Friday, September 22, 2017

Aeon Flux and the New Weird

I've read a lot about the New Weird "genre" in my explorations of the evolution of the "Weird Tale" at the end of the twentieth century, but at this point I'm mostly convinced that it isn't a clearly definable approach, style, aesthetic, or set of literary conventions. This isn't unique to the New Weird; generic definitions are almost always more about marketing than they are about descriptive utility. You might reach the same conclusion if you read:

Working Definition of New Weird (Jeff VanderMeer for the New Weird anthology)

What is the "New Weird" - and what makes weird fiction so relevant to our times? (Michael Moorcock, New Statesman)

The new world of New Weird (Damien G Walter, The Guardian)

New Weird (TV Tropes)

Cross-Crafting with a Vengeance: The New Weird (Karen Ostertag, New City Library)

Basically, all I've learned is that:
a) If a book is described as "New Weird" there's a better chance I'll enjoy it over books that are just described as "fantasy" or "science fiction."
b) M. John Harrison seems like a really grumpy guy.

My unpopular opinion: the "New Weird" started with Dune.

Anyway, what I'm most interested here is what media typically gets excluded from the umbrella of the New Weird. In contrast, the Gothic is a migrating genre--it started off as a descriptor for fiction, but it quickly adapted itself to stage drama, film, comics, etc. You get a little migration and adaptation with the New Weird; TV Tropes identifies some comics and tabletop games that seem within the bounds of its generic reach. But it's unusual to find film or television described as New Weird, which is interesting given the genre's supposed propensity to mash up disparate forms and mirror the transmedia state of modernity. 

So I'll make a case for a something that is either a hidden precursor of New Weird or perhaps even an early example of the form: 

Aeon Flux.

Here's how it stacks up:
Urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place (VanderMeer): The nations of Monica and Bregna are not of our world, or at least not recogniably of our world. And yet, the tension between the two is set-up as a space to explore modern anxieties without the romanticization of place found in fantasy fiction; while the two are analogs for fascism vs. freedom, both are irreducible to the category they supposedly represent. Both nations are urban and industrial (if not post-industrial).

Often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style, and effects (VanderMeer): Tonally and stylistically, Aeon Flux does not adhere to traditional narrative devices; it remains purposefully obscure by short-circuiting narrative expectations by way of surreal or transgressive elements such as the recurring death of its protagonist, disconcern for additive narrative continuance, Gnostic and philosophical elements, existential horror, allusions to fetishistic practices, et al.

It's a specific genre of Scifi/Fantasy/Horror literature that does not follow the conventions of derivative Sci-Fi, Fantasy or Horror, without being an outright parody or deconstruction (TV Tropes): Aeon Flux combines aspects of science fiction, pulp adventure, philosophic horror, cyberpunk, literary decadence, and fantasy, but the intention of the admixture is to avoid the derivative concepts of any of those genres. Although the show has elements of humor, parody, and deconstruction, those are coexisting elements rather than the point; the show is also serious, existential, and "academic" in its approach when the amusement wears thin.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Game of Fangs

The Lamashtuan Intrigue Campaign aka "Game of Fangs"

Premise: the characters are all in service to the noble House of Rhiannon in vampire-ruled Lamashtu; they engage in politicking, intrigue, spying, and occasional violence to advance the cause and position of their house--but they also each have a secret agenda they are covertly pursuing.

Feels like: the talky bits in Game of Thrones, and occasionally the violent bits, but with vampiric feudalism.

Rules hacks: lots of 4e style skill challenges based on social skills, social encounters handled a bit like combat, definitely tracking Renown and making it matter.

The characters:

Race: Dhampir
Class: Mastermind rogue
Level: 3
Background: Noble
Str: 9 Dex: 18 Con: 11 Int: 13 Wis: 10 Cha: 18
Personality Trait: Flatterer
Ideal: Power
Bond: I must forge alliances in my house's favor
Flaw: I hide a truly scandalous secret
Magnus is a bastard son of a minor vampire noble of House Rhiannon and his mortal concubine. He sees his service to the house as a way of proving his worth. His goal is official recognition by the house's elders through acts of <redacted>.

Florian d'Targan
Race: Half-elf
Class: College of lore bard
Level: 3
Background: Entertainer 
Str: 8 Dex: 14 Con: 12 Int: 16 Wis: 15 Cha: 19
Personality Trait: Insulting
Ideal: Creativity
Bond: I sympathize with the downtrodden
Flaw: I once satirized a noble who still wants my head
Florian poses as a mere musician attached to House Rhiannon, but in truth he is as much a collector of arcane secrets as he is a collector of songs. His goal is <redacted>.

