Friday, February 17, 2012

the material conditions of fudging

So I was just thinking, when you're running a game, why on earth would you ever fudge the dice or check your swing?
I think part of the blame lies in the module system, and here's why:

- if a module is mainly about the puzzles and the monsters, and not about a story (least of all a time-sensitive one), then players are just there to be challenged and clever and explore lots of stuff. They die? Then I guess they aren't good enough, mwah haha! A challenge here for the DM is to think about what content is likely to be experienced and what content is likely to remain hidden or unknown - - you don't want to put too much work into an amazing set of traps if it's unlikely the players will choose that path in the first place.
[- - Being able to re-visit a given dungeon can reduce the "unseen content" factor, but of course in one-shots and the like, this just isn't a realistic goal]

- OTOH, if a module has a strong component of setpieces (things that are time sensitive and maybe sort of "mandatory" to get the "full experience"), then there's an incentive to make sure at least some of the players survive long enough to see them. And if we put our fancy hats on and try to design puzzles or "experiences" that require a certain minimum number of (living) players, or a particular class is required for some reason to get through it, then the DM is going to feel that much more of a squeeze to let everyone live, always.
[- - Setpiece-focused design is all about the performance. It's like being on a ride! Ultimately, the priority of showing off the module's content supersedes the priority of no-holds-barred exploration. When you start to figure out that the DM isn't going to let you die, it changes the dynamic, and not always for the good.]

You know which side of the fence I'm on! But that doesn't make it any easier - just because you're committed "ideologically" (so to speak) to a particular play ethos doesn't mean you can just snap your fingers and make it happen - apparently that takes practice.
Cases in point:
1- I didn't really think very tactically about how to play Ishigiri the Ogre Mage (homebrew: Dwarf Troubles Lv 1), and instead of him using his 1/day cone of cold on the healer, he used it on a henchman. The dice roll was pretty epic, nonetheless: I ruled that, due to extreme overkill, the henchman's feet broke off and remained frozen to the floor while the rest of his icy corpse went skidding along the tunnel, only to shatter against a door.
2- I did make sure that people had appropriate warning about the pit trap in the opening hallway (homebrew: Lair of the Cyclops Lv 1) - - "the floor's creaking", "the dwarf senses a trap", etc. Once you are given a warning, and you keep walking on the creaking tile floor, it's on your head ^___^ There's a trick to it - imo, in order to be a reasonably likable and trustworthy DM, you can be cruel, disgusting, and vicious, but only insofar as you have established reasonable credibility (a highly localized phenomenon) regarding your ability to be fair.

What is fair? I think it's a fairly simple matter of establish-then-execute. AW & DW talk a lot about this: do what the fiction demands. How do you know what it demands? Well, kid, the MC/DM moves tell you what you can put into the fiction and when, but the players do a lot of that for you and you just wait til they screw up a dice roll.
Creaking floor? OK, the pit trap is good to go.
Glowing eyes? The cultist's magic powers are good to go!
In the case of Ishigiri, I think a frost theme around his lair could have signaled that that's one of his signature powers. That, or fog-breath, or something. Hints like that are big, loud, alarm bells to the veteran adventurer, and something subtle really can establish your credibility enough (adventurers like to blame themselves for dying...)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

gm style flowchart/eulogy for a PC

Yes, this chart has some age to it. but you don't come here to read new ideas, do you? haha
The full image doesn't fit in this space, but the format in that link there is pretty good.

[below is x-posted at Story Games also]
So! Different topic: last night's AW session. One of our protagonists died.
Keep in mind that this PC was nicknamed the Ronin, took potshots at Mudflat villagers kind of "just because", and never fully backed down from a fight, not once.

Let's explore this a little more. His name was Rue Wakeman, a Gunlugger. He had bad, bad scars from when his boss, Diamond the Chopper, beat him up and left him in the desert, where his wounds went bad and exposure did its thing, and made him really hard to look at.

He lived in a drainage tunnel that fed a semi-toxic river outside of Adobe-town; hallucinogenic mold grew inside the tunnel, which Rue ate to open his brain to the Maelstrom. Doing so got him in trouble a couple times, like the time the Mudflatters finally arrested him for deadly assault and he ended up thinking his captors were dog-headed monsters serenading him, so he shot one and ran away.
The guard lived, but only just. Thanks to Boo the Angel on that one, I think.

Anyway. So Rue forged his nemesis when he was walking past the Mudflatter work-camp in town (across the river from the Mudflatter village of Northside) and a couple of guys stopped him to ask if he'd be up for making a little money.
Rue: Sure, what's the job?
Roy (Mudflatter): There is a ... forgive me, but a child we wish for you to assassinate [the playgroup started telling John, Rue's player, that this must be a reference to Dr. Last, a semi-immortal warlord from down south whose current form is that of a 6yo boy.]
Rue: A child, huh?
Roy: Regrettably, sir. Will you take the job?
Rue: *shoots Roy* No.

Roy's friend runs away. When Rue is eating, later that night, Roy and two buddies jump him. Rue manages to kill two of them and send Roy packing again, but this time the Mudflatter camp all saw what happened and formed a big old gang to hang him and put an end to this.

