Monday, December 23, 2019

Reviewish: Arbiter of Worlds

Autarch recently put out a book of DMing advice, titled Arbiter of Worlds.  I picked it up because someone in the ACKS discord mentioned that it had a section on competitive player-group dynamics, which I have enjoyed in the past, and read it on the plane during holiday travel recently.  It has been a long time since I last read a DMing advice book (the last being How to Run, by Alexis, which I should probably finish and review at some point).


I agree with much of what he says about the functions of the DM / judge, their relative importance, and the importance of agency, and I think it's a pretty good statement of the position.  Reasonably concise (but longer than a blog post would bear) and well-argued.

His framing of the sandbox region as a story-web was interesting.  Much of the actionable advice on stocking a sandbox and linking things together was either repeated from ACKS or similar to the existing wilderness exploration literature (Western Marches on danger pockets and Treasure Tells a Story, for example), but the ACKS region-construction guidelines were elaborated on in the context of agency, and thinking of it as a planned web for potential emergent stories was interesting and different from how I usually do things (links emerging as a result of random treasure maps rolled during play).  One thing that I'd've liked to see was extrapolation of this structure into the dungeon, since I think it does generalize - a large, jayquayed, exploration-oriented dungeon could certainly have a structure of hooks/pointers within it, which point players into different parts of the dungeon.

I liked that he talked about his personal worldbuilding process and the player's guide and gazetteer outputs of that process.  Would be fine material for the Secrets chapter of ACKS 2e, if that ever happens.  Also waaay more work up front than I will ever do.

I was surprised that he uses triggers in his living worlds.  "When the players enter town X for the first time, they find signs for a tournament in three days", as opposed to "The tournament occurs annually on the 15th of Juntober, and signs are posted two weeks prior."  Less hard-simulationist than I expected (there was more to the living worlds section that that, but triggers were the biggest surprise to me).

I was a little disappointed to find that the social dynamic I enjoyed watching during the 2012 campaign wasn't quite covered by his categorization of group social norms into collective, competitive-collective, and individualist.  I think we fell somewhere between competitive-collective and individualist.  Maybe I should go back and really figure out what the norms we were playing by were, and get them down in writing.  It might've been an unstable equilibrium; it did break down eventually.

The discussion of limiting the powers of villains explains a lot of the changes to high-level spells in ACKS.

Canons of interpretation is a very lawyer way to look at the process of making rulings during play.  I think my process of rulings is somewhat more consequentialist - what is the function of this ambiguous rule, why is it here, what are the consequences for the system of each possible interpretation or change?  It's the "legacy software maintainer" perspective on rules changes (at work the other day I was dealing with a codebase that had comments that affected the function of the code.  Load-bearing comments.  Terrifying).  The canons seem to be mostly about dealing with the semantics of natural language.  Maybe they were developed in acknowledgement of the impossibility of understanding all the consequences of a ruling in a complex system.  Food for thought.

I found the focus on describing blows in combat in graphic detail surprising, but it explains the mortal wounds table pretty well.
Given that everyone comes into RPGs wanting to use their imagination, the reasons why combat devolves to simple mechanics are somewhat mysterious to me.  I think it may be because nothing is at stake.  It's hard to conjure up the energy for vivid imagery when it doesn't really matter.
Personally, I run very mechanical, low-description combat.  Playing 3.x, maybe it was because the stakes were low.  Playing ACKS, it might be habit carry-over, but it might also be because of the rules.  I don't want to describe a player's killing blow as decapitating a foe by fiat, because the correct procedure within the rules is to wait for the party to check him for mortal wounds if they decide they want a prisoner to interrogate or take hostage.  Maybe they'll want to RL&L him later, in which case a decapitation would close that course of action to them.  Detailed, fiat kill descriptions have implications for agency.

As a player, I also don't much like DMs who waste time on combat descriptions - I'd rather they kept combat moving quickly.  I've definitely had the "oh boy, here goes this R.A. Salvatore wannabe again, narrating every attack" feeling at the table before.  The clock's ticking towards end of session, we got places to be and stuff to steal, and it's only a six-to-ten-second combat round anyway.  I think there's value in keeping the combat loop tight, and descriptions are a very easy thing to cut.  I recognize that it's a wargamer perspective.

