Monday, July 21, 2014

Tales from the Green Valley

What the hell do people get up to for most their days in the Middle Ages? Well, if you're a farmer, your every day life is busy constantly. Repairing buildings, constructing new ones, sewing, reaping, ploughing, turning, slaughtering, cooking, weaving, making clothing, brewing, enclosing pastureland, making furniture, preserving meat. These tasks go on and on forever until you're buried.

While it is admittedly a 17th Century Stuart/Tudor recreation, you can still take a lot of great inspiration for farm life from the BBC show Tales from the Green Valley in which a group of historians and archaeologists attempt to live for one year precisely as a Tudor farming family would have. Finnicky things like how hard it was to create wattle and daub, how many hazel rods it takes to affix a section of wall, how long it takes to slaughter and process a single pig (2-3 days), and other little details can be found here. Most of the techniques in use would have been very similar in the Early and High Middle Ages, though you wouldn't have had cookbooks (printed or written) and many of the tools (for example, the ploughs) would have looked somewhat different and been more difficult to use. Indeed, there would have been a deal less metal and more wood in all construction as well; Saxon halls were known for mortise and tenon construction which more or less alleviated the need for metal nails.

It's a great show, and I strongly recommend it for a sense of place and time, as well as for insight into the everyday routine.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Gangbusters is the perfect game that I will never ever get to play over the long run

Fuck. Gangbusters is still so good. I've reread the rules repeatedly. I've talked about it with my players. I've even started a single player Gangbusters game with one of the guys (who subsequently has only played one session in three weeks, bummer). Gangbusters may be one of the most perfectly formulated roleplaying games ever made—and I'll never get to play it for an extended period.

Why it's perfect
I. The experience system rewards archetypical play. Criminals get awarded for making money. Cops get awarded for making high profile busts. Journalists get awarded for scooping stories. This is the class-based xp on steroids. It actively encourages everyone to take the role that people took historically, as well as in all those gangster films. a) It doesn't prohibit people from playing in any other way they can imagine—but they sure as hell are gonna gravitate to a few very attractive methods of getting what their character needs. b) It essentially molds your thoughts so you are attracted to the kinds of strategies for life that people from the era where. And that's a beautiful thing.

II. It's up-front about being non-cooperative. There aren't that many non-cooperative roleplaying games out there. Gangbusters is one of them. Some people play cops, some people play criminals, and others play folks on the side. You don't have to cooperate if you don't want to. Sure, you could play a corrupt cop that lets your criminal friends get away. But you can also play a straight-arrow detective who gets the other PCs put in jail. It's all up to you, and it doesn't interfere with the game the way, say, a party of evil destructive PCs killing each other might. Because this is part of the very meat of the game.

III. It's ultra simple and yet models everything it needs to. This is a game where one of the core attributes is the ability to drive. It's got skills, it's got attribute tests... and yet it doesn't have acres of rules determining how to grapple another character. On top of that the damn thing is deadly.

IV. It can support a HUGE group of people. The more people an RPG can actively handle, the better. I want all my friends that I've ever known to play with me. I want people I barely even know to play as well. I want the world to live in my fantasy lands.

Why I will never play it for the long haul
I. It requires a large number of people. I play online, via IRC. This means that requiring a ton of people pretty much guarantees that 1-3 of them won't be online for any given session. I can't go round and chastise these folks in person. And playing online has much less of a stigma associated with missing a session.

II. Not everyone plays at the same time. Turns are taken by team. All the cops, each individual reporter, all the criminals, etc. If it's not your turn, you may be waiting upwards of 3 hours for a week's worth of actions to resolve. But you can't stop paying attention or not show up, because it might also impact you! So you not only don't get to do anything, you have to keep reading the slow IRC crawl. In person, watching other people play can be neat. Online, it works out to being boring as fuck.

III. I'm never going to have an ongoing game in person again. This is the long and short of it. I don't know enough people who'd be willing to try or play a pen and paper RPG to run anything in person anymore. Sad days.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Slow Death

There's something about me that a lot of my players can't grok. I don't know if anyone else feels this way—particularly other DMs. It's something deeply ingrained in my play style. That is, if a game goes unplayed for an extended period of time (usually around a month), I lose all desire to play it in the future, possibly for all time. My notes still exist: I just have trouble interpreting them. All the thoughts that were at the forefront of my mind as to how this party is going to handle x, y, and z, or what their plans, fears, and thoughts are, all of that erodes over time and dissipates into strands of morning mist. In a sense, the campaign deconstructs itself.

