Archive for the 'carnival' Category


morality play

This month’s RPG Carnival deals with morality – both in game and audience. The title comes from a style of medieval and Tudor-era theatre where personified attributes (e.g. justice, charity) urge characters (and the audience) to live a good life.  Born of mystery plays where religion was distributed by the stage, a morality play is a Renaissance take on allegory.

What role does morality have in escapist entertainment?  Escapism permits a get away from the dolorous or banal nature of the real world.  Can entertainment vicariously give a moral holiday to an audience expected only to witness events?  When entertainment is interactive, is simulation of evil merely self-indulgent or actually evil? Where does escapism become transgression?

Moral holiday is a term coined by philosopher William James to describe a temporary respite from moral concerns using belief in an absolute reality – trusting the world to look after itself a while – until the individual is ready to return to striving for a better place.  Protagonists from Richard III to Dexter delight audiences while performing atrocities.  Of course, protests are made due to the immoral nature of it all.

Escapism is compatible with both morality and banality.  Banal escapism is certainly possible by the medium of ‘reality TV’ so moral escapism can and has been since Aesop.  I could tell you about my paladin but the heroic stance is often a default state.  This has led to examples of actual play subverting the social contract of a game due to dissatisfaction with formulaic adventure or a missing incentive to be heroic.

Allen Varney wrote an excellent article, Do The Right Thing where he notes many games use resource-based survival and the scarcity of games considering morality beyond good vs. evil or moral spectra with ethical bells & whistles.  Attempts to justify morality by mechanics foundered on relativism, consider Vampire with it’s paths of enlightenment and numerous hierarchies of sins.

Yet laws without authority or sanction are inherently weak and one size doesn’t fit all even with superheroes.  Moving from zero-sum into business ethics a moment, is a moral element an essential component in games design if only to provide context?  Is morality a genre convention or part of a social contract between players and to a larger extent, society?  Like it or not, the audience is part of a greater thing.

Violation of taboo is a provocative element and may be used for satire or shock value to reinforce established morals.  Using entertainment to justify evil acts exposes your ethical or moral integrity to criticism.  Players can ignore a moral framework and play as they like – rebellion against conformity moves to territory where things may bite not only in-game but also in reality.  How good is a game if it’s censored and censured?

The tipping point comes when the moral holiday becomes the moral retirement plan or when a consensual line is crossed.  Visiting a carnival and living in one are different things and require at least a shift in viewpoint.  Where there are those threatened by an alternative point of view, they need either to be shown the fears are baseless or where appropriate, reminded of the basic right to freedom of speech.


tangled threads and too much information

This month’s RPG Carnival is about roleplaying mistakes and thinking back, I’ve made a few howlers.  My last old World of Darkness Mage game folded due to a mixture of factors, players disheartened by escalating odds and their conflicting goals but the killer was it seems too many plots.

That’s not to say the plot threads weren’t linked – a resurgence of the conflict between Hermetics and Tremere tied to a conspiracy of vampires and mages trying to cure vampirism through certain rites with dire consequences (as the characters learned) and drew the attention of powerful mages.

In the background were plots leading to mass Ascension.  The Technocracy sought to contain multiple threats and launched surgical strikes using intel from Nephandic sources but were losing control as the Avatar Storm was breaking down the Gauntlet and Oracles were walking the worlds.

The group of players were all seasoned roleplayers (about seventy years of gaming experience around the table) with a working knowledge of the World of Darkness; armed with handouts.  The clues were there but the players were drowning. Where did the pieces go? Was this even the same jigsaw?!

Eventually we had to fold the game due to Real Life ™ but it was still a blow as I spent over a year running it and the same prepping for it.  That said, it’s taught me a lot about organising game events; the need to recap information and using NPCs to prompt for and to summarise essential plot arcs.

It’s also taught me you sometimes need to tie off loose ends in a way players can trust won’t come back to bite them in the backside; you can work out a way to bring plots back if need be.  Keeping things open can distract player focus – you can’t look forward while looking over your shoulder…

I’m going to post some plot threads in future posts here so you can use them; after all, I’ve done the groundwork for it.  In the event the game comes back around I’m not going to post threads they were directly involved in but this won’t diminish the amount of material by that much.


let me tell you about my game

Hi. I’m a Dungeons & Dragons addict. Is that how it’s supposed to start?

