Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cyberpunk 2011

Lepht is a scary person.  Still one of the most... riveting? things I've seen on the internet recently.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Further Thoughts on Brin's Dichotomy

One further factor that is present in the Old School games that struck me as egalitarian, but which I forgot while writing my previous post, is the presence of rival adventuring parties!  Our heroes are not the only heroes under these rules, while at least in 3.x it was a right royal pain to build mid-to-high-level rival adventurers (sufficient to deter many DMs from doing so, self included), and in 4e the complexity gap between monsters and PCs is even larger, and the rules they operate under are so different that I would be reasonably surprised to see a rival adventuring party built under the same rules as the PCs in a 4e game.

This lens has also allowed me to articulate a reason I so dislike Midnight's Hero Paths - namely, that they are essentially exceptionalist.  They say "Midnight is a dark and horrible place and it sucks...  but you few, you happy few, you get to be awesome, because it's fated."  They are counter-thematic.  They may serve a useful function in terms of making up for lack of magic items and spells, but that does not mean I have to like them, or that Iron Heroes wouldn't do it better.

Wish fulfilment - someone once wrote about wish fulfilment in new school games, as opposed to world acceptance in old school games (perhaps Brendan when he was still at Untimately?).  I recall that whomever it was was challenged about "what are new school gamers wishing for, though?"  I believe Brin's hypothesis may provide an answer - the Campbellian heroic demigodhead (I respectfully object to Brin's terming it Nietzschean; it is in some ways, but not in others).  To stand head and shoulders above the fellow occupants of one's realm, to be confident and assured in victory, to alter the world to one's will, and to have these be a given as the result of one's mere participation in the affairs of that world.

Finally, holy crap video games are rife with this same strain that Brin sees in Lucas' work.  Halo and its relatives all the way back to Doom, the MOBA genre with its towering champions wading through waves of minions, the Elder Scrolls with their prophesied heroes born under auspicious astrology...  Hell, I'll be the first to admit that part of the fun of danger-rooms in Dwarf Fortress is that it satisfies the aristocratic impulse by creating a cadre of demigods, individuals within the bearded sea who are picked out and cultivated into unbreakable, indefatigable perfection, without the risk of injury, defeat, loss, and death that combat (required for such gains) normally entails.

It really does all come back to risk and cost.  The Halo player is not made to endure the Spartan's training, nor are the physiological, psychological, or social prices of that power brought to his attention as more than a momentary joke.  Power is given to him freely, to enjoy as he sees fit, no strings attached except the limited destiny he must fulfil.  It is not fought for, and it is not earned, except inasmuch as real money was spent upon the acquisition of the game and hardware (speaking primarily of single-player; the development of skill in multiplayer is another matter).

This, then, is part of the essence of the Old School, to me.  Your fate is your own; neither your success nor your failure are predestined.  Any success you achieve is by your own luck, skill, and guile, and your failures are the result of your lack thereof.  The consequences of your actions are yours to either suffer or exult in.    TANSTAAFL; nothing will be given to you freely, but anything you earn, achieve, or build is truly yours, though you will pay a price for it sooner or later.  Learn from your failures and strengthen your resolve; improve thyself, eschewing cheap promises of unearned demigodhood in favor of that which is difficult, for that which is difficult will make you a better player of games and a more able human.  How can one strengthen one's kung fu, or approach arete by gaming, if excellence is a given without striving?  Here is the heart of "player skill" - not meta-knowledge about what types of golem are vulnerable to what types of magic, or that lightning bolts bounce, but the cultivation of ability to rapidly extract data from foreign situations and reach accurate inferences from it, the ability to improvise and repurpose tools to unfamiliar problems, a balance of courage with caution and tenacity with calm acceptance of occasional failure, rational self-interest tempered by loyalty to a group, a healthy sense of suspicion, a healthy ability to trust, accurate knowledge of one's own flaws and limits along with one's strengths, an understanding of and ability to accept risk, the ability to resolve moral quandaries rationally and live with one's conscience, the ability to define realistic objectives and push through to their completion, and knowing when to back off and reevaluate those objectives...  Above all, a willingness to experiment, to try, to make the attempt, to push one's own limits, to spit in Death's eye and hope for a 20.  Are not these things suitable, meet, well, and proper in a human being?  Are these not things that we should pursue in our gaming, if it offers us an opportunity?  And should we willingly pass that opportunity by, in order to...  what, tell a pretty story and experience a brief and fleeting happiness, made cheap by its predestination and lack of real sacrifice?