I've tried to explain this several times, but its always to an audience that can understand but not appreciate the feeling. They grasp the idea that I would feel this way, but they are unable to completely interpenetrate it with their thoughts. This leads me to believe that my own predilection for abandoning games is rare or possibly unique in the world of roleplaying. They have all expressed a profound regret at characters who are never officially retired or killed in any capacity. They feel a lack of closure in a sense. I don't ever feel that about abandoned games. Instead, I feel that they are narratively closed somehow. In the same sort of way that Sartre talks about all potential futures becoming an accretion of already-realized pasts, this is what I feel like abandoned games become. Their futures have spun out already, have been drained of possibility, resulting in the calcified now.

Are there others out there who've experienced this? Is it a private insanity? Perhaps it's something DMs feel more than players do. I don't know the answers. That's why I appeal to you.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Barkeep

Well, I've done it. I've finally ingrained the necessity for middle-men and information brokers so deeply into my players that they now seek to consolidate these functions into as few people as possible. Namely: the barkeep of the infamous Taberna Poveri Homini, Lukius, has become their go-to man for hiring mercenaries. Due to his contacts with the world of swords-for-hire they rarely rent out heralds and do interviews anymore. Rather, they nominate him as agent, pay a large fee, and let him negotiate the price with the mercenaries; he keeps whatever he can save of his fee while, of course, still fetching the best hirelings money can buy.

Two characters are playing with very socially-integrated kits this time round. Mike is a Knight of Miles and Steve is an Imperial Schoolman. These two kits grant them access to various social graces as well as a number of resources—in this case the library and scholars of the Imperial Schola. Since the Ironbreakers are attempting to clear a ruinous tower's laboratory floors (sub-levels located below and attached to the ancient sewer systems of Miles) that are crawling with various types of oozes and slimes, they sought out aid from one of the scholars of strange and exotic creatures who resides in the Schola and got all the information they could about the various creatures. This use of sage knowledge has certainly payed off, at least in the planning phases.

So what's my point? Well, bartenders and 'keeps have been traditionally the repositories of local knowledge and wisdom in fantasy works. Though permanent taverns are poorly attested in medieval sources, we can see how the logic fits: everyone likes to drink, when they drink they talk, therefore they talk most at the tavern (a place where everyone goes). This leads to the barkeep becoming well acquainted with most people in his social circle and thus makes him a font of useful information. This is more reminiscent of the 17th and 18th century tavern than it is of any truly medieval establishment, but it's useful as hell to players.

Assuming the trope of the tavern-as-information-broker is true, Lukius takes this to a whole other level. Namely, the Taverna Poveri is an adventurer's bar where adventurer's go. This means things that are likely to crop up there include: people looking for adventurers, knowledge of how and where to get employment as a mercenary, and services that target adventurers specifically, such as small platoons of fighting folk looking to hire on to a party. This semi-centralization both serves to deconstruct the classic tropes (which themselves were very self aware) and provide a more localized place for adventurers to get their information and hirelings from without having to think too long and hard about the realities of a medieval city.

That being said, I justify it because Miles has a population of ~3 million mostly fed on imported grain, and is the largest city in the setting as well as the center of trade and culture in most of the North. While you won't find permanent taverns with connected barkeeps anywhere, if you are going to find one somewhere, it's going to be in Miles, and it's going to be on the infamous Adventurer's Stair.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Shaking off that Hoarfrost

Every so often, writing the blog becomes a daunting task that consumes too much of my time (or I convince myself does, which is worse). I have been writing (two plays, a book, a second book) and running games (two D&D games and a nascent Shadowrun) and generally fucking about. 5th Edition came without fanfare for us—no one even bothered to check it out. I glanced over the rules, but they still seem to not be the Second Edition rules, so I have no real interest in them.

I've been reading a lot as well, and not your regular run-of-the-mill stuff. I just finished The Anabasis and the Dictionary of the Khazars. I've been listening to the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, which is a wonderful podcast by Peter Adamson and amounts to several free courses in philosophy back to back. I'd skip most of the interview episodes, since the interviewees rarely seem to have anything to add, but overall I highly recommend it.

