Role-playing styles

You must gather your party before venturing forth ...

I gained a great deal of inspiration for role-playing from my trip to Iceland, and I hope that much of what I saw and experienced there will inform a Compromise and Conceit campaign run in Svalbard. Much of the inspiration gained from my trip to Iceland will come simply from amazement at the stark beauty of the landscape (useful background information for an Australian planning to set a campaign in the far north) and from an appreciation of the general coolness of the Nordic universe[1]. But there were also some particular ideas, and some specific information, that I gleaned from this trip, which I think is useful for grounding a campaign in particular historical periods. Some of what I learnt is very general, some specific to Iceland, some generalizable (perhaps) to a Norse-specific campaign. I was simultaneously reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, so I can’t guarantee it hasn’t been coloured by his very specific view of how pre-medieval pagan societies worked, but I hope that at least some of what I found in Iceland has currency beyond my own campaign ideas. So here it is, in no particular order. A lot of these ideas serve to establish a campaign in which the majority of the community is living in poverty and pretty low settings; this may not be to everyone’s tastes, and so some of what’s suggested here may not be worth adopting (and it may be exaggerating the state of life in 12th century Iceland, which I’ll use as my focus for a campaign setting).

Travel and the Weather as Adversary

Until the 19th century Iceland had no proper roads, and to travel from one part of the country to another required trudging over essentially wilderness on tracks beaten out by other travellers. In winter this meant passing over snowy ground, and the path was not kept clear. Instead it was marked by little cairns of stones every couple of hundred metres, and travellers simply moved from cairn to cairn. Traveling a modern road in a comfortable bus on a perfect Autumn day it was easy to forget what this means for your average 12th century traveler, but our guide told us that in winter or fog the weather could be so bad that, even quite close to Reykjavik, travelers could easily lose sight of the next cairn, and become lost on the moors easily. Getting lost in a winter storm in Iceland would be a death sentence for all but the very lucky, and the natural consequence of this is that one would not travel in winter. This has huge ramifications for much of human society – trade, war, adventuring and life in general would grind to a halt, and the whole world would be waiting with baited breath for spring. In turn this places huge stress on festivals that mark the thresholds of seasons and changes, because they also represent the return of life, motion, and human congress.

I remember speaking with an Afghan doctor about his research project when I was teaching statistics a few years ago. His interest was in reducing maternal mortality (a huge problem in Afghanistan, and intricately related to infant mortality), and he told me about a very simple problem that does not exist in modern Nordic countries. In winter in many parts of Afghanistan the heavy snows block passes and roads and prevent all forms of travel. This means that if you’re giving birth in winter, you get no support of any kind beyond that which is available from your immediate neighbours. Given the single best protection against maternal mortality is access to medical care (or, in a fantasy world, clerics) when complications occur, this basic lack of infrastructure (cleared roads) that we in the west take for granted presents a huge barrier for Afghan women’s health. The same would apply in any rural town in 12th century Iceland, but even worse – food and other vital supplies would also be frozen in, making preparation for the winter of crucial importance. One need look no further than this to understand why brutal strongmen were capable of popular rule in such societies: no one cares that they demand a virgin a year, if they guarantee security for your winter preparations. To return to Afghanistan, an interesting article in today’s Guardian suggests westerners have misunderstood Afghan support for the Taliban for these kinds of reasons:

Most ordinary people associate the [national] government with practices and behaviours they dislike: the inability to provide security, dependence on foreign military, eradication of a basic livelihood crop (poppy), and as having a history of partisanship (the perceived preferential treatment of Northerners).

and they credited the “good Taliban” with not doing these things, as well as the ability to provide justice swiftly and fairly. In dark ages societies this was no doubt a very easy way to be liked: guarantee your subjects security to prepare for winter, and you can take what you want from them (within reason) in spring.


Hang it, smoke it, mash it, and wash it down with ammonia

This brings us to the topic of Icelandic food, which is an interesting mix of the delicious and the horrific and, in some ways, still recalls the food culture of old. Iceland still relies on imports for most of the things we take for granted, and until the 1930s couldn’t grow most vegetables or fruits locally, so a lot of the old-fashioned foods still persist. The worst examples of these are thoramatur, a disgusting series of foods that obviously derive from a period of history when food was less reliable than it is now, nothing could be wasted, and much had to be cured or preserved using gross or stinky methods[2]. More generally, the food that Icelanders ate 100 years ago was very limited in its variety, very simple, and indicates a very limited palate. I have found in GMing that food can be used to add elements of vivid realism to a campaign setting, and can serve as an indicator of e.g. hostility, poverty, welcome, and the importance ascribed to meetings or deals[3], and food in an Iceland-style setting could be easily used to establish that sense of living-on-the-edge that a medieval Icelandic setting should have. Consider the examples in the picture above, which I ate at the Loki Cafe near the main church in Reykjavik. From top right, going clockwise, we have smoked trout, smoked lamb, mashed fish, in the middle we have wind-dried cod with butter, and at the rear (thankfully hidden from view), rotten shark. For Icelanders over a certain age, these last two are a delicacy. I have to say the wind-dried cod is palatable compared to your average Japanese dried smelt (though I didn’t try it with beer – Japanese dried fish tastes fishy before you have a beer, and then it literally explodes with a new dimension of fishiness once you take your first sip). The dried shark, hakarl, tastes very strongly of ammonia – it goes up your nose like horseradish or mustard, only it’s ammonia. Why anyone would eat this I don’t know, but I guess historically this served a very useful purpose. Your village catches a 5m long Greenland shark, which would provide enough meat for your whole town for a week, but it’s poisonous, so you have to rot it to get rid of the poison. You lay it down in Autumn, stick it in barrels before the snow comes, and by mid-winter you have a week’s supply of meat when everything else has run out. Imagine sitting in your wind-blasted, freezing 12th century hut, with 3-5 hours of sunlight a day, down to your last few kilos of smoked lamb, drinking nothing but intensely strong rye spirits (because beer doesn’t exist), eating stale rye bread, and knowing that in a week you’ll be down to nothing but the rotten shark. That, my friends, is living on the raggedy edge. I don’t know if Iceland was that poor in the 12th century (they also had trade items that may have made them very rich) but I’m guessing that away from the centres of cultural life things could go this way in lean times – and remember that the little ice age struck Iceland at that time too. By varying the food culture as your PCs travel across the frozen land, you can easily give them a sense of increasing poverty and/or desperation, as well as a sense of realism.

