Monday, December 26, 2011

World Action & Adventure

It seems that OSR bloggers like to post about their 'Christmas swag' so why should your humble host be any different? Via the wonders of Alibris, I acquired the World Action & Adventure trilogy by Gregory L. Kinney. Yes, THAT is how much of a geek I am. I've been (moderately) intrigued by this game since seeing the above ad in Dragon #106. Back in 1985, the time of its publication, neither my interest nor my disposable income were sufficient to actually purchase the game. A quarter of a century later, my disposable income has increased somewhat and I can buy the books for less than cover price.

Kinney touts WA&A as “The Universal System for Realistic Role-Playing.” Although the concept of a universal system wasn't novel in 1985, the execution of such was still in its infancy; GURPS was yet to be published. Kinney's notion of 'universal' does not conform to what is usually meant as 'universal' in a role-playing sense; that's because WA&A is realistic. Yes, your humble host has excoriated 'realism' in RPGs, but only when 'realism' is forced upon the fantasy milieu. WA&A is universal only to the extent Kinney intends for it to simulate any historical or current setting in the real world. Extremely little provision is given for situations that could not reasonably be encountered in everyday existence.

So, WA&A is realistic in that it is supposed to represent the real world. It also contains a boatload of 'real world' information. However, the realism of the rules system is debatable; in addition to absorbing some degree of damage, armor makes a character more difficult to hit. Doubtless, Kinney's notion of RPG realism is heavily influenced by D&D; he even lists the Gygaxian array of pole arms. Kinney does go into detail but he manages to avoid the sort of convoluted mathematics that afflicts some systems. We will examine WA&A more thoroughly in later posts. For now, let me say that I am not disappointed in my purchase. The Animal Combat Table includes a line for “Spit (Camel).” How awesome is that? The SRD camel description doesn't mention spit at all. WA&A can sit back with a smirk on its face and say, “Camel spit? We got that covered.”

WA&A is not a great RPG, but it is playable. The production quality is less than perfect, but it puts The Realms of Atlantasia to shame (although that's not saying much). It seems that Kinney received fifteen units of college credit for his WA&A books. Any geek can write a role-playing game, but how many can get an institute of higher learning to give them credit for it?

One wonders whatever became of Kinney. The only definite reference I found is this. Alas, his attempts at being a screenwriter did not meet with success if his lack of an IMDB listing is any indicator. (I mean, even Alexis has an IMDB listing.) This is not surprising given his script ideas. A more cruel blogger would ridicule some of these ideas, but I just don't have the heart.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Your humble host's seasonal gift to you devoted readers is a custom level of the Warden for your Metamorphosis Alpha edification. This level features full scale replicas of 'wonders of the world' and other structures of historical and cultural import. As long as there's the space to do it, why not have recreations of these structures so that the colonists can have a better appreciation of their human heritage? This is the layout before the disaster; feel free to add radiation zones and whatever details you see fit. You can have type-4 humanoids inhabiting Petra and Angkor Wat infested by sword bushes!

The approximate scale of each hex is: 3 miles (4.83 km) from side to opposite side or 3.464 miles (5.577 km) from corner to opposite corner. Depending on which level this represents, the scale will vary slightly, but unless the characters have surveyor's tools (and know how to use them) they're not going to notice the meager difference. Please note, since there is no curvature of the Earth, there is no horizon per se.

On the map, the thick gray line represents a simulated section of the Great Wall of China. For other features, please refer to the following key:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Paul Jaquays and the Darkside

First, let it be known that your humble host is happy for Jaquays. This post should not be construed as an attack upon that person or a condemnation of that person’s recent choices.
Next, allow me to provide some background information for those readers not “in the know.” Back in the day, Paul Jaquays was a talented designer of table top role-playing game material, especially adventure modules. Jaquays, also a capable artist, provided graphics for various RPG products. Eventually, Jaquays transitioned to the computer gaming industry. Given the money involved, I can’t blame Jaquays for abandoning table top RPGs. Now, Jaquays is undergoing a different transition. Jaquays recently announced the adoption of a feminine identity, “both socially and physically.” Paul Allen Jaquays has become Jennell Allyn Jaquays.
Nowadays, gender transitions aren't exactly front page news and the fact that one of the RPG 'old guard' is transsexual shouldn't be a big deal. What makes this case interesting is that it's Paul Jaquays and to appreciate why this is interesting, we must venture to the Darkside.
Around twenty years ago, Jaquays designed the first few installments of a generic system series of sourcebooks branded as 'Central Casting' by Task Force Games; specifically:  Heroes of Legend, Heroes for Tomorrow, and Heroes Now! Each book provided a system of tables that could be used to provide depth and 'color' to player characters (and non-player characters). This was good stuff – boatloads of random tables for character generation. What's not to love? Someone needs to reprint these or at least make them available as cheap PDFs on RPGNow. The young folks these days don't know about good products like these. There is more to this hobby than the 3.5/4E pablum that gets churned out and marketed to our unknowing youth. This is why the OSR is important. This is why we need to preserve and cherish our heritage. Excuse me, I digress. Where was I? Ah, yes...the Darkside.
Via the tables, characters could acquire personality traits. Pleasant and worthwhile traits were called Lightside. Unpleasant or immoral traits were called Darkside, representing the baser aspects of humanity (or, one assumes, other species). Starting with the second book, neutral traits were also included. Characters could have a combination of traits. Possession of Darkside traits did not necessarily imply that a given character was evil; such traits could be interpreted as 'flaws' that a character could work to overcome. However, “...more often than not, characters who exhibit several [Darkside] traits are either knowingly evil or have become trapped in a lifestyle of wrong behavior.”
The problem is that “unpleasant” and “immoral” are subjective concepts. Because Jaquays created the books, it was his paradigm that determined what traits qualified as Darkside. At the time, Jaquays was an unabashed religious conservative. (I have no doubt that Jaquays remains religious, just not as conservative.) Among the Darkside traits were “sexual perversions,” including “transsexualism.” (Other listed ‘perversions’ included homosexuality, bisexuality, and transvestitism.)
Let’s put this in perspective. Jaquays went on a personal journey where she confronted and accepted that she is, in fact, what she once vehemently condemned. This is especially courageous and deserves admiration. Gender – and the explicit division thereof – is a core component of identity in our civilization; so much so that we have distinct pronouns for different genders. Essentially, Jaquays had to fundamentally reassess an identity she held for over fifty years. After that accomplishment, wearing high heels doesn’t seem so difficult.
Anyway, Jaquays was criticized (perhaps justifiably) for his deprecatory treatment of alternative lifestyles in the Central Casting books. In Heroes Now!, references to specific “sexual perversions” were removed and replaced with a section that touted ‘wholesome’ values and decried “popular” trends that sought to “brainwash society” into accepting “perverse behaviors” as normal. Your humble host is given to understand that Jaquays now has a different attitude, allegedly* saying that “There is content in my Central Casting Books which represents a different mindset than I now hold.”
In closing, I would like to provide a paragraph from the original Heroes of Legend:
I would think that Jaquays stills subscribes to this sentiment, although she has a different perspective as to what “deal with their problems” entails.
* Although it seems reasonable that Jaquays would say this, I cannot find the actual source for the quote.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Robots, Androids, and the Ship's Computer

wherein your humble host continues his cover-to-cover analysis of Metamorphosis Alpha

