Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Kingdom of Heroes - Review pt 3

The cults in Kingdom of Heroes are written in much the same format as in previous Gloranthan books from Storm Tribe all the way back to Cults of Prax. However, much of the information is fresh, and, of course, the new magic rules put a different slant on things. It is here that the re-focusing on the runes is perhaps at its most obvious; we always knew why Chalana Arroy, for example, had the runes of Life and Harmony, but here its quite specific what that means in concrete terms.

Thunder Rebels and Storm Tribe both focussed to a large extent on subcults; the various speciality forms of worship granting unusual magic. In a sense, one could argue that Destor, say, was the default Orlanth cult (at least for warriors), but it didn't truly feel like that - it was more as if one had to pick from a big list of options. Now, I never found that problem, and I quite liked the range of options that were provided, but restoring the subcults to optional niches (as they were back in the old RuneQuest days) is certainly a good deal simpler.

In fact, its not really accurate to say that the subcults of TR and ST have been done away with. A great many of them do survive, albeit somewhat downplayed in importance. Orlanth, for example, has eleven , including Hedkoranth, Destor, Helamakt, and so on. It would be relatively easy to add those that are "missing" (such as Yavor or Vanganth, for example), assuming you have access to the older sources.

There have, on the other hand, been some demotions. The powers of some of the old subcults are relegated to mere feats of the 'default' version of the deity, although, again, its fairly easy to build them back up if one is so inclined. Vinga the warrior-ess and Heler the rain god, both full deities in Storm Tribe, are here demoted to mere subcults of Orlanth. That isn't necessarily so bad, though, since Vinga was always supposed to be able to do anything Orlanth could do, so she might as well be merged in rules terms as well. Heler is perhaps a little more disappointing, but when you have space for only nine cults, its a perfectly reasonable one to leave out. (Incidentally, the others from ST who fail to make the grade are Odayla, who to my mind isn't as interesting as Yinkin, and Eurmal, who isn't very suitable for PCs anyway).

Having said that, cults are fairly central to play in the Dragon Pass setting, and, given the size of the book, I would have liked to have seen more. Expecting minor cults to get the full 5+ pages devoted to each those that made it in might, perhaps be a bit much... but one or two pages each would have sufficed to at least give us the basics. As it is, this is an area where having Storm Tribe available is going to be helpful - at least until a companion volume comes out with the lesser cults properly described.

The one cult in KoH that I felt unhappy with was Humakt, god of death. There seems to have been a general move since RuneQuest days to make the Humakti embody death to such an extent that they cease (at least from my perspective) to be truly interesting or really playable. Storm Tribe, while subscribing to this view, at least seemed to recognise what a big problem it could create in game. The "re-sheathing" ceremony mentioned in that book was a decent stab at keeping Humakti playable, and was, as a result, to my mind one of the most crucial points about the cult in that book.

Sadly, KoH seems to ignore that altogether. Technically, it doesn't contradict it, but that's not much of an excuse, when the reader will be clearly left with the impression that all Humakti - and not just, say, the Devotees - are somehow the "living death". It's a disappointing omission, and, perhaps, quite a surprising one.

While I'm on the subject, the section on Humakti gifts and geases feels weak and woolly by comparison with all previous versions - some more specific examples would have been very helpful here.

Still, other than Humakt, the cults are good. And they're by no means the end of the cool material in the book. There is a lot of good advice on heroquesting, expanding and improving on that in earlier books. Heortling culture is well described, bringing them as a people to life, helped by the high quality illustrations throughout. Dragon Pass itself is described, with the aid of several glossy full colour maps.

These maps in particular, are a part of the reason why I say that the book is worth the price. How often do you see full colour maps in RPG products that aren't produced by giants like Hasbro/WotC? And these are nice looking maps at that, and detailed enough to be really helpful in play. There are even black & white plans of the cities of Sartar, something that has generally been lacking in previous publications. There's also a detailed description of the Colymar tribe, complete with its own colour map.

The book has information about the Lunars, and about the various other cultures that neighbour the Heortling barbarians. Rightly, the focus is on the Heortlings themselves, rather than describing the Lunar Army in detail, or describing the cults of the Grazelanders. But even so, there is enough information here to play them as foes.

All in all, the sheer density of information in the book may seem a little overwhelming to a newcomer, but it rewards the effort with a wonderfully fleshed-out look at a culture different from that in so many other RPGs, and very much retaining the "feel" that Glorantha has had for so long. Yes, I have reservations about the book. It isn't perfect, but then what is? But that doesn't mean that it isn't one of the best Gloranthan products to have come our way in a long time.

If Moon Design can keep this up at a regular schedule - and we know there are more books in the pipeline - then its going to be a very good few years for Gloranthan fandom.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Kingdom of Heroes - Review pt 2

Every time there is a new magic system released for Glorantha, we are always told that "this time it's the way we always wanted it to be", and "this time it really reflects Greg's stories." The magic systems in both HW and HQ1 were promoted with those sorts of phrases, and HQ2 is, of course, no different. I'm past caring whether or not they're true in any meaningful way; I just want to know whether or not the system is any good.

And, on the whole, the system presented in KoH is good.

Of course, there wasn't really much wrong with the theist magic system in HQ1 - although the same couldn't really be said for animism or wizardry. But nonetheless, the writers of KoH have managed to improve on it, and that can only be a good thing.

It's worth pointing out again that KoH is, rightly, a book about the Heortling barbarians of Sartar, dominated as they are by the magic of Air and Earth. So the book has essentially nothing to say about how magic works elsewhere in the world. The primer in the HQ2 core rulebook gave a sufficient outline of that, and it will hopefully be developed more as time goes by. But this is the book for the Heortlings, and its only their magic we see here.

The core of the new Heortling magic system then, is the runes. These are the same old familiar runes of RuneQuest, with Elements, Powers, Forms, and Conditions. We have always been told that the runes were the basis of all magic, but it is only with this new system that that is really shown to be the case. Every character starts off with three runes, one Element, one Power, and one other, which can be anything except another Element or a Power directly opposed to the one you already have. (So, no having both Life and Death, for instance).

Characters with no cult use their runes to augment everyday tasks; they don't create specific "spells". So, if you are strong in, say, the Death rune, you will be able to use it to boost your combat prowess - a sort of Bladesharp, if you will. Here, I would have liked to see more description of what the runes generally let you boost, and a broader discussion of what each of them means. Instead, the descriptions are short, and often of little use, although they do have associated personality traits. Perhaps it was felt that the names were indicative enough, but I feel a broader discussion would have been very helpful.

I'm also not overly enthused by the idea that PCs should be penalised if they fail to act according to the personality traits written for their rune. True, the book suggests that the GM should not use this punitively, but only if it works well with the story. Nonetheless, it feels a little overly prescriptive to me, and I suspect I won't use that part.

Most characters, however, will probably want to initiate to a cult, worshipping a specific god from the Heortling pantheon. To do this, you need at least one rune in common with your god (it's generally specified which one it has to be), and it makes sense to match all of them if you want your character to be magically powerful. A character who belongs to a cult gets to use his rune actively, to cast what would be called "spells" in most other RPG systems. Each god has one "affinity" for each of his one to three runes, which act as keywords allowing the PC to use magic directly related to that aspect of the god. So a Humakti, for instance, can use his Truth rune to cast magic related to honour and oaths.

In HQ1, similar affinities existed, and they were always labelled with an appropriate rune. However, the choice of rune often made little sense - since it had no game mechanical effect, it was merely for decoration anyway. For instance, out of all the many sub-cults of Ernalda in Thunder Rebels, only one had an affinity directly linked to the Earth rune. Similarly, many cults in HQ1 had idiosyncratic runes, creating a plethora of symbols that obscured the underlying simplicity of the system - Under the Red Moon was particularly notable for this.

But, in KoH, the original, simple, list of basic runes takes centre stage. Ernalda has Earth magic, because she is the Earth Mother; Lhankor Mhy, god of knowledge, has Truth magic, and so on. This is both easier to grasp and more atmospheric than the old system, and its a significant step forward.

It does, on the other hand, lead to some problems when the affinities are overly broad. If Orlanth can do anything possible with the Air rune, its difficult to see what the point of any other Air cult might be. As far as I can tell from the rules, a priestess of Ernalda should be just as good at creating earthquakes as a priestess of Maran Gor, the goddess of earthquakes, which sounds a bit odd. Of course, if they were competing against each other, you would give the latter a bonus for the more specific ability, but that seems to be rather side-stepping the issue. Fortunately, the cults provided in the book don't overlap very much, so it's less of a problem than it might appear at first glance.

