DMing


Shadowrun is suited to campaign settings rife with economic corruption, the desperate and abandoned poor, powerful corporations who control the social fabric, shady underworld groups and street gangs in conflict. Sounds rather like a vision of Greece after the default, if you were to chuck in a bit of magic. So let’s do that! And what better way to do it than through a resurgent Greek mythical pantheon. And, for that matter, if Greece’s default were to drag Europe down, we would also see Italy and Ireland fall into chaos – and what do they have in common but a history rich in pantheism and magic? How would we construct such a near-future shadowrun campaign?

In comments to my previous post, Paul tried to describe a worst case scenario for Greek default:

Greece comes up to a pay day for the public sector and has no money to pay in. They issue IOUs. The public service goes in strike shutting down hospitals. A run on the banks begins and everyone withdraws their money in Euro. The banks collapse. No medicine is being imported into the country or moved to hospitals. Petrol imports stop and the prices go through the roof, preventing the transport of food and other critical supplies. The entire economy locks up because no one can get to work. Farms lie fallow or with harvests rotting in them because farmers can’t use their equipment. Food and potentially power/water shortages start to hit major cities leading to rioting. The police haven’t been paid or fed so they join in. The damage to property and life is massive. Refugees head to neighbouring countries. Eventually international aid arrives, food and petrol shipments unlock the ability to provide basic necessities of life but medical support remains at the level provided via international aid (i.e. broken bones are treated, people with cancer aren’t going to get drugs worth more than tens of dollars – which I believe is most of them). Restarting the economy from this situation is chaos, it’s basically shut down and had spiralling cascades of defaults.

Now let’s suppose that Greece has a pantheon of sleeping gods, but they were roused by some mischievous figure in one of the resistance movements (New Dawn sound like contenders, but anyone will do). They see a country in chaos and desperate for a guiding hand, so they start letting their magic seep out again. How could they have been roused, and what would the implications be for Greece and Europe? I have a few ideas …

Witch Hunter Rebekka

In this version of the campaign, the PCs are members of a top-secret Greek government organization that was tasked with keeping supernatural threats under control, like the organization from Witch Hunter Robin or Double Cross 3. Unfortunately, their organization was abolished as part of the austerity package insisted on by the European Central Bank, and they suddenly find themselves unemployed in a world where the supernatural is suddenly given a free hand. Perhaps they embark on a solo quest to find out what’s really happening, or maybe they set themselves up in some seedy downtown office and start selling their services to corporations and gangsters who have discovered that the dark side is coming for them. And during this maybe they notice a pattern. Perhaps there are other, similar organizations throughout Europe, and as Europe unravels in the wake of Greece’s chaos those organizations too get shut down or worse.

An orthodox priest, a banker and a schoolgirl walk into the Parthenon …

Perhaps the secret organizations working to protect Europe are not government run, but maintained instead by the churches. In Greece this means the Greek Orthodox church… so what do they do if they are approached by a banker, who does a sideline in hacking, who has discovered evidence that something behind the trouble was planned – that much of Europe’s chaos was actually schemed up by some sinister cabal that saw a chance to create chaos in Italy, Greece and Ireland at the same time. The mechanism is economic collapse, but the goal is to revive old, dark gods – the pagan gods of Ireland and the Southern Mediterranean that the more modern churches drove out. So who do they turn to? A motley group of PCs who have special powers and a can-do attitude, perhaps drawn from the many warring street clans and gangs that have sprung up in the chaos of the default and the political struggles that followed.

A conspiracy of bankers

Of course! What else? We all know that the major banks are servants of satan – let’s make it official! Perhaps the whole economic collapse was engineered to create the kind of chaos necessary to create space for new gods, to generate new, radical and subvertible political movements, and to force the collapse of the secret bulwarks that the Europeans have established against the dark powers that used to rule Europe. Perhaps European history is a long story of dark powers manipulating politics, and the modern European Union was a post-war project to try and drive them out of society and politics. It was working fine – until someone had the silly idea of setting up a common currency. Then the dark powers saw that they could use mundane, financial means to tear the entire European project down, along with all its political and cultural movements against the kind of chaos on which the dark powers depend for their success.

This whole conspiracy would take place in the halls of power, in the boardrooms of banks and sinister organizations, would be traced through emails and secret meetings and currency transfers through shady swiss bank accounts. It’s the perfect conspiracy for a couple of street hackers to slowly track down and unravel in the course of their dubious work – running in the shadows of the corporations, they find a deeper, darker conspiracy at play than mere political corruption … and all of it focused on unleashing old powers long forced down by the church, the enlightenment and the scientific revolution. We all know that our enlightened, materialistic world view depends on the special social order made possible by wealth and the absence of war and political conflict. What better way to unravel it than to engineer economic chaos, poverty and political disruption in the heartland of the old gods – Greece!

A New Dawn for the Gods

Another possible campaign would involve not a conspiracy of bankers, but a conspiracy of radicals. In this campaign, political movements proliferate after the default. Some of them are very violent and become popular very quickly, and as Greece slides into poverty and political paralysis the conflict between these street gangs explodes. Many are also connected to criminal groups and also to ethnic groups – Macedonians and Albanians, Turks and African migrants, for example. Many of them are easily infiltrated by people with authoritarian tendencies, and one of them – probably New Dawn, but others could be imagined – is soon overtaken by a man with special powers, a descendant of one of the Greek gods whose powers have revealed themselves during the chaos. He begins to impel his movement towards the revitalization of the gods, and as other gangs see it they also begin looking for new powers to fight with – perhaps they begin to research alchemy, or bring their ancient gods from across the sea. The PCs, investigating minor crimes as adventurers in the post-default chaos, suddenly begin to discover hints that people are dragging up bigger powers than they have ever seen before, and realize that the street-fighting and political conflict is taking on a religious flavour – with the gods returning to the world as the fervour increases. The fevered political environment of a country in chaos and conflict is a perfect place for new powers to emerge, or old powers to revitalize themselves.

Exploring the Genesis

Shadowrun is set after the cataclysmic events that changed the world. Those events are history, and their effects taken for granted in the Shadowrun setting. But I’m fascinated by how they could have come about, and what the world would have been like when magic was being unleashed. Perhaps an imagined economic and social cataclysm in Europe is a good way to construct those events, and gives us a chance to run an adventure right at the time of the genesis of the world Shadowrun takes for granted. I’ve always imagined that such a catastrophe would not necessarily be a physical one, but some kind of cultural and social upheaval that made gaps through which magic and gods could flow. Catastrophic economic problems and social conflict in Europe offer just such a setting. From something completely mundane like a run on some banks, to dragons ruling the sky … could you run a campaign all the way from beginning to end, and create the world of Shadowrun from whole cloth?

 

The dragon gets what the dragon wants

On the weekend, the group I was playing with screwed up our GM’s adventure from the very first scene, and from that point on he spent the entire session inventing new characters, story lines and encounters as we stumbled from misunderstanding to misunderstanding, culminating in the three-way stand off depicted above. We asked our GM afterwards, and as far as we know the adventure was supposed to involve us killing a black dragon, then a necromancer reanimating that dragon, us killing the undead dragon, then us tracking down and killing the necromancer. Fairly standard stuff, and the adventure opened with the dragon attacking our tavern, so we could have set off down that path straight away.

