Monday, September 28, 2020

Real-World Transplants (RWTs) in Fantasy Role-Playing Settings

As a boy I enjoyed a lot of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, both Howard's originals and the Marvel comic books. One thing that consistently bothered me about his Hyborian age setting, though, was that it used recent historical real-world geographical and ethnic proper names for his prehistoric "age undreamed of."

Conan was a Cimmerian. The Cimmerians were real, historical people best known today for attacking ancient Middle Eastern countries like Urartu in the eighth century BC. Conan's adventures take him to places like Khitai, "Afgulistan," Iranistan, Hyrcania, Kambuja, and many others that are basically real-world earth names changed slightly or not at all. The Vilayet Sea especially bugs me, as that is a Persian word (derived from Arabic) simply meaning "province." Then you have Shem, the land of the fantasy Semites. The list goes on.

The intended effect of using real-world, often modern, names for a pseudo-prehistoric fantasy world is to conjure a whole setting through mental associations with a single name. Howard's ideas for countries seem as if they arose from his flipping through the pages of an atlas or a one-volume encylopedia. Evocative names drawn from the real world allowed Howard to rely on the mental associations of his readers to fill in the gaps left by what is unsaid with generalized folk beliefs about the people and lands associated with those names. Mostly, those associations are stereotypes.

The unintended side-effect for me has always been that these undisguised references pop the fantasy bubble. I simply can't suspend disbelief in a prehistoric "Hyrcania" when I know quite well that this is a specific place by the Caspian sea, a land named for wolves in ancient times--but not prehistoric times. There may be readers who think it's cool that he looked up some old names, but to me their deployment looks juvenile and worsens the fiction.

Let's call the deployment of references to real, historical things in purely fantastical settings Real-World Transplants. You can type RWTs for short.

RWTs in fiction do work for the author and the audience. In role-playing games, they allow gamers to agree on unspoken assumptions about fictional places by relying on stereotypes and "common knowledge." This, in my view, is the main reason for the reliance on European bases for fantasy settings. Players in the Anglophone world share more knowledge (correct or not) about Europe and shared assumptions about fantasies set in imaginary versions Europe than about other countries.

Yet there is a limit to what RWTs can do. They create flavor and atmosphere but they also set a limit to believability. Real-world references in a fantasy setting undermine the fantastic and imaginary character of the setting. If the intent is to create an alternate version of our world, that may be expected. If it's just fantasy, or if the fantasy does not accord with known history, then you're mixing flavors by introducing RWTs. Some people don't mind those flavors. Others dislike the mixture. I tend toward the latter.

RWTs are frequently used to invoke what I call generic exotic. I wrote a bit before about what makes fantasy generic. It's a topic that one could write whole books about. There is, though, a generic exotic, constituted of the cultural names, terms, and references shared by players that give fantasy the flavor of "foreign." They are Real-World Transplants that instantly convey to gamers some characteristics of this particular fantasy object.

This is a tough problem made tougher by contemporary cultural politics. I also wrote before about what I called the "eurofantasy." The idea is that the unspoken default of fantasy has been an imaginary Europe based on selective features. These features represent only a tiny sliver of European history and culture, but they are the shared references mostly for Anglophone players. I discussed ways of getting around the eurofantasy, and I concluded that basically it's probably too hard. (I also found that southern and eastern Europeans hated the term when I introduced it into an online discussion forum. They said that what I meant by eurofantasy did not include their countries' histories--but that was my point. It's a bundle of stereotypes.)

