Lessons At the Dinner Table 2: Bundle Boogaloo

I’ve previously talked about my enjoyment of Knights of the Dinner Table and how the dysfunctional gaming depicted in its pages can offer a range of interesting lessons you can apply to real gaming – so why not continue that? This time around I am going to start going through the various Bundles of Trouble – the collections they do of the strips from the main Knights of the Dinner Table comic book (which has gone from being a thing which Jolly did as a fun tie-in to becoming the main focus of Knight-related creative efforts, particularly since Kenzer & Company stopped producing strips for other people’s magazines).

Bundle of Trouble 1

This collects the first clutch of comics that Blackburn essentially wrote by himself and put out in 1994-1995 before he joined up with Kenzer & Company. It’s consequently a simple affair, with the characters not yet especially rounded out, but it does contain the classic Gazebo strip – in which the party of Bob, Dave and Brian (Sara having not been added to the strip yet) attack and “kill” a perfectly innocent bit of garden architecture because they don’t recognise the word and assume it refers to a monster.

It’s this strip that really encapsulates one of the key jokes which Knights of the Dinner Table keeps coming back to, which is also one of the key lessons it has to offer; namely, that tabletop RPGs are an exercise in communication, and if you miscommunicate as a result of assumptions, expectations, or life experiences you don’t share then your game session will descend into absurdity. That absurdity is great to observe from outside for comedy purposes, but frustrating to play through yourself.

Bundle of Trouble 2

This has the first issues that came out through Kenzer & Company in 1997, and so benefits from Jolly getting a whole team of pals to help him tune up the scripts. The lesson from that is that a group on the ball will be able to think up stuff that no individual member would be able to come up with by themselves – which is part of why we play RPGs as a group activity, I suppose.

Noteworthy strips include a jaunt into Spacehack (a parody of Traveller with perhaps a pinch of Prime Directive), in which B.A. regularly falls foul both of his shoddy command of the setting’s invented technology and of actual science. (He isn’t aware that water has hydrogen in it, for instance.) This is actually an interesting illustration of a contrast between fantasy and SF: in a fantasy context people are generally much more willing to say “your world, your rules”, whereas in a science fiction context you really want to make a call on the “hardness” of the science – and if you go for a hard SF approach (as Traveller shows tendencies to), then your capacity as a GM to just ignore reality in order to come up with imaginative fun is going to be curtailed by the implied agreement that you’re trying for scientific accuracy and plausibility.

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Sara’s characterisation here starts being fleshed out more when she starts being less of a passive spectator to the horrible things the other players get up to in the game – there’s multiple times this issue where she not only speaks up for but actively helps out NPCs instead of the player characters. By the end of the compilation she even seems to have succeeded at shifting the group’s culture a little – Brian playing a Cattlepunk character whose schemes, whilst they involve OOC cheating in the form of using knowledge his PC couldn’t possibly possess, do at least require him to engage constructively with NPCs. (In another story, even Bob and Dave come around to the idea of having hirelings and servants around if it means they can zerg rush the opposition.)

There’s several lessons to learn here. The first is that you know you’ve really excelled at presenting a sympathetic NPC when players start seriously considering siding with them against the party. The second is that you can’t change a gaming group culture’s overnight – and whatever new approach you contribute to it is likely to be coloured by the group’s existing prejudices. The third and greatest one is that B.A. is an absolutely terrible referee – any GM worth their salt would have flat-out declared that Brian’s PC couldn’t take the actions he took because it required him to have knowledge he didn’t possess in-character – or invoke a referee’s right to amend the secrets and mysteries of a campaign setting and change up where all the gold deposits are, so that Brian’s land purchases become worthless. As it stands, lying down and allowing Brian to act in a way fundamentally against the basic social contract of traditional RPGs is the worst possible option.

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This includes a story that has Sara taking on GM duties to playtest an adventure she’s written, and assigning a set of female pregenerated characters to the players. The end result is a disaster, with the players turning tricks for experience points in defiance of character alignment or rebelling against the concept altogether until they are able to find a way to switch their character’s gender.

It’s an ugly picture it paints, but given the eruption of gamer misogyny surrounding Gamergate it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a subset of gamer guys who have really odd ideas about women, and for the most part I’m willing to read the story as a biting satire. When writing a comic for a subculture about that subculture, the temptation to slide into flattery and pandering is probably always there – look at how many gamer webcomics descend into Ctrl-Alt-Del-esque smug self-congratulation. One of the things that’s laudable about Knights of the Dinner Table is that it’s always balanced its celebration of gamer culture with a certain amount of cutting insight and criticism.

There’s also a more general lesson to take from the story in question: if someone plays a character with aspects of identity or personality they don’t personally possess, and they haven’t been provided with a really detailed set of guidance on how to handle that angle, then to the extent they engage with that characteristic they will do so based on their assumptions about what people with that characteristic are like. They might not engage at all, of course – but if they do address that aspect of their character, odds are you’re going to see any prejudices or baggage they’ve got on the subject aired for all to see.

That said, the story isn’t perfect by modern standards. At the end of the story the other Knights get freaked out when Bob decides he likes his female character as she is and doesn’t want to turn her into a man; in a bonus strip in this Bundle Sara kills off “Bobarello” because she’s disturbed by how Bob talks about the character’s fashion accessories.

