Friday, December 30, 2016

Some Thoughts on Settings vs Systems

I read this post by Ryan M. Danks just now that talks about how to get around the conundrum of writing Settings for the many RPG Systems out there. It was a thoughtful post, and provides some interesting advice. But the more I thought about it the harder I thought it would be to actually follow the advice. Once again, the problem is that ... it's complicated.

The advice seemed pretty spot on advice to me at first, in that Settings are the gift that keeps on giving, and frankly I don't think it is possible to saturate the market as the options are infinite.

As I see it RPG Systems tend to be rigid and can force Settings down certain paths due to the intricacies of the rules. For example, most systems come with specific items, classes, spells, and so on, specific in many cases to that particular system. The implications on the world are huge, and can limit you into making Settings choices that aren't really what you wanted to write about. But since, for example, the rules have Fire Ball spells, you kinda have no choice but to take them into account. Otherwise the GMs who buy your setting for System X will complain that there's no Fire Balls, and everyone knows the Heroes are going to have Fire Balls. So you include Fire Balls as one of the Spells for your new evil Shamen class. It doesn't fit, but hell with it.  The System has Fire Balls, and so you're obliged to factor that in. When you play to a System it shapes your Setting. It has to.  In a sense, that is what Systems are for.

However, if you write Settings that don't include anything from a known setting, but instead includes things you have in mind that are different and cool, such as a handful of spells that actually do fit your new evil Shamen class... well, now you kind of have to define those spells and how they work so that once they bought your Setting the GMs and Players know what to do with them. But then once you do that you're kind of on rocky terrain because that suggests that the spells you want to create for your Setting are going to have some System stuff associated to them. The evil Shamen spell "Shadow Fist", for example, might be defined in your Setting as doing 1d6 damage to the recipient's Mystic Points. But what if the system the GM likes to play doesn't have Mystic Points, but uses some totally different mechanic for magic? The GM will then need to translate into their preferred System. It gets messy.  You could just say, instead, "Shadow Fist is a spell that does spiritual damage," but does that really solve the problem?  The GM and the Players may wind up scratching their heads and asking "Well, how do we account for that?"

I think a possible solution is to write stories. Stories that are representative of the Setting you have in mind. And include in the stories history, main characters, and descriptions of the kinds of things that can happen. Include maps. Include a plot line. But whatever you do, don't include specifics, like armors, weapons, spells and whatnot. Adding any of that would open the can of worms.  Then you market the Story as a Setting for RPGs, just with the technical details left out.  This would allow GMs for any system to pick up your story and run with it.  Maybe.

To be honest, I'm not sure how many GMs will want to purchase Settings if they don't come with the technical stats that they need to run the game. A lot of GMs are perfectly fine with creating their own histories, NPCs, plot lines and so forth. Where they need help is in saving time creating the Stats for all their monsters, villains, NPC heroes, and treasures (that fit their world), and so on. GMs will gravitate towards anything that is creative AND saves them time.

Unfortunately, as many people have pointed out, there's a huge glut of RPG Systems. And there's more every month. Everyone wants to create Systems, and tie them to their Settings. In fact, I believe that has been a mantra of the Indie Revolution for some time.  The Rules must actively support and reinforce the Setting.  Of course not everyone is writing Indie RPGs and there's been a big push among OSR enthusiasts to also produce RPGs.  But even so, it seems to be that Settings-Systems come together and are fused into one thing. And consequently it's often hard for GMs to take Settings materials that were written for one System and apply them easily and efficiently to another. They are still stuck translating from one System to another, and it is still time consuming.  And there is always the matter of Stuff that's in a Setting for System X that doesn't exist in System Y.

It may be there is no easy solution. We may have to go back in time and explain to Gygax and Arneson that they need to focus on simplifying the rules rather than expanding them, and focusing on Settings that can fit into those rules easily, thus making the market about Settings, not rules. Unfortunately that didn't happen. So here we are. I'm not sure there's a good solution to the problem at this point. But if there is any, it's in a simple system that allows conversions to other systems as easily as possible.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Some Thoughts on Escapism

Some random thoughts that come to mind while reading Jens D's very interesting and thought provoking post here.