One shortcut to generate the generic exotic is to use RWTs. If you call your fantasy desert land to the south and east something like "Al-Hazeeq," every player will immediately conjure up an Arabian fantasy. If you call it "Chian-Ma," the players imagine a fantastic East Asia. If you have an island country called "Tokumaga" in which samurai and ninja wage war, everybody knows that this is a fantasy Japan. Set aside the problem that most of the fantasy references shared by players will be stereotypes, sometimes of an insensitive variety. You could even throw caution to the wind and use real-world names as R.E. Howard did. Say you create a high-mountain country called Tibet, or change it slightly to Thibett, full of serene monks and snow-monsters called yeti. For some gamers, this is no problem. Point of reference is established. But at this point, your RWT is breaking the fantasy bubble for me. It's not an echo of the real world. It's just a piece of the real world air-dropped into fantasy and it is incongruous with its otherwise fantastic surroundings.

If you had US-American players completely ignorant of geography and history, I suppose you could just lift a historical setting like medieval Hungary, use the real historical names and places, and run it as if it were a fantasy setting. For all your ignorant players will know, it is just fantasy. They never heard of it. So RWTs rely on player knowledge, but the closer they replicate real-world names and terms, the closer you come to undermining the fantasy. How far do you have to go to satisfy a gamer like me, whose day job is studying and teaching about ancient and medieval cultures and history? Sometimes knowing more about a thing ruins it for you. It's a little like the way Marvel comics experts get upset at very particular features in Marvel comics movies that are incongruous with the fantasy they know. Did anybody really like the Hobbit movies if they already loved the book? But RWTs are not quite the same as fan dissatisfaction. I'm not a "fan" of history, insisting that fantasies "get it right." Unlike history, RWTs are not about a particular version of fantasy. It's about any fantasy being undermined by proximity to details already strongly associated with a particular and determined reality. What is particular for you is generic for others.

When I read the fascinating setting book Yoon-Suin, I was impressed by its creativity and eloquence and utility for gamers who want something exotic but not exotic generic. By drawing its RWTs from a quadrant of southern Asia unfamiliar to most Anglophones for its inspiration, it defeats the generic while evoking a land of opium and tea and D&D monsters never met before by your Fighters and Magic-Users. If you want an unusual exotic setting that defies generic tropes and you like to generate a world via results from random tables, this setting is perfect for you, and it's not expensive. At the same time, I stop in my tracks reading Yoon-Suin when I encounter the lands of Sughd (Sogdiana) and Druk-Yul (Bhutan) known by their real-world names. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for monsters like Gyalpo, Mi-Go (yeti, not Lovecraft's space bugs) and other creatures lifted from historical earth. These are, in a way, familiar to me, and they have never been generic. The effect of non-generic RWTs like Sughd, for me, is to break the fantasy in the same way as Howard's Khitai and Hyrcania. It's like making a fantasy world of goblins and dragons and placing an island kingdom in it with a capital called London, in rivalry with another kingdom across a strait called France. The RWTs are too close to the real and violate the boundary of fantasy. In minutes, players would be adopting British and French accents.

I immediately see an argument that some RWTs are necessary to do the work they are supposed to do. They create shared references for a shared fantasy. I'm not against them. The sole point of my discussion is that RWTs may turn from a bridge for fantasy into a gulf across which the suspension disbelief cannot cross.

There is a limit to which one can complain about explicit RWTs. As I repeatedly observe, our fantasies never escape the close limits of our realities. In fantasy role-playing games, we have medusas and gorgons and chimeras, all specific mythological entities turned into generic monsters. But these have been made generic through their repetition recycling in popular culture since before fantasy games began. Because Gyalpo are not common points of reference for everybody's fantasy worlds, perhaps even for any other fantasy world in existence, they are fresh and exotic for some, but fantasy-busting RWTs for a few.

Real-World Transplants are a useful tool to compress lengthy, and often boring, exposition of a fantasy world into a few names and terms that stand in for large quantities of stock stereotype material. They are explanatory short-cuts that give settings a more concrete feeling by loading the fantasy with shared expectations between GM and players. They only work via shared knowledge. But RWTs can also leave participants behind when personal experience interferes with their shared fantasy. Why not change the names, at least? But does changing names render them inexplicable and useless as shared points of reference? If all fantasy settings were required to be completely alien, we'd be left with settings like T├ękumel, a lot fewer participants, and some completely unbelievable fantasy worlds in which it is hard to identify with characters. But even "alien" worlds like Talislanta are full of thinly-disguised RWTs. The degree of density and proximity of RWTs to their referents will remain a matter prior familiarity and individual taste.

