New on Desk #43 — The Fall Sammies

Another routine week, except for and old friend, Sami Koponen, coming to visit for a few days, as he does.

The proud tradition of bird migration

We have this mutual visitation cycle with Sami where, generally speaking, I’ve gone to check on him in the autumn, and he’s typically come in for the Spring Sammies, an informal house con, in the spring. We got to know each other back at the university gaming circles, so although we’re technically speaking just doing friendly meetups, the programming tends to be pretty gaming-oriented. Checkups on various gaming projects, often enough.

So this year the Spring Sammies didn’t happen due to the corona thing coming squarely in the way, but Sami in his turn had a sufficiency of mojo to drive up here from the west coast — it’s like six hours behind the wheel — for a bit of an autumn meetup. The Fall Sammies were less of a convention, what with the lack of other out of town guests and a minimal gaming program, but I enjoyed it anyway; it’s not like I don’t get enough gaming vitamines over a typical week anyway.

The programming being mostly about hanging out and some games, with a side bit of setting some fencing for apple trees, let’s just review what two smart geeks talk about over a few days of face to face time.

Handling existential dread

Life’s not always the easiest, so one of our big themes this time was the existential crisis, and surviving thereof. I like philosophy (I guess that’s my main spiritual path, I’m a philosopher in the same way somebody is a Christian or Buddhist), so I enjoyed this a lot — thanks for talking about it with me, Sami! It’s not the most common of topics in the everyday, and Sami being a clever fellow willing to listen and ask intelligent questions, I was left with a satisfying feeling of being generally understood in my treatment of the topic.

For the reader unfamiliar with the concept of the existential crisis (it’s a specialist philosophical concept from a school of philosophy called “existentialism”), a short summary: humans, being conscious beings, have the capability to self-reflect. One of the insidious consequences is that the human can come to question their assumed goals and values, discovering that their actions in life are devoid of meaning, being built on sand. The human discovers that they are, in fact, merely sleep-walking through life, acting on reasons that prove meaningless in closer examination. It’s often called the existential crisis when this awareness of the existential question (the question of why you exist) becomes particularly psychologically pressing for the person, which often happens when the person has external problems forcing them to deviate from their routines and orient newly to the world. Philosophers, cursed existences as they are, are near-constantly in an existential crisis, as that’s pretty much what you get by questioning existence.

So that’s the concept, and one of the big questions of philosophy is how to deal with the existential problem. This isn’t actually unique to the philosophical school of existentialism, even if the school gets its very name from the fact that the early 20th century existentialists pretty much provide our standard terminology and the framing of the question. The philosophical traditions of antiquity, for example, addressed this same issue from the direction of eudaimonia, or well-being; it’s a positive-direction reflection of the existential crisis, as a person in eudaimonia is not bedeviled by the paradox of consciousness.

The big thoroughline of the philosophical tradition on the existential question is that the way a human experiences things has more to do with the human than the experienced affect; you get inputs from the external world, but it’s the mind that experiences and reacts. The existential question is merely the highest-order generalization of the question of what stance should the mind take in the position it is in, as a consciousness constrained to a physical body. I’ll provide a snapshot summary of the history of the question:

Classics: Training yourself into a philosophical lifestyle will create virtuous habits that enable you to withstand existential dread. The dread itself is an in-built part of the human condition, but you’re the master of your own consciousness, so you can stamp it down by living the apt life that builds you up into a philosopher. Basically, you’ll learn to not think of it by mastering your mind.

Christianity: Deliberating the Divine will make you feel better, so pray often. The existential dread exists as an in-born yearning for the Divine, so learn how to approach Him and mindfully practice to achieve inner peace in communion with Him. It’s basically a fairy tale explanation because it relies on the assumption that Divine exists, and the empirical observation of humans suffering of existential dread is merely attached to the story, but one shouldn’t ignore things that work: human mind apparently has a structure that allows imaginary friends to help out. It’s not real, but it does work.

Kantianism: Existential dread is caused by uncertainty about your duty, so answer the question of what your obligation is — the deontological question — and you’ll be able to live a happy life fulfilling your purpose, unburdened by doubt. The generalized answer in a world full of duties of various importance is called the “categorical imperative”, the duty you have as a conscious being no matter what. Immanuel Kant was unfortunately wrong about what the categorical imperative actually is (he basically suggests the Golden Rule via a convoluted thought process that sure is clever), but assuming you can figure out the Purpose of Life Kant suggests it’s your duty to follow it. See next paragraph for the repackaged version.

