Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Aslan Poetry

(Note: This is a translated form of an Aslan Yoyeaokhtef, which is an artform that combines poetry, calligraphy, and drama. The calligraphic elements are missing, of course, the translation is imperfect, and the poetic ornament does not carry over well. Still, it should get across the general meaning and some of the beauty of the artwork, which was created in the wake of a specific incident.)

The bright flower shivers
In the shadow of the grazing cow.*
I pounce and preserve its fragile beauty.

*"Cow" is the closest Anglic word available to represent the Aslan term for a grazing meat animal native to Kusyu. It is seen as quite stupid and so frequently is used to represent dishonorable persons.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Not Everyone Thinks The Same Way

This is going to meander for a bit, so bear with me as I slowly move toward the point.

A long time ago, I played my first game of Pendragon. I had heard about it, of course, but it was my first opportunity to actually play the game. Now, one thing I've never been secretive about, but which I don't bring up unless it's relevant, is that I'm a "pagan", or polytheist. When atheists bring up the argument that "we all don't believe in Zeus, why not just not believe in one more god?", I'm left laughing, because I "believe" in Zeus (as it were - "belief" is a complex subject for me; suffice it to say that I "believe" in Zeus in the same way that someone else might "believe" in the Prime Minister of Japan), among other gods. This is relevant because, when we were making characters, I found out that I could play a "pagan" knight in Pendragon. That was pretty cool to me, since at the time I was still just finding out that there were other polytheists in the modern, Western world, so of course I made a pagan knight as my character.

Here's the thing about people who are coming into an identity, and it was true of me at the time: they tend to be pretty intense. Since they are finding self-definition in terms of that identity, they tend to see everything in terms of that identity and relations to that identity. It's kinda like the old saw that when all you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails. Anyway, at the time, I was pretty strongly involved in my identity as a polytheist or pagan. Another thing about identity is that, when a person is strongly involved in it, people who don't belong to that identity are something of a threat. They either challenge that identity or create a boundary that reinforces that identity. It is pretty easy, actually, to force the challenging factors to conform to the reinforcement role by treating them as opposing forces. That is, someone who is not part of that identity can be either someone who presents an opportunity for deeper thinking about that identity and so deepen our connection to that identity (but this has two drawbacks: first, it is difficult work, and second, it can cause us to reject the identity), or they can be an opposing force that causes us to entrench more strongly in that identity. We can force people from the first category into the second by redefining them as "enemies". It is also possible to force people from the second category into the first, but that requires a subtlety of approach that is very rare (though it can be learned).

So, here I am, playing a pagan knight, with all of this identity matter still running hard in my head (I think I can't have identified as pagan for more than about 5-8 years at that point, and my serious involvement must have been less than 2). The scenario was set at a tournament, at which there were (of course) both Christian and pagan knights. Step by inexorable step, I found myself building a narrative where my pagan knight - and the other pagan knights were following my lead here - was in opposition to the Christian knights.

The thing is, in Pendragon, there isn't a strong theme of pagan vs. Christian. The GM of the game also didn't really want to deal with that theme. So, his first reaction to this development was to tell us that there wasn't a big pagan vs. Christian vibe at the tournament or in the world at large. He quickly backed off of that, to his credit, but that initial reaction, to try to control how the players reacted to the world, was an interesting one in retrospect.

At the time, gaming was starting to move in the direction of "story" that would ultimately result in the White Wolf concentration (in theory, at least) to the extent of redefining the Referee as a Storyteller, and then to the modern "story games" that bear only slight resemblance to the earliest adventure games. As a result, the idea that the GM was presenting a story within which the players would have some interactive power was becoming fashionable. This is a perfectly valid way to play this sort of game, of course, but the reaction of the GM of that Pendragon game is particularly interesting in that he stepped back from imposing his story. His impulse was to ask the players to head back to the story he wanted, but he chose instead, at least ultimately, to allow the players to lead the game where they wanted it to go, for good or ill.

For me, this was a critical moment in my gaming history. I started at that point to see that the "storytellers" in a roleplaying game were the players. The Referee was not the storyteller (though I would be derailed from this train of thought by White Wolf, and later by story games, for a while), who instead resembled something more like an editor.

What that long-ago Pendragon GM should have done, rather than tell us that "there's not really an opposition between pagans and Christians", which was basically telling us what our characters should be thinking, was to either let us run with what we wanted our characters to think (to be fair, that's what he did, in the end) or to, at most, present an NPC authority who would try to guide our characters. For instance, an older Druid priest who gave our knights guidance and tried to smooth over our conflicts of religion by, I don't know, teaching us about the Grail or the way that the Christians' idea of the Crucifixion resembles the native ideas of the King in the Ground (such as the head of Bendigeidvran, buried and protecting the island of Britain from invaders until it was disinterred). It's because not every person in a game world is going to be seeing things the same way. Like in our world, where on the one hand you have people like the Quakers, who are Christian, but also people like Fred Phelps, who is also Christian. Which one of them is correct? Sure, most people would pick the Quakers as better people, but the Phelps family are still Christians. There isn't a GM out there telling them that Christians don't think that way, but there are people (and perhaps spirits, if you accept that sort of thing) who are, and people who are telling them the opposite. It's still down to the Phelps family members, though, as to what they choose. If they did not have those choices, then they would not be responsible for them. Similarly, players should be responsible for the choices they make for their characters, and if the GM is making decisions for them, then why are they playing? (That gets a little more complex when morale and temptation systems come into play, or the personality trait system from Pendragon, but that's a topic for another time.) That's one of the reasons that I think the Alignment system as presented in AD&D is a problem and should be discarded.