Another issue in HQ1 was that almost everyone chose to be a devotee, a level of ability that got you more potent magic, but that was supposed to be really rare in the game setting (although, to be honest, this was never very clearly expressed). In KoH, the new "initiates" are essentially the equivalent of the old "devotees" in terms of magical power, removing the temptation to do this.

What KoH calls "devotees" are actually closer to the HQ1/Storm Tribe "disciples" - indeed, they seem to have the same in-world titles. Devotees get specific "feats" which are more focused, and hence more powerful, magic than the broad affinities. In return, they face considerable limitations on their freedom of action, making them less attractive as PCs, unless you really want to play a powerful specialist. Which is, to my mind, as it should be. It is also no longer possible to start play as a devotee; it's a status to be achieved through play, as disciple was in HQ1. A slight niggle is that some of the feat descriptions are a long on flowery text and short on what it is they are actually supposed to do. You're probably meant to work this out in play, but some more guidance would have been nice.

In part 3, I'll take a look at the cults themselves. It's a big book - it needs a long review...

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Kingdom of Heroes - Review pt 1

And so, the wait is over, and Kingdom of Heroes has been released. If you're reading this blog, there's a good chance you already know what that is, but, to summarise, it's the new HeroQuest sourcebook for the Kingdom of Sartar, a magical barbarian land dominated by the powers of Air and Earth. It is set in the world of Glorantha, where everyone can do magic, and there is a distinct bronze age vibe that makes it different from most other fantasy settings on the market.

On the other hand, if, by some chance, you are actually more interested in my occasional musings on secularism and scepticism, then I’ll take the opportunity to promote the recently released Tim Minchin single “White Wine in the Sun”. This is a beautiful Christmas song about the values that are more important to many of us at this time of year than something that may, or may not, have happened in a stable 2,000 years ago. Buy the MP3 online from a legal download site for just 79p, and maybe it’ll get into the Christmas charts. It’d be a nice thought.

Right, back onto gaming. Chances are that the first thing that will strike you about KoH is “blimey, is that the price?” And, yes, by RPing standards, it’s pretty darn expensive - although, if you’re willing to go PDF-only you can get it for much less than many D&D books by buying it online at sites like DriveThru RPG. The obvious question then, is whether the book is worth the price. I’d say that, if you’re already a fan of Glorantha, then yes, it is. (Of course, if your actual question parses as “is it worth my wife making me sleep on the couch for a month because I spent so much on an RP book?”, then you’re on your own).

The reason I say this is partly the sheer size of the book; at a whopping 378 pages, it’s the equivalent of a number of normal RP supplements stuffed into one cover. And, even for the size, there’s a lot of text. The artwork is great (although some of it isn’t new), and there are even full colour maps inside, which you don’t see very often outside of the really big publishers. Certainly, when you compare it with just about anything previously published by Issaries/Moon Design, the physical quality is in an entirely new league.

On the other hand, if you’re not already a fan, I can’t really deny that it has quite a steep entry price. Furthermore, one of the criticisms often levelled at Glorantha is that it’s too complicated, and there’s just too much to know to get into the setting. Dumping a book of this size down in front of someone is unlikely to dissuade them from that opinion! So, I’d have to say that this feels much more like a book for the fans than one for newcomers. The fact that the book has the name "Sartar" in huge letters on the cover, when nobody but a fan will have a clue what that means, supports the idea that this was what the publishers were aiming at; by comparison the more evocative "Kingdom of Heroes" title is in much smaller print.

But, hey, if you are a fan, or better yet, if you are a newcomer and want to try it anyway, then read on…

Perhaps the second question that might strike a potential purchaser is whether we really need this book. If you’re a fan of Glorantha, chances are that you already have the previous Sartar book, Thunder Rebels , not to mention later supplements covering the setting such as Land of Thunder and Storm Tribe. TR was a pretty damn good book, so do we really need a new book on more or less the same subject?

Here, the issue is a little more complex. It’s perfectly possible to run a game set in Sartar with what’s already been published, so “need” is perhaps too strong a word. On the other hand, there is plenty of new material in here, and a number of things that improve on Thunder Rebels. But, then again, there are some other respects in which, in my opinion, Thunder Rebels did a better job than KoH. In fact, for reasons I’ll get into shortly, I’d say that owning Thunder Rebels will make it easier to get more out of this book – they complement each other, rather than the new book replacing the old one.

The first part of the book concerns character generation. Here, the system is essentially the standard one from HeroQuest, although the original religious keyword has now been replaced by a choice of three runic affinities, which are described later on in the book. Aside from this, there is a cultural keyword that applies to all Sartarites, and then a choice of occupational keywords.

A positive step here was to return to the culture-specific occupational keywords of Thunder Rebels, rather than the generic occupations of HQ1. This makes sense for a book about a specific culture, and removes some of the bland generalisations made necessary in HQ1. It also allows a greater range of occupations than official HQ1 publications had, with, for example, distinctions between common mercenaries and elite weaponthanes.

Regrettably, though, this is one area where KoH falls short of the high standards set by Thunder Rebels.

If you have read my review of HeroQuest 2, you may recall that I praised the preservation of the old method of describing keywords alongside the newer alternatives. Here, HQ2 is allowing flexibility for the needs of the GM and players. Unfortunately, it’s wise advice that KoH chooses to ignore. In this book, there are only “umbrella” keywords, and no indication of how to create the “package” sort. Indeed, there isn’t even any acknowledgement that this might be a problem!

Essentially, all you get in your keyword descriptions is some text, with no clear guidance on what specific abilities they might include. For many people, that might not be an issue, but some might struggle to remember exactly what being, say, a skald, is supposed to imply in terms of abilities. Since many of the abilities that might be included under a keyword aren’t at all obvious (for example, that “entertainer” includes knife-fighting), I myself would certainly want to write down the individual abilities on a character sheet - even if I had to indent them and write ‘+0’ instead of a number.

The writers do their best to get round this limitation in the text descriptions, and largely succeed when it comes to the magic, but they do tend to fall down when it comes to the occupations. Sure, it’s possible to deduce what most of the abilities are going to be from the prose, but a list would have been much simpler to use. Fortunately, anyone who owns Thunder Rebels can use the keywords in there if, like me, they find them more helpful.

Of course, for many people, umbrella keywords will be an improvement over the way they were described in previous books – they might, for example, find it less limiting. But it’s a pity that KoH failed to acknowledge that not everyone might be the same when that variety is specifically catered for in the rulebook itself.

After character generation we come to the clan generation system. A previous version of this was published in Barbarian Adventures way back when, but this one has been retouched since then. For those unfamiliar with the concept, this is a system for generating the history of the particular barbarian clan that your PCs come from. It guides the players through a series of questions about what their ancestors did at a particular time, steadily building up details of their clan as they do so, and providing a quick and entertaining course in the history at the same time.

When I’ve done this before, with people mostly new to Glorantha, it proved popular, and it can be something of a fun game in its own right. The decisions you make all have some sort of effect on the final clan, and the starting resources available to the characters. For example, is the clan warlike, wealthy, open to new ideas, etc.? The system for working this out has been somewhat streamlined since the previous version, although there are still times when the GM will probably want to give the players some idea of what the outcomes of their decisions might be in advance. And this time, there is a nice-looking clan sheet to go with it, which you can fill in when you’ve finished.

In part 2, we'll turn to the magic system, which represents perhaps the biggest change from earlier versions.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Sea Monsters

As I indicated last time, this will be a report of a session I attended about sea monsters. Not the Gloranthan sort, but ones in our world. Since Kingdom of Heroes is due for general release from 28th November, those waiting for a review of that may not have too much longer, and I don't at present have any other meetings of this sort planned before January, so that review should be the next thing up here.

The event, like some of the prior ones I've mentioned, was hosted by CFI London and held at Conway Hall. The first talk was presented by Charles Paxton of St Andrew's University. He defined a "sea monster", not unreasonably, as "an unknown marine animal larger than 2 metres" - that is to say, probably bigger than YOU.

