New on Desk #18 — The Manic Period

I’ve had an unusually enjoyable and productive week, which I attribute to the spring warmth of course, but also the Quest for Lucre (from last week) inspiring some action. Melancholic as my natural baseline is, I am never happier than when I manage to get some work done.

Productivity introspection

I did some review on basics of psychological profiling early in the week for the Cyberpunk 2020 Redux article I was writing; aside from determining that Pavlovian dog psychology seems tailor-made for modeling cyberpunk street gangs, I also got to musing about the Jungian concept of “introversion”. The concept of introvert vs. extravert psychologies is probably familiar pop psychology to most, but what I found striking was the way Carl Jung (the originator of the model) defined the two via mental energization dynamics: the extravert dynamic is for a person to become “warmed up” and prepared for achievement by external stimulus, while in the introvert dynamic the person orients and prepares in isolated concentration and has their energies expended by the external stimulus.

For Jung this pair of concepts was an attempt at describing mental faculties that all humans possess, although he did admit to the propensity for one or the other being dominant, or preferable, for an individual. Later on they’ve been primarily an interest for psychological profiling, which as we know is something of an eternal growth business; human likes few things more than categorizations they can adopt as identities. Thusly, “I have an extravert priming faculty” is less important and interesting than “I am an extrovert”.

But anyway, I’ve been thinking about my own introversion (not exactly news that I’m rather clearly an introvert by nature) a bit, and while the conventional wisdom about introverts being shy and such isn’t really useful or true (for me at least), I find the Jungian faculty interpretation interesting because I haven’t considered introversion and extraversion as faculties before: the fact that you’re introvert may be here or there, but the real question is what you do with it, isn’t it? What is it for? Well, there are indeed some ideas on that.

Behavioral introversion vs extraversion is apparently caused by brain wiring, particularly sense apparati, being either stronger signalling (introversion) or weaker signalling (extraversion), which the brain responds to with life-long adaptation towards either activation strategy, causing one of the two to become a dominant personality trait and the default mode the brain relies on. An extravert brain desires stimulus, becomes easily bored and works best in the presence of concrete external thinking aids; it’s essentially a stance towards immediate reactive processing of stimuli. An introvert brain remains active on less stimulus, works abstractly and gets exhausted by an excess of stimulation; it’s a brain stance suited to deeper cognitive control and proactive thinking. Both are clearly proved successful by the crucible of evolution, but it’s pretty obvious that they assume different working conditions and strategies.

(The explanation relating introversion to a more sensitive central nervous system makes sense to me on basis of personal experience. While introversion is pretty common in the family, a family member also presents pretty clearly as highly sensitive in the sensory processing sense. I can see how there could be a certain similarity of neurobiological causes there.)

There’s a lot to untangle here in relation to personal understanding of how my brain – or yours, for that matter – works, but I won’t burden the newsletter with further theorizing about that. It suffices to say that I’ve been doing pretty well this week, enjoying my manic period (no, I’m not really clinically manic-depressive, just melancholic by nature). Let’s see how long that lasts.

Monday: Dragon’s Castle

We had a pretty exciting Mountain Witch session this week. Dare I even say, emblematic of the game. There was a bit of fighting and maneuvering around the fictional space, but the crucial pivot point of the session was clearly the ghost ball, a great courtly dancing event the PCs sneaked into while infiltrating into the demonic Castlevania. The ghost ball was a loud and bright masquerade party, with hundreds of pairs of ghostly dancers, and more guests both human and inhuman, all the dross and dregs of daylight society who found themselves in the pride of place at this place of darkness and inversion.

What made the ball so significant was the particular fishing technique I used there. “Fishing” is a somewhat rare dramatic coordination technique used in story games, for which Mountain Witch is a prime user and proponent. The GM “fishes” by framing a scene and then prompting the other players, singly or collectively, to answer questions that help fill in the scene, contextualize it and provide it with significance. The purpose of fishing in general is to seek a sort of “mad libs” contribution, which isn’t often that useful, but in TMW there is a much more fundamental purpose: the GM is trying to discover the Dark Fates of the individual player characters by encouraging the players to expose their characters in various ways.

My clever (if I say so myself) fishing expedition at the ghost ball involved having some of the dancers approach the PCs and ask them to dance. I also asked the players to tell me who those dancers were: “To your astonishment, the person asking you to dance is the one person, alive or dead, who you would most desire to see right now. Who is it?” The really clever part was that although the demonic castle can indeed twist time and space, there is in fact a much more ordinary adventure fiction explanation to the eldritch event: there were demonic succubi participating in the dance, with charms that would cause them to seem like the completion of your heart’s desire. Even then the PCs were free to react as they would to the sudden appearance of their loved ones, which provided an interesting characterization opportunity; I wouldn’t wonder if an experienced vampire slayer reacted with hostility to something like this. All in all, it’s a good example of what TMW means by “fishing”.