Which is me coming back again to the idea of the sandbox, where the players are allowed to have their characters do what they want those characters to do. The environment can react to the characters, and there can even be NPCs with goals who actively affect the environment, but the environment shouldn't be altered for metagame reasons (that is, it should follow the classic idea that, if there are six trolls in a room on the third level of a dungeon, then if a single 1st level character shows up there will be six trolls, and if 20 10th level characters show up there will be six trolls, but if the trolls have been attacked and send for help from the hobgoblins there might be an additional 20 hobgoblins along with the surviving trolls the next time the players show up; I guess that one is a pretty big room).

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Little Bit Of A Personal Gaming Update

I have a number of projects ongoing, and some news on my own gaming front. Since I can't seem to sit down and write content that I want to put up on this here blog thing, I guess that a personal update is in order.

In general, I am doing a lot less than I would like to be. In part, this is because I really can't stand the heat, and there's no way to get out of the kitchen. Of course, people in other parts of the country are sneering at me right now, as I am in one of the most temperate parts of the Lower 48, but I am acclimatized to here ("here" being the Pacific Northwest), and it is hot for here (and humid, which is very unusual). Other parts have to do with life issues.

First up, the project on which I want to be spending a lot more time than I am is the Top Secret retroclone. I am working on it, but like this blog, gaming takes second place to things that are happening in real life. I am considering how to get art for it, which leads me to thinking about Kickstarter, which further leads to the idea of doing a real print run rather than, or in addition to, a product. I'm not sure about the ins and outs of that, though. I'll talk to people and see what can be done.

Second, it looks like I'll be trying out this newfangled online gaming by teleconferencing thing. Happily, it looks to be a Traveller game, albeit the Mongoose version. I still have to make a character and whatnot, but that should go pretty quickly.

Next there's the AD&D game I've been working on. I've done a reasonable amount of work on it. I've got some of the main city of the campaign mapped, along with some sketches toward the ground floor of the tower-citadel of the city's masters. I have ideas about the megadungeon, but haven't gotten to putting lines on paper for the map yet. I don't know whether to wait until I have at least the sketches of the city's sewers done first (the dungeon is located underneath the city) or fit the sewers around the dungeon. However, those issues have dropped in priority because…

Thinking about Traveller has made me realize that I really, really love that game. I have a science fiction setting that I had been working on for some short stories, and decided that now would be a fine time to put it in gaming form. Some of the themes I want to explore with the setting include the value of multiple cultural expressions to the long-term viability of intelligent species, the nature of human institutions like honor, empire, and such, and the ability of varying worldviews to coexist or not. There are a dozen human interstellar polities, and a dozen aliens. Players will only be human, and at least at first, I intend to limit them to the central Terran Federation. Things are not always what they seem, of course, but sometimes they are. The setting has a lot of secrets sitting in my head. For now, I'll be using MegaTraveller, with some ideas taken from GURPS Traveller: Far Trader and First In. Eventually, I'll convert it to T5.

Other projects, like the WRG Game, are on hold right now.

What have you been doing in regard to gaming these days?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Not-So-Obscure Games: Traveller: The New Era

What is going on here?
I pretty much skimmed over this game in my discussion of Traveller earlier. That was because it is a significantly different game than the others of the Traveller series of games. It develops from the GDW "House System", which was an adaptation of the second edition of Twilight 2000, modified for use with a D20 instead of D10 (and the rest of the House System games, including Twilight 2000 would follow suit). Closely related was Space 1889, which used a D6 instead. There are similarities with 2300AD (formerly Traveller 2300), but that was a direction of development that GDW abandoned.

Traveller: The New Era (or "TNE" for short) was a melding of concepts from the previous Traveller games with the House System. Characteristics were similar to Traveller, but not quite the same. Instead of Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education, and Social Standing (and Psionic Strength), a TNE character was rated in Strength, Agility, Constitution, Intelligence, Education, and Charisma (plus Psionics and Social Standing). Unlike Traveller, which rated initial characteristics on 2D6, TNE rated characteristics on 2D6-1. This is an easy conversion, of course, but it does require conversion. Other editions of Traveller can be used directly with each other, no conversion required.

