Category Archives: Musings

Britt the Warlock renegotiates…

For several adventures, the party hadn’t been entirely comfortable adventuring with Britt the Warlock, someone whose power explicitly came from a relationship with an angel from the higher planes. Sure, Britt was a powerful ally with all manner of cool powers, but the fact she only got her powers because of some shady agreement with an extra-planar entity made them feel a bit uncomfortable.

Tori the Bard was sure that Britt could find lots of deities who would be more than happy to give her otherworldly power, with just a bit of praying and none of this patronage nonsense. It would be the easiest deal in history, she said.

Sovrin the Wizard wasn’t sure about that. He was pretty suspicious of any deal with Outer Beings like this, and it was about time Britt took back control. Sovrin felt really strongly that no patron was better than a bad patron.

On the other hand, Pragmat the Paladin, whilst concerned about some of the onerous requirements of patronage, felt Britt’s actions showed a close alignment with the morals and ethics of the rest of the party. Even if another patron could be found, who knows what conditions they might impose on Britt? He struggled, as ever, to come to a decision. Both ways had their merits.

Things were much clearer for Mona the Cleric. Angels were a good thing. Stick with angels, stick with Warlock power, why change a good thing? And Banck the Fighter? Well, as usual, he saw it simply. Without Britt’s eldritch blasts, the party would be a lot weaker. Weaker meant fewer kills. Fewer kills meant less XP. And he couldn’t support that.

After much debate around the campfire, they finally decided to have a vote on it: let Britt keep her patron, or leave and find another source of power. Predictably, there was no way to separate the two sides. However, they had forgotten about Boris the party donkey. As the voters put down their arms and prepared for more pointless arguing, Boris wandered up and nonchalantly pissed into the circle of adventurers. And as his golden stream jetted onto the ground, the foul-smelling fluid rebound with such force that it splattered Mona and Banck where they sat. As the two yelled out their urine-soaked rage, Britt was clear. This was a sign. She would take back control.

# # # # # # #

It took many days – many, many days – but eventually Britt returned from her hidden Warlock’s Tower. She was haggard and pale, exhausted from long hours communing with her patron. The deal was done, documented here in 500 rolls of finest calf-skin parchment.

Well, no, of course Iye-Yu, her mighty angelic patron, wouldn’t accept an unconditional departure. The patronage came with an agreement, with commitments, and those commitments couldn’t be easily unravelled. Plus, if everyone thought it was easy to get out of patronage – why, they’d all try it! And Iye-Yu couldn’t be responsible for that sort of message.

So, here it was: a binding legal agreement stating that Iye-Yu was no-longer Britt’s patron. Now, in return, Britt would need to find another soul to pay for the one she still owed Iye-Yu. Or she could give up the one she’s got, but that might limit her ability to find patronage elsewhere. Also, until such time as Britt found a new patron, she’d still have access to her Warlock powers. It’s possible those powers might be changed, or Iye-Yu might decide they didn’t work against certain opponents any more, and Britt no longer had any say in that. But she kept the powers, so that was good right? It also meant she could keep on fighting, so Banck would still get his XP. Well, mostly. Result!

Now Sovrin wasn’t entirely happy with this. This looked like Iye-Yu would actually have more control over Britt’s actions, not less. That didn’t look like taking back control. Britt had negotiated out of patronage, by agreeing a lesser form of patronage where she didn’t even get a say. What sort of stupid deal was that?

As for Tori, she felt Britt had mucked things up completely. Britt shouldn’t have negotiated at all. Iye-Yu was lucky to have any kind of relationship with Britt – after all, Britt’s ancestors had been some of the most powerful heroes in the world, just a couple of hundred years ago. Britt was a catch. She should just walk away. There are loads of deities looking for supporters. Who cares if we all earn less XP for a while, eventually she’d level up and then we’d be back on the XP Gravy Train. And sure, they wouldn’t be the same powers you have now, but they’d be better powers, without all the restrictions of this stupid patronage that Britt was clearly suffering under at the moment.

Mona was also unhappy. You had a good thing, why throw it away? You’ve got to find and handover someone’s soul for Gods’ sake, and those things don’t grow on trees. Not willing ones, anyway. Why go to all this trouble to get something that is worse than what you have right now? It’s the very definition of stupid.

