Thursday, March 12, 2015


Just a short post about a random thought I had after class, yesterday. Pardon the ramble. I'm trying to understand something, here.

As I peruse my Google+ feed, I am struck, quite often, by how differently the people in my circles pursue gaming than how I do. Part of what I find remarkable is that there are a lot of games that just don't grab my interests in the ways they seem to interest others. For some folks, it seems like the best part of gaming is having a deep and complex character, and a system that allows for exploration of that character's identity, relationships other PCs and NPCs, and the like. Some players like to have a lot of narrative control, and enjoy games that allow shared responsibility for how the game narrative unfolds. They really dig working with (not against) the referee, or having no referee at all. Some people enjoy things like LARPing. Some dig card-based deck-building games. Some are boardgame fanatics. The list goes on. Sometimes it's differences in mechanics and sometimes in setting. Sometimes it's about the rewards they get, and how they are received. In short, there are a lot of people who really have a great time with things that I don't really find particularly interesting. That is their Awesome.

There was a time when I might have thought of those differences as reasons to hate or mock those people, or to despise those games and the people who play them. I'm long past that point in my life. I'm glad that people enjoy their games, and I'm happy they've found friends and companions to join them on their journey in life. I watch them from a distance, with abstracted joy for their happiness, but no real connection to it. I revel (intellectually) in the fact of its existence, but care little for the substance, and remain disengaged from their lives and pursuits. I have my own things, and I like them, because they are my Awesome. The existence of these differences, though, causes me to question why I like what I do.

Even with people I game with and am close to, this is a thing. I care little, anymore, for much of the Warhammer ethos. It bores me. I could list a bunch of things I don't really care about, but the only real reason I have for not digging it is that it doesn't have the Awesome, anymore, that speaks to my inner being. Likewise, I am weary of weirdness for the sake of weirdness. I understand that it's easy to get bored for the same old tropes and stories, and to want to push the envelope into new territory. I get that. Nonetheless, it seems more reactionary than revolutionary when the result seems more a commentary on standard fantasy tropes than a departure from them. I'm sure others could look at what I like, and suggest why they don't like it. That's cool. That's right.

Me? I'm pretty boring, I think. My approach to gaming is probably pretty unremarkable, because I'm not bored with old mechanics (though I like to play with new variations on them). I don't mind the old GM-driven RPGs, and am not particularly interested in a lot of the things that newer styles of games pursue. FATE, for example, seems like too much work. I don't care for it, though I understand how others could like it, and I appreciate how it does what it does. I saw someone trashing on steampunk the other day, and I could see where he was coming from, but I hate the idea of doing that instead of, for example, simply driving on by without honking if you don't like it. Nobody cares what you hate, and particularly the people who like that thing. It just seems like picking a fight with some kid you don't know, just to be a dick. I'm not interested in being like that, not anymore.

Here's where I think I may depart from some people. I like the grand scope, the epic tale. I like to see what the same-old-same-old looks like if you take it seriously. Not grimly. Not weirdly. Seriously. I don't mind standard fantasy, but I'd like it to be more... real. More human. I want conflict. I want characters and peoples with motivations that are complex and contradictory. I want war. I want death. I want to kill things and take their stuff, but I also want hope, and life, and to build things worth having. I want every adventure to have an impact on the world, however small. I want my characters to be invested in things, not simply viewing them with ironic detachment, or treating them as disposable. My vision of the Awesome is beautiful and flawed, always in the process of becoming, always breaking and falling into ruin. Death in this world is permanent, and irrevocable, but the world itself goes on and on, and life persists. There is always hope for tomorrow to be better, even if it probably won't be.

