Saturday, December 30, 2017

Sphinx of the Orphic Spheres

I wonder ... what kind of culture do the Sphinxes have, and what personality might this Sphinx possess...? She looks thoughtful and contemplative. But the Sphinx that met Oedipus seemed of an entirely different sort of culture and had a very different personality than Sophia. Sphinxes are creatures of Chaos by virtue of the unnatural juxtaposition of their animal aspects, so I imagine they are likely to be highly variable, volatile, and even potentially malevolent. And sometimes they are like Sophia Orphiana; serene and luminous.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Wonder vs Weird - Further Thoughts

This is a response to Wonder vs Weird by David Rollins. I recommend reading his post before continuing with mine as his is the basis for this this post.

Point 1 - The Zeitgeist of Weird

I agree with David in so far as wonder is far more inspiring than weird. But which isn't to say that weird doesn't have it's place. It does. But that place is no less important than wonder in a literary or game world. I think both are important. In fact I feel they can offset one another in the same world. Sometimes you have wonder, sometimes you have weird.

But first I should state what I think the difference is, and where on this I diverge a bit from David's point of view.

Wonder, to my mind, is something that invokes awe, and also inspiration. Wonder has something magical and heavenly about it. It isn't the same thing as Awe, which can be either wondrous or frightful. Wonder connotes the idea of something beyond human ken, something higher and more beautiful than we believed possible. Galadriel inspires wonder. Sauron inspires awe and dread, but not wonder. Wonder is about inspiration.

Wierd, on the other hand, is where I somewhat part from David. Regarding the weird, he says "...[they] built their world into the shadows of the one we have here. That's the foundation of the weird. It disrupts expectations instead of creating new ones. It changes and tears at the rules and assumptions. It also tends to be terrible in some way. The weird revels in the tension it creates but it needs the mundane as a contrast. Tension needs the norm to pull against."

To my mind, that is not usually what I mean, exactly, by weird. The word originally comes from before the 900's AD, and is a Middle English noun whose northern form was "wird", and in Old English "wyrd". It's original meaning was "Fate or Destiny", and eventually became associated to witchcraft in Scottish parlance, and wound it's way to become the inspiration for Macbeth's three weird sisters. The modern sense it's meaning has evolved to suggest something strange or uncanny. But for me weird connotes something otherworldly, and from the more unpleasant side of the Other World. Something foreboding, dark, and at it's core frightfully wrong or harmful. (For those wondering why I use wyrde in my vbwyrde appellation on social media, it's origin relates to my criticism of Visual Basic as a programming language. Nuff said on that.)

And so in some sense I agree with David in that focusing RPG worlds towards the weird is akin to focusing them towards the unpleasant. Yes, that I agree with. Many Worlds these days really present very unpleasant visions, and ones in which Wonder is actually being actively suppressed. I don't think this is a coincidence or simply out of laziness because weird is easier, however. I think this is a reaction to the times we live in and represents the psychological framework in which authors are now conceiving their visions, which then get transcribed into their Worlds. This is generally true across all art mediums. We are looking at a world that is rapidly changing, and that change is happening at an ever accelerating, or one might say exponential rate. Many of these changes are heading in directions that are profoundly disturbing, and even frightening. And when we look to those we have entrusted with the levers of power, those who are, one would hope, dedicated to producing good outcomes rather than horrific ones, ... well, it seems those in charge are either disappointing, or downright disastrous. And so the potential for horrific outcomes appears to be very high. I won't go into the reasons why I think this is happening in this post, but let's just take it that we're all operating in an atmosphere of extreme uncertainty and anxiety.

Because of that, people are gravitating towards the weird. Somehow perhaps we take some comfort in looking at horror in all it's dreadful splendor in fantasy worlds so that when we compare it to the current state of our own things don't look quite so bad. That may be what is underlying our fascination with weird worlds at this point. And conversely, when we encounter wonder, it may be that our gut reaction is to scoff and say "but this kind of thing never happens! We don't get to experience wonder anymore because look at the real world - it's a nightmare and wonder is just an illusion and useless, and worse than useless... it is keeping us from focusing on The Horror, which is where reality is heading!" And so for this reason, we may look at things of Wonder and dismiss them as "stupid fantasy", and look at things of the weird and feel that "this is real somehow". And so the downward spiral seems to go.