Pragmat thoughts it was ok. I mean, it was a compromise, of course no-one would get what they wanted.

The party turned on Pragmat in a murderous fury. No-one likes a smart arse…




How do you roll? #RPGaDay, Day 1

While I’ve always tried to respond to RPGaDay via Twitter (@thedicemechanic), I’ve never gone into any detail in a blog entry. This year, I’m going to try harder.

RPGaDay 2016

When it comes to dice-rolling, my preference is the real thing. There’s something about the feel of dice, the sound of them clattering across the table that tells me I’m playing a game. Apps are fine as an emergency, so you’re never without a convenient randomiser, but for play it has to be the real thing.

Virtual Dice

Funnily enough, my love for dice doesn’t extend to Virtual Tabletops. I’ve a bit of experience of both Fantasy Grounds and Virtual Tabletop Simulator, both of which have dice icons that have to be grabbed and thrown. I hate this. I much prefer roll20’s default, which quickly generates a number. Real dice I love, virtual dice just leave me cold.


No thank you. Except sometimes. The idea of role-playing without a random element at all just doesn’t appeal. I have played Everway, Jonathan Tweet’s brilliantly clever game that incorporates three types of resolution mechanic in the one game: random (“fortune”, based on cards), story-based (“drama”, based on GM fiat) and deterministic (“karma”, highest stat wins). I have to say I loved that, but a lot of the appeal was in the sheer damn cleverness of the game.

super_arm_wrestlingI also think diceless philosophy should have a greater presence in traditional RPGs. In D&D, for example, a Str 18 Muscleman is significantly stronger than a Str 10 Norm: pretty much any test of strength should automatically by won by the former, rather than going to a Str vs Str roll where the weaker character wins 1 in 3 times (66/30, 4% tie)

But in general, I really love rolling dice!


Having said all of this, I am quite confident that I could be divorced from my love of dice by a card-based mechanic. I have always loved card-based elements within roleplaying games. Deadlands and TSR’s Marvel Super Heroic Adventure game both used cards within their resolution mechanics. WHFRP 3rd edition is almost entirely card-based, although as with D&D4e (as you’ll see from my most recent posts, currently very much in my thinking), it’s more about convenience of tracking powers than a bespoke card-based resolution mechanic.

However, when it comes to card play, there are a couple of examples that really stand out for me.

Everway cardsEverway’s vision deck is just a beautiful resolution mechanism that plays strongly against my deterministic, numerical nature. But I love it. The idea of drawing a card and then interpreting the result intuitively based on the image, it’s applicability to the situation or symbolism is just so wonderful in it’s profundity and utter uniqueness.

Torg drama deck

Torg’s Drama Deck does a great job of handing more control into the players’ hands. Different cards offer mechanical bonuses to actions, for engaging in subplots and for effective team work, which means success in tough encounters is truly as much down to player skill as character ability. In addition, the pacing mechanic built in to card play – with each player putting no more than 1 card per turn into their pool – means that players are incentivised to play the long game, building up their card resource round by round before triggering them at the last possible moment for a famous last-ditch victory. This was the first RPG mechanic that reflected the pacing seen in action movies, with the Indomitable Hero taking blow after blow, his gun knocked out of his reach, the villain at last getting his hands on that weapon just as the Hero’s out-stretched hand closes around a handy spanner and knocks his opponent out for the count.

What I really like about cards is how they appeal to my Gamist nature. I like the idea of player skill being able to influence success in RPGs. However, I’m not a big fan of games that induce analysis paralysis by including reams of tactical options, manoeuvres and quirky rules that incentivise rules-lawyerly play. Cards are a great compromise that allows for tactical game play without encouraging players to spend hours poring over rule books. They can also provide for “controlled randomness”, giving players’ the choice as to when they really want to succeed and when it might not matter so much.

So far, I’ve come across a number of card-based mechanics that add to an extra dimension to game play. However, I’ve yet to find the one that does everything I would want from a card-based system. When I do, it might finally be time to kiss those rolling randomisers goodbye…



Power Ranks – combining absolute and variable resolution mechanics

Time to throw a log of contemplation into the cold dead ashes of this blog burner.

