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