A Nightmare of Brutality

(Just to clarify, everything below is not complaining, but rather elaborating on how balls-out awesome the game we’re in is.)

Tuesday night we resumed our Lamentations game. This game has taken OSR lethality to such Roguelike levels that we’re joking about needing to start savescumming. ¬†In just 2 sessions, we’ve had 4 PC deaths and a hireling death.

There was a near TPK on the second floor when a pack of NONLETHAL giant centipedes nommed us in to submission. The cleric (different from the one I had to trach) was gracious enough for my managing to pull several off her that she dragged me away while the mage and fighter got nibbled on. We came back with a few folks we’d promised a gold a piece to help us retrieve our friends, but they were both dead when we found them.

After the cleric player had to go home, we went back (my specialist and two newly rolled up characters), this time with a couple of hirelings and a mission to bring back some bird thing from the top floor. No amount of caution saved me from a poison gas trap; didn’t matter how carefully I opened the trap door to level 3, it was the rung on the ladder that had the triggering mechanism on it. The surviving characters loot my corpse and bully my hirelings into fulfilling their contract.

I rejoin the party as an incredibly ornery and vulgar halfling swordsman. We go back to the other side of the river and try to burn the building down. In response to this, a pack of Deep Ones emerge and charge at us. The Deep Ones got a lot of terrible rolls, and I got lot of awesome rolls, killing 5 out of the 8. Some 40 more Deep Ones started coming towards us from the south end of the wharf; we couldn’t go into the burning building (from which hideous night things were flying out of across the skies over town), hiding in another building seemed no safer, and we weren’t going to get the skiff back across the river in time. Jerry bravely tried to hold off the Deep Ones so his friends acquaintances could escape, killing another before being cut down. The Deep Ones lunged into the river, of course, and attacked the fleeing party members. To the horror of her brother, Greta the torchbearer was flayed by a Deep One. I managed to get a cleric rolled up in time to have him meet the party on the other side of the river and cast cure light wounds on the fighter.

We stopped because we realized it was midnight. The fight wasn’t exactly resolved; either the Deep Ones go home, or we’ve led a small army of fishmen right into the “safe” part of town.

It has definitely been an interesting experience playing a game where death is not only a real possibility but the game world is not balanced for the players and the DM refuses to fudge results in either direction. I don’t really see any of us ever making it to level 2, though. The main downside is going to be in the XP economy, in which once the easy stuff is gone, future characters have even less chance to get treasure without risking life & limb against impossible odds.

Lamentations, Summation of Summa, & Kicked out of CalEx

In lieu of of my B/X game this weekend, one of the members of our group wanted to test out Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which is cool because I’d been wanting to give the system a spin at some point but sure as hell wasn’t going to be buying the books myself.

And yeah, there’s some really gross art in there. One of the players was kind of apprehensive of the system, but we were promised that it would be weird, but not gross fantasy. Part of the purpose was to test out a random dungeon/content generator he’d come across and we’d been dropped into a setting supposedly influenced by Gormenghast. I haven’t read the books, and my girlfriend stopped watching the show just a little ways in (she’s super grossed out by breast-feeding), so I’m not really familiar with Gormenghast, so I was reminded more of Kowloon Walled City, given its narrow streets, improbably tall buildings with cramped and crowded rooms & halls. But anyway, the basic premise is a huge germanic fortified city with a river running through it, and on the east side of the river, a huge section of town has been abandoned for about 100 years because of some disaster that was magical and almost certainly necromantic in nature.

One of the snags we hit with his random generator was an impossibly crowded room. I don’t remember what it was (some sort of antlered monster), but we opened a door and were told that there was pile of sleeping humanoid monsters in a corner of the room.

Me: How many are there?
DM: Let me check… ::starts rolling::
Me: :: notices it’s a d10:: Oh god, there are 37 of them, aren’t there?
DM: Holy crap… ::still rolling:: No, just 31.
Me: I close the door as quietly as I can and suggest that perhaps there’s honest work to be found on the west side of the river.

Joking aside, we didn’t give up, and instead checked out another building. In true OSR fashion, we proceeded to take everything not broken or nailed down to fence on the other side of the river. Our magic user got Floating Disc as his level 1 spell, which meant it only took us 3 nights to haul out half a dozen decorative statues from the parlor one of the buildings.

We ended up not fighting anything, but I did have to perform an emergency tracheotomy on the cleric who got hit with a poison dart; I’ve never been in a game where having a signal whistle was NOT useful!