By this definition, it's interesting to note just how many sea monsters have, in fact, been discovered in recent years. Now, granted, some of these are actually instances of animals that were already known, but not identified as being a separate species before. (An example of this kind of thing from dry land would be the recently discovered forest elephant). But some are genuinely new and surprising - the megamouth shark, for instance, was only discovered in 1976, and doesn't really resemble anything known before that time. Just within the last ten years, we've discovered at least two species of beaked whale, a group about which remarkable little is known, along with such things as giant rays. Given all this, it would frankly, be rather surprising if there weren't any new species out there that we haven't yet seen. In fact, it would be downright astonishing.

Most, of course, are going to be cetaceans (whales & dolphins) or cartilaginous fish (sharks & rays). Some will probably be other sorts of fish, seals, or even giant squid. They are not, on the whole, going to be plesiosaurs, but more on that later.

What the talk focused on primarily, however, was sightings. What should we make of reports of giant creatures roaming the seas that just don't fit any known species? Some may well be genuine, but many probably aren't. For one thing, even assuming that the reports are genuine (and most probably are, in fairness), if the observer isn't a zoologist, they might not know what they're looking at. Take this, for example, which shows a historical drawing of a sea serpent encounter and a modern photograph of what's very probably the same thing:

You can, perhaps, understand the mistake, but, of course, that photo isn't really a whale being attacked by a pair of sea serpents.

Come to that, the following critter looks pretty much like a sea serpent (it's about 30 feet long), but is perfectly well known to science:


It's called an oarfish, and it's really quite cool.

One might expect - and I certainly did - that most reports of sea monsters would be of the creature being some distance away. For one thing, that would make it harder to identify, if it was, in fact, something well known. Also, since it is very hard to measure distances at sea, one might well think that something is further away - and thus, much larger - than it actually is. But it turns out that's not so. In fact, according to Paxton's analysis of sightings from 1748 onwards, most sea monster sightings are at much closer quarters than one would expect by random chance. That is, if a given creature is real, you would reasonably expect people to have seen at least some of them from a fair distance off, but actually that's not what they report.

There's a number of possible reasons for this. It could be that, having seen the beast, people then often approach it to get a better look, and report that as the distance. It could be that, from a longer distance, people quite reasonably conclude it's probably something familiar they can't recognise that far away, and don't report it. For that matter, exaggerations, intentional or otherwise, are quite likely, especially when one is telling an exciting story.

The afternoon session was presented by Darren Naish, writer of the Tetrapod Zoology blog, of which I was already a fan. He focussed on the Prehistoric Survivor Paradigm; that is, the contention among many (but not all) cryptozoologists that many of the things they're hunting for are survivors of lineages so far known only to exist as fossils. Most obviously, of course, the plesiosaurs. After all, the argument goes, the coelacanth had been thought to go extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs, until it was found alive and well in 1938. So couldn't the same thing have happened to the plesiosaurs?

Well, no, actually it couldn't.

There are quite a few good reasons for this. For a start, the fossil record of the two groups is quite different. Coelacanths were already very much in decline by the time they disappeared from the fossil record with the dinosaurs, whereas plesiosaurs were extremely abundant - anything short of total extinction would surely have left a bunch of more recent species in the fossil record. Secondly, it's a damn sight easier to identify a plesiosaur fossil than a coelacanth one. The bones are much more distinctive in shape, they're unusually solid (making it easier for the creature to dive) so that they should fossilise better, and... well, they are a bit bigger. Harder to miss, you'd think. Coelacanth bones, by contrast, mostly look like those of other fish - at least, aside from the fins - and they're smaller and more fragile. And, on the gripping hand, since 1938, some fossil coelacanths have been discovered from post-dinosaurian deposits, so the gap is a good deal smaller than one might suppose.

Another good reason for thinking this unlikely is that most "plesiosaur" sightings don't look a whole lot like plesiosaurs. They look more like this model (picture from Wikipedia):

Which may be the classic view of what real plesiosaurs looked like, but is, in fact wrong. The most notable point here is the head - notice how it bends forward, like a swan. Real plesiosaurs had relatively stiff necks, so that the head should be tilted upwards if the neck were at this angle. In fact, plesiosaurs might not have been able to lift their necks this much anyway; the long neck was, most likely, for bending downwards to pick shellfish off the bottom. But, even if it could do so, the animal's centre of gravity would have meant that the poor creature would have gone over if it had tried to achieve such a feat.

There was particular discussion of the "merhorses" reported from the northern Pacific. They may, or may not, be an unknown creature, but whatever they are, they're certainly not a plesiosaurs, because the descriptions really don't come close. Some kind of unknown long-necked seal is a better bet, if it's not just misidentification of something otherwise known.

Similar objections apply to other claimed prehistoric survivors, of which the most prominent are perhaps mosasaurs and basilosaurids. Claims that they may have evolved into something quite different since they vanished from the fossil record really don't address the absence of that record, and are a bit like groping for an excuse. Plus, it's fairly unlikely, as is sometimes claimed, that modern plesiosaurs might be furry, or that some modern basilosaurids might look like a cross between a turtle and a centipede (no, really).

The afternoon concluded with a workshop playing with a computer program to estimate the likelihood of something still being around after a gap in the fossil record, and trying to estimate the species diversity of coloured straws in a bucket (courtesy of yours truly, since nobody else volunteered!)

Oh, and if you're still trying to puzzle out that first photo: there are two whales in that photo. Two very happy boy whales...

Thursday, 29 October 2009

TAM London - pt 3

This will be the final part of this report. However, I am going to a talk about sea monsters next week, so there's very chance I'll waffle on about that before getting round to reporting on the next HeroQuest publication. It also looks highly likely that my predictions that LotW1 won't be out by the end of 2009 will be proven correct! Maybe early 2010?

We'll begin this last stretch with Ben Goldacre, Guardian columnist and author of Bad Science. When it comes to UFOs, or ghosts, or things of that sort, it doesn't, it seems to me, matter a great deal that it isn't true. It's a bit sad that some people spend their time chasing around after things that don't actually exist, but it doesn't, by and large, do a lot of harm. The same cannot be said for quack medical advice. Even if it doesn't do direct harm (which it might or might not, depending on what the advice is) there is always the danger that it might persuade people that it's not really necessary to do something genuinely helpful. A pill that contains nothing but sugar probably won't harm you very much, but if you think that it's working, you might not take the pills that really do work until it's too late.

In short, I believe that quack medicine has very great potential to do harm. Sure, evidence-based medicine can also, at times, do harm, but at least there's a countervailing benefit. And this is why I'm crap at debating this sort of thing - it makes me really angry, and once you get angry, you've lost the argument, no matter how good your case. I work in healthcare; I don't want to see people harmed any more than they have to be, thank you very much, and the excuse that someone is honestly deluded rather than a deliberate fraud isn't always enough.

Goldacre began his talk with a discussion of the anti-vaccination movement, and its portrayal in the press. When he mentioned Andrew Wakefield, the name drew boos from some corners of the audience (although not, I have to say, from me), but Goldacre disagreed, arguing that Wakefield wasn't truly the one to blame. I'm a little less inclined to be generous, but it's a valid point - most of the fuss in the press about the supposed dangers of the MMR vaccine was apparently a few year's later than you might think. Without the press inflating non-stories, the public might well be better informed (or, at least, not so ill-informed).

From there, we moved on to those equations you sometimes see in newspapers where "scientists have discovered the formula" for the perfect body, or the happiest day of the year, or whatever it might be. Well, surprise, surprise, but scientists have, most likely, discovered bugger all. 99% of the time, what's actually happened is that some company or other has decided that a scientific looking equation will help sell their product, and have paid someone a few quid to write something down on the back of a fag packet that "proves" whatever it is they want it to prove. Who'd have thought, eh?

And back to the press over-hyping non-stories. Goldacre discussed the claim that valiant newspaper reporters had discovered deadly MRSA lurking everywhere, including a swab they'd taken from the front door handle of the Department of Health. Quite worrying, especially when you consider that MRSA, while it can get into a number of nasty places, shouldn't be able to grow on doorknobs (too dry, you see). Or, indeed, on most of the other places the "laboratory of a world-renowned MRSA expert" had found them.

Only it turns out that (presumably unbeknownst to the journalists) he wasn't a world-renowned MRSA expert. He was, in fact, some bloke with a microscope in his garden shed and no qualifications in microbiology at all. The papers had, it seems, unwittingly fostered his delusions, and that's rather a tragedy. Blimey, you can't even trust a newspaper these days.

Oh, hang on... I said in the last blog that I'd get down of my high horse for this one, didn't I? Hmm... OK, so how about:

And now we come to what The Londonist described as the high point of the two-day event. I refer, of course, to Tim Minchin.