If you’re feeling very, very generous, you could read this as a magical realm thing – the idea being that Bob is getting off on this to an extent that the other people at the table aren’t comfortable with being dragged into; certainly, having a tabletop game get hijacked to pander to someone’s fetish without the mutual consent of all participants is a shitty thing to happen.

However, in context it reads as being simply transphobic, or maybe just dudes-showing-an-interest-in-feminine-things-phobic. The mention of Gordo’s pixie-fairy character – the first time the subject comes up in the comic – only emphasises this in context. Again, when we actually see Gordo in action with the Black Hands in later issues we’ll see that he plays pixie-fairies in exclusion to all other character types and runs campaigns focused around them, so you could read it as an odd obsession verging on magical realm situation – but those stories hadn’t been written yet.

I have reason to believe that if the story were written today, some two decades and change later, Jolly would handle these punchlines with much more care. Even here, he does have Sara mention that Gary Jackson sees nothing wrong with people playing characters of genders other than their own, and more recently when revising strips for enhanced standalone publications he’s changed up at least one transphobic punchline to remove that implication, so I’m as sure as I can be that his heart’s in the right place on the subject.

Bundle 0f Trouble 5

This includes the Barringer’s Rebellion story, which was continued in the Bundle-exclusive bonus material in this and subsequent Bundles of Trouble as the Bag War Four plot arc. This was eventually successful enough that a separate Bag War Saga volume was published, collecting together expanded versions of the original strips to offer the definitive version of the storyline, and the Bag War cosmology would have knock-on effects on the series for years to come beyond that.

The whole Bag War business is based on a great joke – one which, like much of the best Knights of the Dinner Table material, is based on a real gaming anecdote – and also offers a really nice extended example of a particular lesson, especially when you set them alongside the anecdote. Both the joke and the anecdote are based around the idea of a player deciding to put a group of their hirelings in a Bag of Holding as a cheap method of magical travel – one of those fun bits of lateral thinking which you can do when magic items and the like are provided with broad, simple descriptions in natural language, rather than over-precise descriptions which strangle the life out of them and rule out creative uses of them.

In both the anecdote and the Knights story, the player in question forgets that the hirelings are in there until several sessions of real time and several months of in-character time have passed. Here they diverge; in the anecdote, they open the bag to find that most of the hirelings are dead except for one very upset survivor of a “Donner Party”-type situation. In the strip, though, the greatly put-upon Sgt. Barringer and his fellow hirelings use the materials stored in the bag to feed themselves and construct themselves a fortress, which they use to control access to the region inside the bag; after losing a war with him over it, the Knights are forced to pay Barringer whenever they want to retrieve stuff from the bag.

This is an example of the difference between “failing forwards”, as RPG theory circles call it, and whatever the opposite is. In the anecdote that wasn’t much of a failing forwards situation – an accident happened, the PCs lost resources and a bunch of employees, the game moved on. In the comic, however – thanks to B.A. employing a bit of lateral thinking and making sensible use of the materials stored in the Bag – the situation became a source of ongoing plot which eventually filled years’ worth of comic strips, as well as presumably filling a similar amount of campaign time.

Now, I tend not to think “failing forwards” should happen in relation to every single failure in a game – it can become a bit of a burden on the referee (or the group as a whole) to think up an interesting way for something to fail forwards, and if it happens too often the game can ultimately feel a bit aimless, with the player characters so caught up in handling the consequences of past fail-forwards that they never get to proactively chase their own agenda. But particularly exciting fuck-ups demand especially exciting consequences, and here that’s very much the case.

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John Tynes On Narrative Sandboxes

John Tynes just wrote a very fascinating essay on his “narrative sandbox” approach to writing investigative scenarios. It was posted as an update to the Delta Green: The Labyrinth Kickstarter, but it’s sufficiently interesting (particularly in the light of my own issues with how GUMSHOE does things) that I don’t think it deserves to linger there.

In particular, he aptly describes how his approach differs from the GUMSHOE approach: as he describes it, the narrative sandbox is much more like the process of actually investigating something yourself, whereas the GUMSHOE method is really more about getting across the feel of watching an investigation-themed movie or television show.

Lessons From the Dinner Table 1: Lessons From the Vault

For the longest time I’ve had this fondness for Knights of the Dinner Table. It’s not great art as far as comics go by any stretch of the imagination, but it is, I would argue, a genuinely clever use of the medium. Comics depicting characters playing D&D have become routine – any particular geek-oriented webcomic set during the modern day is going to throw in a D&D strip sooner or later, and given the number of such webcomics that clutter the internet you are talking a substantial number – but Knights can be said to be the grandaddy of them all, its creator Jolly Blackburn recognising the potential of using the simple (and largely copy-pasted) artwork to show us what the players are feeling and reacting whilst the dialogue establishes the in-character action for us, just as it does in a real RPG session.