I started playing back in junior school when BBC’s Pebble Mill did a hobby piece featuring Leslie Ash pre-lip surgery and it sounded like fun so I got a red box with books and dice you had to colour in yourself. I then got the Fiend Folio (daringly ignoring the Players Handbook, DMG & Monster Manual) and watched Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back from very different perspectives.

Friends played and moved onto running around fields, chasing girls and listening to punk rock while others discovered drugs. I kept playing as families went nuclear or shattered (mine was the latter) and I found solace from the early 1980s, Thatcherite politics and spectres of nuclear war in fantastical worlds, dabbling with Traveller & Runequest with Michael Jackson, Mike Oldfield, Phil Collins, Genesis and Queen playing in the background.

I got a Jonesin’ for fantasy literature and discovered my uncle’s Shakespeare collection in Tel Aviv. 1984 I got into 1E AD&D, along with Gamma World. I was the school geek anyway so it didn’t matter – council estate hip hop just wasn’t my thing and I slowly but surely discovered rock music, girls, drinking and all those things keeping those who refuse to conform afloat.

Friends moved on, I went to college and discovered Unearthed Arcana, Saturday working, mid-week clubbing, hard drinking and shouty adolescent relationships. I got my act together, played a triple-class drow fighter/magic-user/thief, a conniving magical charlatan and a flint-hearted druid, did the fast food & hot dates thing then found my future wife (and gamer) to the horror of my family before going to Uni for three years.

Gaming and blondes, inextricably linked to me. A good thing? I think so.

In Uni, I accumulated a pretty impressive character body count in one particular 1E game then 2nd ed came out. I discovered gamer friends and computers, dabbled in LARP, widened my social circle, played in one epic campaign, ran two epic campaigns, dabbled in other things and returned to being hungover every Thursday owing to a brilliant rock night. After Uni, recession, biotechnology went onto the back burner and jobs were hard to come by.

Games kept me occupied between searching for jobs paid more than nothing. Our characters – phlegmatic fighters, cunning magi, reckless swashbucklers, ill-starred Vikings and inept thieves gave us hope. The social circle dwindled and bloomed again. Another 2E campaign I ran led to some wonderful memories. The campaign my future wife ran led to more. We experimented with vampires, werewolves, Arthurian knights (and how!) and then back to old faithful.

Relationships formed, were tested, broke, mine held on against all odds as I discovered Usenet and ICQ, then there was a little thing called Magic: The Gathering. The gaming industry faced a crucible that it came out of with D&D 3rd edition. Eventually we settled down, regular game sessions and marriage. The books came out fast and loose, some of us noticed the publish or perish model was being followed. Options were explored. And how!

I played an elven monk, a bumbling priest of Fharlanghn and when the DM stopped killing us and had fun, a halfling gossip with a heart of gold. 3.5 came out and people protested though it smoothed some rough edges down exposed by the flood of books. And if you think 4E was a whingefest, I recall extreme bile on 3.5 vs. 3.0 – one impassioned soul said he would never play D&D again to our cynical laughter. He’s now running Pathfinder.

The next game I played a lawman with a sorcerous dark secret in a world where gods lied and hid their deeds and it was fun – that story hasn’t ended yet, the DM experimented with other worlds – a twisted realm where I indulged my dark side with a mage whose mutating form was as treacherous as he was and a shattered world where I played a musician, swashbuckler and assassin. I GM’d a game of Celtic heroics and that game isn’t finished either.

Somebody created this thing called World of Warcraft. Back to the crucible.

Now we have 4E. Like Marmite, people love it or hate it. I like it but despair of ever finding a group unless I run it apparently. I appear to have come full circle. Sometimes blogging is lonely work but then you set a spark and people chase it for miles. Now I’m back from Cyprus I’ve got a few ideas. You’ll see some here. Some names you’ll recognise; others you won’t unless you were part of a select circle. So where now? Onward, dear friends. Once more unto the breach!


steel, steam and spit

This month’s RPG Carnival is hosted by Mad Brew Labs and deals with steampunk and klokwerks. Some have noted steampunk seems to comprise two divergent streams – the utopian steam-based science and dystopic punk social dynamics; you can mention Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine, Moore & O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. You may even mention the movie Wild Wild West (or it’s TV inspiration) without too many outraged looks – alright, maybe that last is a bit… colonial. You get the idea.