Women’s roles and Inequality

Not a nice way to end an affair

Iceland prides itself on its feminism and its advances in women’s status, and there is some evidence that women had some form of equal voting rights to men (at least at a local level) before they did in the rest of Europe, enacted through the peculiar system of Iceland’s local parliament and its local voting system. Early rules in the settlement era (from 980 AD onward) suggest that women were allowed to own land (as much as they could walk a heifer around in a day!) and be the head of a household. During the reign of the Danish monarchy it’s likely that a lot of these rights were ignored or stripped away, but in general it seems like Iceland had a (relatively) progressive outlook on women’s rights from an early era. My guidebook suggests this may have had a lot to do with the precarious environment – not many Icelanders would have had much leeway to keep women sequestered in the farmhouse in this period, and the right to work is a huge driver of women’s equality. More generally, this tells us something about women’s equality in medieval societies in general, and how it is a much more nuanced and complex issue than modern lay interpreters of medieval history generally believe. Modern views of women’s rights in history seem to generally be that women had none, had few leadership chances (either covert or open) and were victims of an intensely patriarchal society. I don’t think it’s that simple, and my general guess is that women’s equality was actually at times and places quite advanced amongst the peasantry, and quite restricted amongst the nobility; conversely, the poverty of the lower classes worked against women’s health and welfare much more harshly than it did men. For example, most modern images of marriage in the medieval era see it as a restrictive bond on women, but in fact before the Victorian era in the UK (for example) marriage was a pretty haphazard institution, not particularly well adhered to amongst the lower classes and implemented in very different ways at a local level. Thomas Hardy’s description of a registry office in Jude the Obscure gives a nice insight into the way the lower classes may have looked on marriage at that time. Meanwhile, of course, high-class women in the medieval era were definitely used as pawns in political games, but this may not have been a general problem for other women. One common feminist critique of Victorian and Regency literature is that it was propaganda for a new form of marriage that took an absolute and regressive view of women’s bondage to men within the marriage compact[4]. As another example, two of Britain’s most vigorous, most expansionist and most culturally active and successful periods were under the reign of powerful and well-respected female leaders (Elizabeth and Victoria), and I think it would be hard to say that they were figureheads.

So while the popular fantasy of medieval countries may be of women oppressed and powerless, the reality is likely much more nuanced. Obviously in our fantasy worlds female warriors, thieves and wizards are a dime a dozen and this is completely ahistorical and something most of us aren’t going to ditch from our campaigns, but it’s not necessarily ahistorical to have these women supported by a culture in which women’s rights may be contested, diverse, and at times quite liberal. Women farmers, spokespeople, politicians and criminal masterminds are not outside the realms of possibility in the real world, so it’s perfectly possible to extend that further in the fantastical world without stretching the truth overmuch; and it’s perfectly possible to smooth out the worst historical abuses of women in the interests of having a campaign world that isn’t completely detestable, without making the political and cultural landscape unrecognizable.

Which isn’t to say that women’s life in Iceland was easy. The picture above is of the “drowning pool” at the historical parliament, where women were drowned for “sexual crimes” and infanticide. Men were burnt at the stake or hanged for the same crimes.

Inclusion and Consensus

Having shown that rather disturbing picture, it’s worth noting that very few people were executed in Iceland during the era of drowning pools and burnings; although empowered to use capital punishment, Icelanders generally considered this punishment abhorrent, and opted instead for blood money or outlawry as an alternative. The worst punishment in Iceland was considered to be outlawry, in which a criminal was driven out of society. In fact, this is how Greenland was settled. This points to a society which considered exclusion to be a terrible fate, and I think there is a very simple reason for this: in a place like Iceland, being driven out of the polity is a death sentence, because of the need to work together to survive the harsh climate. In other places (especially, e.g. large parts of Asia and Europe) it would be very easy to make one’s life anew if cast out of one’s local society, because the land was bountiful enough to live off of without much support. Not so in Iceland. I think the same thing applied historically in Australia, and the result is a political and cultural system based on consensus rather than conflict. It was for this reason that the althing (the parliament) was established, and it drives a certain type of politics. The flipside of consensus cultural models is that there is an extremely strong pressure not to deviate from cultural norms: witness the restricted range of roles available to men in Australia, and its historical disapproval of homosexuality, as an example. Most British will tell you they find Australian men alarmingly macho, and this is because British men have a more diverse range of roles and available characters. There’s more space for cultural play in a society which doesn’t value consensus so highly. This type of politics will go to huge lengths not to exclude people, and will respond warmly to a cultural group once they are granted the status of “included” (see, e.g. Australia’s rapidly changing views of Aborigines since the 1960s). The downside is that once you’re out, you’re really out. You don’t get to live in a contested space like, say, the Travellers or asylum seekers in Britain – you’re gone. In historical Iceland you were also, literally, gone – you sailed over the seas and that was that.