Last year, round about Christmas time, I attended a sold-out event at the Bloomsbury Theatre entitled "Lessons and Carols for Godless People". It comprised a number of scientists, stand-up comics, and musicians doing short pieces that were very loosely on the subject of either science or Christmas without Christianity. There were a lot of very good acts, some of whom also made brief performances on the Saturday evening after the main TAM event. But one in particular stood out in my memory, even though I'd never heard of him before.

Minchin does stand-up comedy as part of his act, but it's for his songs, accompanied on the grand piano, that he's probably best known. He very much appeals to my sense of humour, with what one can only describe as a mixture of vulgarity and nerdishness. And it probably helps that we seem to agree on a lot of things.

Yet, good as his songs are, he didn't sing one back at that event at the Bloomsbury last year. No, what he did was read a ten minute beat poem. And it blew me away. I'm not normally one for poetry, but... wow. It turns out that I was listening to either the first or second public performance of "Storm", which subsequently, as they say on the interwebz, "went viral" in the pro-science community.

At TAM, he performed a number of his best songs: The Good Book ("I tried to read some other books, but I soon gave up on that / The paragraphs ain't numbered, and they complicate the facts"), the love song If I Didn't Have You (" Your love is one in a million, you couldn't buy it at any price / But of the 9.999 hundred thousand other loves, statistically, some of them would be equally nice"), Confessions, and, of course, Storm. The latter included a clip of an animated version of the poem currently being made, which looks pretty cool.

His final piece was the song White Wine in the Sun. I can't say that this was one that particularly impressed me on the album... but it turns out that hearing it live is a whole different story. It's a serious song (for once), and beautifully emotional.

So, yeah, the Londonist is right: he was the highlight of the event. Which actually makes one glad that they got him on the bill at the last minute when Richard Dawkins had to pull out. But, hopefully, they'll hold TAM London again next year, and maybe we'll get both? Here's hoping...

Sunday, 18 October 2009

TAM London - pt 2


Yes, we're back on this again, so those still waiting for HeroQuest news will have to wait just a little longer, I'm afraid.

Anyway, I said last time that there were four sessions in particular of TAM London that I wanted to focus on here. I'll start with Ariane Sherine, who talked about how an off-hand comment spiralled into an intercontinental Atheist Bus Campaign. This is, in many ways, an inspiring story, because it's about giving atheism (or even non-religion in general) a voice that it rarely seems to have. That's partly, no doubt, because, by its very nature, it doesn't have organisations on the scale of organised Churches. And, while British society is a lot less religious than, say, the USA - let alone places like Iran - it does still pervade our society. Not, I think, in an oppressive way, but still in a way that's quite unnecessary. Britain, after all, still has constitutional union of Church and State, and there's really no good reason for that in the modern world that I can see.

A bus campaign, of course, isn't going to convince anyone much. I rather doubt that the much better funded religious campaigns one sees on public transport do much better, either - although those for, say, the Alpha Course presumably have at least some success rate. But conversion isn't really the point. I think it's more about presenting a positive message, and demonstrating that the community is out there, and if you have doubts, you're not alone. The American versions actually seem to be better at the latter, perhaps because that side of things is more important over there.

What's really interesting is the response to this. I'm sure the great majority of Christians either aren't that bothered, or at least support the right of people to disagree with them, but there's clearly a minority whose responses have been decidedly, well... un-Christian. People that, perhaps, feel frightened and threatened by the thought that not everyone agrees with them, and feel a need to lash out in response. There were a number of examples of this in the talk, some of which did verge on the alarming - I may not agree with many parts of the Christian message, but I'm fairly confident it's not supposed to be about bile and hatred!

The very fact that there have been arguments about this, and about the wording that's allowed (hence the "Probably") just goes to show that this has been a worthwhile exercise, and that there is an imbalance here to be addressed. After all, the same restrictions don't seem to apply to the other side...

So that was one uplifting and good-humoured talk that I actually enjoyed more than I expected to. But now I'm going to turn to somebody who has put a lot on the line for the cause of skepticism, and of science in general. I refer, of course, to science writer Simon Singh, who I've mentioned before. The previous times I've seen him give talks, they have been on the subject of the Big Bang, and other directly science-related matters. Naturally, that wasn't the case this time. And that's because of the huge and likely to be long-running libel action that now takes up his time.

I won't go into the details, because it will only be repeating what is available in more detail elsewhere. I will note, however, that there has been a positive development in the last couple of weeks, in that Singh's appeal against the refusal of the right to appeal against the outcome of the pre-trial hearing (don't you just love the law?) has been upheld. Which may yet turn out to make no difference in the long run, but is at least a start.

The specific issue is related to the right to raise scientific questions of public interest, but it seems to me that it's even broader than that. There really is a serious problem with libel law in the UK, and it extends beyond just science reporting. Those in the UK will presumably already be aware of the related issue this week of the Guardian newspaper being prevented from reporting certain proceedings in Parliament, an absolutely astonishing course of events. (This latter incident does not, as I understand it, stem directly from libel law, but the same underlying legal principles seem to be at the source). Britain does not have the same rights to free speech as, for example, the USA, and it may yet be for the European Court of Human Rights to make a ruling on this.

That Singh is continuing to fight this case, despite the risk of financial ruin (he'll be several thousand pounds out of pocket, even if he wins a complete victory) is enormously to his credit. He rightly received two standing ovations, and an award for his contributions to skepticism over the last year. I can't imagine anyone else was even in the frame for that.

Well, that seems to be a long enough post; looks like there will have to be a part three. In which I can, hopefully, get down at least little way from my high horse...

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Amaz!ing Meeting

You may know (if only because I've mentioned it before) that my other main interest, besides gaming, is skepticism. If you don't give a monkey's about this, you probably want to ignore the rest of this post, and most likely, the ones that will follow it. You should find it safe to come back once Kingdom of Heroes is released, and I've had time to read and review it.

Still here? If so, you may well have wondered to yourself, what is the big gathering of the skeptical tribe? What, in short, is to skepticism what Continuum or Tentacles are to Glorantha?

Well, OK, you probably haven't actually wondered that. Especially if you're reading this blog for some reason other than being a Glorantha fan. (Hi, Mum). But let's imagine that you did: the answer is The Amaz!ing Meeting, held for the last several years in Las Vegas. Where, let's face it, I'm not very likely to go. But - and this is the important bit - this year, for the first time, there was an additional meeting held outside the USofA. That was TAM London, and I was lucky enough to attend.

I should probably explain why I say I was lucky, and why I haven't mentioned this at all before. That's because the convention was massively over-subscribed. Based on the figures in the US, the organisers figured the tickets would sell out in a few months; they actually sold it out in less than an hour. By the time I logged on to make my purchase - as soon as I got home from work - they were already long gone. So, I figured, I ain't going - and things suck, but there you go sometimes. They made some efforts to get further tickets out, but no luck there, either. Then, last week, they put out a few tickets that had been returned for refunds, and I just happened to be online when they announced it, being able to snag one on the spot!

And now I've just returned. A very, very good weekend, and hats off to the organisers. I most certainly hope there's one again next year, or, heck, even biennial like Continuum (the organisers have promised a bigger venue if it happens again in the UK, which would hopefully help with the ticket problem). The massive interest that this must have had to sell out so quickly is, I think, something of a testament to the growing popularity of skepticism in recent years, and by gosh, it feels good to be part of a tribe that's expanding for once.

Frankly, there was just so much good stuff that I can't really describe it all in detail. I know that Jack of Kent is covering it in his blog (which is probably a thousand times more popular than mine), so maybe there'll be more there, if you're interested. However, there are four presenters at the con who I'd particularly like to talk about, for very different reasons. But that's absolutely not to diminish in any way the contributions of the other six - as I say, the entire weekend was fantastic, and I was really impressed by the quality of the lineup.

Less so by the food on the Saturday night incidentally - memo to organisers: there's nothing wrong with serving sausages, but it's a bugger to eat them without a knife or a table. Just sayin'. (The food for the rest of the weekend was fine, incidentally, as was the quality of the cooking).

Anyway, I do think it behoves me to give at least a run down of the six presentations that I won't be discussing in much detail:

Brian Cox, presenter of various documentaries for the BBC's Horizon strand, started us off with a talk about the importance of the Large Hadron Collider, and of curiosity-driven science in general. This was a lot more fun than it might sound, and I have to say it takes real talent to talk about particle physics for an hour, and make it sound not just exciting, but easily understandable, without really dumbing it down. And the message was clear: curiosity-driven science is, in and of itself, important, and a fitting use of (at least some) public funds.