Race: Human
Class: Divination wizard
Level: 3
Background: Seer
Str: 9 Dex: 14 Con: 14 Int: 16 Wis: 14 Cha: 10
Personality Trait: I must make people heed my visions
Ideal: Manipulation
Bond: I will have revenge on the man who destroyed my family
Flaw: I loathe charlatans
Orest's origins are a mystery, but he has proven useful to House Rhiannon because of his gift for accurate prophecy. He has glimpsed far enough into the future to know that it is his destiny to <redacted> House Rhiannon.

Maria Marzistrada
Race: Weretouched
Class: Oath of the crown paladin
Level: 3
Background: Cloistered scholar
Personality Trait: I am awkward and stiff in social situations
Ideal: Power
Bond: I have been searching for knowledge about the fate of the gods
Flaw: I would sacrifice anyone or anything to gain information
Str: 18 Dex: 11 Con: 13 Int: 12 Wis: 14 Cha: 13
Maria was a foundling, reared in a nunnery and prepared for a life of military service to House Rhiannon. Her ambition is to claim <redacted> in the name of her masters.

First Session
The party has been sent as a diplomatic mission from House Rhiannon to the court of Baroness Maylak, but they come with knowledge and a purpose. They know that there is a plot within the court of House Maylak to assassinate the Baroness; they have been sent by House Rhiannon to expose the plot, not to the benefit of House Maylak, but rather as a ploy for House Rhiannon to gain power over House Maylak.

Traveling with the party is the dour, raven-haired Emelda Rhiannon, a minor noble of their house. Strangely, Emelda seems uninterested in bringing House Maylak under House Rhiannon's heel. 

After settling into their appointed rooms in the ancient, crumbling Castle Maylak and paying their respects to the Baroness, the party split up and began to pursue rumors they had heard circulating during their reception (and the later feast) at the Baroness's court. Florian and Maria had heard of an unorthodox cult posing as a scientific society (The Society for Celestial Inquiry is a cover for the Cult of the Solar Truth), and managed to find their meeting place and infiltrate their ranks. Maria's attempts to draw them out by debating spiritual matters was a dead end, but Florian's pointed mockery managed to throw the secretive cultists off just enough to reveal that they were expected allies to arrive in three days, at dawn, at the Traitor's Gate of the town surrounding the castle.

Meanwhile, Magnus barged into Emelda's rooms within Castle Maylak to sound her intentions and true allegiances. Magnus's approach was a peculiar form of seduction--he wanted to reawaken her loyalty to House Rhiannon. This exchange ended in something of a stalemate; Emelda is clearly hiding something, but she pledged to stay out of the group's way as they went about the business of foiling the plot against Baroness Maylak's life.

Orest found time to explore the frigid catacombs beneath the castle, and was able to determine that what the party suspected was correct: there are a number of secret passages hidden within the ancient tombs that lead outside the castle's grounds to various places in town. Orest's magically exploration also discovered that fiendish spellcraft had been used recently in the castle's dungeons. However, Orest found it difficult to navigate his way back--the corridors and rooms in the lower depths rearranged themselves for an unknown purpose.

On the appointed day, the party hid themselves near the strangely unguarded Traitor's Gate to intercept the Cult of the Solar Truth's allies. The allies arrived hooded and cloaked. The party ambushed these new arrivals and discovered that they were devils, fiendish beings of ash and ice, not men and women! Two of the diabolic cohort were slain in the melee, but the rest managed to escape by conjuring a wall of wintry storm that held back their would-be pursuers. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Azurth Adventures Digest

The first volume of the Azurth Adventures Digest has been released! Pdfs on drivethrurpg, hard copies available directly from the author.

I can't give you an unbiased review of the book because I did some editing work on it, but I can tell you that the adventure contained in it saved my ass a few weeks about when I ran out of prep time in my Scarabae campaign. I switched out the aesthetics to fit with what I already had mapped out, but I can also say that, as written as a place to explore, the adventure works really well and generated a great session; you can read about it here

And you don't have to take my word for it, Anne Hunter played in that session and did a great write-up of it here on her blog DIY & Dragons. I love all the commentary she has about her character's motivations and shifting emotional landscape. 

I've been super lucky to play with great people like Anne on Google+, and we're all super lucky that people like Trey are adding fun stuff to our games.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Old-School Heresies

I don't think druids and bards are lame at all.

