I have always found it impossible to play magical cyberpunk outside of Shadowrun; I can’t imagine adapting the Shadowrun system to play, say, space opera or high fantasy. Similarly, I can’t imagine playing high fantasy with Traveller rules, or cyberpunk with D&D. Something about these classic games prevents them from being used outside of their genre remit, which is why I don’t naturally turn to D&D Modern, though no doubt it’s perfectly capable of the task. This is probably partly because they’re the games I grew up with, and back in that more innocent age I adhered to the setting constraints they gave me and then when I grew up I couldn’t escape them; but I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling, and I think there’s a more fundamental artistic achievement here than merely capturing the attention of a 13 year old boy when he was vulnerable. Even now I can remember what it was like to open the AD&D Player’s Handbook (I think first edition, with the badly-drawn wizard on the front), and smell the very special smell of the paper, and see that densely written text; read Gygax’s strange (and in many ways wrong) prose, and appreciate the spells and monsters and actions described therein. There’s something very specific and powerful about the way that game is presented, like it contains its own lexicon and cosmology, right there in those 200-odd pages. The style of the game determines what you can do with it, and the presentation of AD&D, along with its gaming style, is so particular that you can’t just strip out the spells and monsters and use the system to run a space opera. I’d wager no one ever has, or if they have, they’ve slowly regressed.

I was reminded of this today by this excellent review of The Name of the Wind and The Children of Hurin, which compares the modern style of one genre novel (The Name of the Wind by Richard Rothfuss) with another, more suited to its task (The Children of Hurin, by Tolkien). The reviewer says about style:

style—the language and form of the novel—is seen as an unimportant adjunct to the “story.” It is not. A bourgeois discursive style constructs a bourgeois world. If it is used to describe a medieval world it necessarily mismatches what it describes, creating a milieu that is only an anachronism, a theme park, or a WoW gaming environment rather than an actual place. This degrades the ability of the book properly to evoke its fictional setting, and therefore denies the book the higher heroic possibilities of its imaginative premise.

I think this applies to RPGs as well. Creating style in RPGs isn’t just about the book (though the AD&D 1st edition is a great example of how this is done) but about how the gaming environment is constructed. Fiddly dice and tabletop mapping (AD&D); fiddly cards and tokens (WFRP3); miniatures and maps (D&D 3rd); starmaps and starships and sparse use of props (Traveller) – these are tools to create an environment that invokes a style. In some games this style is very carefully evocative of the nature of the game, and in others it is sterile (Aria) or actually versatile (Rolemaster/Spacemaster/MERP/Cyberspace). But without creating this specific environment – in the rules, in the aesthetic of the book, in the gaming environment, and in the nature of challenges and dramatic process – the game will fail to impress. Maybe this is why generic systems tend to be less successful than genre systems, and maybe also why some setting-specific games fail (because they don’t match their style to their setting).

The reviewer gives an example of this with Tolkien, contrasting the modern 20th century style of Rothfuss with Tolkien’s genre-specific style:

It’s a book by a man who knew intimately not only the facts and paraphernalia but the mindset, values, and inner life of his relevant historical period—more Dark Age than medieval, this time, but assuredly not modern. The most obvious, although certainly not the only, level on which this registers is that of the style, which actually does approach the classic elevation that Wollheim wrongly identifies in Rothfuss. The Children of Húrin‘s syntax is compact, declarative and unafraid of inversion (“Great was the triumph of Morgoth”). Its vocabulary is almost entirely purged of words not derived from Old English sources: so much so that the occasional Anglo-French term—for instance, the phrase “Petty-dwarf” with its petit-derived qualifier—jars a little. More, it is a prose written with a careful ear for the rhythms of English; a prose with a very satisfying balance of iambic and trochaic pulses, sparingly leavened with unstressed polysyllables (it reads well aloud)

This shows well the numerous tools that a writer can use to invoke effect, beyond just plot and ideas.The task of RPGs isn’t just to provide a distracting few hours of your life (as the reviewer so dismissively characterizes Rothfuss) but to provide a means of escape to another world. You don’t get this by slinging together a skill resolution system and a character sheet. You need a style for your game, a bridge between the imagination of the players and the mechanism by which they play it out interactively. Is this more difficult than constructing a good genre novel? I’m not sure, but I’m fairly confident it’s less financially rewarding. In any case, there’s a lot to be said for the stylistic achievements of the early gaming world, even if the systems themselves were crap and we eventually moved on to better ones. And I think the linked review gives some powerful examples of why these early games held our attention despite their flaws, through the comparison of two fantasy novels.