In other news, J’Rhazha died this weekend, so maybe I won’t write up that piece on the 15 minute workday after all. But damn! We killed a black dragon, a giant python, and some kind of treant from the Fiend Folio only to be TPKed by a pack of hatchet wielding grimlocks. ūüė¶

I also finished Summa Elvetica by Satan¬†Theodore Beale. I wouldn’t call it a classic, but it was a fun little story. I could kind of see some of the grander designs that Beale may have had from the outset, perhaps like a high-fantasy Canterbury Tales where each of the characters get to tell stories of their encounters with Elves and how it’s shaped their views of the elves and how those views are shaped by their own beliefs and convictions, but as it stands, we get a brief look at Christian pseudo-Rome, a couple stories on the road to the Elven Court and some swashbuckling at the climax. Summa Elvetica’s few twists and turn are rather predictable, but feel more as though they reward the reader’s foresight rather than treat them like idiots. Other than a few incredibly gruesome deaths, Summa Elvetica is ends up being a story that leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy and wanting to loan it to your mom’s Sunday School class.

Finally, the stuff that went down at CalEx (registrants with a booth were kicked out and banned for wrongthink) was super disgusting, but rather than try to articulate how disgusted I am, I’ll just share a few links:

Sage Gerard – Go Home, Gamer Girl: Press Release on Unjust Banishment from Calgary Expo

Jenn of Hardwire – “Equality for Me, But Not for Thee” #calgaryexpo & Honey Badger Brigade Fiasco

Lucien Maverick – Free Speech Doesn’t Mean Much

James Desborough – #Gamergate ‚Äď Conventions, Calumny and Badgers

Suitably Bored – The Mary Sue: Fear Mongering Journalism at its Best

Allum Bokhari – CALGARY EXPO FACES CONSUMER BACKLASH AFTER EXPELLING FEMALE CRITICS OF FEMINISM

Update: Just a couple days, the Honey Badgers have raised over $13,000 for a legal fund in seeking action against Calgary Expo.

Carcosa

So, I finally got around to reading the infamous, notorious, legendary, hideously eeeeevil and scary grimoire of doom, death and blaspheme known as “Carcosa”.¬† And I’m left sort of scratching my head.

Now, I’ll go ahead and say now that the version I’ve read is the original “Supplement V: Carcosa” white book for OD&D, and not the LotFP re-release, which I’m sure is brilliantly bound and glossy and full of gross and degrading illustrations of horrible things happening.

I’m someone who reads settings and modules as ‘literature’, i.e. absorbing the story and narrative as much as, if not more than, for actual game content (though as a professional technical writer, the mechanical presentation is of some interest to me as well, which could be why I hate the old Gary books).¬† Somewhere, I once read that a well written module or setting reads like a good story.¬† Anyway…

Carcosa, despite its premise, is actually pretty bland.  Boring, really.  The class limits of Fighting Men & Sorcerers only, as well as Sorcerers being capable as fighters, just with the ability to use rituals, is kind of interesting mechanically, and the I do like the experimental hit dice system, but those are about the only parts that fascinate me.

The Sorcerous rituals are all very specific in their purposes, limiting their usage to a specific location on the hex-map and often to some completely impractical end (such as being able to say “After wallowing in slime for 8 days, the sorcerer’s head spins like a top and he can hear gurgling from the far corner of the universe.”). The ritual list is actually fairly repetitive and uninteresting, especially when you forget that they’re all preceded by a human sacrifice, usually involving “Go to hex _____, wallow in some miserable task for x days, colorfully named horror is banished/tortured/imprisoned/bound”.¬† I’d note that because of the binding rituals (which don’t require human sacrifice or your character to be particularly evil to use), there’s almost no reason NOT to play a sorcerer in a world where some slimy god is hiding around every corner.

There are several races of men, all defined by color, but little else.  This affects certain types of elemental weaponry for purposes of damage reduction or increase.  Other than these minor mechanical differences, there are no distinctions between the races (except for the see-through bone men).

The alien artifacts section would’ve been a lot to gush about if I hadn’t already kind of burned out on reading Supplement V by the time I’d gotten there.¬† Really, though, a lot of them feel like half-fleshed out SCPs.

The monster list is a roll-call of various Cthulhu beings rewritten for Carcosa and not organized in any sensible way (but hey, it’s homage to the white books, so it’s hard to complain about poor organization… but I will).

The Hex-map is another exercise of my attention span, largely populated with generic encounters (which is really harsh to say about Cthulhu monsters!), generic towns of _____ colored men lead by *name from the random Exalted deathlord name generator*, and the occasional “This is the place where x ritual must be learned/cast”.¬† Even playing this, you’d be better off ignoring the hex-map key and coming up with something on your own, as there’s so very little in the key to actually build on.

I like the concept, and I wish I had better things to say about this, but as a stand-alone work, there isn’t a lot good to take from Supplement V that hasn’t been done better elsewhere, and with the legwork a DM would need to make a Carcosa game work, you may as well start from scratch anyway.