The players were clearly quite ready to spill the beans regarding their Dark Fates, as I got two in one fell swoop! Dr. Abraxas Wilde encountered the mysterious Nyx, the Chosen One (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except as a self-confident, adult African) and his friend whom he’d been searching for. A particularly nice twist on my part was that yeah no forget that succubus angle, this actually is Nyx, except of course, as we’ve already expected for several sessions, she’s a vampire now, having been turned by the Count. Meet your old friend Nyx, better than ever now that she’s been released from the curse of Kasoyia, the spirit force that empowers the Chosen One.

Ignoring the vampirism, or perhaps unaware of it, Abraxas told his terribly gothic story to Nyx, describing how he had misled the Brotherhood of Watchers (a secret society and supposed support organization for the Chosen One) into believing that he was the new Chosen One by ingesting what I can only describe as a Lovecraftian Lamprey that granted him superhuman strength. A nice bit of body horror there, amply foreshadowed in earlier sessions. Abraxas was obviously rather happy to learn that Nyx was still alive and therefore the Chosen One; he had started to wonder whether there was anything to this Chosen One business aside from Lovecraftian Lampreys and lies.

Meanwhile Dragoslava, the Dhodoru witch-woman, danced with her sister. (One minor narrative detail that I liked about this ghost ball was the little ways in which it was so very libertine: sometimes the women led the dance, and not all pairs of dancers were male-female. Truly demonic.) The encounter was quite heart-felt; Dragoslava has psychic powers that basically make her a living undead-detector, so the cunning wiles of the succubus shouldn’t have confounded her for a moment, but apparently she is so emotionally broken by her sister’s demise that merely seeing her alive is enough to sweep all sense from her.

It soon became evident in their dialogue that Dragoslava was still bothered by her sister’s tragic death, and while she had struggled to set it aside and live her life, she had only recently discovered some new clue to her killer, which brought it all rushing back. Apparently her killer, known only by her ominous name “Nyx”, was somehow associated with Dragoslava’s traveling companion Dr. Wilde. The sister, whose name I forget right now (Petteri’s quite hardcore about not keeping any character notes, I see), tried to help Dragoslava even out on her emotions somewhat, but she seemed unable to comprehend the situation any terms but those of revenge.

For those keeping score, here’s where we’re standing now with our party of happy monster hunters:

Captain Charles Summers suffers of the Dark Fate of Flawed Blood: having killed his elder half-brother Carlos in a forced accident, the younger sibling was forced to take his place and pretend to being the son of captain Summers. Growing to inherit the supposed blessing, the ephemeral magical fate borne by Nathan, the supposed Charles knows in his heart that he is not the man he pretends to be.

Doctor Abraxas Wilde is burdened by the Dark Fate Cursed by Darkness: in the hopes of empowering himself and saving his wife from a gripping illness, Abraxas accepted a dark compact with a sea-borne monster of darkness, a nameless thing I’m calling the Lovecraftian Lamprey for my own convenience. Now wracked by the parasite feeding on his blood, doctor Wilde yearns only for death, as the lamprey has proved to renege on all of its actually important promises.

Dhodoru Witch Dragoslava struggles in the grasp of of the Dark Fate of Cold Vengeance: her sister was slain by another member of the macabre underworld, the vampire slayer Nyx. The event bears heavily upon Dragoslava, who has many times promised to herself that she would avenge the blood price upon this Nyx who so sneerfully disregarded the perils of injuring the Dhodoru family.

Captain Eric LeCarde also has a Dark Fate, but we’ve yet to learn of its nature. It probably pertains somehow to his ambiguous position at the Castle. We’ll see how it is in the next session, I believe.

To move on to Act III we need to find out the Fates of all the player characters, so we’re close, but not quite there yet. It’s pretty clear to me what the next chapter will be about, though: Dr. Wilde seemed rather overcome by the relief of meeting with Nyx, and thinking his task over, he attempted to take his own life so as to end his terrible curse. Nyx on her part, however, seems to hold great affection for the man, for she insisted that he join her “at the Lodge” where the Count’s great craft could, perhaps, get rid of his curse. As the rest of the party failed to stop the two, opting to follow them instead, we’ll be getting familiar with the Count’s hunting lodge next time.

Thursday: Fables of Camelot

Our Fables of Camelot campaign came to an end in the sixth session! Camelot was always fated to fall, and with it the era of Brithonic Britain, of course, but who knew it would happen thusly, with the Knights of the Round Table abandoning their brotherhood and turning against each other. (Who aside from those who’ve read the Matter of Britain, that is.)

The story of the fall and its consequences was appropriately epic, I have to say, with the rules system firing on all cylinders. Two of the player character knights had abandoned Camelot in the last session, opting to shack up with Morgana le Fay and her erstwhile son Mordred instead. Sirs Bysador and Percival learned with Morgana about her gripes towards Arthur and her intention of building a great rebel alliance of Cymric (Welsh and Cumbrian) lords, possibly so as to put her son on the throne of the High King. Morgana’s motivations featured varied interests such as anti-Christianity (in favour of the Old Gods), centralized governance (in favour of Arthur’s “government by knight errant” featured throughout the campaign), revenge on Arthur for her mistreatment and anti-Chivalrism (in favour of political realism).