Starting on page 6, there is a section called “Ship Devices and Units.” Most of the section is devoted to descriptions of equipment; however, there are also details about the ship's features and not all of those details are intuitively organized. For example, the presence of an artificial moon and stars for “natural areas” is incongruously indicated under the description of “City Units.” The term “unit” is rather vague and the rules use it in a variety of contexts throughout the section. First, 'unit' refers to a dwelling unit. The artificial gravity generators are also described as units. A unit can be a portable device (such as the 'Engineering System Hand Unit') and, apparently, it can be a robot (or at least a robotic drone). The next section (page 7), “Starship Equipment,” provides details about robots (occasionally referring to them as units), but the “Ship Devices and Units” section provides details on the 'Ecology Energy Tracer Unit' and the 'Security Tracer Unit.' The Security Tracer Unit includes yet another unit – a propulsion unit. (This might make a decent drinking game. Maybe Jim Ward was getting paid 'by the unit.') Given that they have means of propulsion, the tracer units are not hand tools. The Ecology Energy Tracer Unit can summon a forest robot; this suggests that it is a robot. A drone would not summon a robot, a drone operator would.

The “Starship Equipment” section begins with the sentence, “Here is a listing of the various features and equipment on board the starship.” This introductory statement more accurately describes the previous section. Regardless, the “Starship Equipment” section has a “Weapons Systems” sub-section; otherwise, the section is devoted to describing the various robot models – along with brief entries regarding anti-grav sleds and androids. This section describes six models of robots: (1) standard general purpose, (2) ecology “forest,” (3) ecology “garden,” (4) medical, (5) engineering, and (6) security. Each model is described as an outline list of equipment; each item is identified by a capital letter. This wouldn't be so bad if the lists were uniform; for instance, if Item 'F' for each model referred to the robot's propulsion. As it is, each model is a haphazard list that is not consistently organized. For example, the security robot has a gas pellet ejector (Item 'E') and two slug ejectors (Item 'J'); the gas pellet ammunition is not a separate item, but the slug ejector ammunition is (Item 'K'). All in all, the robot descriptions in Gamma World would be more consistently organized and take up less relative space.

As I pointed out before, robots are subject to the vocal commands of anyone with an appropriate color band. They also have standard programming. Some robots possess “independent action circuits,” implying some sort of artificial intelligence. Page 8 states that “robots will never kill any type of life – this program is implanted in all primary logic circuits.” Ecology robots are equipped with herbicides and insecticides so, clearly, this is a misstatement; perhaps robots will never kill any type of animal life. The special note on robots concludes with:
Robots are programmed to assist humans, and they will react to the harming of life with immediate force (but to subdue rather than kill) – even if the aggressor is wearing a command color band.
All this suggests implementation of some variation of Asimov's Laws of Robotics.

While the description of the robot models is about equal to an entire page, the discussion of androids consumes less than one-quarter of a page. Androids are vat-grown chemical life. How are they perceived by robots? For robotic purposes, are they human? The 'Security Hand Unit' described on page 6 can differentiate between the energy reading of a human and an android, so it is likely that robotic sensors can also detect the difference. Are androids “second rate” humans; to be served and defended as long as real humans are not inconvenienced? Do androids have priority over 'natural' animal life or does their status as constructs mean they are less important?

According to page 8, “Each android is designed so that when it is almost at the end of its life expectancy it will change color.” Are androids available in a variety of colors? I would think that, given the controversy about androids indicated in the text, androids would have a 'non-human' coloration. Perhaps they start out blue and become violet near their expiration date.

Also on page 8, “All programmed androids are implanted with the idea that to harm or even touch a human in any way is impossible for them.” (Are there any androids that aren't programmed?) This is interesting. A robot can move a human out of harm's way, but an android cannot. A robot can perform a life-saving medical procedure, but an android cannot.

Page 23 devotes a couple of paragraphs to the ship's computer. The computer seems to be quite versatile as an artificial intelligence. According to the “Languages” section on page 24, the computer has learned the common language of the ship and “continually updates its that they will be usable by humans on the ship...” The computer is aware of the problems caused by the radiation catastrophe.
Its program makes it want to help humans on the ship in any way possible – not only to live on the ship but to someday reach a safe planet, even though that is now impossible under the new conditions borne of the radiation disaster.
Why does it have to be impossible? The organizers of the expedition realized the potential for calamitous events. They included a supply of security robots on the ship. Per page 4, they made it possible for the command center to flood any area of the ship with paralysis gas. Certainly, the computer would be programmed with catastrophe protocols or, at the very least, the computer's artificial intelligence could adapt to exigent circumstances. Why can't the computer educate some humans or directly program some androids (an ability indicated on page 8) to reinstate whatever control it lost due to the radiation catastrophe? According to the Introduction on page 3, disaster struck “some one-third of the way to the planetary destination...” Since the Warden had not yet reached the half-way point, perhaps turning back might have been in order.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why We Need to Trash Atlantasia

I’m writing this post in response to what Greg Christopher says here. Yes, as of this writing, that post is more than a week old; however, I did not notice it until very recently. This is part of the reason I am posting here rather than commenting there.
I respect Greg Christopher. He puts out a quality product for free and his material looks more professional than much of the RPG material on the market. I don’t take what he says lightly. After careful consideration, I find that I do not agree with all of his points.
Christopher talks about the disparaging remarks recently made by the RPG online community against John Holland and his The Realms of Atlantasia role-playing game. Specifically, he says these remarks are more telling of the makers than the target. As any devoted reader of this blog knows, your humble host has issued some of these remarks. I stand steadfastly by these remarks and I believe they should be voiced.
As I indicated previously, I believe there are two valid complaints against Holland; his “arrogance” and the abominable production values of his book. Note that I have made no judgment regarding the quality of the game. Among the other concerns aired by the community, there are: (1) the quality of his website, (2) his alleged misogyny, and (3) the ‘stolen’ artwork. Although I do not find it esthetically pleasing, we should not judge Holland or his game based upon his website. I do not think Holland is a misogynist, but the half-elf thing is silly. I pointed this out, but we should not let such a small matter affect our view of the whole. With regard to the cover art, we should refrain from lynching Holland until we have all of the facts. (Personally, I think Holland is innocent.)
Christopher thinks that the RPG online community is insular. I concur. He believes that most people in the RPG hobby are not as informed as our online community. Lacking evidence to the contrary, I concede this point. He also states that the RPG online community is an elite group, both privileged and lucky. I do not concur.
Holland is not ‘just anyone’ in the hobby. He tenders a product that he claims is different than comparable products and that is not passé. (It is new and different; therefore, it is innovative.) Although Christopher’s objective is not to “defend the author,” he manages to offer some excuses for Holland. The fact that Holland resides in “rural Canada” is irrelevant; Raggi is in Finland and he is very much involved in the RPG online community. The keyword here is “online.” You don’t need to be privileged and lucky to participate in the RPG online community (other than to the extent that you have an Internet connection), you just need to be online. There is no exclusive password; no secret handshake. Yes, there is jargon. Learning jargon is not insurmountable. Everyone learns jargon the same way, by interacting with the community.
The Wikipedia entry for ‘role-playing game’ has a direct link to If you want to sell stuff to tabletop role-players and start “going after the big boys” (as Holland says), a minimum of research into the market reveals the presence of the online community. The fact that the tabletop RPG hobby – like every hobby – has an Internet presence should not be a surprise. Christopher says that Holland “is coming from a place of ignorance, not arrogance.” If someone asserts claims without establishing the validity of those claims (as seems to be the case with Holland), then ignorance IS arrogance.
Christopher notes that professional publishing software is expensive and requires some degree of technological sophistication. I can't argue with that, but using a spell-checker doesn't take much skill. Holland forgoes basic formatting of his work. I can almost forgive Holland for not providing an index, but the lack of a table of contents is inexcusable. Holland is not exactly deficient in funds; he was able to pay for the services of iUniverse. (Speaking of which, iUniverse should have been able to help with some of Holland's formatting needs – unless they're a rip-off).
I have found that the online RPG community can be very supportive and helpful (at least to people not perceived as arrogant). Someone on with the user name of “jaerdaph” created an Atlantasia map without being asked (and it looks quite good). Supposedly, Holland is “not in this for the money.” If so, he could provide the PDF for free – like other small publishers; like Christopher himself. Alas, Holland wouldn't know about these things because he never bothered to find out. Holland is the object of derision because of things that he could have avoided with a modicum of effort.
Should tabletop RPG hobbyists be encouraged to share or publish their efforts? Absolutely. However, if we want to bring new people into the hobby, products like The Realms of Atlantasia do not help – they hinder. Atlantasia might be a decent game, but the presentation so awful that people don't take it seriously. It reflects very poorly on the hobby. If we want people to take our hobby seriously, we need to be serious about the hobby. Kid gloves are not the answer. Let us not pity John Holland; let us encourage fundamental standards of quality for our hobby.
P.S. The other reason I didn't comment at Greg Christopher's blog is because I can't.  So if someone could contact him and let him know about this post, that would be great.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Scenes From the Class Struggle Aboard the Starship Warden