When archaeologists of the future look at the output of the creative arts in our age and contrast it to former ages, they may be intrigued by how very dark and frightful a very large proportion of our artwork turns out to be at this point. And this is of course also reflected in our RPG worlds, and what happens to be popular these days, and unpopular. Naturally, creators are also going to want to follow the herd, as well as lead it (it's a self-perpetuating cycle, and usually continues until the tides of emotion shift again). So I feel that this focus on the weird in RPG worlds is not a product of lazy design. It's much deeper, and more foreboding than that. It is a direct reflection of our social zeitgeist. We have become weird, and we've made that both an ever descending spiral and a cultural self-fulfilling prophesy.

So I'm not saying that we're wrong for reflecting our anxiety in our art. I think it is logical, germane, cathartic, necessary, and probably beneficial for us to do so to some degree. I'm just regretting that we're in the position to have such anxiety to begin with.

Although the weird has gained a prominent position in the world today, and for the reasons I am suggesting, that is far from the whole picture ... wonder is something that can and does exist in the hearts of those who have maintained their integrity and not fallen into the miasma of nihilism. My expectation is that while future historians of art will marvel at the quantity of decidedly dark and dismal art from this era, they will also find that there were Michaelangelo's among us as well.

Point 2 - RPG Worlds / Setting Design

David comments, "The little products that snag ENnies and get talked about with such passion online are the ones that present worlds with new rules that create a whole new set of expectations through play. A few examples that spring to mind are A Red and Pleasant Land, Yoon Suin, and Veins of the Earth. All three of these present new worlds."

I think this is an important point. As you may know I'm working on a World Building utility to help Gamesmasters create their own Worlds. It comes with a core framework of rules that remain consistent from World to World, but allows individual Worlds to have their own "internal rules" as well. The Internal Rules are a result of how the GMs define their World's skills, and mystic powers, and to some degree weapons, armors, and equipment. So the underlying core rules include mechanics like The General Resolution Matrix which pits Skill Level vs Difficulty Level in all cases, but the individual Internal Rules allow for great variation in terms of how the individual worlds work at the details level. A common set of core rules, and potentially infinite variation on individual rules for Skills, and such.

The reason I think this is useful is because it gives World Creators a common framework for building the thing that they really wish to express ... the vision of their World's Settings. I think this is a fulfillment of the original goal of RPGs when D&D first came out. There was a single rules system which was designed with the idea that GMs would go ahead and create a myriad of settings based on the basic rules framework. But of course, the TSR Business Model actually prohibited that laudable goal by forcing the publication of new rules books every few years, rather than solidifying the common central rules into a simpler more flexible and generic system on which any kind of worlds could be suspended. Instead of heading in the direction of simplicity and generality, in other words, it headed in the opposite direction of minutia, details and complexity. This was a result of the Business Model that said "we sell rules books". It was inevitable, and from my point of view regrettable.

So instead, I wanted to create a rules system, and a computer application, that would help GMs to create their own worlds, but do so on the foundation of a common framework of simplified generic rules. On top of that GMs can add their own "Internal Rules" so that no worlds would be exactly the same, and players can always be surprised, but characters from every world could easily transport between them. It would also save everyone from having to learn a new mechanics system for every World they want to visit.

The reason for this is to take the burden of having to reinvent new rules for every World off of the World Creator's shoulders. It's a lot to ask to have a creative vision, but then also have to reinvent the rules mechanics wheel every single game... it can be overwhelming. The play testing that has to go into it, the mechanics innovations, the layouts and designs, and all of that... it's a huge amount of additional effort for someone who really just wants to express a World Vision that inspires wonder, or weirdly terrifies us. For me, that's really want I want to focus on as a World Creator. I assume I'm not the only one.