Earlier this week, I read another excellent blog entry by always thought-provoking Rob Donoghue, one of the creators of Fate, around resolution mechanic based on TV tropes. Read it here:

The idea of rigid tiers of ability is something I’ve considered myself on many occasions, and it is one that pops up from time to time in RPGs. For example, Jonathan Tweet’s Everway. The actual model described by Rob, with near-automatic success over lower ranks, a small chance of beating a higher rank, and more nuanced conflict resolution within ranks pretty much describes Robin D. Laws HeroQuest / Hero Wars system to a tee.

This got me thinking a little about Superhero games. Building mechanics that allow you to reflect Awesome Man’s planet-moving abilities alongside Sneaky Man’s street-level gumption and then bring them together in satisfying game play is notoriously difficult. However, it strikes me that retrofitting a rank-based model into existing superhero games could go a long way towards solving this issue. There are numerous ways this could be done, but as food for thought, I’ll set one out below.


Rank Concept

Every character, power and ability is given a rank. These range from 0 to 5:

  1. Incapable. This character simply doesn’t have this ability in a way that can be used game-mechanically (e.g. physical strength for a 3 year old child)
  2. Normal human
  3. Above normal human (street-level hero or villain)
  4. Super-human
  5. Powerful super-human
  6. Cosmic super-being

Every character has a core rank. This is the default for every stat, skill, ability and power they have. However, you can also increase or decrease abilities on an individual basis.

  • An ability of a higher rank always beats an ability of a lower rank
  • An ability of a lower rank can only affect an ability of a higher rank if there is some kind of advantageous or aggravating factor (e.g. overwhelming odds, team work, a critical hit mechanic, exploiting a stated weakness)

To illustrate this by example:
Superman is a Rank 5 hero. It is impossible for any attack from a Rank 3 to hurt them (whether they just don’t hit, or they bounce off his Uber-tough skin, or whatever).

Batman is a Rank 5 hero* with Rank 3 physical strength. Although he can mix it with the big leagues, his physical attacks are impotent against many bad guys so he needs to find other solutions.

Wolverine is a Rank 4 hero with Rank 5 Claws. Those things can cut through anything.

*or could be. Other builds are available!

Ranks plus Conflict Resolution

The impact this has on the conflict resolution mechanics can potentially be quite dramatic. Points-buy systems typically give tough Heroes high levels of invulnerability or defences to reflect the fact they aren’t easily hurt. They then need to give equivalent high levels of damage to reflect the opponents that can sometimes hurt them. You then end up in a situation where any Villain that is a challenge to Superman will kill Batman in a single blow.

However, with a rank system you don’t need to do this. Instead of giving Superman a 25d6 punch attack, you can give him a Rank 5 8d6 punch attack. With that punch, he can damage any opponent he fights. But he won’t insta-kill a street-level thug just because he’s forgotten about the pulling-your-punch mechanics. Similarly, you can build a Captain USA character who looks like he’s just a normal human, but because he’s a Rank 4 hero, he can dodge bullets and duke it out with super-powered foes without needing to break in-game scaling mechanics.

Similarly, Batman has rank 4 Intimidate. Against ordinary bad guys, he doesn’t even need to roll. Against average super-villains, he uses his (high) skill. Against Justice League-level baddies he just glowers moodily.

To work at its very best, you need to separate out Combat mechanics from Non-combat mechanics. For example, Strength should reflect the ability to exert force on the game world but NOT reflect damage. This is a fundamental requirement to ensure scaling for things like Lifting doesn’t break scaling for Combat. It’s something I used to hate, because it broke my simulationist view of the real world, but the reality is we’re not simulating real world, we’re simulating comic book world and to my knowledge Superdude hasn’t punched anyone’s head off to date. As I recall, Silver Age Sentinels and related tri-stat games did just this.

Finally, a beneficial side-effect of this is that it can increase how much you are able to play in the game mechanical sweet spot. Hero System, for example, with its buckets of dice approach, offers quite different game play when the typical attack does 4d6 damage to when it does 15d6 damage (not least, because more dice reduces the likelihood of rolling extreme values). Using ranks, you can pitch the game at the level your group most enjoys whilst still allowing for apparently vast differences in powers and abilities.