Unfortunately, we assumed – I think, fairly – that the dragon was too tough for us and that the only option was to negotiate with it. So we went and chatted, and the GM let us. What followed was a train wreck, that was rescued at every turn by our GM laying on an increasingly complex and entertaining adventure. Instead of three straight fights and treasure, we instead agreed to find a lich for the dragon; agreed to find the lich for a wizard called Magister Tiana who we thought was an enemy of the dragon; went to meet a dubious infernal contact of mine, who thought letting the lich go would be a good idea; investigated a crematorium; watched an auction where all the bidders were goth halflings; fought and killed the lich; made a lich compass; lost the lich to Magister Tiana; investigated the lich’s hotel room, where we thought we found evidence of a third force looking for the lich (probably the thieves’ guild); met the wizard that the lich was chasing, a chap called Malachy who was on the lam from the Wizard’s Guild; arranged a meeting between Malachy, Tiana and the Dragon thinking that there would be a three-way stand-off; fought the lich again; fought Malachy as he did a runner; and got a ride on a dragon to meet the heads of the Wizard’s Guild.

As far as I know none of these events were meant to happen. A few aspects of the adventure that were particularly entertaining:

  • The town itself: we were in a town called Red Lanterns, that is built on the back of a behemoth tortoise. The town comes alive at night when the tortoise sleeps and sleeps during the day when the tortoise walks; this tortoise is one of 10 such beasts treading a steady path in a circle around the continent, and its pelagic nature makes it a haven for renegades – it has no laws. We didn’t bother finding any of this out when we visited the town.
  • The goth halfling auction: In this town the bodies of the deceased are cremated, and then their ashes are auctioned off to the highest bidder – our GM told us he got the idea from Star Trek Deep Space 9[1]. We naturally assumed the lich was after something in the ashes, and so we went to watch an auction and see if he was present. On the day we visited, a halfling was being auctioned off and two factions in his family were involved in a bidding war that was causing some deep tension. All of them were, of course, dressed in black, and the entire audience of bidders were halflings, bidding for the ashes of their own uncle. This scene cracks me up every time I think of it. It was interrupted by the lich outbidding all attendant halflings, who responded to his intrusion by attempting to shoot him, at which point he turned into a swarm of cockroaches and ran, with us chasing.
  • Magister Tiana and the dragon: so we first offered to find the lich for the dragon if he would leave the town alone, and he agreed. Then within a few hours a wizard, Magister Tiana, visited us and told us that she was mates with the dragon. We didn’t believe her because she didn’t tell us she knew we had arranged a deal with the dragon, and in fact we were able to cut another deal with her to get the lich for her, with a bonus if we found out who he was working for. Why would she do this if she was an ally of the dragon that had already got us working for free? I’m not sure why the GM did this, or why we cut a deal with a rival of a dragon (thinking about this for even a moment, it’s really not a good idea to double cross people with this kind of power), but he did and we did, and thus the flavour of the adventure turned into one of those “everyone’s out to get Wally, let’s get him first” type stories. They always end well!
  • The fugitive wizard: after we had killed the lich and lost his body (aren’t we smart!) we searched his spellbook and found notes in it indicating that he was chasing some guy called Malachy, who was hiding in the local wizard academy. We found him, and discovered that he was on the run from the wizard’s guild due to an “accident” in which he accidentally crashed one of their sky castles. He was on the run from the lich after a confrontation in which he somehow permanently destroyed the lich’s eye and one hand. When he found out Tiana was in town  he got all scared and started thinking of running, but somehow we convinced him to meet Tiana and hand himself in.
  • The final stand off: we arranged the final stand-off thinking that Tiana and the Dragon would turn up separately, see each other and toast one another, and we would hand Malachy to the winner and loot the loser[2] – we remained convinced she’d lied to us right up until the point that she rode in on his back, carrying the lich’s head. Thus we found ourselves in the situation depicted above, with her and Malachy having a robust chat under the watchful eye of the dragon. Things went pear-shaped because Tiana had brought the lich’s head with her, and it got loose and started trying to waste everyone so that it could catch Malachy – apparently he was quite the prize. We, naturally, sided with the dragon, and then Malachy did a runner while dragon, Tiana and lich were engaged in fearsome battle. We caught Malachy and dragged him back, and that was that.

I think this adventure is a credit to the GM. Every part of it was fabricated on the spot to help us continue charging around the town making mistakes, and although we were starting to suspect we’d cocked it up, at no point did he let on which bits were in the plan and which weren’t – we were convinced the halfling auction was in his original notes, for example. He was creative and energetic throughout the whole process, he managed to tie together disparate elements of the plot even as he was making them up on the spot, and somehow at the end everything was resolved neatly and clearly – all of this in the space of about 5 hours. I think this kind of creativity and flexibility is the mark of a good GM, especially when it’s in response to your having thrown all his preparation out the window from the first encounter. We didn’t intend any of this disruption, we just genuinely misinterpreted the purpose of that first battle – like most players, if he had said “guys, this adventure is meant to involve you fighting this dragon” we would have taken it on, but he didn’t, and so we did what comes naturally to a bunch of cowards, and supplicated the damn lizard. But he didn’t correct us, presumably having faith that he could somehow muddle up an adventure regardless, and that’s what happened. He told us later that he decided many of the plot elements based on our assumptions, so that we were driving the plot forward, which is also a very fine thing to do. The man was an improvisational genius.

If there is any lesson in this for better adventure planning, I guess it’s that you shouldn’t make an adventure’s entire plot hinge on players deciding to fight a dragon – many players assume dragons are too tough for them, and if the first encounter of the day is a dragon they will assume negotiation is the key. But it also shows that if you’re a good GM with a healthy attitude, even when your players completely cock up your plans from the very start, you can still make a great adventure. And our GM this day was not just a good GM – he was a great GM. This is GMing at its finest, in my opinion.

Finally, to top it all off, once we’d finished for the day we offered to do a test fight against the dragon, to see if our first decision was right. It was a close thing, but we killed it. So even our decision to negotiate was wrong!

fn1: And they say Star Trek never benefited humanity!

fn2: we were stupid and evil!

A first attempt at how a D&D character sheet might look like if written in business buzzwords:

Click for a full Horizon-scan

This character sheet is based on the D&D 4e Essentials character sheet, with the “skillset” separated from the “capabilities.” Follow the flow of that character sheet to see how they all fit in, though it should be obvious to anyone who is singing from the same hymn sheet as me exactly what should be actioned in, for example, the “Key Deliverables” section of the document. If you see a word you recognize, it’s because I can’t think of a suitable buzzword to replace it with. I considered putting in a statement about proper treatment of personal data and please destroy it if it has been emailed to you in error, but we all know that really those statements have no legal force. I think I haven’t used enough hyphens, and some of the nouns lose their full bullshit bingo force if they’re not used as verbs (or should I say, “verbed”).

Suggestions are welcome, of course: we’ll stir-fry them in the ideas wok. I’m doing a full 360-degree horizon scan on this, so any blue-sky thinking on it is absolutely welcome. Just so we’re sure we’re all on the same page, I should clarify that this is issued under the Open Bullshit License (OBL), just like all product made available through this communication channel. Under the Open Bullshit License, if you envision a strategic fit to any of the ideas pioneered here, you’re welcome to transition them to your own knowledge base. A few questions for us to brainstorm:

  • Is “drill down” sufficient for “dungeoneering”?
  • “Empowerment” isn’t the best option for “Armour class,” but much as you’d like to see the average meeting turn into a melee (that ultimately ends with your boss getting stuck with a guisarme), I can’t think of a buzzword for this
  • “Intestinal fortitude” seems a bit weak. Actually some of the original words (dexterity, fortitude, intiative) are kind of bullshitty in their own right: should they just be kept as-is?
  • Should the whole thing be called a “Service Level Agreement”? I’m not sure…

Let’s whiteboard any ideas and see if we can come up with a 2.0 version …

In comments to my post on shitty GMing it has been suggested that the problem simply came down to a GM who was running the game as a “neutral arbiter” and had I known that I wouldn’t have felt hard done by. Putting aside the particular exigencies of that case, I don’t believe that it’s possible for a GM to be a truly neutral arbiter, nor do I think that it’s particularly desirable. Here I shall give some reasons why it’s not possible, giving some examples from the module that we played during the particular case in question (which is available online here), and give my preferred role for the GM in play.

