Pendragon On Parade

So, my long-running Pendragon game seems to be more or less officially dead – it’s been on hiatus for a good long while, at any rate, and nobody seems especially anxious to rekindle it. I’m not too disappointed, though, because we got through about half the Arthurian saga and ended with Arthur claiming the Roman Empire for himself, at the very height of his powers, which is a reasonable stopping point. But now it’s done, I think it’s high time I offered my general impressions on the game line and its associated bits and bobs here.

Pendragon 5th Edition

After subsequent editions expanded the scope of the game to the point of making the core book unwieldy and seriously undermining the premise, the 5th Edition of Pendragon – now published by Nocturnal Media but previously emerging from ArtHaus Games, an imprint of White Wolf – brought everything back to the central concept. Stafford casts the player characters as novice knights – the default is that they’ll start out in the service of the Earl of Salisbury – and sets the scene for gaming over the span of time covered by the Morte d’Arthur. (If you go with the assumed starting point, there’s a nice range of tables to let starting PCs work out what their grandfathers and fathers did in the time period between the Romans abandoning Britain to its fate and the rise of Uther.)

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Many Basic Flavours

As with any game with its long pedigree, the publishing history of RuneQuest is awkward and complicated and has included more than a few missteps – I get the impression, for instance, that Moon Design/Chaosium these days consider farming the publication out to Avalon Hill and then to Mongoose to have been serious historical mistakes, and given how annoying overcomplex RuneQuest 3 was and generally shoddy the Mongoose RuneQuest products often were I can’t altogether disagree with them. However, between that, Mongoose’s SRD experiments, and Chaosium’s own attempts to promote the Basic Roleplaying system in other ways when they no longer had control of RuneQuest (including putting out the component booklets of RuneQuest 3 as Basic Roleplaying monographs), there has been a proliferation of fantasy-leaning setting-agnostic Basic Roleplaying-based systems out there.

I already covered Magic World in my review of the Stormbringer RPG, due to the fact that Magic World is basically 5th Edition Stormbringer with the Moorcock scraped off and a new system tacked on the end, but it’s probably worth taking a look at various other BRP-based fantasy RPGs I’ve gathered over the years and see whether they are entirely redundant, or whether their differing focuses makes them useful for different purposes. It seems particularly apt at this point in time because the new Moon Design-controlled Chaosium has made it clear that generic or setting-neutral RPGs are not where their heart is at: they would rather put out games where, as in pre-Avalon Hill editions of RuneQuest, or Call of Cthulhu, or Stormbringer, the game is constructed around supporting a strong setting from the get-go, rather than a setting being an afterthought, opting to allow other publishers to struggle over the crowded “generic BRP-ish fantasy” space.

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Proud to Be Pro-Duck

I’m reading the Guide to Glorantha at the moment, and this bit of art brought joy to my heart. Not just the awesome depiction of dragonewts – though they are cool – but how in the background you can see a dragonewt negotiating with a party of ducks.

Now, these are unabashedly ducky ducks. We’re not dealing with the sort of situation you see sometimes in D&D, where someone takes a creature whose description was originally a bit goofy and tries to make it look a bit more badass and realistic (like how Demogorgon’s heads don’t really look like chimp heads any more). No, these are not watered down at all. And that’s great.

For those who don’t know, ducks are in RuneQuest effectively as a little homage to the awesome Carl Barks Scrooge McDuck comics; folk of my generation may be less familiar with them, but will be familiar with Duck Tales, which was basically Carl Barks’ Duck Comics: the Animated Series. Ducks aren’t a sloppy, crowbarred-in addition, mind: they have a very specific history and cultural place in the world which incidentally makes them total badasses.

