Friday, 28 January 2011

Thoughts on Ratings in RPGs - pt 2

So, earlier I posted about my recent experiences on providing ratings guidelines for an online RPG, and how they might (or might not) be more generally applicable. I touched on general issues of theme there, and I'll now look at how we implemented more specific guidelines, and what those might indicate.

The use of strong language is naturally something that might concern both film censors and anyone involved in text-based RPing. Among a group of friends RPing together over the table, its likely that it really doesn't need to be spelled out, but when you have a larger pool of players, perhaps from different backgrounds, it can be a different matter. As with theme, this can be an important aspect of simulating a particular written or filmed genre - Harry Potter should not, it seems to me, sound like Pulp Fiction.

On the other hand, that cuts both ways. I recall a few years back commenting on a mailing list about someone planning a Torchwood campaign. Now, in Torchwood, especially the first season (which at the time was the only one released), there is quite a bit of swearing. Is that an inherent part of the genre? Arguably not, but equally it wouldn't occur to me that a campaign might have tighter restrictions than the source material on which it is based, so I said - to the shock of other posters - that, unless someone told me otherwise, I'd assume that strong language was permissible. The characters in the series do it, why would I assume a PC should be different?

In the case of our Hogwarts RPG, we went with a 12-certificate. We didn't have to follow the full guidelines for that, of course, but we mostly did. At 12-certificate, only the strongest words are outright forbidden, although the use of others should be limited. Deciding that Americans are more offended by the F-word than we are, we banned that one (specifically permitted at 12-certificate), along with discriminatory words (e.g. that one that begins with "N") and terms relating to the reproductive anatomy.

This, in fairness, allows considerably more leeway than actually appears in the books or films. It means that we allow some moderately strong British swearwords - possibly because many of the Americans don't know what they mean, and consequently aren't offended - that Harry & co. certainly don't use. In general, our players haven't take much advantage of this, and I think that's a good thing. Writing swearing so that it seems natural, rather than being inserted for the sake of it, isn't always that easy. Going back to Torchwood, strong language is still found in the later seasons, but after the first one, it wasn't so noticeable, largely because the writers seemed to be using it only when it made sense, rather than "ooh, I can have a character say 'f***'".

Which probably means our players are showing more restraint than some professional writers. Good on 'em.

Drugs & Alcohol
Speaking as a European, it has often seemed to me that Americans in general have a fairly odd attitude to alcohol. That may be unfair, but its notable that one of the rules we had on the site for some time was "no alcohol". This, despite the fact that alcoholic drinks are clearly mentioned in the books. On the castle board, where the characters are all underage, that's sensible enough, but it felt slightly odd to me on the board for Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade - which, notably, have pubs. I used to get round it by having characters at the pubs "have a drink" without specifying what it was they were drinking, but it still felt a bit strange.

Now that we've relaxed that - albeit with specific restrictions on underage drinking - I've noticed that it's actually the most popular of our new, expanded guidelines, to see use. To begin with, a lot of that revolved around players tormenting their own adult characters with vicious hangovers (some of which were, in fairness, pretty good to read in a black humour kind of way). More recently, it seems to have extended to scenes where characters drown their sorrows, or just the casual mention of the stuff that I missed not being able to write. So its being used to develop emotional plotlines, and just to have your character feel more realistic.

Fantasy RPGs usually have a quasi-medieval setting, and in the real world, medieval folks tended to drink a lot of wine or beer, not least because it was safer than the water. Taverns are a staple in such settings, being such good meeting places, and its hard to think of a teetotal fantasy RPG (I'm sure there must be one, though, especially if it's based on medieval Arabian culture).

Other drugs tend to be a different matter, especially where we're talking about anything that exists in the real world. Particularly in a text-based game, it's probably wise to avoid real details, or to portray harmful drugs in a positive light, if there's any risk of younger players reading. So far, that one's not cropped up for us, unless one counts mind-altering, but non-addictive, magical potions, but one can see it possibly being relevant in a modern game, or something like Call of Cthulhu.