The Problem of GM Preferences

The GM participates in the game for his or her own fun, and is not actually a referee in the strict sense of the word. Every GM brings their own preferences for gameplay and interaction to the table, and it’s inevitable that the GM will reward play that matches their preferences, and discourage play that doesn’t. In a one-off game this may not be noticeable but in an ongoing group the players get used to the GM’s preferences and change their play accordingly (usually). The players are usually aware that the GM also needs to enjoy the game, and they do tend to adapt accordingly. But if they don’t, the GM has – and will generally use – a variety of techniques to ensure that the game will be rewarding for the GM as well as the players. I don’t think it’s possible for a GM to remain neutral while pursuing their own fun.

The Problem of Shared Experience

Much of an RPG in practice proceeds according to a series of descriptions by the GM, and responses by the players. How the players respond depends on their understanding of what the GM told them, and in my experience as both player and GM what the players understand of what the GM told them is very different to either a) what the GM expects them to understand or b) what the GM thinks they understand. Things the GM thinks are obvious remain completely invisible to the players; things the players focus on are irrelevant to the GM. It becomes the GM’s responsibility to do something about this: whether the response is one of correcting player misconceptions or riffing of these misconceptions, neither response is neutral. The genuinely neutral response is to either correct the players’ misconceptions (so there is no risk that the shared experience is corrupted by the medium of expression) or to ignore it (being “neutral”). I think many people who think it’s possible for a GM to be neutral couldn’t even agree on which of these actions is the mark of a neutral GM, or even which is possible. In reality I think the concept of a neutral arbiter relies, in gaming just as in real life, on the assumption of information exchange being perfect. This just doesn’t happen in games, and it’s no one’s fault that players suddenly yell “I’ll jump out the window!” when you’ve just described a subterranean room with no windows; it happens all the time. Players are tired, checking facebook, drinking beer, reading a spell description, checking whether they have used up that item … and you’re imparting a crucial piece of information that they not only fail to hear but fail to realize is crucial.

This problem is especially pernicious where the game depends on setting-specific knowledge. In this case the “neutral” GM has to decide which aspects of setting knowledge the PCs already know (and thus what the players can learn for nothing) and what they are supposed to find out the hard way. This is not the kind of information that has even a concept of neutrality attached to it.

The Problem of Knowledge

Everyone who comes to an RPG has their own specific knowledge and real life experience, and this has a significant bearing on their understanding of the game world. What people believe is possible or impossible, what they think their PCs can and can’t do, what they even think of doing with their PCs, depends on their understanding of the world they’re in. Recently Hill Cantons reproduced a few “design notes” from two popular RPGs, and the attitude towards knowledge in one of them (Chivalry and Sorcery, I think) was noteworthy:

We believe that it is necessary to provide a coherent world if fantasy roleplaying is to be a coherent activity…[Feudalism] also has the virtue of being a real way of life, existing for well over 1000 years in Europe…The feudal system was a working culture, and thus it can be used to very good effect as a model on which to base a fantasy role playing culture that will also work, often to the finest detail.

This kind of attitude towards setting obviously assumes that everyone playing understands what a feudal world is and how it works. But this is almost never true. Lots of people know almost nothing about the “real way of life” under feudalism, and everyone brings their own prejudice and misconceptions to the setting. The most important of these prejudices and misconceptions are, obviously, those of the GM. What is possible politically, socially and financially in a feudal world is completely dependent on the GM, and there is no sense in which the GM can be neutral in arbitrating this stuff. Provide you stick to a set of disconnected module-based dungeon crawls this may not be an issue, but as soon as you aim for a game more complex than killing people and stealing their stuff, conflict between GM and players over assumptions and knowledge will enter the game.

This conflict also occurs in task resolution and challenges. A GM who is experienced in rock climbing and mountaineering will have a different concept of what is possible in these settings than one who is experienced in surfing or computing. I think lots of gamers are know-it-all nerds who think they have a good grounding in a wide range of knowledge, but in general they’re straight-up wrong about most of their wikipedia-based insights; and often very stubborn about defending them to boot. The GM may think he or she is being neutral in arguing that it’s not possible to do X, but if there is someone in the group who is familiar with X and didn’t learn about it yesterday on a dodgy message board, they’re likely to misinterpret the GM’s neutrality as pig-headed stupidity. The GM is not a database of unbiased knowledge; which way their biases leans depends heavily on what they know and what they don’t, and how they value the knowledge they do have.

The Problem of Facilitation

The GM is usually charged with the task of resolving conflicts within a group, that is often composed of people with little in common except their desire to game together. This manifests most commonly as a need to control the more ebullient and aggressive players, and to draw out the shyer and more timid players. It’s not possible to do this and remain neutral, because it involves favoring some people and being stern with others. Furthermore, the GM often has to resolve conflicts about actions and consequences, and occasionally quite bitter disputes about (for example) treasure, PC conflict, and game direction. Sometimes the GM has to shut a player up who is dominating the game beyond any kind of reasonably alloted time, and if a player is disrupting the group it is usually the GM who is charged with the task of deciding what to do (and communicating it to that player). Who, if not the GM, gets charged with the task of delicately explaining to the neckbeard that they stink and need to wash before attending sessions? OH, the joy of GMing. And when the GM does this they bring their own social biases and problems to the fore, and usually don’t stay neutral for very long – and they are usually responding to a group dynamic that they only have partial control over. It’s very hard for GMs to stay neutral in these situations, just as it’s hard for GMs to avoid playing favorites, or getting pissed off with particular players and acting irrationally, and so on. Some players just have a style that a GM will like or hate, and it will be rewarded or punished accordingly. This is not neutrality.

The Demands of the Module

Using the Rahasia module as an example, we can see a few immediate situations where the GM is tasked with a non-neutral stance by the designer, or set challenges that demand a departure from running the game-as-written. The Rahasia module introduction suggests that the GM

Encourage the players to think of ways of capturing and defeating the witches without inflicting physical damage

and the game is built on the assumption that GM and players will go along with this idea. This sets up a framework – including penalties of lost experience points – that is very far from neutral. Furthermore, the background information about the dungeon itself is very limited and not much at all is said about the structure of the dungeon. The trapdoor through which I climbed to my death is described thus:

Directly behind the statue, in the floor of the temple, is a secret door that opens over a staircase to the lower treasure room

No information is given anywhere about whether secret doors are locked or how to handle them, so the decision to make the room accessible to anyone from below is implicitly up to the GM. A decision to allow access is a decision by the GM to make the dungeon more dangerous; it might be taken unthinkingly or deliberately, but it’s not a neutral decision. Especially in light of this statement about the golem in that room:

This golem hopeless outclasses any typical party, so the players must think of a way past this creature (the robes work, of course)

This statement makes it clear that the adventure is not supposed to funnel the players into conflict with the golem; they aren’t at any point meant to be its match. Instead, the GM has to at least give the players a chance to stop and assess the situation and find a way to know that the golem is there. Allowing them to access the foot of the statue as soon as they enter the dungeon is not consistent with the intention of the module, but the module nowhere makes clear a way to avoid this. The GM’s decisions about trap doors, use of portals, and ways of passing through the dungeon are tied in with the nature of this final beast, and the option of playing the module “as written” is a dead one. The GM must choose a non-neutral position on this module in order to run it in the sense that it was intended.