Playing with the concept

The other fun thing about the Rank concept is it offers different ways you can play with it to make it work for your game.

For example, instead of linking it to hard-and-fast power levels, you can just use it as a relative scale. Rank 6 means you are the best at that in your campaign universe. Regardless of any other PC or NPC, you are the best. Want to be Usain Bolt? There ya go.

Another, related, way to use it is for niche protection. According to the canon, Superman has a genius-level intellect, yet in the Justice League he invariably plays second-fiddle to Batman – this is because Bruce invested points in Rank 5 intellect, giving himself niche protection as “the clever one”.

One option is to introduce rank auctions as part of a collaborative character generation, for a bit of competitive tension in the creation of the PCs. Not suitable for every group, or indeed every game, but forces you to ask yourself just how much are you willing to give up to be the best warrior in the kingdom?

Finally, for those characters like Batman who seem able to effortless scale up and down as befits the story, you can do away with multiple character versions or complex power-builds. Simply vary the character rank based on the story you want to tell and nothing else needs to change. (“Today, we’re playing a Rank 3 scenario”). Or create a power that allows a character to more easily raise his Rank: you don’t need a mob of Batmen to duke it out with Superman, you just need to remember that he can knows your weaknesses and he always has a plan…

D&D Deck Building Dungeon Bash Boardgame

When Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition was published, as a fan of game mechanics, I thought it was a work of beauty. OK, it wasn’t D&D as I knew it, but with so many fun crunchy things inside, I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

I loved the way each Class had multiple unique powers. I loved the options they gave the players, the way the mechanics integrated and complemented one another, how they gave different classes a distinct role and feel. However, my first play experience soon put things into context, as my group found combat was slow and the exciting choices hinted at by the range of powers lost their sheen after the third encounter. My group plays infrequently, jumps system regularly, and it’s not unusual to never play a game twice. So we waved farewell to D&D4 and never went back.

I stand by this decision. I don’t regret it, except for one thing… all those lovely untouched powers, sitting there, waiting, calling to me… On the one hand, I’m disappointed that I only scratched the surface of the powers. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be prepared to put in the time commitment to do any more. But what if there’s another way?

Deck Building
Get your hands on the D&D4 power decks that were published. Several sets. Or make your own. Create D&D4th edition characters. Then give every character at least 2 classes. Maybe 3.

  • Give every character all of the 1st level powers of those classes. Give them as cards, in a deck.
  • Allow each player to draw a hand of 3 or 4 cards.
  • Every time you’re in combat, you can draw a card and play a card. If you don’t play a card, I guess you can probably draw 2. Dunno. Maybe.
  • If you play an At Will power, it goes into a discard pile that forms the new deck once it’s exhausted.
  • If you play an Encounter power, it goes into a different discard pile that is shuffled in once the encounter finishes.
  • If you play a Daily power, you could have a third discard pile, but I actually think it would be more fun to treat it as an encounter power, but you don’t get to draw a new card. Or maybe you have to discard another card to fuel it. Or both. Or something.

Dungeon Bash Boardgame
Nominate a DM. Create a 10 encounter dungeon. Start at 1st level. Finish with the 10th level Big Bad Boss Encounter. Create a bit of story and a few puzzles to link them together. Drop the characters in, kick down doors, kill things and take their stuff.

After each encounter, give every character a heal and level them up. Keep things moving quickly, see how far you can get in one night. Strong on dice-rolling. Weak on story. And using deck-building to mitigate some of the issues of encounter speed and analysis paralysis.

Hey presto. D&D4 as a deck-building dungeon bash pure combat board game.

For a one-off, more complex, version of a typical dungeon-bash board game, this actually sounds rather fun to me. Normally, following an idea like this, my inclination would be to get into some really detailed analysis. Check whether every class and every power would work properly with this. Plan it, write it, think about it, rewrite it. On this occasion, I think I’d rather just play it and see what happens. After all, it’s not like we’d ever do it twice.

NB: Ok, it’s not really very deck-buildy. I just like the alliteration. The rapid levelling and adding more cards as a result after each encounter does give it a sort of deck-building element. But I accept, it’s no Dominion.

