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A Scattering of Things, Most of Which are Unrelated

The final episode of Game of Thrones, Season 4 aired last night.  Apparently, it’s longer than usual, weighing in at some 66 minutes.  That adds some ten odd minutes to the show, apparently because they couldn’t edit the episode down any closer without sacrificing needed scenes or details.  The showrunners, Benioff & Weiss have claimed that this will be one of the finest episodes of the show, ever.  It’s an interesting claim, and I’m specifically avoiding the internet until such point as I can watch it for myself to judge.

Mind you, I’ve read the original books repeatedly, years before the show came to air, so there won’t be too many surprises.  I know roughly what ground they will have to cover (and to be honest, I’d assumed that a couple of these would have been covered in Episode 9, which has been the traditional place for the massive plot reveals), so it will be interesting to see how it’s dealt with.  And given the way this season has unfolded, I’m wondering if there will be any new details or events that weren’t covered in the books.  I mean, we already got info on the Night’s King, so maybe there will be something of similar import.

Included with relevant Game of Thrones news is the recent release of yet another Gardner Dozois anthology, which has become the standard platform for Martin to release new Westerosi fiction.  The first two ‘Dunk & Egg’ novellas were released in other anthologies, but The Mystery Knight, The Princess and the Queen, and The Rogue Prince have been in the three cross-genre anthologies.  While the ‘Dunk & Egg’ series deals with the adventures of Aegon the Unlikely as a squire, the newest two novellas (Princess and Queen, Rogue Prince) deal with the earlier period of history when a civil war broke out within the Tagaryen dynasty, a time referred to as ‘The Dance of Dragons’ (and not to be confused with the most recent ASoIaF novel).

How does this tie back to RPG’s?  Well, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and re-reading Martin’s books and short fiction as a means to try to make sense of his world and the way the characters and ruling houses fit together.  The books that most people know deal with a weird period of Westeros history, in that there isn’t a Targaryen king on the Iron Throne, and the atmosphere in the Seven Kingdoms has settled into an uneasy acceptance of another king’s rule.  (Of course, anyone familiar with the deeper lore of the series and House Baratheon in particular will note that they do have a Targaryen lineage, as Robert’s grandmother was the daughter of Aegon the Unlikely.  But I digress.)  All of the previous stories deal with periods where the Targaryen kings are unchallenged and rule, for the most part, wisely.

It’s been my firm conviction that Westeros is George Martin’s personal campaign world, as the backdrop that he uses in the novels is incredibly detailed on extremely unimportant minutiae, the kind of which would organically grow out of a long-running campaign.  As such, when I sit down to build a campaign set in that world, I want to be as aware of those sorts of minor aspects as I can, same as I would study the different parts of Sandpoint and Magnimar in a game set in Varisia or the city layout of Chiba, Japan, were I to run a game based on Neuromancer.

And well, I’m almost as much of a fanboy for A Song of Ice and Fire as I used to be for Star Wars.  It’s just how I’m wired, I guess.

In other news, the Kickstarter for the updated Book of the Wyrm for Werewolf 20 has gone live.  Naturally, it’s met its funding already, so we’re down to figuring out which stretch goals are going to be promised, listening to the various shills for cheap POD’s and t-shirts, and wondering how much they’ll miss the shipping date by.  They’ve taken to just promising a one year turnaround, instead of offering even more unreasonable lies to comfort their backers with.

Of the outstanding and undelivered product, we’re about a month away from the one year anniversary of Changing Breeds for W20, and I’m doubting that it’s going to show up before August.  We just hit the one year mark for Exalted 3rd Edition, and our most recent updates still talk about sections being written and playtested.  Current estimates put it as being ready to print sometime around October, at best guess.  Given the way that Onyx Path has mangled their shipping in the past (there’s a fascinating update on the W20 page about how the guy that was supposed to handle getting the books sent out to the European backers managed to lose them when he moved into a new house), there’s every chance that we’ll hit a two year delivery on this damned thing.

So, generally what this means is that W20 only showed up some time in January of 2014, after having been funded in November of 2012.  Between funding and delivery, they managed to kick another project, Changing Breeds, as of July of last year.  That still hasn’t shown up, and now we’re looking at the plea for Book of the Wyrm, which we can be fairly certain will not show up by July of 2015.

And hilariously enough, there are plenty of White Wolf apologists that are shouting down the critics on the backer threads, as they desperately want to play the white knight for a company that repeatedly tries to soak them for more money without actually producing anything on a timely basis.  Even as the company includes such stretch goals as ‘give these guys a vacation’ and ‘give these guys more money’, neither of which are apparently against Kickstarter terms of service.

I would say that I wonder about these people and the weirdly idealized world they claim to live in, but I’m not really blameless in any of this myself.  I mean, most of the reason that I know as much as I do about the Exalted boondoggle is that I personally funded it.