The Fallacy of Behaviorism

Another common view I read on the internet about GMing and player reactions is the idea that players “learn” from their mistakes, and the GM has a role as a “teacher” to help them understand the risks of the world they’re in. This is particularly common in old school play, in my experience. I think this is both fallacious and patronizing. It’s patronizing because we’re all adults, and I don’t give up hours of my downtime to be schooled in the harsh “realities” of fantasy life by a self-important neckbeard. I want to play in a shared world where my understanding of that world is assumed to be an adult’s understanding, and my mistakes are handled, not judged. But it’s also fallacious. Adults don’t learn in this way, and punishing adults for their mistakes is pointless; it’s a classic example of a fallacy based on regression to the mean to think that adults will learn this way. Furthermore, what the GM may think is a mistake, the players may think was a reasonable action. On top of this, there is an additional behaviorist nonsense. Most of us learnt the game as teenagers being taught by bad teenage GMs in fairly immature social settings. If this behaviorist approach to learning from “mistakes” has any truth to it, by the time we get to game as mature adults we’re going to be well past correction, and will be gaming primarily based on the experiences of our (mostly crap) teen years. If so, “teaching” us is going to have to be done some other way, and is going to involve the GM coming down from their neutral pedestal to make judgements about what is wrong with our play style. But who’s to say, given the backgrounds of the adult participants in this hobby, that it’s the players who learnt all the mistakes? Just as likely it’s the GM who needs to be “taught” about their mistakes. The best approach is to drop this ideal altogether and accept that everyone involved in the game is probably flawed and their flaws and mistakes demand understanding rather than “teaching.”

The GM as Facilitator

I think the GM is inherently biased: he or she is there to enjoy a game, and wants the game to run in a way that entertains him or her. But on top of this, the GM is charged with preparing for the game, managing conflicts, and ensuring that the players have fun. These conflicting tasks are inconsistent with a neutral position, just as the players’ role is inconsistent with a purely selfish one (they are also meant to be aware of the work the GM has put in, his or her desire to enjoy the game, and the needs and perspectives of their fellow players). The GM thus functions best as a facilitator, ensuring that the players enjoy a game full of challenges and exciting situations, in which they will have fun and everyone will got what they are looking for. A neutral GM cannot help this happen, and I don’t believe it’s possible for someone to be a neutral GM to start with. There are too many conflicting pressures and responsibilities for the GM to remain neutral in all circumstances. By pretending that this is possible, we simply create a set of false assumptions and expectations that let everyone down: better to understand everyone’s biases and perspectives upfront, and respond accordingly, than to try and pretend they can all be hidden or put aside during an activity that, in its own way, can be as frantic, demanding and engrossing as anything else that adults do.

 

Would you risk your fate with this man?

On Tuesday I start working at the Tokyo University Department of Global Health Policy as an Assistant Professor, which means that on Sunday I am moving from Steamy Beppu to the City of Light. I will also be returning to full time work after a year working part time and being a househusband.

This means that my Japanese Warhammer 3rd Edition group has broken up, and my Japanese role-playing plans in general have to go on hold until I can find a suitable group in Tokyo. I don’t know how easy that will be. It also means that I’ll have a lot less time for, and material to put into, long posts, so my posting frequency will go down, which is a shame because I’ve been on a bit of a roll recently.

To keep my posting frequency up I may add a new posting series, about bars and restaurants in Tokyo, because I will be exploring them. I may also put in some taste-testing of various Japanese sake, which I’m becoming interested in… we’ll see. It’s a bit off topic but when I go searching for information about Tokyo night life I appreciate other peoples’ views, so maybe someone will appreciate it being here… also there may be some general aspects of Tokyo life to comment on, so the blog may open a little beyond nerd culture to include general big city culture.

I will of course be trying to expand my role-playing horizons in Tokyo – who knows, I may even play in English! – and exploring nerd life a little. There may also be some Harajuku-related material on here too… we’ll see how busy I am. But the move to Tokyo may well indicate a move to a broader focus on Japanese otaku life, hopefully from the perspective of someone at least slightly involved in it. We’ll see. But for the meantime, expect me to post slightly less frequently, and don’t be disheartened.

The miniature at the top of this post was painted by one of my players, Tencho-san. It’s a likeness of me. You can’t see it in the photo but the book has “Master” written on it’s cover, and on the back of the wizard’s jacket is written (混沌東大), which is Japanese shorthand for “Tokyo University Chaos!” This was part of my going-away present, along with the game Make You Fortress and a collection of cards for the game Make You Kingdom, which contain colour cardboard cutouts of all the cute monsters from the game. I really need to play this game at some point…

A report of the last session of the Rats in the Ranks campaign will be going up soon. In the meantime, any particular requests for investigation you would like to see conducted in Tokyo, please let me know in comments (and yes, if I find a used underwear vending machine I will post a photo!)

Changes in my plans for the next year or two mean I’ve been thinking about future campaigns I could run – possibly even in English! – and this leads me, inevitably, to think about some of the campaigns I’ve thought of running or wanted to run in the past but been unable to, either because a) I don’t feel up to it or b) I haven’t had a chance or c) players aren’t interested. So here’s a short list of some ideas I’ve had, and the reasons I haven’t/won’t/can’t do them, and what I might need to do to run such campaigns.

Interstellar Sandbox

I’ve long wanted to run a sandbox game set in a Space Opera universe, where the PCs have no purpose but to wander aimlessly from planet to planet causing trouble. i.e. Traveller, but I have never had any success trying to run a campaign in this type of universe. I really like the Traveller universe but I hate the game, so I’d probably switch to a different system, e.g. d20 Modern or even my own adjustment of d20. I’m really interested in the ‘Verse, the universe of the Firefly TV series, and would love to set a campaign in that universe. It has all the benefits of space opera, but incorporates just the right grittiness to make the play style more interesting. I think it comes with the challenges of Nihilism I’ve previously expressed concern about in “punky” and hi-tech settings, but the poverty of the edges of the universe means that you can easily restrict access to more advanced tech; and in the more “civilized” planets the Alliance is clearly an anti-smoking, gun control New York city council gone hyperspatial, so there’d be no problem controlling access to the most advanced tech. There’s also a huge amount of adventuring opportunities in the ‘Verse, and even humanoid monsters.

The big problem I have with space adventures is that I really like my campaigns to include some magic, and there’s very little of that in most Space Opera. I could do Star Wars, but I always find that setting strangely limiting. Technology can be its own magic, of course, but for some reason it never seems to work out that way. Unless…

The Culture

The Culture of Iain M. Banks’s novels would be a very interesting setting for a campaign. The universe is huge and easily-explored, the technology is so advanced as to easily be treated as magic, and the biotech of the Culture universe gives lots of opportunities for the creation of strange character classes. Furthermore, Iain M. Banks has already provided a range of outstanding settings to gallivant around in, some of them quite remarkable. The classic adventure hook would be to set the PCs up as agents of Contact, and to set them a task they can go about achieving any way they want. Unfortunately, adventuring in the Universe of the Culture has significant GMing hurdles, not the least of them being that PCs basically can’t die, so you need to present adventures in which failure is not built around death, but mission failure. Also, the range of available technology is infinite – the PCs can simply ask a GCU to accompany them on a mission, and if it agrees well, that’s that, the PCs have a world-destroying space ship of infinite intelligence at their disposal. Plus of course, they will always have a knife-drone to protect them, which makes them immune to pretty much any attacks. This would create the challenge of adventuring without combat. Weird. This is essentially a type of superhero adventuring, and although the universe and settings appeal, I think it’s too challenging for me to GM.