Unseen Phil’s tumblr post compares the duck thing to the way people to the “men culturally ride side-saddle if they ride at all so all cavalry warriors are women” thing in the default setting of Reign, but I think there’s a mild difference there. Both Glorantha and Reign‘s setting are a bit weird – with Reign I personally found the side-saddle thing not especially odd, since it’s basically a cultural assumption, but found the shonky geography to be kind of annoying – but I think there is a crucial difference. Reign‘s weird bits have a whiff of “try-hard” about them, like Stolze is straining to throw in odd little things simply for the sake of being odd. Conversely, Glorantha’s oddness is richly contextualised, and so far as I can tell has been from the start. It probably helps that Greg Stafford was thinking about and developing the setting for about a decade before producing any games or other publications set in it, whereas Reign‘s setting comes across as something Greg Stolze made up on the fly when cooking up the game because he thought a more generic version of the system wouldn’t get traction.

Either way, for whatever reason I find that I can buy into the eccentricities of Glorantha far more easily than those of the default Reign setting. Anyone whose imagination can embrace wizards, vampires, werewolves, owlbears, monsters that have literally evolved to look like treasure chests for the sake of trolling adventurers, and a host of “animal heads on human bodies” creatures of all varieties but balk at angry death-worshipping waddling heroes defending the cosmos against undead horrors is welcome to take it up with Donald here.

Donald had this armour designed specifically to mock the Lunar Empire, because he’s a badass like that.

Chaosium’s Worlds In the Balance

Lemmy died recently. Before he made Motörhead happen, he was in Hawkwind, who also collaborated regularly with Michael Moorcock. Michael Moorcock has written an awful lot of stuff, but perhaps his most famous work is the story of Elric. Therefore, this is a good time to talk about Chaosium’s Stormbringer RPG and its successor game, Magic World.

Are you buying this? Never mind, I’m going to review them anyway.

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Clockwinder General

In the not-too-distant future one of my Monday night group is going to be running some of Peter Cakebread and Ken Walton’s Clockwork & Chivalry, so I thought I would check it out. The conceit is that it’s set during an alternate version of the English Civil Wars of the 1600s (exactly how many Civil Wars were fought in that period is apparently a non-trivial question). The twist is that Parliament, supported as it is by the craftsmen and merchants of the middle classes, can bring a range of amazing clockwork devices to bear on the battlefield; meanwhile, the Royalist forces bolster their chances by turning to alchemy, and whilst most of those persecuted for witchcraft in this age are innocents, there are a few genuine Satanists with true magical power lurking in the shadows.

The default starting point for the game is the aftermath of the Battle of Naseby, which deviates from the result in our world due to it being the first fight where the various clockwork and alchemical contrivances were used on the battlefield. In this version, King Charles was captured and quickly executed by Oliver Cromwell, who has declared himself Lord Protector; however, the Royalist forces under Prince Rupert of the Rhine still control significant sections of the country (King Charles II is too young to lead the war at the moment, so he is staying in Paris with his mum). An uneasy break in the fighting has occurred as both sides come to terms with the twin shocks of the apocalyptic battle of Naseby and the sudden regicide following it – but surely that cannot last.

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Percentiles and Plunder

One of the perennial problems I have with spacefaring SF games is ship-to-ship combat: the stakes (and in particular the potential for a total party kill) are often so high that I often feel that I can’t risk it. Blow up a starship, and the inherent unfriendliness of space to all life more or less guarantees that you’ve killed everyone who was still onboard – and in my experience even if you provide escape pods player character groups typically either use them far too early or leave it way too late to use them.

This being the case, part of me wonders why we don’t see more nautical games out there. If your ship is blown up in space, you’re fucked, but if your ship is sunk on the high seas your chances of survival are far superior. If friendly ships are nearby, it is decidedly possible to survive long enough for rescue – if unfriendly ships are closer, you could even opt to be taken prisoner, unless the people you are fighting are total cutthroats. And even if you are left drifting on a raft with minimal supplies, it’s much more viable to try to find some sort of dry land than it is to hope to find a habitable star system if you’re stranded in some random part of space.

So, today I’m going to take a look at two nautical-themed games, both of which riff on Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying system. One of them focuses more on the strict, regimented life of the navy in the age of fighting sail; the other takes a look at piracy during its golden age, with options for a more swashbuckling and fantastic take on the genre besides.