Incidentally, this review is also an excellent and powerful defense of Tolkien.

… in Japanese, for my work. Yesterday a group of 40 first year high school students came to my department from Soma City, a town in the tsunami-affected region of Tohoku. I’m not sure why, perhaps as a quid pro quo for research we’re doing up there, but they were brought down for the afternoon and as part of the day’s events we organized them a two hour workshop on Global Health Policy. How do you do this for a bunch of bored 16 year olds? My department’s students, being very much closer in time to bored 16 year olds than me, managed to come up with a cunning scheme. After an initial greeting, they divided the students into eight countries, and set them a role-playing task based on public health.

The task: the students had to imagine they were representatives of their country at the UN. A new disease, “Disease X”, has been identified and declared an international emergency, and they have to decide what their country is going to do about it. Each group was assigned a “policy advisor” from the country in question – i.e. one of the students or staff – and where necessary a Japanese graduate student to help translate. They were given background information on all the countries in the room, including a few salient details about the country that might be relevant to the disease. Then the properties of the disease were explained. Disease X was in fact tuberculosis, so the basic properties were:

  • one third of the world population is affected
  • Treatment takes 6 – 9 months
  • Vaccines are only effective in children
  • It’s potentially fatal
  • It is transmitted by coughing and sneezing

Because there weren’t enough grad students to go around, me and my student from Hong Kong (whose Japanese is very good) were given our groups without a single translator – the grad student who organized the session was nearby and could come over if we had any trouble. Our task was to guide our students to a plan for what to do, in 20 minutes, including time to write up the intervention on a shared presentation (conferenced through google).

The Plan: The background for Australia gave the students the salient numbers about Disease X (low incidence, low prevalence, low death rate) and the key aspects of Australia’s health challenges, which were high migrant inflows, inequality in health between Aborigines and non-Aborigines, and inequality in health between urban and rural areas. In fact, I had downloaded an article from the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health that makes these differences pretty clear: incidence in Australia is 5.4 per 100,000, but in native Australians[1] is 0.9, and in new migrants and Aborigines 6.6. Also in some parts of Australia it is even higher amongst Aborigines, as high as 13 times the rate for non-Aboriginal Australians.

My students didn’t have these detailed figures, only the bullet points highlighting Australian health challenges, and they immediately fixed on migration as a possible key driver of the disease. I had already told them about the three possible levels they could intervene (regional, national, international) and so, when they settled on migration as the challenge I asked them whether they would do national or international-level interventions. After a bit of debate they decided that there’s no point in trying to better control it at the border if the disease is going gangbusters overseas, so they decided to focus on development work in countries with high rates. They then started scrabbling through the country descriptions, comparing incidence and prevalence, and found the two countries with the highest incidence. Once they had identified which one had higher immigration rates to Australia (Bangladesh, made up by me on the spot – I guess the immigration rate is higher than Nigeria but I really don’t know), they examined the challenges written on the Bangladesh country sheet. One of the key ones was lack of access to healthcare amongst the poor, so they decided to send doctors and medicine to Bangladesh, in collaboration with local doctors (I had to point out this detail).

They actually decided on Bangladesh because (in their words) there’s no value to Australia in providing aid to a country it has no migration connection with, so it’s better to spend the money a country where the aid will benefit both countries. This may seem harsh, but it means they recognized a basic principle of tackling inequality (whether global or local) that I try to focus on in my work: with infectious diseases, there is a significant benefit to the community as a whole from reducing inequality by targeting those worse off, since the people with the highest disease incidence are also the ones who will drive the epidemic. By recognizing this they had identified a key difference between targeting those easiest to reach (who usually have the least problems) and those hardest to reach (and having the most benefit both in that group and in the community as a whole).