The design for the Warden “was the most ambitious ever attempted” and it was “the wonder of the Interstellar Colonization Age.” Doubtless, exorbitant amounts of resources were necessary for its construction. What would motivate the United Western Starship Cartel to do such a thing? During the (first) Age of Exploration, there was a commercial motive to establish colonies. The Warden, even if successful in its colonization mission, would not be a profitable venture because it would take generations to travel between Earth and the colony. To the Cartel, the Warden represents a huge cost but no return. Why bother? I think that the Warden construction project must have boosted the 23rd century economy. Maybe that was the entire purpose: to create jobs and stimulate growth. The Warden is merely incidental to the Cartel's financial objective of influencing the economy of the entire Solar System.

Although the Warden is a ship, in some ways it is a society; at least it was before the disaster. There is a crew of 50,000 and a colonist population of 1.5 million; a literal microcosm, self-sufficient by virtue of the vast environments and the miracles of 23rd century technology. According to the Introduction:

...[T]he colonists were not rigidly screened for the expedition, for it was held that the Warden's accommodations would place few physical or psychological stresses upon colonist or crewman.

If you want 1.5 million volunteers, I guess you can't be too choosy. I suppose that genetic engineering would have eliminated the more commonplace hereditary disorders. Besides, if the economy rather than the expedition was the goal, you might as well fill up the ship with telephone sanitizers and send it off.

Presumably, it would take the Warden several generations to reach its goal. The crew, at least, has a purpose. On the other hand, the colonists aren't really colonizing anything; their descendants will. Until they reach their destination, each generation of 'colonists' is merely breeding stock. Even a crew-person could be disheartened by the knowledge he or she will never reach the destination. I think it's possible that the ship's computer withholds the knowledge of how close the Warden is to the colony planet. In this way, any given person (beyond the first generation) might expect to arrive at the ship's destination. This would give the colonists something to do with their lives – prepare for the arduous tasks associated with establishing a colony, because they could be the colonist generation.

Society on the Warden comes with a built-in caste system in the form of color bands. The color of your skin doesn't matter, but the color of your band does. Imagine how the divisions among the crew might be perceived: Greens are so flighty; that's typical red behavior; I don't have anything against greys, but I wouldn't let my daughter marry one. Of course, if you're not crew, you're colonist – a 'commoner' with a brown band. I mean, without the color band system colonists might “stray into command or possibly harmful areas.” Dumb colonists. You know how they are. Last week I went slumming in the colonist levels and I heard this joke. Two whites, a green, and an android walk into an alcoholic beverage dispensary...

Given the multi-generational aspect of the ship's journey, there must be a system of education – up through advanced stages – so that responsibilities can be handed down from generation to generation. Perhaps all children undergo competency testing and are trained accordingly; a bright colonist child might even become a crew person. I suppose young children don't have bands at all. Perhaps “getting one's band” is a sign of maturity, a rite of passage akin to getting a driver's license back on 21st century Earth. Of course, the color of a young adult's band would be brown until he or she is accepted into one of the crew castes. Someone who flunks out will have a colonist's band for the rest of his or her life; a mark of shame for someone from a crew family.

According to page six, “The command personnel band is alternating blue and red...The security band is red.” What blue represents is not defined, but I think it must be the ship's bureaucracy. This would mean that command personnel would be drawn from the security and bureaucrat castes. Scientific and engineering castes would not qualify for command positions. Thus we have the basis for starship politics.

Page six also states that the Warden has four captains. Does that mean a primary captain and three 'deputy' captains? Or does that mean each captain has equal power, but that their responsibilities are distributed among them? Perhaps there is a council of captains with shared power and responsibilities. How are captains appointed? Are they democratically elected from among the command personnel? Who gets to vote? Is there colonist suffrage? Are the captain appointments for life? Maybe the ship's computer determines the captains via a meritocracy algorithm.

One final note: I would like to point out a mistake I made in my post on November 20, 2011. According to page 6, an artificial moon and stars appear during night cycles in the natural areas. I have added a postscript to that blog entry. The wolfoids do have something at which to howl after all.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Elf Sex in Real Life

or ‘Realistic Fantasy’ is a Contradiction

John Holland claims to offer “complete realism (or as close to realistic as a game can get)” in his memorable role-playing game, The Realms of Atlantasia. Last week, we discussed the sexual mores of Atlantasian elves, but are those mores realistic? Not according to the woman in this article (also, this video – probably NSFW). Clearly, Holland doesn't have a clue about the sexual attitudes of real elves.

Holland says that The Realms of Atlantasia is “the most realistic fantasy based role-playing game...on the market.” Holland thinks that “fantasy” RPGs should be “realistic.” Holland is hardly the only designer with this viewpoint, but he allows me a convenient way to broach the topic. Why, in the name of The Great Svenny, do some designers feel the need to adulterate fantasy with realism? Fantasy and reality are – by definition – contrary. Fantasy RPGs are vehicles for escapism; realism defeats the purpose.

The goal of playing a fantasy RPG should not be to simulate reality (I have enough reality, thank you). The goal is entertainment. Rules (and whatever realism they encompass) are guidelines toward achieving that goal; they are the means, not the end.

The fictional setting of a fantasy RPG acts as a ‘consensus reality’ for the game master and players. It is convenient to model such consensus realities upon objective reality; however, this should only be done to the extent it facilitates a common understanding among the participants. The source material for fantasy RPGs is not objective reality, it is fiction. Designers shouldn’t add realism to fantasy RPGs, they should add unrealism. They should intentionally deviate from objective reality in an effort to inspire the wonder that the source material generates.

