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Wherein I Turn a Comment Thread into a Post on Things

Y’know, I try.  I really do.  When I sit down to comment on something, I figure that I’ll be able to throw some words down, offer a succinct reply to something that has been asked and go on with my day.  Then I look blearily up, see that I’ve already gotten into the 500-word range of things, and I have to bury my head in my hands.

Honestly, I blame all those years of writing papers.  And unpublished novels, probably.

Anyway.  My man, Gregory, wanted to talk about where White Wolf had gone wrong.  I”d recently talked about the new version of Exalted and how it was going to go in some particularly awful directions.  It’s no secret that I’m pretty well disgusted with the way that the new company, Onyx Path, has handled the new game, and this was where I sat down and actually tangled with some of the things I felt they were doing wrong.

It got a little lengthy.  And then it spilled over into a second post.  And I could have gone into more detail about even more issues that I had with the design team.  But for the sake of readability, I cut it short and went about my day.

In the mean time, Gregory offered the following:

I must ask, “At what point does the attempt at horror break down into just sickness?” I wonder if White Wolf made an error in creating the World of Darkness. The angst and despair that was new and innovative in role playing with Vampire: The Masquerade seems to have led the folks at White Wolf in deeper and ever increasing darkness in all of their products. They seem to be seeking ever larger level of shock value and are ever desensitizing themselves to the horror and degradation they are promoting in their own works.

World of Darkness is an interesting study in how games divert from their original purposes.  Vampire was based heavily on Anne Rice’s novels, with the original themes trying to capture the essence of what it was to be an impassioned creature trying desperately to hold onto a fading humanity.  The modern metagame has little to do with this, choosing instead to focus on the political machinations of running a city.  It’s way more of a Mafia simulator than a method of exploring what it means to be human in light of the horrible things you have to do to survive.  (In its way, I guess it would be like falling down an infinite hole.  Sure, it’s scary at first, but sooner or later it’s going to become a boring sort of experience that you have to look for ways to liven up.)

The same thing applies to all of their game lines.  Werewolf has similar themes of trying to balance humanity and ferocity as a means of trying to save your broken world.  Players tend to focus on the super powers you’re given, rather than the unfortunate aspects of being a wild animal that takes the form of a man.  And so on.

From where I’m standing (and as a means of getting around to your first question), the weird descent into depravity comes as an attempt to shock the audience into seeing these games for what they are, namely RPG’s where you’re playing the monster.  If players are complacent with the fact that they’re playing blood-drinking serial killers, then we have to make them … worse.  And if the players are comfortable with playing horrible sociopaths, we also have to make the enemies … worse.

And then for some reason, they also delve into weird bondage stuff.  Seriously.  It’s all over the place.

I’m not really sure how all the rape stuff happened.  There’s a fair amount of implication in the Vampire stuff, with the Disciplines like Dominate, but it pretty much sticks to the implications, rather than spelling out the awful aspects of the power.  All of this makes sense within the tableau of vampire literature, where the undead are portrayed as being seductive and irresistible, and it’s left up to the player and the GM to define what is an appropriate use of the power at the gaming table.  And that’s where it distills down to what everyone is comfortable with allowing to happen in play.  If everyone in the group is okay with that sort of behavior, so be it.  It’s their game, and it’s up to them to play it the way that they want to.  Not my thing, and to be honest, I have no interest in hearing about it.

But the final books of 2nd Edition Exalted decided to dive straight into the weird shit.  There’s an argument for the portrayal of the Infernal Exalts in this way as a means of firmly placing them in a spectrum of evilness and depravity, but this contention only holds water so long as they’re not playable characters.  Which they very specifically are, and this makes them one of the most popular books amongst certain parts of the Exalted audience.  Once they cross into the zone of actual playability, they lose the status of ‘antagonists that must be brought down at all costs’ and become something else entirely.

It’s showing my age, but I remember when the anti-D&D hysteria was at its peak.  I remember reading articles about the woman that created BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons), Patricia Pulling, was hosting lectures at one of the local police departments and talking about how role-playing games were gateways to worse elements and modes of behavior.  They tried to make the tenuous link that the demonic portrayals in D&D were a means of enacting weird Satanic rituals and swearing service to dark powers.  Nevermind that it pretty clearly spelled out that such monsters were meant to be foes for the noble and forthright Clerics and Paladins that actually were playable.  She argued that because such creatures are portrayed in the books, even as dire antagonists, this means that the books are trying to glorify them in some way or another.

In its own fascinating way, it actually got me branded as a Satanist in the small town where I grew up.  I spent the entirety of my high school life as something of an outsider because I played a silly little game about wizards and knights and rogues.  It got to the point that the high school counselor assumed I would be dead well before I was able to graduate, likely from suicide.  (This was well before the events at Columbine, so at least they didn’t assume that I was going to shoot up the place.)

What’s weird is that White Wolf has made it a point to try to fulfill these expectations.  In their own way, they’ve tried at points to become the game that BADD was trying to warn parents about, back in the day.  It might be a thumbing of the nose at the general powerlessness of this movement to suppress the hobby, but it comes across as being less of a work of social commentary than an outlet for actual sociopathy.  And where Vampire offers the tools for the players to make murderers and rapists and sich, Exalted took it one step further and encouraged the players to make even worse characters.  Dominate suggests coercion and implies the possibility, where the Abyssals preview simply spells it all out, leaving little doubt as to what was intended with these powers.  Indeed, there’s not much else that any of these could be used for.

So, where does it cross over from being horror into just being sick?  I guess the answer would be ‘when they have to spell it out for the players’.  It’s when they actively go out of their way to make sure that everyone’s forced to play the same awful game about date rape and snuff films.  It’s when the toolbox comes with its own sidebar of suggestions of how to best go about using the tools to degrade another character and make them a puppet of your will in graphic detail.