The Dungeons & Dragons Movie (and Why the “Rights” Dispute is Stupid)

Why is it significant that there are now talks about Warner Brothers making a Dungeons & Dragons movie? And now Hasbro is claiming that they have a deal with Universal.

First, I’d like to put forward the incredibly heathen idea that the first Dungeons & Dragons movie is not as terrible as most people say it was. When I saw it in theaters ages ago, it was just me, my mom (I was 16), and some fatbeard. While it was not remarkable or amazing, it was fairly entertaining, I enjoyed it well enough. After the movie, the fatbeard went on about how horrible it was and how they got everything from D&D wrong and such. Now, given further retrospect, I know one thing to be true and another highly likely to be true: Dungeons & Dragons was one of the better movies Marlon Wayans has been in and if the Dungeons & Dragons movie had be called “Final Fantasy” and Final Fantasy: Spirits Within had been called anything else, there would be a lot less butthurt nerds in the world.

Okay, that’s out of the way.

D&D is the Kleenex of the RPG world, at least as far as non-gamers or casual gamers are concerned. To the non-gaming world, playing any sort of tabletop roleplaying game that isn’t LARP fodder is “Playing D&D”. However, the OSR movement has made this true among gamers as well. “Playing D&D” can mean playing Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Basic Fantasy Roleplaying, Castles & Crusades, Swords & Wizardry, Blueholme, or Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or, god forbid, actual, literal, published by the company that also gave us Littlest Pet Shop, Dungeons & Dragons! And really, those Retro-Clones pretty much are Dungeons & Dragons, with the name replaced and a handful of writers’ favorite homebrew mechanics and pet rules codified. For awhile, I was really confused about what Pathfinder was, but oh, hey, turns out it’s Dungeons & Dragons.

So, why bother with fighting over the Dungeons & Dragons name & licence for a movie? Clearly the gaming community has moved beyond caring whether the trademark name is slapped across something. They already know what’s up. Anyone could make a Dungeons & Dragons movie pretty much the same way anyone can make a Dungeons & Dragons retro-clone: strip out the names and product identity. Everything else can be done with a wink and a nod. Don’t call your movie Dungeons & Dragons and don’t base it on published books and settings. Fill it with dangers, monsters, magic, and, of course, dragons. Give your wizards Vancian magic and familiar spells (“Magic missile!”). It’s cool. We’ll know it’s Dungeons & Dragons. ¬†But you can stick a copy of the OGL in the credits if you must.

A Stripped down LotFP

Or maybe stripped down isn’t the best terminology.

Since LotFP uses Open Game License, and I really DO love what they’ve done rule-wise in their core system, I’ve been toying with the notion of doing a cleaned up version for a more general audiences release.

Notably, most of the rules and descriptive text would not need much or any changing, but I’d be looking at changing some verbage to lighten the tone and make it clearer for people new to RPGs. ¬†Also, I’d probably be discarding some of the rules for resource management, investments, hirelings, etc. ¬†It’s not because those things are unimportant. ¬†They’re great, and handled really well by LotFP. ¬†But if people want those things, well, this version would still be compatible with any system that tracked the economics of adventuring. ¬†My idea is something that you can hand to a completely green gamer and start gaming with in a few minutes. ¬†Worry about the complicated stuff later. ¬†Also, I’m thinking something along the lines of Adventure Time type art.

All of this is just brainstorming at this point, but if these ideas appeal to anyone, I’d be very happy to have help and support within the gaming community!

  • Simple rules with clear descriptions (LotFP has already done most of this work for me)
  • A “neutral” core system that could be plugged into as wholesome or unwholesome gaming environment as the players want, but without invoking the latter
  • A core book that ANY OSR people would feel comfortable sharing with their kids
  • A product that does not play into pre-conceived notions about sexism and racism in the gaming community

Anyway, at this stage, I’m just thinking on the page. ¬†I’d love to hear some feedback and perspective from other OSR types.

Gaming & Game Art Disconnect

So, my girlfriend isn’t really a fan of tabletop RPGs. She’d only specifically pointed out her hatred of all things Dungeons and Dragons, so I hoped it had simply been a branding issue. I’d asked and mentioned I’d found a new free RPG system that looked promising, and she said she’d at least look at it. My mistake was that RPG system was Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Now, the ironic part of this is that I’d first heard of LoFP from one of those gaming-as-a-woman blogs, and that blogger was even trying to get her own module for it published. I’d gone to LoFP’s page and was happy to find that the core rule system was free for download. I read it through and I found a great, simple to play straight-forward engine that was impressively put together and looked really fun. Who cares if the free version didn’t have any pictures in it? This was what I was looking for in a game sytem.