Jon Ronson followed up with an entertaining talk about his book about CIA psychics, The Men Who Stare At Goats, including clips of the upcoming film based on the book.

James Randi, who surely needs no introduction, and is the figurehead of the JREF - the organisation that runs TAM - gave a video call from America, answering questions, and seeming remarkably chipper, given his recent health problems.

Phil Plait, who actually runs the JREF, gave an fascinating talk about how asteroids could wipe out human civilisation, and other such hilarities, managing to balance the seriousness with a lot of fun. He's a good speaker, if apparently a little puzzled by the British at times (ha! as if we're the strange ones...)

Glen Hill, who I'd not heard of before, gave a talk on the Cottingley Fairies, photographed by his mother. He drew some rather strained parallels with recent conflict in the Middle East, making him perhaps the most clearly anti-religious speaker. Not that that would worry me in the slightest, of course...

George Hrab provided musical entertainment, and came across as a really cool bloke. I'll have to get an album of his music!

Adam Savage is, of course, one of the presenters of Mythbusters, and discussed some of the making of the show, primarily based around trying to see how well someone can swim in a pool full of syrup. Serious science, as I'm sure you'll agree!

So much for the summary... on to more serious discussion. And less serious, too...

Sunday, 12 July 2009

HeroQuest Review - pt 3

So now we come to what is, perhaps, the hardest part of the review. That's because it deals with what is, for me, the biggest problem with the new edition, yet that is not in any way a criticism of the writers. The writers make it abundantly clear what they're trying to do with the rules, and of how they've written it to support a certain style of play. Quite rightly, they warn you up front (on p. 5, and again on pp. 8 and 77) that the game they have designed won't suit everyone.

And that, to my mind, is a good thing. Too many games either make out that they're for everyone, or inadvertently (or otherwise) end up deriding other styles of play. HeroQuest 2 nails its colours firmly to the mast, and for that it should be congratulated. Unfortunately, they aren't colours I like, and I can't complete a personal review of the product without saying why. But, at the same time, it's important to note that the changes they have made are exactly what many people were wanting; a lot of people are going to love this new iteration of the rules, and more power to them. But for me, the changes have removed useful tools, made the game harder to use, and failed to provide a good replacement.

One caveat to the above though is that the rules do state on p. 7 that their intent is to:
...either help you run the game in its emulative style, or, if you prefer a simulative approach, to understand how you’ll need to modify it to suit your preferences.
In response to that, I really do have to say that the books fails completely in its intent to fulfil the second half of that sentence. I can't help but wonder, especially since it more or less says the opposite on the next page, if that sentence snuck in from an earlier draft, and got missed when something was revised.

Anyway, the core of the problem here is embodied in what the rules call the Pass/Fail Cycle. Oddly, it's not the cycle itself that's the problem, but more the underlying principles that allow it to work. The cycle aims to reproduce the way that narratives work in novels, films, and other forms of storytelling. As a guide to writing stories, or even to writing RPG scenarios for publication, it's pretty good advice (and, indeed, does not claim to be original in this regard). The sequence that you get in D&D of a bunch of relatively easy opponents/challenges leading up to a tougher Level Boss, and then starting the pattern again at the next level, is, it seems to me, an illustration of this principle in action.

So far, so good, but in an actual game we are not interested so much in the difficulty of past challenges as in how well the characters overcame them in practice. After all, sometimes you will fail at an easy challenge, or succeed at a hard one. As a consequence, the Pass/Fail Cycle of HQ2 relies on the outcome of prior contests. If your characters have been having a tough time of it, then whatever they try to do next should be easier, and vice versa. But that, if taken literally, can produce nonsensical results, especially if the players do something unexpected (as they probably will).

So, of course, you are not supposed to take it literally. There are "credibility tests" and the oft repeated exhortation to "use your own judgement" in the rules to compensate for the shortcomings in the Pass/Fail Cycle. Well, yes, but how often would you expect to use the Pass/Fail Cycle to determine difficulty? 90% of the time? 5% of the time? And, crucially, when you want to ignore the Pass/Fail Cycle and go with a clearly simulationist approach ("well, what they are doing is X, so, to maintain credibility, it should have a resistance of Y"), where is the guidance to help you do that?

There isn't any, because there's not supposed to be - you "use your own judgement". But, for my money, that's just not good enough in a rules system. If you're doing that all the time, you might as well be doing systemless gaming. Not that there's anything wrong with systemless gaming, but if I've paid to buy a game system, I kind of want something for my money. You use your own judgement when the system doesn't give you clear answers, of course; no rule system can cover everything. But HQ2 doesn't give you clear answers at all, unless what you want is a wholly narrative/emulative game (which, of course, is the idea).

And this is really where HQ2 fails for me. If you do want a wholly narrative/emulative game, great - you'll love this. But, if you don't, there just isn't the guidance. HQ1 managed to strike a good balance between the narrative elements and the simulationist support where it was needed. You can see it, for example, in the Community Support table (or at least the general idea that such a table should exist). All of that has now gone.

What an update of HQ1 needed, more than anything else - the one thing I was really, really looking forward to seeing in a new edition - was clearer guidance on how to set resistances in a simulationist framework. Many times you won't want to do that, and that was where HQ1's mixed approach really shone as a stirling example to other systems, but I, at least, always need that framework to be visible to me as GM. If nothing else, it tells me what I need to do to depart from it.

As another illustration of the same fundamental problem, nothing, other than the PCs, ever has stats in HQ2. It seems that everything is pretty much made up on the spot, using the Pass/Fail Cycle or "your judgement" as a modifier to something called the Base Resistance, which gradually increases as the game progresses. Again, this creates the same issue of their being no fundamental, objective framework, on which to base your judgement. (Not to mention that writing up the stats is half the fun of prepping for a game session).

But, moreover, there is no clear guidance on what the increase rate in the Base Resistance is supposed to represent. And I don't mean in a simulationist sense (since, clearly, it doesn't represent anything in that sense), but actually in the narrative/emulative sense that the book is supposed to be about. What's the intent here? What is it supposed to do? Is it meant to keep track with the increase in the PC's abilities - in which case, why not base it on that? Is it meant to increase more slowly than the PCs, and, if so, by how much? Sure, I might want a different pace, but without knowing what the original intent is, how am I supposed to modify it to reach my desired goal?

Going back to look at an actual character, I see that in the time that my current PC's best ability has increased by +5 points, the Base Resistance should have increased by +7 points. That may, of course, reflect differences between HQ1 and HQ2, or it may reflect my play style, so it's not necessarily illustrative of much. Which is as well, since, whatever the intent of the rule is, it's probably not that!

And, of course, the rules do say that you should modify the Base Resistance based upon your play style, and that it won't work for certain styles at all. There is, of course, no clear guidance as to what you should do if this happens. Which, once again, suggests that HQ2, wonderful though it may be for those who want a particular sort of game, just doesn't support my own preferences.

To which the obvious response is, "why should the game support your preferences?" And that's a fair answer, since the game clearly works for many people, and supports what they want, and any game, no matter how well designed, will always leave someone out in the cold. But, remember, this is a personal review - I am saying why the game does not work for me, not why it will not work for you. It so happens that a game I really liked has been turned into something I like a lot less, and that there won't be any further published support for my preferred style from Issaries/Moon Design. It would be dishonest to pretend I'm happy about that, but sometimes, those are the breaks.

From my perspective, it's a tragedy, but it was always going to be a tragedy for someone. If they had done it my way, a lot of players who were looking for a more emulative approach would have been pretty narked. Someone always has to luck out when there's a change.

And this time, it's me.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

HeroQuest review - pt 2

So, in some significant ways, HeroQuest 2 is an improvement over earlier editions. Which is just as it should be - why else do a new edition, rather than re-releasing the old one? There are, however, a few areas where I have niggling doubts; where it looks, certainly at first glance, that they have made a step in the wrong direction.

Incidentally, it's clear from forum discussions that very few people agree with me on any of the following. If you think HQ2 is perfect, and you don't like people disagreeing with you, you probably don't want to read on. And, frankly, if you've tried it, and it does work for you (as it will for many people), what do you care what I think, anyway? I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: this is a well-designed system that many people will love; I'm just not one of them.