Friday, September 25, 2020

"Player skill" should mean dropping INT and WIS

My home rules have no intellectual stats. It's really about player choices and player ingenuity. You don't get to roll to be smart. There are traits for character features like education and professional abilities--if you don't have them, you don't write them down--but there is neither intelligence nor wisdom. Also, every trait does something in the game. I like it that way.

Ever since I read Finch's "Quick Primer for Old School Roleplaying" for the first time, about December last year, I have wondered why early "old-school" players bothered with Intelligence and Wisdom scores at all.

The answer was probably that it's the pure, original D&D, so don't mess with it.

But these stats have little place in a game run by the ethos of "rulings not rules" and "player skill, not character abilities."

If players are supposed to figure everything out on their own, I'm fine with that. That's how I do it. Let the players describe what they think to do, where they look, how they search, all that. But let's not pretend that the INT or WIS scores mean anything worth keeping in old editions of D&D or the retyped new editions with house rules plugged in.

Take Moldvay's Basic as a popular point of reference.

What does a high INT do for you in old B/X D&D? It lets you speak one to three more languages, which makes no sense. It also gives Magic-Users and Elves more experience points. In effect, you get a roll before the game begins which determines whether or not you get an edge over other players. Your GP count for more XP if you are "smart." Experience points for free, without work, because you rolled a high score on a single pre-game roll.

Otherwise the Intelligence score is not good for anything.

Wisdom counts for something slightly more substantial in B/X D&D. A high score lets you resist magic better. The wisest possible character, one in 216, gets a +3 bonus to resist magic on a d20 saving throw, or... +15%. Huh. That's really not much for being the "wisest" person around.

I guess they might have called it "Magic Resistance" instead of Wisdom. But no, magic resistance is Cleric-themed. Clerics (the most D&D-ish of character classes) get free experience points if they get lucky on that single pre-game roll.

Anybody who actually takes the idea of "player skill, not character abilities" seriously might as well dispense with these nearly meaningless scores that clutter up an otherwise slightly cleaner character sheet. Really, the D&D ability scores are nearly meaningless in old editions of that game.

Now, Moldvay did write, basically, "hey, DMs, you could even have players roll against ability scores on d20 to test a score!" (page B60). This was not shades of 5e years in advance. It was Moldvay noticing how practically every other game at the time employed characters stats that actually mattered and that did stuff in play. Moldvay could scarcely have predicted how this concession to function would infuriate "old-school" gamer dogmatists well after he had died. Apparently, Moldvay was not truly "old-school."

The ability scores in old D&D rules are so useless that I think they are not needed at all. Just drop them. All of them. Characters have class and level abilities and equipment. That's all they need, if you take the "players skill" and "DM just decides anyway"--I mean "rules not ruling"!--principles seriously. But you probably don't take those principles too seriously. I know you guys love your ability scores. You get high off knowing that your Magic-User has an Intelligence of 18, even if it matters scarcely at all in the game. Feeling potent or powerful is one of the appeals of role-playing, and just writing a high score on your sheet may accomplish that, even if it never involves a roll of dice.

D&D dogmatists of the new-fangled "old-school" variety uphold principles that are out of sync with a game that has stats for Intelligence and Wisdom. Luckily for the game, when you get down to playing, abstract principles matter a lot less than having fun together. You can keep feeling good about that high INT score while still saying that player skill matters most. I won't tease you about it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Why I don't use monster reaction rolls

Monster reaction rolls have been praised as an especially good “old-school” mechanic. It is supposed to make your fantasy adventure game less into a series of combats and to give opportunities to get around monsters without murder. Sometimes monsters will be your friend, accept bribes, or negotiate. It is not just fighting and killing.