The Inevitability of Omnicidal Vagabonds

All across the dangerous and desolate hinterlands of Fantasaria, small bands of hardy adventurers seek their fortunes. Armed with their wits, an impressive collection of pseudo-medieval militaria and supernatural abilities beyond the ken of ordinary folk, they explore underground labyrinths and mountain-top temples with a single-minded purpose: kick down doors, kill things, take their stuff.

Have you ever wondered how these strange bands came together? What possible reason could there be for murderous itinerants wandering the land? How could a pseudo-medieval society support such unproductive workers? And more’s the point, why would they tolerate them? Well dear friends, today I will answer your query. Today I will explain once and for all why Omnicidal Vagabonds (the correct academic term for the apocryphal ‘murder hobos’) exist.


Medieval Earth vs. Fantasaria
It all comes down to the question of demographics.

In the realm of Earth, the medieval period was one of great poverty and high mortality. As many as 1-in-3 children died before they reached 1-year old and many more died before maturity. With these levels of mortality, women needed to have 4-6 children just to maintain a relatively stable population size: a tricky feat itself when perhaps 1 in 10 women died during or as a result of childbirth. When you add in frequent wars trimming down the productive male population and the constant threat of infection and disease (regular killers like dysentery, typhoid, tetanus, measles and pox as well as the infrequent but society-shattering plague pandemics), you can see why the population of medieval society was a very unstable thing indeed.

Contrast this with Fantasaria. Although in many ways alike to Earth, this realm has two major differences.

The first is the nature and extent of untamed wilderness. Although much of medieval Earth was ripe for colonising and civilising, this was largely left to later generations. The main reasons for this were the difficulty in accessing much of this land and little or no expansionary pressure from a population constantly being trimmed by natural and man-made disasters. Fantasaria, on the other hand, is directly bordered with a breadth of barrens, badlands and bush. However, Fantasaria has its own difficulty here, in that much of these wilderness lands are infected with a wide range of powerful and unpleasant denizens who have a real penchant for killing civilised peoples. More on that later.

The second, and most significant difference, is magic: specifically, healing magic. Fantasaria has access to supernatural abilities that allow gifted individuals to heal others in ways that would amaze medieval Earth. We have documentary records from the annals of the previously mentioned Omnicidal Vagabonds that the healing of near fatal wounds was a relatively trivial magical act, with negation of toxins and curing of disease only a little more complex. In some editions of these documents, a single gifted individual could heal minor wounds indefinitely, requiring only minimal rest for sleeping and eating. Given the particular needs of this subset of society, it is a logical presumption that specific magics were also available to deal with the most pressing of medieval society needs: pregnancy and childbirth. In addition, it’s also clear from records of specific Omnicidal Vagabond troupes that infection was virtually unheard of, despite sustaining frequent injuries from dirty weapons in unhygienic circumstances. It’s therefore fair to assume that even the minor healing magics carried a powerful antiseptic effect. Add to this specific magics that could purify food and water, eliminating a major source of disease and infection, and you can see a very different society to that of medieval Earth.


Too many babies, too little disease
The consequence of this magical healing to Fantasaria is a massive boost in life expectancy. Much of this is driven by massively decreased infant and female mortality, but a non-trivial contribution is made by the virtual elimination of everyday infection. This leads to a number of societal changes.

The population starts to boom. With no adjustments in birth rate, a modest reduction in infant mortality combined with fewer adults dying of infection and food-related diseases will double the population in a couple of generations.

The magic that is prevalent across Fantasaria helps improve agricultural productivity. The primary impact of this is that the middle classes – tradesmen, merchants, entertainers and innkeepers – are much more numerous than in medieval Earth. Nonetheless, even with this magically-enhanced farming, population growth will soon lead to land pressure: more mouths to feed, more homes for shelter. The burgeoning population starts to spread into Fantasaria’s aforementioned wilderness lands. Although the taming of the wilderness and turning it into productive agricultural land is a labour-intensive task, this can be accomplished within a few seasons. More significant is the need to displace the indigenous peoples: more easily said than done when those peoples are militaristic Hobgoblins, savage Orcs and other such foul denizens of evil.