Anyway, I expect that rather then the 300-style descriptions being advocated for, I'll stick with at most saga-style descriptions:
But when Egil sees this, he runs at Gunnar and makes a cut at him; Gunnar thrusts at him with the bill and struck him in the middle, and Gunnar hoists him up on the bill and hurls him out into Rangriver.
While I was happy to re-learn the term abduction, and I appreciate its importance in play when using random tables heavily, and I'm a Musashi enthusiast, I still thought that the repeated Musashi references in that chapter were kind of...  eh.  It's an acknowledgement of metis, but a somewhat opaque and unhelpful acknowledgement.

The mashups chapter was very different from how I hack up systems; an interesting perspective, but not what I expected.  I was a little disappointed, I think, because an earlier chapter referred to the mashups chapter for suggestions on system modification, and then it only covered a very specific method of modification.  It does dispel any doubt about parts of ACKS being Traveller-derived, though.


Overall, I thought the kindle version was worth the $5 and three to four hours to read.  I think for ACKS DMs and players, it's a good look into why some things are the way they are, and how they were intended to be used.

I think the most interesting section to a broader slice of the OSR who are into "Rulings, not Rules" is the Canons of Interpretation.  This is probably the most unique part of the book; you can find other people talking about agency, or how to link pieces in a sandbox, or how to not wargame (or only sometimes wargame) your opposition, but nobody's talking about jurisprudence.  I think it would've been really interesting to see an alternate ordering of the chapters of this book, talking about the four roles of the DM and discussing those roles in order of priority, with the section on judging and rulings coming first, then worldbuilding, then playing the opposition, and finally concerns of storytelling.  I get why it's laid out the way it is, though; it's in opposition to the position that Guarantor of Fun and Storytelling are the central functions, and it has to deal with those before shifting into assertion.

I think the book is squarely aimed at the "new DM running 5e", and I think the ordering is pretty reasonable for that case.  I don't know how effective it would be at persuading DMs of that demographic to pursue agency, since I am not in that situation.  I speculate that it might be effective if they've had some negative experiences with low-agency play previously, but I dunno if it'll work otherwise; I think usually you already have to have a little doubt in your own position in order to be persuaded effectively.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 4: Miscellany

Continued from part 3

This is just a big pile of quotes that I thought were interesting, but didn't feel like needed too much elaboration.

"[Lucian] shows that...  the myth is what the author makes it; it is a theme, a suggestion, from which new fancies may arise."

"Over that lake thai se lygge / A wonder longe narowe brygge / two mile of lengthe hit was semande / And scaisely the brede of ane hande."
An Irish description of the Bridge of Dread, two miles long and the breadth of a hand, from the Vision of Adamnan.

"There is a pretty scene with an elf or dwarf, true of word, as these wights always are."

"In the Middle Ages, Germany is ahead of France in a kind which is reckoned peculiarly French; the earliest fabliaux are in German Latin, with Swabians for comic heroes - the story of the Snow-Child, and How the Swabian Made the King Say 'That's a Story!'."
I feel like dark ages German comedic poetry might be the most obscure topic I've ever read about.

"The appearance of Sigrun the Valkyrie in the air, riding with her company of armed maidens to take Helgi for her champion, is one of the magical adventures that make these romances of the North so different from the Anglo-Saxon stories.  There is no elf-queen in Beowulf."
To which Tolkien surely replied, "Hold my tea."

"Not to wine do I wake you, nor to women's spell, but I wake you to the stern play of the war-goddess."
From the Bjarkamal, which is a great name.

"The Icelandic poets had studied in their own manner the poem that is meant for direct assault, like the Provencal sirventes, not to speak of Archillocus or Catullus.  One of them was called Serpent-Tongue (Worm-tongue, Ormstunga) and the name was deserved by many more."
So you see, Wormtongue was actually a bard.

"[Cynewulf] is a tale like that of Finnesburh, or Roland, or Percy Reed, a good defence against enemies, an old motive repeated often enough in real conflicts without a poet to record the tragedy, and never so often repeated in prose or rhyme as to lose its interest or its dignity."

"All history in Iceland shaped itself as biography, or as drama, and there was no large crowd at the back of the stage."
A stylistic consideration - do your games have faceless multitudes?

"A green knoll, at the face of the sun and the back of the wind, where they were near to their friends and far from their foes."
An example of antithesis in Irish poetry.