* * *

So I'm fine with druids and bards, yeah? But you know what I do think is kinda lame, though? Greyhawk. I've never been able to find anything really, truly interesting about it, and worse yet when I ask fans what is interesting about it they can never seem to articulate a reason. Sometimes I get a list of Proper Names as the reasons why it's a cool game setting, but when I press them on what's neat about those things I get back "Oh, those guys are an evil order of assassins." O...kay.

I've also noticed that Greyhawk fans also don't seem to even agree about the basic feel of the setting. I've had people swear up and down that Greyhawk is the epitome of D&D sword & sorcery...but then someone else will pop into the thread and tell me that it is D&D's best medieval society simulator...which the cover image above does do a lot to support, but come on, which is it?

I even think the names in Greyhawk tend toward the embarrassing. Fuckin' Wee-Jas, you know?

It turns out, for the record, that the official D&D settings I tend to like are the ones least rooted in traditional fantasy:

  1. Ravenloft
  2. Planescape
  3. Dark Sun
  4. Eberron
  5. Dragonlance

Yes, that's right, I think Krynn is way more interesting than both Oerth and Faerun. Don't @ me.

* * *

Arguments about character skill versus player skill often seem silly to me because the "old-school tactics" held up as examples of player skill seem more like ritualistic behavior than inventive strategy. Maybe the first time lard and marbles were used to make a hallway tough to traverse was a novel event, but by the twentieth time you've seen that particular deployment of "player skill" it's just going through the expected motions. It's a lot like making the same fucking Monty Python jokes every game.

I also suspect that there is a certain type of old-school game master who prefers light, stripped-down rules just because it limits the stuff that characters get as they level up. Some people have a weird "But what if they get abilities that interfere with the adventure I wrote?" or "What if they break my precious dungeon?" or "What if they have fun I have not personally sanctioned?" vibe about them. If you're overly worried about the other players having too much fun, I admit I don't really understand your orientation toward gaming as a hobby.

* * *

I honestly think this is the least appealing cover I can remember seeing on a game book. Yeah, there are probably some worse ones made with poser art that date back to the d20 glut, but that stuff is like doesn't stick in mind at all and once seen it is quickly forgotten. I feel bad saying that this is unappealing because someone obviously sank time and effort into making it, but, man, I just do not like that image. 

Chubsley the Cleric, those Escher Lite stairs, that masked elf no no. I do sort of appreciate the "someone touched my bottom" look on the dwarf's face, but even that can't save this one for me.

* * *

Anyone who says that old-school D&D isn't concerned with balance is lying--if only to themselves. Old-school D&D is obsessed with balance; you can tell because it uses a ton of different ways to try to achieve balance between character classes: mechanical differentiation (this class gets a d10 hit die, this one gets a d4), advancement rate (this class needs less XP to level up because it's weak but you'll get more hit points quicker), mechanical restrictions for gear (this class can wear plate mail, this class can't), roleplay limitations (paladins get tons of powers but they are constrained by these moral restrictions or they get punished), etc.

So it isn't that older editions of D&D aren't concerned with balance, it's just that they're pretty kludgy in the way they go about the business of a balancing the game. 

* * *

When a game reviewer associates themselves with a particular community or small niche within the gaming world, I find that I can't trust their perspective. The politics of minor difference and tribal thinking creep into everything. 

But then you realize that the "luminaries" in any small niche of the hobby will have an impassioned defense mounted for them no matter what they say or do, so it becomes harder and harder to even sympathize with the kind of sadness that lets these cults of personality flourish in the first place. People, by and large, seem to crave the intersection between authority and validation in a way that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Related: I don't trust any manifesto or primer about "how games were played back in the day" written by someone with books to sell. As a wise man pointed out to me, the "old-school" way of playing games presumes a way of playing that has probably never held a majority stake in the hobby anyway. 

Similarly, I think there is a certain type of gamer who makes a show of trying games from outside their "camp" only to crap on them performatively. "We gave it a shot, we played their game, and look how bad it was!" is such an obviously disingenuous move.

* * *

I think Gary Gygax got lucky when he captured lightning in a bottle with the creation of D&D rather than it being the results of skillful game design. None of the games he did after are noteworthy, and there's a lot of badly explained concepts in OD&D and a megaton of cruft in AD&D. 

Bonus outrage fuel: I think the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide is a disjointed mess of boring random tables, poor advice that might make your games worse if followed, and amateurish writing.

* * *

Attempts to make 5e D&D "old-school" almost always seem misguided to me, especially since actual old-school versions of D&D have never been more available. Sometimes it feels like people need a game to be tagged as explicitly "old-school" in order to feel like they have permission to enjoy it.

