Remote fandom

This is a good time to be thinking about remote gaming. The current pandemic is awful, of course. But we’re lucky in that good internet, videochat, etc. allow us to connect remotely with such ease.

Six abstract figures in a variety of colors arranged to appear like a videochat.Most of my gaming these days is done remotely. I’ve blogged about some before. Videochat systems leave a lot to be desired, but really, they’re quite good.

There isn’t much reason an entire con couldn’t be run online. I mean, by some analysis, web forums, social media communities, etc. already are online cons. But for something closer to in-person cons, with the same depth of personal interaction, the technology is almost there. The videochat systems I’ve tried wouldn’t be great for doing panels, but they’d be serviceable; other methods — streaming like Twitch or some of the virtual meeting systems out there — would probably work better. Some gaming doesn’t work well online. This is especially clear where physical interaction between players is required, such as passing paper, counters, tokens, etc. Other forms of gaming work just as well, or better, though. No reason an online con couldn’t include some mutual MMORPG raids, or something like that. Costume contests, virtual raves, art contests, dealers’ rooms, readings… There’s a lot that should translate quite easily to online formats. I would miss getting to hang out in the consuite together, but a lot of cons don’t practice great hygiene even in the best of times. There really isn’t much we would need to miss in a virtual con. I’ve heard some third-hand reports of full cons done online, but I haven’t seen enough of them to link with any certainty. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

A specific thing to think about: There are lots of issues to overcome with videochat. Folks have to get used to not talking over each other, and sometimes needing to ask for clarification. While videochat boosts accessibility in some ways, it lessens it in other ways: bad audio quality can be very difficult for people who have hearing difficulties, for example. Privacy and trolling are also issues. To make a whole con work, I think there would need to be some way to guarantee that only con ‘attendees’ could access the virtual rooms. I don’t know of a way to prevent attendees from recording things that they shouldn’t. Chat moderators would become extremely important in a virtual con. It seems like a virtual con would necessarily require spending money on a professional virtual meeting service, or setting up a dedicated server for something like Jitsi, and thus still needing to spend the money on bandwidth — either way, it would take money. Though, I suspect, it would cost far less than running an in-person con.

I’m sure there are other things I haven’t thought of. But still, it must be completely possible to make virtual cons happen. If we aren’t already, we should get working on that.

A reminder

Detail of a monasteryThe Medieval Mountain Monastery Murder Mystery is a scenario in which all the characters are trans. All the characters. And it deals with some pretty deep trans issues.

I’ve done what I can to get the word out about it, yet there’s never been any serious demand. I could just publish it anyway, but if sales from the Bandit Map are anything to go by, I wouldn’t make more than US$1/hour for all the work it would take. Vastly, vastly less than minimum wage.

Diversity is a great goal. It would be nice if it was actually rewarding, though.

Variation Die: Things to say

Another thing I perhaps didn’t clarify enough about the Variation Die in the Blade & Crown rules: You can use your Variation Die roll as inspiration for an original, evocative thing you say. It doesn’t just have to be a description of what you do; it can equally be a description of how others perceive your actions, or what you just outright vocalize.

Illustration of a brush-stroked twelve-sided die with a 'V' on one face(The sample of play hints at this, but I didn’t make it very explicit in the rules.)

A lot of snowclones are likely examples. “That has to be the mother of all X!” and “I don’t care how many X there are, I am determined to succeed!” are good examples of quantity-related quotations that are possible. There must be a billion variants on “You think that’s going to stop me? I X easier things than that for breakfast!” and the like.

Making a quote truly evocative and original can be tricky, but that’s where context comes in. What you say is going to depend heavily on the particular situation — cool things to say while dodging a sword are usually going to be different from cool things to say while saving your friend from a fall. And the situation will give inspiration for specific original things to say.

All that makes it difficult to come up with a single list, but here are some general ideas to serve as inspirations.

  1. “Well, that wasn’t so hard!”
  2. “All in the wrist, my dear. All in the wrist!”
  3. “Sorry about the mess.”
  4. “Just in the nick of time!”
  5. “Nice and easy… Slow but steady…”
  6. “You haven’t seen the last of me!”
  7. “Now, that’s a bit more of a challenge!”
  8. “Come on. Just… this… once…”
  9. “It’s either you, or me. And it’s not going to be me.”
  10. “You have to pay attention to the little details, you see.”
  11. “I’ve been practicing.”
  12. “It just took a little finesse, that’s all.”