Once they had done this I told them the statistics on incidence amongst Aborigines, and pointed out that they didn’t necessarily need to look to Bangladesh to target a group that might be vectors for the disease. But actually rates of TB are much, much higher in Bangladesh than in Aboriginal Australians, so they probably ultimately made the right choice.

So, 20 minutes of group work, largely free of railroading by me, and my students had managed to come up with a fairly reasonable intervention plan that might even have some chance of working, and mostly through their own efforts to analyze the data in front of them – and this was their first ever experience of thinking about public health. It wasn’t entirely sandbox-y, but close enough – you can’t run a completely open session in 20 minutes. All but one of the other tables completed their work on time, and I like to think that this is at least partly because in our planning session the day before I gave a few basic pointers to the grad students about how to GM. I didn’t tell them they were GMing, of course, but that’s what they were basically learning how to do.

The denouement: Once the groups had all presented their results, one of the grad students gave a 10 minute presentation on what disease X really is – TB – and the important role Japan has played in developing prevention strategies. He then gave an overview of international health and our role in it, and one of the high school students gave a very cute bouncy speech – in English! – thanking us for the experience. It was all very cute and effective, and the students seemed genuinely happy to have solved the world’s problems in 20 minutes.

Reforming the WHO: Now, many people might have criticisms of the WHO, and might have expected that if our High School students were genuinely going to role-play a WHO experience, they would all sit down and refuse to compromise, and ultimately come up with a wishy washy motherhood statement that enabled every student to go home and make empty promises to their families[2]. They didn’t do this! So this leads to three possible suggestions for ways to reform the WHO:

  1. Send the students from Soma City to the WHO and give them 20 minutes to solve the world’s problems
  2. Send the grad students from my department, whose boundless energy is truly a wonder to behold, and whose ability to ignore the magnitude of actual barriers to implementing a plan, and just do it anyway, is quite amazing
  3. Teach the current representatives at the WHO how to role-play, so they can come to solutions more efficiently

Which would be most successful? I’m guessing suggestion 1…

A well-rounded Graduate Education: I’m sad to report that the students of my department, though great in many ways, lack all the fundamental principles of a well-rounded classical education. None of them have watched Star Wars or Aliens, they don’t even know what role-playing is, and the primary texts necessary for a good understanding of public health – Lord of the Rings, Bladerunner, Conan – are not in their curriculum. How can they assess a problem if they haven’t been taught the critical skills outlined in the clash between good and evil in Star Wars? How can they be qualified to research women’s health without the basic grounding in feminism provided by Aliens? How shallow is one’s understanding of the human condition if one hasn’t been led to consider one’s basic humanity through the eyes of Deckard in Bladerunner, and indeed – how can they properly comprehend the real social and political impact of shortened life expectancy if they haven’t heard Roy Batty’s final speech? My god, at the end of the presentation they were reduced to quoting from a completely peripheral text by Jeffrey D Sachs. But I like to hope that yesterday they learnt a little bit about how to GM, so I’ve gone one small step towards laying the groundwork for a proper classical education. We’ll see if I can get them through the other texts by the end of their degree.

In fact, it’s essential, since they won’t understand my jokes until they have watched those movies …

fn1: since the early 80s, Australia has had a principle of not recording race on census and hospital forms. Instead, we record country of birth, so anyone who is a second generation Australian is recorded as “Australian.” We also record language spoken at home, and Aboriginality, but when we talk about “Australians” we don’t identify race. Eventually, one hopes, Aboriginality will also be able to be dropped from hospital records, but that’s a long time coming.

fn2: This is unduly harsh on the WHO. I know bashing international institutions is like shooting fish in a barrel, but actually the WHO does some pretty good work, in e.g. polio eradication, disaster response, handling outbreaks like SARS, etc. They may not be the best model or the best institution, but given their circumstances they’re doing an okay job, I think