Also, repackaging the free basic rules for 5e as "old-school" and asking money for them is the opposite of a sound old-school ethos, just sayin'.

But when someone writes the history, that will be the shape of the narrative: when people smelled blood in the water after a couple successful Kickstarters made bank, something was lost in the old-school gaming community in the transition from homo reciprocans to homo economicus at the drop of a few stray coins. History repeats itself, I suppose; consider the Jekyll to Hyde transformation from the Gary of OD&D ("Don't let us to the imagining for you!") to the Gary of AD&D ("You must buy official AD&D products to really be playing the game.")

* * *

I truly believe that some of the best advice on how to run a D&D game is found in books that don't say D&D on the cover. Check out the stuff on fronts in Dungeon World, the advice on failure on Fate Core, the general principles outlined in Apocalypse World (first edition, haven't read the new one) and Blades in the Dark.

Note: I'm not saying that these newer games invented better ways to play. I am saying that they offer clearer explanations of good practices that people have been doing since the beginning of the hobby than we have had in any edition of D&D.

* * *

Many dungeon-based adventures, hexcrawls, and "sandboxes" strike me as railroads in the sense that none of the options presented in them ("Do we go left or right at the intersection of these fairly featureless corridors?") represent meaningful choices for the players to make.

Funny thing about actual sandbox wargames: they weren't completely open "you can go anywhere" scenarios. A sandbox has hard limits because it has walls to keep the sand in the box. There's a good metaphor in there if you want to find it.

* * *

Yeah, I don't think wands look silly either. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Campaign Reference Sheets

I've made myself a couple reference sheets for my D&D campaigns (one for Krevborna and one for Scarabae), and they've really helped me maintain focus on how I want to run my games. Let me walk you through what's on these sheets and why they've been so helpful to me--perhaps they might inspire you to make similar reference sheets for yourself.

The leftmost column has three sections: Goals, Principles, and Actions. 

The Goals section is there to remind me, at a glance, what I want my campaign to be about. For Krevborna, this means that the text there steers me toward monster hunting in a Gothic setting. For Scarabae, this means skulduggery in an urban setting. This section is helpful to me because if I feel the game is straying off focus or we're losing site of the campaign's purpose, I can nudge it back into its lane.

The Principles section is there to remind me to keep involving the players (via what they take an interest in) and their characters (via the world-building the players have done to make their characters). When things are stalled out or feeling a little flat I can look at that section and draw on something the players are gravitating to and interject it into the game to get things back in motion.

The Actions section is there to remind me of the things I most often lose sight of during play as well as that D&D can support more than a binary pass/fail system of action resolution.

The center column of both sheets is simply a list of genre-appropriate Names. If there is one thing I find myself grasping for during play, it's a name for a NPC I hadn't counted on needing to name. As new contacts, antagonists, and allies emerge, I need to put names to faces; this column gives me a grab bag of names that I can quickly scan and choose from. I've italicized feminine names so that I can narrow down my scan to get the kind of name I'm looking for. (I tried color-coding the names with blues-for-boys and pink-for-girls, figuring that a little gender essentialism would add visual cues, but it ended up being too "loud" instead of adding utility.)

The rightmost column gives me lists of descriptors. 

I have a section for Looks that's helpful when I need to describe an NPC I haven't spent any prep time on; the Looks section is broken down into a subsection about physical appearance and a subsection about what clothing and items the character might have. 

I also have a Setting Descriptors section that gives me general aesthetic notes about the campaign worlds' look and feel that I can draw on in play. 

This section ends with a list of names for Public Houses (or taverns, or inns, or tea rooms...) because, like NPC names, I often find myself scrambling to name an establishment when the players seek one out and I hadn't planned on that.

(All of this was inspired by the references sheets for John Harper's Blades in the Dark.)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Red Spectres

Red Spectres, translated and edited by Muireann Maguire, collects examples of a rarely-seen side of Gothic literature, tales produced in the early days of Communist rule in Russia. These macabre stories have many of the elements familiar to Western readers including ghosts, evil doubles, and mad science, while representing a worldview unique to the time and place in which they were created.
How well do totalitarian regimes and fantasy stories mix? What were some of the very real dangers faced by the authors of these works? Is there an audience for nihilist Top Gear? Find out all this and more in the latest mini episode from Bad Books for Bad People.
Intro/Outro music: "Тайна при жизни [Secret during the lifetime]," Isa [Purchase the album on Bandcamp]
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