While there is plenty of the steam, there is not so much about the punk elements – a shame because there is an awful lot to rage against for any subversive. The historic eras that steampunk draw on were times of massive social upheaval and reform.

How do you consider poverty caused by massive industrialisation leading to slum living? Or the rocketing abuse of gin and opium? Maybe prostitution and the hypocrisy of the public towards the ‘unfortunates’ who were committed to asylums to reform or being subjected to humiliating inspections by public officials if suspected of having an STI?

Or child labour and exploitation? How about the conflict between creationism and evolution? And the rise of feminism and the suffragette movement? All at the same time? The enforced social mores and repressed conservative attitudes yield much for punk ideologies and ethos to illustrate and attack – whether it be Fabian ideals, patriotic socialism or an alternate morality.

A sense of manifest destiny grants divine right to conquer and exploit in the name of your nation, God, Reason or Progress. Ugly? Industrialisation isn’t always pretty. Finding the focus on technological marvels lets us embrace a sense of wonder inspired by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Yet there is a darker edge to steampunk, dealing with social ills that still hang over us.


the future of roleplaying

May’s RPG Carnival invites us to engage our preferred prognostication methods and scry the future of roleplaying games to answer this set of cunning questions.

What games do you see emerging as the big players in the near future?
When/if it comes – D&D 4.5 may be as significant a sea-change as 3.5 was for 3E – particularly if Wizards review the GSL and bring it back closer to the OGL’s flexibility (if they don’t Paizo will get a lot more market share with Pathfinder and Wizards will have nobody to blame but themselves).
Consider how well received 4E is at the moment and there’s another set of core book add-ons planned next year, it won’t happen just yet.

Yet DDI is not exactly being forward in adding features and WotC seem content just to put out core materials in different formats (e.g. power cards) rather than focus on world settings other than the Realms or the core ‘Points of Light’ setting. Remember Eberron?

Maybe they’re making enough money for now?

Dark Heresy will continue to gain more ground as more original material is put out – there’s a lot of 40K canon that hasn’t been touched on and now FFG are running it, there’s going to be more support than previously. Given GW’s current situation, I suspect it’ll gain attention from gamers looking for that 80’s nostalgia hit that the grognards just can’t… quite… reach…

West End Games Open D6 may be the dark horse that surprises us all. If it happens.

What companies should we be watching out for to release the next big product?
Wizards of the Coast will continue to dominate the roleplaying field with Paizo, Green Ronin and Necromancer Games following in their trail. For those of you of a gothic or manga high fantasy persuasion, White Wolf will feed your fix. West End Games may do well to launch an Open D6 reboot of Paranoia if they want to recoup their old fanbases.

How will technology become more integrated into roleplaying games?
There is a sea change coming. Campaign wiki platforms and Web 2.0 tools are becoming more common and content through subscription services, online magazine publications and print-on-demand are making the distribution of games easier than ever – and this IMHO has always been the 800lb gorilla reason why tabletop games have never realised their full potential.

What industry writer do we need to be on the look out for?
Mike Mearls currently has his finger on the pulse. Liz Danforth‘s recent interview suggests a grass-roots revival around gaming skills. And Berin Kinsman who has so far been able to predict with uncanny foresight a number of major trends in gaming – he was talking campaign wikis and stripping out mechanics long before we were. There’s three. Pick any one.

What blogs do you see exploding into becoming the next big thing?
Blogs aren’t individually a big thing. Blogs are an army ant phenomenon – take a look at the RPG Blogger Network right now and you’ll appreciate there is strength in numbers. I don’t think all will survive, burnout will stalk the blogosphere like Death stalks Conan? Blogs will continue to mark grass-roots trends and if the industry is smart, it’ll glom onto this more than it is currently.

What do you see for the future of the industry?
Assuming things stay as they are – there’s going to be more subscription services running in the wake of DDI & Dungeon-A-Day and more convergence of online/tabletop gaming using tools like RPTools. Until someone works out a few unwritten assumptions of course but that may mean giving away my master plan for world domination. Wait & see. 🙂


game for a laugh

Aristotle posited comedy could emulate characters of base nature who despite their flaws and outrageous behaviour obtain success until they get their comeuppance. Aristotle also posited drama was born out of a need to know the other, provoke thought and to experience emotions in a safe, controlled manner. Does this sound familiar?

What comedic tropes are appropriate for RPGs?