While Bysador was at first entranced by Morgana’s sensual viles, and disappointed with Camelot for demanding impossible solutions to demands of honor, he came to slowly realize that he could not in good conscience stand with his new friends either. Mordred he judged to be a bad candidate for king, for being too much of a straight out fascist with an enchanting dash of national socialism. Witnessing the Great Northern Tourney, a sporting event organized by Mordred as a cover for a rebel political moot, only confirmed Bysador’s moral allergy for Mordred: the tourney featured blood sports of cruelty unknown during Camelot’s rule, with brutally violent combat sports often leading to lethal consequences. Captive, tortured Picts were used as targets in the bow-shooting competition finals, and Pictish women were awarded as slaves to victors in the various games.

While this was going on, a parallel storyline down south in Camelot emerged. King Arthur, being unaware of the brewing northern rebellion, was conducting a Grand Tour of the demesnes of Logres, his kingdom proper. Morgana plotted his downfall: Sir Lancelot du Lac, the king’s champion, had been guesting with her for a year now, in misery due to his yearning for Queen Guinevere, Arthur’s wife. Morgana had granted Lancelot with a flying beast, a griffon, that he could use to visit the Queen at Camelot while the king was away on his Grand Tour. Morgana’s plan in its simplicity was to reveal the queen’s infidelity to Arthur and thus drive a fatal wedge into the social fabric of Camelot.

Dame Lilly and Sir Ebert did their best to protect the king from the truth (that they’d learned themselves earlier and kept from their liege). They volunteered to bring the queen to Arthur’s side in fact, rather than having Arthur return to Camelot himself. Ebert was the soul of discretion here, making sure to turn a blind eye so he wouldn’t notice Lancelot even by accident. Lilly was more of a curious squirrel (her fabulous blazon), grasping the opportunity of snooping around the castle for Lancelot.

What occurred was the second player character death of the campaign, which was terrible, because it happened to the same player, and the death was even more ridonculous than last time when Aubry the Clumsy fell off the cliffs of Dover by accident. My only defense is that I’m just here to roll the dice, I don’t decide who lives or dies.

Lilly found Lancelot in the private gardens, in something of a strange position: he was dressed in just his tunic, and he was wielding a stick, with a lacy, luxurious garter (a sock-strap) tied at the end. Lancelot was waving the stick around, as unknown to Lily, he was signaling Morgana’s griffon; Morgana had told him that the griffon would only bring him away from Camelot after his tryst with the queen should he have such an intimate item to sate the griffonous lusts. (Lancelot’s own fabulous blazon is the griffon here, this is all very sensible thematically if you were there for the whole story. Morgana presumably promised to create a potion out of the garter or something, perhaps to calm Lancelot’s passions for the queen.)

Although Lancelot was embarrassed by being spotted by Lilly, he instructed her (as her nominal boss, sort of) to disregard what she saw here. She managed to get her paws on the stick-with-the-garter, though, and as the griffon descended, decided to run away with it instead of giving it back to Lancelot. Lancelot took off after her, and being the longer-legged sports god of Camelot, promptly caught her, but not before she ran into full view of the castle’s kitchens.

There are basically two lethality modes in Fables of Camelot dicing rules, the ordinarily lethal (you need to roll at least a single Might success on your dice to not get wounded in the struggle) and the non-lethal (you need to not roll all ‘1’s on your Might dice to not get wounded). The non-lethal mode is, well, not very lethal, and Lancelot here was definitely not trying to twist the little fool’s neck. However, the dice giveth and the dice taketh, and in this case we aced the 7% probability of having Lily both fumble the wrestling with Lancelot and fail the recovery check immediately after.

It was such a ridiculous circumstance, once again: the castle cook witnessed Dame Lilly running around the corner, only to be tackled by the half-dressed Lancelot, and the two wrestled on the grass until Lancelot got up triumphantly, grasping a woman’s garter, only to run away again. Convinced that they’d just witnessed Lancelot molesting Lilly (or maybe it was a friendly game, who knows), the service staff approached, only to find to their horror that the lustsome man had broken her fool neck in the tussle. Lancelot’s reputation would never recover, I expect.

Lilly’s would not be the last death of the campaign, however. In the Great Northern Tourney they were quickly finding the northern champions in the various games (who would later meet with the Southern Tourney champions in the Super Bowl, of course), with Sir Bysador participating in the joust, and Sir Percival in the Grand Melee. Percival got injured in the dangerous melee and had to be tracked away from the field by his armsmen, which served only to emphasize the brutal nature of Mordred’s games.