In gaming terms a consensus society probably doesn’t figure highly until it comes time to resolve conflicts between powerful groups. Then, the players will need to find subtle ways to deal with their political opponents, and may need to come to terms with the fact that they can’t kill them but have to settle for subversion, or even maintaining their enemy’s public facade while removing the source of their power. In my experience this type of adventuring – political intrigues, problems that can’t be resolved with a blaster – is harder to do and very hard to do well. But many players like games of subtle intrigue where covert action is essential, and it certainly enables the GM to keep his favorite bad guys alive and causing trouble for longer. Even though Iceland comes from a Viking heritage, it doesn’t necessarily present the kind of climate where you can just bash your enemy until he hands over his potions – unlike a lot of classic fantasy adventuring worlds. Such a world probably also means that the PCs will be accepted even by communities that might side with their enemies, but once they cross the rubicon they are doomed – no one will take them in even if threatened, and even if not on the run from the law they will face a miserable existence. Can they turn this on their enemies? And how does it change play to be aware of these rules?

I think it’s for these kinds of reasons that the Icelanders came to a parliament so early, and in the next post on this topic I’ll try to talk about the costs of war, variants of slavery, and the cultural sophistication of the early medieval period.

fn1: I guess it’s hard for Europeans to grasp, but for Australians a place like Norway or Denmark is exotic; for Japanese, the UK is exotic. So while Europeans might look at Norway and think, “meh, Vikings” and consider Australia a foreign and alien landscape, for me everything Nordic is new and exciting.

fn2: It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia entry on the mid-winter foods and festival of Iceland makes it clear the festival was revived (or created!) in the 50s, and that although it was based on historical foods these foods weren’t necessarily staples of the diet. This is a really cool and interesting example of invented culture, but I’m guessing that the foods used served the role I ascribe to them here, as mid-winter survival foods – just like sausages and smoked meats elsewhere in Europe, or that weird and disgusting rotten fish in Sweden.

fn3: I think I should elaborate on this in future

fn4: I don’t claim to agree with this view, or to know much of anything about it

Commenter Paul suggested that a Harry Potter RPG would be limited by the problem of knowing the characters and the world too much, in his words:

1. You’re stuck playing a game where the grandest things that can happen are the books and your characters a left with a feast of crumbs. Harry Potter is facing Voldemort! Can you keep the Dementors from the folk of Hogsmeade while he saves the world?! Or
2. You avoid the Harry Potter setting either in time or location, but these strip the familiar elements from the novels and rob you of the reason you’re playing it in the first place. Or
3. You play Harry and friends, but you already know the plot that you’re playing through

I think this is a similar problem to the kinds of situations you’d run into with, for example, a Dresden game or a LoTR RPG (or Dragonlance, as Paul noted). I’ve got around this in LoTR by choosing option 2), for example – and once ran a LoTR game where the players did 1), in Mordor – they were captured soldiers just trying to escape while the war of the ring continued somewhere far away. There’s no reason to think that the problem couldn’t be surmounted in a Harry Potter RPG.

So here’s some ideas for two different layers of a Harry Potter RPG.

For Younger Children

You could have quite an entertaining little game getting up to hijinks in Hogwarts itself – it’s virtually a sandbox campaign if you want to play it that way, but there are specific inter-house rivalries and shenanigans that can play out against quite a deadly backdrop. I did this for a group of schoolkids I was GMing in Japan, having them start in their school club house and save the town of Matsue from a demon-conjuring older student[2]. You could set up a kind of Ars Magica style of multiple-PC setting, where all the PCs are from the same house, but with different (house-specific) skills, and perhaps with the players having a starting preference. Then, for different challenges in Hogwarts you choose your PCs to match. Maybe there isn’t even a death option, but if something goes horribly wrong you don’t die, you get Dumbledored: one of the teachers turns up and saves you, but then you’re in detention and suffer an xp penalty, or you have to play a different member of your school’s house while you wait for your previous member to get out of detention. Also the goal of some adventures could be mischief against older kids, and you could even define a term or school-year timing process, so that at the end of a fixed number of adventures all the students gain a level; the amount of individual adventuring the kids did in their year partially determines how much they gain from their year’s education (so you tie the adventuring to doing better in school). Thus a good campaign arc also follows the arc of the stories across multiple years; you could have event tables for the summer holidays and for the school as a whole that follow a Make You Kingdom kind of style. This gives the game a more campaign-y, abstracted style, with the players not having to care about getting too bogged down in individual PCs and getting to fully explore the environs of Hogwarts (and maybe it’s a different Hogwarts each time, if enough random tables are used). They can move onto the hard stuff as they get older.

For “Young Adults”

(To be said in a yobby English accent, while dancing[1]). Here the game gets darker and more focussed, with a more intensive character generation process and the assumption that the stories will involve only one PC each, in a more traditional style (we’re making a gateway drug here, remember – we need these kids to grow up and head over to the rest of the RPG world). So they can die or get injured, can carry psychological baggage with them (they’re teenagers, so there should be a lot of psychological baggage tables!) and they can come from multiple houses, with the possibility that they’re working for the interests of their own house as much as the group. This style of gaming can allow for hidden magic, forbidden magic, secret exits to town, wandering monsters in and outside Hogwarts, and the possibility of statting-up and fighting some of the teachers, who of course have their own agenda. It could also allow for post-graduation adventures, and the possibility that the PCs go on missions or quests either during or after their training – basically using Hogwarts, the Ministry of Magic and the strict rules of the Harry Potter world to construct a standard exploration/adventure campaign – with some additional mechanics for teenage angst, and a lot of cool narrative tricks for avoiding death, and for deus ex machina-type GM interventions (via Dumbledore). In fact, student-teacher relations could act as a kind of resource in the game, which would encourage players to hide their PCs shenanigans from teachers.