I gave wandering monsters a shot, with fun results, but I just can’t bring myself to use this kind of reaction roll. I prefer to rely on my sense of the monsters’ motivations and role-play them.

It’s not just that a lot of the foes in my current Barrowmaze campaign are undead and constructs and other entities with “programmed’ reactions.

My principle is that player choices and circumstances are the most important conditions to monster reactions. These are not randomly determined.

I expect my players to characterize how they act when they are encountering monsters. If they barge through a door into a subterranean monster lair, holding torches and weapons and wearing armor, those monsters are likely to perceive a threat (no matter how Charismatic the heroes are). This is especially so where monsters are aligned in factions that hate each other and are in a constant state of struggle.

If a home invader, who does not speak your languages, bearing a gun or a big knife and shining a flashlight at you, breaks into your apartment, do you invite him to sit down with his weapon to join you for dinner? The odds of that don’t deserve an outcome on a reactions chart. Probably you would do what the monsters in my game do: attack, or adopt a defensive stance, or flee.

Even if the PCs come in with offerings of rations for the monsters or with toys to play fetch, heavily armed strangers trudging into their homes or lairs are not likely to be welcomed.

The monsters’ response depends on their monstrous goals, their level of intelligence, and above all the stakes for them, not on a chart. What kind of threat do the player characters pose? Do they look tough? In fleeing, will the monsters abandon their prized possessions or their food supply? Do they have anywhere to which they might flee without running into dead ends or other monsters? Will they face punishment from a master if they flee?

These are specific to the conditions of the scenario, not random conditions.

If the encounter takes place away from the monsters’ home, then the monsters’ goals are the main factor. It is easy to create goals for monsters on the spot, depending on what they are and where they are. Rolling for these things can make delays just when the excitement of players is piqued at an encounter. I do not delay to roll; I just play.

But in a dungeon exploration fantasy game, I take the point of view of the monsters at hand and make a call without yet another roll of the dice. The monsters’ motivations and resources are the main factors in the decision I make on their imaginary behalf. You know: role-playing.

If the monsters need help or if they are injured, if they are clever or if they are benevolent, then their responses will vary according to their motivation.

I’m not going to roll for reactions when these things already have a rationale in the game. Rolling for reactions seems artificial and violates the sense of story and ignores player choice.

In short, in my games, player choices and setting are the factors that determine monster reactions in dungeons, not dice. That is just how I do it.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Combat as a Contest in Table-Top Role-Playing Games

One thing that I’ve been thinking about since returning to role-playing games is “abstraction” in combat. How do combat mechanics simulate a real fight? What do the rules select for your attention amidst all the factors that could be emphasized?

Most role-playing games have combat rules that show their wargame roots clearly. You roll for initiative. The fast fighter takes a shot at the slower one. Then the other side gets a shot. Bing, bang. One shot, another shot. This is the model of D&D, and it’s the one that predominates in role-playing games, regardless of genre. Fighters hit each other back and forth alternately.

This method of play has never satisfied me. It doesn’t feel like a fight. It feels like two cavemen slugging it out with clubs. It does make some sense for miniatures in Napoleonic miniatures battles, where attacks are mostly ranged attacks, to have one side fire and then the other. It doesn’t make sense for a duel between swordsmen or a warrior versus a dragon.

GURPS is superior to this, in my view. There are defense rolls as well as attack rolls, so the one getting attacked has a chance to be engaged and to block or dodge or parry. There are various ways to attack and various ways to defend. The drawback is that it’s quite complex. Players need to strategize how to go about taking down a foe and how to protect themselves, but to do so optimally, they need to learn the ins and outs of a large variety of combat options and the pros and cons of each. A knowledgeable and skillful GURPS GM can take the burden off the players by mastering the rules and can run the game as a series of dice rolls demanded in response to player choices in combat. The players don’t have to worry about the mechanics, but just roll 3D6 as directed. Eventually, though, players can become dissatisfied because they dislike not knowing the odds of success in their choices. GURPS works best when the players and the GM know (study) the GURPS rules. That is time and effort, and my current players are not willing to put in work to play. Anyway, in GURPS fighters take turns attacking each other, just as in D&D.