Assigning a numerical value to represent the durability of a character’s cotton breeches (The Realms of Atlantasia The Game Master's Bible, p. 47) does not contribute to a sense of fantasy and it is not something that I find entertaining. We can assume that the durability of clothing is finite and if such needs to be addressed, common sense and/or game master fiat will adequately meet our needs. Don’t focus on the mundane, focus on the fantasy.

To paraphrase Jack Kirby, why mirror reality when you can surpass it?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Skills in Metamorphosis Alpha

For role-playing games prior to the publication of Traveller in 1977, skills (as opposed to class abilities) were not a significant feature of player characters. An arguable exception is Empire of the Petal Throne (1975), where players had some choice regarding their characters' background skills, some of which were “useful for adventuring.” The rules for Metamorphosis Alpha contain sparse information about character skills. A character's 'skill' derives from what the player discovers about the environment as well as what the character discovers about the function of new items pursuant to the Item Complexity Table on page 22. Regardless, there are hints that skills could play a more prominent part in defining a Metamorphosis Alpha character.

The character sheet (human and mutant) contains a block for “Judge-Given Skills & Items.” Clearly, there was some expectation that the judge would determine which skills each beginning character would have. However, none of the beginning player character examples address this.

There is an interesting statement in the 'Distribution of Monsters (Mutations) and Treasure' section on page 21:

Note: a player cannot shoot a gun on board ship just because he or she can in real life! The player must learn how first. If trial & error is used, this may take up to 6 months time.*

Does this mean “up to six months” after the gun “has been understood by the character” by virtue of the Item Complexity Table? Or is this an assumption of the amount of time that the Item Complexity Table would require? Expertise with a gun suggests a more in-depth aptitude beyond the mere knowledge of how the gun operates. If so, with what 'weapon classes' from page 19 can we assume beginning characters are proficient? Weapon class 3 (swords & daggers & bludgeon types) would seem to be basic knowledge. Would weapon class 1 (bows & blow guns) require a tribal/settlement background? With regard to weapon class 2 (crossbows & spear types), might a character have a working knowledge of spears but not crossbows?

In issue number 14 of The Dragon (May 1978), Ward wrote “The Total Person In Metamorphosis Alpha” which provides (among other things) charts that can be used to define a character's background. Specifically, there are four 'background' charts: (1) environment from the earliest times to the pre-adult years, (2) actions in the pre-adult years, (3) basic interests and/or talents, and (4) special abilities.

The first chart presents twelve possible environments including “Island” and “Fully Operational City.” With regard to the second chart, there is a 25% chance that “time was spent hunting.” Other 'pre-adult years' possibilities include “healing and helping others” and “fighting mutated creatures.” There is a 40% chance that a character will not have any basic interests and/or talents. Otherwise, the third chart lists options such as “collecting domars” and “knowledge of transportation devices of all types.” There is a 60% chance that a character will not have a special ability. For those fortunate enough to have a special ability, the possibilities include “knowing the effects of plants and herbs” and, intriguingly, “communicating with and beguiling creatures of all types.”

The article lacks information about how to implement these background options into game terms; the judge is left to his or her own discretion. Ward does provide an example through which we may gain an idea of what he intended. An “engineering section” environment allows a character “a certain knowledge of metals and the opening and closing of doors.” A “combat of any type” talent provides “a plus to hit and on damage.” Lastly, the “attacking with a sword” special ability grants “another plus.”

* Of course, we understand that 'player' in this context refers to 'player character.' In other words, a player's capabilities are not necessarily shared by that player's character. 'Player' is used for 'character' at other points in the rules. From our perspective, we are able to interpret the distinction; however, it is not surprising that contemporary critics developed incorrect assumptions about how players assumed the roles of their characters.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Elf Sex in Atlantasia

Mike Mearls is sweating.  “[T]he most realistic fantasy based game around,” is now among us and “it’s a taste of what’s to come.”  It seems the way we think about role-playing games is about to change.  John Holland, resident of Vulcan, Canada, has graced the world with his masterful role-playing game, The Realms of Atlantasia, and he’s “going after the big boys.”  Hence the reason for Mike Mearls’ anxiety.

Of course, given the staggering importance of this event, your humble and intrepid host has acquired a (PDF) copy.  Thoul’s Paradise is here to sate your curiosity as to this new standard among RPGs.

There remains some question as to whether Atlantasia is a parody.  If it is a parody, it is brilliant, exquisite, and colossal; it eclipses Encounter Critical as the mighty Sequoia overshadows a simple shrubbery.  Given this unlikely level of attainment and the pricey set-up costs of the publisher (iUniverse), your humble host has difficulty accepting that it is a parody.  We are compelled to treat Atlantasia as a sincere effort and more’s the pity.  If Holland is indeed sincere, he might want to swallow his pride and act like it was a parody from the start.

Regardless of the quality of the end product, should we disparage a truly sincere effort? Did not the esteemed Zak recently encourage us all to publish our pet projects? I concur with Zak's sentiment; however, Holland has committed two unpardonable sins. He has engaged in naïve pomposity and he offers a work of absolutely dismal production values.

Apparently, Holland hasn’t seen any RPGs that have been published since he began work on his magnum opus eighteen years ago (nor does he seem to be aware of any advances in website design since then). Holland considers percentile dice and different schools of magic to be innovative.

The book is 545 pages long. There is no table of contents; there is no index. Other than the cover, there is no art. Internal organization is lacking (for instance, creature listings are not alphabetized). Obviously, Holland's word processing expertise does not extend to the use of a spell checker.

Somewhere, Mike Mearls breathes a sigh of relief.

There are only so many hours in a day and there is so much to deride. (A text search for the phrase “anal circumference” does not yield any hits, so at least it’s not a hack of F.A.T.A.L.) Rest assured, Thoul's Paradise shall soon revisit The Realms of Atlantasia.

Heaven forfend I should conclude this post without mention of elf sex. Recently, around the blogs, there has been some discussion of the sexual mores of Atlantasian elves. Page 3 of 'The Game Master's Bible' states:

On Atlantasia, you will NEVER find a half-breed elf (if a female elf was ever raped by another race she would commit suicide).

From this remark, we assume that elves are not attracted to other races but, since there is a possibility that an elf may be raped, other races may be attracted to elves. We also assume that elves are inter-fertile with these other races or else there would be no concern that a half-breed might result from a rape. What if a non-elf used a disguise (magical or conventional) to appear like an elf and thus engage in consensual relations? I mean, there's more than one way to shag an elf.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Book Review: The New Death and others

Even though this blog has been in existence for less than a month, I have been asked to write a book review. Naturally, I feel it is my duty to apprise my cherished readership about RPG related products they may find of use. The New Death and others * is not a set of rules, or a module, or a game supplement per se, but the author asked that I provide “either a normal book review, or a review of its suitability as gaming inspiration.” Well, 'gaming inspiration' certainly falls within the purview of this blog. Also, why write a blog and turn down free swag? (If Raggi is reading this, my sensibilities would not be offended by a complementary copy of Carcosa.) Thus I present my humble commentary.