Bysador, on the other hand, totally aced the Joust, which as we all know is the jock’s choice of glorious, glorious chivalric glory sport. As the new sports hero, Bysador was awarded a full dozen winsome virgin slaves on the victor’s stand, only for him to refuse the gift to the consternation of the crowd: Bysador had drank his fill of the poison’s peddled by Sir Mordred, and desired to make his voice heard. As the overwhelming champion of the Joust he had the opportunity to disclaim the practice of slavery, torture and gambling on men’s lives, all of which were things made illegal by the high king’s laws. Not a popular position to take at a rebel’s moot, of course, but Mordred had been putting pressure on the issue with his sports innovations here, so it wasn’t like Bysador was the only one uncomfortable with the decidedly Satanistic (or at least barbaric) turn his blood games had taken.

A successful Virtue check indicated that Bysador’s earnest appeal to human nature found traction, which then caused the tourney to fall into confusion that Mordred tried to quell by putting Bysador to his place. Sir Percival chose to exert himself here and stumbled to the stage, forcing Mordred into striking down the unarmed, wounded man to get to Bysador. Thus passed the gentle knight, foolish in the matters of love yet ever faithful to his friends, the doddering old fool. Bysador’s oldest friend in Camelot, who would even follow him to exile, put down by Mordred. A duel was imminent between Bysador and Mordred.

Fables of Camelot has this interesting asymmetrical relationship between NPC and PC knights. Player character knights accumulate a core statistic called Might, which is the main factor in a successful duel; you basically roll as many dice as you have Might score, and try to score the target number. Meanwhile, non-player knights are either average (target number 4), veteran/talented (TN 5) or elite (TN 6). Mordred happens to be one of the handful of elite knights in the campaign setting, but Bysador was also a significantly experienced player character knight with a Might of 4, so the situation was rather tense and could have gone either way.

What happened was that Bysador failed to overcome Mordred, but survived his recovery check immediately afterwards, meaning that he got away alive. Mordred forced Bysador off the stage right into a crowd of his supporters, and clearly considered the option of jumping in for a death blow, but desisted due to the chaotic situation, preferring to gather his own supporters to overwhelm the counter-rebellion with superior numbers. In hindsight this was the greatest single duel in the campaign (with Einar Wainward’s evil assault on the Castle Hautdesert a close second). It had been thoroughly foreshadowed, with both combatants viscerally known to the audience, and the contrast between Mordred’s sort of Darth Vaderisque mien with Bysador’s pretty boy style was great; this was sort of the first time we realized that Bysador had slowly and quietly become the deadliest knight among the PCs.

(Paul was the one who realized how Star Wars the whole scene was, really. We had Mordred as Darth Vader, Bysador as Luke Skywalker, and Percival as Obi-Wan, struck down by Vader before having his fateful duel with Luke. Princess Olwen was princess Leia, obviously, and Sir Culhwch was Han Solo, both conveniently present at the tournament.)

After this the events progressed quickly, with contrapuncts from the occasional dice rolling and choice-making by the PCs. Up north Bysador gathered his followers and secured the town of Ligualid against the rebellion, intending to stay there in Rheged rather than joining forces with king Arthur. Meanwhile down south, Arthur succumbed to his fundamental sin of hypocrisy, as was foretold (to those who cared to listen to Merlin, who’d read his Mallory): when Morgana’s messengers finally revealed to him proofs of the queen’s infidelity in the form of personal effects, compromising paintings and other criminological paraphelia, he confronted the Queen with the matter and secured a confession!

In any version of the Matter of Britain that includes the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triad, this is the moral climax of the epic: Arthur decides that a honor killing (albeit dressed up in legality, for he is the king and his word the law) is the only possible response to the flouting of his honor, which means that for Camelot it is Honor that is more important than Love, and that Camelot is ultimately a kingdom of human repression for the sake of higher ideal, rather than a kingdom of human liberation for the sake of humanity itself. The knights of the Round Table split over the matter, some choosing to defend the Queen

(In my telling here I made the theme clearer by having established several times through the campaign how Arthur’s Golden Vision, the new set of law that he has used to usher the golden age upon Britain, is a basically liberal doctrine that secures the rights of women, minorities and religion in the land. For him to fall back on the older, conflicting law regarding the husband’s right to have his wife killed for infidelity is a hypocritical failure in upholding the law.)

Sir Ebert was interesting here, as he does not believe in “honor” as an abstract concept. As a practical little piggy he initially refused to defend the queen’s life, and in fact talked the young trio of NPC knights Gawain, Galahad and Bors out of doing anything stupid either. Bors, though, had his day in the spotlight here; I unfortunately didn’t have time in the campaign for him to have his own theme adventure like Gawain and Galahad did, but at least he got to tell Ebert off by calling him a coward. Motivated by such accusations Ebert took it upon himself to talk some sense into the king who’d declared that Guinevere was to burn upon the stake on the morrow, and for his reward Ebert got a telling-off from the king: Arthur would hear of no mercy or sense here, and anybody disagreeing with him was uninvited to the court! Ebert could return to his fief and wait to be called upon again, losing half of his Glory value in the process!