Existentialism: Consciousness inherently begets existential dread. It is resolved when the mind realizes that it, and only it, produces the purpose — orientation — that it seeks. Authentic action originating in the true desire of the mind resolves the existential dread that rose from uncertainty of your path in life. Sadly existentialism doesn’t really provide convincing explanations for how to be Authentic (feel free to correct me here, it’s not like I’ve read every existentialist out there) and why it’s some universal condition of humanity that is possible for a person lost in existential dread to achieve, but that’s how it goes.

Materialism: Consciousness is an emergent illusion of how the brain works. Once you understand how things work, they’re not so scary, so learning about thought-formation, and how much of an illusion the self is, will help you extricate out of unproductive thought processes. Existential dread is basically a bug in the machine. By the way, there is no afterlife and God is dead — never lived, in fact — so grow up already and read some Daniel Dennett to figure this shit out.

Buddhism: Consciousness is an emergent illusion of cosmic causality. It is possible to extricate the consciousness from the ego, achieving enlightenment, the state free from existential dread. There’s also plenty of voodoo (see Christianity), but basically it’s the Materialist conclusion above: understand that it’s not “you” that’s having the existential crisis in the first place, and it’ll help the “you” dissolve and the actual world-phenomena behind the ego-illusion to keep on trucking.

(You might not find your favourite philosophical school in that list because it doesn’t have an original and notable theory of happiness and existential dread. Or it could be because these are the ones that came up in our discussion.)

We went over various coping strategies that different philosophies offer with Sami. Not unsurprisingly, we concluded that there are actually many good answers, it’s just they’re often not very emotionally relevant to people unless they happen to be a very specific state of mind when considering the issue. “Trite wisdom”, if you will, except it’s of course not the wisdom that’s trite in that judgement. Unfortunately the issue is, I genuinely think, more that it’s difficult to impart and receive information than the information being particularly unavailable or unknown; philosophy has largely resolved the existential issue (or at least put it into order in a far-reaching way), we just haven’t resolved how to transmit an understanding as a magic bullet from one mind to another. It’s largely a question of the rhetoric, that last mile problem of philosophy: how do you make somebody understand anything, anyway?

Doing some Praedor exegesis, plus pulp fiction

Sami’s been reading the Praedor supplement Book of Shadows (Varjojen kirja), so we talked a bit about that, too. Praedor’s a Finnish fantasy adventure rpg of the traditional school from the late ’90s; a conscientious summation of the high traditionalist form, it’s basically like Runequest except 20 years better. Generally considered the most popular Finnish-language rpg. I just had a chance encounter with a roleplaying hobbyist here in the backwoods (not an everyday thing, that), and he was a total Praedor-head.

So anyway, one of the basic observations Sami had was the difficulty of turning Praedor’s boring setting description stuff into actionable content for play. I know the feeling: Praedor has a particularly dry and undramatic setting, I’ve observed on that myself occasionally over the years. Lots of text, but not necessarily lots of excitement or clear theming — it’s a sort of low fantasy, vanilla fantasy kind of deal, highly committed to being serious and generally not-D&D. Partly the feeling is due to the way the author, Ville Vuorela, writes, but I think the more important reason is that what he and Sami look for in setting text is actually very different.

I actually got to experience this in real-time when Sami read me an excerpt from the book to contextualize his complaint: it was some general capsule description about a rural town’s economic and social outlook, and what attracted my attention is that Ville’s clearly read some similar sources to my own reading interests, as his description of the seasonal pastoralism of the town reminded of the medieval economic arrangements in northern parts of the Iberian peninsula. The relevant point, though, is that I just think that Sami and Ville relate so differently to the task of GMing, and the content of play, that Sami is reduced to incredulously grapple at why anybody would think it useful to describe a town’s socio-economic nature instead of providing dramatic hooks.

I’ll just caricature this a bit, hopefully it helps get the point across. This is what I understand the two to appreciate and expect in setting material:

What Ville thinks is cogent: This town basically lives off sheep-herding. Due to the closeness of the ruins of Warth, the menfolk stay out with the herds nearly year round, leaving the women and the elders to run the town while they guard against the occasional monster coming out of the ruins.

What Sami thinks is cogent: This town has families X and Y. Due to a sheep-theft incident 20 years ago they’re in vendetta and have a delightful tradition of stealing sheep, coating them in resins and sending burning sheep on each other’s flocks as akin to baaing missiles in the night.

So non-actionable world-building description vs a clear adventure hook, yes? My point is, though, that I don’t think that Sami is entirely fair to Ville here, and this is coming from somebody who totally will make fun of how Jaconia (the game setting) is basically about as exciting as real-life Albania. (That is to say: reasonably exciting, but nowhere near the whizz-boom-bang of games actually oriented towards cheap thrills.) They’re just looking for different things, and I don’t really think that Sami is on board with Ville’s aesthetic program of roleplaying, which I jocularly phrased as “you have a sword, a horse and a chain shirt, and isn’t it wonderful to ride around enjoying the immersion?”