Comedy typically doesn’t arise from people on the same page all co-operatively agreeing with each other; the titular Knights and the other gaming groups the strip features all exhibit their own dysfunctional features, because dysfunctionality breeds comedy much more easily. At the same time, precisely because it’s partly observational humour inspired by people’s real-life gaming experiences, I think Knights actually also offers some interesting insights here and there into gaming best practice. So, I thought it would be fun for an occasional series on the blog to look over the back catalogue of the comic series and see what lessons can be picked up from it.

This time, I’m going to be looking at the five volumes of Tales From the Vault, a series inaugurated to collect most of the Knights strips that appeared outside of their own comic book.

Tales From the Vault 1

This compiles the earliest Knights of the Dinner Table strips, spanning from 1990 to 1996 (at the end of which Jolly Blackburn would come onboard at Kenzer & Company, kicking the development of the Knights into high gear).

The bulk of the material here comes from magazine appearances. The original home of the Knights was in the pages of Shadis, the earliest issues of which were put out by Jolly Blackburn as a fanzine back in 1990. As such, these crude hand-drewn scrawls resemble the sort of light, low-effort page-filler material that fanzines often have to resort to.

There’s something of a time jump between the 1990 strips and the next ones in 1993, hailing from when Blackburn and friends decided to go pro, founded Alderac Entertainment Group (now better known as AEG), and produced Shadis as a more professional offering. This finds Blackburn adopting the copy-pasted art style that Knights fans know and love, and the 1993-1995 run of strips in Shadis is a period of rapid development.

Early on the strips remain brief gags, but as time goes by they get increasingly “wordy”, Blackburn evidently realising that his format works best for what it prompts the reader to imagine and for the character details revealed through the dialogue. Perhaps some of the wordiness arises from the more involved strips that appeared in the comic book at this time (the first three issues of Knights of the Dinner Table emerged in 1994-1995), but – aside from the final Shadis strip – all the magazine strips here are single-pagers, a format which Blackburn masters by the end of the time span collected here.

Another bellweather of how the strip was still in a very early stage of development here is the arrival of Sara, B.A.’s cousin, as the strip’s lone female main character. One expects that if Jolly were starting the strip all over again he’d have a more even gender split happened, but there’s an extent to which he was reflecting the way the hobby perceived itself in the mid-1990s.

Sara’s initial introduction is actually reasonably clue-ful for the time – in fact, it manages to pack in three broadly feminist-flavoured punchlines into a single page. The first is the way that Brian, Bob and Dave automatically assume that the new player that B.A. says will becoming is a dude, without even thinking about it. The second is the way they start doubting her geek credentials once they find out she’s a woman. The third is the way they start creeping on her when they find out she’s a woman who is attractive by their standards. It’s a pocket example of major ways in which thoughtless dudes can make gaming groups or communities unwelcoming places for women.

The problem comes in the follow-through, in which Sara barely has any dialogue or personality at all. Towards the end of this collection she does display a bit more personality, but mostly in the form of “voice of reason among the players” rather than being a more rounded character in her own right. Years of development have eventually fleshed that out into Sara being easily the most personally functional of the Knights, but it’s still a shaky beginning.

Other character quirks in the early strips may come down more to the needs of the format. B.A. tends to address the audience directly through a glance and a quip to the fourth wall way more often here than he does in the comic, mostly because a short magazine strip tends to demand a strong punchline and B.A.’s closing quips are often the delivery mechanism for that.

The really rich meat here, to my tastes, come with the 1996 strips from Dragon magazine. Jolly had left AEG behind and, after a brief bidding war, the industry’s 300 pound gorilla landed the Knights as a regular feature. Perhaps appreciating the liberty arising as a result of no longer having his other AEG responsibilities demanding his time and energy, Jolly seems to have invested an extra cup of creative energy into these strips, polishing and honing them and showing just how well his comedic skills had been developed to this point.

On top of that, Jolly had gained the knack of making the strip wordy enough to fully cover the subject he wanted it to address without making it impossibly cluttered, and had also seemed to step back a bit from his automatic identification with B.A. -perhaps realising that with Sara onboard as the voice of reason, there was less reason for the group’s Dungeon Master to serve the same role and more scope to be a bit more critical about B.A.’s approach to GMing.

Here’s where we enjoy classics like B.A. adopting a new diceless gaming system – only to use it as an excuse to narrate endlessly at the players, exploiting the diceless nature of the game to effectively eliminate player agency. Here’s also where we see B.A. overusing the “mood enhancer” background detail generation tables for Hackmaster, resulting in the Knights running after all the bizarrely unlikely background details that the tables crank out (because why exactly is that beggar wearing a crown?).

Perhaps the big lesson here is that dogmatic implementation of the rules of a game without imagination results in disaster; the funniest strip here might be where this tendency of B.A.’s runs straight into the sheer persistent stubbornness of his players and results in the famed “Desert Gorge incident” – a Cattlepunk wild west campaign where the Knights keep rolling up new characters to try and rob the bank at Desert Gorge, eventually exterminating every single NPC in their violent escapades.

Between the diceless system strip and other strips here – forays into collectible card games. collectible dice systems, and others – the strips also offer a snapshot of the mid-1990s gaming zeitgeist. These go even further in The Gary Jackson Files, a strip produced for the Familiar fanzine in 1996 which would eventually constitute the earliest appearance of Gary Jackson, a designer-publisher tyrant of Kevin Siembieda-esque proportions, and his board of lackeys.