Of course when the time for the execution came, a White Knight dashed out of the woods and seized upon the queen, surprising all. The court had been on the brink of damnation here, but Lancelot had heard of Guinevere’s peril and he came, as he ever does, to save the lady of his heart. Lancelot escaped with Guinevere and safeted her with relatives, going on himself to join the cause of the Great Rebellion. The stage was now set for something that I’d been promising for the entire campaign: the Battle of Camlan!

To understand the literary theme of the Battle of Camlan one has to understand its reputation as the utter, final twilight of the Arthurian age: everybody would participate in this battle, yet nobody would survive it. The entire stage is swept clean. Only a handful of characters survive to tell the story of that which was the story of Camelot, and the world of pre-Saxon Britain. In fact, there’s a special rule here for Fables of Camelot: all named characters that participate in the Battle, player characters and all, die here unless specifically secured by a dice success. Target number 4.

Only two player characters were operational at this point (as Einar Wainsward’s player missed the session), and both had the chance to skip the Battle, yet both nevertheless decided to come, for it was time. Bysador brought his northern companions, interfered as the battle had already been joined by the Logresians and Cymrs, and fought against Mordred, helping to turn what could have been a clean victory into the deadly, grinding deadlock of fate; he survived, for Bysador was among the mighty. Sir Ebert, meanwhile, entered the battle with dread in his heart, for he feared for Galahad and Gawain, the two young knights he had so aided and guided over his years at Camelot. Ebert saved the lives of both, stopping Galahad’s deadly duel with his father Lancelot, and breaking Mordred’s black spear upon his own body rather than Gawain’s; he did not survive.

After the Battle of Camlan the Matter of Britain took its course, with Bysador witnessing Morgana and her witch-women, who would finally have Arthur, even as a lifeless corpse, to bring back to their island in Avalon. Lancelot would return to Guinevere, only to be utterly refused by the queen, horrified as she was with what she perceived to have been the consequence of their love. Gawain (surviving here as well as in the sources!) took the sword Excalibur from the dying king, but something of Ebert’s practicality remained to him; ignoring the king’s final request, Gawain chose to keep Excalibur rather than returning it to the Lake.

The epilogue procedure in Fables of Camelot is pretty intense, as everything that has been established in the campaign, all the places and people and wonders of the Arthurian age, are swallowed up and consumed by the dark ages of Saxon conquest. The realm, weakened by the violent contortion that was the Battle of Camlan, is unable to resist, except for those points of light where the knights had previously chosen to invest Wealth from Camelot.

Many belowed things were forgotten, most prominently the entire legend of Camelot; the players had in fact invested in a few cornerstone elements that could have remained to remind the people of some, and therefore all, of the Matter of Britain. I was particularly fond of the fair chance that Aubry the Clumsy could have become the national Saint of the new England, sort of a replacement for Saint George. However, in this alternate history timeline the dice were averse and all myth died, extinguished by the newcomers who would bring their own stories to replace this one.

On the other hand, two prominent centers of the old world did survive: while in this timeline Wales as we know it would not be, the kingdom of Rheged up in what in our timeline is Northern England would survive as the only Cymric polity in a land conquered by the sea-peoples. I expect that in future Britain Rheged will take the place of Wales as the aboroginal ethnic minority.

The other survivor was, of course, Sir Ebert’s county of Hamshire, with its capital in Borsford. Deep in the interior of Logres, it would of course be completely overrun with Saxons in short order, but the practical-minded and decidedly unchivalric Borsfordians would handily develop cooperation with the conquerers, becoming as crucial as food producers for the new rulers as they had been for the old. When it comes to the nature of the oncoming age of England, Borsford would influence it in a fundamental manner: England of this timeline would be known as a land of practical, friendly people, stubborn and un-chivalric, but societally conscientious. It would be the center of socialist revolution in the far future age of industrialization, well suited to it by the community-minded hobbit-thought (pig thought, actually) dominating their cultural heritage.

I should also make mention of what came of the surviving player characters: of Einar Wainward the epilogue speaks not, for he failed to put his mark in the tapestry of Britain by investing Wealth anywhere. He was very effective in gaining it, but as a natural wanderer and spendthrift knight errant he would be consumed by the waves of history. (Intentional character theme as I understand it, by the way.)