I think a part of what keeps throwing Sami in his relationship to Praedor is that he’s a very dramatically oriented roleplayer himself, so his games are always full of tense social situations, hard framing and explosive action. Movie-like “no myth” play, if you will; there’s rarely much in the way of setting backing, for instance, and if something exciting is going to happen it’ll happen now and not in the next session. Meanwhile, although you can adapt Praedor in various ways, the spirit I read into much of the material is a spirit of immersive storytelling: the point of the game is to imagine being your character and following along with the GM’s story. The GM handcrafts these pieces, so why make anything in the setting description actionable per se? The setting material certainly won’t be interesting, as that implies getting in the way of the GM’s personal vision.

We ultimately concluded that Praedor in general, as a product franchise, is just not very angry. Some would use the term “grim and gritty”, but I prefer “angry”, because what I’m discussing is the kind of anger the Texan Robert E. Howard expresses in his well-known pulp fantasy series on one Conan the barbarian. While Praedor is, in terms of cultural history, clearly pulp-influenced, one shouldn’t expect it to feature much in the way of pulp fantasy touchstones like social darwinism and sexual exploitation and other passionate elements of your archetypal Howardian entertainment. Praedor is more about the aesthetics of being a grave-robbing adventurer than about rawness of the kind Sami craves from it; it’s not trying to get under your skin, and the only way it’s ever going to get angry is if you bring in the anger yourself. The setting description is certainly not going to do it.

One nice comparison we agreed upon is that S/lay w/ Me has, for the both of us, been much more “pulp” than Praedor as a gaming experience. It’s not so much about enjoying the idea of being an adventurer, like Praedor is, as it is about savage encounters with monsters and sexy ladies. We also agreed that the mutual friend Petteri Hannila totally writes historical adventure fiction rather than pulp fantasy in his fantasy novel Fargoer, no matter his own delusions in the matter — not nearly angry enough. So that’s that settled, then.

BRP, Heroquest, task resolution vs skill resolution

Moving on, another thing Sami’s been dabbling with is Heroquest, the other Glorantha rpg, no relation to the damn boardgame. Apparently he’s pulling together some materials for the Finnish rpg Roudan Maa (“Land of Frost”), which runs off the Heroquest engine. An adventure anthology of some sort.

Discussing our experiences with Heroquest careened through some pretty interesting observations in a relatively short order. Check this out:

The genesis of Heroquest: What people don’t generally seem to understand is that game-mechanically Heroquest is basically a streamlined Runequest, except with a d20 in lieu of the d100. The confusion probably stems from how Greg Stafford first developed Pendragon off the Runequest chassis (this is where the d20 came in), and then used the Pendragon rules as the basis for Heroquest (or rather Hero Wars, the first edition of the current game). The interesting bit is that while Runequest is mathematically hella broken, basically the same dicing system works for Heroquest simply because the game shifted from task centric resolution to conflict centric resolution, too; that small change covers so much of what’s wrong with the math. The game’s still basically full of mechanical theater, but at least it’s not actively broken.

What was that about bad math?: People following the Agora know my spiel on this, it’s one of the standard rants. BRP (Basic Role-Playing, the mechanical engine of Runequest) is one of these amazing traditional roleplaying game engines that limps by despite being so, so mechanically inferior. The executive summary is simply that Runequest is very, very task-oriented in how it resolves anything at all in the game, but it’s also completely obsessed with character skill ratings as task resolution target numbers, which causes such a blatant issue with an overall simulation-oriented game that I can only assume that gamers generally are blind to it because it’s so large: RQ is incapable of setting task difficulty. There’s more to this, ranging from flat modifiers with fixed target number ranges to desperate hacks that prevent the system from sinking like a rock, but that’s really the gist of it: the game attempts to resolve tasks without actually, at any point in the basic procedure, querying the fiction for task difficulty. It’s sort of surprising that it even queries for what skill the task should run under, as little as it’s interested in the nature of the task.

Task resolution does indeed imply task difficulty, eh: So you’d think, but Runequest is actually a pretty early and solid example of how the tradition of task resolution quickly turned into “skill resolution” when trad rpgs developed over time. The earliest rpg texts (something like early D&D, Traveller, even WFRPG 1st edition…) actually had something of a conscious tack on this, and some gaming cultures held onto it longer than others (I’m reminded of 2300 AD), but for the majority of games the emphasis in task resolution quickly took on a RQ-like institutionally skill rating obsessed character: your choice of skills should be the major determinant in what you succeed in. Roleplaying games that emphasize the nature of the task more than the skill level of a character are kind rare, in fact, which is interesting if you’re actually considering the nature of task resolution in the real world. I mean, surely everybody agrees that success in most real-world tasks depends on task difficulty, rather than the skill of the person performing the task? We do so many things where skill has relatively little impact, after all — just think about what actually goes into successful “Stealth”, like we did.