Violence of some kind is pretty endemic in tabletop RPGs. You may be only inflicting it against foul monsters, or whatever, but, at some level it seems to be integral to almost all of them. (I actually can't think of a system that doesn't have at least some rules for combat, although there probably is one somewhere). But, when it comes to violence as an indicator of a more "adult" game, we aren't talking so much about "I hit him for 5 points of damage" as whether or not the descriptions are graphic.

I'd suggest that, in tabletop games, this probably makes little difference unless you're planning on being really gory in your descriptions - which would suggest a horror game, anyway. Text based games may rely more heavily on description, and the issue here would be how much the text dwells on blood or mutilation. For our 12-certificate game, that meant no dwelling on detail, and its a game setting where much of the violence will be in the form of zapping people with spells rather than hewing at them with axes, that's a pretty easy guideline to keep to. There is some mild gore in the books, but not much, and that seemed a fair limit for us, too.

In point of fact, there seems to have been no demand to use the relaxed rules on our site at all. Contrary to the likes of D&D, it seems our story lines do not generally focus on combat, outside of tightly regulated practice duelling.

So we come to the area that's probably most touchy. The British Board of Film Classification treats nudity and sex as separate topics, the former being of more significance in a primarily visual medium than it would be in tabletop or text-based RPGs. Merely saying that your character gets undressed, or has a shower, is somewhat different from showing full frontal nudity on the screen. If there is an equivalent to the latter in a text-based game, it would be going into a lengthy description of your character in the buff, which seems a slightly odd thing to do, especially in a supposedly non-sexual context.

But, if nudity doesn't matter in itself, sex is different. People do, rightly or wrongly, get concerned about that kind of thing. There's nothing further than snogging in the HP books, and, since most of the characters in our RPG are going to be underage anyway, that's a good place to draw the line. Adult characters in the game had previously become pregnant, although never with any indication of how they got that way! It could be argued that that was quite sufficient, and that this was an area where we could be stricter than the 12-certificate guidelines.

My own attitude is that, if we're going to allow nastier things to happen to the characters, we should also allow them to have a bit more fun, too. So, for adult characters outside the school, we instituted a rule that allows story lines that make reference to "off-screen" sex, without describing it. Barring mention of nudity in a sexual context also makes it clear where you should be "fading to black", even if, as noted above, nudity per se isn't much of an issue. This, I think, allows a wider range of story possibilities without showing anything that's not strictly necessary for the story to work - it's the consequences that are more likely to be key to a story, after all.

There are also gradations between that and "insert Tab A into Slot B", which might be appropriate in other games. I can certainly see how character development might be enhanced by exploring that side of a character's life and personality in more detail, for instance. And, if there's any area where ratings of proposed campaigns might be relevant, other than horror (which is usually implied by the setting, anyway), it's probably this one.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Thoughts on Ratings in RPGs - pt 1

As some of you will know, in addition to face-to-face RPing, I have, for many years now, also been helping to run a message board RPG based on the world of Harry Potter. It's effectively a parallel universe, and doesn't feature any of the characters from the books, but the background and locations are the same (or at least very similar), and the general theme - wizards in a boarding school - is, naturally, also the same. I mention this because I've been reflecting on the effects of a change we went through recently in the rules for RPing on the board.

A message board RPG is different from a face-to-face one in that it has a large number of players, most of whom will not know each other in real life, and may come to the game with different expectations. It's also a 'sandbox' setting, which means that a wide range of different themes could crop up in different story lines, and the admins (GMs) can't possibly keep a track of them all, let alone read and vet all of them. As a result, the site has rules for what sort of stories and descriptions are considered acceptable - a rating system of sorts.

I'm not really suggesting that such things are easily extendible, or even relevant, to most face-to-face games, or e-mail games, for that matter. Certainly, its unlikely they'd be required in face-to-face games among a small group of friends, unless, perhaps, there is some intention to have different ratings for different campaigns, and the players need to be clear on what those are in advance. But, nonetheless, the fact that we recently reviewed, and changed, our ratings strikes me as something of general interest in RPing.