Privateers & Gentlemen

Fantasy Games Unlimited had a funny old business model – essentially, rather than designing his own games, owner Scott Bizar instead got his start by soliciting and publishing games by various hobbyist designers, and a bit later also developed a sideline in picking up interesting games from smaller publishers who had gone bust. On the one hand, this was doubtless a boon to the gaming community, giving an early outlet to independent designers in an era when the self-publishing route wasn’t as clear and easy as it is today and saving deserving games from obscurity. On the other hand, in later years the ownership of the IP of the games in question has become a matter of controversy – the original creators of Bushido were put off making a new edition by the difficulty of reclaiming the copyright and trademark, Chivalry & Sorcery‘s rights were sold off for what is rumoured to be a startling sum (a circumstance which perhaps is fuelling the high prices demanded for the other lines), and the creators of Villains & Vigilantes are caught up in a full-blown legal face-off with Bizar.

It would be interesting to know what Jon Williams thinks about all this. Better known as Walter Jon Williams, he’s the author of Hardwired, a well-regarded novel from the classic era of cyberpunk, and he successfully fought a drawn-out IP battle against Wired magazine after Wired scared NovaLogic away from making a videogame of Hardwired and tried to ride roughshod over Williams’ trademarks. Back when he was simply Jon Williams and before Hardwired ever came into the picture, Jon Williams was cutting his teeth writing a series of naval adventure novels in the tradition of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian entitled Privateers & Gentlemen, and as another offshoot of his interest in naval history put out a naval wargame called Heart of Oak in 1978. Roleplaying supplements followed, and in 1982 Fantasy Games Unlimited reprinted the lot in a boxed set under the Privateers & Gentlemen title.

Privateers & Gentlemen consists of three volumes: Heart of Oak, the ship-to-ship wargame, Promotions & Prizes, the main set of RPG rules, and Tradition of Victory, a setting guide with some extensions to the rules. It’s evident from the text that Williams gave the material a thorough update for this release; moreover, it’s clear from what he says that these updates are made in the light of extensive actual play, which is reassuring to say the least: it means that what changes are made are by and large made for the sake of playability and enjoyment.

In particular, there’s several points in Heart of Oak where Williams says he could go for a more precise simulation on some things (like the precise type of cannons in use on ships), but he decided not to because it would slow the game down too much. Heart of Oak is, at its oaken heart, a wargame where the primary problem is movement and positioning, so much so that it opens with a slow and careful tutorial about how the game models movement and positioning in light of the major factors governing how sailing ships actually work – wind direction, facing of the ship, wind strength and how many of the sails are actually unfurled. A ship can actually sail in any direction except directly into the wind, but its direction in relation to the wind will affect its speed. Further control over speed can be exercised by unfurling or rolling up sails, but in stronger winds you can’t unfurl all the sails lest they be damaged, and indeed in the game there are several circumstances where risky behaviour or just plain bad sailing can cause damage to your ship (often by knocking down one or more masts because you let the wind put too much force on them).

The game, then, consists of working out initiative and then taking turns to move ships according to the movement rules. At any point during the movement phase, you or your opponent can declare that a ship is firing its cannon (though there are obviously limits on how often you can do that based on the process of reloading the guns), and just what facing you and the ship you are firing on are at in relation to each other has an effect on how damaging a shot is. Best of all is if you are able to shoot an enemy ship directly in the stern, since then the cannonballs will go crashing through the stern windows and travel the full length of the ship causing damage all the way, but Williams offers players some sound advice from Lord Nelson, who pointed out that “No captain can go far wrong who lays his ship alongside the enemy”.

A particular point of pride of Williams is the way that in play the game naturally encourages players to first adopt Nelsonian tactics (in general it’s best to let your fleet go along in an orderly line to prevent enemies from slipping in to blast you in the butt), and then after further play start to adopt the sort of speculative tactics which could well have emerged in the wild, had technological advances brought an end to the age of fighting sail. In particular, once steam engines allow you to build warships that can move around how they like regardless of which way the wind is blowing, the movement and positioning considerations which are simulated in Heart of Oak and which are clearly so crucial to naval battles of this era suddenly become irrelevant.