Back up a bit, we were talking about mechanical theater in Heroquest: HQ has this procedural conceit where two players roll simultaneous roll-under checks against their own target numbers to derive a degree of success. These degrees are then cross-correlated on a table that tells us what the overall outcome of the contest is going to be. If that sounds like it’s ridiculously complicated in a 21st century game for what amounts to a simple contest between two stat values, then that’s because it is. But that’s how it is, for reasons related to the game’s RQ heritage and whatnot. Some game unattached to that mechanical tradition would probably just go “roll number + die against your opponent, who is doing the same, and compare results. Higher result wins.”

I guess that was a bit of a rambling rant, but I thought it interesting. Food for thought if you’re into designing games.

Runequest adventure module history

A side-line no doubt inspired by the above RQ/HQ discussion was that we started wondering about Runequest adventure modules and whether, and how much, their design was inspired by their D&D equivalents back in the day. Exploring the issue revealed both that a) Chaosium didn’t put out a huge number of these, basically all were already familiar to us, and b) they’re not as D&D-like as I expected, although you can see the dungeon adventure premise weighting on the minds of the authors.

For trivia’s sake, let me compile a quick list of formative era Runequest adventure modules. The game’s publishing line was interestingly focused on setting books (e.g. cult books), so the list shouldn’t be too long…

Balastor’s Barracks — A dungeon adventure about an undead-infested ruin, later folded into Big Rubble.
Apple Lane — One half is dungeoneering, but clearly shows an independent, wider scope of vision as well.
Snake Pipe Hollow — Clearly a dungeon adventure, even if very specifically setting-rooted for such.
Griffin Mountain — A campaign setting, really, so doesn’t count; just mentioning it so you don’t think I missed it.
Borderlands — An adventure path of sorts, and not at all dungeon-oriented!

That’s… probably a shorter list than most of us expected, right? Shows how Chaosium was both focused on publishing other things than adventure modules, and how they weren’t such a huge operation in the early ’80s. I think the D&D in the background as the 800-pound gorilla is clearly visible as the inspiration and frame of reference for these, but there’s also a lot of emphasis particular to Runequest: setting stuff and a vision of adventuring that doesn’t always happen in holes in the ground.

The human social void, what of it

Lastly, we actually returned to the philosophical matters with Sami at the end for a second round. The question then was similar to our first round on existentialism, but subtly different:

Given that humans yearn for connection, what to do about that?

The existential dread discussion gives a solid grounding on this question as well, of course. Our approach to the matter focused heavily on the inhumanity of most strains of philosophy: the ancient masters generally advice us to cut of ourselves and become self-sufficient, as opposed to being at the whims of others. Whether Stoic or Buddhist or Christian, the most common conceit is that your yearning for love is an illusion. The question is just what exactly you need to surpass the human limits and become something that cannot yearn.

There are some different takes as well, though, such as the interesting conceptual pair of the existentialist’s authentic action, and the effortless effort of the Taoist; while the former teaches you to recognize your need for humanity and pursue it, the latter instructs one to discard rationalized action and seek to do what comes naturally, thus becoming a void (of distracting thought) to fill a void (the thing lacking from your Tao). I considered these as contrasting approaches to the issue, with existentialism advising you to surpass the conventional action in favour of authenticity, while Taoism wants you to discard rationalizations and do the natural thing, but Sami interestingly found that the two instructions were one and the same: both were telling you to follow your heart, even if for one that means surpassing preconceptions and for other it means discarding them.

If you love something, set it free

I was ultimately forced to release Sami to return back to Arctopolis, heralding the end of the Fall Sammies. Next week I’ll be forced to sermonize at the crows and the cats in the yard instead, as usual. Perhaps we’ll see Sami again next spring, provided the Corona situation allows for the usual Spring Sammies!.

A Coup Update

The icosiad celebration of Coup de Main in Greyhawk is upon us tomorrow, what with the campaign having survived to session #20, so it’s a good time to review again a little bit, take a bird’s eye view on something that’s been eating up a lot of my time this fall both directly and indirectly. We did this once before for the decaton celebrations two and a half months back, so that’s where to look for the last part of the story.

Since our last check-up the campaign has continued developing steadily by all metrics:
we have more procedures (neater campaign logs, an entirely new off-session method of play)
we have more crunch (character classes like Fighter, Thief, Cleric, Ranger, Paladin, etc. have something resembling a full write-up)
we have more rules (there’s now a solid saving throw rule in place)
we have more advancement (the party has found loot, gained levels and discovered several mid-levels adventure hooks)!