Our previous rules on this particular subject were fairly simple. Essentially, we said that the site was intended to be PG certificate, and mostly left it at that. The choice of PG made some sense at the time, since the first two films had this certificate (in both the UK and US) and were pretty close to the books they were based on. It seems to me, if you want to simulate a particular literary source, you'll want to follow its conventions, and the rating is part of that. (There are, of course, sites on the internet that are ostensibly based on the HP books but allow all manner of hardcore material - that's a perfectly valid approach, but I think there is very much a place for following the theme of the books. After all, if somebody likes the books, the absence of such content might be part of their reason).

However, with time, it became clear that there were a couple of problems with this. The more obvious one, perhaps, is that the later films, once they came out, had a higher rating. In general, they had a PG-13 rating in America, and a 12-rating here in the UK - and, by implication, the same could be said of the later books. Since the message board we host on does not permit members under the age of 13 anyway, there was a good case for raising our rating to match that of the later films. I think, in practice, a number of players had done this anyway, without us jumping on them, and it made sense to formalise that.

So, when some players raised the issue with us, we polled the members of the board, and agreed to switch to a higher rating, one more in line with the later films and books - which are darker in tone than the first two. However, there is another problem with stating "this site is considered PG certificate" - what does that actually mean? The rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America is fairly vaguely defined (although the website linked to there is actually rather more informative than it was at the time) often boiling down to "if we don't think its appropriate, it isn't". And that was pretty much our rules at the time, as well. So, when we updated it, we instead used the system of the British Board of Film Classification, and went with a 12-certificate.

By adapting the rules of the BBFC to writing, rather than film, and spelling them out in detail, I think we made it much clearer what was and was not acceptable. This means that, hopefully, everyone knows where they stand, and I think that, in addition to allowing a greater freedom for players to explore their own story lines, it also makes it much clearer what we won't accept. Once again, I'm not suggesting that such detailed guidelines would be of much use in a face-to-face game, but I think there is some interest in looking at them.

One point to make here is that we run the game over a number of different boards, reflecting a wide range of different in-universe locations and activities. For example, there are separate boards for quidditch, magical duelling, and for magic lessons, in addition to the main one at the castle. Most of these have the same rules. However, the board that deals with the world outside the school is mainly populated by adult characters, and we felt that that made a significant difference to the sorts of stories that would be appropriate. Thus, it has the same general rating, but the actual rules are slightly more relaxed, reflecting the fact that a story in which an underage character does a particular thing may be very different from one in which an adult does the exact same activity. In practice, if one were going to extend these rules more generally, there could be a lot of changes like this, depending on the particular genre and expectations of the players.

The general theme of an RPG is the sort of thing that is normally included in a campaign description, whether any more specific ratings are needed or not. If you're playing Call of Cthulhu, its fairly obvious you're going to have a horror theme, and something that would be at least the equivalent of a 15-certificate were the game a film or video. Its also a reasonable expectation of a game like Vampire, although there is a fair degree of leeway there in just how dark the game could be (depending, for example, on how you portray the feeding).

Many other RPGs have an inherently dark theme, and this is the sort of thing that I feel it is generally useful to spell out when proposing a particular campaign, especially if it's radically different from what the group have been done in the past. In the case of our message board Hogwarts RPG, it seems to me that keeping a theme generally in keeping with the books is  good thing to do. I suspect that the inclusion of dementors, and later, of zombies, was the main reason for the 12 (or PG-13) rating the later films got, and this shows that mild horror is certainly acceptable within the genre.

There is, I think, something to be said for writing within a particular genre, and selecting limits for oneself based on that. That doesn't mean that taking a particular world and exploring some of its implications beyond what the source material covers doesn't also have its place. For instance, that the Potterverse has vampires and so on in it has some fairly dark implications that aren't explored in the books because of their target audience. I find it interesting to note though, that on our site, there seems very little demand for horror stories, although there have been some darker themes with respect to, for example, murder. Plus, we recently opened a Necromancy class, which is proving popular - and will, I suspect, lead to something a little darker than our usual fare.