Sir Bysador, though, he would become the king of Rheged. He worked in his middle years to retain some of the Enchantment of Britain, but the dice were averse to him, and Rheged would become as any other dark ages petty kingdom, with little of chivalry and grace of myth. Must have been hard for the man, being as how he was so crucial in driving Camelot to ruin in the first place, only realizing afterwards that the impossible demands of chivalry were better than Mordred’s dark vision of glory. No wonder he turned to drink. It was quite bitter for me that when Sir Culhwch died the unremarkable death of the jock knight he was, fighting the Saxon invaders futilely in the aftermath of the Battle of Camlan, princess Olwen returning to her home land in Rheged seemed to bring little grace to Bysador the bitter swan. He married her, sure, as befit someone who had torn his heart over her years ago, but the tone of the ending was let’s say rather Finnish in style: akin to a torn balloon, Bysador was a petty man without the High King and his Round Table companions elevating him, spending his days in drink and failed efforts at composing the Matter of Britain, leaving his magical bride to wilt forlornly, the last daughter of giants.

So yeah, that was a fun campaign, and Fables of Camelot is still a top line game. The game contributed immensely to the whole, it wasn’t just that the players were skilled. An easy recommend, that.

Gentlemen on the Agora

All right, let’s see what the Gentlemen have been worrying their pretty little heads over. I’ve also got good stuff garnered from the rpg club Hannilus (the Discord channel for our online gaming), but I’ll save that for next week so the newsletter doesn’t grow too cumbersome.

  • A contributor has been watching the Gotham tv series, a crime drama set in the world of Batman. Interestingly they have no experience with Batman comics or superhero comics in general, so the question of what to read came up. Where do you start reading with this kind of evergreen corpus? My recommendation was to start with Batman Year One (a Frank Miller reboot from the late ’80s) and continue with Legends of the Dark Knight for some generally good standalone stories. I’m sure there are other perspectives.
  • Speaking of, check out the Wayne skyscraper from the ’70s. Truly, comics were good then, with great architecture.
  • Can you fix Call of Cthulhu (which some consider to be deeply flawed mechanically) by fixing its point buy mechanics? The question was inspired by my point buy article; nice to know that people read the blog. My answer is a resounding no: the point buy (in chargen skill purchase) is a minor aspect of a widely problematic design, it’s basically like moving deck chairs on the Titanic to worry about that.
  • What kind of rules would work in depicting the nature of wizardry in Glorantha correctly? The current inheritor of the franchise had apparently been commenting on this divisively (favouring the RQ rules over HQ, specifically), which inspired the Agora to discuss the matter at length as well. I myself took the perhaps surprising stance of agreeing here: the RQ rules do, indeed, depict Gloranthan wizardry better in my opinion as well. The HQ rules are much more vague, and I don’t trust the cosmology, as it seems to change in every edition, and to accord poorly with primary sources. They might be better rules in some way, but more Glorantha-precise they are not.
  • What kind of gamer do you need to be for Gloomhaven to be a reasonable, life-affirming investment for you? Remember that the game retails for like 150 euros and presents an experience essentially similar but worse than a computer game. (All credit to its design, I think it’s very ambitious and even exciting; it’s just fundamentally in the wrong medium as a tabletop game, just like all of these dungeon crawler boardgames are.) My provocative take at the Agora was to claim that you should be a middle-aged, middle-classed person with more money than time, a comfortable dedicated gaming den and a bunch of friends you want to spend beer and pretzels quality time with to justify the game; that’s its natural social footprint. I particularly recommend that lonely, poor geeks shouldn’t buy this stuff just to soothe their frustrations with a big box full of bits and bobs; it’ll just depress you later to see the expensive box crowding your bookshelf, gathering dust. Get a better fix, there are options out there.
  • Orc racism talk has been doing the rounds, apparently, so the Agora talked about that as well. As usual on this topic, the opinions were divided between those for whom it’s kinda obvious that D&D is about race war, and those for whom the discussion stops at the term “racism”: anything that is my hobby cannot conceivably be “racist”, and therefore formal logic suffices to answer the claim negatively, as it is patently absurd. I suspect that ultimately this topic is less about the literary exegesis of what the orc “means” and more about whether individuals associate the orc as part of their own identity as a hobby shibboleth. In the latter case the orc must not be a racist theme, as you are not a racist yourself, yet you like orcs. It’s a bit like claiming that polyhedral dice are racist; hey, you’re blaming my relatives there! Tricky stuff.
  • A contributor asked an interesting question about the “fourth class” of old school D&D, the Cleric: does it possess the literary legitimacy that the other classes enjoy in terms of pulp adventure antecedents and model adventures? Also, what other classes might possess better legitimacy? I immediately suggested the Ranger (a very popular pulp fiction archetype when you realize that the western novel’s protagonist is a Ranger) and Sailor (the staple of the age of sails naval adventure story), but I think the best idea broached was the Detective class; I could easily see that as a winner in a slightly different D&D campaign. The super spy, on the other hand, is less interesting, as it’s mostly a Thief variant.
  • Did you know that in the ’60s the Marvel comics company used to use a divergent workflow in creating its comics, called the “Marvel method”? Well, the Agora knows about it now as well. We ended up talking about it in relation to old Daredevil comics from the era, and how some of the scripting errors would be simply inconceivable if a script actually existed at some point in the process.