The New Death and others (hereinafter 'New Death') is an e-book that collects short stories, poems, and vignettes by James Hutchings. This is the same James Hutchings who is responsible for the 'Age of Fable' website. (For the record, 'Age of Fable' earned a place on my Links page before Hutchings contacted me about New Death.) The short stories are indeed short; I think the longest runs no more than six pages. Make no mistake, I consider this a good thing. As the Bard said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I would think that someone traveling for the holidays might appreciate this format since it allows the reader to frequently start and stop without having to consider a given piece within the context of a longer narrative.

Among the poems, there are some that are based on stories by Howard, Lovecraft, Smith, and Dunsany. The influence of these staples of fantasy literature extends beyond Hutchings' poems and into his prose. (Perhaps I am mistaken, but there seems to be a hint of Borges as well.) I'm afraid that my appreciation of poetry is not what it could be. I make this disclaimer because my lack of praise for the poetry should not be interpreted necessarily as a deficit of merit, but as a deficit of my ability to evaluate such.

In “Everlasting Fire,” mention is made that making puns is the Eighth Deadly Sin. If this were indeed so, Hutchings would be on death row right now. Some of his stories (such as “The New God”) turn on a pun while others (such as “The Adventure of the Murdered Philanthropist”) are infested with them. If puns are to the reader's taste, then the reader is in store for a feast. Personally, I prefer them in small doses if they must be included in my literary diet at all.

All in all, there is a respectable variety of stories and there is little conceptual repetition. Some stories are cute and some are clever. With certain exceptions, New Death supplies as much gaming inspiration as any work of imaginative fiction. In my opinion, these exceptions are what sets New Death apart from 'any work' and permits me to add this book to the 'thoul approved' reading list. These exceptions are the stories (and one poem) that regard Telelee.

Telelee is Hutchings' outstanding setting that incorporates the city of Telelee and the wider world beyond. “How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name” provides the following description of the city:

...Telelee is as the sea into which all rivers flow, or the market where all gather, or as some moralists have it, the lowest point in all the world, to which all base matter must descend.

A story set in Telelee will have protagonists, but Telelee is always the star. This is where Hutchings' creativeness shines and if gaming inspiration is to be found anywhere in the book, it will be found here. Outside of New Death, Hutchings has a blog devoted to Telelee, although the blog refers to it as Teleleli. I don't know the reason for the difference. If Hutchings wants to provide gaming inspiration, I suggest that he cull his blog, excise the puns, organize the information, and publish Telelee / Teleleli as an actual setting – perhaps system neutral – for role-playing games. (He should then find some outlet for his puns and whatever other inner demons he might have.) Regardless, even without Telelee, New Death is suitable for gaming inspiration; with Telelee, such inspiration is almost guaranteed.

New Death is available for download from either Amazon or Smashwords for a low, low price of ninety-nine cents. Most people spend more than that on a cup of coffee. New Death is more valuable than a cup of coffee (and lasts longer), so the buyer is getting a real bargain here.

* From what I can tell, the 'o' in 'others' is not capitalized.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

It's Not Easy Being Human

In Metamorphosis Alpha, a player may choose to play a mutant with superhuman powers or a human without superhuman powers. The world of Metamorphosis Alpha is a dangerous place even for characters with superhuman powers, so there seems to be little reason to play a boring human. To add insult to injury (or rather injury to insult in this case), 'True Humans' are susceptible to more damage from weapons (according to page 19). Metamorphosis Alpha does provide subtle incentives to play a human, but can those incentives outweigh the obvious advantages of mutant abilities?

The Metamorphosis Alpha rulebook contains two blank character sheets; one for humans and one for mutants. Essentially, the differences are that humans have the leadership potential ability and mutants have mutations. There are other differences between humans and mutants, most of which are not reflected on the character sheets. However, beneath the space for 'name,' the mutant character sheet has a space for 'creature type' while the human character sheet has a space for 'next of kin.' This underlies the sociability of humans as an advantage in Metamorphosis Alpha.

According to the section on Human Tribal Areas on page 23, all human player characters begin the game “in some sort of human settlement.” The implication is that mutant player characters do not begin the game as part of an organized society. (There is no section on Mutant Tribal Areas.) According to page 10, “Player mutations start in the forested area of the ship, with no material goods.”  Humans are “...assumed to possess the normal living materials common to [their] any other assorted items the referee sees fit to give...” (p. 11). Curiously, both the human and mutant character sheets have a section for 'judge-given items' separate from other item inventories. Societies of humanoids and mutant creatures are described in the rules, so depriving player character mutants of starting equipment and community support seems to be an artificially imposed factor in an attempt to balance humans against mutants.

Metamorphosis Alpha treats intelligence in inconsistent ways. The descriptions for the 'Time Field Manipulation' mutation and the 'Anti-Leadership Potential' mutation defect both treat intelligence as if it was an ability (like constitution or dexterity) with a maximum numerical value of 18. The 'Heightened Intelligence' mutation provides a bonus to mental resistance and “increases the ability to figure out ancient ship devices” (p. 14). The Devices, Equipment, Duals And Weapons* section on page 21 states, “While there is no separate category of intelligence, it is subsumed in leadership potential.”

Ward's article, “Some Ideas Missed In Metamorphosis Alpha” in issue number 5 of The Dragon (March 1977), claims that “...Mental roughly analogous to the Intelligence factor in D&D...” and should be used rather than leadership potential when figuring out technological items. This is incorporated in the 2007 official errata. When leadership potential was used as intelligence, only humans could figure out 'new' technology. This makes sense in that the technology was designed to be used by humans and humans could draw upon tribal folklore regarding technology. This also provides an advantage for human characters as opposed to mutants. Logically, however, what's to prevent someone (or something) from pressing buttons until a catastrophe occurs or the item's function is determined?

Leadership potential is an exclusively human ability. This is because, according to page 11, “nonhumans of any type” have an ingrained distrust of each other. (Do mutants not have 'next of kin' because they are estranged from them?) Again, this does not agree with the notion of organized societies of humanoid and mutant creature 'races' that are described in the rules. Because of leadership potential, human characters can acquire followers; another attempt to offset the advantages of mutations. The description of leadership potential continues:

When dealing with a mutated human, because of the change in him, he is too close to the “creature” and not close enough to the “human” to have this leadership potential.

When a player chooses to play a mutant character, he or she may play a mutant human ('humanoid') or a mutant creature ('monster-like'). The description of leadership potential suggests a 'spectrum' of human qualities, with 'human' at one extreme and 'creature' at the other. Evidently, mutated humans fall closer to the 'creature' end. At the risk of indulging in philosophical pedantry, what qualities are required in order to be human?

Page 10 expressly states what happens to a human who develops a mutation via radiation exposure, “...[H]is leadership potential is negated and his followers will...leave no matter what he does.” Will he be ostracized from his human community? What about non-obvious mutations? Page 10 also states that a player of a mutant human “...can pick mutations that will allow [the character] to pass among humans...” Certainly, there are benefits to being perceived as human.

Robotic units can be controlled by verbal orders from anyone with an appropriate color band, so it would seem that a human appearance is not necessary to control robots. However, per page 8, robots will not kill humans (or any form of life), but they will actively defend humans – apparently automatically. The main ship's computer, per page 23, will help humans but a “...mutant will be treated like any other dangerous creature...” Robots and the computer would have to rely on basic appearance and 'assume' that someone who looks like a human is a human.

Why can't a mutant who appears to be human have followers? Page 11 states that “...leadership potential is usually given to humans of pure strain...” (my emphasis). Would it be too unbalancing for mutants 'passing' as humans to have leadership potential? Having followers is symbolic of status as well as 'proof' of one's humanity.