The strips offer a small self-contained look at the germination, development, release and post-release ass-covering surrounding Abe, Babes & Rollerblades, a totally edgy, totally extreme high-concept RPG about time travelling rollerbladers kicking ass. You couldn’t make up a more 1990s concept if you tried, and it’s impressive that Jolly was able to make it up back in 1996. The conclusion, in which Gary Jackson and company fake a Dallas Egbert-inspired “steam tunnel incident” in order to manufacture a media controversy around the game in order to stimulate sales, is the sort of satire which works best because of just how close to reality it cuts – Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone of Games Workshop fame have talked about how whenever Christians raised media objections to Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, sales shot up.

On the whole, though, the best lesson to take from the first volume of Tales From the Vault is that ours is a do-it-yourself hobby; as the history of the strip shows, the creativity you engage with for fun can grow into something grander and wilder than you expected if you simply keep feeding it over and over again over time. That’s as true of our RPG campaigns as it is of the comic.

Tales From the Vault 2

Covering strips appearing in magazines from 1997 to 1998, mostly from Dragon and from Palladium Books’ The Rifter magazine. (The Rifter strips include references to Grunge Warriors, a RIFTS-alike RPG by Gary Jackson which only solidifies in my mind the Jackson-Siembieda connection.) There’s a notable gap here in the first half of 1997, since Dragon magazine went on hiatus then due to TSR’s internal financial crisis. In between TSR falling over and Wizards of the Coast stepping in to fix things, the Kenzer crew concentrated their efforts on making the standalone Knights of the Dinner Table comic a regular publication of their own, recycling some of the ideas they’d cooked up for Dragon since they had no way of knowing whether it was ever coming back.

This means that when Dragon came back the strips ran there as effectively truncated versions of the stories that had appeared in a rather more extended form in the comic book – but that’s no bad thing, since each version has their charms. A worthwhile bit of refereeing advice here is to never be afraid to recycle your own material, especially if it’s for a different audience anyway.

One of the things that’s notable early on here is that Sara’s personality still isn’t all that developed, though in the course of reading that volume I realised that, as well as the feminist and gender equality issues that raises in terms of representation at the gaming table, there’s also a sneaky-sneaky OSR game design lesson to be derived from this. Whether on purpose or not, the original three Knights correspond nicely to three iconic early D&D classes, which happen to also be the classes they almost invariably play. Dave is your fighter-type who just wants to charge in and hack stuff up, Bob is a sneaky, cowardly sort of guy who is a natural fit for the party thief, whilst Brian plays a wizard, a character where his rules mastery really pays off in terms of the absurdly overpowered things he can do with his spells. (The extent to which “Linear Fighter, Quadratic Wizard” tends to be a problem in D&D games correlates closely to how much the wizard player is willing to go full-cheesy on the rules exploitation.)

This isn’t quite the original D&D class breakdown – the cleric was in OD&D and the thief wasn’t, mind, but I’d argue that the breakdown of fighting, brainpower, and sneaking is a better summary of much dungeon-crawling play than anything the cleric has to offer – the cleric in OD&D being an awkward mashup of a Van Helsing-style undead-hunter and a jack-of-all-trades “can do a bit of fighting, can do a bit of magic, won’t ever be best at both” character. So the original triumvirate of Bob, Dave and Brian covered a good deal of the archetypal activities involved in a D&D game.

This meant that the addition of Sara raised the same problem as the addition of a new class to a game – if there wasn’t a particular niche for her to fit into already, the action of the comic needed to grow and develop so as to make room for her, just as the scope of a game needs to grow if you are adding a class which isn’t filling a gap that’s already there.

The shift of the action in B.A.’s campaign from mindless hack-and-slash to more ornate stories may in-character come from shifts in his tastes and the tastes of his group, but from an out-of-character perspective it arises from the writing team wanting to write meatier stories – either way, the gear shift also allows them to give Sara more of a distinctive role. Right from her first appearance in the comic book, she’d been established as a player actually willing to engage with NPCs constructively rather than just blindly murder her way through them, but until the action of the campaign in the comic brought the PCs into contact with NPCs worth talking to this rarely came out.

The process of teasing this out unfolds over this anthology, and culminates in the classic strip The Rose of Blightdale, in which the titular town’s mayor, grateful for a generous gift of treasure made to the town, discreetly presents Sara’s character with a rose, and a note stating that for the rest of her stay in Blightdale so long as she presents the rose to the tradespeople, the bill will go on the mayor’s tab. The other players, not knowing about the rose’s secret, come to the conclusion that it’s magic, resulting in one of many instances in which Sara shows her own mean streak and leverages the boys’ own greed against them. The strip is an excellent example of how a non-monetary, non-magical reward for a PC may be handled.