Character generation proceeds in much the same manner as in HQ1, although, obviously, with less specific Gloranthan guidance. For the proper Gloranthan implementation we're going to have to wait for Kingdom of Heroes, currently planned for release this Autumn. As I haven't seen even a pre-release of this, I know little about its approach, and it will, in any case, deserve its own review when it appears. Judging from the rulebook though, there should be no problem with compatibility issues, and characters should translate easily from the old edition to the new one, which is a great relief. For instance, while there are two new approaches to writing keywords, the HQ1 method is still enshrined as one of the official options (now called the "package" approach) in the new rules, and the sample keyword format on p. 94 is fully compatible with this.

Which makes it a little odd that the designers have been saying elsewhere that the two systems actually aren't compatible at a character generation level - that is, that characters designed for HQ1 won't work properly with HQ2, and that, in practice, you're going to be forced to create new ones. I hope they're wrong, since continuity is a major selling point for me, but it seems unlikely that they don't know what they're talking about. Mind you, they're not claiming its actually impossible - after all, one could convert from D&D to RuneQuest if one really wanted to - just that the changes are drastic enough that the character will lose a lot of it "feel", making the whole result unsatisfactory and a little bit pointless. Either way, this sounds counter-intuitive, given the similarity between those aspects of the relevant editions. So, I'm going to test it out for myself, to work out just what it is that I've missed (probably something in the magic rules). I'll post the results here at a later date.

On to a problem that is apparent from the rules as written, and that I've observed in actual play using the pre-release at conventions. Or rather, a set of problems. These concern augments, bonuses that can applied to a main roll to boost its effect. For instance, if I'm trying to chop a tree down, my ability in Forestry might be augmented by my physical strength, or by a Tree Chopping Spell, or by a magical axe, or, well... many other things. One problem that HQ1 ran into here, at least for many players, was that you could, in principle, add a vast array of augments to a single roll, boosting it into the stratosphere, and slowing the game down while you hunted out all the possibilities.

Now, I can honestly say that I never had this problem. The only occasion when it happened, I actively wanted it to happen, so it wasn't an issue. (As an aside, that specific situation could probably be handled using "Lingering Benefits" in the new rules, so we can leave that aside). Normally, it just never cropped up, because, in my experience, players Just Don't Do That. On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that for many groups, players do indeed, do just that. Indeed, I've seen it happen myself, in games I'm not GMing, so there's no doubt it is the case. For those groups it was an issue, and, clearly, something had to be done about it.

For me, though, the cure looks worse than the disease. I liked the idea of multiple augments per roll; what was needed was a way to limit them. The obvious method is a simple cap, but, unfortunately, the writers of HQ2 have picked a cap of, err... one. In other words, multiple augments are now completely forbidden - one roll, one augment. Now, I can sort of see the rationale for this; keeping to a single augment makes that augment more dramatic. But, in practice, in my experience, it feels constraining, and I don't think that that's good. As I say, I liked multiple augments.

I've been told that I will change my mind if I play the game with single-augments-only for a few more sessions. In fact, I'll concede that that is possible, although I remain unconvinced. Because, unless the opposite is obvious, I can't really know what I'll think after I've done something that... well, I haven't actually done yet. So, yeah, maybe.

What I'll require a lot more convincing about is the "freshness" clause that has now been added to the augment rules. This, except under the most exceptional of circumstances, prohibits you from using the same augment in the same way twice in succession. To which my immediate response is "why the heck not?" The excuse seems to be that it isn't interesting, but that, to my mind, is forcing the game designer's (or the GM's) opinion of what is interesting onto the player, whether he agrees with it or not. It's almost saying "you might think this is interesting, but it says officially here in the rules that you are Wrong".

OK, so I'm sure that's not the intent. And, true, there is an "entertainment" clause that trumps freshness, but it's written so as to imply it's meant to be used only sparingly. If you expect to employ it for about 95% of all requested augments, then fair enough, but I really, really, can't imagine that's what the writers envisaged.

There is also, incidentally, an "illumination" clause that's rather difficult to make head or tail of; I'm left with the question of what sort of an augment wouldn't fulfil that criterion!

And I'm not talking from abstract theory, here: I have played HQ2 at conventions and found that the freshness clause was, without doubt, my biggest impediment to enjoying the game. Might I change my mind after, say, a further ten sessions? I can't say definitively, but, in this case, it looks pretty damn unlikely from where I'm standing right now. Arguments to the contrary are going to have to deal with the simple fact that, when I tried it, I just did not like it.

One problem that HeroQuest 1 did have, and its predecessor, Hero Wars, as well, was that it never handled weapons and armour well. The new edition deals with this problem by sweeping it under the carpet, and essentially ignoring the whole issue, leaving it up to on-the-spot judgement by the GM. To be fair, I'm not sure that that's actually a step backwards... but it's hardly a step forwards, either.

Now, there is one thing that all of these problems have in common: they're easily fixed. Don't like the freshness clause? Just don't use it; it's not going to make any difference to the rest of the rules, or to your ability to use any published supplements. Want to have multiple augments per roll? Sure, that's easy - although you'll probably want to use the HQ1 version of the Quick Augment rules as well, or it's going to get real slow with all the dice rolling. Heck, if you wanted to use the old bidding approach to extended contests (not that I would), that's no problem, either.

One might well argue that, by this point, you're not really running HQ2 any more, but so what, if it doesn't actively create problems? There's nothing wrong with what we might choose to call HQ1.5. Problem is, though, there are other issues that are harder to deal with in this way. They're bigger, and more fundamental.

And they're also the topic of part 3...

Thursday, 2 July 2009

HeroQuest 2 review - pt 1


The second edition of HeroQuest was launched yesterday, and, since the first edition is what I've done most of my game writing for, I immediately picked up the PDF. I've had the preview edition for about a year now, but I didn't want to write a review of it until I'd seen the final, published, version. On the other hand, since my opinion seems to be different from virtually everybody else's, I think that some commentary will be useful now that it is out. Because differing viewpoints are always a good thing.

But let's begin with the positive stuff, and get on to the differences of opinion in later posts.

Perhaps the most obvious difference from earlier editions is that HQ2 is a generic system, not wed to a specific setting (namely Glorantha). You don't need to do more than flip through the book to realise that the intention is that HQ2 will work with any setting you can imagine; it's about general rules for resolving dramatic situations, not about modelling a specific world. And that, to my mind, is a good thing. I have no idea how many people will pick up this edition when they avoided the earlier ones because they didn't fancy the setting - but I am sure there will be at least some. And because the system does work with a wide range of settings, that's a useful thing to do. The downside is that I get less of the specific stuff that I'm after, but I think that's a price worth paying for the ability to do all sorts of other things with the rules.

Of course, it's not really true that HQ2 will work beautifully with any genre imaginable; no system can do that. Any system, as a result of the way it is constructed, will favour certain game styles and genre conventions over others. In the case of HQ2, what it favours is dramatic, cinematic, often larger-than-life genres. It would be good for action films, superheroes, high fantasy, space opera, and many more besides. (It would probably be quite good for soap opera too, were one so inclined). Which isn't to say that it can't do grittier genres, since it's open enough to fit anything, but I suspect it's going to be somewhat unsatisfactory for those. Grim danger just isn't something it does well - just as some other generic systems won't do the cinematic stuff very effectively.

This isn't a criticism, since no game can be all things to all people. In fact, I'd say that HQ2 is about as generic a game as its humanly possible to construct, and that's a good thing. In this respect, then, HQ2 is a clear improvement over HQ1.

And the improvements don't end there, because once you do get a chance to properly read the rules, it becomes clear that they are chock full of advice. And much of it is very good advice, at that. The resolution system in HeroQuest was always a little different from that of most other RPGs, so the addition of even more examples than in the previous edition (which had quite a few) is certainly a welcome feature.

A particularly significant change, in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of the system is the new Extended Contest system. In previous editions, this worked by a bidding mechanism, which, in my experience, never really worked well. In its place we have a much simpler and easier-to-grasp system that relies on a series of simple contests to generate a final outcome. This really is a big improvement, and seems to have been successful the few times I've managed to try it. Moreover, the chapter explaining contest resolution is the biggest in the book, being chock full of varying ways the system can be used, and examples of how to do so. This is, from my perspective, pretty neat stuff. If I used nothing else from this book, I'd use that.

