Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Navel Gazing in Scarabae

Over on G+, Jez asked: "What are the major conflicts in Scarabae?" A fair question, especially from a player who might want to get his character involved in some of those major conflicts.

My answer: There are four Courts that are essentially "guilds" that represent major loci of power. Each Court advises the Lord Mayor, and they wage a covert war against each other for influence and power. The Courts are: the Court of Swords (military--both official and licensed mercenary companies), the Court of Coins (mercantile consortium, organized to represent trade guilds), the Court of Wands (the most powerful arcane magicians and crafters of magic items), and the Court of Cups (the combined force of religion--they represent the interests of the Major Arcana).


Also the colonization of the Western Frontier is probably a big issue. The Western Frontier is essentially a gold rush situation, so whoever gets control of a sizable chunk of the territory is going to be a force to be reckoned with.


* * *
"It is courage to choose not what will make us happy, but what is precious."
 — Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria 

Since Jez was asking me about the upper-tier conflicts in my setting, I've started thinking about how much Scarabae is unintentionally a reaction to what's going on in the country I live in, and some shifts in Western politics overall, in the last year-plus. (That was one long election cycle.) 

Scarabae is designed as place where immigrants and refugees are encouraged to make their home. The first bit of lore in the setting doc states, "it is said that Scarabae is unique in that it welcomes the most disreputable and cast-off vagabonds to become its citizenry." It's a city-state that actually wants your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. 

The reason why the list of races available for player characters stretches to two pages is because I want to see how cosmopolitanism works as a defining setting element. Racial disharmony isn't going to be common in the setting; more or less, different "species" get along, so the focus will be on how the individual fits in and makes their way in the greater polity. 

D&D, as a system, probably resists this a bit with its roots in pulp fantasy that inherited the colonial adventure tradition, but on some level my games always struggle with the game's framework anyway. None of these "themes" were posited by design; I guess they've just been on my mind as I've been working on game stuff. 

Too bad these ideas seem more appropriate in a fantasy setting than they do in reality, you know?

* * *

Thinking about all this led me to add another large scale conflict that didn't occur to me when Jez asked initially. I had been undecided about what demons and devils (and other fiends) were about in Scarabae. 

But I've figured it out: fiends are the inverse of the Major Arcana. Since the Major Arcana cards of the Tarot each have a contrary meaning when inverted, it makes thematic sense that the "gods" of the Major Arcana in my setting also have their antithesis--and it makes sense that their antitheses are demons, devils, and all that ilk. 

Each fiend bears the meaning of a cosmic principle in reverse. Every demon lord or archfiend is simply the opposite of one of the Major Arcana, but they're divided along an extremist axis of law and chaos regarding their ideal state. Devils are those who would bring order in its fascist form--in Scarabae, that means an end to cosmopolitanism and the dawn of nationalism, exclusion, and the notion of "making Scarabae great again." Demons are pure nihilism--everything is tainted, nothing is good enough, and so Scarabae must all effaced, forgotten, as if it had never existed.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Safety Behind Bars

The Walking Dead's group of survivors are, of course, in search of a safe haven--which leads them to an "abandoned" prison that seems like a good spot to stake a claim on. The prison has a lot to offer: secure walls, a stockpile of food, room for everyone to have at least a modicum of privacy, and land enough to start a self-sustaining farm. However, this is also a moment of irony: a prison is a place where we incarcerate the dangerous to keep the wider world safe, but now that the world has become unfathomably dangerous, the prison's thick walls become a place in which survivors incarcerate themselves for safety. There is also the implication that, whoever they may be, the inmates of a prison are always already dangerous. We might question whether a prison is actually the most thematically apt home for this particular group of characters.

Unmindful of the irony implicit in this situation, there is a preponderance of talk in this volume about civilization. When the characters speak about civilization they tend to talk in two directions; they speak about the reality of civilization's collapse and about civilization as a theoretical concept. Some of their talk strays into talking about civilization as a reified ideal. Rick's comments about the lack of civilization in the outside world during this apocalyptic moment is very telling: "From the looks of it, our government has crumbled. There's no communication, no resistance, any military presence, which I'll admit seems odd. It appears civilization is pretty well screwed." To Rick's mind, then, civilization equals the government and the military. It is something that can communicate to its constituents and it is something capable of resistance. Civilization is authority and control leveraged for the protection of the people.