Something I find interesting about all this is that Sara’s approach to play requires her to treat the game world as a living place, with its denizens being living entities with their own motivations and goals and emotions. This perhaps naturally nudges her in the direction of aligning with Brian’s approach to the game more than Bob and Dave’s; Bob and Dave perennially treat other characters in the game as mere challenges to be steamrolled for treasure and XP, and whilst Brian can do that from time to time too, his more audacious plans also require a form of deep engagement with the setting, though in his case it is more about understanding its metaphysical underpinnings than its people. There’s multiple strips here where, when it comes down to a split in the party, Sara and Brian end up on the opposite side to Bob and Dave. Fans have chosen to interpret this as Sara and Brian being a potential romantic pairing, but actually I think it makes far more sense as a symptom of their playstyles simply being far more compatible with each other’s – and with B.A.’s, for that matter – than Bob and Dave’s.

Tales From the Vault 3

This collects the strips that appeared in magazines from 1999 to 2000, at which time Kenzer more or less stopped providing strips to regular gaming magazines, concentrating their efforts on the comic book series. By and large it doesn’t show an enormous amount of develop over the previous volume, and I do wonder whether the magazine strips hadn’t started to hit a rut – there’s still good strips here, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot left to do with the one-or-two-pager format with the constraint of each strip needing to be self-contained.

Perhaps the most eye-opening strip is the Rifter strip from April 2000s, in which the Knights are playing a Risk-alike and Brian gets Bob and Dave to drop out of their four-way alliance with B.A. and Sara against Brian which they’d entered into in order to end Brian’s obnoxious winning streak because Brian threatened physical violence against them.

It’s an unusually dark punchline, but also nicely teases out a less appealing side of Brian’s character: the fact that he is more than willing to revert to bullying to get what he wants. We also see him engaged in flat-out emotional manipulation (purely for the sake of upsetting B.A. so much he walks away from the table before he gets around to ruling that Brian’s character just died), and of course the running joke in the comic is that it’s usually Brian who flips a table.

The lesson to potentially take away here is that “rules lawyering” – the aspect of Brian’s character which is most obvious – can actually be its own form of bullying, intimidation, or generally obnoxious or abusive behaviour. It’s one thing to use mastery of the rules for helpful purposes – when used to help enable newcomers to get the results they want out of the rules, or to help share the bookkeeping burden with the GM, it’s a positive benefit. But Brian often only uses his rules mastery for the sake of getting ahead and forcing his agenda through, regardless of whatever B.A. – or the other players – want.

As a source of comedy, that’s fine, as a role model he’s terrible, perhaps a far more toxic gamer than Bob or Dave. Bob and Dave may be brattish when their hack-and-slash tastes aren’t pandered to, but at least they know what they want out of a game and communicate it clearly; if they are not right for your group, gamers like Bob and Dave will make it obvious so you can disinvite them accordingly. Brian, however, is the sort of guy who will hang around and passive-aggreessively shit things up for weeks on end and try and force the group to suit his tastes whilst conceding as little as he possibly can to avoid just being kicked out.

Tales From the Vault 4

The strips collected here, aside from some odds and ends, largely consist of webstrips that Kenzer ran on their website during 2002. (The webstrips are no longer online – the webstrip site having largely gone over to offering random previews of upcoming comics or bits and pieces from the archives.) This constitutes a reasonably long Hacknoia story arc and a somewhat slimmer Cattlepunk arc.

Hacknoia is not the Knights of the Dinner Table universe’s equivalent of Paranoia so much as it’s a take-off of the likes of Conspiracy X and Delta Green and other, less successful attempts to riff on the basic X-Files concept for tabletop RPG purposes. It also seems to incorporate a healthy dose of espionage RPGs which old school gamers would be familiar with – Top Secret or James Bond 007; although new games like Spycraft and retro-clones like Classified would eventually rekindle the espionage RPG genre a little, it had otherwise fallen by the wayside by the 1990s, but on the evidence of the Hacknoia strips that Knights of the Dinner Table occasionally runs it seems like Jolly and his coauthors still have fond memories of the espionage RPG’s golden age.

One of the recurring jokes in this particular arc revolves around the Knights attempting to engage with the seduction rules in the game, only for them to find themselves well outside their comfort zone. Bob wants to play a suave James Bond type, but finds himself incredibly flustered when he has to actually roleplay a seduction attempt on Sara’s character – or an NPC who BA describes in such a way as to push Bob’s buttons. Dave fares only slightly better, but discovers that Sara has cunningly designed her character with personality traits optimised to make sure anyone who attempts to use the seduction rules on her ends up regretting it.

The character traits in question, taken in isolation, would come across as a sexist joke – though in context I think it’s reasonable to read this as a joke targeted more in general at games which incorporate seduction mechanics. James Bond 007 did, because if it didn’t address the subject then it would hardly be very James Bond-y, but it remains the case that they’re often a bit of a hand grenade tossed into the internal dynamics of a gaming group.

Jef from System Mastery quite rightly takes seduction rules to task whenever they needlessly restrict themselves to use on “the opposite sex” (as rulebooks of a certain vintage nearly always phrase it). but it’s rare that games outside of the likes of Monsterhearts really offer much in the way of discussion of boundaries of such skills. For instance, are they usable on PCs or NPCs alike, or just NPCs? If usable on PCs, what mechanisms might a gaming group use to make sure this doesn’t go somewhere creepy?