Heart of Oak looks like it would be a fun enough wargame to play by itself, but as anyone who’s read the Hornblower novels will know that it’s the rich atmosphere of life aboard ship that makes those stories work, and it’s that atmosphere that provides fodder for the roleplaying rules provided in Promotions & Prizes. Apparently the first edition of the game focused exclusively on the British Royal Navy (from which the basis of running games for other European navies can be extrapolated), but for this revision of the game there’s also the option to focus on privateer crews, or US Navy forces. This presumably is the result of Williams’ research for his novels, which focus on the exploits of the proto-US Navy against the Royal Navy during the War of Independence.

The foundation of the system used here is essentially Basic Roleplaying; not explicitly, mind, but the borrowings from Runequest and the early Basic Roleplaying pamphlet are fairly evident. The stats don’t directly map to the standard BRP stats, but are close enough, and your baseline skills (in combat and out of combat) are influenced by your starting stats. Whilst combat skills are percentile-based and non-combat skills work off a D20 roll, they still use the good ol’ “successfully use a skill, get a chance to improve it” system that’s a hallmark of BRP. Even the weapons table is somewhat reminiscent of that from Runequest, with chances to strike and parry and minimum Strength and Dexterity levels required to use them.

That said, if you had to pick any system available in the late 1970s or early 1980s to riff on for this purpose, Runequest would be a decent one due to the emphasis it placed on personal origin and social status – matters of crucial importance when it came to the internal politics of navies of the era. Toffs have the linked advantages of wealth and privilege behind them; characters of lower social rank will have to work harder to be noticed by their superiors. As a fun twist you even get to choose whether you have a political allegiance to one of the parties of the era (Whig or Tory for the UK, pro-aristo or pro-bourgeoisie for the European navies, and Federalist or Democratic-Republican for the US) – Williams not only gives vivid descriptions of the parties’ positions and their particular relation to their respective navies, but also there’s the more immediate concern that if your superior is of your party they will be more inclined to help you out than if you disagree on politics. (There’s a particularly nice explanation here of the decidedly strange position of the US parties around the War of 1812 – where the Federalists had traditionally been pro-Navy, but in this case were seen as selling out the country, whereas the Democratic-Republicans had been anti-expansionist and consequently anti-Navy, but at the same time were at least seen to be mounting an effective defence against the British and Canadian forces.)

My major criticism of the book is that it doesn’t quite give enough guidance as to how groups of PCs are supposed to be set up and work together. It does a great job of setting things up for a lone PC, and if you wanted to run the game as a one-on-one deal it’d be great, but otherwise to take into account multiple PCs you would need to so some work. For instance, in any particular year you need to roll dice to see whether the Navy even has employment for you, so if you ran rules-as-written there you’d most likely leave at least one PC ashore. Then you need to roll to assign each character to a ship, and it’s deeply unlikely that you’ll all be assigned to the same ship. Even if you assume each ship is sailing together in a little fleet, each ship has to roll its own individual mission.

None of these obstacles are insurmountable, and it’s viable to run the game either having all the players be crew on the same ship or having them each running their own ship in their fleet – the latter might be preferable given that the ship-to-ship combat system is Heart of Oak, which puts a lot of emphasis on line tactics. But it’s certainly odd to see it such a prominent feature of the game when Williams goes out of the way to say that you should, of course, make sure to keep the player characters together and involved in the game and ignore the rules if that’s necessary. It’s almost as though he realised that there was this problem with the duty assignment process early on, but couldn’t work out how to change it to adapt it for group play.

Tradition of Victory expands the material in Promotions & Prizes, perhaps the most useful sections being those for wacky encounters during shore leave and an expansive history of the “Age of Fighting Sail”. For the most part, it’s stuffed with setting details which, along with those in Promotions & Prizes, really help the setting come alive.

On the subject of historical accuracy, one thing noted in Promotions & Prizes the game notes is that the social status rules assume that the player characters are white male adherents of the politically fashionable religion of their home nation, and points out that anyone who didn’t fall into that category would have a rough time in the navy (though examples do exist even of women who crossdressed to get in the navy). The game takes the stance that players are entirely free to play whatever character type they want, though they should be aware that they may have to deal with severe IC discrimination based on their decisions. (In keeping with the long naval tradition of buggery, odds are given for deciding whether an NPC is gay or not, and if they are gay whether they dare actually act on it, and it’s noted that whilst in principle there was a death penalty for sodomy in the navy this was almost never actually enforced, though lesser charges were frequently bought instead.)