One thing we don’t have is more players. While play has been regular like clockwork, every Monday, we did have a month or so during which the campaign was carried by a complement of 3+1, which is a bit on the low side. The situation’s since improved significantly as people’s random “more important” schedules have cleared up, but I would still like to get more players. By all indications we should gain more, even if slowly, over time, as people who like this sort of thing find out about the campaign and come in for a look-see.

The most significant positioning developments have been that the party has come close to finishing their looting of the Ytragern manor, the first adventure they delved into; there still may be things left to be accomplished there, but the end is veritably in sight. Some players have established second characters for their stables as their first characters get entangled in downtime activities, and the party even discovered and cleared a small dungeon under the HQ town of Yggsburg. The major on-going strategic concerns of the moment are as follows:
Phun wants to study the library at the manor, what with the place potentially holding several thousand quest XP for him. Unfortunately, being as dumb as a rock (nobody said rocks couldn’t be scholars!) he reads at a speed of 75 xp per day, meaning that he’ll want to spend significant downtime on this.
Astur wants to learn to read, which is probably my favourite long-term ambition here: the poor illiterate farmboy fighter has been trying to hire tutors and whatnot, but he’s too busy adventuring. Astur definitely wants to go with Phun to that library, though; the weeks and months of library study will make a perfect time for Astur to achieve his dream and join Phun in enjoying the profits of academic achievement.
Rob wants to set up a secret HQ under town, in the small dungeon the party located and has mainly kept under wraps. He’s literally started to build a new house in a location that’ll allow him to construct a dungeon entrance. Fun times!
Sir Dave wants to slay a lich, which may be difficult for a 1st level wannabe-Paladin, but he did ace a prayer check at the spring festival in honour of Heironeus, and the god of stick-in-the-ass asked him to discover and slay one Khaldun (of the Deathcrypt Khalduns) in his Deathcrypt somewhere in the Cairn Hills, so needs must, can’t disappoint the Big Guy, etc.
Sven wants to kill ’em all, referring to the new exciting quest that Sven the Barbarian discovered recently. The new quest offers this brutal man a new xp reward scheme revolving around killing his way through the Monster Manual so as to test himself against the worst the world has to offer; a very appropriate ambition for Flanaess, the land where just about everything listed in the Monster Manual lives as part of an amazing shonen-worthy ecological soup! And to think this is the man whom I offered the Swordquest of Kelanen back around the decaton…
Frida wants to avoid being burned at the stake after her recent extremely unfortunate urban random encounter with some rapey rakes, resulting in manslaughter-by-magic. This one is actually looking pretty good, too: although Frida did turn herself in after the fact (a questionable choice to my mind, but her “friends” in the adventuring party did insist), divine forces have since indicated some interest, and the current thinking is that she might well beat the rap in jury trial. Apparently the gods of Oerth are for #metoo, too!
Everybody wants to become rich and famous, which I guess doesn’t need saying, but there’s a bunch of PCs who’ve yet to discover their real passion in life (or this summer, at least), so this’ll do for motivation while they orient themselves.

Tactically speaking perhaps the most important events have been
the discovery of the Heart of Nestor (a potent talisman granting +10 HP),
one of the henchmen discovering their inner beauty and becoming a Cleric retainer (currently at 2nd level),
one of the players making a Ranger alt (and us all loving the living shit out of the Witcher vibes), and
Phun cast a 3rd level spell by ritual magic (got into direct contact with Wee Jass, his Divine Mistress).

Also, here’s some basic stats for the campaign:
Play Group: ~2 alpha, ~4 regular, ~3 irregular players (down from ~5)
Character Stable: 18 living PCs (up from 14)
Roll of the Dead: 3 dead PCs (still!)
Hirelings: 3 (Rob’s Gang)
Retainers: 1 (Hench #4, retaining for Rob and Phun)
Reigning High Score: 5 107 XP, Sven Torsson, Mint Reaver (Barbarian 3)
Runner-Up: 4 512 XP, Rob Banks the Foil Made Mint Person (Thief 4)
2nd Runner-Up: 3940 XP, Phun Eral the Mint Foil Devotee of Wee Jass (Cleric 3)

All in all, we’re actually getting pretty close to becoming mid-level here, which is just astoundingly quick advancement compared to what I’ve seen before. The relatively generous campaign rules environment, high player skill level and luck in adventure draw explains most of it. Let’s hope this keeps up, I wanna see some real mid-levels play for once in my life!