How, for that matter, are we conceptualising “seduction” here – are we going the nasty, sleazy, pickup artist route of thinking of it as overcoming someone’s resistance and turning a refusal of consent into enthusiastic consent, or is it more about reassuring someone who’s already in principle attracted to you that it’s a good idea to follow through on that?

The shorter adventure here, again, involves a neglected RPG genre – Cattlepunk being the in-universe equivalent of pure Western RPGs like Boot Hill or Kenzer & Company’s own Aces & Eights. In the 1990s, of course, Deadlands was riding high, but its “Weird West” approach is of course distinct from a more purist Western approach. (Though, to be fair, you could run a non-weird Western using the Deadlands system simply by disallowing the supernatural character types and ignoring the magic system, weird science, and alternate history material.)

Here we have Bob taking a rare stint behind the GM screen in a display of unusual competence – until they realise that he’s been drilled extensively in the adventure in question and will go to pieces once the action takes a turn he didn’t expect – or isn’t comfortable with. (Two story arcs in once in which Sara uses Bob’s discomfort with women against him begins to get samey, to be fair.) The main lesson to take from this is a simple one: a GM skills seminar which doesn’t regard improvisation as GM skill #1 isn’t worth the time.

Tales From the Vault 5

The webstrip experiment ground to a halt (at least in terms of providing regular, all-original material) in early 2003, Blackburn and his collaborators having decided (not unreasonably) that keeping the webstrips going in parallel with the monthly magazine wasn’t sustainable in terms of the work involved. This left Kenzer with a 32-page storyline riffing on Call of Cthulhu – not enough by itself to sustain a full Vault volume. They were eventually able to fill it out with strips which had run to fill out issues of Hackmasters of Everknight – a short-lived fantasy comic set in the Hackmaster campaign world. Other Knights strips from Everknight had previously been collected in previous volumes of Vault or Bundle of Trouble, but there was still enough left over to pad this collection out to full Vault length.

The main lesson I see here is the way Brian, in the Scream of Kachoolu story, gamely allows his character to get horribly corrupted by dark forces. It’s Brian, so he’s an asshole and springs it on B.A. without much warning, but for once his actual reasons for doing it actually make a kernel of sense; namely, he’s realised that his player character is not long for this world, and so decides that rather than struggling against it and potentially getting an anticlimactic exit he may as well embrace it and work with B.A. to make it entertaining.

I have seen this more often in LARP circles than I have at the tabletop, but the philosophy of “play to lose”, where you’re aiming for the flashiest possible exit rather than scrabbling for potentially dull or underwhelming survival has its applications on tabletop as well. Perhaps you’re in a game like Call of Cthulhu, where such a death spiral is part and parcel of the mechanics, or maybe you’ve simply decided that it’s narratively more interesting for your character to go out now, or your character’s emotional arc has taken them to a place where a final crisis is clearly looming, or you’ve simply decided that it’s time to move on from this PC and you’d rather they go out with a bang. It’s usually best practice to let your referee know you’re planning it ahead of time, unlike Brian, but it’s still potentially enormously entertaining.

An Excellent Post On Megadungeons – But Useful To All

Courtney Campbell at the Hack & Slash blog is habitually one of the most sensible voices coming out of the OSR, but the latest post on the blog concerning megadungeons is really insightful and worth a read – even if megadungeons are not your cup of tea.

In particular, I very much appreciated the point that a) megadungeons are not adventure paths (a much kinder term than “railroad”) or sandboxes and should be treated distinctly and b) there are specific rules features in many old school games which make sense for that mode of play but not for others. Light, vision, down-to-the-turn timekeeping, encumbrance – these are things which often you don’t particularly need in sandboxes or adventure paths or actively get in the way, but as Courtney points out they are extremely important for megadungeon purposes.

Take encumbrance, for instance – for most sandboxy or adventure path purposes, you really don’t need detailed rules for such a thing. Just eyeball it, make an honest assessment of whether it’s a sensible amount of stuff for a human being to carry, and move on. (Spending some time LARPing is a great help here because it gives you a baseline of how much someone of your fitness level can tote around a village all day wearing a particular set of kit before they get tired.) Working it out down to the last gold piece is a positive nuisance.

Not so in a megadungeon context – since resource management and the question of how much material you can move out of the dungeon, into the dungeon and around inside the dungeon is crucial, encumbrance takes on a great deal of importance which it simply doesn’t have in other contexts.

The takeaway point for those who aren’t into megadungeons as such is this: sometimes if there’s a rule in a game where you look at it and can’t tell what Earthly purpose it has, or you simply find never useful, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad rule – it could be there to support a style of play which you hadn’t considered.

The Supremacy of Context

In OSR circles people talk about “the Hickman Revolution” as a harbinger of TSR shifting away from the old school ethos in favour of producing a different style of gaming product – the tightly railroaded Dragonlance modules being the archetypal example of the sort of work that resulted.

Tracy and Laura Hickman self-published their early modules before TSR picked them up, and Tavis Allison of The Mule Abides actually found an original version of Pharoah in which the four guiding principles of their design work were enunciated as follows:

  1. A player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing.
  2. An intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself.
  3. Dungeons with some sort of architectural sense.
  4. An attainable and honourable end within one or two sessions of playing time.