In part 2, I will ponder on some more specific aspects of ratings an "adult" gaming.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Sartar Companion - Review pt 2

The Sartar Companion includes six scenarios. They are not linked together by any common theme, and can be run in between sessions of the Kingdom of Heroes scenario, or separately. The first of these is "Return to Apple Lane", which is a sequel to the original Apple Lane scenario, first published in the late '70s, and later, for RQ3 in 1987. Its hard to avoid the feeling that this is a nostalgia-fest for those whose first experience of Glorantha may well have been this introductory adventure way back when. However, no knowledge of the original is required, and the scenario will work just as well for those new to the hamlet.

Details of Apple Lane itself have been changed to fit the new rules, but most of these changes are fairly minor, and the majority of the original NPCs are present - albeit five years older. The only ones who are obviously missing are the Humakti weaponmasters; their building is shown on the map, but they appear to have left the hamlet at some point, perhaps to prevent them offering too much assistance to the PCs. The scenario itself is also reminiscent of the original, with the heroes once again finding themselves defending Gringle's Pawnshop, this time from the Lunars.

The conclusion to the scenario is fairly scripted, although it feels natural enough, rather than railroading the players. Suffice to say that "Return to Apple Lane" is also a bridge between the original RQ version and "Sheep, Clouds, Thunder" from the Gathering Thunder scenario book for HQ1. That received some criticism for the way it treated the hamlet; at least this time the heroes get to salvage something first, and the ending isn't as downbeat as might be expected.

The second scenario, "The Hero and the Grove", is a short heroquest about strengthening the magical pact between the Colymar Tribe and the local wild lands. It's a fairly average heroquest, but does have the advantage of being a good introduction to the concept of re-enacting myths in the Otherworld. If possible, it would probably be a good idea to run this (or something like it) before the more dramatic otherworldly adventure in Kingdom of Heroes, at least if your players are new to the concept. A nice touch here is the description of how the myth was enacted first by Orlanth, then Heort, then Colymar, showing a common historical theme in heroquesting.

"Treasure of Two-Face Hill" is an expansion of a plot hook provided in the background section of the book. There's a good chance the players will need to spend some hero points just to have their characters survive the first part of the scenario (although its also possible to side-step this entirely, if they're more sensible than your average PC), but from then on it turns into a question of how to defend your clan from something that's essentially unbeatable in combat. This is one of those areas where the HQ2 habit of rating opponents as "Nearly Impossible" to defeat, or whatever, really does make sense - if the enemy wasn't significantly tougher than the heroes, there wouldn't be a scenario.

For my money, the best scenario in the book is "Ghosts of the Ridge". Here, the players are presented with a problem that can be solved in numerous ways, all with their own pros and cons. The judicious use of extreme physical violence is certainly one of the options, although perhaps not the best one. While the heroes are certainly free to try that, and other possibilities besides, the scenario nudges them towards seeking a legal solution to their situation, and undertaking a rather cool heroquest to recover an item of considerable magical power. Characters following Lhankor Mhy, god of knowledge, will probably get as much chance to shine in this one as the warriors, if not more so. The heroquest can also be run as a stand-alone scenario, should the characters choose another way of dealing with the central issue in this one.

"The Gifts of Stone" starts out fairly scripted, with some obvious scenery-gawking, but later turns into a return visit to another old RQ scenario, in this case the Sazdorf tunnels from Haunted Ruins. The nature of the heroes' mission makes this feel somewhat different from the original, and there are a few reminders that you're not here to just steal treasure from the trolls!

The final offering isn't so much a scenario as a bit of scenery setting. The Crimson Bat arrives in Sartar, eats a bunch of people, and then buggers off to Whitewall. This can be used as an opportunity to do all sorts of things, and is rather more dramatic than it may sound. If you already know what the Crimson Bat is, 'nuff said... if not: "scary" about sums it up.

So, the actual narratives of the scenarios are, on the whole, pretty good. Where they fall down is for the same reason as in Kingdom of Heroes: the lack of any stats. This was, to my mind, a significant drawback in that book, and it hasn't been fixed here, either. This flaw naturally extends to the encounters, and, to some extent, the background material, as well as to the scenarios.