I reckon that could be a lot of fun. There are fun spells from the books, monsters, lost secrets, there’d be pocket dimensions and monsters and forbidden potions and shagging behind the broomstick sheds – who wouldn’t love it? But in progressing through the system the innocent Harry Potter fans learn to love role-playing, and then at some point they think “ooh, I can do this in a world of my own invention!” and then we have a million new converts to our hobby.


fn1: gratuitous Young Ones reference!
fn2: looking back on that post, the note I left the students as a clue really should have had a classic English translation of Japanese like “Let’s enjoy summoning a Demon together!!!!”

I have posted before on my opinion of why women don’t play RPGs very much, and recently there is some debate doing the rounds on RPG blogs about this topic. Debate about this topic seems to founder on two rhetorical points, viz:

  • Women are biologically different to men so won’t ever get into RPGs (or, in a softer form, it’s going to be hard to design imagery for RPGs that can appeal equally well to men and women)
  • Changing the way RPGs are presented so that it appeals to women too will render the RPGs shit, because it will involve changing their content for reasons of political correctness rather than style

The former objection is common throughout the blogosphere, it appears, e.g. in comments on this question of Trollsmyth’s about how to sexualize men; and the latter is put particularly forcefully by Zak at Playing D&D with Porn Stars. The former is a debate I don’t want to enter into on this blog, as I feel it’s been done to death over the last 70 years. But the latter I think is not a problem, because changing the representation and culture of a hobby does not require that its fundamental content be changed. I have an analogy from my experience in kickboxing that should help to illustrate how this works.

Kickboxing has been slowly opening up to women over the last 10 years, and in fact not just to women, but widening its scope to include just generally people who aren’t crazy thugs. To do this, they’ve had to change the culture of kickboxing, but unfortunately the sport is always going to attract crazy thugs, because it involves hitting people, and you can’t change that element of the sport. So instead of changing the sport itself, the martial arts association connected with the sport in Australia attempted to change the culture of the sport – that is, the way it is run, the way it is presented to the public, and the teaching methods and club environment so that people could train safely and would be willing to enter a world that has long had a bad image. This wasn’t just being done to encourage women to join – there was an increasing fear that bad behaviour by some trainers was bringing the whole sport into disrepute, and also a recognition that while it retained a certain culture, the sport would remain a niche hobby for a few people.

So, first of all the martial arts association introduced a training accreditation program. This is entirely voluntarily, but after a few bad scares, a lot of schools, scout halls and other hire venues have starting shying away from non-accredited coaches. This accreditation program holds the teachers who do it to a higher standard than used to be expected of a martial arts club, and this higher standard works primarily to make the sport more appealing to a wider range of students, as well as enabling current participants of the sport to lengthen the period of time they are able to continue participating, diversify their skills and enjoy a wider range of activities. The main changes are:

  • Teachers have to learn first aid
  • Teachers have to not only learn, but also encourage, safe training practices amongst their students – wearing of appropriate safety gear, use of proper scientific warm-up and cool-down regimes, and awareness of how different people (e.g. beginners) need to have different training regimens
  • Clubs need to be clean and hygienic, with proper toilet facilities, segregated changing rooms, and education in hygiene for all participants
  • Teachers need to learn to understand what bullying is, and to stamp it out both in their own practice and in that of their senior students
  • Teachers need to have some rudimentary idea of how people learn, what sorts of things need to be done to encourage or discourage a good education, and how to help people enjoy the sport
  • Teachers need to understand that different people have different reasons for wanting to participate, and treat students accordingly
  • Teachers need to understand sexual harrassment and the kinds of activities that make women uncomfortable in a training venue, and try to eliminate this behaviour from their club

The result has not been just that kickboxing has grown fast amongst women, but also that the general quality of kickboxing has improved rapidly over the past 10 years, so that now Australia performs above its weight on the world stage. Lessons in how to do this have been learnt from rugby and Australian Rules Football, both of which have a strong and loyal female following in Australia, and a surprisingly large number of female participants, even though they are the quintessence of contact sports. Nothing has changed fundamentally about the sports themselves; all that is different is the way that they are presented and the culture that surrounds them.

Obviously role-playing has different conditions for the admittance of women to these sports, and different things need to change; and there is no teacher-student dynamic or central association to change them or influence an overall culture (which doesn’t exist, in any case). But I think the general lessons are the same. When the Australian martial arts world started down the road to opening up their sport to women 10 or 15 years ago, many people said it was a waste of time, because women are not designed for this kind of sport, they are biologically unsuited, and “feminization” of the sport will weaken it overall, or drive away men. Many even claimed that people cannot truly learn to fight if the bullying and macho practices of the past are eliminated. However, the exact opposite effect has been observed. These improvements in the style and manner of teaching have widened the available pool of talent from which fighters are drawn, and the general quality of Australian kickboxing in the last 10-20 years has improved enormously. Not only that, but the increase in popularity and wider range of available class types has ensured that teaching kickboxing is now a much more viable business prospect than it was 30 years ago, ensuring more stable, more professional and better equipped gyms that are better able to subsidize the development of fighters through the funds of more casual students. In fact, had Australia not gone down this path our kickboxers would have been left behind, as the Dutch and Japanese professionalized their own kickboxing worlds and began to demand higher and higher quality of training and preparation from their opponents. And, of course, with the penetration of the art into the middle class and its popularization amongst women it has become big business, which further guarantees its viability as a hobby. So much so that, if one visits a K-1 tournament in Japan now, one can be a witness to the charming spectacle of lines of pretty young women crying and screaming the name of their favourite fighter at the end of the tournament – a sight that 20 years ago would have been impossible to imagine.