So there is the Mythos Machine to hopefully help with that, in case my hunch is right and there are other GMs out there who would like to simply focus on World Creation most, and rules and mechanics design to a much lesser degree. Those who also would like to participate in the creation of a galaxy of RPG Worlds by which they can share materials and inspire one another. So, if you happen to think this is may be good idea, then please trot on over to and take a poke around. If you have questions, you can find me on discord at the Elthos RPG Server. The Mythos Machine is currently in Free Open Beta at so please feel free to help with the last round of Beta Testing before we go live. I think it's a fun and useful system and you might think so too.

Lastly, I should like to say, my goal with The Mythos Machine is to provide a canvas for all artists. I don't intend to forbid the weird, though I very much look forward to discovering the worlds of wonder that will also be produced. Though, also, I should add, my perception is that at this time, the weird in the world does substantially outweigh the wonder so far as creative works of art are concerned. While that may be inevitiable given the state of affairs, it is still a pity. So I would like to encourage the Michaelangelo's out there to please create as many worlds of wonder as you can. We can use them, to be sure.

Ok that's probably enough for one post. It's already too long as it is. I do have more to say on different topics related to David's post, but I think I should save those for a Part II if I can get time to swing back around on this. I really enjoyed his commentary and found it very thought provoking. I'll try to get back to it again and finish my ruminations next time.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

GM Technique - Tidbits on my Serendipity Style

A few comments on one aspect of my style of GMing for those who may find this of interest. This is in response to Jens D's post here: Original Post


This immediately brings to mind something I've been meaning to write a post about ... my Serendipity Style of GMing.

I rely very heavily on the notion that things will simply fit into place at the right time. That the Universe will provide answers to pending questions one way or another, and that I don't have to think too hard about my World's mysterious plot and backstory holes... they get filled in just-in-time by some sort of weird miraculous process. I could give a hundred examples. But I won't. In fact, that's probably all I actually want to say about it.

It's hard because you have to trust the Universe to answer things for you... which requires that you have a very alert mind which can take even tiny things that happen along the way and integrate them smoothly and fluidly into your World. I've had it happen so many times now, where something I see in the news or overhear in a restaurant, or catch a fleeting glimpse of while driving by ... triggers "The Answer" to yet another of my World's many mysteries ... I really can't count. But I can say that without each of those my World would be a disastrous loping beast threadbare and tattered as it careens into the abyss.

Fortunately for me and my players my trust in the Universe has proven wondrous with ever blossoming tidbits that have answered so many of the mysteries. So while I really can't recommend it as a style of GMing because it's far, far too risky ... I can also say that when it works it's truly a thing of beauty.

And no, I haven't the vaguest clue how to instruct anyone to use this technique. The only advice I can offer is ... relax, don't think too hard, and wait for the answers to appear.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

What Makes A Great Gamesmaster?

Just a few thoughts on what I think makes a Great GameMaster, and my recollections of David Kahn's world of Telthanar...

I am thinking of my old friend David Kahn's world of Telthanar. The way he ran the game, to my mind, seemed infinitely amazing. I couldn't wait to get to his house on certain weekends to find out more about it. But what did he do that was so great? Let me think...

Well, for one thing, David was definitely master of his game. He used his own rules (as most of the GMs I knew did in those days), and he knew them back and forth, up and down. There were no quibbles about the rules, and rules lawyering was nigh on impossible. But moreover David had a personality that established him as "The Authoritative Source", and so even if there was a quibble... people would look to him for the correct and official answer anyway. And that went a long way towards keeping the mechanics of the game running smooth.

Also, when he created his rules, he kept it reasonably simple. The complicated parts were largely hidden from the players, as he would do the calculations behind the screen himself. Character development was probably more involved than he let on, and calculating things like armor class and total attack level was something he did on the fly in his head, but from our point of view as players it was seamless and looked easy. Of course, there's also the fact that he fudged his own rules. In fact the first time I rolled a Character in his world he said with his usual benignly wry and dry humor, "By the way, I cheat." That was David.