The drive to produce the 10th Age as a product available to other people is slowly petering out. Maybe because I received my final rejections from Medieval Studies programs and now know that I'll probably never possess a PhD, maybe because the looming certainty of law school means I have to focus on writing things that I think have a chance of giving me some kind of return before I don't have time to write anything at all.

That being said, the 10th Age game I started in Miles as a pilot for the setting is actually running really well. The Ironbreakers (as they've come to be known) kick ass each monday night. Some of them have even managed to achieve the vaunted LEVEL TWO.

Anyway, this post is mostly to assure you that no, I'm not dead and that yes, there are more posts coming. I'm going to take some time and write a fair number all at once, so I may appear to go into hibernation for another week or so. After that, we shall return in full force and glory. Though probably Fiction Friday is dead for a while, as I concentrate on other fictions.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tribal Research

PCs in Othanas may attempt to "research" social and technological advances. This really boils down to choosing something to "think" about for an extended period. One of the merits of keeping elders around is that they too can be asked to "think" about one thing. To successfully develop a "thought," each week a PC (and the elders) are permitted to make an IQ check. If they succeed, they get one point towards the thought.

When a thought accrues enough successes, it is considered complete and the tribe now has access to it.

Some Sample Thoughts

Tattoos: 4 points
Animal Domestication: 50 points

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

From the Ice Age

The World of Othanas

Othanas is the Mematavtan word for the world; it has its roots in the word oth'ti, an agentive form of othem which means "to struggle." Oth'ti therefore means "the one(s) who struggle," that is, men. Othanas is the place of struggle, or perhaps the place where men live. This world was once the domain of a populous race of lizard-like creatures that we now know only as the Tyrnostias (Those Who Crawl). They had dominion of a great and powerful science of sorcery which could convert, through rarified paths and strange ways, the heat-energy of the world directly into usable force. This sorcery was pure and unadulterated, almost without limits in its power. There were several Tyrnostine empires in competition with one another. Alas, we know almost nothing about them. What we do know is that the misuse of sorcery sapped the heat-energy of the planet to such a degree that it entered a small Ice Age, prematurely and without warning. Everything the Tyrnostias did to try to drive the Ice Age off only accelerated it as they drained the mantle and the atmosphere of heat. Massive upheavals rocked the world, and sheets of ice froze it. Only a few of the sorcerous cities managed to survive the devastation.

After countless generations, the ice receded, revealing a world much changed outside the walls of those cities. In the time of the crawling ice, many of the Tyrnostine creations (magically engineered lizard servants, house pets, ploughbeasts, and even great leviathans for plying the seas) died off save for the sheltered warmth of the magically-protected cities. When the ice drew back, the Tyrnostias began to reconquer their old lands and there discovered a new beast they could chain and bring home to do labors: man.

But they are a dying breed. A new ice age has come, a true and lasting one that will finally grind their petty bickering city-states into the earth. They have had their day in the sun, and it is passed. Their slave-stations on the atolls stand empty and the human slaves have mostly run free.

The Tyrnostine servants, the leviathans and house-pets, the moulded beasts of burden, even the lizard-vermin, also ran free. They have taken up niches in the Othanic ecology that would otherwise be filled by certain mammals; but their masters are dying off in the distant corners of the world. It is the tribes of men that concern us now, particularly those along the rapidly cooling equator in the region known as Calréos, "the land."

Rules of the Land

Using the GURPs rules for most of the game, there is nevertheless currently a meta-system in place for determining the various attributes of the tribes as a whole. There are two PC tribes currently in the game. The stats of the tribes are as follows:

Cohesion. This represents the maximum number of people who will stay in your tribe for an extended period of time. Cohesion begins at 30 and is added to by powerful leaders and by culture rating. If a tribe acquires more members than its cohesion, a certain percentage of those extra members will drain away each month as they go off to start their own tribes or join lesser ones.

Population. The core stat of a tribe; this determines how many women, children, and men are in the tribe. Tribes generally are composed of 2/3rds healthy adults and 1/3rd children and those few old folk who have yet to die off.

Culture. This stat represents the accumulated amount of culture in a tribe—things such as symbolic language (cave paintings and scrawls of that nature), religious traditions, and the like add to culture. 1/2 of all culture is added to the tribe's cohesion. The difference in tribal culture levels is subtracted (or added) to reaction rolls when two tribes meet to see how they get along.