100 sessions so far

While I was preparing for my most recent Blade & Crown campaign session, set in Calteir, I noticed that the wiki entry was number 100. That meant my campaign has had a full hundred sessions. Wow!

Not sure how many hours that totals, because for the first few years, we met pretty much monthly, but longer for each session. Now we meet something closer to every three weeks, but for a shorter amount of time.

In any case, it’s an impressively long span of time. A lot of history has happened. It’s sometimes hard to remember it all! Characters have come and gone and come back again. Villages have burned; sieges have been laid; major alliances have been forged. Huge decisions have been made.

But it’s been a great campaign so far. I hope we keep going for at least as long again.

Social combat via CMP

I designed B&C with no specific social combat system. As I’ve mentioned before, I and a lot of other people tend to find social combat rather deprotagonizing. That is not to say, though, that B&C couldn’t have a social combat system. It would be pretty easy to implement one via CMP.

The way I envision it working is much like the process of doing tasks with haste. If social combat is begun, then the parties involved bid on how much CMP they’re willing to risk, one point at a time. Higher bids will make you more likely to win, but make the penalties for losing higher. Bidding a huge amount can mean serious mental damage if you lose the opposed task. And yes, this advantages characters who have a higher CMP to start with: they can bid higher amounts and not suffer as much damage. Bidding 3 or 4 or higher should be extremely rare.

When one party stops bidding, then both are frozen at whatever they bid. And, of course, you don’t want to bid too much; see the effects of lowered CMP in the chapter on Madness & Morale.

Scales of JusticeSomehow, the stakes of the social combat should figure in here. I’m not sure how, though. Part of the problem with social combat systems is that just setting the stakes is a winnable game, and one that is very hard to balance well. If one side sets the stakes at “If I win, I have to pay 1 cost less for the wine” and the other sets the stakes at “If I win, you have to give me all your money and everything you own”, then some unbalancing issues are going on. It’s probably best to first have the sides agree to set the stakes in terms of phrasing that could apply to either side, such as “Whoever wins gets the cost of the wine modified by 1 in their favor”. But that can’t always work. Again, social combat can be difficult in RPGs.

Once bidding is complete, both sides roll whatever skill + stat they’re using. This could, as always, vary wildly. Rhetoric is going to be a frequently-used skill here, but many combinations are possible.

What you bid in CMP acts as a positive modifier to your roll. For example, if you bid 2, then you get a +2 to your roll.

Whoever wins the opposed rolling wins the stakes. Whoever loses, loses the stakes, and loses the CMP they bid.

Again, this is a system I haven’t particularly playtested, but in principle, at least, it should work well. Let me know how it goes if you try it out.

New Traits for Blade & Crown: Naïve

Another B&C Trait, not inspired by anything in particular:

long-sword_1f300

You are naïve. You tend to assume the purest motives in others, to look at the world with childish simplicity, and to perhaps assume that the way things appear now is as they always have been.

Your naïvety may persuade others, with the innocence of babes; and it may cause others to let down their guard, where perhaps they shouldn’t. But your simplistic outlook on the world may also cause others to discount your ideas, or may cause you to be easily manipulated — or to have a reputation for being easily manipulated.

May need further specificity regarding what you’re naïve about. Perhaps you are naïve about how the wilderlands work, while still being quite cunning about life in the big towns. Or naïve about the ways of magic, while having a strong innate talent for it. Or naïve about whether a given block of text should be italicized or not.

The old curio shop

A while ago, I happened past one of those old little stores that’s tucked away in an odd little spot and which seems to sell… something? Nothing? I always find these stores so mysterious. Who’s behind it all? How do they stay in business? Clearly inspiration for an RPG encounter.