The question of escapism requires context in order to discern whether it is useful or detrimental. By itself it is unclear which way it should be considered as it has both a positive and negative aspect. For example, escapism when in jail, certainly, is a positive. However, escapism when reality requires your attention is a negative. As an example, those who escape into fantasy worlds (to the extreme) and wind up missing work, and (in some cases) living degraded lives in their mom's basement playing World of Warcraft... that would be rightfully considered a negative. So... whether escapism is useful and a good thing, or detrimental and a bad thing depends on who is using it, when, and for what purpose, and to what effect. In other words - it's complicated.

Stories are indeed important. However, they are not important because of their entertainment value, although that is what makes them useful (which is to say that is why people listen to them). They are important because they teach valuable lessons about life. For example, that prehistoric caveman around the fire telling the story of the wild buffalo and how he overcame it with his "new fangled" arrow (the older geezers probably grumbling about how in the old days they had to use their teeth to slay the buffalo) taught the youth that arrows are a good and heroic thing.

But furthermore, and this is where it gets really weird, the stories of the ancients very often dealt with completely impractical matters such as The Gods, and the dawn of existence, and this sort of thing. But laden in those stories were a lot of lessons about morality. And that's really why they were told, I think. Now we might look at those stories of The Gods and wonder what the heck kind of morality they had, seeing has how they were pretty wild, incestuous, and power-crazed (apparently), but we can't really fathom from here what the minds of our ancestors thought, and what their hearts felt, when they originally heard these stories for the first time. We can't possibly expect to superimpose our 21st century emotions, moralities, and thoughts on the distant past that way and imagine that we can understand any of their feelings or thoughts. We'd be bone headed stupid to assume we can understand any of it from their point of view.

Speaking of which... Imagination. Fantasy is all about imagination, and that's been going on since the dawn of man. But the reaction against it, which appears to culminate in the accusation of escapism, is unfairly targeted at the Industrial Age. In fact, warnings against the imagination are founded in none other than the Bible.
"And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."
- Genesis 6:5
Now some people might say "oh well that's why Religion is so bad... how can people cast aspersions on Imagination?!" But I think that would be an overly simplistic conclusion to draw. The ancients who wrote all of those stories that we so love include those that are found in the Bible, many of which actually predate the Bible and come from Summarian culture anyway. They are some of the oldest and most profound stories in the world. So we shouldn't lightly discount them as if we are all so smart. We should, I think, try to understand them as best we can. There may be hidden nuggets of wisdom there, after all.

But lets put Imagination in the Biblical context for a moment to see why, and how important it was. It was the imagination of man that produced, after all, the technological wonder of the Tower of Babel, which "reached the heavens". What this story is about, the lesson, I think, is that man is too immature, to petty, selfish, and cruel to obtain God-like Technological Power. It was, from God, a big warning when He cast down the Tower of Babel and thwarted the once unified language of man. It was to prohibit, perhaps, the ultimate evil - that the imagination of man would create technologies that could destroy the entire world. Or worse - the Universe itself (tampering with the boson higgs field comes to mind:

So the power of the Imagination is great... and it could be our ultimate doom. And that might be why the Bible warns us about it, and against its use.

But that takes me back to the Bible itself - a collection of stories. Which employ the use of the imagination. We visualize these stories in order to understand them, and God, apparently, gave us the ability and power to do so, as well as the Bible itself with which we are obviously intended to use our imaginations. So imagination, although unwieldy and potentially dangerous, is also intrinsic to our being. It is the God-like power that divinity grants to mankind, and that's how Tolkien saw it. Which is why he was an advocate of Mythopoeia. Again, just like with escapism, Imagination is complicated.

What Tolkien and CS Lewis, Owen Barfield, and the rest of the Inklings were concerned with was the use of the Imagination to produce Good, rather than evil. And as stories can, and should, teach valuable lessons, and not the least of which are lessons about morality, they should be considered to be a Good use of the Imagination. Just as we would have to conclude that the Bible itself is a Good use of the Imagination.

Another thing to consider that Jens D's post brought to mind is that Tolkien lived through both WWI and WWII... he fought in WWI on the front lines and at the Somme. He was a man who lived through the absolute worst that human imagination had been able to contrive to that date. We in our time, those of us who never lived through such things, have an almost impossible time understanding the world-view that was inevitably molded by such experiences. So when Tolkien rails against jailers and accuses them of being the ones who are most likely to denounce escapism, I think we should understand the context of his experience that might well have lead him to feel that in the big picture we are all in prison... with small and fruitless interludes between The Great Wars that actually define and are the reality of human life on earth. And we should also remember that he was a devout Christian, and therefore believed that the world itself is ruled by Satan, and that the true escape is to Heaven itself.