Lastly, Ward's article, “The Total Person In Metamorphosis Alpha” in issue number 14 of The Dragon (May 1978), presents other advantages for humans – a +2 bonus against poisons and using d8s instead of d6s for hit point determination. (Alas, these advantages were not incorporated into the 2007 official errata.) Interestingly, the article also presents the possibility of a mutated human with a 'pure' human parent (a sort of 'half-mutant' as it were). Such a character receives the constitution benefits above and will not have a physical mutation defect. The character would necessarily come from “a mixed village of mutants and humans,” which provides the organized society benefits otherwise denied mutant humans. (This 'half-mutant' possibility is also excluded from the 2007 official errata.)

* I assumed that 'Duals' was supposed to be 'Tools,' but 'Duals' appears uncorrected in the 2007 official errata.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Luke Skywalker vs Dorothy Gale (and her little dog, too)

A young person is raised on a farm by an aunt and uncle. Said young person despairs of life on said farm. Said young person is swept up into adventure and confronts the Forces of Evil. Along the way, said young person meets up with a metallic man and some furry dude. At the end of the story, it turns out the young person had the ability to accomplish the goal all along! Many sequels ensue.

Alexis (in this post) discusses heroes and how stereotypical D&D player characters are not heroes. There is not much in the post with which I disagree. Alexis seems to suggest that Dorothy Gale is a hero. OK, I'm down with that. So I ask Alexis if he considers Luke Skywalker to be a hero. (I mean, Alexis doesn't have to like Star Wars to agree that Luke Skywalker is a hero.) In Alexis' opinion, Luke Skywalker is not a hero. Then I ask why Dorothy is heroic if Luke is not. Alexis laughs this question off and does not deign to provide a straight answer. Why should he? Clearly, I'm going to interpret things however I want.

Is there anyone out there that can play devil's advocate (or, in this case, Alexis' advocate)? Seriously, I'd like to know what qualifies Dorothy to be a hero as opposed to Luke. From what he writes, it seems Alexis thinks Luke is self-centered; that his goals are selfish. I guess bringing freedom to the galaxy was just incidental to his plans. What about Dorothy? She wasn't a crusader. Her motivation was to return to her aunt and uncle. If not for that motivation, Dorothy could have chilled out with the Munchkins. Am I missing something or does Alexis need to take off his green spectacles?

To avoid quibbles of canonicity, let us restrict ourselves to the original movie (Episode IV) and the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Thanks.

Monday, November 21, 2011

At least I'm not a gnome

According to this quiz, your humble host is a

True Neutral Elf Wizard (5th Level)
Strength 11
Dexterity 11
Constitution 13
Intelligence 14
Wisdom 14
Charisma 11

With 'Perdustin' as my name, it would be embarrassing if I wasn't a wizard.  I guess this means I have at least 10 hit points.

(Please note that this is my "4d6 self" and not my "3d6 self.")

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Stack of Sandboxes


At what do the Wolfoids howl?

The setting for Metamorphosis Alpha is a colonization starship that encountered “unknown radiation.” Havoc ensued and the inhabitants regressed into primitives, eventually losing the knowledge that they were on a starship. Player characters explore the ship and encounter forgotten technology and mutated creatures.

The starship provided as an example, the Warden, is a huge ellipsoid about fifty miles long, twenty-five miles wide, and nine miles high. (The builders used a futuristic alloy of incredible properties.) The interior of the craft is divided into seventeen horizontal levels. Some levels are devoted to storage and/or the ship's functions. However, many levels are self-contained ecosystems inhabited by a plethora of terrestrial flora and fauna, now altered due to radiation exposure.

Metamorphosis Alpha gives brief descriptions of every level and detailed descriptions of two levels. Yet the rules emphasize (in bold lettering) that the provided descriptions “are intended only as examples...” After all, the focus of the game is exploration and players cannot genuinely 'explore' something with which they are familiar. The rules suggest that the general layout of the Warden should be used, but that the details of the levels should be unique for each referee.

I imagine that a prospective referee in 1976 would find the creation of so much detail to be a daunting task, even if only a small portion of the ship needed to be described for the commencement of play. Another confounding factor for the prospective referee being there was no obvious, introductory motivator for the players – a dungeon (for lack of a better term). In a dungeon, choices are constrained; open the door on the right or continue down the corridor. Relative to the wide open options that Metamorphosis Alpha presents, a 'dungeon' is more easily managed by a referee, but still provides sufficient interest for the players.

Nowadays, 'sandbox' is the term of art for a geographic region with which player characters can interact, pursuing whatever goals they choose. Back in the day, in our ignorance, referees only had maps with keyed encounters (and we were thankful for that much). In essence, the setting of Metamorphosis Alpha is a stack of sandboxes.

If we are going to make each level unique, we should understand the standard features that levels possess.

It seems that each level has artificial gravity, but should that necessarily be the case? Why bother with artificial gravity for a level primarily devoted to storage? Gravity might even be a detriment with regard to certain maintenance areas. According to the description of level 1, “There is a large...hatch...for on-planet removal of supplies.” This means the intent was to land the Warden on the colonization planet! No matter where the Warden sets down, its mass would cause it to sink into the ground, most likely to a depth that would prevent the hatch from opening. Even if the Warden used contra-gravity beams or some other kind of trickery to keep from sinking, there would be a great deal of damage to the 'landing area.' I like to think that the Warden would stay in orbit. Level 9 has “a section housing small space ships for scouting missions.” There's no reason why they couldn't be used as shuttles and 'small' is a relative term compared to the bulk of the Warden.

What about light? The section on 'Forested Areas' makes reference to night cycles and day cycles. Is there a solar disk at the 'center' of the sky for each level? Given the central elevator shaft, I don't think such a thing would be practical. What seems more likely is a 'ceiling' of diffuse luminescence. Along with this luminescence, there would be ultra-violet radiation. This is necessary for many (most?) living things, including humans, and also gives the robots something to do with their ultra-violet lenses. For the night cycles, the luminescence would be diminished significantly. Without a sun, why bother with a moon? Would stars appear on the artificial firmament? I doubt it. Which stars would they be; the stars as seen from Earth? It seems that the voyage of the Warden was to last for several generations. Imagine generations of people who know the sun, moon, and stars only as abstract concepts. Of course, given their lack of knowledge, the player characters and their generation would have no idea of what those terms mean. In Metamorphosis Alpha, poetry takes a backseat to survival.

To replicate the seasons, the length of the day and night cycles would need to change over time. There must also be weather. The description of the Weather Manipulation mutation indicates that “the computer has a 25% possibility of immediately correcting any weather disturbance on the starship.” This means that weather phenomena are somewhat fine-tuned by the computer. Is there a weather schedule? Does it always snow on the 346th day of the year?

P.S. (December 11, 2011)
I am embarrassed that I missed the following item from page 6:

The natural areas have an artificial moon and stars that cast enough light to travel by.

It seems there is the potential for poetry after all!  I assume that the moon goes through its usual phases.  Still, there is no description of an artificial sun, only "diffused [light] throughout the walls."

Now the question is, what stars are they?  The stars as seen from Earth?  Which hemisphere?  Is the pattern static or do they change seasonally?  Perhaps they are the stars as seen from the observation deck of the Warden.  Perhaps they are the stars as seen from the planet to be colonized.