This post continues my thoughts on ideas and inspirations from Iceland. It’s another post about both the social and political structure of a norse campaign, and about insights into how medieval worlds functioned. Again, it’s based largely on what I saw, was told by guides, and read during my stay in Iceland, with maybe a little influence from Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles. Slavery The early Icelanders kept slaves. Slaves in Icelandic society don’t seem to have been the storybook slaves of legend, kept in pens and treated like animals – rather, they appear to be a particularly low and over-worked form of indentured servant. They seemed to be able to escape, sometimes they would be freed, and I get the impression they could also be accorded honour (though I have no concrete proof of this). This random site describes the class structure of norse society and the types of abuse (and freedom) that slaves experienced, and suggests that slaves could own property and save money to free themselves. Like all GMs I tend to have rules about what I will and won’t allow my players to do, and in general keeping slaves has been one of the things that I have avoided. I know this is ridiculous – my players do a lot of slaughter, and occasional human sacrifice and more than their fair share of demonology -but it’s just one of those things, and I think every GM has them.  So I’m guessing that if I ran a norse campaign I’d probably be omitting the slavery part from it. I guess also that if I did allow it I would probably require the PCs to be “good” slave-keepers, which doesn’t seem impossible given the accounts but isn’t really much of a step up. Of course slavery also opens up alternative adventure ideas – the PCs could start off as escaped slaves or slaves who had bought their freedom, and of course slavery would be an interesting alternative to the TPK – but in general I would be avoiding it. Norse society in the 12th century was nasty enough without introducing this as well! Also, slavery was an abomination of the early part of Icelandic history – the norse world banned slavery between the 12th and 13th centuries, i.e. a good 4 centuries before the UK did, and half a millenium ahead of the US. So it’s pretty easy to choose a setting where slavery is optional. The Cultural Sophistication of the Medieval World We moderns are used to thinking of the medieval world as unsophisticated and brutal because of their lack of scientific knowledge, and it’s true that their lives were nasty and brutish and their ideas silly, but the ideas they lived by take on a very different meaning if the fantastical and magical backing for those ideas were real. This has been a central theme of my Compromise and Conceit campaign, which is an attempt to imagine how the post-enlightenment world would look if all of the religious ideas its people subscribed to were true, and backed up by real temporal power (i.e. magic). The same can be done in any other setting, of course, and when you play this game suddenly the medieval world is no longer unsophisticated and backward, just very very different. It’s a fun game to play. For example, the Vikings had particular beliefs about the origins of the Northern Lights. One of these, that the Northern Lights were caused by stored light in glaciers being emitted into the atmosphere at night, opens the possibility of a mad wizard’s adventure to collect the light for some crazed ritual, and of course in our magical world this could really happen. Or the PCs could reach the point of the light, and discover that the Northern Lights really do come from light reflected from the armour of warrior’s souls as they travel to Valhalla – the PCs discover a pathway to Valhalla at the “foot” of the Northern Lights and thus an extra-dimensional campaign commences. The same kind of backwards sophistication is true for much of the rest of medieval thought, much of which was the topic of frenzied debate at the time. The PCs can even get caught up in these debates, as they are employed by scientists to explore the kingdom beneath the earth, or taken on a trip to Japan to find Jesus. Umberto Eco’s Baudolino gives some amusing examples of the crazy stuff medievals believed (and his Island of the Day Before gives some funny examples of what might happen if enlightenment-era science were taken seriously). Many of these ideas are also quite fluid, so potentially by taking sides in a debate the PCs may get their chance to shape the structure of the world. Obviously in a norse world a lot of these ideas will be tied up with Valhalla and Viking cosmology – why not explore it and see what kind of world you can create if these ideas are true? War is Costly The Icelanders set up their parliament, the althing, in 980 AD, and one of the key reasons they did this was that they could not afford to continue waging wars over petty slights and land disputes. War in the dark ages was a costly business, and in the absence of modern medical and agricultural technology, the Icelanders simply didn’t have the ability to maintain civil society and keep fighting wars. Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles makes this problem very clear, as each Autumn all wars cease so that soldiers can take in the harvest. Society at this time was a single failed harvest away from chaos, and any society that failed to produce enough food had no choice but to invade its neighbours and steal theirs. In the precarious conditions of Iceland on the raggedy edge, everyone saw that this was going to be a disaster. And so the althing was formed. It seems like a lot of medieval kingdoms were more than happy to wage war at will, but I guess this is largely because the ruling class were so divorced from those who did most of the fighting (the levied ranks of ordinary soldiers) and those who paid for it (their peasants). In free 980 AD Iceland this wasn’t the case – chieftains didn’t have peasants to fall back on, and had to get some form of consent to pay for war, so I guess they had to find ways to avoid fighting. A lot of political entities in gaming are actually too sophisticated for their putative time – democratic or oligarchical city-states in an otherwise medieval setting, for example, or even societies coming close to constitutional democracy, which is really a post-enlightenment phenomenon – and it’s hard to imagine those types of state being able to venture willy-nilly into costly wars against the backward communities around them. Where such states exist – or where hard-scrabble societies live on the fringe of e.g. Orc-controlled territory – it’s likely that there will be a lot of espionage work for PCs that is primarily aimed at preventing wars. While in our fantastic worlds we tend to find that the main method for avoiding war with Orcs is genocide, the more likely real world compromise would be tribute, and it could well be that the PCs would be paid to either organize, guard or renegotiate tributes. In a norse world that takes slaves, tribute could be an unpleasant business as well, with unwanted slaves being sent to the Orc lair along with trade goods. PCs could also be charged with all sorts of black ops to prevent, avoid or delay wars, or to guarantee their victory through economic sabotage. Taking into account the real cost of political error in the dark ages when planning campaigns means, I suspect, that there would be a lot of careful skullduggery being thrust upon the PCs, and some very nasty espionage jobs. When war does come to a kingdom the PCs may find themselves in a land plunged into near total chaos as food shortages, disease and social breakdown spread. If they gain their own strongholds they may even find themselves going to great lengths to pacify their neighbours, and doing very unsavoury things to avoid conflict. Forcing players to these kinds of unwanted compromises can be a truly pleasurable experience for a GM with a sadistic streak, and if you set just a few real world constraints on the political and economic climate the PCs operate in, you may find them becoming very creative in their endeavours to control their neighbours and enemies… Religions can Coexist For much of Icelandic history it appears that christianity and paganism have co-existed, with christianity gaining the upper hand by simultaneously co-opting pagan ceremonies and ignoring minor pagan rituals. This situation also obtains in Japan, where Buddhism and Shintoism get along very nicely side by side. In a magical norse campaign, this means that Druids and Clerics (both Christian and Odinic) can coexist, maybe even sharing worship space, spells and political goals. Alternatively you can envisage a society where they coexist in the minds of the people but fight viciously for political supremacy at the level of the clergy. This makes for some very interesting political crises to thrust the characters into the middle of, and introduces a kind of industrial espionage-style adventuring, where the PCs are paid to undermine the religious rituals and powers of an enemy church. Ultimately, of course, one church might want to destroy the Gods of the other – a nice high level goal for any PC! In an alternative-history Iceland this opens up the possibility of completely changing Iceland’s future direction (christian fascist? Pagan dictatorship? Roman-style pagan democracy?) I’m going to be exploring this in my Svalbard campaign once I can get it running, and for me the role of religion in determining politics in such societies is very interesting – especially since their real magical powers means that people will listen to them in a way they never would in the real world. We know that the christian church was very active in politics throughout Europe, and it’s very interesting to imagine how that involvement would have turned out if their beliefs were true, and backed up by real magical powers. Conclusion GMs can make a great deal of headway in campaign planning with very little real background work by choosing a historical point in a well-understood culture, backing up the religious ideas and fanciful scientific notions of the time with real magic, and then choosing a crisis point to dump the PCs into the middle of. The results can be history-changing, which is satisfying for everyone and sets up further adventures in the future. It’s also easy to do both geographical and political sandboxing – you know what major events are coming up, and can fit the players into a narrative that they have every opportunity to change. Incorporating some of the constraints and social problems of the real world can force creative (and often challenging) decision-making, but magic prevents the players from being completely constrained by these forces. The results can be a very interesting and exciting campaign world, with minimal GM effort. With the background ideas I’ve written here, a map of Iceland and a few pages of background material, I think a GM could easily come up with a fruitful and challenging campaign.

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.