Blue – Some of the more amusing April posts this year (including this provocative guest post by Geek’s Dream Girl on Critical Hits) involving situations best filed under adult. I only imagine what a Benny Hill-style chase would look like as a 4E skill challenge. Before indignation at the smut sinks in, this kind of comedy has Classical precedent in the works of Aristophanes (Lysistrata) and the satyricon, running through troubadour plays and commedia dell’arte into Shakespearean farces and Edwardian burlesque.

Dark – Laughing about unpleasant events and horrific situations is a defence mechanism and the better dark comedies (Death Becomes Her) are very gamer-friendly. Not every game needs a Joker derivative to be dark comedy either. Having personally led attacks of gallows humour (in one case literally) on a truly dark 2E Ravenloft game, it can help alleviate things and provide a counterpoint to the relentless horror. Just try not to invoke too many action-hero one-liners because that way lies cheese. And cheesy is the death of dark humour.

Observational – Two words – Murphy’s Rules. Although skewering the rules in this fashion is antithetical to suspension of disbelief, some things deserve commentary; such as 1E AD&D’s three ranger rule (more than three rangers can never travel together – no explanation – do they reach critical mass?). Playing against assumptions can also work well (the half-orc fighter whose orcish mum left her abusive human husband) and contrast existing preconceptions while making us laugh about them.

Surreal – Monty Python and Terry Gilliam provided endless inspiration to gamers, such that the typical reader of this blog may recite the Parrot Sketch in regular, movie and Hollywood Bowl. Absurdity, juxtapositions and non-sequiturs outline the fate of characters trapped in a world with seemingly no meaning but that imposed by those flawed individuals or their individual flaws. From the Goons to Castle Greyhawk, there are things to provoke laughs and if you’re looking for something more contemporary, I recommend the Mighty Boosh.

Word play – This is something Gary Gygax was particularly fond of, his use of ananyms in the GDQ modules in particular (drow names in particular) as well as obscure terms and cant to describe character qualities (a magsman is a thief y’know). As Stan Lee famously remarked “If a kid has to go to a dictionary, that’s not the worst thing that could happen.” Word play is also found in kenning (Norse symbolic poetry) and heraldry, which uses punning allusions or a rebus to identify knights or towns.

Wit – The snappy comeback, sardonic response and sometimes cruel ripostes that target a character’s defects or dialogue – by exposing the situation as it is against how it should really be. As with all comedy, the response must be timely unless you are haunted by l’esprit d’escalier. Word play and conceptual thinking are keys to wit, opportunity is the lock. A past master was the talented Cyrano de Bergerac.

A word on jesters – The role of the jester was a significant one. The court of a king is politically loaded and the jester could provoke frank discussion on controversial issues purely due to their role and could be consulted because they lacked any kind of holdings or interest. The role of fool often needed someone who was anything but since an unpopular fool could be banished from court (as happened to the celebrated jester Archibald Armstrong, formerly of the court of James VI of Scotland) and forced to live off the proceeds of their written quips.

Finally, a shaggy dog story from a friend’s AD&D adventure in the manner of Ronnie Corbett – In the words of Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst “Don’t blame me man, I didn’t do it.”

“The adventurers find a magical ring. They don’t know what it is, only it’s powerful protective magic and the inscription says “Don’t identify me.” So being literate they take it to an NPC and render him insensible with money. He uses magic to identify the item and starts laughing so hard that in his weakened condition he dies from being unable to breathe. Fearful they have found some terrible cursed item, the party take the item to a shrine so it may be cleansed and then passed onto another wizard. Same thing happens – needless to say, they take the item to a sage. She recognises it as being made by a powerful wizard known to have fought dragons. At this point, all the greed flows into the heads of the players and they round up the party wizard and offer a ridiculous sum of money even though she probably won’t make the identify check. She does and then she starts sniggering but then manages to control herself (a saving throw was required). It’s then learned the ring protects you from flying dragon dung and communicates this by a mental image. Which goes to show where there’s dung, you’ll get adventurers willing to pay over the odds for it.”


the orc gate

Another visit to the carnival – war is clearly good for business and another of the free open-source 4e things for DMs in a hurry to give a 4th level party some excitement. As usual, made in open source software

The Orc Gate has a ruined fort, a whole bunch of ornery orcs and friends looking for a scrap or nine and a skill challenge on how to escape from a fort being pursued by a horde of orcs as well as local geographical colour and some rudimentary information on orcish tattoos.

Available to download now.