On the one hand, “it’s historical!” is used all too often to justify discrimination in games with little historical basis – so often, in fact, that my hackles tend to rise whenever a game designer justifies any decision along these lines on the basis of historical accuracy. At the same time, it’s notable that back in the 1970s and early 1980s it was far from uncommon for games to have stat caps or other modifiers for female characters based on old-fashioned assumptions, but there are no such mechanical penalities applied here, only the social penalties which pretty much undeniably existed back in the day.

Ultimately, the stance Williams takes here is the only stance you can reasonably take if your motivation for playing a historical RPG is to play a historical RPG, in which everyone has agreed that part of the point is to create the immersive experience of living in a different era with different values, including values which in the modern day we would find abhorrent. Frankly, that’s exactly the sort of game I would be inclined to use Privateers & Gentlemen for in the first place, since for more fantastic or counterfactual games there are a plethora of options out there – such as, for example, Blood Tide.

Blood Tide

Charlie Krank’s tenure as President of Chaosium, which lasted from Greg Stafford’s departure in 1998 until Greg and fellow Chaosium founder Sandy Petersen returned to take back control of Chaosium earlier this week (by the way: HOLY SHIT, GREG AND SANDY ARE BACK IN CHARGE AT CHAOSIUM), is likely to be a controversial one as far as the history books go. Certainly, the company’s fortunes during this era have been decidedly varied, their track record on paying freelancers decidedly patchy, it took an outrageously long time for Chaosium to catch up and finally get in on the PDF market and more recently there’s been issues with them delivering on some of their Kickstarters. On the other hand, Chaosium have at least survived the last 17 years, which was far from a sure thing back in the wake of the Mythos CCG and associated fiascos, and under Krank’s tenure Chaosium have at least come up with some smart ideas.

One of the smartest, by my reckoning, are Chaosium’s range of monographs. Available both in Call of Cthulhu-specific and more generic Basic Roleplaying-based lines, monographs are products – adventures, supplements, settings, sometimes even entire games – written by hobbyist authors and submitted to Chaosium for publication. Those accepted are published on the understanding that Chaosium provide minimal editorial and layout help, and consequently make no guarantees to the buying public as to the quality of the monographs themselves. Not quite worth the cost back when they were only available in print, the monographs are perfect products for the PDF era; produced with minimal overhead to Chaosium, they provide a nice trickle of almost-passive income, as well as a pool of products where they have the option of developing them into fuller pieces. (For instance, Cthulhu Invictus was originally a monograph before being revised as a fully professional supplement.)

I suspect it has also helped in these post-exclusivity days, in which thanks to Mongoose Publishing releasing their version of Runequest under the OGL with an SRD and all (plus other, more developed games based on that very OGL coming out under their own open publishing arrangements, such as OpenQuest and the OpenQuest-derived Renaissance system which is better optimised for black powder-era games) means that it’s really easy for people to put out Basic Roleplaying-compatible games and products without involving Chaosium at all if they want to. (Of course, game mechanics aren’t patentable, but the benefit of an OGL that says “so long as you obey these terms you can use material from our SRD all you like without copyright infringement” should not be underestimated when it comes to giving people the confidence to actually publish.)

This being the case, the monograph scheme seems to me to be the perfect counterbalance to this situation. Despite its varied fortunes, the Chaosium name still has a substantial reputation associated with it, and I’m sure for many fans there’s a specific attraction to seeing their fan works published under the Chaosium name. By offering such fans a route to market that allows them to not only use the Chaosium name, but actually have their games promoted through Chaosium’s website and DriveThruRPG sections, Chaosium’s monographs may have a reputation for variable quality that comes from them leaving the editing and layout to the authors, but they still represent a very tempting alternative to simply just publishing your product by itself, especially if you don’t fancy all the work associated with trying to promote your own products full time. Unless, like the publishers of OpenQuest and Renaissance, you want to make an actual go at the whole game publisher thing, I’d say the monograph scheme offers a great deal.