(A quick aside: it is quite clear from Fantasarian records that the native inhabitants of the wilderness were definitely, irredeemably and existentially evil, their moral choices restricted by the Gods before any individual was even born. The moral impact of this purely demographic argument would be very different if there was any evidence that these were intelligent, morally dynamic societies as were the indigenous peoples of medieval Earth)

Initially, Fantasarian society responds in a similar way to medieval Earth. Militias are formed, land-linked military service creates a ruling-class of warriors, the myriad churches sponsor their own military orders. In addition, the over-sized middle class allows for large professional armies and mercenary bands while the magically-enhanced agriculture that supports the enlarged middle class also allows for armies to be gathered in greater number and for a longer period of time than those of medieval Earth. Bloody wars are waged against these indigenous peoples. There is a huge cost to this, in terms of both casualties and resources. As well as being horrid and evil, the indigenous peoples of Fantasaria are like-to-like superior warriors to the civilised peoples and tens of thousands are slain. However, demographics are on their side and eventually Fantasarian society triumphs.


Fantasarian Tunnel Fighters
Or so they think. Rather than being utterly defeated, the wily denizens of the Fantasarian wilds simply retreat and regroup. Hiding in underground complexes, licking their wounds in jungle fortresses, planning their revenge from cave networks deep in the hills. These locations favour the denizen’s greater individual strength, whereas the open battlefields favoured the superior numbers of the Fantasarian army. Early expeditionary missions against these hold-outs result in 90%+ casualty rates. The Fantasarian army simply cannot compete.

The magically-boosted demographic explosion continues apace and it’s not long before the newly conquered lands are full to bursting with civilised people. More land is needed, more food production is required to support this burgeoning society. Once more, Fantasarian society finds itself clashing over territory with the indigenous races. Now, however, the battlefield has changed. The denizens of the wild have learned from their earlier defeats. They fight a guerrilla war from a position of strength, using their tremendous individual potency to sow fear and death throughout the frontiers.

This is an issue of scarce resources, of supply and demand of land: in other words, an economic opportunity. And where there is an economic opportunity, the burgeoning middle class created by Fantasaria’s unique demographic circumstances responds. The Workers are busy keeping society fed and watered, albeit greatly helped by the ministrations of priestly magic. The Ruling classes maintain an ordered society and protect the borders, whilst enjoying the trappings of wealth. The bourgeois middle is free from the responsibilities of the Working class and aspire to the affluence of the Ruling class. They are the ones who exercise whatever means they can to earn a living, taking their cut by providing services to those above or below as they see fit. Creative, opportunistic, driven by market forces they little understand, inevitably the first Omnicidal Vagabond troupe is formed.


First Glimpse of an Omnicidal Future
The first troupe was almost certainly made up of former members of the Fantasaria armed forces. They would need to be skilled veterans to survive any period of time in the wild. However, they would also need a very different set up to the massed ranks of the Fantasarian army: able to move quickly and, when necessary, stealthily. They would need direct access to the very healing magic that underpins the society that created them. The numerous faiths would encourage this, as taking a leading role in taming the wilds increased both their temporal and spiritual power. The first troupe may have been a specific unit within the armed forces, but high mortality rates and the sight of the potential wealth flowing straight into the officers of the Ruling class meant there was little incentive to serve. Instead, they went freelance. An entirely new subset of the middle classes arose: the Adventuring class.

The Adventuring Class was typified with higher than average skill levels, usually in specialist areas. It also had incredibly high mortality, far higher even than might be seen back in medieval Earth. However, the risks were commensurate with the rewards, the most successful few of the adventuring class able to establish themselves among the elite of the Ruling classes. Even when, after a few generations, birth rates began to level off to a new equilibrium, there was still plenty of excess capacity in the population. In turn, this ensured there was a steady flow of middle-class, displaced working class and landless ruling class to form into troupes of Omnicidal Vagabonds.

The healing magic and infection control that led to the initial population pressures had one more significant part to play. Death came to the majority of those pursuing this most high risk of occupations, but unlike medieval Earth the most puissant warriors don’t perish to infected crossbow wounds, as befell King Richard the Lionheart, or falling from a horse, as did Genghis Khan. Magic minimises deaths by accidents and misfortune and battlefield injuries, reinforcing the natural evolutionary pressure for the most fit to survive, gain more skill and in so doing further increase their ability to prosper in the wilderness. In turn, they become an example for others, a vision of what is possible for those brave enough and skilled enough.