"The stories, whether of cattle spoils or abductions, voyages, wooing, or violent death, according to the Irish Catalogue of favorite topics, are full of wonders; and even simple business, like ordinary fighting, is described with an air of surprise."
There're plenty of Norse sourcebooks, and a few for post-Roman Britain, but man, I feel like a game set in fantasy Ireland with adventure seeds drawn from the Catalogue could be pretty great.  Like Pendragon but with more cattle rustling.

"The French poem of the pilgrimage of Charlemagne is not affected by the crusade, and must have been composed before it.  The interest in it is largely comic; the enormous boasting of the paladins and their miraculous successes are more like the humour of Morgante and other Italian stories than the heroism of Roland."
Here's to another thousand years of paladin jokes.

"The song of Roland, though earlier than the First Crusade, is a crusading epic - the poem of Christendom against the infidel.  It is also the epic of France, "sweet France"; the honor of the kingdom is constantly remembered, and not merely out of duty, but because it is the spirit and life of the poem, as much as Rome is in the Aeneid.  Naturally, the grandeur and solemnity of these ruling thoughts makes the epic of Roncesvalles very different from most of the Teutonic poems, where characters have seldom any impersonal cause to fight for, and the heroic moral is restricted to the bond of loyalty between a lord and his companions...   The heroes lose as dramatis personae what they gain as representing grand ideals...  The epic of Roland may be taken, in a way, as closing the Dark Ages."
Another stylistic consideration - are your characters tied to abstract loyalties, or personal loyalties?

Monday, December 9, 2019

Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 3: Homeric Combat

Continued from part 2.

Moving past the Latin, through old English and Saxon, and then to the Norse Eddas, there was a quote that I found interesting:
The [Norse] poets cannot spend time in story-telling.  The persons, their wills and thoughts, are more interesting than their exploits.  The best of the narrative poems, such as the Lay of Thor's Hammer, are comparatively light and simple; where there is a weighty historical matter, such as the fall of the Nibelungs, hardly any space at all is given to the fighting.  The Northern poetry knows not the Homeric method, which is not wanting to the Anglo-Saxons, French, and Germans, to the poets of the Waltharius, Byrhtnoth, Roland, and the Nibelunglied.  It is not for want of interest: it was because the available poetical forms were not adapted for description or history...  The heroic spirit of Gudrun and her brothers is within the comprehension of the poets, and they have the right means to bring it out in their verse; but... they do not choose to to employ the regular formulas for epic battles.  The slaughter "grim and great" at the close of the Nibelunglied is told by the Austrian poet in the same way as the killing of suitors by Odysseus; but in the Elder Edda it... is taken as something understood. 
One result of this economy of narrative in the Northern poems was that narrative had to find another channel.  The Icelandic Sagas are the complement of the poetry; they have the breadth and freedom that the poems have not.

Here's an example of what he means, from the Helgakvitha:

9. Mighty he grew | in the midst of his friends,
 The fair-born elm, | in fortune's glow; 
 To his comrades gold | he gladly gave, 
 The hero spared not | the blood-flecked hoard.

10. Short time for war | the chieftain waited,
 When fifteen winters | old he was;
 Hunding he slew, | the hardy wight 
 Who long had ruled | o'er lands and men.

11. Of Sigmund's son | then next they sought
 Hoard and rings, | the sons of Hunding;
 They bade the prince | requital pay
 For booty stolen | and father slain.

12. The prince let not | their prayers avail,
 Nor gold for their dead | did the kinsmen get;
 Waiting, he said, | was a mighty storm 
 Of lances gray | and Othin's grimness.

13. The warriors forth | to the battle went, 
 The field they chose | at Logafjoll;
 Frothi's peace | midst foes they broke,
 Through the isle went hungrily | Vithrir's hounds.

14. The king then sat, | when he had slain 
 Eyjolf and Alf, | 'neath the eagle-stone;
 Hjorvarth and Hovarth, | Hunding's sons, 
 The kin of the spear-wielder, | all had he killed.

The main devices here are alliteration, allusion, and kenning; elm meaning man, storm meaning war, Vithrir's hounds being wolves, Frothi's peace alluding to another historical figure.  You can call a thing by another name, but it's hard to call an action by another name.  By comparison, Homeric verse is full of simile, which is much more able to describe action.
Many of [Ermoldus' similes] are taken from the birds, and are of a genuine Homeric kind: like thrushes settling on the vintage in autumn, and refusing to be scared by the cymbal of the vexed husbandman; as birds shrieking after the hawk which has carried one of their party away; as ducks hiding from an eagle in the water-weeds and the mud.
I thought it was sort of funny that the old poets ran into the same difficulty with detailed combat and trading off time describing it that we do in RPGs.  I don't think I have ever used a simile to describe an action in combat in D&D, and certainly not a one with multiple clauses like "after the eagle who has carried one of their party away".  But it's also pretty rare to elide a combat to the same degree that the Helgakvitha does.