To be fair, the writers are quite up-front about it - literally so; they mention it in the introduction. Their argument is that stats "aren't necessary" in HQ2, which is technically true, but doesn't mean that they aren't highly desirable, at least for some GMs. Instead, anyone who thinks such things are useful is just told to go away and do all the work themselves, which isn't terribly helpful.

Now, one of the problems with HQ2 as a system - if you like the style of gaming I do - is that you couldn't give numbered stats to NPCs if you wanted to. The system doesn't work that way, and sometimes (as in "Treasure of Two-Face Hill", mentioned above) that's an advantage, and sometimes it isn't. Either way, nobody can blame the writers for leaving out the numbers, since they just wouldn't make sense.

But that isn't to say that you can't give a clearer idea of what the NPCs and other encounters are capable of. A listing of significant abilities is all that's required. In fact, this is done for one particular being (p226), so why not the others? You're presumably supposed to infer any stats you might need from the text descriptions, but this really isn't very satisfactory, especially for the more important characters, like the villain in "Return to Apple Lane". Yes, you can do all the work yourself, as you're advised to, but you shouldn't have to.

A rather sour note to end on, then, although it has to be acknowledged that many people won't find the lack of stats a problem at all, and some will doubtless rejoice in the freedom it gives them. But, really, it's my only major criticism of the book, which in every other respect (except maybe the proofreading) is of high quality, and eminently useful for any Sartar-based campaign. If you don't mind going only PDF-only, you can even get it for almost half price, which is pretty good value, all things considered. There's a lot of really good material here, and the book deserves to do well.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Sartar Companion - Review pt 1

The Sartar Companion is the follow up to Kingdom of Heroes for HeroQuest 2. The book has the same format as the earlier volume, weighing in at 296 pages, for a rather steep €40 price tag. Still, given the size of the book, and the volume of material in it, that doesn't seem an unreasonable price, and the alternative would presumably have been two books at rather more than half the price each - economies of scale being what they are. The book also includes a couple of full page, full-colour maps, one of the whole Dragon Pass area, and the other of the Colymar lands.

One negative point is that the proofreading does not appear to have been done to a very high standard, with a number of jarring typos throughout the book. Having said that, its not as bad as it was in the early Hero Wars books, or some of the Mongoose books, for that matter. I've seen much, much, worse in other published RPG products, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. Perhaps the instance most in need of an erratum or clarification is the description of the walls of Runegate, which manages to contradict itself within the course of a single paragraph! Other than that one example, however, the intended meanings are usually clear.

The contents of the book are something of a random assortment, which is only to be expected in a "Companion" volume. That is, the book includes all the bits they couldn't squeeze into the already large Kingdom of Heroes. In a similar vein, as the title implies, the book is of little use if you don't own the previous one. Unlike KoH, though, virtually everything in this is GM-only information, with only the 40 or so pages dedicated to cults being of much use to players. Character generation and general background were, after all, fairly well covered in KoH.

Broadly speaking, the book can be divided into four sections: background, encounters, scenarios, and cults.

The background section describes the city of Jonstown and the towns of Runegate and Clearwine, along with several other locations, such as the Old Wind Temple and the Starfire Ridges. Much of this is directly linked to the scenarios later in the book, and a few "For more information, see p. XX" tags might have been helpful as a result.  Some locations, such as Two-Face Hill, are therefore described into two different parts of the book, with neither making reference to the other. Having said that, everything in this section is stand-alone, and much of it serves as detailed background for gaming.

Places such as Jonstown are described in some considerable detail. Town plans in the style of those in the first book are included again, but here there is more emphasis on individual characters within the city, and the material is even more directly relevant to play. There are some oddities here and there, where NPCs are described as "very hard" to defeat in combat, or whatever - apparently regardless of who the player characters are. This is the sort of thing that makes perfect sense in a scenario, but putting such things into a background description that doesn't have a specific narrative feels rather odd. Of course, its easy to ignore, and is doubtless useful information for someone, so its a little unfair to actually complain about it.