  1. The shop exists on a spot of land that neither Baroness Karoia nor Lady Temereth want. If either claims the spot of land, that will imply they have given up their claim to the valuable Golden Highlands, so the shop is effectively free of any laws. But the spot of land isn’t big enough for anything but the curio shop itself; and the proprietor has subtle yet powerful defenses in place against anyone who would displace the shop.
  2. The main store sells pottery. The curio shop proper is in the cellar, and can only be accessed by going through the pottery store. The pottery store owner is required by some arcane historical precedent to allow the curio shop to continue taking up the cellar, but the pottery store owner still likes to pile up pots on the cellar stairs, leave wet slip uncleaned in front of the stairs, etc. Just getting from the pottery store to the curio shop is a hazardous adventure of its own.
  3. Ask the proprietor how the shop stays in business, and the answer always seems to involve a lot of clearing of the throat, talking into the sleeve, and mystic phrases such as “optimizing synergy to proactively utilize impacts going forward.”
  4. An ancient compact requires the town to give “seven bundles of fine garlic” to the Countess every year on Kamas’ Day; to lay rose petals at the foot of the Gotherian Guard “whensoever they visit the town in friendship”; and to maintain a store selling “what items may please the Grand Regent” within the Upper Flats district.
  5. The shop’s wares are mundane in the extreme: a bowl of different pieces of pocket lint; a handful of broken, blunted writing quills; a small bag full of burnt wood shavings; etc. And the proprietor expresses interest in a bit of string stuck to a PC’s sleeve. “This is surely the most exquisite example of its kind that ever I have seen!”
  6. The shop appears at first to sell chess lessons. But if you know the right code word, the proprietor reveals that they actually make the third-finest rope in the Eastern Realm. But if you buy just the right quantity of rope, the proprietor will allow you to browse the exclusive catalog of dragon scales. But if you go to page 232, then page 131, then page 232 again, the proprietor reveals that…
  7. The shop’s hours are erratic in the extreme. It seems to require a new moon with the wind coming from the east on a day when the Queen is visiting her estate in the Far Hills and the Feast of Lorios was three days ago before the owner actually opens the shop. Or maybe it’s three days until the Feast of Lorios?
  8. Nearby residents all have different theories on what the shop actually sells. Some say it’s just a greengrocer’s, but a spectacularly unsuccessful one. Some purport to have heard stringed instruments being played, or perhaps tested, late at night. Some think it’s a spy ring. Everyone seems to know someone who has seen the shop open, but has never personally gone inside.
  9. There are many interesting objects, but none of them actually seem to be for sale. This object is already promised to someone who came by just the other day; that object was collected by the proprietor themself in their adventuring days, and it’s too precious a memory to part with; this item shouldn’t actually have been on display, sorry…
  10. The proprietor talks down every object in the store. “Yes, it’s several hundred years old, but I know someone across town has one that’s at least a thousand years old…” “Oh, I don’t think the scribe who wrote that actually knew the language; the little bit I could read was completely ungrammatical…” “It’s supposed to be a very powerful potion, but I happen to know the brewer used ingredients that aren’t fresh…”
  11. Every item is non-functioning. The potion got uncorked somehow, and is now all dried up; the key to the lockbox went missing a few years ago; the amphora is sealed, and no one knows what’s inside…
  12. The proprietor calls the shop a ‘museum’, and will happily explain the provenance of every item, what it’s made of, how much it’s worth, etc., but has no interest in selling anything. Even though another NPC walks in the door while the PCs are there, gives the proprietor a bag of what sounds like money, and very plainly walks out with one of the items the PCs were interested in.

The right tool for the job

In May, I got to go to WisCon again. (Recovering took a while, thus not getting around to posting last month.) There was a lot of great gaming programming, including some very fun and mind-expanding conversations. One thing that kept coming up, though: A whole lot of people invest way too much energy and money into trying to fix D&D.

Image: A well-worn sledgehammer, resting on a ledge.D&D is a very particular game, with very particular assumptions. It works great for a certain slice of play styles, I think. But I get the impression that a lot of people are constantly having to fight the system to get it to work for the play styles they want — play styles that lie nowhere within D&D’s fortes. Can you use D&D to run a system-light, non-violent game that isn’t focused on acquiring things and defeating objectively evil baddies and progressively getting better at fighting bigger, eviler baddies? Yep, for sure! I am firmly of the belief that you can run any game with any system. But that doesn’t mean that it will be easy to do so. You can use D&D for a system-light, non-violent, etc. game, but doing so is like using a sledgehammer to drive a staple. It’s entirely possible to find a way — but why bother, when there are these things called ‘staplers’ out there? And why (to further extend the metaphor) keep spending money to accessorize your sledgehammer for the job?

The main reason, of course, is that a lot of people have never had experience with anything but D&D. But even that isn’t a satisfying answer. The amount of effort a lot of people invest in carefully hand-crafting their sledgehammers into devices capable of driving staples, when they could spend that same amount of energy — or considerably less — finding and learning to use a stapler… it continues to amaze me.

A lot of people also just play D&D because of that closely-related reason, critical mass. Everyone plays D&D because everyone plays D&D. (This way lies a metaphor about social networks, and how D&D is basically the Facebook of RPGs. But enough with hackneyed metaphors.) And there isn’t really a good argument against that, other than “But you could be having so much more fun if you just played a game designed to do what you want to do!”