Surprise Apocalypse

This campaign idea sets the players up as a group of completely ordinary young people in a standard 1960s city. Each PC is completely and utterly 0 level, but has one special skill connected with a hobby or their work. The campaign starts with them having lunch together in a setting where they could, potentially, gain access to privileged information. What follows is a series of increasingly bizarre warnings that something is about to happen – either over a period of days or minutes, depending on the scenario I envisage. The PCs have the chance to take the initiative and get the right, or wrong, idea about what is happening. After a fixed amount of time the apocalypse hits, and they’re either in a safe location or not. They then have to survive the post-apocalyptic circumstance they find themselves in. I envisage the apocalypse as a classic nuclear attack, though the aftermath might be heavily influenced by horror, with mutants, monsters and/or slow leakage of magic. The original plot I envisaged had the PCs lunching together in the canteen of a government department, with one of the PCs a telephone operator for that department. Seeing activity nearby, they can investigate over the afternoon using their contacts, and identify an imminent attack. They then have a chance to infiltrate the government’s dedicated shelter, which they aren’t authorized to enter. Once in it (if they’re successful) they have to explain their presence, and/or kill everyone. While trying to live this lie, some kind of horror scenario unfolds.

An alternative plot would have the PCs having to untangle multiple strands of possible warnings – nuclear war, invasion, or disease – before the actual apocalypse event hits. I even envisaged the PCs being able to learn magic in the new world, as previously-buried secrets come to light in the new world. From 0 level nobodies to wizards and post-apocalyptic gang lords, they could even build their own kingdom in the new era…

Nausicaa

I really like the world of Nausicaa, Princess of the Valley of the Winds, and think it would make an interesting setting for a game. My limited internet searches tell me there is not an existing TRPG for this world, but it’s a lush and interesting setting, that could easily furnish many adventurers. Taking the role of someone like Yupa, the PCs could wander the earth uncovering old secrets and getting into trouble. It includes the opportunity for tomb robbing, dungeon adventures, piracy, forging kingdoms, everything that a normal campaign should have – plus massive insects. Also an excellent setting for a sandbox campaign, as the main kingdoms are outlined but there are huge unexplored spaces to delve into. The original movie and manga contains just enough hints at magic to make at least low-level magic acceptable, and certainly suggests feats of the impossible (massive corvettes, little girls taking out teams of armoured soldiers, the mehve, etc.). I don’t think there would be any problems playing in this world if the players had all read the manga and/or seen the anime.

The world of Mononoke would be an excellent setting as well.

Carcosa

I haven’t bought this product, which was the focus of much controversy when it was released, and I’m not very into old school D&D, but the setting and some of the ideas seem really interesting, and the evil summoning angle certainly seems to suit my style of campaigning. Also, the flavour of the text and the narrative style seems interesting. I really like the idea of a world where dubious “ancients” of some kind designed different colours of human as experimental material, mingled with the swords and sorcery style of the gaming. I’d like to try this someday.

Faeriewhere

Neil Gaiman’s two best books, Neverwhere and Stardust, both present excellent settings for gaming, and because I read them consecutively I’ve always thought of them being somehow linked. Neverwhere is set in a magical alternate London, broken into regions with characteristics based on the names of the tube stations, full of magic and sinister powers, in which all significant business arrangements seem to be based on the exchange of favours. Stardust is set in a faerie land connected to the ordinary world of Victorian England by a town called Wall. I ran a brief adventure once in which the world of Neverwhere was linked to the world of Stardust through the Roman camp at the edge of London, and it really seemed like an excellent adventure setting. The physical laws of Neverwhere are very well established but completely vague, and the general principles of the world clearly enough arranged that one can construct a self-consistent adventuring setting that is extremely dangerous. Stardust is the same. There is scope for almost any kind of adventure in these two worlds, from high fantasy to the grittiest of film noir-style detective agencies. It would be well worth exploring, but players would have to have read the books… unless I used the trick from both novels, of displacing a group of ordinary earth-folk into the world, and having them learn it the hard way…

Compromise and Conceit: Greek Independence Campaign

I have long considered running a Compromise and Conceit campaign in Greece during its war of independence. This war has the unfortunate distinction of having attracted the attention of the British Romantic poets, which means that it could, in my alternate universe, form the crucible in which the Romantic College of Magic was created – or it could be the destruction of the whole artistic and cultural movement they represented. What were they up to in that war? Did they have some secret purpose? And, could the PCs be involved in the war in such a way that they could both choose sides in the war (between the Ottomans or the Greeks) and in whatever intrigues the established colleges of magic in Europe were up to. A brutal battlefield in which the latest Infernal technologies are being tested, a secret and sinister conflict between the magical colleges of Europe, and ultimately the full display of the magical powers of the Persians… this could be a very exciting and dangerous setting for infernal adventuring, as well as giving me the opportunity to flesh out the history of the Colleges, the powers of the Persians, and the realpolitik of Infernal Europe. Plus, the PCs get to meet Lord Byron!

Spelljammin’

I have always liked the Warhammer 40k/Spelljammer idea of magic and orcs in space, but I always thought Spelljammer was a bit naff, and the Warhammer 40k series seems very specific. I’ve wondered if there is some way of using these kinds of ideas (shall we call it Fantasy Space Opera?) to unite my desire for sandbox Space Opera, magic, and some inclinations to planar adventure into some kind of cohesive whole. The easiest way to do this is simply to run an extra-planar adventure in d20/Pathfinder. But alternatively maybe we could move into a different setting, a fantastic space opera where the cities and planets are more like Gondor in the Lord of the Rings than the Old World of Warhammer (ie. splendid and heroic, not grotty and cynical), and the highest powers of the universe are gods and god-like beasts.

The problem with this type of campaign is that I just can’t quite seem to find a way to merge it all together in a way that feels right. Spelljammer seems too much a mix of the bizarre, the stupid, and the Larry Elmore-esque in one weird pastiche, while Warhammer 40k feels too grim and dark. Planar adventures also sometimes seem too weird, and also not space-like enough. So until I can find a way to get this sense of place happening properly, I don’t think that I can achieve this goal.

A final note

I don’t know what campaigns I will be running next – maybe I want to continue warhammer a little longer, or use the system for something similar, or maybe I will try a few short adventures with Japanese systems, it really depends on how my future role-playing groups pan out. Some of the ideas I have presented here are too challenging to run (for me, at least) and some are too specific, I think, for a group of players to approve of. I’m also not generally fond of – or capable of succeeding at – adventuring in other peoples’ settings (at least, not literary settings). So probably any attempts at these ideas would fail. But nothing tried, nothing gained, so…

Last night my players got to do some, ah, enhanced interrogation while wearing smug smiles, and I found myself pondering how far we can come from our real-life moralities when we play. The Warhammer world is constructed so that you really have nothing to lose from torture. The only possible question that can arise when confronted with a chaos mutant, greenskin or cultist is will it work, because there’s no chance you’re going to allow them to live – their mere existence is a slight against very real gods, and a genuine threat to the moral order. In fact, the in-game morality is such that last night the PCs were presented with a moral quandary that in the real world is very hard to imagine. They had to consider allowing a chaos mutant to live, because it (and it really was an it) had information they needed, but was unobtainable by any other method.

Such is the Warhammer world. Having subdued – at great personal risk – 7 quite vicious mutants, and being aware that they were part of a bigger scheme, the PCs needed information. One of the vanquished foes’ mutations was a sentient tattoo on his chest[1], which spoke to the characters and offered to tell them everything it knew if they would help it live. Because it was a mere tattoo on an unconscious body, they couldn’t torture it or interrogate it in any way. Offering to let a mutant live is not normally an option, because the mutant knows that people won’t stand by their word. But in this case the PCs suspected they had a big plot to uncover, so they agreed. And such is the nature of the Warhammer world that the Tattoo informed them that in order to help it they had to cut off the limbs and head of its host body, so it could “grow its own.” This subsequently turned out not to be correct, and after a day the tattoo died, but the PCs thought the tattoo understood its own situation so were willing to oblige. Nonetheless, their dilemma was the exact inverse of that which we sophisticated moderns are used to thinking about.