Which leads me to the last point I want to make - escapism in the service of the Good is a wonderful thing. But I can't say that it is always and absolutely a good thing. If escapism leads one to a state of depravity, which it very well can, then it's not a good thing at all. After all, one can easily jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.

So in conclusion, it is my assessment that when creating a world and adventures therein, that we also may keep these ideas in mind as well. It is my hope and goal to make my World and it's campaigns not merely entertaining, but at some level, albeit often imperceivably so, lessons of one sort or another. Whether I am successful at that is besides the point, as I can't really be the judge of the result. I'm far too biased in my own favor. So I will have to leave it for history to decide.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Definition of Evil in Elthos

I was curious to hear how other GMs handle the question of Evil in their worlds and campaigns. So I posted the question to Google+ and got a bunch of replies. It was very interesting to see the preponderance of answers leaning in the same direction. The original post can be found here. My reply includes how I handle Good and Evil in my world, and I thought it was probably something that deserves its own post on my blog, so here it is.
For me, since 1978 I have run things in my world the opposite way. The Gods, of which there is one for each alignment as represented by the zodiac and planets, maintain the order (stability) of the universe and there is an objective reality regarding good and evil, as well as law and chaos.

However, mortal beings are finite and can not see the objective reality. So there are no GM statements like "Orcs are Evil", though they may well be, despite possible exceptions. nor do I tell players they can't do XYZ because of Alignment conflicts. Instead they do what they want, and I track their Alignment shifts over the course of the game. So they establish their alignments by their actions. Their current and recent Alignment is what determines their relationship to the Gods. And based on this they may obtain appropriate powers, or lose them, or change them as the game progresses.

As far as play is concerned I like to toy around with moral dilemmas, but they tend to be ambiguous. For example there is an ongoing subtext regarding the conflict between mysticism, science, and the law, wherein the law views both science and mysticism as potential existential threats to civilization, and possibly life itself, while at the same time needing both for survival in a hostile universe. Player characters get caught up in the whirlwind of these conflicts but I never give a flat exposition on the nature of the thing - I simply let it play out via the PCs and NPCs words and deeds in the game. Sometimes they catch an idea from it, but most often they whirl past on their way towards completing the objectives they have set for themselves.

Obviously this conceptual framework is not as popular as I thought, though I am also going to guess I'm not at all unique in running my world this way, as that would be too good to be true. But it does seem that this style is in the (extreme?) minority, at least.
I thought I would elaborate on this here a little bit and answer my own question. How do I define Evil in Elthos?

The objective reality of my world has it that Evil is that which intentionally causes harm out of a desire for sadistic pleasure or pathological hatred for anything that is so intense as to manifest evil behaviors. Evil, in Elthos, is a primordial force, and linked to the converse of Creation, which is Destruction. Both of these are necessary for the fluctuating ebb and flow of the Universe, and so pain and suffering are as much a part of the nature of the Universe as joy and pleasure. Evil is that force which induces pain and suffering, and it manifests itself in various forms throughout the cosmos. So the intention of Evil is to cause harm and suffering. That is evil.

To contrast this to other forms of pathological behavior, one might conduct the same action, let's say torture, but for a different motive... for example the acquisition of wealth, or power, or knowledge. While such actions may have a component of evil within them, the evil aspect is the one that causes pain and suffering for its own sake. Lust for power is not in and of itself considered Evil by the Elkron (Deities) of Elthos. This is because all of the Celestial and Archetypal Elkron are each at a pinnacle of power themselves, and it is clear to them that Power alone is neither Good nor Evil. Nor is the desire to acquire power necessarily Good or Evil, as some desire Power in order to overcome Evil Beings and establish law and order. This view point is held by the Elkron in general, though there are several Elkron in the set, those that represent Evil, who may declare otherwise. But these declarations are deceptions used to fool some of their more naive followers, or trick those who might not understand these things into making poor choices, which can be turned to the evil Elkron's advantage. In any case, all of the Elkron are equally aware of the nature of Evil, its parameters and boundaries. So that's my definition of Evil for my world of Elthos.

The Cosmological Framework of the Elkron