But, aside from a nice rule on p. 57 ("Catch-ups"), is about as far as the improvements over earlier editions go. Still, it's not a bad start, and many of the good features of the earlier editions, such as the scaling, remain more or less intact. It's still a fairly good system, but... well, we'll get to "but..." in Part Two.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Don't Rest Your Head

I think this is the first time I've actually been able to do any face-to-face gaming this entire year; if not, it's certainly been a long time. Anyway, I finally did manage to get a session in last night, and we played a one-shot of the indie game Don't Rest Your Head. Rather like indie music, the term "indie game" seems to refer more to a specific style of game than anything actually to do with some kind of independence. (I've heard indie games defined as anything published by the original designer - but, arguably, that's true of GURPS, which clearly isn't what they mean).

In practice, indie games seem designed for short term play, generally have fairly simple rule mechanics, and, using the terminology of the Three True Wayists, are strongly Narrativist. Now, you might think, from my earlier post, that that would mean I wouldn't be keen on them. But that's not so; the problem with 3TWism isn't that it doesn't work, so far as it goes, it's just that it's so obviously incomplete. I have nothing against a good Narrativist game, so long as you don't try and tell me that there's something wrong with an "incoherent" one.

So, on to the game. The biggest failing of DRYH - in fact, so far as I can see, the only failing - is the "blank page" approach to character generation. The concept sounds simple; you jot down a few things about your character that are relevant to the game. In practice, though, that can be a lot harder than it sounds. There's a real danger that you'll sit there staring at a blank character sheet with no idea of what to write on it. In fact, that happened to me, to the point that I began to feel a little uncomfortable. I eventually jotted down something, but it didn't make a lot of sense. I get the impression that this is a common flaw in indie games, and one that they've never satisfactorily fixed. (I'll note, in passing, that HeroQuest can be similar, although, in a campaign, there's more of a tendency to spend time on character generation, which obviates the problem).

The two unusual features of character generation are connected with the fundamental theme of DRYH: that it's a supernatural horror game about insomnia. So, you have to explain why you aren't sleeping, and you also get a weird supernatural power. And that, fortunately, was what solved the problem of the character generation, because our GM handed out random pre-designed powers from the DRYH supplement Don't Lose Your Mind. I got a good one, and, to be honest, largely ignored most of the stuff I'd actually written on the sheet in favour of making the power the centre of the character. If I'd had to make something up on the spot, the result would have been much less fun. (And, on the converse, spending too long prepping for a one-shot game also seems a bit daft).

From there on in, though, it worked really well. The system is slick and simple, and the concept and imagery behind the setting are really cool. It probably helps if you're into the works of people like Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, and I'm not at all surprised to discover that Morrison's stint on Doom Patrol was one of the inspirations behind the game. I dare say it's possible to run without the surrealism, but for me, that's a large part of fun.

So there much scenery-chewing as an insane insomniac hearing voices in his head, with the other characters being a conspiracy theorist cabbie, a psychotic policeman, and a woman with a talking teddy bear, an imaginary ray gun that really worked, and an obsession with being probed by aliens. We were pursued by men made of newspaper who only printed the stories that hadn't happened yet, men with thumb-tacks instead of heads, a spiv who bought memories, and a man who oozed wax (at this point, you may already be seeing the influence of Doom Patrol, and for that matter, The Sandman). Eventually, after many explosions, my character embraced his insanity, and spent the rest of his days gibbering in a padded cell. Which was, oddly enough, just as it should have been.

So, no question in my mind, this is a good one-off game. I don't think it would work as much more than that, but I doubt it's intended to. It's the sort of thing that's ideal as a con game, and for playing short runs of sessions at most. That's a very valuable and useful niche for a game to fill, and let's not forget that the setting, from what I saw of it, is stunning. Plus, blank-page syndrome aside, it uses a very clever and effective system, specifically tailored to its own concepts.

All in all, very enjoyable. But what about longer term games? HeroQuest 2 attempts to be a strongly narrativist system suited for just that sort of game. And, it's out on Wednesday, which means I'll finally be able to review it. And that review may be less positive than this one...

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Western Heroquesting

Here's a post I made on the World of Glorantha list about Western heroquesting, responding to the statement that it's rather "abstract":

>
> The Monotheist experience seems a bit more abstract.

It can be, yes, but it doesn't have to be. Remember, the majority of monotheists aren't wizards (that is, they use wizardry magic, but they aren't pointy-hat wearing professionals). When you attend a monotheist religious service, you experience the Otherworld, and you re-enact the myths of Malkion, the saints, and whoever else it may be. Sure, to an outsider, it may appear that the vicar takes the holy book out of the Arcarium and reads a lesson from it, but if you're in that congregation, the "lesson" becomes real for you; it's a myth that you're interacting with.

Take the New Year's Day ceremony, since that's pretty much universal (albeit not your regular weekly service). You're standing there in the Church, and then the walls and ceiling begin to fade. Now you're in the middle of the countryside, and the sky is gray, like early twilight... but you know it's been like that for all of your life. The landscape around you is gloomy, starved of light. You feel the crushing monotony of the world, of your life in this semi-darkness, holding onto the hope that, one day, God will make it better. You begin to pray, feeling a presence that God is with you, and that soon, very soon, your wait will be over (because you feel you've been waiting all your life for this, and so have your ancestors, for generations back). God will deliver you, because you have been faithful, and Malkion's sacrifice made it so.

And then the sun rises.

And so you continue through the story of the first day, and the first night, and the service ends with the second dawn. Now, here you're experiencing how your ancestors *felt*, but the point is that it's not purely abstract. Another example might be on the High Holy Day of Saint Josselyne, where his adepts will find themselves in the garrison defending his castle against the final onslaught of the Brithini. And, of course, you can heroquest by repeating the saint's actions to gain some benefit - the key point usually being to emulate his virtues.

Sure, if you're a wizard of, say, the Iron Blood School, your heroquests may well be a good deal more abstract, trying to forge link between nodes on the Essence Planes, or building the runes into a new pattern, or something. But even then, you may be interacting with physical (if fairly impersonal) entities that have obvious meanings to anyone - the Sea, for instance, if you're a Debaldan.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Three True Way-ism

There is a term sometimes encountered when discussing roleplaying, of “One True Wayism” – or some variation on that theme. It refers to players or GMs with a very specific idea of how an RPG should work, and an insistence that this is the only right way of doing things. Often, the very idea that someone might prefer a different style is considered “Hurting Wrong Fun”, and any attempt at gaming in such a style must be quashed lest it infect others with its perversity. Few, if any, people identify themselves as One True Wayists, but the concept is often encountered under some guise or another.

Unsurprisingly, few people who really think about the theory behind gaming espouse such a narrow-minded view. But it seems to me that a rather more insidious version of the same sort of general idea has become quite popular. I refer to this as “Three True Wayism”. It arises from the theoretical discussions on The Forge website (now, I gather, somewhat curtailed) that classified RPGs into one of three categories: narrativism, simulationism, and gamism. The first focuses primarily on the needs of the story, the second on the demands of verisimilitude, and the third on the establishment of fair game mechanics and reward mechanisms (or such is my understanding). The argument seems to be that all of these three approaches to RPing are equally valid, and if you happen to prefer a different category than I do, then so be it (they prefer to use the word “agenda”, but then much of their terminology is somewhat opaque).

Which sounds fair enough, so far as it goes. The problem is, it seems to me, that it acknowledges only these three approaches, and, more to the point, claims that they are mutually exclusive. The theory says that a rule set can only effectively support one approach of the three, and it even seems that they have pretty narrow definitions of what those approaches are. Hence, “Three True Wayism” – the contention that there are only three possible ways to enjoy a roleplaying game, and if your approach isn’t one of them, you’re doing it wrong. It’s insidious, because the people who adhere to this attitude (and, believe me, I’ve met some) believe they are being open-minded and fair, and accepting of all other approaches, even if they differ from their own. But – unless you accept their thesis that there are only three possible, and mutually exclusive, “agendas” – I don’t think this is the case at all.

This seems to manifest in two different ways, either or both of which can be problematic to those who do not fit into their neat little pigeon-holes. The first is an overly narrow definition of what the three agendas mean. Simulationism, for instance, is supposed to be about verisimilitude, and the obvious conclusion therefore seems to be that any system that supports it must be detailed and relatively rules-heavy, to reflect the various different aspects of reality (or, at least, a particular genre's version thereof). One thinks of systems like GURPS and Hero in this category, and a great many others that were popular in the 1980s.