How I'd like to get there, though, is not to have my character figured out from the start. I want to be surprised. I want events to define my character. This is true, also, of my world, as GM. I want the divine randomness of the dice to drive those events. At the same time, I'd like to have a world that, even if I don't know everything about it, has a human(ish) logic. The NPCs and factions have their reasons, and pursue their own interests, even if they seem irrational from the outside. Shit happens as a result of those NPCs and factions bumping up against each other (and the PCs). I like (as a GM) to see the ripples of cause and effect spreading out from what (if static) would be really elegant and simple statements of places, and statuses, and motivations (e.g., standard tropes and narratives). But they are not static. The cause and effect becomes chaos and new orders, and the PCs find themselves trying to impose their feeble wills on things they cannot control, though sometimes they are able, for a while, to find a place of peace and security, and to feel a sense of accomplishment. More than anything, I want to play in a game where what happens, matters. Here's the difference though: It matters because that's how things ended up, where they are now, temporarily, and just not how it all was conceived from the start.

Example: In a class I teach, we are using a fantasy/colonial simulation as the basis of an advanced public speaking course. The students are colonial leaders split into three factions, and have recently been approached by a tribe who wishes their alliance against a hated foe. They investigated the situation. Yesterday, as I stepped to the lectern, I needed a story. So I told them this, making it up as I went.

The tribe to the south lives in an area of foothills and mountains. Though they farm, they are mainly herders. Recent droughts have made them desperate, and their numbers are dwindling (but still formidable). They have a priest-king, and worship death. There is a lot of iconography featuring ravens. They put their dead on exposure platforms, because they believe that otherwise they would become skin-walkers. They believe that the purpose of life is a glorious death, and part of their worship is in killing and conquering. They wish to annihilate utterly their foes to the north. They also believe the colonists are prophesied to make that possible, and desire an alliance to make war on their enemies to the north. [Note: the colony lies between the southern and northern tribe]

The tribe to the north are farmers and fishers. They worship the sun. Their society is peaceful and fecund. They engage in human sacrifice. The sacrifices are chosen through an elaborate set of activities including games, merit calculations, quotas, and other things. The colonists find them all but indecipherable and utterly alien. They believe that their task is to preserve the natural cycle, and that the tribe to the south (which they associate with the sun's foe, the moon) is part of that cycle. They recognize that the rain is sent by the witchcraft of the moon-tribe to blot out the sun. However, the rain also allows for the sun to bring new life to the land, so it is both necessary and desirable that their enemies be allowed to persist. They will only fight a defensive war, and will not ally to take on the southern tribe.

Caught in the middle, the colonists have the choice either to pick a tribe, or to stay out of the conflict. Any choice they make will have consequences, and those will have further consequences. I have no idea what will happen, but I will be sure that  the consequences remain consistent with the beliefs and motivations of those involves. New facets of each tribe will emerge in the unfolding of the story, usually logically but sometimes in ways that create new tensions.

I have no idea what will happen next. The class factions will have a series of debates and then they will vote to pursue some course of action. I don't care who wins. I don't care who loses. The world will go on. The choices they make, the choices I make, and the choices ordained by their choices, and the dice, and they all will combine to tell us what happens.

Note: The outcome will also influence what happens in my Lacuna Locurae campaign setting, which is maybe 100 years in the future of the classroom-based scenario/simulation.

My love of this dynamic of randomness and order, and waiting to see what happens next, is why I don't think I could ever abandon the use of dice in gaming. It's also why I LOVE the DCC funnel conception (rather than the more recent "character-concept" or "character-build" conception) of character generation. I don't want special characters. I want special stories and special worlds to help me find characters worth knowing. This is part of the reason I'm so fascinated with +Adam Muszkiewicz's recent brushes with emergent character generation+Doug Kovacs also does this to some extent. It's also why I think I've grown away from setting that assume happy (or grim) endings as inevitable, and that good and evil (or law and chaos) are somehow mutually exclusive, or easy to differentiate. It's also why I don't feel fettered by resort to standard fantasy (or sci-fi, or horror, or... whatever) tropes and situations. They are only starting points, and they are Made to Be Broken.

Poison Idea--Made to Be Broken

What I like in my games is not what everyone else wants, and I'm cool with that (as if it matters what I think about somebody else's fun). I just want it to be Awesome. Individual results may vary. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Lacuna Locurae: The Taking of the Imperial Treasure Ship Hellbent

As I mentioned in my last post, my on-campus group has been playing in my Lacuna Locurae setting, and had recently become embroiled in a plot to pirate an Imperial treasure ship (the Hellbent).