The emphasis in the locations is fairly strongly on the Colymar clan and their local geography. For some reason, the Colymar have never particularly interested me, but given the scenario in the previous book, it does make sense to expand on them here. It can also provide useful ideas for anyone wanting to strike out with their own tribe, and gives groups the opportunity to feel that a particular corner of Sartar is more "theirs", without official publications contradicting it. And material on large and important places like Jonstown should be useful to everyone, regardless of their choice of tribe.

In addition to what is really some very good location writing, the background section of the book also includes a section on dragonewts, which is useful but adds little to what long-time fans already know, and a bumper section of 100 rumours in the old True/False/Mostly True/GM Choice/Meaningless format from the RuneQuest days. Nostalgia aside, a good GM can get a lot out of this section, and its a welcome addition.

The next major section focuses on encounters. There is an actual random encounter table, rolling percentile dice against the terrain type to generate possibilities, although, of course, its use is entirely optional. (As an aside, there is no explanation of what percentile dice actually are - since they are never used in the HQ2 rules, its apparently just taken for granted that you already know. On the other hand, one might well argue that that's not an unreasonable assumption for Glorantha players!) There is also a table showing the typical weather in Sartar throughout the year which, if you'll pardon the pun, should help set the atmosphere.

The book includes 42 typical encounters, and 31 special encounters. The typical encounters include things such as merchants, Lunar patrols, dwarves, and broos. Each has a description covering at least a page - it is, however, slightly confusing to discover that, for example, the page with "Encounter: 17b" at the top in large bold letters is not a variant of Encounter 17, but simply the second page of that encounter description.

Each encounter type also includes at least one specific group or NPC in detail, and, in a nice nod to the past, these include such familiar characters as Biturian Varosh. These help put a face to a general encounter such as "Sartarite Farmers", illustrating how they can actually be used in play. Many are detailed enough that they serve as plot hooks that could lead to short GM-written scenarios.

The special encounters are somewhat different. These are unusual events, such as odd meteorological phenomena, or finding mysterious ruins, as well as meetings with unique NPCs, such as the Puppeteer Troupe. Most of these are relatively briefly described, as strange bits of scenery one might come across, with some entries being as short as a single sentence, while others go into more detail. As a result, most aren't really plot hooks, but rather ways of showing off the unusual environment.

After the scenarios, the book concludes with write-ups of six cults not included in KoH. These include Heler, Eurmal, and Odayla, all of which were previously seen in Storm Tribe for Hero Wars; Argan Argar and Babeester Gor, who haven't been properly written up since RQ3 days; and Kolat, who has never had an official cult write up at all until now. Taken together with KoH, this is all of the regular deities of the Sartarites, although the Tarsh exiles also worship Maran Gor, who we've yet to see, and Yelmalio is popular in some places, too. The latter, though, belongs more properly in the Pavis book, which will be the next one in the series, so his absence here is entirely expected.

The cult write ups follow essentially the same format as in KoH, at least for the four relatively normal deities on the list. Eurmal, being a god of the occasional outcast nutter, doesn't quite follow the usual scheme, and the writers do a fairly good job of pointing out all the huge disadvantages of worshipping him. Playing an Eurmali is, as it should be, therefore something of a challenge, and they're much better suited to being sidekicks who can get the PCs into trouble rather than heroes in their own right.

Kolat is the first proper look we've had at a shamanic, spirit-based cult. The book expands on the information in the appendix to the HQ2 rules, as well as listing numerous types of spirit on which the Kolating can call. The write-up gives the impression that Kolatings are rather more limited in their magic than followers of theistic cults, with their abilities generally being narrower, as well as giving them what could be quite a complex series of taboos that they must not break. This may well be intentional, emphasising that the Heortlings are predominantly a theistic culture, with little room for strange spirit wranglers. On the other hand, a Kolating does have magic that's different from everyone else's (at least in an all-Heortling campaign), and that difference alone can be an advantage.

It's perhaps worth noting that Serdodosa, Kolat's female counterpart, gets no more than a passing mention. Doubtless there wasn't room for two spirit cults in the book - Kolat's is the longest cult write up here - but hopefully we will see her described properly at some point, along with Maran Gor, and perhaps some of the more obscure options.

In part 2, I will look at the scenarios included in the Sartar Companion.