This attitude seems to have stifled the development of rules-lite “simulationist” systems, which, to my mind, is very much to be regretted. Three True Wayists, when pressed, may not deny that a rule-lite simulationist system is possible, but they certainly don’t seem to spend any effort in encouraging the creation of such a thing. And that, I suspect, is because it lies outside the comfort zone of their theory. I dare say there are other examples of this narrow thinking stifling creativity, but the absence of much in the way of rules-lite simulationist systems, from where I’m standing, seems a particularly striking example.

The second problem is arguably worse, because it's more explicit. And that’s the contention that there are three, and only three, mutually exclusive approaches. Assuming that one defines the three approaches broadly enough, the first half of that statement – that there’s no fourth agenda – might well be true. (One could, of course, argue that rules-lite simulationism is, itself, distinct from, say, the GURPS approach, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we accept that it isn’t). The problem comes from the ‘mutually exclusive’ part.

It seems to me self-evident that a system can provide a good mix of at least two, and possibly all three, approaches at the same time. A narrativist game does not have to be ‘narrative above all else’, for instance; it could allow a proportion of some other “agenda” in. Realistically, any game has to strike a balance between the three approaches – a narrative won’t work if it’s completely implausible, a simulation won’t work as an RPG if it never has any dramatic challenges, and so on. Surely it’s obvious that that balance does not have to be strongly weighted in one particular direction for a rules system to work?

Yet, while the Three True Wayists do have a term for a system that tries to balance two (or more) agendas, that term is, so I’m told, “incoherent”. Now, you can’t convince me that that was intended to be a value-neutral term to refer to a gaming style just as valid as the three they espouse. It’s pretty much explicitly saying that this style of play is inferior and somehow wrong – really no different to the attitude of the One True Wayists. Was this term deliberately coined so that anyone trying to say “I prefer incoherent games” would sound like a loony, Orwellian Newspeak style, or did it generally not occur to them that anyone would prefer it? I don’t know, although I rather suspect the latter.

But, when you poke beneath the bonnet, it’s ridiculous to assert that an “incoherent” game can’t be just as good and valid and worthwhile as one that follows a single "agenda" more or less exclusively. And, even if it weren’t, it would hardly be accepting of alternative styles of play to deride it. The Three True Wayists are here, it seems to me, falling into the very trap that their theory seeks to avoid.

Obviously, such a system could be done well, or done badly – that’s true of anything. But surely it’s possible to strike a balance? How could it not be, if you really look at things with an un-blinkered attitude? And this, of course, gets me to the point: I believe that 1st edition HeroQuest was such a system. It’s not that it didn’t have faults – it had a number – but the balance between narrativism and simulationism was done superbly and, so far as I know, has never been bettered. Yet that, it seems, had to be sacrificed on the altar of orthodoxy, because surely nobody could really like a game that worked that way? After all, no matter how much common sense said it worked, the theory said it couldn’t, and that was surely that?

But, to quote Robin Laws – who, despite having written the new 2nd edition of HeroQuest, seems to be no friend of Three True Wayism – there are more than three types of art, so why can’t there be more than three types of RPG? In fact, isn’t that just obvious?

The sad thing is, not so much that this happened – games change editions and approaches all the time – but that there doesn’t seem to be anything else available today to fill that niche. Because gaming theory says that that the “incoherent” approach must automatically be a failure that nobody could really, deep down, actually prefer to the alternatives.

Because Three True Wayism says that I don’t exist…

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Keep Libel Laws Out of Science

I am, perhaps unusually, going to talk about something that I believe is actually important.

Everyone in your genuine, serious-type, science blogs has been on about the BCA v Singh libel case for quite some time. In fact, I've been following the case since even before the judge made the ruling that really kicked up such a stink. At issue here, it seems to me, is whether scientists should be able to raise questions and engage in open debate without fear of being sued, and whether the libel laws in our country are, in fact, a pile of poo. I'm not enough of an expert to add anything that hasn't been said a hundred times before on the blogosphere, so I'll just direct anyone interested to the excellent Jack of Kent, who also has links to many other sites covering aspects of the story. Certainly, I didn't know our libel laws were quite such a mess before this (though I knew they were fairly bad), and one does hope that something might actually be done about them.

And if, having read all the background, you agree with me, please sign the petition of support:

free debate

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Ramalia

Just a note to say that Tradetalk magazine #10, including a lengthy article on the were-boars of Ramalia that I wrote back in 2002, has now been re-released in PDF format for the trifling price of $4. And, of course, its not just me, because every other issue of Tradetalk from #5 onwards has been re-released, too - so check them out, there's some really good Gloranthan material in there.

On a related note, there may be some good news about Heroes of Malkion on the horizon. With the emphasis on the "may" and the "horizon", of course, but at least there's something to hope for. And, no, I don't have any more information than that I can give out at the present time... just keep an eye out!

Monday, 23 March 2009

God in the Lab

On one of the Glorantha lists, I recently commented that I seem to be able to attend skeptical meetings more often than I manage to get any gaming in this days. And so it seems, since I've only had gaming session this year so far, yet I have attended two skeptical meetings.

The latest was titled "God in the Lab", and it was about scientific studies into the basis of religion. One of the talks was about religious analgesia, in which Catholics had reported feeling less pain while viewing a picture of the Virgin Mary (together with some brain scans that showed they were indeed, Not Making This Up). I wasn't terribly clear of the point of this; certainly the researcher wasn't trying to claim that they had actually been divinely protected. Basically, so far as I can tell, viewing the image put them in a frame of mind where they felt comfortable and protected, and that was reflected in their psychological and physiological perceptions of pain. One suspects the same could have been achieved with other comforting images, that were not necessarily religious - but apparently, nobody has done that study. Getting ethical approval for studies that involve electrocuting people probably isn't all that easy...

Two of the other talks had a fairly similar theme, although addressed from different angles. They both concluded that children have an innate tendency to believe in gods, and in the separation of mind and body. It is intuitively "obvious" to most people that the mind and the body are different things - that, for example, "I" want to do something, but "my body" won't let me. While the specifics of beliefs in the nature of the soul vary widely, the broad ideas behind what properties a disembodied spirit would have are remarkably consistent across different cultures. One could, of course, equally attribute this to "and that's because disembodied spirits really do have these properties" as much as to "this tells us something about the way our brains deal with the world."

Similarly, children naturally attribute the natural things about them to purposeful design, regardless of their religious upbringing (or lack thereof). And these things remain as holdovers even into our adult lives. For example, a three year old child has no conception that other people do not know what they know - in essence, they assume that everyone is omniscient, at least about things they know themselves. As they grow up, it's not so much that they have to be taught that God is an omniscient being, but they have to learn, as their brain develops, that everyone except God isn't. (An interesting aside here, though not brought up in the talk, is that chimpanzees are, so far as I know, the only other animals demonstrated to be able to pull off this trick - essential if one wants to, say, lie...)

These sorts of things, I think, explain why religion is so ubiquitous... although they have nothing directly to say about whether or not it is true. The remaining talk addressed another reason: that some people have religious experiences in which they personally contact the Divine. Now, often this in the form of mystical experiences, in which one feels at one with the universe, or the Godhead, or whatever it may be, and loses a sense of self. But this particular talk was about the more extreme form of experiences, in which God, or a guardian angel, or whatever, speaks to the person. These experiences, it seems, are virtually identical phenomenologically to psychotic episodes, save for the crucial difference that they are positive and life-affirming, rather than deeply unpleasant. But the underlying processes in the brain do seem very similar (although clearly there must be some difference, and these things probably lie on a continuum from clinical insanity to religious revelation).

In particular, brain scans conducted while people were hearing such voices showed the same activity whether they were psychotic or experiencing something benevolent. Indeed, I found it interesting that the scans look very similar to those of people simply asked to imagine hearing a voice - that is, the brain areas for interpreting speech light up, while those for actual sound do not. The difference being that, when you imagine a voice, centres of the brain associated with planning and taking action light up immediately beforehand, but in the psychotic and religious experiencers, the voice interpretation areas just light up on their own, without any prior warning. It's also worthy of note that anti-psychotic medication seems to be able to dampen these positive experiences as well, in those that experience both - although, for ethical reasons, one can't really try them out on people whose experiences are only ever positive, and aren't, therefore, mentally ill in some way.

So, a pretty interesting day, and one which gives some food for thought. Lets see if I can get another gaming session in before the next Centre for Inquiry meeting, though...