There’s no reason to suppose that the fundamental violence and adventurism of role playing needs to change for it to attract women, anymore than happened in kickboxing. What needs to change is the culture around the hobby, and the image that is presented to its potential entrants.

I know it’s heretical to consider Warhammer without the career system, but if one were to go about adapting the WFRP3 system for other styles of play this could be a very easy way to change it. Systems without character classes can be made, and I think in some settings character class is less important than in others. In my Compromise and Conceit campaign world I deliberately eschewed classes, preferring my players to have ideas about what kind of character they wanted to be and what special powers they had. Rolemaster was designed with very fine gradations of character class and extreme diversity of development, so characters of the same class might not resemble each other at all. Also, modern settings don’t necessarily suit character classes very well.

Dropping character classes from WFRP3 would be easy, because all the careers are designed the same way. They are composed of 4 elements:

  • Two career attributes (usually one physical and one mental)
  • Five career skills
  • One career talent
  • An advance scheme

In the case of the magic-using classes, the career talent is magic. So we can change this to make the system free of character classes as follows:

  • The player chooses two career attributes for their character
  • The player chooses five career skills. If the PC is going to be a magic-user, this five skills has to include at least one of the two magic-using advanced skills (channel power and spellcraft for arcane magic, or curry favour and invocation for divine magic)
  • Choose one starting talent in negotiation with the GM, that suits your character vision; for a magic-using PC, you get no career talent (because you have magic)
  • Choose a starting stance (2 spaces in either direction, or 1 space/3 spaces)

Then, instead of having an advance scheme that matches the career system of WFRP, we have an advance scheme that matches the rank system. So in one rank you can spend 6 career advances and the 4 universal advances. The advance scheme is the same for all PCs (e.g. 2 action cards, 1 talent, 1 fortune, 1 wound, 1 stance, 2 skills). Or maybe players can choose a style for their PC, either attribute-heavy (e.g. 2 action cards, 2 talents, 2 fortune, 2 wound, 1 stance, 1 skill) or action-heavy (e.g. 3 action cards, 1 talent, 1 fortune, 1 wound, 1 stance, 2 skills). They then have to stick with this forever more; maybe also every rank they gain some bonus special ability related to their PC vision, e.g. a unique action or a unique talent. This enables PCs to play, for example, Indiana Jones exactly as they envisage him.

You could even use this system for completely random character generation – randomly assign every player first to a magic or a non-magic type, then randomly assign them attributes, skills and talents and get them to imagine their character from there. That could be fun for a one shot, maybe in the star wars universe or a slightly cthulhu-tinged Indiana Jones-style world.

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.

I really like the Warhammer 3 system, though I don’t know if it will work at higher levels, but I’m interested in adjusting it to work in a High Fantasy campaign style, rather than the “grim and perilous world” of Warhammer. To the extent that changes would need to be made, it seems that the main ones would be in character generation and advancement. I’ve been thinking about this a bit recently, and some of my ideas on how such a change might work are described below.

Characterizing High Fantasy

The High Fantasy ideas I’m used to basically seem to consist of the following:

  • PCs start at quite a weak and low-powered level, but progress to extremely high powers
  • Character classes follow quite a long development path, and career transitions are few and far between
  • Career transitions can be quite radical: from fighter to magic user, for example
  • Secondary spell users (like Bard, Paladin, etc.) exist

To incorporate these into Warhammer 3 would require a change in the base classes, and an extension of the duration of a single career (perhaps a doubling) so that a single career in the High Fantasy world is roughly equal to 2 or 3 careers in the Warhammer 3 rules. This would in turn lead to more dependence on Rank as a signifier of power.

Revising careers

I envisage 4 basic careers: Soldier, Initiate, Apprentice Wizard and Rogue. If one wants to include semi-spell users then one would also include the Paladin, Bard and maybe a Fighter/Magic User type (Warlock?).

There would then be a series of advanced careers, that represent improvements on the basic careers: Warrior, Cleric, Wizard, Thief. The additional careers of Ranger, Assassin and Druid could be introduced at this point, and maybe one would want to include Paladin and Bard at this stage rather than the previous stage.

Advancement would be simpler than in Warhammer 3. Any basic career can advance to any other basic career, but for the advanced careers the progression types are limited: Fighters can become Warriors, Rangers or Assassins; Rogues can become Assassins, Thieves or Rangers; Initiates can become Clerics, Rangers or Druids; Apprentice Wizards can become Wizards, Assassins or Rangers. Bards, Paladins and Warlocks(?) could fit into this scheme in the obvious ways.

There could then (perhaps) be a single additional class specific to each basic class: Barbarian for the Warrior, ? for the Cleric, Sorcerer for the Wizard, ? for the Thief.

Class distinction would be primarily through the use of talents, available skills, and maybe some specific action cards. I imagine that pre-requisites would be more complex than in Warhammer 3, and there would be spells for the different classes. Alternatively, semi-spell-users could be set to use lower-level versions of the other classes’ spells (this makes life easier for the designer) and can only be obtained by non-spell-using basic classes. So then we have the following progression rules:

  • Soldier: any other Basic class; Warrior; Paladin; Warlock; Ranger; Barbarian
  • Initiate: Any other basic class; Cleric
  • Apprentice Wizard: Any other basic class; wizard; Sorcerer
  • Rogue: Any other basic class; thief; Assassin; Ranger; Bard

I think I like this scheme since it gives a wider range of options for the initial non-spell-using classes. Alternatively you could put strict conditions on ability scores for the Initiate and Apprentice Wizard, and introduce the Bard or Paladin as more flexible versions of the same with access to weaker magic.

