirement, into a viper’s nest of courtly intrigues and vicious plots, because he knows that it’s the only way to keep the peace.  He’s one of the greatest swordsmen Westeros has ever seen, but he’s stuck in the midst of a number of entangling conspiracies without a way to cut himself free.  And he sticks with it, not because he’s got any skill at dealing with this situation but because the alternatives are too awful to consider.  And we discover that, no matter one’s noble intentions, even heroes can get in over their heads.

We all know what happens then.  The great houses of Westeros rise in war, the tangled histories and alliances moving across the board to settle old scores and reinforce current loyalties.  Human pettiness drives many of the characters towards their own personal ruin, even as a supernatural threat in the north threatens the entirety of the continent.  And save for a few people, there’s very little concern about these legends.

Everything in Westeros is defined by which house a character owes their loyalty to, either by blood or by oath.  While there is an element of magic and the supernatural, most of the game works in a low fantasy milieu.  There are themes of honor and duty interwoven throughout the story, as motivations for several of the characters.

Naturally, the best game at the time to play this was the Legend of the Five Rings RPG.

At first blush, it’s a weird direction to take things, but it does make sense.  By moving the War of the Roses into a broad samurai epic, you end up with a very workable set-up.  The same themes of personal honor and one’s duty to one’s house remain intact, and the clans work as a solid interpretation of the houses of Westeros.  There’s plenty of system available in L5R to manage both the personal combat and the massive battles, and a war for the throne is one that’s played out multiple times in the established game fiction.  The only real difference, to be honest, is determining how much magic the GM wants to allow into the campaign.

What’s even more fun is that the clans allow for a solid one-to-one conversion in a lot of cases, with only minor bits of adjustment required to build things up correctly.  The Crab stand in for the Night’s Watch, guarding the land from a terrible threat that only they seem to take seriously.  The Lion are something of a gimme to stand in for the Lions of Casterly Rock, the Lannisters.  During their time of exile, the Unicorn stand as the rough, horse adapted barbarians – a clear analogue for the Dothraki.  With a little bit of adaptation, the Scorpion can work as the Dornishmen, and the Mantis could become the Ironborn.  And the Cranes allow for an expanded role for characters like Littlefinger and the Arryns.  Honestly, the only gaps in this conversion are what to do with the Dragon and Phoenix, and where to slot in Houses Stark and Baratheon.  Thematically, it would make sense to drop the Targaryens into Dragon, but that’s a whole lot more work to pull off, given the whole ‘house in exile’ motif that Daenerys has going for her.

From there, it just becomes a matter of filling in the history and building motivations for the individual characters in the game.  Fifteen years earlier, the elders of the clans rose up and overthrew the Hantei dynasty over a slight to the honor of one of the houses.  The few remaining scions of the dynasty fled to the Burning Sands, while a new Emperor was installed to rule over the Empire.  Some time later, a Mantis clan rebellion caused another minor war, and the clans rose again to bring them in line.  Since then, peace has held, more or less.

In the mean time, the last heir to the Hantei dynasty, convinced that the people of Rokugan eagerly await the return of their exiled ruler, has made alliances with the Unicorn clan, in exile as well, and prepare to march on the Empire.  And the Crane clan, sensing weakness in the distracted Emperor, has started a number of conspiracies to bend the Empire to their ends.  Meanwhile, the Crab clan has noted an army of the undead massing to overwhelm the wall, and they’ve dispatched a number of emissaries to the capital for assistance.  So far, they have been ignored, as the clans start to move towards war amongst themselves as old wrongs are starting to be settled.

Cue dramatic music, and toss the characters into the mix.  Each clan has its own agenda in the upcoming war, whether it happens to be an unavenged assassination during the previous war or a thwarted marriage recently.  Personally, I would start things off slowly, hinting at the simmering tensions and allowing the player characters to try their hands at unraveling the alliances and rivalries that are to form the basis of the war itself.

While they could all be members of a single clan that’s trying to pull apart the tangle of interwoven plots, it might not be a bad model to let the traditional L5R game model – characters of a scattering of clans – work in as well.  This would allow the players to be drawn into the larger plots under the directives of their clan elders, often putting them at odds with their own allies as they navigate the larger conflict.

This is one of those game ideas that I really, really like and doubt that I will ever get around to actually running.  I’ve got a substantial collection of Legend of the Five Rings RPG books, but it’s one of those game that I never really get around to running for myself.