Subsequently they caught a ring-leader of the plot they were investigating, and there was not a moments hesitation in laying the boot in. Not for a moment did they consider the obvious problems with torture, viz:

  • It’s wrong
  • It corrupts the person doing it
  • It doesn’t work
  • It radicalizes your enemies

In warhammer none of this matters anyway. Nothing you do to a real physical representation of ultimate evil can be “wrong.” These people aren’t products of culture or environment, they’re products of dark and corrupting magic whose fate can only be death. It can’t corrupt the person doing it, since destroying and torturing objectively evil creatures elevates you in the eyes of society and your own gods. And the forces of chaos cannot become more radical, so there’s no value to thinking about its social consequences. The only time these risks might apply is when you get the wrong person, but if they’re mutated they are by definition not the wrong person. The only thing wrong with that question is the use of the word “person.” This is a pretty repugnant worldview, but when you play warhammer you’re throwing yourself into it with a passion. So the only relevant question is “does it work?” Which brings me to the point of the post:

How do you handle torture in your gaming?

I noticed years ago that players have a tendency, when dealing with the forces of evil, to promise clemency before they get the information, and then to kill their target anyway. Alternatively, they torture the target for information but the target knows they will kill it when they’re done. In either case there is no incentive for the target to provide any information, unless we live in a world where torture is assumed to work even if the final outcome is death; but torture surely never works when the victim knows they will receive no clemency, especially if they have any loyalty to a cause. So in order for the torture to have any chance of working, the NPC has to believe it will survive. So my rules for torture in game are as follows:

  • First of all, a skill check of some kind is essential. There has to be a risk of failure, it has to be challenged against the targets fanaticism and toughness
  • This skill check can be stunted, that is the players can attempt to improve its chances of success through tailored torture. This requires descriptions, which can be a bit icky. Do you allow descriptions?
  • I don’t usually hide the roll, but if my players are the kind of people who can’t resist using information their PCs shouldn’t know, I do
  • The PCs are welcome to break the promise they make at the beginning of the torture process, e.g. to say they are going to let the target live but then kill it. However, if they do this very often they reduce the chance of success in subsequent interrogations of unrelated targets in the future, because a) I need a way to control this kind of behaviour from a believability point of view and b) I figure that the more they do this, the less sincere they’re going to be when they make their initial offer to subsequent targets – lots of nudges and winks and looks exchanged that the target will quickly understand
  • Fumbles and the like lead to misleading or wrong information

I also in some games (e.g. Warhammer) allow for the possibility of insanity or other dubious consequences of the regular application of torture. Even against “chaos,” it corrupts the user. In my Compromise and Conceit campaign a central character was a torturer, and immune to that kind of thing, and in general the infernal nature of that game meant I didn’t need to apply immediate consequences to these actions; but in any case the players all worked out near the end that their PCs were going to hell in the long run. That’s probably punishment enough…

Another thing I commonly do when dealing with cults is give their members a built in (and often messy) suicide effect when forced to reveal sensitive information. “It’s in the…” *pop*! I especially like to do this if my players are getting lazy and using the “bag and torture” approach to every problem. It encourages a bit of lateral investigation.

What I try to avoid at all costs is an environment where torture carries only rewards (getting the information) and no downside (the mutant gets to live, the PCs go slowly mad or turn to chaos themselves, etc.). I think of this as a way of balancing the real world repugnance (and impracticability) of torture with its in-game acceptability (and effectiveness). What’s the point of playing warhammer if you don’t get to fry the odd mutant tentacle? But at the same time I have a game world to balance, and future adventures to plan, and if torturing a target as a shortcut to solving the case means you have to leave a chaos mutant alive, then maybe the PCs will think twice about it. Mutants (and GMs) everywhere rejoice!

fn1: The original scenario calls for a chest with a second face embedded in it, but I decided to lift the idea of the The Tattoo from Mieville’s Kraken instead. The players spent the day referring to the resulting mutated torso as irezumi san, “Mr. Tattoo” or irezumi kun, which is the diminutive/friendly alternative to “Mr.”

Noisms at Monsters and Manuals has written a comparison of gaming systems with political theories, dichotomized into “top-down” games (D&D 3rd Edition) and thinkers (Marx) and “bottom-up” games (OD&D) and thinkers (Hayek). Noisms makes it clear what side he falls on (he’s a “bottom-upper,” oo-er), which he characterizes as “the right” (vs. “the wrong”), but even if you swap sides or dispute the particular product placement (I don’t believe Orwell is a bottom-upper, and others dispute Marx in the top-down category), the idea is interesting and has some bearing on a few common topics in the role-playing world. Noisms isn’t clear in the post about what this top-down vs. bottom-up distinction means, but in comments he adds:

The phrase “bottom-up” as I use it here doesn’t refer to the position of the agents of change on the social scale. It refers to the nature of the social change (i.e. not planned, emergent, incremental, intuitive)

which seems like a reasonable way of simplifying the political theories and the games.

I think in his post though, Noisms is ignoring the importance of structure and planning for achieving emergent or bottom-up change. I think this applies equally well to game systems, and I think a bit of new left anarchist debate (genuine bottom-upping, not the crypto-statism of libertarians like Hayek) can help to inform what I mean.

In essence, “emergent” social change that occurs genuinely without structure or within a limited set of rules leads to a type of tyranny; an unstructured and intuitive game system, without a reasonable extent of rules and systems, leads to a type of tyranny as well.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Back in the 1970s the feminist Jo Freeman wrote a little pamphlet called The Tyranny of Structurelessness, in which she described the problems anarchist and left-wing feminist groups faced in trying to do organized political activism from a framework of having no organization or rules. The key phrase in that pamphlet that critiques both the political theory of unplanned emergent change, and (implicitly) the gamer’s ideal of unplanned and intuitive play, is this:

A ‘laissez-faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez-faire’ society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones. Similarly, ‘laissez-faire’ philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so.

In political systems we temper these effects by putting strict rules on how much can be achieved through individual contracts. You can’t sell yourself into slavery, there are strict rules about inheriting debts, etc. We further, in the modern world, introduce laws about manufacturing and employment processes – such as clean air laws and equal opportunity laws – because it is very very obvious (from long and painful experience) that without these kinds of structures, the powerful ride roughshod over the weak. Without these systems in place, society goes to the rich, the socially connected and the nastiest people, rather than to those who strive. This is the essence of most rational critiques of laissez-faire capitalism and systems of dispute based entirely on property rights and contract law. Creating a blank space for “intuitive” change opens up the social space to being captured, not by the most intuitive in society, but by those with the most power to act on whatever intuitions they do have.

In game terms this difference is summarized by Barking Alien in comments at the original post:

you get games in which the designers/creators try to govern play as much as they possibly can by coming up with a system that can cover many eventualities, and games in which the designers do not do so in favour of devolving the power to arbitrate, as much as possible, to individual DMs/game groups

What this means in practice is that in-game, the power and benefits accrue to the PCs whose players have most sway over the GM. And, given the fractured and socially backward nature of nerd social interactions, this generally means the most socially manipulative, or those with the loudest voices. It does not mean the most creative people, though it may mean this in a well-run group with a judicious and skilled GM. Even then, though, it rewards a particular creative impulse – the desire to express your clear plans in a way that influences the world. But there’s another type of creative impulse common amongst gamers, which is to enjoy the unfolding of the world through your actions even though you are not yourself capable of expressing your aims well. This type of person is stymied by an unstructured system of arbitration.They may be very good at describing what happens to their PC after the event, but not good at suggesting what they do before the event.