Through an inevitable combination of demographics and economics, the omnicidal vagabonds arose.


Author’s notes: I did a little digging on the internet to find the data on medieval birth rates, mortality and such and will share the links in a later post. I have also begun to create a fairly basic (and yet still very complex!) population model in Excel (I’ll post this too once I get it to a suitable state). The lack of detailed data means many of my assumptions are guess work, but what it does show is how infant survival is probably the one most significant factor in determining the size and make up of a pseudo-medieval population. Change that and you change everything!

The Sanctity of Genre

I’m going to take a quick diversion away from mechanical aspects of role-playing games to talk about something else very close to my heart: Genre.

Apologies. This is a long post. I’m afraid I got on my ranting horse and took it for a bit of a ride…

I’m not going to go into detailed dictionary definitions or analysis of the origins of the word. Nor am I going to dwell on the distinction between Genre and Setting, other than to acknowledge that “Fantasy” isn’t so much a genre as a broader label in which a wide range of genres can exist. No, what I want to talk about is the apparently inexorable descent to a single unifying genre and how this is damaging to story-telling and the bounds of imagination.

The Assassin of Middle Earth
What has sparked this off for me is the new console game, Middle Earth: Shadows over Mordor.

Now, to check my prejudice from the start, I’m what could be described as a soft-core gamer. I’m usually a few years behind the latest thing and prefer to play slower-paced games that I can engage with on the sofa on my laptop, such as CRPGs or Civilisation, rather than shooters and action games. I am also a big Tolkien fan, a long way short of the buffs of the Tolkien society for sure, but nonetheless a keen reader of his works.

By all accounts, Shadows over Mordor is a pretty good game. Maybe even excellent. For the reasons I’ve said above, I’m unlikely to play it myself, but it sounds like it could be a lot of fun. Except that it has no place in Middle Earth. For me, this is a big thing.

Don’t let facts get in the way of story
No place in Middle Earth? That’s a bold statement! I have two main issues. The first, judging from the game synopsis (thank you Wikipedia), is that the premise of the game itself is something that makes no sense based on the setting and cosmology that Tolkien created. This includes, amongst many others:

  • The game’s protagonist is a Ranger stationed at the Black Gate. The story is set between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, c. TA2941 and TA3017, but the Black Gate was reclaimed by Sauron’s forces some time before TA2002, at least nine-hundred years before the timeframe of the game.
  • Mordor is not yet a barren wasteland in the game, which may conceivably have been true before the War of the Last Alliance (Second Age 3434), but certainly not true at any point in the Third Age.
  • The main character comes back to life to seek revenge, despite Tolkien explicitly stating that Beren was the only human ever to return from death. He is revived by the wraith of Celebrimbor, one of the Noldor Elves. But Elves cannot be wraiths – after death, their souls return to Valinor, either dwelling with Mandos or re-embodied if they choose (see here and here)

OK, the reality is that these factual changes don’t really matter that much, other than one thing: if you need to change the facts to tell your story, why set it in a world that has such a strong predefined history? Just create a new world in which to tell your story: it certainly didn’t harm the sales of the Dragon Age games.

What is the “Middle Earth” Genre?
More significant to me than the factual questions around the setting is the question of genre. In any creative work of fiction, the writing doesn’t just describe a place, it also provides a description for how that world operates, how characters behave and interact. In other words, what sort of stories can and do take place. Nothing in Tolkien’s writings suggest that Middle Earth is a world where protagonists sneak around Mordor slaughtering and torturing Orcs to avenge their families. On the contrary, Middle Earth is a world where great power almost inevitably corrupts and where the exercise of strength can never do more than merely delay the ultimate victory of evil over good. In the end, Evil is only defeated because the humble (Hobbits) exercise mercy (both Bilbo and Frodo staying their hands when they had the opportunity to slay Gollum). These fundamental tenets are the genre of Middle Earth and for any creative work to be consistent with Tolkien’s creation, they need to reflect this. It’s why the Numenoreans could never destroy Sauron; it’s why Aragorn or Gandalf could never wield the One Ring; it’s why a flight of eagles would never be able to lead a commando raid to drop the Ring into Mount Doom: the exercise of strength alone cannot win. This, more than anything, is Tolkien.