P.P.S. (January 22, 2012)
Tucked away in the description of Small Warriors on page 18 there is the following statement...

Its nests are usually found in areas where the artificial sun does not shine...

I think that my notion of a 'ceiling' of light can properly still be called "artificial sun" and more practical than a solar disk that arcs along the roof of each level.

P.P.P.S.  (January 29, 2012)
Jim Ward's short story, "Footsteps in the Sky," contains some germane information.

First, regularly scheduled weather is confirmed.  "In the morning it rained, as it always did every third day."

Second, the statements "the sun was now out of sight" and "the sun went down," irrefutably indicate the presence of a solar disk.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Science Fiction Adventures On A Lost Starship

The first remarkable thing about Metamorphosis Alpha is that it is contained within twenty-four pages (not counting character sheets and reference pages). Many 'modern' Role Playing Games devote that much (or more) to fluff. Of course, brevity is the hallmark of 'old school' and the 'rules' are rather loose. In bold lettering on page 26 we have this decree:

Remember, however, that these rules (and specific portions thereof) are only intended as guidelines – and that many details are best described by the individual game judge.

I think that all RPGs subscribe to this concept to some extent; however, there are certain guidelines that have become standard convention, while alternative guidelines fell by the wayside over the years. Later RPGs (and their players and Game Masters) take these surviving guidelines as granted. I don't claim that this is a bad thing, it's just how RPGs developed.

For instance, I think most of today's table-top GMs would agree that – as an unstated guideline – more than six or seven players in a given campaign would be less than optimal. Metamorphosis Alpha puts the 'Number of Participants' at 2-24. While I think it would be rare that two dozen players would be participating in the same adventure, all of their characters would exist in the same, contemporaneous setting. In truly 'old school' campaigns, any given character could be “off stage” for several game months training, recovering from wounds, participating in a mercantile expedition, etc. A campaign was not merely a sequence of adventures for one party of characters, it was a shared environment for many characters engaged in various activities that could affect one another.

Another 'expected' guideline for modern RPGs is the notion of character advancement, typically in the form of a character 'earning' a volume of abstract 'experience points'; with enough experience points, the character's abilities improve. Character advancement in Metamorphosis Alpha, such as it is, does not follow this paradigm.

JDJarvis of Aeons & Augauries mentions six 'methods' of character advancement available in Metamorphosis Alpha. I have shamelessly copied his list from the OD&D Discussion Boards (for educational purposes).

Explore the ship and learn it's secrets.
Acquire technological devices.
Figure out and use those technological devices.
Acquire new occasionally useful mutations.
Survive mental assault and build mental resistance.
Recruit followers.

The first three are 'practical' while the last three are not necessarily practical. Acquiring mutations requires exposure to radiation. There is a 1% chance per die of radiation damage of getting a mutation or a 20% chance of getting a mutation (instead of dying) when the radiation chart indicates death. Also, the mutation so acquired could be a defect.

Increasing Mental Resistance is possible by resisting mental attacks; for every five such attacks a character resists, he or she gains one point of Mental Resistance.

Only humans can recruit followers.

I would generalize character advancement into two categories, 'physical treasure' and 'knowledge.'

Physical treasure includes not only ship technology; it also includes domars and conventional items like furs and tools that the characters can use or trade away. There is an interesting statement on page 3, “[Characters] can also make use of the secretions and liquids produced by the mutated plants and creatures of the forest levels.”

Knowledge includes how to use treasure (or even if something is 'treasure'). Knowledge can regard what abilities different 'monsters' possess. Characters learn about their environment (geographical features, tribal customs, et al.) through exploration and, as JDJarvis said, the ship's secrets.

We can think in terms of character advancement, but Ward also wrote about player advancement. The players learn how to interact with the fictional game environment, how the rules work, and (given the time when the book was originally published) how to role-play. “As players become more adept, [the referee] can then increase the difficulty of the problems they will face...,” is from page 3.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Revisionist Mythology II -- The Groundlings Strike Back

In the comments of our last thrilling installment, a dispute arose concerning the veracity of a statement made by Alexis:
“...this insistence that [Star Wars] is ‘the greatest movie ever made’ is merely a bit of social wish-fulfillment...”

The Anonymous Timothy expressed a desire for Alexis to prove this statement; after all, the burden of proof lies with the party making the assertion. Alexis indicated that Alec Guinness' autobiography contains sufficient proof; alas, Guinness' statements are hearsay and we cannot accept them as proof. Alexis then said, “Try Google.” Personally, I take this to be a cop-out. Nonetheless, as a nascent blogger attempting to cater to his audience, I followed up on Alexis' suggestion. (I used dogpile instead of Google, but that's how I roll.)

Of course, nearly every movie has its proponents. (Some wag has even put forth an argument for The Dukes of Hazzard.)

Anyway, this BBC poll from ten years ago seems on-point...and, yes, it tends to support Alexis' position. So, there are (many) people who consider Star Wars to be “the greatest movie ever made.” We may not concur but, to these people, Star Wars is the greatest movie ever made. The world will never come to a consensus as to “the greatest movie” because such a determination is inherently subjective. Certainly Star Wars is a very popular movie but, in terms of cinematic art, it is subject to criticism.

Thus we have an elitist/populist dichotomy; the intelligentsia as opposed to the groundlings, the people who read Proust as opposed to the people who don't and (if I may be permitted once again to invoke Orwell) the Party as opposed to the Proles.

So where does Joseph Campbell fit in to all of this? Well, Alexis suggests the possibility that Campbell may have been misquoted. This is a valid observation and if we expect Alexis to provide proof of his assertions, we should practice what we preach. However, it doesn't really matter what Campbell said because, according to Alexis, Classicist academia considers Campbell to be “something of a whack job.” Thus, the elitist/populist dichotomy is at work again, academics versus the mythology of pop culture. Whether whack job or uncultured dolt, we are back to where we began.

I find Campbell's insight to be fascinating and educational. Without further ado, here are some quotes from Campbell's The Power of Myth.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think...that a movie like Star Wars fills some...need for a model of the hero?

CAMPBELL: I've heard youngsters use some of George Lucas' terms – “the Force” and “the dark side.” So it must be hitting somewhere. It's a good sound teaching, I would say.

CAMPBELL: Well, you see, that movie [Star Wars] communicates. It is in a language that talks to young people, and that's what counts.

CAMPBELL: ...Star Wars is not a simple morality play, it has to do with the powers of life as they are either fulfilled or broken and suppressed through the action of man.

CAMPBELL: Certainly Lucas was using standard mythological figures.


I think these quotes give us a good idea of Campbell's attitude about Star Wars.  This movie may no longer 'speak' to Alexis' view of life, but it 'speaks' to a great many others' view of life.

As this post draws to a close, I pose a question. With regard to “social wish-fulfillment,” isn't that the basis of mythology after all?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Revisionist Mythology

The other day, Alexis at The Tao of D&D* trash talked Star Wars. Alexis is kind enough to inform us that any adult who appreciates Star Wars is an uncultured dolt. Joseph Campbell believed that Star Wars re-introduced modern audiences to the concept of the monomyth. Ergo, by Alexis' estimation, Joseph Campbell was an uncultured dolt. If I am an uncultured dolt for liking such a well regarded film, then at least I'm in good company.