Since Rick is a former policeman who still behaves as if he is on duty, this worldview makes sense for his character. Notice that he still wears his badge, as if it signifies anything without the society that lends it meaning. We've already seen him assume the mantle of authority by positioning himself as the surrogate of government and military force, and thus as the defender of an imperiled notion of civilization. Now that a potentially secure location seems to promise the opportunity to start a new life--their own private slice of civilization--Rick assumes more and more authority, but the assumption of leadership does not go as unquestioned as it did in the days when the group's survival was more in doubt.

Rick decides that he will return to Hershel's farm and get Hershel to bring what's left of his family to the prison. Although there is some talk of the prison being a better bet for the survival of Hershel's family, it feels like the real rationale is that the group will require Hershel's knowledge of farming to make a real go of transforming the prison into a community that doesn't depend on foraging for food in the dangerous world outside its gates. Rick never really stops to consider how Hershel might feel about packing up and moving to the prison. Hershel's skills are needed, and Rick sets out to make sure that his group will have access to them. That's not quite what we'd call civilization, but it is a combination of authority and force.

Rick's assumption of authority takes a darker turn when it is revealed that there is a killer in their midst. Hershel agreed to come to the prison at Rick's request, but there is a price to be paid for following what Rick thinks is best: two of his daughters are killed by someone within the prison walls. Blame immediately falls on Dexter, a black man who was imprisoned for the murder of his wife and the man she had taken up with. That's a crime of passion, not a cold-blooded murder like the one they're currently dealing with--but it doesn't matter, as the black man is considered a threat and his guilt is assumed. The real murderer turns out to be Thomas, a white man who claims he was in the prison because of tax evasion. Even in the post-apocalyptic world you're more in danger of a "lone wolf" white man snuffing out your life than anything else.

But this scene is only about prejudice in a minor key way; it has much more to say about authority, how it is constructed, and whether it can allow itself to be questioned. The revelation of Thomas's guilt poses a problem for the civilization burgeoning behind the prison's walls: what are their laws and how will they administer justice? Again, Rick assumes authority; as a lawman, he acts as though his opinion is a binding logos. Rick says that a killer must be killed. "You kill. You die," he pronounces. The verbiage of his statement is chilling; the sparseness of the language feels unquestionable, the simplicity of it is asserted authority masked as truism. Most of the group agree with him, but there are fault lines here. Lori, for example, isn't so sure that Rick should have the ability to make that call for the group as a whole. She accuses him of acting like a father, of playing God; even if the group is better off without Thomas in the fold, she's correctly heard the tenor of Rick's dictum.

The most troubling thing about Rick's version of justice is its fundamental disconnect from the laws he upheld as a policeman. He does not talk about rights, about fair trials, or about juries composed of peers. His attitude is that when civilization is at its most fragile, it must be defended vigorously with force and the imposition of unquestioned authority--even if it means that the philosophical underpinnings of civilization must give way. Rick doesn't even bother with dispensing justice equally. He knows that Tyreese is guilty of killing Chris, but he covers up the murder that Tyreese committed. The appearance of justice is just as good as the real thing if it works in service of keeping authority inviolate. In his mania to forge a polity in the prison, Rick is willing to abandon the ideals that make a civilization worthwhile in the name of security and safety.

Of course, Rick's attitude is essentially fascist, and it is one that blows up spectacularly in his face. Enforcing his authority by pummeling Thomas moves Rick no closer to the locus of justice, and he manages to mangle his own hand in the process. The wound is castrating; his attempt to exert force renders him unable to deploy it as well as he could before--without his right hand, he's no longer the best shot in the group. 

Similarly, when Dexter acquires force of his own through access to the firearms stockpiled in the guard tower, we get a clear depiction of how the idea of "might makes right" ultimately works against Rick's aims; in the final panels of the volume, Dexter has assumed authority and power and is insisting that the group leave the prison, as well as all the hopes they've pinned on it as a safe haven, because he sees no place for people like them in his polity. Dexter calls them "crazies," and names their condition as "broken." He's not wrong; the only thing that differentiates Rick's group from the prisoners is numbers. In the end, who belongs in a civilization, who will have recourse to authority, and who gets to exercise power is all down to whose finger is currently on the trigger.