In other editions of Traveller, character skills are rated in small numbers. A skill rating of 1 is acceptable, 3 is significant, and 5 is amazing, with different editions implementing those numbers in different ways. TNE, on the other hand, uses "asset" ratings, which are the sum of an ability and some skill points. These are around 10 for an average professional skill (roughly equivalent to about 3 in other Traveller games). The asset is multiplied by the difficulty modifier (1 for "Difficult" tasks, 2 for "Average" ones, ½ for "Formidable" difficulty, 4 for "Easy" tasks, and ¼ for "Impossible" tasks) to find the roll needed on a D20 for success. There are some finer points, like degree of success based on the difference between the target number and the actual roll, but that's basically how action resolution works. There are occasional instances where the skill points matter, so they are also tracked.

Characters gain starting skills by engaging in "careers". This is also like other Traveller editions, though there are many differences in the actual implementation of that basic idea. In other Traveller editions, most of the previous experience in careers is adjudicated by random dice rolls, but most of the previous experience in TNE is by player choice (though there are some random dice rolls, too). Each period of four years in a career gives a number of skill points to divide between the skills available in that career. Those skill points, when totaled at the end of generation, are added to the appropriate characteristic to determine the character's asset in that skill. In addition, careers that involved combat would give a bonus to a character's "Coolness" rating, used in combat.

In most of the other editions, combat is based around abstract "range bands" and 1.5m squares, depending on the exact situation (the squares are usually used for interior and starship combat, the range bands for outdoors combat), with 15m squares replacing the range bands in MegaTraveller. In TNE, the ground scale is based on 2m squares. It's a small change, but it makes previous materials (such as starship deck plans) useless, and so was annoying. It was also annoying for those of us who tried to use the material to make our own starship deck plans, as the 1.5m squares were perfect for that (2 of those squares, assuming 3m per deck, were 13.5 m3, which was the approximate value of one "displacement ton"), while the 2m squares did not break down into those traditional Traveller measurements so easily. In fact, I don't think that any deck plans were ever released for TNE (or, if there were, they were from secondary publishers, not GDW).

A turn in TNE was 5 seconds, which is comparable to most of the others (usually 6 seconds, though Classic Traveller had a combat turn of 15 seconds). Coolness rating was important, as it was a character's initiative rating, with higher Coolness taking actions first. Very high initiative characters (over 5) would also get an extra action in the round.

TNE had hit locations, which was available as an optional rule in MegaTraveller, but which has never had much importance in the game other than in this edition. A character would take damage in each location separately, with the amount of damage to a location determining the effect. Unfortunately, the "hit capacity" of each location was very high (the chest alone had triple STR+CON points, or an average of 36, the head twice CON, and the other body parts twice STR+CON - compare to an overall total of about 21 for damage dice that were about the same in the other Traveller editions, with about 14 points of damage to render a character out of commission, at least on the first hit). There was a special rule in TNE for auto-kill results to close the lethality gap.

Where TNE shined was in Fire, Fusion, and Steel, the "technical architecture" book. That was a set of systems for designing everything from starships to ground cars, from meson accelerator spinal mounts to body pistols. It was the first major release that included all of those in one place, deriving ideas from both the Striker and MegaTraveller vehicle design systems and from BTRC's Guns, Guns, Guns (aka 3G) weapon design system. This would kick off the fashion for extensive design systems that would culminate with GURPS Vehicles and the CORPS VDS ("Vehicle Design System"). Some people found these design tools intrusive on their experience (even if they didn't actually use them), and these sorts of systems have been falling out of fashion, sadly.

Quick digression about gaming philosophy: Some people have been complaining about detailed gaming systems. The usual argument is that they are too much work for games, since it is just as easy to simply eyeball some numbers, and the effect on the game is the same either way. Most of the information that shows up in those design sequences has no impact on games, they argue. There is much to be said for that latter approach. It was, for instance, the approach used in the original Traveller rules (excepting starships, of course). However, not everyone wants to approach a game in that way. Let me draw a comparison to Poul Anderson. Back in the '60s and '70s, most SF authors would eyeball their fictional worlds. Poul Anderson, though, would work out all of the details of his worlds: their orbital periods, surface albedo, axial tilt, primary's luminosity, and so on. Most of that information had no effect on his stories. However, that deep background informed his authorial choices. In the same way, a lot of these design choices in games don't have any direct effect, but they give deeper background information. Plus, in an open sandbox style, you never know what will be important. It's not to say that detailed design is the best way to do things, but it is one way to approach a game, and "good enough" estimation is not necessarily the best way to go either.

The starship combat system of TNE was excellent, as well. The designers learned what they could from people who had worked on the SDI project of the 1980s, among others, and presented a fairly realistic system. The first release of it was in the board game Brilliant Lances. Starship hit locations were filled with the systems from the design sequences and selected by die roll from among a subset that depended on the facing of the target in comparison to the firing ship. The boardgame used hexes (of 30,000km each) and vector movement, while TNE abstracted this to range bands and other abstractions.

Anyway, it was a solid game, it's just that I prefer Traveller to Twilight 2000. I'm also very much, as I mentioned in the previous discussion, not fond of the background changes made. One of these days, I'll talk about how a Traveller game works. That is, the general outline of play.