I also found the degree to which available poetic devices influenced this interesting; they limited the search space, the set of tradeoffs you could make, in the same way that if you are playing Runequest or Dark Heresy your combat descriptions have to include hit locations, while there probably exists an RPG without fully-developed combat mechanics where you almost have to gloss over combat.  We sort of had this problem with mass combat in ACKS before Domains at War came out; the situation arose and we didn't have the mechanics to resolve or describe it in detail.

So something to reflect on - where do you want to put the detail in your games?  Is your system helping you or hindering you in doing that?

Monday, December 2, 2019

Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 2: Gerhard and Bucephalus Go to Chartres

Continued from Part 1

After the discussion of common literary forms, The Dark Ages moves on to Latin, and here there was a clear gap between Ker's expectations of his reader and what modern education provided.  I did not spend too much time trying to decipher the Latin poetry.  More interesting were the relayed stories of monastic life, which were recorded in Latin.  There was one particularly interesting passage, where Gerhard the Benedictine talks about his journey from the monastery at Rheims to that at Chartres (about 150 miles) in 991 AD:
[A messenger from Chartres] produced a letter urging me to read the Aphorisms of Hippocrates.  This gave me great pleasure, and I determined to set out for Chartres along with my envoy and a boy to attend me.  From the abbot I received no more than one palfrey.  Without money or letters of credit I reached Orbais [about 30 miles], a place renowned for charity, and there was much refreshed in conversation with the abbot, and munificently entertained.  I left on the morrow for Meaux [another 40 miles].  But the perplexities of a forest which I and my companions entered were not without their evil fortune; we went wrong at cross-roads, and wandered six leagues [20 miles] out of our way.  Just past the castle of Theodoric, the palfrey, which before had appeared a Bucephalus, now began to drag like a sluggish ass.  Now the sun had passed the South, and, all the air dissolving into rain, was hastening to his setting in the West, when that strong Bucephalus was overcome by the strain, failed, and sank beneath the boy who was riding him, and as if struck by lightning expired at the sixth milestone from the city...  
I left the boy there with the baggage, told him what to answer to passers-by, bade him beware of falling asleep, and along with the Chartres messenger, got to Meaux.  I pass on to the bridge, with scarcely light to see by.  Then looking more narrowly I was assailed by new mischances.  There were so many large gaps in the bridge that the visitors of the townsfolk can only have got over that day with hazard.  The man of Chartres, full of quickness and of good sense likewise for the difficulties of the journey, after looking all about for a ferry and finding none, came back to the perils of the bridge: Heaven granted him to get the horses safe over.  For in the gaping places he sometimes put his shield under the horses' feet, sometimes laid loose planks over, stooping and rising and coming and going till he had brought the horses, and me with them, safe across. 
I don't really want to keep block-quoting this story, but for those who hate loose ends, Gerhard went to the Abbey of St. Faron in Meaux and slept, the messenger went back out to get the boy and they slept at the foot of the bridge and crossed in the morning.  They left the boy at St. Faron's and proceeded on to Chartres, where Gerhard read the book he was looking for.

I felt this bit highlighted some interesting features of dark age wilderness adventures.  They did a bit better than 24 miles a day, but this was a relatively well-settled part of France, near Paris, and there were apparently roads of some sort (hence the crossroads).  I'm not sure where they got the extra horses (maybe the abbot of Orbais).  I thought it was really interesting that there was a chain of monasteries, about one every other 24-mile hex, and elsewhere Ker mentions another chain of monasteries including St. Gall in Switzerland, which linked the monasteries of Italy with those of southern Germany.  I was sort of impressed that they managed to go 20 miles out of their way, since their party included a messenger who had just done this route in the opposite direction.  The state of disrepair of the bridge at Meaux was somewhat surprising, given that it was a settled region with literal milestones.  The whole thing, traveling 150 miles to read a book and having a wilderness adventure where there were no enemies but still tension, just struck me as rather remarkable.

Hexes right around 24-25 miles I think

Continued in part 3