Granted, I loathe myself for giving them money, as I’m pretty sure that the design direction that they’re intending to go in with the product is asinine and horrible.  But at the same time, I’m willing to see if they can pull off any of the ideas that they sold as being this endeavor.  At the end of it all, I’ll end up with a fiercely collectable book that I can later sell off without regret.


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.

A Difference of Expectations

Some time back, I was running a Werewolf game.  Standard White Wolf, standard World of Darkness.  Or at least, I was thinking that way on my end.  I’ve spent a lot of time reading through the worldset of most White Wolf games, and of the lot of them, I like Werewolf best, for whatever it’s worth.  There’s something innately wonderful about having a game where the characters are cast as the last, best hope of humanity…

… and they’re pretty sure they’re not up to the task of saving the world.

The way it’s written, Werewolf is a pretty grim game.  The Garou were tasked with trying to protect the world from the strange and primal forces that were responsible for its creation in the first place.  The natural world is severely out of balance, things are speeding toward their end (the Apocalypse in the game’s title), and there’s really nothing that any of the characters can really do about it.  Depending on the scope of the game, they can either engage in inter-tribal political nonsense, pick fights with the local McDonald’s franchise, or simply stand back and watch everything burn around them.  For the most part, there are no happy endings.

What’s interesting about this is that most groups I’ve talked to have never conceptualized the game this way.  In fact, most people who are really heavily invested in the Old World of Darkness games tend to shy away from the deeper context of the game they’re playing in order to play things a lot more light-hearted.  Vampire games focus on the local politics of a given city’s night life, rather than looking too closely at the fading bits of humanity that hearken back to the game’s origins with Anne Rice.  Werewolf games venture pretty deeply into the Gifts and physical powers that one’s birthright as a Garou afford them, angling away from the very destruction of the world and loss of culture into what one reviewer described as being ‘furry Superfriends’.  And Mage?  Yeah, that game went all over the place in its heyday, veering sharply off the street level urban decay and its goal of winning the hearts and minds of humanity.  Some games went heavily into Umbral exploration, with games that might as well have been described as ‘Starfleet versus Cthulhu’ as anything else.

For my part, I like the idea of Werewolf because I love the lore that follows it.  The Garou are fuck-ups.  Their very Rage is what screwed them over in their role as protectors of mother earth, and only now are any of them waking up to the realization that it may be too late to pull out of the spin.  They were given great power and dominion, and for the last several centuries, they’ve used it mainly to kill each other.

This is where my games generally tend to start.

It’s made a lot more difficult when I have players that come into the game with a lot of preconceived notions about the way Garou society functions.  The last time I ran Werewolf, I’d managed to recruit a new player who’d recently moved into the area.  Nice guy, pretty level, and he had an extensive background in the various Live Action RPG societies that have grown up around World of Darkness.  He knew the lore, and that was the main problem.

The character that he built was a solid enough starting character.  He was a mystic, walking on the edge of human society and attuned to the spirits that lived in the dark corners of this grim reality.  Except that he really had no idea of how to play this character, even with his years of experience with the game.  He assumed that the character was a master of the arcane arts, despite his low starting stats, and he worked with the idea that the best way to fight the good fight was to stage an attack on the local Admiral gas station.  These are likely acceptable in most games, where the emphasis is on exactly how ass a 9-foot tall mass of snarling furry muscle can kick in a given round.

It didn’t really fly nearly so far in the game I had in mind.

For me, the core conflict in the game isn’t about how physically powerful the characters are; it’s about what they choose to do with it.  Most of the lore in Werewolf divides itself between the Old Ways, which the characters aspire to return to at some idyllic point, and the Modern Day, which has a host of struggles with a lot of seriously insignificant things.  Modern Day Garou are caught up in tribal politics and momentary distractions like whether or not the local burger joint is poisoning its clientele.  While they’re aware of the larger world going to shit around them, they’re not well equipped to deal with larger issues like that.  The game makes it pretty clear (to me, at least) that most of the reasons that the world has skidded this far into Apocalypse is because the Garou are caught up in Things That Do Not Matter.  If they’d put aside the petty differences and done their damned job, rather than wiping out the Werebats and Werepigs, things would not be this bad.

For the player in question, he didn’t consider how his actual, numerical stats factored into the entire equation.  He was actually running less spiritual awareness than the ridiculously powerful Korean Martial Artist Garou, yet he was working on the assumption that by merely signing up to learn about Spiritual Things, he’d have enough insight to carry himself forward.  It was actually pretty strange.

I have to assume, with this sort of reflection, that a good portion of how this player approached the game came from his long years in the Live Action community, where political maneuvering took precedent over many of the other aspects of the game.  Live Action centers itself pretty heavily on the inter-tribal machinations rather than the encoded aspects of a character’s actions and morality in the scope of a dying world.  And with my general disinterest in working up politics for this type of game, we were utterly at cross-purposes.  He was interested in aspects of a game I didn’t want to run, and the game I was trying to put forth were utterly alien to him.