There has been, since just about the beginning of the hobby, an entirely different system for resolving combat. It started with Tunnels & Trolls in 1975. Ken St. Andre didn’t really know the D&D rules, but he understood the concept. He came up with a non-wargame way to handle combat as a contest.

The premise is competing combat scores tallied every round. You roll a certain number of dice based on the weapon your character is using and add a certain number to the total (called “adds”) derived from high Strength, Dexterity, and Luck scores. The higher total wins, and the difference between the total scores is damage done on the loser. Your Constitution score is your hit points. As you gain experience, you can increase these scores (among the others) and that increases your adds (and odds) in combat.

Group combat in Tunnels & Trolls works the same way. Each side totals all their dice and adds, creating a group sum. The winning side distributes damage equal to the difference, dividing it up evenly among the losers. Armor will reduce the damage done to individuals.

I’ve heard gamers call this system abstract. That’s because you don’t learn about any individual blow from specific rolls of the dice, as you do in D&D. It seems non-concrete to players used to D&D. In the T&T system, the dice indicate the outcome of a few minutes of fighting instead of individual shots. The dice totals represent in general how well you do in a fight, not which specific blow hit and at what moment.

I disagree with the idea that this is more abstract. All combat systems are abstract, by necessity. The difference lies in which factors the mechanics emphasize and how it feels. I think the T&T system feels more realistic: combat is a contest of skill and ability and other factors. In group combat, a strong fighter can keep weaker fighters safe. To me, the D&D system, wherein opponents take turns getting one shot each at each other in a cycle, is the more abstract way. There is no contest in D&D combat—unless you count initiative. That’s why it doesn’t feel like a fight to me. If you watch boxers or duelists, they don’t take turns attempting to hit each other, waiting for the other guy before attempting to strike again. They try to overwhelm each other through many factors, trying to win an overall advantage. One boxer doesn’t hit the other and then wait for the other to hit back. D&D combat is seriously abstract.

In the T&T system, initiative doesn’t matter so long as both sides intend to fight. Factors like agility and speed are taken into account already in the dice + adds system.

The T&T system was rarely emulated. It continued in several respects in the Fighting Fantasy system (1982 onward). This was designed for simple solo play in which not many factors interfere in combat. Yet it represents combat as a contest, not alternating blows.

The abstraction of D&D’s alternating blows predominates among the countless role-playing games out there in the world. The idea of combat as a contest is rarely found in other games. To me, this was a missed opportunity in game mechanics. Basically, there is Advanced Fighting Fantasy, and Troika! derived from it. This represents a tiny sliver of the games out there that use this early game mechanic that never caught on and displaced the old wargame mechanic.

My own home rules are derived from the T&T/AFF tradition. Combat is a contest, not alternating slugs.

I can imagine D&D players responding to me here saying, “Well, it’s all how about you narrate the combat.” That’s exactly the same in my system of combat as a contest of abilities. You narrate the results of the contest depending on the totals of dice. The difference is that, in my system (conceptually, derived ultimately from T&T), the players and I can interpret the totals in ways that are not bound to individual strikes, when a single blow is landed. When combat is a contest, players feel combat as a gamble against a foe, sizing up the foe’s strength, not an attempt to get past somebody’s armor. The players and I narrate combat together on the basis of the dice + adds totals.

The bigger idea here is that there are alternatives to the rules most people use. This is just one more way in which the “Old-School” obsession with versions of D&D limits possibilities of play that were actually broader in the old days. It should be possible still to rethink even the most basic things.