This is what got me in trouble. For one thing, for full disclaimer, I’d somehow put in the back of my mind that this was the same people who’d published Carcossa; after reading the manual, there was nothing really questionable at all about it, but that should’ve sent up a red flag. Still this wasn’t FATAL, there weren’t stats for maximum anal dialation before tearing or other grotesque non-sense built into the system. The only thing remotely questionable in the text was on a % table for monster description, ‘genitals’ was one of the nouns that an adjective from another % table could be describing.

Anyway, my girlfriend asks “Is it anything like Flame Princess from Adventure Time?” “No, but that’d be cool.” “Well, I’ll look at it.” “Okay.”

A little bit later: “Why would you think I would want to play this with you?” “Huh?” My girlfriend has looked it up on her phone, and the first thing she found was something from Something Awful. Apparently it was a thread where someone had posted a handful of pictures from LotFP source materials, all of them women being dismembered in fairly gruesome ways. “I thought you said you looked into this?” “I did! I read the entire core rule book. The free version didn’t have any pictures, though. I had no idea.” I really didn’t. And it occurred to me the vast disconnect between a gaming system/game and its artwork. The game itself wasn’t sexist at all; just a fairly well put together system of numbers and tables. But when the artwork depicts all manner of unspeakable things happening to women, the core mechanics of gameplay aren’t going to convince the average person that it’s okay, no matter how well put together the system is.

So, yeah, this is going to be about the problematic nature of art in RPGs. Now pretend this paragraph is the one that goes on at great length about Frank Frazetta that every other RPG blogger has already done. Finished? Good, let’s continue.

Tabletop RPGs are often hard to explain to people who don’t play them, especially because they are not necessarily ‘visual’ affairs in the same way that most board games or video games are. But when people “see” RPGs, they see them through the art on boxes and the art in core books. They don’t see the different types of stories that can be told in the different kinds of settings. Because of the wide array of RPG players, worlds can range from an ultra-grimdark Berserk to fun-loving Adventure Time or Myth Adventures settings. The set of core rules used is only to provide a frame-work for the people who are playing; most people don’t imagine that their characters, foes and adventures look like things that are taken straight from the books. Unfortunately, the books and their pictures are what non-gamers see first. And it’s going to be hard to convince people (especially women) that there’s nothing wrong with your hobby when they can point to all of the hapless chainmail bikini clad women being torn apart by lizard men (or heck, even if they’re not being torn apart by lizard men!) littering the pages of manuals, and no easy to use “saving-throw-to-level” table will persuade them otherwise.

There are lots of cool, exciting fantasy settings and worlds that are non-sexualized that are in the mainstream, so why is it hard to convince people that RPGs can’t be too? Certainly there are lots of well adjusted tabletop players in cool, fun fantasy settings of their own design. It’s just the creepy creepers do a better job of sticking out like a sore thumb. First let me say, I’m fairly certain that there was nothing overtly creepy or wrong in the old d6 Star Wars system. I saw several groups playing it at different times at an old gaming store I went to (even played it once myself, didn’t particularly care for it), but the only one I remember was the group that seemed to be having a romp of hacking whores at a brothel to bits with light-sabers, BECAUSE IT WAS CREEPY! Thus, it’s easy to write it all off as being creepy, because that’s what you remember most. I doubt that anyone in the world but it’s creator has actually played FATAL (a game that is both aesthetically and functionally disgusting), but its very existance can be used by outsiders to point at and say “Look how gross gaming is!”

I’m a huge fan of Order of the Stick. A (very small) part of why I like it is the art-style allows for readers to project onto the characters their own ideas of what they look like within the framework of information provided. Sure, you know Haley Starshine is a red-headed thief or that Roy Greenhilt is black swordsman with a shaved head, but all the rest of the physical details are up to the reader. In a way, this is a microcosm of gaming: the games serve as the barebones framework for the players to create the story and fill in the details. The more details given, the less freedom players have in game. And depending on what those details are, gamers may have less freedom as a community. “I don’t want to play if I have to be some half-naked woman” is not something that should be an issue, but unfortunately it is.

So, yeah, in a sense, the problem my girlfriend has IS a branding issue. The gaming industry has branded itself in such a way that it has her convinced it’s all severe rudeness and wizard tits. I’ve never been in any games like that, but it’s easy to see where she could get that idea. Admittedly, this isn’t something that will be solved. Ever. As long as there are games of make believe, people who want to make-believe offensive things are going to. And there will also always be people who are so upset that genital characteristics are not fixed stats that they will make their own games and post them on the internet. And even if no one ever plays those games and even if those gamers are few and far between, they’ll exist, and they’ll be pointed to as “what’s wrong with gaming”. It CAN get better, though. Flagship games that are the faces of the community may not see anything wrong with what they’re doing, but with women making up a growing portion of the gaming audience, they’re missing out on a huge opportunity. Leave the gross sexism to the imaginations of the gross sexists who want to play in those settings. Let the systems shine for a change!