To get the effect of weaker magic, I imagine defining “petty magic” as 0 level, and allowing pure magic using classes to use spells equal to or less than their rank; semi-spell users can use Rank-1. Then, the number of xps required to gain a rank can be adjusted to match the demands of a weak starting point and a powerful ending point. Ranks of spell can also be exponentially more powerful (in this system, rank 4 or 5 would surely be the limit!)

Starting weak and ending strong

To achieve this effect I envisage the system putting stricter limits on the  starting attributes for a PC (maybe a maximum of 5) but weaker limits on how many advances can be expended on attributes, enabling characters to develop to a maximum of 7 or 8 by the end of their second career. This would mean that careers would span twice the XP range, and allow more advances. Typically, I imagine a set of advances for one career being something like:

  • 1 Talent
  • 1 Action
  • 2 Wound Threshold
  • 1 Fortune
  • 1 Skill or specialization
  • 1 Specialization
  • 8-10 Open Career Advances
  • 2 Trait Advances to Maximum Rank 5

So by the time a character has reached the end of this they have spent a maximum of about 25 points (not including non-career advances, which could also be more flexible). The open career advances would be handled the same way as now (on the career card) but would obviously allow more advances, i.e. more skill advances or action cards. I would introduce more scope by reforming the stances a little and giving more flexibility to assign points to them.

Reforming stances

Stances are a powerful effect in the game (though I think the Reckless Stance can be a little bit pointless at times). At low levels I think high fantasy characters shouldn’t have much flexibility to adjust them, so I would suggest changing the stances to give all PCs at first level 1 stance step in one direction (of their choice). They then buy additional stance dice as they proceed. They might even start off neutral-only, and be able to buy 1 stance per career. This prevents them from having lots of stance dice early on and gives monsters a huge advantage. It also means players have more incentive to buy up attributes – with stance dice being limited, increasing attributes is important.

It would also be a good idea, I think, to make some actions – and especially some types of spell – benefit more from specific stances. Pyromancy and necromancy should benefit from reckless stances, as should anything a thief or barbarian does, while Paladins and Conjurors should benefit from conservatism (taking your time about summoning demons is a good idea). Fighters should be able to adopt very different styles by changing stance options, and I like the idea that early decisions a PC makes really limit their future development. So if a PC has bought two steps on a conservative stance, that basically means that becoming a thief is a bad idea.

I also pondered linking stances to alignment (Law/Chaos) and I’m interested in the fact that the original Warhammer rules don’t do this.


I’m still thinking about whether any changes to WFRP 3 would be necessary to make it into a high fantasy game, or whether they’re mainly about play style. But if one did choose to change the game, the image I have is of keeping the same basic resolution system for actions, keeping fatigue/stress and action cooldowns, and changing character advancement so that it reflects the classic D&D-style classes. Along with a bit of tinkering with stances and some adjustments to the pre-requisites for the basic classes, this could be sufficient to make the game into a high fantasy system with an excellent (I think) skill resolution system, and some cool ideas for handling resources. I’ll be looking into this more over the next few months, and possibly also considering ways to convert the system directly to Compromise and Conceit.

The issue of gender inclusivity in gaming has been around the traps for as long as gaming, and is something I’ve discussed on this blog before. One of the main reasons for this in both the computer and table-top gaming world is the images that are used, which signify gaming as a man’s world where women are not wanted; but another problem in the physical world has been the reception that women get, physically, when they enter a stuffy room full of fat, beardy men who haven’t had sex since they broke their blow-up doll a year ago. They tend to get stared at like freaks, and suffer a lot of unwanted attention related to their gender. One would think, though, that in a world where the player’s real gender isn’t visible, this wouldn’t be a problem, and that in fact online gaming would offer a way out of this problem.

Now, gay men and women in the military in the US are advised (in fact, forced) to get around this by means of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which enables everyone to keep pretending that there are no gay men in a largely male organization, and thus avoids requiring the majority of the group to avoid changing their behaviour (in this case, largely “worrying,” one imagines) to fit the minority’s presence. It’s good for morale, apparently, but has come under attack from Lady Gaga, who is apparently more powerful than Nancy Pelosi, presumably because she has nicer breasts.

But perhaps Lady Gaga should be turning her enormous temporal power to a much greater injustice – the exclusion of women from World of Warcraft. The Border House blog has a report on advice to a female gamer who has joined a guild with a don’t ask, don’t tell policy – about gender. That’s right, she’s meant to keep her gender secret from the other players. Apparently she’s lucky – according to commenters on the post, a lot of top flight raiding guilds are male-only. The presumed reason is that the male players start “thinking with their sack” (to quote a commenter) when they hear a woman’s voice. Which sounds a lot like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to me (and like all the previous eras’ unfounded concerns about women in the military, to boot). So this woman has to decide if she can hide her gender (which must be a little difficult, when you have to talk over a microphone – I’m not sure how that works), or tone down her raiding / move to a different guild – or be blamed for all the petty morale problems and fuck ups that affect the guild she’s in.