Lastly, as far as his rules were concerned, they were also interesting. He imbued a lot of philosophy into his rules system, and that made them fun to think about. For example, his magic system incorporated a fascinating numerology that established the underlying metaphysics of his world. More on that another time. Suffice it to say, his rules were an embodiment of his philosophic musings.

But more important to the joy of his game than his handling of the rules was the scope, depth and nature of his World. Telthanar. What an amazing place that was. First off it was huge, but at the same time discrete. There was a continent on which were major civilizations, some old, some new. The old ones had been buried in ruins for ages, and mostly forgotten, except by those who took it upon themselves to explore the ancient places. Over 20 years of play the story was unveiled, one tidbit at a time. David was very reticent about explaining anything of his world out of game. To learn about it, our characters had to explore it. He didn't wax eloquent about it's grand history, or tell us off hand what transpired and why the ancient Agmarians fell, or anything. But we fought hard for clues all the time.

So that made the World itself a huge ball of intriguing.

Then there was his style of playing NPCs. David had a very natural way of role playing. He could play any Character or creature and you really felt like they were in the room with you. But he didn't over do it to the point of being hammy either. He gave a strong impression of each NPC or monster, and each one was an individual. Even down to the guards at the local town hall. Every character in his world seemed to have a fully fleshed out life of their own, a personality, goals, traits, secrets and so on. And it all flowed so naturally from David's lips it really gave the impression of a living world.

Also, his maps. David made amazing maps. They were done on huge pieces of graph paper with the small squares. they had long long corridors, with clusters of 20 rooms or so at a time. He had a stack of these gigantic dungeon maps neatly piled on his desk. And no, we were not allowed to look at the maps. We could only see them from a distance. On our end we had to do the old fashioned style of mapping from his descriptions. And our maps were not bad, but we had mistakes. And sometimes those mistakes were costly. A flight of stairs that we wrote went up, when in fact we forgot later actually went down. Costly mistakes. But that of course was part of the fun of the game. We tried to be careful, just like we try to be careful in real life - but mistakes get made, and consequences are paid. Part of the challenge of the game was getting the mapping right, even amidst the bluster and excitement of battle.

Another thing is that his dungeons were actually very imaginative. For example, when entering the Major Ruins of Agmar there is a main hall, after you get down into the thing a certain ways. On the ceiling of this hall, which was something like 360' x 360' (iirc), was a pool of molten fire. On the ceiling... gurgling, bubbling, frothing fiery magma. It didn't drip down. It seemed as though gravity on the ceiling was simply "opposite". One could speculate about the how's and why's but ... we never really knew. But we knew that David knew. And we would scurry through that glowing red hall every time. The rest of the dungeon awaited on the other side through vast towering doorways that led into long corridors heading off in different directions. And so on. That was just one interesting spot. David had hundreds that were equally intriguing. Eventually we discovered that the Ancient Agmarians created the entire dungeon to be a magic item. The whole dungeon itself was a magic item... one that they used to keep the fabric of reality from tearing apart under the duress of their experiments with Chaos Magic.

Lastly, I'll say that David possessed a dry sardonic wit that made his Gamemastering something really enjoyable to behold. One always had a sense that he was gently challenging his players to do their best under perilous and uncertain odds. He was tremendously fun to be around, highly intelligent, very well read, and a true and natural story teller.

So David's world was fascinating on many levels. The history. The philosophy. The execution. The rules. And for all of this David earned his place as my all time favorite Gamemaster. He was the best Gamemaster I ever encountered.

My dear friend died of a stroke at the age of 54. Far too young. And very sad. May he rest in peace.

To put his life in a little perspective before I leave off, here is a piece about David's father, Herman Kahn. You may want to listen to the recommended sound track shown at the very bottom of that post while reading it. It may add correctly to your understanding of the atmosphere in which David lived his short but intensely creative life.