Ol' Rue got away that time, but after Diamond's boss, Havok, ate it in a gunfight down south (Boo got him), and things started to settle down a bit, Rue made the error of robbing some Mudflatters playing dice in an alley. Well, Rue had been sleeping in the desert for a bit, ever since the first near-lynching incident. Now that he was back, and they sure knew his face, about fifty Mudflatters got together to stop him for good.

They chased him out of town, throwing rocks. The elder of Northside sees what's going on, sees Rue's defensive counter-fire, and sighs. He was in the middle of a visit with Diamond and Vega (the Operator, old boss of Adobe-town), and apologized before giving the order for the village guards to shoot Rue on sight.

Diamond: Honestly, I helped him get out of town last time a mob came after him. I'm done.
Vega: He'll probably be okay.
Elder: ...

So the gunmen from the village go charging out into the desert, and soon enough they intercept the mob and a tiring Rue. He turns to lay a little cover fire before taking off down a nearby dune, and flubs the roll. So he doesn't get away, and they get him with small arms fire (2-harm; Rue has 2-armor), and he rolls a natural 11 on the +harm move.
I tell him he's incapacitated.

Right before Rue dies, A. (playing Vega) turns to me and says, "Is Rue gonna die? That's harsh."
Me: "I mean, it's what the fiction demands. I have mixed feelings about it, but I can't not do it."
A brief discussion of "be a fan of the PCs" vs. "look through cross-hairs" ensues.

This is when I get a little nervous. I've hardly killed any PCs in my time, so I feel kind of bad. I describe Li, one of the Mudflatters, a guard who's got a thing for Vega, coming up and delivering the fatal back-of-the-head shot himself. He then goes to throw up.

Later, we're packing up to go, and John (ex-Rue) says, "Maybe I'll play a Faceless next. I really want to do something that's noticeably different from Rue, though." Clearly I got worked up over nothing. I did have to sit with it for a couple of hours (I have anxiety; what can I say?) but I got over it, and Lord knows, John got over it in about sixty seconds. Next week, onward and upward!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

tolkien and class politics

[inspired by a Michael Moorcock essay on the success of the nursery-rhyme motif in the fantasy genre, found here]

Orcs are the working class. The Tory vision of the working class, at any rate.

While hobbits and Men and Elves and Dwarves all come from storied ancestry and can recount the names of their forefathers and the grand halls (or grand burrows) from which they hailed, Orcs have no fathers. Orcs have few names, and of course the Black Tongue is nasty, brutish, full of short, sharp sounds.
Orcs toil; we never see the Free Peoples toiling, except for a bit of farming now and again.

Orcs build. Orcs make engines that spurt flame; Orcs raze whole forests and dig deep, disgusting pits where they breed! Orcs, ironically, are the only race of Middle Earth whose breeding habits are put (mostly) on display; they are the only race that is growing, that is rising, that is gaining in strength. All around them are declining princes and listless civilizations. The Orcs have plenty of room to expand, and their industrial masters are happy to oblige.

Now, on the one hand there are a great many literary devices wrapped up in Orcs that make them easy to dislike, especially in the films: they're smelly, slimy, cannibalistic, unpredictably violent, and vaguely simian. Tolkien, at once, rolls dark skin, primate features, and spontaneous generation (they apparently "grow" in pits and come forth fully muscled and fully grown) into an altogether unpleasing whole.

At the same time, many fans of the trilogy find a certain pleasure in Orcs: they are dangerous, they are serious, they wear the coolest/scariest outfits, and they hang out with Wizards who do more than light fireworks and talk to bugs.

But again, Orcs are Tolkien's very Tory image of the working class. They're a dark-skinned, foreign-tongued horde of builders and soldiers and ruiners who eat anything and everything, are a threat to all (even themselves), and, most tellingly, are constantly under the yoke of powerful, singular demagogue intellectuals who dwell in not-quite-literal Ivory Towers.
Compare that to the Istari, who are angels in the shape of old men (a creative choice I can't recall seeing anywhere else but in It's a Wonderful Life). One Istari in particular is deeply fascinated by the middle-class, status-obsessed Hobbits of the Shire, and seems to like nothing better than spending time in their twee, half-size pavilions and houses and so forth.

The Orcs come to despoil the natural world, and cannot stop themselves. Their actions are not truly their own; truly, Tolkien's chief Enemy is the future, industrialization, science; Orcs, not being exactly scientists (beyond an offhand comment that they "made many clever things, but no beautiful ones"), are nonetheless the Industrial Army, ready and willing to build, destroy, and kill in the name of hated Progress.

While pretty much every major character among the Free Peoples is the descendant of some king, the Orcs, as I said, breed in holes in the earth. Ironically, Tolkien has painted us a world where dark-skinned, violent humanoids would probably be called Mudbloods if the opportunity came up, and in which the Wizards must save us all from the dangerous, disgusting creatures of the earth that seemingly live only to breed and to build. Old men in hats will save us from those dirty workers, wot wot?