Monday: Coup de Main #19

The actual session of play last Monday was a chill affair, as the party mainly finished up exploring the dungeon under the town. My favourite bit was when they found an old deck of Diamondback cards in the dungeon; apparently it’s a game that used to be popular among the Suloise people once upon a time. More generally the dungeon was relatively empty and no major treasure finds were made, but at least the party could affirm that the place is safe, and they did find a long secret tunnel leading from the dungeon to the outside of the town walls!

The dungeon seems structurally more or less sound, so after the session ended Rob Banks spent some time scouting out the neighbourhood and generally planning for his new life as a home-owning secret dungeon entrance builder. Who knows what he’s planning to do with that secret entrance! I sure don’t!

We’re generally heading for something of a mystery session next, as the party needs to choose what they’re going to do next. The dungeon-under-the-town (I should just call it the “Tower of Fredjack”, that’s what the players do) isn’t going to entertain any further, I imagine, so we’ll probably return to finish up the manor, or focus on maneuver play.

Session #20 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 29.6., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like. New characters gain the boon of the icosiad in celebration of the campaign’s twentieth session, so it is a particularly promising time to join in!

Wednesday: we apparently have a boardgames night now

We had so much fun with my local friends last week, playing Mystery of the Abbey with Markku, that we decided to do it again. This time we had Sami for a fourth player, what with the on-going Fall Sammies, so that worked out well. The game was again Mystery of the Abbey, the classic deduction game; Sami hasn’t played it before and I thought that he might like that sort of thing.

The game wasn’t unfortunately quite as entertaining as the last time, most of which I attribute to one of the players having double-booked himself in a wacky way: he’d promised to join a pub trivia team at the same restaurant we were playing boardgames in. This meant that we had to pause the game periodically for him to go do the trivia, which (as these things are wont to be) was of course stretched out over as much beer-drinking-time as possible, so the boardgame ended up taking something like five hours with all the pauses in the action. Hopefully this won’t be a recurring thing.

I thought that I did pretty well in the game, but my strategy interacted badly with what the others were doing: I had a pretty stable defensive position, sitting on a number of hole cards, but then two of the three other players started outright throwing themselves at the abbot with wild suspicions, apparently afraid that the other would soon solve the mystery. The way the game goes, the player who’s holding the victim card that another player is wrongly guessing has to reveal the card to prove that the guess is wrong, so what these players were doing (in addition to racking up penalty points) was effectively pruning out my defensive position for the fourth player to take advantage of. As I was holding the vast majority of the cards that were still unknown to these happy campers, I was the one who had to show and tell.

As the fourth player had a clear edge in information (they’d gotten into the Library, which wasn’t possible for my fat stack position), my having to reveal two of my hole cards ultimately gave him the tempo advantage to solve before I could. It was an amusing situation, as I haven’t seen zero-sum multiplayer dynamics like this (king-making) in the Abbey before. Of course it wasn’t intentional king-making, and the players didn’t technically speaking know whose hand they were denuding with their wild play, but still.

Thursday: Varangian Way

Eh, I think this’ll be short — I wrote a fair bit about other things above, and it’s getting pretty late. This isn’t to impugn the game, which was productive; this just happens to be the last topic of the newsletter today.

That being said, we had Sami playing with us due to the Fall Sammies, which was a nice change of pace! I think that Varangians would benefit from having more players than the usual 3–4 that we play with, and it’s important for Petteri to figure out how to teach the game, and how to introduce new players to it.

As it was, we did a simple introduction where Sami got to play a protagonist character doing a discovery action, one of the basic building blocks of the game: the character goes into an unknown place and one of the other players, aided by a sophisticated oracle, narrates a little adventurous scenario for them. It’s one of the best bits of the game.

I encouraged Sami to play the captain of the Great Viking Ship Enterprise, one captain Tiberius Kirk, so as to get things off without too much huffing and puffing around histrionic accuracy. I got inspired to sidekick for him as Spokane, the exotic Cathayan scholar, and we soon got Petteri to play healerman “Bones” Coy, him being a life-long Star Trek fan (my real reason for encouraging the setup). GVS Enterprise is on a seven-year mission to discover an eastern route to Constantinople, of course.

We did other stuff in the session as well, but to my mind the nice little pulp adventure of the Enterprise crew was the centerpiece. Paul proffered a sedately paced encounter with a mysterious valley, possibly the Valhalla of viking legend, where Spokane got injured fighting the supernaturally grown wheat warriors of the locals (near died there, the game has not a whit of plot armor for characters) and captain Tiberius very bravely took wergild from them, seizing a half dozen cows in reparations. The honor of the Federation was surely secured, and the cows would help support the crew on the long journey ahead!