State of the Productive Facilities

All right, so I’ve been pretty productive this week. First off, I published another one of these long, convoluted game mechanics articles about C2020 Redux. I would expect that it’s not of interest to most readers, but somebody keeps voting for this C2020 project, and this is what it looks like in practice. The next article on this topic (already in the queue) will go into character creation rules, so it’ll be a bit more practical.

I’ll also brag here a bit: after writing that overview on the Quest for Lucre last week, I started figuring out some of the easier ideas outlined there. At this writing I have a pdf version of the World of Near in queue at DrivethroughRPG, so you might be able to get that next week at some point. I’ve also looked into starting up a Patreon account as soon as I get somebody to make me an appropriate icon graphic.

The Writing Backlog

Observations on GNS Simulationism
C2020 Redux character creation
Many Faces of Ars Magica
Play my turn at Writin’ with Games

Also, it’s now May, so we’re back to voting on future writing options. The rules are the same as before; feel free to vote every week as the month progresses, as the system allows new votes. Approval voting, pick as many of the options as you like and feel tactically prudent. At the end of the month I pick the top 1-2 choices and see about developing them into articles of some sort over the next month. First spot counts, my own feelings count, and comparative popularity (the distance between the top contenders and the rest of the pack) counts when I’m choosing which articles to move to the production line, which to leave in the polling ghetto, and which to forget about.

[May 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • [theory] Historiography of D&D (19%, 32 Votes)
  • [theory] The Sacrament of Death (17%, 29 Votes)
  • [design] more C2020 Redux (16%, 26 Votes)
  • [design] TSoY and SS update (14%, 23 Votes)
  • [theory] A Big Model overview (10%, 16 Votes)
  • [design] Microfit wargame (5%, 9 Votes)
  • [writing] Chronicles of Prydain setting notes (5%, 8 Votes)
  • [design] HX Fighter Program Wargame (4%, 7 Votes)
  • [writing?] Hellraiser and Evangelical Christianity (4%, 7 Votes)
  • [design] Let's get Subsection M3 moving again! (4%, 6 Votes)
  • [practical] How to create online play tools in Google Sheets (2%, 4 Votes)
  • [writing] Superhero Tulpas (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 61

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Because it’s been a while and some of those options are a bit cryptic, a quick run-down of what they represent:

More C2020 Redux is pretty obvious, it’s another article building on those that came before. The next one after the character creation rules would presumably be about SimPunk, or the art of playing interesting slice of life stuff in the game.

Superhero Tulpas is a whimsical world-building prose writing exercise that I outlined in an April newsletter; could be some setting stuff, could be a short story about superheroes as mythic “flat people” with scary inhuman cognitive processes.

The Sacrament of Death is a rpg theory article on something that was mentioned in passing in April, namely the ways that individual games use to prepare the player for the possible death of their character later in the game. The important part is to realize that playing a game with prominent character death without a solid sacrament is foolish; if there’s going to be death, you should prepare the players for it emotionally and socially.

HX Fighter Program Wargame was described in an April newsletter, it’s this bone-dry game idea where the players are top military staff arguing about which fighter plane Finland should buy for its air force. Don’t vote for this, it’s a stupid idea.

Historiography of D&D is the name for a rpg theory article with a simple and friendly goal: describing the important points of D&D’s cultural history in an educational way. Many people have written about this, but apparently it’s still a bit difficult to find a nice article to link to when you want to get to the same page with people about what “old school” or “modern D&D” or whatever means in practical terms.

A Big Model overview is another simple theory article, just a freshly written top-angle view of Forgite rpg theory, mainly Ron Edwards stuff. You don’t need this, what do you care about some old theory stuff, but I’ve been told that you might want it, so let’s see.

Microfit Wargame is this speculative game idea I had about trying to capture something resembling the best of old school wargamey rpg into a like 20 minute capsule experience. The wargame equivalent of a “rpg poem”, if you will. I only have a vague idea of the particulars yet, but if this pick wins I’ll look into the possibilities further.

Hellraiser and Evangelical Christianity is a mystery box: a reader suggested that they’d like to see Hellraiser from back in the first quarter to return to the polls. Sure, why not, except I don’t remember what I was going to write about anymore. If you pick this I’ll do something about it, maybe some setting work or I adapt Hellraiser (and Jack Chick comic books, whence the Evangelism) into a roleplaying game, or whatnot. We’ll see.

TSoY and SS update is an article on my current creative position towards a game that I played, designed and wrote for quite a bit in the ’00s. I’d expect that it’d consist of a critical reading of the old texts with notes on any changes I might wish to make today. It’d basically be the first step into playing something or other – Hellraiser? – with the Solar System rules later on. Maybe write new stuff for it, too; I certainly have a lot of old ideas for it in the desk drawer, just never got around to it.