From the hip:
  • Startled by a zombie as they're clearing out the prison, Rick bemoans the idea of getting used to the ever-present threat that the zombies represent. This is interesting to me because, as much as Rick is always preoccupied with the idea of survival, he fails to see that getting used to horrific traumas is an essential part of the survival process.
  • The ways of opting out of the civilization the group begins building within the prison hardly look like pleasant alternatives. We have the suicide pact between Chris and Julie (that goes horribly wrong) and Tyreese's suicidal one-man rush against the zombies in the prison gym as nonviable alternatives.
  • Sex is still the troubled intersection where physical survival and human emotional needs collide. Deprived of female companionship during their incarceration, Dexter and Andrew have formed a sexual and emotional relationship. Axel insinuates to Andrew that the introduction of the women in Rick's groups of survivors threatens his bond with Dexter. Now that women are available, surely Dexter will be "switching sides" and abandon Andrew. There is a lot to unpack from this small scene: the way that necessity mediates the kind of relationships we have, fluidity based on circumstances, the human need to maintain connections, and the multiform ways in which those connections are threatened by "interlopers." 
  • Speaking of Andrew, I'm not sure if this was an intentional way of telegraphing his sexuality, but I think he's drawn in a very feminized way. I initially thought he was a female character, in fact.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Against the Frog Pirates

Campaign: The Situational Heroes (Scarabae, 5e D&D)

Characters:
  • Grayson, dragonborn battle master fighter (background: mercenary). Grayson is the disgraced son of a famous family of dragonborn mercenaries.
  • Topper, human light domain cleric (background: doctor). Topper worships the sun; he's also a drunk.
  • Edmund Folderol, wood elf hunter ranger (background: outlander). Edmund Folderol says nothing about his past because he is super paranoid for reasons we don't yet understand.
  • Jester Jones, hill dwarf thief rogue (background: entertainer). Jester is a renowned juggler who can't help but steal things. Bit of a klepto, really.
  • Gabrielle Gladsword, dragonborn oath of devotion paladin (background: acolyte). Gabby's really nice. Probably too nice to be adventuring with this group of horrible, damaged miscreants.

Events:
  • The crew found themselves on Lupin Island, an isle off the coast of Scarabae. Casting about for work fit for crypt-kickers at the Salted Codpiece Tavern, they discovered that local shipping has been disrupted by the pirate crew of Bloody Jane Reed. The pirates were using a series of caves further up the coast as their hideout. The local militia had proven not up to the task of clearing them out.
  • The pirates' cave fortress was well guarded, and the pirates themselves turned out to be mostly a mix of vicious bullywugs and their slaadi overseers. Jester almost lost his life in a quicksand trap, but Grayson managed to sprint to his aid and pull him to safety.
  • Bloody Jane attempted to flee the assault on her headquarters, but the crew boarded her ship as she was preparing to set sail and put the dread pirate to the sword. Hurrah, a bounty was earned!
  • The rest of the crew surrendered after the death of their captain. They were given the option of joining the crew, or death. The party's ranks were swelled by the addition of a half-orc bard who had been frustrated by the pirates' lack of interest in drum circle-based spirituality, a storm witch with control over the trade winds, a tiefling warlock who can set things on fire with her mind, and a mysterious wizard who is always smoking a clay pipe. Grayson drowned those who refused to join the crew one by one in a barrel of pickled herring.
  • Of course, Bloody Jane's treasury was raided.

Downtime:
  • Grayson spent time training the local militia in the arts of war so they might better defend their island. He persuaded the militia to practice with him by bringing a cask of rum to their barracks. (He would be missing in the next adventure because his character sheet was misplaced.)
  • Gabby gathered information about the local movers and shakers. The information would be there for us next session, but Gabby would have moved on. (Her player wanted to try a different class.)
  • Topper got too drunk to continue adventuring (the player had to step out of the campaign due to a new child, congrats!).
  • Edmund caroused most of his gold away.
  • Jester made money performing at the Salted Codpiece.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

For Those Who Must Sacrifice

Click here to listen to an 8tracks mix entitled For Those Who Must Sacrifice

Tracklist:
† King Woman - Heirophant
† Chelsea Wolfe - Iron Moon
† Windhand - Crypt Key
† Mount Salem - The Tower
† Luciferian Light Orchestra - Church of Carmel
† Jex Thoth - When the Raven Calls
† Jess and the Ancient Ones - 13th Breath of the Zodiac
† Blood Ceremony - Hymn to Pan

Friday, March 24, 2017

Bad Books for Bad People - Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis

Have you ever wanted to hear me rant and rave about vampires-as-superheroes, crybaby ancient aliens, ghosts-with-bodies, pants, space-age polymers, and nipple-sucking clones? Well, you're in luck, the new episode of my podcast with Tenebrous Kate is up!