What is also important to recognise here is that Middle Earth is more than just a setting or a place. Middle Earth was designed in a specific way, with a specific cosmology, with unique mythological metaphysics that support certain kinds of stories. In the case of Tolkien, Middle Earth is integrated with the genre in a way that isn’t true with stories set in modern day Earth. The use of stealth, murder and torture to extract revenge can never lead to a positive ending within Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as Turin Turambar can attest.

The Action Movie Genre
For me, this comes on to a wider problem of Genre recognition across mass media and consumer culture. Increasingly, it feels to me that public criticism is dominated by a single genre that perhaps can be best described as Action Movie. We don’t question when a hero leaps from a burning helicopter onto the back of a moving car, taking a couple of gun shot wounds as he goes, punching through the rear windscreen of the vehicle to drag his opponent out. The impossibility of the human form to withstand this sort of punishment is an inconvenience.

However, just because most Action Movies are set in something approaching the real world, doesn’t mean that the genre is any more real. In the Action Movie genre, people can accomplish acts of impossible stealth, kill without guilt or hesitation and torture with impunity because the end justifies the means. However, that doesn’t justify bringing those tropes into other genres on the basis that although equally impossible, they are somehow more “realistic”. This is like mathematicians talking about different sized infinities – the infinity of odd numbers is bigger than the infinity of prime numbers, but both are still infinite. Instead of using different genres to tell different stories, we risk retelling the same stories but simply in different settings.

Genre rules are fundamental to telling certain types of stories. The horror genre require protagonists to act in ways that are distinctly illogical, yet the power of those stories relies on that. Noir has its own distinct set of bleak narrative rules that allow us to create dramatic stories. Romance requires impossible coincidences and a sense of optimism to bring about powerful positive emotional states. The Superhero genre has been particularly targeted by this genre normalising, as if somehow Superman killing General Zod is a better story than a near omnipotent having to work twice as hard to find solutions consistent with his commitment to the sanctity of life.

Genres in Gaming
I suspect there is something fundamental about the human imagination that makes it easy to accept impossible individuals, but harder to imagine that the rules of the world around us can be different. Bringing this back to RPGs, one of my favourite games of all time is Torg. This classic 1990s game not only brought together individuals from different settings, but had rules to embody different genres within the one game world. Some gamers couldn’t handle it. They had no problem with the idea that Wizards, Pulp Heroes, Cyber-warriors and Victorian Occultists could co-exist with their incumbent physics-breaking powers. But they struggled to understand why, in the Fantasy world, guns didn’t work. It’s a relatively simple chemical reaction, and the game rules were explicit that the laws of physics weren’t any different, so why wouldn’t the bullet fire? Because Genre. Genre trumps the laws of physics every time. If it didn’t, John McClane and James Bond would both be long in the grave. You believe a character can heal from critical injuries over-night, why can’t you believe a gun won’t fire?!

The idea of using rules to emulate different genres is something that is now widely accepted in table top roleplaying, from Ron Edward’s System Does Matter through to myriad indie rule sets that support very specific types of stories.

We can burn down the Haunted House at the first sign of something eerie.
We can strangle the Bandito in his sleep before the high noon showdown.
We can give Batman a sniper rifle and watch Gotham’s crime rate plummet.

But how do any of these things enhance the stories we’re telling? By trying to apply a single genre to different settings, all we’re doing is telling the same unimaginative story, using the same unimaginative solutions to different problems. I’m also reminded of Robin D. Laws “something he always says”, regarding the drive in modern mass media to turn Iconic Heroes into Dramatic Heroes and by doing so changing the very nature of the stories that they tell.

It’s by accepting differences not only in the characters, but the world in which they exist, that we can tell different, exciting, creative, challenging stories. As the author Saladin Ahmed said on Twitter, not using violent solutions is the essence of heroism in the Lord of the Rings. Finding a way to make that into a core mechanic, now that would be creative. That’s a game I’d definitely play.