Star Wars is an example of intellectual property with significant cultural impact. Sometimes there is conflict between the 'owner' of such a property and the people ('fans') deeply affected by that property; such has been the case with some of George Lucas' efforts to 'revise' certain details of Star Wars. (For the record, not only did Han shoot first, but Greedo didn't get off a shot at all. Those are the facts. Deal.) I am reminded of when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes; public outcry was so great, he was eventually compelled to bring Holmes back. When does should an artist lose control of his creation?

Another intellectual property with significant cultural impact (well, impact to Our Hobby at least) is The World's Most Popular Role-Playing Game. There is occasional discord between the owning Wizards and those who cherish the game's origins. At least we have the Open Game License; the Wizards are free to take the path where My Little Pony leads them and we are free to preserve, if not enhance, what we hold dear.

Han shot first.

The Great Detective lives.

D&D is ours (except for beholders and displacer beasts and stuff).

* Alexis is like Emmanuel Goldstein in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Just as Goldstein served as the focus of the Two Minutes Hate, Alexis is a target for cathartic release. If Alexis did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Love Child of Metamorphosis Alpha

Have you ever encountered a moose with quills? Or a teleporting woodpecker with a double brain and a poison beak? How about a nearly invincible jaguar, complete with the ability to change its body density and emit a sonic shriek, but which fears birds?

No, it's not The World of Synnibarr, it's the back cover of Metamorphosis Alpha! Still, in essence, Synnibarr is Metamorphosis Alpha on a planetary scale and steeped in concentrated gonzo. So, thinking about this similarity, I went to Raven c.s. McCracken's official site. It seems that in October, McCracken posted an article about Synnibarr and it's quite interesting.

Yes, this post is about Synnibarr more than Metamorphosis Alpha.

No, Synnibarr technically isn't “old school,” but I feel justified in discussing Synnibarr because of the influence of “old school” upon it. (Also, I notice that the first copyright date for the first edition of Synnibarr is 1980.)

It turns out that McCracken's very first exposure to a role-playing game was Metamorphosis Alpha. Viola! McCracken eventually played D&D and (after a couple of incidents you can read about for yourself) was psychologically scarred. Through this crucible of destiny, Synnibarr was formed.

What sort of game would McCracken have devised if D&D had been his first RPG? Or Tunnels & Trolls? Or Traveller? Would he have created any game at all? Would we have ever heard of him? Some may think we would be better off without Synnibarr; a philistine attitude.

Synnibarr has a dubious reputation; so dubious as to be included among the worst role-playing games ever. This is a harsh assessment. In the twenty years since Synnibarr was first released, RPGs that are truly abominable have crawled out from under the rocks. The trouble is that Synnibarr is three things: it is a rules system, it is a setting, and it is the presentation of the system and setting. The rules leave much to be desired and the presentation is less than ideal. On the other hand, the setting is beautiful, glorious, and majestic...from a gonzo perspective.

McCracken concedes that at least some of the dubious reputation is deserved. Nobody's perfect. The man had some ideas – not all of them bad – and he published his game. This was before print-on-demand; before the Internet. Cut the dude some slack.

Another reason Synnibarr is looked upon with disfavor is because it enables power gaming. (McCracken readily admits to being a power gamer.) Power gamers can be tiresome when they interact with players who want to cast spells and kill dragons on more moderate terms; however, there is nothing wrong with power gaming when all players are on board for that kind of experience. Sometimes it's fun to play a mutant cyborg Panther Man ninja.

Anyway, McCracken says he's been working on updating The World of Synnibarr. I am impressed by his perseverance. A lesser man, bowed by ridicule, would have slouched into obscurity; instead, McCracken refines his original vision. It does not seem as if this new edition will be available anytime soon, but this is definitely a goal McCracken is working toward. From the article:

The first publication will be the new combat and game engine and just the bare bones required to fully make a few characters,  and include races (six at this point), basic equipment, abilities, skills, and of course, details about the setting of the Worldship itself.

I assume that talking raccoons are among the six included races.

McCracken writes that he wants simple rules and has a “goal of unrestricted imagination.” So far, so good. However, he also wants “to maintain as much realism as possible...” Maintain realism? We're talking about ninja tesseracts, midnight sunstone bazookas, and flying elk. You can't maintain realism if you don't have any to start with. People who want to play Synnibarr are looking for an outlandish, over-the-top experience; they're looking for fun, not “a hard mathematical basis.”

McCracken says the whole point of gaming is to have fun. I wholeheartedly agree. Alas, beyond this common ground, McCracken's viewpoints start to diverge from my own. McCracken is excited about something he calls the PHYSICAL PROPERTIES OF MATERIALS TABLE (all caps). To me, this sounds almost as thrilling as the periodic table (no caps). “Without this table,” McCracken comments, “things such as damage are simply fictionalized approximations.” Unlike McCracken, I happen to think that fictionalized approximations are fine for fictional environments.

The attraction of Synnibarr is the setting. It doesn't need a game engine that tries to emulate reality. You can't facilitate unrestricted imagination by employing a formula that equates “things like the calories required to change the temperature of a gram of water plus or minus one degree centigrade and the energy’s relationship to Joules.” Sweet Aridius!

In my unsolicited opinion, Synnibarr needs something like the 4C System; it's available, simple, proven, versatile, and scalable. Regardless, I wish McCracken well on his endeavor.

If there is a just and loving God in the Centiverse, then one day I shall play a talking raccoon who wears a sombrero...with tassels.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Happy Birthday Tom Moldvay!

According to the Social Security Death Index, Thomas Steven Moldvay was born on November 5, 1948.  Were he alive today, he would be 63; he was taken from us too soon.  Aside from being the editor for the best instance of D&D ever, he demonstrated his talents in many other game-related products.  I would be remiss if I did not include a link to his bibliography on Dragonsfoot.  He is an underappreciated genius.

Among his other accomplishments, Moldvay wrote (i.e., designed and developed) Lords of Creation, a multi-genre role-playing game.  (I can't state definitively that it was the first multi-genre RPG, but I can't think of an earlier one.)  In the main rulebook, Moldvay presented several settings he called Lands of Wonder:
  • The Elder Lands -- A fantasy setting representing an aggregate of 'mythological' versions of ancient cultures (including Sumerian, Hittite, Egyptian, Greek, et al.).
  • Imperial Terra -- A science fiction setting which is somewhat generic.  Still, with only a page-and-a-half of descriptive text, Moldvay included some kernels of inspiration.  It really deserved to be fleshed-out.
  • The Land of Ulro -- A fascinating, if not bizarre, setting "inspired by the mystical poetry of William Blake."
  • The Swashbuckling Era -- An historical setting which gets almost three pages, including a map of 17th century Paris.
  • Priddo -- A parallel world setting where "[s]cience was used to explore and codify the reality behind magic.  The technology of Priddo is based on magic."
  • The Elemental Planes -- a setting of 'pocket universes' representing the five 'elements' (earth, air, fire, water, and shadow).
  • The Nine Worlds -- An 'alternate dimension' setting representing the cosmology of Norse mythology.
In the rulebook, the map of Priddo is difficult to read, given its size and the fact that it is depicted in black and white.  For my own edification, I created a more 'user-friendly' map.  I present here the fruit of my humble effort.  Gray areas represent unexplored regions.

In honor of Moldvay, I think today I will "pimp" my copy of Revolt On Antares.