In short, this type of gaming rewards the expressive, not the creative. And it is especially vulnerable to exploitation by manipulative and bullying players, who are actually very common.

A good summary might be that, under one system the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM and/or players. Under the other system, the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM through reference to a well-structured system of action resolution. The former system rewards[1] good negotiators, while the latter rewards good ideas – or even, just rewards participation, which is what we want from a game.

The main way that this structure is reflected in practice is through the skill system and the magic system. An extensive, well-designed and well-described skill system gives the GM an excellent framework within which to handle novel tasks, to set the difficulty and to distinguish PC roles. And in terms of game enjoyment, the main thing this system prevents is a situation in which a single player gets to do everything, because they’re good at arbitrating with the GM over every single task. In open, purely “bottom-up” systems, the socially confident player is able to seize many fields of action for themself, such as trap-finding, diplomacy, fighting, information gathering, etc. while the shyer or less expressive players stand by and wait for the only time when they can fit their actions to a structure – combat. But once you throw a skill structure onto the PCs, suddenly the player loses the power to do some of these things well, and other players pick it up. Those other players may not express their actions so well, but they get to be a part of the group.

This is particularly noticeable in OD&D, which is one of the few old school games not to have a skill system of any kind. It seems to me that the OSR is full of comments and posts by people who exalt this ability to express actions and negotiate them with the GM over the desire to be involved effectively in a group (in the sense that I mean it above), and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Essentially in these kinds of games, social ability is like temporal power in the real world, and the lack of structure in the game rewards social ability just as it rewards temporal power in real life. But this social ability doesn’t make you a better person, just a louder one, and shy or ineloquent people should be able to enjoy these games too. I think it was in response to those peoples’ lack of enjoyment of the game that the later systems incorporated much more extensive structure.

The Tyranny of Tyranny

The classic response to Jo Freeman’s article was the pamphlet The Tyranny of Tyranny, by Cathy Levine, that reads like a bit of a gender-essentialist screed (oh, radical feminism, how you have failed women…) and argues, essentially, that structurelessness is a cultural alternative to existing ways of thinking, and that small groups coming together in voluntary association without a movement behind them can both protect themselves from exploitation and generate new (revolutionary) social change. The key quote relevant to gaming would be this:

What we definitely don’t need is more structures and rules, providing us with easy answers, pre-fab alternatives and no room in which to create our own way of life. What is threatening the female Left and the other branches even more, is the ‘tyranny of tyranny’, which has prevented us from relating to individuals, or from creating organisations in ways that do not obliterate individuality with prescribed roles, or from liberating us from capitalist structure

Dropping all the politically specific language here, we find a claim that less rules governing interaction will give more freedom to individuals to create new social organizations and new ideas.

In game terms we see this with the common complaints about D&D 3rd edition, with its extensive feats and skills and every situation covered by a rule, in which people stop thinking about what they want to do and start worrying about what they can do. There is also a strong risk of gaming the rules when they’re at this level, and also of a type of regulatory capture – that if you can get the ear of the GM you can bend the rules in ways that others haven’t, and this will leave you significantly more powerful or capable than everyone else. I think in fact every GM in a system like Rolemaster or D&D 3rd edition has seen this happen – it happened to me in 2nd edition AD&D, for sure. Also, gaming under these rules systems includes a lot of “red tape” in the form of rules checking, character development, etc. that can be seen as a hidden cost or regulatory burden stifling creativity. This regulatory capture and red tape is exactly a common complaint libertarians make against organized social structures, which brings us full circle to Noisms’ synthesis of Hayek and OD&D.

The Balanced Approach: Social Democracy of Gaming

Of course, the most effective model we have for social organization in the western world is social democracy, which protects people from the worst excesses of laissez-faire society while protecting peoples’ freedom of action. Such systems are commonly misconstrued by libertarians as “central planning” or “socialism” (see e.g. Glenn Beck on healthcare), but they’re so far from such a scheme that the comparison is silly. In game terms I think the analogy is with rules-light skill systems, flexible combat and magic systems, and an immediate reward system for creative self-expression (stunting) that isn’t essential for game satisfaction. This rewards all the different social types at the table and guards against excessive effects of bullying and social manipulation without falling victim to regulatory capture or high costs.

In my view the games that best fit this model of a social democracy of gaming are probably the three versions of Warhammer (but especially the third), Exalted, the Japanese game Double Cross 3, my version of the d20 system (or in fact any version that isn’t loaded down with D&D’s heritage), and maybe (? I can’t recall clearly ?) Shadowrun. Original D&D is too unstructured to fit this description, and D&D 3rd edition has piled a huge edifice onto an otherwise quite functional system, so that it carries a high cost in-game and is vulnerable to rules manipulation. I think Rolemaster can meet my conditions for “social democratic gaming” if it’s run by a good GM with a lot of experience, but usually it’s the ultimate communist game – a good idea in theory but it doesn’t work in practice[2].

I think a lot of people who laud earlier versions of D&D are ignoring the often quite toxic social dynamics that sprang up in early gaming groups, and don’t care about the game being available to the shy or the socially inexpressive. I think that just as good GMing has to take into account the social dynamics at the table, good game design has to take into account the many ways the game design can reward or discourage certain types of personality type from playing. Being a good social democrat, I’m all in favour of equality, and I think the game should be available to as many different types of personality as possible, so I think we should eschew strong ideological brands like Marxism or libertarianism, and instead focus on practical, simple systems for enabling everyone to get along…

fn1: by “rewards” here we mean, “provides a chance to act and have your actions resolved in a way that you can have faith in,” not “gets to succeed at the action”

fn: I don’t actually believe this about communism, but I think it’s an excellent phrase.

Another of my (several) complaints about Warhammer 3rd Edition is that it doesn’t seem to contain a great deal of flavour about the world, compared to the 1st and 2nd editions. I think this is largely because it is new[1], though I think Fantasy Flight Games are doing the rather nasty trick of assuming that everyone is just going to use old 2nd Edition source material for the flavour. In a way this is good because it means you don’t have to buy a whole new range of background material when you buy a new system, if you just want to upgrade to a system that actually works. After all, Black Industries may have produced a completely and insanely shit system, but the quality of their work on the world is unparalleled and unlikely to be bettered by any other company[2], and I think that the reason most people who play WFRP2 love it is the world, not the system – you love WFRP2 despite its myriad flaws.

So combining the two is the perfect way to play warhammer. And that’s what I did recently, when I started running the (excellent) first edition Fear the Worst adventure in WFRP3. I won’t spoil this adventure for readers by describing the content in detail, but suffice to say that it’s a really good example of the best kind of module. It has lots of material on the setting and a general structure for how the module should run, so that GMs can run it as intended and get a rich and interesting experience, but also leaves huge sections open to free-form development, so that the GM can drop things he or she doesn’t like, and players can make their own path to the conclusion (which occurs on a fixed timeline). It also openly allows for the possibility that the players will “lose,” with catastrophic consequences for the town if not for them. I like this style of adventuring a lot. And also, it’s quite lethal if the players are stupid.

The module was also very easy to fit in with WFRP3, with one caveat – played as written in WFRP 3 for the PCs as described in the module (novices), it is lethal, far more than I think must have been the case in the original. The module was easy to convert because the basic worlds overlap so well – the available flavour in the WFRP3 books makes you feel like you’re in a 1st or 2nd Edition Old World, and all the concepts described in the module are familiar to readers of 3rd Edition. Also, many elements of the module are very similar to those of the introductory module in the WFRP3 Tome of Adventure, with the same feeling of brooding trouble, everything on the surface happy and normal but chaos beneath. In short, the personalities of the different versions match up.