At the time this session opened, the party had managed to infiltrate the crew, and was simply waiting to cast off. Their plans to take the ship were something like the following.

Wait until the ship had passed the Outer Islands, where Red Tarza and her band of cut-throats would be lying in wait.

Poison the crew

Kill everyone else who was still moving.

Wait for a prize crew to meet them.

Sail with the ship to where the gold and silver could be off-loaded


The main part of the plan involved the party's thief, who had infiltrated as a cook's mate, to slip a powerful poison into the grog provided to the crew each evening. After taking their dram of "medicine" the poison would put the crew into a coma state, making it simple to slit their throats and steal their groats, so to speak. In practice, the plan worked out pretty well. Much of the crew was taken out, along with almost all of the Imperial marine contingent. They were left to face 4 marines, 16 crew members, the captain of the ship, Brother Jelal (2nd level cleric of Luz) and his two acolytes, and Lugaro (3rd level wizard).

At this point, since several players have had to step away from the game and two more have since joined it, the party consisted of a 2nd level thief, a 2nd level cleric, a 1st level thief, as 1st level cleric, a 2nd level warrior, a 2nd level wizard, and 4 zero-level characters (played by our newest player).

Things started off very well, the thieves got very sneaky indeed and then got extremely stabby on top of that. Backstabbing successfully removed several of the regular crew, including the Cook. Then the battle royal broke out topside. 3 marines manned watch stations in the rigging, and 12 sailors were also on deck, the captain was in his cabin. Below, the four zeroes faced four of the sailors and the wizard. I won't do a play-by-play, but here are some highlights.

One of the thieves aced the Captain very quickly.

The imperial marine on deck also went down.

Things were going very well for them up until one of the acolytes Charmed the party's 2nd level cleric, who then cast Word of Command on the 2nd level warrior. Then, the opposing cleric, Brother Jelal cast Holy Sanctuary with a result of 18, making it extremely difficult to attack him.

Then, the party's rolling started going to Hell. The wizard and the 1st level cleric were killed. The wizard was revived but immediately taken out again.

Eventually, they took out the main enemy cleric, but his acolytes proved very tough, and the sniping of the marines also took its toll. Much Luck was burned. By time the enemies on the deck had been accounted for, only the warrior and the 2nd level cleric were still alive. The cleric called for the marines to surrender, but then rolled a 1 on the Personality check, and only enraged them. The wounded party members didn't want to climb up to the marines, so they decided to go below deck to hide, and make them come down to fight.

In the meantime, the four zeroes had attacked the four sailors working below. The fight started off well enough, but then zeroes started to fall. They also woke the grumpy wizard, who was attempting to sleep in his cabin. He bellowed for them to "Stop that infernal racket!" Instead, Rachel (the player who was running the zeroes) began to cry out for help, as if the sailors were assaulting the winsome lasses who were her characters. The wizard bought the ruse, and began killing the sailors to protect her characters' collective virtue. After the last sailor went down, the the three remaining (though wounded) zeroes rushed over to thank him for his assistance, and promptly assaulted him, without any support (3rd level wizard with 16 hp and a +2 ring of protection). Another zero died, but with a bit of Luck burned, and a bit of help from the 2nd level thief, who had gone below to avoid sniper fire from the marines, they finally dispatched the wizard. To be sure, they were aided by my horrible, horrible spell check rolls. Honestly, I don't know how they avoided a TPK.

At that point, we'd gone 45 minutes over our allotted time, so I called it until next week. The remaining characters are all wounded severely, and the remaining cleric's disapproval range is 1-5. They still need to Recover the Body for their fallen comrades, but with the amount of Luck everyone burned, they likely are Dead-Dead, barring a miracle. They also will need to face the remaining marines.

At this point, there still could be a TPK in the offing, but only three foes remain. Should the cleric manage to actually heal some of them, they should be okay. Now, where are those pirates?