Beginning with her smash hit debut novel, 1976's Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice has spent a career detailing the lives, loves, and melodramas of a sprawling cast of supernatural characters. In interviews where she's discussed 2016's Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis, Rice promised a whole new spin on her beloved Vampire Chronicles. The concept of blending gothic vampires with new age science fiction is an appealing one, but does the author deliver on her promise? Jack and Kate dive into this latest offering from the queen of modern gothic horror.
How many of the Vampire Chronicles books have our hosts skipped? Will Kate's dreams of lots of characters she doesn't recognize meeting up with ancient aliens come true? Will we learn the vagaries of vampire science? Isn't a ghost with a body just a dude? How is Lestat doing after all these years? Find out all this and more in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
***Spoilers Abound***
Intro/Outro music: "Pictures of Betrayal" by Nosferatu.
Find us at BadBooksBadPeople.com, on Twitter @badbooksbadppl, Instagram @badbooksbadpeople and on Facebook. You can discover where to get all the books featured on Bad Books for Bad People on our reading list.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sloppy XP Equals Sloppy Design

I have a pet peeve when it comes to rpg design: I really don't like it when designers leave the XP or advancement system undercooked. If the rules for advancement or leveling up don't feel finished and if they don't offer incentives for the players to engage with what the game is about, I think you didn't finish the job of making a game.

Examples


Stars Without Number
According to the Stars Without Number core rules, the game has a particular focus: "In Stars Without Number you play the role of an interstellar adventurer. Whether a grizzled astrotech, lostworlder warrior, or gifted psychic, you dare the currents of space for the sake of riches and glory" (5). Under that given premise, the game claims to reward things like seeking riches and glory: "Characters are awarded experience points by the GM upon accomplishing certain goals, defeating meaningful enemies, or plundering insufficiently guarded wealth" (64). 

But here's where it all falls apart: 
1) Getting XP for "certain goals" is already vague, but what a proper goal looks like and how much XP it should be worth is never spelled out, as far as I can tell. 

2) None of the "meaningful enemies" in the book's Xenobestiary have an XP value for defeating them. I can't find any guidelines for giving XP for defeating enemies in the book at all. 

3) Making off with "insufficiently guarded wealth" is intended to be the old-school D&D method of 1 GP = 1 XP since Stars Without Numbers is basically D&D-in-Space, but that's tucked away in a place that's not very intuitive--about seventy pages after the XP rules are given (131). 

It's also really clunky in its implementation; characters shouldn't get XP for a big-ticket item like a space ships, and you should increase the amount of money they're getting per adventure because space ships are money pits, but that extra money you have to throw at them now shouldn't give XP because there wasn't much effort put into the mechanics of this idea: "You should not be reluctant to increase adventure rewards or offer more remunerative opportunities to players with a starship to feed, though this should not increase the XP gained" (131). 

It's worth noting that if more defined rules are buried somewhere in the book, the index will not help you find them; "Level," "XP," "Experience Points," "Advancement," etc. do not have entries in the index.


Dark Heresy 2nd Edition
Dark Heresy has not one, but two systems for awarding XP. The first is to award a set amount of XP per session: "Under the abstract method, experience points are awarded for time spent gaming, ensuring a steady and even progression for all characters. For each game session composed of multiple encounters, every PC should receive 400 xp. This would allow them to purchase a minor increase in their capabilities approximately every session, or a more significant one every few sessions. This method assumes a game session lasts approximately four hours of active play time. For longer or shorter sessions, the GM can adjust the rewards accordingly" (371). What this system doesn't do is offer an incentive for doing anything during play, and only really rewards showing up to the game. As a system, it's easy and doesn't require much book-keeping, but it also strikes me as lazily designed because it doesn't connect to the premise of what the game is about.

Surely the more detailed system picks up the slack, right? Well, no, "It is also possible to award xp in a more detailed manner, in which every reward is tied to a specific difficulty or challenge. This allows the GM to match the PCs’ progression to the progression of events more closely, or to increase the players’ sense of accomplishment. However, it requires that the GM be able to evaluate each encounter and challenge and assign an appropriate amount of xp" (371). 

This sounds like a system that was fully thought out, and there is even a chart showing you how much XP to award per character based on seven categories of encounter difficulty. Unfortunately, however, although this system does create an incentive ("win" encounters), it is ultimately incomplete because the rules offer no guidance as to what constitutes as "easy" encounter or a "very hard" encounter. The designer has absolved themselves from providing what seems like a fairly crucial part of how XP will be awarded.