The comments thread on David McGrogan’s post on the subject is worth a read because Tracy Hickman actually shows up in the comments to give his thoughts – namely, that he agrees that the four principles there are guiding principles of his and Laura’s work, and that Pharoah didn’t actually succeed very well because it’s basically just another dungeon crawl.
Continue reading “The Supremacy of Context”

The Limits of Control

This arose out of a discussion with a friend on Facebook about the role of randomisers in tabletop RPGs, and how one of the things which can bug people is when they feel that the dice (or cards, or yarrow stalks, or whatever) end up taking away their control of their character’s actions or story.

I like having randomisers because of the element of surprise; I like having the scope in a game to have stuff happen which, individually or collectively, we wouldn’t have thought up ourselves. For instance, Ygraine’s NPC stats in Pendragon would have given me, as the GM, the impression that it’s basically impossible for the player characters to try and woo her after Uther dies; a combination of flukey rolls on the part of one of my players when it came to flirting with her and similarly unlikely rolls on her part when it came to judging whether she was receptive made it clear that as far as the dice were concerned Ygraine was 100% into this and that took the story in a direction none of us expected but which turned out well.
 
With respect to being in control of your character’s actions, I think systems need to default to the randomiser determining the result of your action rather than completely rewriting the action you decided on in the first place. The former is important for immersion and simulation and creating the sense that your character exists in a real world that will kick back rather than a cardboard set that exists solely to contextualise their story; the latter takes away the player-PC connection which is vital to the tabletop experience to begin with.
 
That isn’t to say I’m 100% against systems which take away some choice, mind. Occasionally it can be useful for the system to nudge you and say “Are you really sure your character would do this?” For instance, Pendragon‘s personality trait system doesn’t often force you to act in a particular way, and when it does it’s usually because you have set such a strong precedent for your character behaving in that way previously that it’s genuinely difficult – though still possible – to break the habit of a lifetime. It is not too difficult to avoid traits getting to that extreme (though extreme behaviour has its benefits), and the main constraint is requiring a Valorous roll to engage in combat with particularly terrifying beasts, which I think is an acceptable way to reflect the fact that in some situations having genuine freedom of choice requires you to first wrestle your fight-or-flight response into submission.
 
(For similar reasons, though its implementation has its issues, I think Call of Cthulhu‘s “roll when you see a monster to avoid panicing” concept is very useful. It’s all very easy when you are sat in a cosy chair surrounded by friends to be all “Yeah, I’m not afraid of this”, but your investigator doesn’t have that benefit.)
 
At the same time, critical fumble tables which make your character behave in silly/humiliating/gamewrecking ways can get in the sea.
 
With respect to being in control of your character’s story, I can see the desire to have that control but I have very carefully weaned myself off it over the years, and I enjoy both tabletop and LARP substantially more as a result. The thing is, even in a very story-focused game you never actually have full control of your character’s story. To have that, you would need a veto power over everything anyone or anything else does which might affect your character, and that tends to be incompatible with playing a game where you have multiple characters running around ostensibly able to affect the proceedings.
 
Unless the player characters are genuinely irrelevant to each others’ stories – which kind of wrecks the point of running a game with more than one player – then they are going to be able to affect each others’ stories. And in games where you have a GM-like role, then the GM’s ability to frame the situation has an enormous capacity to affect people’s stories.
 
Frankly, I think the best and most successful storytelling game out there is Once Upon a Time, in which there is no identification between players and individual characters at all and all elements of the story are fully accessible to be meddled with once you take control of the narration. There are a bunch of storygames which explicitly deviate from the “one player, one PC” model – The Quiet Year and Microscope, for instance – and even more which I think would be radically improved if they brushed off the residual “one player, one PC” assumption they inherited from more traditional RPGs (for instance, I think the best part of Fiasco is the collective setting and character creation phase, and I think the game would be more fun if the pool of characters were entirely communal), and still more which are designed from the principle that other players can and will shape your character’s story (such as A Penny For My Thoughts). I can think of none where your character’s story is explicitly immune from external meddling.
 
Of course, now that I think further on this, I suppose a case could be made that some people would prefer that meddling with their story happened as a result of other human beings explicitly deciding to do that, rather than because of a roll of the dice. I guess personally I don’t find that much of a meaningful distinction. Sometimes shit happens to a character because somebody else decided that it should. Sometimes a character has a sudden stroke of amazing luck or terrible ill fortune. Their story is in how they deal with that.

The Dream of an Indie RPG Boom

I read with some interest Alessando Pirodi’s recent post on the so far limited commercial success of story games and other highly-coherent hobby games that take the lessons of the Forge to heart, compared with more traditional RPGs. I think he raises a number of good points, but may be overoptimistic in his long-range prognosis.

First off, he certainly seems to be right in his assumption that RPGs deviating from the “Incoherent/GM-centric/Traditional” format are a niche of a niche. This is one area where ENWorld’s charts of how much different games are being discussed online comes in handy. Although it’s possible that ENWorld are failing to track significant foci of indie RPG discussion, I can’t imagine they’d do that deliberately – if nothing else, the tracking includes the RPG.net forums, which are exceptionally busy and which tend to be quite friendly towards indie RPGs. And what do we see? Consistently, a chart dominated by games which fall into precisely the sort of Incoherent/GM-centric/Traditional style Pirodi refers to, with perhaps a very few games like FATE and the various Apocalypse World derivatives which strive for greater coherence but don’t deviate very radically from the GM-centric and Traditional parts of the IGT puzzle.