I found it both fascinating and frustrating that this issue came up so many times at WisCon. One panel I went to, and at least one I couldn’t go to, directly addressed this issue. But all the panels I saw still seemed to come to the default assumption at the end that, yeah, everyone is just going to play D&D anyway. Like I said, fascinating and frustrating.

Embracing contradictions in worldbuilding

Imagine that someone wrote a travel guide to the US with the power to shape reality. Whatever the authors write is the way reality is, forever and ever. Imagine that that travel guide was only 50 pages long. The authors try to keep it close to our reality, but still, some corners get filed off. What would the US as created by this travel guide look like?
Map of the Genericton Coast

  • Democrats would always be more liberal than Republicans. There would be no such thing as a pro-choice Baptist or a pro-gun liberal.
  • No little town would ever have a museum, major company headquarters, or ethnic diversity. Every major city would, by definition, have a major university, an Army base and a huge public park.
  • There would be precisely one crime network in every town.
  • There would be no women firefighters or male ballet dancers. Many other forms of diversity would also not exist.
  • Every location in the US would have a single name, and everyone would agree how to pronounce it. No locations would have nicknames. Everyone speaking English would easily understand everyone else speaking English. The entire country would use the same names for “submarine sandwiches”, “casseroles”, and “fizzy drinks”.
  • Every town would have rigidly-defined rich areas and poor areas.
  • Earthquakes would only happen in California, tornadoes would only happen in Kansas, and it would never be unseasonably warm in Minnesota.

Doesn’t make much sense, right? But — and my metaphor is probably pretty obvious by now — that’s how a lot of game worlds are written and executed. Everything about a place can be reduced to permanent, objective, undisputed, simple facts.

It’s definitely good to have a broad understanding of what places are like. It’s good to lay out general details and then stick to them; this builds consistency. It would be amazingly frustrating to not know from day to day which street you live on, or what number to dial in an emergency, or which direction the Sun would come up from.

But at the same time, it’s good to break from the norm in big or small ways. Have a tiny town be home to the best architect in the kingdom (and come up with a good backstory for why she chose to live there); give a place alternate names, and figure out why it has them; discover that for some reason, a big group of an unexpected minority lives in an unexpected place.

Not only is this fun, it’s a necessity for realism. One of my constant truisms is, “The hallmark of reality is that it is complex”. Pretty much everything in the real world has a fractal level of detail; if something is simple, even on close inspection, that’s a good sign that it doesn’t exist in the real world. Little unexpected details are one of the best ways to show that something is real. (This always reminds me of the ‘commode story’ from the movie Reservoir Dogs — warning: very NSFW!).

To achieve a fractal level of detail, there needs to be a broadly predictable pattern, while still having small details that are surprising and interesting. If you’re the worldbuilder, or the GM, how do you generate small contradictions?

A major way is to get player suggestions. Playing something like Microscope or The Quiet Year always generates a ton of interestingly unexpected details. This is because the worldbuilding is shared out, and because different people are pulling those expectations in different directions. This can also work in a much more traditional game: Ask the players what makes this little village exceptional, or ask one player to come up with a reason why this NPC is unusual for a blacksmith.

Random rolling can work, but this can make it very tempting to do nothing but random rolling. (Drop tables and wandering monster charts are but two examples of this kind of thing.) This quickly tilts the balance from “interestingly unexpected” to “a complete mess that makes players have no idea what’s happening”. So I tend to be pretty cautious about approaching it that way.

My main way: just think of what would exist by the rules, and tweak one element a little. Find a third way.

I’ve also embraced slight mistakes made in play. There’s one town in Calteir that’s named Chaegrae. However, one time when I was telling some players about it, I misremembered and called it “Chaebrae”. This became a little bit of a running joke, but also a bit of linguistic variety: the town had, at some point along the line, acquired another common pronunciation. Canonically, Chaegrae is now frequently called “Chaebrae” by Westerners, due to an ancient misunderstanding. A nice way to harness a poor memory for purposes of worldbuilding!

There’s a whole class of ‘expectations’ that deserve to be contradicted constantly, of course. This is ‘expectations’ that fall fully into the realm of stereotype. Games where the only women are sexy minxes or sexless nuns; settings where non-white ethnicities are turned into orcs or goblins; societies in which trans people simply don’t exist. These are the kind of assumptions that some hail as ‘realistic’, even though the assumptions behind them and worlds they produce are anything but realistic. And of course, not only do these assumptions produce unrealistic worlds, they produce worlds that are pretty awful, too. So there are some ‘expectations’ in worldbuilding that deserve to be contradicted every chance you get.