Or y’know, when they include the powers that let you gain a benefit from raping someone to death, turn them into a rape ghost and send them out to rape in your name.  That might be where it crosses the line.  That might be the point where it finally goes just a little too far into the weird shit.

Or worse, it might just be the point where the people responsible for writing this come out with a defense of this sort of product, telling people to get a grip and deal with it.  Because hey, if you don’t like games with that much rape in them, then it’s your problem for not understanding what a ‘mature’ game is all about.  It’s not about the raw moral implications of your actions and their consequences or the price that must be paid for power.  It’s about how many different ways you can rape someone.

In the mean time, they’re still smugly telling me about how much better a game this version is, about how much they have playtested it, and how the old edition is awful.  None of which is actually true, but it’s their story, not mine.

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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.

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.

Painting realism on the unreal

A dear friend of mine, who also happens to be an award winning game designer, once talked about hosting a deep and professional discussion about game design with a ban on terms like ‘immersive’ and ‘realism’.  There’s an awful lot of time and ink spent on trying to capture certain genies in certain bottles, even though the standard buy-in for a game has a lot more to do with how much fun the particular system and setting are going to be to play in.  While there’s a certain logic to trying to emulate recognizable real world effects within the scope of an RPG, it falls flat in the face of cinematic action and physics breaking magic.

Even in more real world based games, such as White Wolf’s different Worlds of Darkness, there’s a tendency to want to fall back on what would happen in reality, even though there’s no logical precedent given the nature of that specific reality.  Yes, there are parallels, but at the end of the day, people in the World of Darkness are used to frequent and unsolvable disappearances, shorter lifespans, and a whole host of secrets that are statistically unavoidable.  While a cursory glance at the world seems to suggest that it’s only mildly different than Real Life, the massive amounts of basic setting bloat tells a much different story.

Consider:  In Vampire, there are 13 main Clans, most of which have representatives in every major city.  There are a similar amount of Werewolf Tribes and Mage Factions.  In addition, the Mages have their counterparts in the form of the Technocracy, which gravitates to places of high technology and business like cities.  And Werewolves have their counterparts in the different Changing Breeds (another 13 types, if you include everything that was made extinct as well) and the forces of the Wyrm, which were supposed to be completely pervasive.  As in, most corporations were in thrall to the Wyrm, from McDonald’s to Hasbro to Budweiser to Dow Chemicals to Pfizer, as rendered in White Wolf equivalents as subsidiaries to Pentex.  Running counter to all of this are the Hunters, who are either normal humans with a dangerous amount of information or supernatural characters with invested powers and mysterious patrons.  This is not to factor any amount of Psychics, Wraiths, Changelings, Demons or otherwise.

Working on any basis of the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory, you’ve got sixty some separate power groups and a huge corporate interest that’s lurking literally everywhere (and anyone who works at McDonald’s is likely to run some level of Wyrm taint, so that net is cast pretty wide), meaning that everyone is aware of some aspect of the larger secret world regardless of what the texts want you to believe.

So, with that in mind, how do you inject reality in a world with such unreal potential?

There’s a statistical notation that a 911 Emergency Call takes an average of 58 minutes to respond to and the police force has a rate of 8.7% for their ability to solve cases.  For our world, this is a bleak sort of reality for a bankrupt city and an overworked police force, with a declining population and a ridiculous amount of urban blight.

I have to assume that this sort of statistical notation would be standard in a World of Darkness game, from the view point of the average citizen.  Most crimes would be unsolvable (how exactly do you write up a police report when a Werewolf in full Crinos has Raged his way through a trailer park?), the city government would be in thrall to the high end vampire councils that run the city from the shadows, and violent crimes would be an everyday occurrence from the influence of the Wyrm.

Outside of the cities, it becomes weirder, as the Werewolf and Changing Breed populations have tried to corner the market on anything that’s remotely wilderness for the sake of keeping their breeding populations stable.  Sure, there are less in the way of Vampires to muck about with the city council, but there’s a lot more potential to attract the more subtle influences.  In specific, the small towns in World of Darkness America are implied to be the resting place of the Urban Legends sort of darkness, things outside of the standard game lines.

At this point, it comes down to the purposes of the game itself.  A true and proper World of Darkness requires that it rains when the night is darkest, and there’s no one there to hear your screams when you need them.  It’s about the basic style of the world, where services like the utility companies only fail when it’s dramatic and the police are open to bribes if the player characters seem convincing enough.

This sort of mechanism pretty much necessitates that the player expectations are met, even though there’s nothing else to suggest that the world should work this way.  As a GM more accustomed to the older methods of doing things, this starts to stray into a territory where most of the narrative is at the mercy of your players.  But unless there’s a good reason for it to work another way, there’s simply no harm in letting this control slip.  Even in a game where there is no mechanism to allow the players to alter the nature of the world, it can be a lot easier on the GM to let the players make the suggestions that keep everything running on the same tracks as their perceptions.

For my purposes, this would come about organically, with the players offering suggestions on things as they moved through the baselines of the world.  It could be done in varying levels of subtlety, ranging from casual observations of their reactions to things (“This shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes for the police to arrive”) to outright inquiries of what the players figure should happen.

This has the added effect of allowing the GM to underscore the grim nature of the setting when these expectations are not met.  If you know what the players have come to expect from the different aspects of the game, it will create a subtle tension when something goes wrong.  And even minor things, like a delay in emergency responders or a busy signal with the cable company, can prey on the minds of the players and characters alike.