Friday, July 25, 2014

SR5: First Impressions

Ran my first SR5 game last night. It was sloppy as SIN rules-wise, but I don't feel bad considering the size of the rulebook. There's a lot to digest, and it's going to take me a while to become blind-proficient with the rules. The group likes it; we've always talked about doing something cyberpunky and the disintegration of the Wednesday D&D game has left an opening for just that flavor. I'm glad we seized the day and did it—non-scheduled games, which used to be something we could easily do on IRC when enough people were around, have become almost impossible to play due to the limits people have on spending their time online dicking around. What I mean mostly is that people aren't online a lot outside of game times. Which is fine. Hanging out on IRC all the time is the sign of a seriously troubled personal life, probably, since there are so many better things to be doing in the real world. That being said, I miss the freedom with which we could start pickup games and the amount which they could be played.

So, what did everyone like about SR5 so far? Character creation is much improved from SR4, for one thing. The priority system allowed everyone to complete their character before the week was out. Back when we were considering SR4, this took weeks and weeks to manage as people puttered around with points, shifted them back and forth, etc. So yes, creation was greatly improved. Alex, who was making a technomancer, actually managed to create his entire character the day of, which would have been nearly impossible for an unexperienced SR4 player to do properly. Street level starts, of course, because I like putting my players in the most pain possible at the beginning of the game. They've all been complaining about the reduced points and money of street level, but so far I haven't seen a huge impact on their abilities—one or two runs should obviate their problems.

The layout of the new book leaves a little to be desired. If I had the hard cover I suppose it wouldn't be that bad, but I have the very slow pdf. As it is, looking up rules in various sections is difficult, laborious, and slow. The headings aren't that easy to navigate, and some rules are buried in sidebars on pages where you wouldn't necessarily expect them. The beginning of certain sections in the equipment chapter are several pages off from the actual cost tables, which means when I click the bookmark I still have to flip a few pages forward to get to the chart. Not a big big deal, but every little bit slows me down.

Limits are a good way to prevent enormous dicepools from overcoming every obstacle, and so far the tests I've had people doing have turned out well. They seem to very solidly represent the ingame reality as it unfolds.

My biggest gripe so far is NPC design. Grunt: sure, fine, easy. Not a whole lot of flavor on those guys. But Prime Runner foes? Jesus christ, that's a sunk 30 minutes just building them. There was really no better method than "Make them like a runner?" With priorities and all that shit? That's just awful. That's AWFUL. I'm not fast at making runners yet, but even when I am I can't see how that will be a brief and painless process. C'mon SR5. Give me one better than that.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Milean Tournament or The Third Empire Bohort

Jousting and tournament battles are a common feature of Llyrian life. They're also practiced in other kingdoms, particularly those with strong traditions of knighthood. In elvish lands, tournaments and mock-battles are the safest, have the most rules, and result in almost no deaths (due to the low elvish birth rate anything else would be considered insane). The tourney type we will now take under investigation is the Milean bohort, which is common in subject Meirenia, Colona, Byrne, and other neighboring lands.

While Llyrian tournaments are meant to represent the Late Medieval development of the courtly joust, the bohort is something much older and more feral. In the early Middle Ages (lasting into the middle-High period as well) "tournaments" were much less organized and generally combined what we think of as the grand melee and the joust. Essentially, the sport was played either individually (each knight or lord being considered a team of one) or in teams (everyone wearing the same badge, colors, or tabard) with everyone wailing on everyone else. Surrender and the payment of ransom was common (ransoming horse, armor, or person back to the captured knight) while being knocked out or killed was rarer but still possible.

In a Milean Tournament, the main feature is always the bohort. Other challenges may surround it (such as archery competitions for common folk), but the biggest crowd is always drawn by the sacred field. Priests of Haeron and Fortuna consecrate the grounds where the bohort is to be held, while a nearby grove is reserved for priests and healers of Avauna to tend those who will inevitably be wounded in the proceedings. Teams are usually assigned by lot and may be done so in advance (in which case the participants are liable to order and wear a tunic and hose of the appropriate color) or on the field (in which case tabards are distributed). Magic is strictly prohibited (though magical weapons and passive trinkets such as cloaks of protection and rings of the same are generally not frowned upon unless they are particularly injurious to the lives of other knights on the field). All weapons used are blunted, meaning they deal 2/3rds subdual or temporary damage and 1/3rd real damage to those they strike.

I've reworked lances to be more dangerous (they are essentially one- or two-handed spears that retain the doubling bonus of being used from a charger), so most knights who have recourse to horses (you have to bring your own, else you fight on foot) usually use a lance as their primary weapon until it sticks or breaks. Being dismounted doesn't spell the end of the competition—you may fight until you yield or pass out and are dragged from the field. Those who are defeated are given armbands of the color belonging to the team which took their surrender. Ransoms are pooled and distributed amongst all team members.

When only one team has members standing left, the purse is awarded that team. Generally, these are large rewards--upwards of 500ƒ per contestant are not unheard of, nor is it rare for a full suit of mail to be designed by a favored artisan of the host (likewise with weapons).

The rules of the bohort are bloodily simple: choose your weapons (you get 3 of the blunted weapons, generally) and then go knock down and beat bloody as many other knights as you can. Generally, teams stick together and attempt to engage as a lance for the most impact (pun intended).

So go forth and WIN!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Tales from the Green Valley

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

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

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

Friday, July 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Slow Death

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

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

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Barkeep

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Shaking off that Hoarfrost

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

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

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

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

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