I’ve observed before that World of Warcraft seems to reproduce all the pettiest and most unpleasant parts of our normal world, and that its fantastic and escapist elements don’t seem to transfer to either the political, class or economic relations within the game. Gender, of course, can never hope to escape the constrictions of the real world in such an environment. Is this because of the conservatism of high fantasy, is it inevitable when a large number of ordinary men do a hobby, or is the attitude in the gaming world actually a notch more exclusionary than in the real world, because men are fragile about women intruding on their club – just as they were in the workplace 30 years ago? And can we as pen-and-paper gamers do better than this?

In reading this report I also discovered that there is a a semi-official “out” server for gay, lesbian and transgender players, “Proudmoore.”

I mentioned previously that I think I have stumbled upon a Japanese Grognard, who I shall call Mr. 123, and it occurred to me recently that I could try and ask him some questions about his attitude towards gaming, his opinion of old school, etc. I’ve noticed that the people I play with here, though generally willing to try new games, are completely uninterested in D&D 4e, though some have made a major divergence into Pathfinder. Mr. 123 recently ran a game using the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, and is a big fan of Warhammer 2nd Edition (which is pretty old school, I think). So he probably has opinions on games and gaming connected with the period of the games. He’s playing WFRP 3rd edition with me, but this could just be because he’s willing to tolerate new rules in order to play Warhammer rather than GM it.

If I give Mr. 123 an interview, the basic questions I would ask would be:

  • The usual demographics
  • His gaming history
  • What sort of games he likes and dislikes
  • Whether he prefers games from a particular generation and, if so, whether this applies to Japanese as well as Western games
  • If he knows anything about the OSR, and if there is an equivalent thing in Japanese games

But I would like to find out if any OSR gamers reading this might be interested in asking additional questions, and if so what sorts of stuff they would like to know. Please let me know in comments!

In a related note, there is usually a Pathfinder adventure at my local monthly gaming convention, run by a Mr. S. This local gaming convention has been running for 25 years, and the most recent event was the 60th meeting (in earlier years it was much less regular than now). I discovered recently that Mr. S has been running this convention continuously for the last 25 years! Beppu has a population of 123000, so I think this is a pretty good achievement – let alone that it’s run by just one person. I wonder if Mr. S is also a grognard, despite his Pathfinder-y-ness? And I wonder if a survey of the local convention gamers might be a good idea…?


Critical reinterpretation at its worst


Many people in the RPG world think what I’m about to say is heresy, but I actually think that board games and computer games have some interesting ideas to teach RPG makers and players, and a lot of them are based on making available new and specialized content – that is, objects and purcahsable add-ons – that can provide additional opportunities for role-playing, or tools to help the GM and the players manage the game. A lot of these ideas are common in Japanese RPGs, and some of these tools when combined enable the game to improve the number of rules options available, and to have incidental rules – like fatigue, encumbrance and the like – that people typically hate to use because they’re fiddly to manage.

As an example I give Warhammer FRP 3rd ed, which I’m using now. It has 5 ideas which, used together, enable both improved role-playing opportunities to emerge from dice rolls, and give better management of in-game actions, which in turn allows Warhammer 3rd ed to use a wider range of resource types for players. They are:

  • Special dice: these enable actions to be resolved on two dimensions, with one dimension the standard success/fail and the other a good luck/bad luck dimension that is largely used to add role-playing hooks and interesting side effects to actions. These two dimensions offer the opportunity to succeed but have a bad or annoying side-effect, and to fail but have some minor quirk of luck. They also enable success in one action to affect another. For example, good fortune on a successful Sword and Board action enables  a fighter to reuse their Block defense. Such a dimension in, for example, D&D might mean that a Cleric rolling good luck on a Bless spell might regain one of their daily Turn Undead uses. In D&D 4th edition, good luck on an at-will power could lead to a recharge of an encounter power; or success on an encounter power might recharge another encounter power, or add to the tally of available healing surges. Of course, all of these extra effects in combat can be hard to keep track of, except for the additional use of Action Cards…
  • Action cards: which enable you to pull all your main effects out of a book and put on the table for easy reference,  so players do not have to constantly reference the books. This would be useful in D&D for wizards and clerics but even putting a character’s to-hit table on a card would make that action resolution very quick. I’ve given the rather trivial example of Magic Missile here (the text is from Greyhawk via Grognardia). Obviously Magic Missile is trivial, but it seems uncontroversial to me that having things like hit tables and turn undead rules on easily-accessible, attractive cards is really useful, especially in a game like D&D where lots of rules (e.g. surprise, finding secret doors) that are used a lot may differ by race, class or situation. The downside of attractively-made cards is that they add to the cost of a product in art and production[1], so they’re hardly justifiable in and of themselves[2], but in WFRP 3 they are justified by a useful mechanical tool, cooldown, which is only possible as a mechanical technique due to the combination of Action Cards with Recharge Tokens.
  • Recharge tokens: this enables actions to be limited in terms of available power (for spells) but also time to reuse, i.e. cool-down, which is something I think 4e D&D wanted to use but couldn’t get working because they weren’t thinking board-game-y enough. In WFRP3 each Action has a recharge time written on the top right corner of the card, and you track recharge by putting recharge tokens on this spot, then removing one at the end of each round. These tokens can also track other sorts of recharge. For example the Morr’s Touch spell is discharged after a certain number of hits, which are tracked using tokens in the recharge section of the card. If an Initiate of Morr gets a lot of luck on another spell roll they may be able to add recharge tokens to this card, adding to the number of hits they can deliver. But they don’t need to track these on paper using a pencil and crossing it out, because the tokens are right there. These tokens also track fatigue and stress, which can be accrued for any action and are an important consideration in the development of insanity. They are also used for tracking the duration of conditions. When I first read about this method I thought it would not be an improvement on just writing numbers on a sheet but it really actually is, both because you don’t have to keep track of actual  numbers (you just move tokens around) and because it’s trivial to keep track of 6 or 8 recharge processes at once when they’re combined with cards, while keeping track of recharge next to multiple effects written on a paper is messy and easily confused. The upshot of this is that the WFRP system enables continual use of magic, but through the combined management of power points and recharge. Power points can be redrawn after use, but this takes a round, and spells may take several rounds to cool down. This means that Wizards and Priests always have their spells available to use but can’t use them at will. I think this is the approach Wizards of the Coast wanted with D&D 4e, but without cards and tokens a truly flexible cooldown system is impossible, so they went for the more basic form represented by at-will/encounter/daily powers. I think cooldown is a natural idea for both spells and non-magical actions, and keeps the game fun for everyone because they always have the actions they want, but usable at a frequency that is balanced by the system. I don’t think recharge has much use in pre-4th edition D&D, but I’m sure there are other uses for tokens – for example, after casting bless you put a number of tokens equal to its duration on the card, and remove one per round. This frees up the GM from a lot of management issues.
  • Progress Tracker: a really simple idea for keeping track of contests between PCs and enemies that span long periods. e.g. chases, building armies before a deadline, etc.This is system-independent but really useful. For example, suppose that the adventure requires that the PCs find the location of a secret cult before the cult sacrifices the Mayor’s daughter. The GM can decide how much leeway to give the PCs and then constructs a progress tracker with a number of spaces corresponding to this leeway. Halfway along is an event space. Every time the PCs make a mistake (raid the wrong building, or screw up a negotiation with a potential informer) a token is moved one space along the progress tracker. When it reaches the halfway-point event space the cult become aware of the PC’s investigation and send assassins against them; if the progress tracker reaches the end before the PCs have found the Cult HQ, the girl gets sacrificed and the PCs have failed. This gives the GM a method for relating failure in the investigation to the outcome, and a way to construct limits on how many mistakes the PCs can make. I think this is a really useful tool for managing competitive tasks of this sort, and can offer really interesting plot triggers. In a longer adventure event spaces could be scattered through a progress tracker to indicate incidental events (unrelated to the adventure) or just spots for the GM to roll up rumours/weather/adventure hooks (this is how the progress meter was used in the Scenario Craft adventure I played). This is system-independent and again, although it doesn’t need a purchasable product, a solid cardboard progress meter with a style that suits the game is nice to use. The Scenario Craft adventure had a double-page spread in the book that could be photocopied and contained the progress meter and all the associated random charts, for easy reference.
  • Party character sheet: used to build up tension between party members. The tension meter increases with every failure, and at some point triggers a negative effect that depends on the type of party the players have chosen to play. There is also a pool for storing fortune points, which are added to whenever the party gets a success, and then distributed amongst the party whenever the number of points equals the number of PCs. I think fortune points are a system-independent idea as well, being basically a house-rule to enable players to get out of trouble. The party character sheet also has a special skill for the group, and two slots for a talent that anyone in the group can activate. In D&D3.5, there could be a special set of feats that go on this character sheet and that players can choose to purchase for their PC in place of normal feats. This would be particularly suitable for bard, rogue and other support characters (or could even be used to make bards desirable as party members!) My current party are playing “Brash Young Fools,” so when their tension reaches 4 points the party have an argument and everyone’s stress increases by one. The “Hired Thugs” party take a wound at that point, indicating that the increasing tension of continual failure has led to recriminations that actually came to blows. In this group, continual failure can be deadly. Again, this sheet benefits from the use of tokens, and is also at its most basic completely system-netural.

These ideas are all things you can make yourself and import into OD&D, but most of them are ideas from computer games or board games. Most of them enhance options for role-playing. The current version of WFRP was made by Fantasy Flight Games, who are a board- and card-game company too, and I think they’ve incorporated the lessons of those other genres into their work. In this blog, board games are credited with improving the rules of modern wargames, again through the incorporation of ideas from outside the world of wargaming itself.

I think RPG players and makers have an objection to “additional content” that is often quite visceral and reflexive, and has a lot to do with the way in the past companies like TSR and Wizards of the Coast have tried to sell all sorts of useless crap via splat books. But this stuff often didn’t improve or change our play at all, just gave us ever-increasing numbers of meaningless choices. Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) did this with Rolemaster – I had maybe 3 companions, but the only useful one was the first (with the addition of the Nightblade character and a few new open spell lists); the rest were useless fluff. Of course, ICE and TSR produced some very nice world settings, but along with these useful additions came a bunch of useless stuff (especially from Wizards of the Coast) like Fighter Handbooks and The Complete Left-handed Basket Weaver, etc. However, in amongst this useless pile of accrued crap is a simple truth – sometimes the stuff that gets added on is really useful and enhances the game, regardless of its financial advantages to the original company. Even though the additional content in WFRP3 presents Fantasy Flight Games with an excellent vehicle to sell more stuff, this is neither a new phenomenon, nor something unique to card games, nor a cynical money-pushing decision on their part. The material added to WFRP makes for a genuine interesting improvement to both that particular game and to the practice of role-playing generally, and I think it’s a sign that there is a lot of gaming practice outside of RPGs that we could stand to learn from – including (shock horror!) in computer games.

fn1: Don’t I know it! I’m currently translating all the Warhammer 3 cards to Japanese and printing them and it takes a huge amount of time and effort.

fn2: A lot of Japanese games seem to present actions/effects in card form in the book but don’t present the cards themselves. I think it’s assumed the players will make their own cards with a photocopier, or maybe in some cases they’re sold separately.

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