Blood Tide isn’t a monograph, but it feels like it could have originally been intended as one before being selected for greater things. Like many monographs, it isn’t quite a standalone game – it’s a supplement in Chaosium’s support line for their big fat Basic Roleplaying book, and requires that volume to play. Instead, it combines author Kenneth Spencer’s application of the principles in that book with some of his own inventions (notably, systems for ship-to-ship combat, swashbuckling stunts, and voodoo) to provide support for piratical seafaring adventures using BRP.

One thing Spencer seems particularly aware of is how the flexibility of BRP can usefully support the flexibility that is possible with this sort of history-plus-weirdness supplement; although the default setting provided involves a healthy dose of supernatural shenanigans and unlikely swashbuckling, Spencer explicitly notes that the supplement could also be used to play a straight historical game, and here and there suggests options to support that.

That said, the weird Caribbean setting presented here is actually kind of interesting. Existing in the wake of a monstrous magical experiment by early European colonisers, the Caribbean is a region where the old spiritual and magical traditions of indigenous peoples, colonisers and slaves alike are at a disadvantage when set against syncretic systems like Caribbean voodoo, specifically cooked up not only to blend African, local, and European religious and occult ideas but also to take into account the unique conditions in the local environment. Thus, whilst it might still be possible for a European occultist working from a Hermetic grimoire or an African shaman drawing on their traditions to accomplish magical effects (represented by the BRP sorcery system) and there’s a certain legitimacy to everyone’s religious outlook (though in that sort of everyone’s-actually-right way which contradicts everyone’s beliefs just as much as it supports them), the esoteric momentum is currently behind voodoo and all the genre-appropriate action that inspires.

The game setting, therefore, provides a syncretic metaphysic which not only naturally supports the worldview of Caribbean voodoo, but also tends to come down on the side of motley multicultural pirate crews as opposed to straightlaced, conformist government navy sorts. On the one hand, you’d need to take great care in a game featuring these ideas not to use voodoo in an appropriative manner – and arguably Blood Tide has already done that by turning it into an RPG magic system – but on the other hand it’s a nice example of how a game’s cosmology and magic system can support its assumed themes, and if you wanted to riff on The Secret of Monkey Island, On Stranger Tides, or Pirates of the Caribbean then the systems provided here help capture the feel of the supernatural aspects of those stories.

The setting material provided here also provides useful insights into various piratey locales, as well as a string of stats for various famous pirates. A particularly nice touch is the provision of a number of fully-detailed crews, who could make equally good support NPCs on the player characters’ ship or excellent rivals. With all the support material provided here, it would be very easy to run a sandboxy game straight out of the book.

What would make that process somewhat easier would have been another editing pass after layout, because there’s a number of typos, mangled tables, and “See Page XX”s littering the thing. This might be acceptable on a BRP monograph, since those are explicitly marketed as not having benefitted from professional-standard editing; indeed, the very personal flavour of Blood Tide makes me wonder whether Spencer originally wrote it as a monograph, only for Chaosium to select it for more exalted status. Whatever its origins, though, Blood Tide is presented as a professional product and as such deserves a somewhat better editing job than the one it received. Still, this isn’t quite enough to turn me off it, either as a BRP game or as a general supplement discussing the golden age of piracy.

Story Before, Story Now, and Blimey, If It Don’t Look Like Story After Tomorrer

I’m of the view that a lot of the work Ron Edwards and other theorists did at the Forge, back when that place had an active RPG theory discussion forum before Ron Edwards declared the theory complete and shut the board down (one of many things Ron has done over the years which convinces me that he’s a really terrible academic), had a net negative effect on RPG discourse. The biggest achievement of the Forge, I think, was to provide the networking opportunities, pooled resources, mutual encouragement and exchange of advice necessary to cultivate a new wave of small press and self-published RPGs, but that has everything to do with logistical and commercial know-how and nothing to do with the RPG theory ideas they popularised.