I’m actually much too excited about the Star Trek parody here. I feel like it brings some well-needed levity into the very furrow-brow historical novel feel of the game. (I’m at partial fault there myself — I can’t help but contribute all kinds of historical trivia when we play, and I think that’s encouraging other players to be stuffy as well.)

State of the Productive Facilities

I’m doing great in the D&D campaign department, producing lots of stuff for that, and I actually feel like I’m going up the ol’ depression totem pole towards a delightful bout of mania, so who knows what I’ll achieve next week. Stay tuned!

6 thoughts on “New on Desk #43 — The Fall Sammies”

  1. I enjoyed your Praedor-related thoughts as well as your Runequest analysis!

    I may disagree with this bit, depending on what you meant:
    “I mean, surely everybody agrees that success in most real-world tasks depends on task difficulty, rather than the skill of the person performing the task?”

    It seems to me that having the skill in the first place (i.e. prior experience, formal training etc.) is the biggest factor. In a binary skill system (you have it or you don’t, as in parts of WFRP, for instance), I don’t see fixed difficulties as a terrible problem (though in practice I do use modifiers after all).

    On a related note, I’m a big fan of The Pool, which I’ve always understood to set NO difficulty for anything a PC might attempt to do. It’s just as easy to spray the room with your Uzi to kill all five terrorists as it is to lay down suppressive fire to make a getaway. But then, that’s not really task resolution, I guess.

    1. Yeah, Pool’s a conflict resolution thing through and through. Tasks are only addressed out of habit, with the specifics of what the character is doing being mere fluffery.

      Regarding the impact of skill on a task, though, I generally agree about the virtues of a binary system; it was more popular say 40 years ago than it is today, too, which I don’t think is an accident. There was more room to work with less skill-oriented task resolution mechanics back then.

      Beyond that, consider some of the kinds of tasks that adventure games often like for us to roll dice on. We actually went over a detailed example with Sami concerning a typical “stealth task”, such as sneaking through an open corridor without being seen by monsters standing in guard. The philosophical question here, I think, is this: are we rolling that die to find out how well the character sneaks, or are we rolling it to find out whether the monster happens to turn their head at the wrong moment?

      To me the answer is obviously that the roll isn’t much about the character’s sneaking skill at all, I just don’t really believe in such a thing as “sneaking skill” existing in the real world. You can write up dungeon fantasy buffery about the Thieves’ guild training people on nightingale boards to learn to place their toes just so all you want, but surely we would all admit that this is seeking justification post-de-facto: now that we have this thing called the “Thief skills system”, here we are inventing things that are not real to justify the apparently supernatural power of being really, really quiet.

      Of course there’s a bit of a skill component, I’m not dealing in absolutes here. But still, just think about it without preconceptions: is it more the case that an imaginary skill has been attached to a task that is actually performed unskilled in the real world, or does the adventure rpg staple skill of “being stealthy” actually reflect something you can get a certificate in in the real world? Both are true to an extent, sure, but which is more true…

      So what I’m left with is that the largest skill component in this task of “avoiding the monster’s attention” is actually the monster’s task success in “keep vigilant watch”. That would probably be the choice that a system that actually cared about task resolution fidelity made: roll a skill check for the monster, figuring in their alertness and activity as a guardsman.

      The barb of my questioning in this matter is, however, thus: I think that the reason for why rpgs from relatively early on, with Runequest leading the charge, moved towards an extremely PC skill oriented “task resolution” is that it proved psychologically more rewarding. It’s a way of granting formal control over fate to the players, however illusionary or fleeting. The character sheet with skill lists was, in its time, the actual state of the art in character identity tools: you could very formally write down “my guy is the stealth guy” and have that matter a lot in stealth task resolution. It supports character differentiation. This creative reward completely overcame any concern for the idea of actual simulation; skill lists are not about simulation, they’re about character identity.

      So that’s maybe something to think about for people working with task resolution systems today. Maybe there’s some merit to the old D&D procedure of “when doing the task — e.g. searching for the hidden — roll a d6 and on a ‘1’ you succeed.” At least that procedure has the virtue of not over-emphasizing the supposed skill element of a task that, in final analysis, is more about patience than skill. I can explain how to search effectively in 10 minutes, and you’ll be about as good at it as anybody; is that really a “skill” in the rpg sense?

  2. As I was nodding along, I was thinking of D&D’s d6 resolution subystems, too: On a 1-2, the party is surprised, unless there’s a ranger, then only on a 1. Perfect. When that roll goes against the PCs, it doesn’t feel as if someone ‘failed’. By contrast, if the ranger rolled low on his Perception skill check just now, that seriously rankles some players, particularly if they invested a lot of skill ranks in that skill.