So what particular challenges faced me in converting the module?

Converting statistics: The WFRP 3 basic book and the Winds of Magic supplement include the monsters you need to make your adventure work, and all the NPCs in Fear the Worst can be mapped to them, so it’s no trouble to generate statistics. I fiddled a few details on some stat blocks to make the NPCs match up, and there were one or two spells that I had no analog for, but this didn’t bother me at all. Stat blocks in the original module are easily read and understood, and can be converted easily if you know what an average value should be in each system. This took very little time and produced creatures which in combat behaved roughly as the module suggested they would.

Handling traps: There are no rules for traps in the WFRP 3 rules, so I made my own, with corresponding cards. On the night my thoughts on traps were half-formed so I winged it a bit, which ended with the thief hanging by his hand over a pit full of spikes, looking very worried. But the joy of WFRP 3 is that it is the ultimate system for winging it. You can produce anything you want with those dice, and as I get more familiar with them I’m having a lot of fun making them do their creative work. This adventure depends on traps being dangerous, and I certainly made them so. Had the thief had a little less saving throw luck, he’d have been dead.

Handling the lethality:Quite unlike earlier editions of Warhammer, WFRP 3 is singularly lethal, and this was the third time my party came to a near TPK. This one was particularly dire, with the party cycling through unconsciousness several times (a very risky proposition) and their entire fate resting on a duel of wizards. My party were on the cusp of a second career, with all the extra power that entails, and so considerably tougher than the original module requires, but even if they had been smart and seen the ambush coming they would still have been in a very challenging battle. For novice WFRP 3 PCs the encounter at Black Rock Keep would, I think, be deadly on about 70-80% of runs, even without the ambush. The deadliness needs to be dialled down, either by reducing the size of the enemy group or by rolling some into a minion stat block, which is what I should have done with the two toughest fighters and the two weakest fighters. The original module calls for 7 unique creatures to do battle with 4 PCs, and gives those unique creatures reasonable strength in an ambush setting. I should have had 3 unique creatures and two pairs of minions, with the minions in melee and the unique creatures ranged/spell-casting. By not doing this I set a really challenging battle.

So the main take home lesson from this is to be careful in converting stat blocks and arranging enemy groupings, to take into account WFRP 3’s additional lethality; or to be ready with a backup plan for a TPK scenario (I had one vaguely mapped out in this case that would have been a lot of fun to run). Don’t be sucked in to the common myth that WFRP 2 or WFRP 1 are dangerous – compared to the third edition they are, in my (limited) experience much much less so. Module conversions need to take this into account, or GMs need to be ready to fudge it or wing it to make up for their mistakes half way through the adventure – or be willing to rain regular TPKs on their group, which in my opinion is not fun and soon loses you players.

I am thinking of trying to run one of the longer WFRP 2 campaigns (one of the famous ones) in WFRP 3 to see where it leads. It’s good to see that conversion is easy, because it means that I will be able to do enjoyably in WFRP 3 what would have been very frustrating in an earlier, less well designed system for the same world.

fn1: and actually I would say that there’s a higher ratio of background material to rules material in WFRP3 than any other system I’ve ever read. The magic and priest books are basically entirely about the world, as is the tome of adventure. By shifting all the rules into the cards, the books themselves get to have a lot of non-system content. But they’re chaotically laid out and it can seem like that material’s not there, and I think it’s not as good as the material from the 2nd Edition.

fn2: and I think Fantasy Flight Games are in a bind here. If they release a bunch of new companion material and background flavour they’ll be accused of fleecing fans a second time over, but if they don’t -and assume that fans will use existing 2nd Edition material – they’ll be accused of neglecting the warhammer world in favour of the system. More evidence that games need rescuing from their fanboys, if this happens.

One of my (several) problems with Warhammer 3 is that it doesn’t contain rules for some basic aspects of adventuring that we all take for granted, including (rather annoyingly) traps. I don’t often use traps in adventures, since I’m not a great fan of dungeon adventures, and I understand that dungeoneering isn’t a big part of the warhammer milieu, so I can see why they don’t want to include the rules in a basic book, but traps are a very handy GMs tool, and it’s nice to have the designer’s ideas on how to handle them. WFRP3 doesn’t have a clearly described saving throw system of any sort, so in order to set up a trap I have to come up with some kind of scheme. Since the most recent adventure I’ve been running depended on traps, I need to design some method, and these are thoughts towards that method.

The Basic WFRP3 Saving Throw Mechanic

I’m not a fan of separating saving throws from the other mechanics of the game, so I’m happy to use a system like WFRP3 where the saving throw is not a special set of rules. However – and probably as a throwback to my days of using saving throws – I like any accidental event that the PC has to resist (like natural events or traps) to be resolved by a dice roll that the player does, rather than me. So if a trap is set off, the targeted PCs should all make some kind of ability check to avoid it. This is easily handled in WFRP3 as, for example, an attribute or skill check vs. a fixed difficulty determined by the trap. However, there is a small unorthodoxy built into this approach. Typically in WFRP3, action checks are constructed in such a way that the results are determined by the number of successes and boons rolled up. But in the case of a saving throw rolled by a PC, the results should be determined by the number of failures and banes.

There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it seems to be a variance from the standard system.

Traps as Attacks

We can get around this by making the trap an attack, that the GM rolls against a PC’s skill or ability score, and then resolves damage etc. accordingly. This is entirely consistent with all the other rules of the game, but vaguely unsatisfying. Especially for save-or-die type traps, players should always be able to make the roll that determines their fate. Even though it’s exactly the same if the GM does it, it feels too … narrative … if it’s handled by the GM. The same applies to skill checks in which one PC or monster uses a social combat mechanic to control the actions of another PC – resolution of this should always be performed openly by the affected PC.

Disabling Traps

There also needs to be a mechanic for disabling traps, which pits a specific skill against the trap itself. The act of disarming the trap then has results depending on the number of successes gained, and also a standard result for banes. I’m thinking the standard results are:

  • 1 Success: the trap is disarmed
  • 3 Successes: The trap is disarmed and can be rearmed by the same PC later
  • 2 banes: the trap is triggered
  • 2 boons: the PC learns how to make this trap if their intelligence score is greater than the trap’s difficulty

This allows for the possibility that PCs might be interested in developing trap-making abilities of their own, and requires the inclusion of special trap-making rules.

We can put all of this together through the construction of Trap Cards.

Trap Cards

Of course traps don’t have to be represented by cards, and neither do items (or actions, or anything else) but it’s consistent with the way the game is laid out and it’s a convenient way of setting out rules. I don’t have the ability to make cards beyond those in the Strange Aeons software package, so I am going to recommend a card design based on cannibalizing the basic Action Card format. The Trap Card will have two faces, one (the red face) representing the trap’s effects, and one (the green face) representing the disarming process. The red face doesn’t have a recharge number, but gives the skill the PC needs to use to defeat the trap. The green face has a recharge number, which in this case is the number of rounds it takes to disarm the trap. The body of the card then shows the success and failure lines and their outcomes. Each card is for a type of trap, so will refer to a trap difficulty. This difficulty determines how hard the trap is to evade and how hard it is to disarm. Note that traps basically come with three difficulty types – search, disable and resist. These are not specified on the card, but the card will specify the results and skill checks in terms of these ratings. Note that there could be a fourth value, which would be the strength of the trap and would affect damage.

My next post will contain an example of such a trap card.

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