That said, I question Pirodi’s understanding of the major sellers in the industry. As I mentioned, FATE and Apocalypse World are still GM-centric and Traditional games. Numenera is about as “IGT” as a game can get – yes, it borrows some mechanics from FATE, but simply including some mechanics usually regarded as narrativist doesn’t make a game coherently narrativist. (By definition, coherence isn’t about the presence or absence of a particular mechanic, but how all the mechanics included hang together.) 3rd Edition WFRP may or may not have been a success, but certainly wasn’t enough of a barnstormer to justify Fantasy Flight continuing to produce new materialEdge of the Empire isn’t a new edition of D20 or D6 Star Wars but a brand new Star Wars RPG with a system influenced by WFRP3, though notably it scales back an enormous number of the innovations WFRP3 brought in (hence Edge of the Empire not coming in a massive box crammed with components) and merely keeps the use of non-standard dice, suggesting a retreat away from the very experimental direction WFRP3 took. D&D 4E might have been coherently Gamist, but it was also a commercial disaster when compared to how every previous edition fared; 5E, meanwhile, seems to be explicitly embracing incoherence in order to provide a “Big Tent” RPG.

And it’s the last part which I think Pirodi is especially missing: the fact that the ideology of coherence inherently requires that coherent games direct themselves towards particular niches, rather than angling for a mass audience. In particular, I’m highly sceptical about Pirodi’s assumption that there’s a major target audience out there for these games that is being missed out. He talks about these Facebook RPGs that the kids are apparently into these days, but then hilariously imagines that a game designer out there needs to come in and make a fun and interesting game out of that to sell to that audience. This is ridiculous because the audience in question is already playing fun and interesting games in the form of their Facebook RPGs, and nothing could be more foolish than trying to sell people an experience they are already enjoying for free and which they probably understand better than you in the first place. As far as the power fantasies Pirodi talks about, that’s something which his “IGTs” already cater to perfectly capably – as illustrated by the fact he talks about being snared by Heroquest and Red Box D&D when he was 12.

Heck, I don’t entirely agree with him that indie developers are designing for other adults as a group – I think for the most part indie RPGs are designed for the sort of people who already play and design indie RPGs. The very fact that there are particular trends and fashions in indie RPG design that you can identify suggests that indie designers are consciously and deliberately targeting a very particular niche, after all. Ron Edwards’ Spione might not have been marketed along RPG channels (and doesn’t even describe itself as an RPG), but so far as I can make out it doesn’t result from Ron identifying a particular target audience and designing a game to meet its needs (the correct way to approach the concept of target audiences, as Pirodi rightly points out), so much as he wrote the game he wanted to write and then tried to find a target audience who might enjoy it.

The thing is, I’d rather indie and small press designers concentrated on writing games which they personally enjoy myself. We have Hasbro and Paizo and Fantasy Flight and other giants to take the corporate give-the-people-what-they-want approach, and when they allow themselves to take that route they tend to do quite well at it. Compare the warm welcome that the extensively playtested and survey-driven D&D 5E has enjoyed compared to 4E; compare the outcome of the centrally-imposed WFRP3 experiment (game line support dries up after a few years, and then after a long gap they eventually put up the white flag) to the success of the Dark Heresy 2nd Edition and Only War public beta playtests.

If you’re on the indie and small-press end of the scale, you’re better off producing something a few people love rather than trying to hit on something that vast numbers of people quite like, because if you go for the Big Tent approach you’re directly trying to compete with the biggest gorillas in the market and that doesn’t usually end well. If your game happens to be a runaway success, great – you’ve designed the new Vampire: the Masquerade and you are a fucking hero – but nobody can predict ahead of time whether they’re going to catch lightning in a bottle.

That said, Pirodi does correctly identify a bunch of trends in recent indie RPGs which seem doomed to limit their appeal still further than their dedication to coherence. In my experience, games like Fiasco or Hell 4 Leather do genuinely suffer unless everyone has been fully briefed on the rules beforehand, and they do demand that everyone is fully engaged all the time whether or not they’re feeling it; indie RPGs are also chronic for dreaming up their own idiosyncratic resolution systems to master from scratch, rather than basing themselves on more familiar resolution systems. In short, Pirodi is 100% correct that indie RPGs demand that all participants approach them from a “hardcore” perspective and tend to leave little room for engagement from a more “casual” angle. I think there’s a time and a place for all-hardcore games and there’s nothing wrong with that; I also think that this is an inherent outcome of coherence ideology and the Forge theories associated with it, since these intrinsically assume that everyone has a big fancy Creative Agenda going into a game that’s more developed than “have fun with my pals by mucking about playing pretend”.

Meanwhile in the Story Games discussion on this point, check out user AsIf’s first post, which is a really excellent takedown of the idea that coherent indie-type RPGs are inevitably going to take over from inherently inferior IGTs.