    (In a similar vein, I remember a player’s relief and exultation (!) when I introduced his high-powered PC in medias res as a mob captive *who had already secretly escaped his bonds and held an improvised weapon behind his back* as the PCs stormed a mob warehouse.)

    Your analysis of the function of many a fiddly skill system is spot on. In the traditional illusionist campaign I’ve begun playing with old buddies I noticed players – including me – actively seeking a chance to roll for a variety of things. I attributed this to hoping for a particularly lucky or unlucky roll to inject excitement into the proceedings, but your thoughts point me to an alternative explanation: Showing off your character’s stick, but also his weaknesses, in short: his identity.

    (The players in my lethal D&D campaign seek to avoid rolls, of course, though I’m proud to say that at this point, most will remind me of pertinent factors (and rolls) to the detriment of their PCs.)

  3. Greetings from New Mexico in the USA! My copy of “Hero Wars” (the first version of Heroquest, now QuestWorlds) has Robin Laws as the author. Is there an even earlier version?

    1. My first reaction was that I remember it being both Laws and Stafford, but thinking about it more carefully, I think you’re right – Hero Wars credits only Laws. The 2nd edition (the first Heroquest) credits them both (I assume because Laws was just freelancing for Stafford’s company, so when the 2nd edition came around it was Stafford who revised the game).

      My understanding is that what was actually going on, though, is that when he was sitting down to design the game, Laws took Stafford’s pre-existing notes to brew up that first edition in the first place, and the formal attribution of the 1st edition isn’t necessarily precisely reflective of the creative relationship. Laws doubtlessly was a major participant, and probably the most active on it (whence the attribution, I’d assume; he would have been the one making the decisions and writing the text up), but his work was clearly based on Stafford in some way. In my fanfiction Laws comes in as a freelancer and is handed Stafford’s notes, with instructions to make something coherent out of this mess the elder gentleman had gotten hopelessly entangled in. A troubleshooting mission, if you will.

      Again speaking off the top of my head, the main reason I have for thinking the above is that I’ve read somewhere else (probably the ’90s RQ news group archives) about the ’90s developments in the RQ franchise, and it seems that Stafford had been working on Heroquest (which famously was already conceptualized on some level in the early ’80s) on and off since the early ’90s at the latest. The rules ideas from the time indicate, at least to me, a clear thoroughline specifically from Pendragon (itself a descendant of RQ in many ways): there apparently was a minor fad in the RQ scene at the time for “playing Runequest with Pendragon rules”, specifically because the virtue and passion mechanics were considered necessary for Heroquest, a game that was even then being envisioned as this epic-level more narrative-focused drama game in comparison to Runequest’s adventure focus. I don’t remember reading about whether it was Stafford who picked up this idea from the scene, or the other way around, but apparently he was specifically working on bringing out a Heroquest that, in some point in its design, had rules very reminiscent of Pendragon. So 20-sided dice, explicit passion traits in addition to the traditional skill rules, etc.

      (You can see this same design strand coming back in the most recent version of Runequest, by the way: it’s bringing back those early ’90s ideas about how RQ, which never had passion rules in its classical era, really needs that stuff to properly portray its religious and cultural focus.)

      I want to be clear that this is all based on the historical tidbits that’ve caught into my cranium over the years, and it’s public sources all the way; I haven’t asked either Stafford or Laws, or anybody who would actually know, about how Hero Wars actually came about. It just makes sense to me that the game’s core mechanical conceits like that roll-under d20 and the concepts surrounding it, which are nearly the same as in Pendragon, would be in there because Stafford was apparently already using that same dicing chassis several years ago. This makes me think that Laws can’t have been coming to an empty table at the turn of the millennium Issaries — it would be too much of a coincidence for him to have just accidentally stumbled on the same terrain that Stafford had already been going over.

      I have a vague memory of hearing somewhere sometime that Laws specifically crafted the mastery system (which is the specific way the HQ version of the roll-under deals with the out-of-bounds issue; Pendragon manages it a bit differently, more like Runequest), and the extremely generic free-trait approach of the system is totally his style, so I’m not suggesting that he was just being a secretary or anything. But it seems very likely to me that he was coming into the middle of a game development process that had arguably been going for 15 years by then, and he was working primarily to untangle Stafford’s project rather than creating an entirely new game from scratch.

      This is all, of course, stuff that somebody should just ask Laws instead of caring about my fanfiction speculations. I didn’t intend much by it in my ramblings up in the newsletter; the point was just to draw attention to the RQ-Pendragon-HQ development line and how it might be useful for understanding these games to think about how and why they’ve moved to the direction they have over time. Heroquest solves specific issues that Runequest struggles with, in ways that some people find highly undesirable while others enjoy them as the way forward in making Glorantha actually gameable.

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