7 thoughts on “New on Desk #18 — The Manic Period”

  1. Good stuff, as usual. I normally lack the endurance for long Actual Play reports (and start skimming for direct observations on rules in play at some point) but Fables of Camelot had me hooked. Makes me want to look into the game, too.

    Gentlemen on the Agora was another good read, especially those deck chairs on the Titanic. =)

    I wasn’t planning on voting for C2020 Redux because it is very heavy on the rules minutiae but how to play interesting slice of life stuff seems widely applicable. Sold! The HX Fighter Program will probably become a staple of examples I give people at dinner parties for the breadth and depth of the subject matter of RPGs but I guess I’ll leave it at that. =) And now I’ll have to think carefully on how to strategically vote for the theory stuff because I want *all* of it…

    1. I’d say the best strategy for pushing through two or three of your favourites is to only vote for those. Any accidental vote for something else could push that other things to the top, and, more seriously, reduce the margins so that I’ll end up deciding to e.g. only take the first place finisher, because the 2nd and 3rd and 4th are so neck-to-neck that there’s no clear difference in popularity. I’ve usually taken the top picks that have a clear popularity advantage against the rest of the pack (even accepting top 3 in the last poll), which has meant 2-3 top picks, but that could change if we end up with all the options clumped at top scores without a clear “breakpoint” towards the middle.

      Wait no, that’s the second-best strategy. The best one is to tell your friends about your conundrum and ask them to help you vote up your favourites. Everybody wins when I get social media attention and you get more votes. I guess the C2020 guys lose, but to heck with them, I say, they’ve never gotten me a new reader (as far as I know).

      Either way, I’ll push any reasonably well-performing topics to the next poll even if they don’t quite make it this time, so if there’s multiple good article ideas in this crop they don’t get lost just because they’re not in the top 2.

  2. Speaking of more OD&D classes with pulp antecedents: How about the Engineer? An educated gentleman from our time, somehow transported to the fantasy world, with the defining class ability being the license to invent gunpowder etc. Talk about player skill…

    1. That could work, yeah. It’s certainly got some pulp antecedents, as you say. I imagine that a D&D with the “core four” being Fighter, Thief, Wizard and Engineer would be much less tolkienistic and more along the lines of imaginative pulp science fantasy. Steampunk would abound, obviously, as the game struggled to develop settings around the rules (as happened in our timeline).

      The Engineer would, just like the Cleric, be something of a contrast for the Wizard, and competition for the utility artillery strategic linchpin role. Unlike the Cleric, the Engineer doesn’t obviously slot in as a heal-bot; the game would probably deal with healing in some way not inherently tied to a specific character class. The Engineer is also inherently more disruptive for the setting’s status quo, as their brand of magic is naturally replicable, and thematically it represents the end of myth and medievalism, and the ushering in of the industrial age, the end of magic… I could see the GM quite establishing quite naturally, early on, a campaign metaphysic that balances and escalates this so as to make it less trivial for an Engineer to break the setting. Again a bit like the Cleric, the existence of which drove the development of the Great Wheel cosmology. For example, the D&D setting with Engineer as a core class could include a covert demigod-level conspiracy that routinely extinguishes Science and hinders technological development; an Engineer rising in power would inevitably have to deal with increasing interference, should they choose to publicize their technology and attempt to organize an industrial revolution.

  3. Thank you for your thoughts! You actually took this more seriously than I did – for which I apologize – instantly laying out how it could be made to work. I think a counterforce is a good idea, making things more challenging and unpredictable plus actually requiring engineers to level up to survive assassination attempts etc. =)

    As a recovering illusionist I find the disruptive nature of the Engineer very alluring. It basically has “Let’s wreck (or, less provocatively, transform) this campaign setting” written all over it (which, incidentally, probably works best with a published setting that you haven’t poured your heart into). It’s also very much a PC class: the occassional NPC engineer not withstanding, I’d introduce it to the game world as play begins (whereas wizards have been around for centuries).

    (My homebrew Wilderlands has a similar, as-yet-unfinished (False) Prophet class, waiting to one day shake up the no-cleric-class, no-real-miracles but plenty-of-pantheons world.)

    P.S.: I think I’ve voted three times so far, as the page offers voting again and again. Is this intended?

    1. Maybe your IP changes regularly? The voting thing isn’t very secure at all, I think it just checks your IP and maybe sets a cookie – you can circumvent it with a proxy or whatever. It’s supposed to let you vote again every half a week or so.

      If it’s letting you vote again and again, maybe leave it for a few days and vote again next week? I don’t really mind frequent voting (it’s a sign of interest, after all), but I was thinking more like a few times a week rather than ten times a day. Leave others some influence, too.

  4. Seems like two votes were legit and the third was via mobile phone. I’ll be more careful. No worries. I’m not interested in skewing the vote — I like your writing and it’s nice to be roped in by stuff I wouldn’t normally consider. So I’d be happy to read more about your military procurement RPG, too. =)

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