...  hell, should I be gaming at all, with that sort of mindset?  Perhaps I should add "ability to cope with doubt" to the list, exercise off some energy, and call it a night.  The joy and curse of freedom is that one much choose.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Aristocratic vs Egalitarian Games

David Brin is very opinionated about Star Wars.

I found the above to be a very interesting article particularly in the context of RPGs.  I am forced to conclude that the distinction in fiction that Brin articulates is present in RPGs, and is a reasonable stylistic differentiator between old-school and more modern games.  Consider:

Attributes - A system where you roll stats on 4 or 5d6, or where all stats start at 8 and you point-buy up, inherently says "We are only concerned with a certain quality of hero.  Deeply flawed characters, with a 6- in one stat, need not apply."  When you roll on 3d6, and your distribution is on par with the human average in your setting, the tone is much different - your heroes frequently end up flawed, even ones with one or two exceptionally high attributes.  They're more human.  Further, attributes exercise less raw power over the mechanics of most old school games, which decreases the gap between demideific and normal characters within a party.  You got Int 9?  Good enough to be a wizard with nearly as good a shot at eventual archmagistry as any other.

Henchmen - The New School tends to avoid henchmen; through Brin's lens, this is a concession both to the demideific (in that it keeps the action narrowly focused on a few superhuman individuals of interest) and to the limitations of the form (managing more than a handful of combatants in number-heavy systems is difficult).  The old school's use of henchmen is relatively egalitarian, in that it distributes attention across a broader set of individuals of more varying capability, some of whom may even surpass or betray their masters.

Death - is, as they say, the Great Equalizer, and in the old school, it is a relatively Frequent Equalizer too.  Nobody is predestined to kingship, and plot armor is nonexistent.  Even characters of exceptional ability, like the Albanian with his 18 Str and 16 Dex, end up dead sometimes.  Death is less frequent for main characters in the new school, and is considered a bigger deal because it threatens to derail the preordained plot.  Dying has gotten harder, and the penalties for resurrection have gotten smaller.

Gear Focus - The old school game presents relatively few things as inherent powers of a character; instead most of a character's capabilities, at low levels especially, come from their mundane gear.  This sends the essential message that "Anyone could do this with the right tools and a little elbow grease," which is essentially egalitarian.  By comparison, a 1st-level 4e character for example starts out with like four special powers that are inherent to their being what they are, and a pile more hit points than an average human, and their rate of divergence from the norm is much faster and more total.  A max-level ACKS fighter has probably 25 times as many HP as a 0-level human...  but he is still very terminable by massed missile fire from Joe Mercenary and his pals with non-magical bows.  I would be very surprised if a max-level (or even an equivalent / mid-teens level) 4e character still considered CR1 creatures in bulk an existential threat.

Really what it boils down to is equal opportunity and lack of predestination.  The L0 henchman who is hired because he was in good health and looking for work, out of rational mutual self-interest on his part and his master's, and who goes on to outlive his master and perhaps eventually rise to power, wealth, and rulership is, essentially, the Great American Egalitarian Rags-to-Riches Myth.  It is the elevation of one's station through risk-taking, hard work, good planning, and a little luck, with the full knowledge that the consequences of one's actions will come down not only on one's own head, but on the heads of one's companions as well, and that no higher power or predestination (coughElminstercough) waits in the wings to avert those consequences.  Had any other peasant been presented with the same opportunities, been willing to take the same risks, and been as clever and lucky, he could've done the same.

Where does your game fall?

(Man, this would've made a great 4th of July post, with title "4e Players - Why Do You Hate America?")