Whilst some Forge ideas are useful in a very few contexts (usually when talking about the failures of Forge theory, but occasionally for other purposes), equally a lot of it is quite jargon-heavy – and worse, it’s a jargon which is primarily engineered by someone (Ron) who makes it quite clear that there are some types of gaming experience he specifically wants to promote and be partisan towards, whilst there are other (commercially successful, critically successful, and enduringly popular) models of gaming he is actively and overtly hostile towards. This terminology obfuscates a lot of Forge rhetoric, and in addition if you buy into the terminology too much it becomes difficult to impossible to even talk about certain kinds of game.

If you’re using Forge talk to talk about Forgey games, then it sort of works because the designers of said games tended to refer directly to those ideas whilst designing them; you can easily find the Creative Agenda because the designers made damn sure to include it prominently, for instance, In other cases, when discussing games designed by people with an entirely different outlook, using Forge jargon at best it feels like discussing Buddhism using exclusively definitions and terminology from Catholic doctrine (the jargon doesn’t even relate to the material in question), or trying to discuss which variety of socialism is better whilst exclusively using definitions from anti-Communist literature (the jargon is actively hostile to even contemplating the sort of ideas you’re trying to express). This is a shortcoming when you want a terminology to talk about RPGs in general, but I suppose it’s a boon if you want to encourage the development of a particular type of game which isn’t well-served by major publishers (due, in part, to the necessity to go for a big tent approach when you get past a certain scale).

One of the few bits of Forge jargon I think is sometimes useful to use in other contexts is the whole Story Before, Story Now, and Story After deal. For those of you who aren’t aware of it, this is a way of looking at how a roleplaying game offers the experience of a “story”, which is something a lot of people in the hobby say they want but equally is something a lot of people disagree about when it comes to actually defining what it is or how to achieve it.  Roughly defined, these terms mean the following (note that this is not a chapter-and-verse quotation of Ron’s definitions, which evolve regularly as he updates some parts of his theories and disowns over parts, but a rough summary of the terms as they are most commonly used):

  • Story Before play is exemplified most obviously by prewritten modules and more or less all the refereeing advice White Wolf has ever written: the referee devises a prewritten plot before play commences (whether they do it for the entire campaign in advance, or immediately before each session). Here, storytelling is an exercise in planning out a plot arc for the campaign to follow.
  • Story Now play uses overt system methods to drag the process of telling stories into the context of the session itself. People have raging arguments about what this means because they often are working from different definitions of “story”. For example, if you define “story” the way Ron does, it’s “Commitment to Addressing (producing, heightening, and resolving) Premise through play itself”, then game mechanics which hardwire in a premise and steer the process of play towards presenting, heightening and resolving it are Story Now mechanics. (Dogs In the Vineyard was a good example of this, though I confess I sold my copy ages ago so I may be misremembering.) If you don’t agree with Ron’s definition of story, of course, the same Story Now techniques which tickle his pickle will set your teeth on edge and make your palms itch. Games gunning for Story Now generally try to minimise the distinction between “telling a story” and “playing the game” as they humanly can.
  • Story After play looks at story in retrospect. There’s no pre-planned plot from the referee, and there are no game mechanics to hardwire in a particular type of narrative. The game session is a series of things that happen; in retrospect, after the session, you can see about piecing together a story by looking at the events of the session in retrospect and identifying a narrative in that. (Note that if your definition of “story” is “a series of things that happen, told in order”, then there’s literally no difference between Story Now and Story After – they’re only two distinct types if you have a particular narrative theory about what a story is that is different or more narrow than “sequence of events”.)
  • Since the easiest way to understand the concept is as denoting when the bulk of the work of story construction happens, you could propose a fourth type of play: Story Never. This would be almost indistinguishable from Story After, except the effort to construct a story based on what happened in the game never actually happens: the RPG is approached not as an engine for creating stories but as a simulation for exploring worlds, and the stuff that happens in a session is, like the events of real life, just a bunch of stuff that happens rather than part of a cohesive story. Ron never talked about Story Never, mostly because he was working on the basis that nobody would ever dream of playing an RPG without thinking about story.

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