Sunday, June 1, 2014

Crossbones on Crossbones

I talk about wizards on this blog.  I do this quite a bit.  I do this because it interests me.  Pirates interest me as well, but I don't seem to talk about pirates that often, especially not when compared to wizards and other game bullshit.  There is a good reason for this.  Despite what it may seem, all evidence available posted on this blog, I do like to wait until I have something reasonably intelligent or entertaining to say.  Or write.  As the case may be and most definitely is.
This is one of those times...

Having recently spent time enjoying Black Sails (thanks to a couple of pirate friends of mine who should probably remain nameless for legal reasons but we will call them Leo and Bobby) and the first episode of Crossbones, and being an avid reader and student of all things pirate, I have come to the decision that there are really two conceptions of pirates.  The first is the larger conception, or if you prefer the conception held by the larger portion of the population and thus the more popular one; let us call it the ideal of pirates.  This is typified by the Disney attraction The Pirates of the Caribbean and the films that were inspired by, and share the name of, that attraction.  This is the sort of swaggering, arrrr matey, Talk Like A Pirate Day bollocks that sells so well in the form of merchandise.  It is a mythical type of ideal, as so many are.  When you think about talking like a pirate you are thinking of talking like Robert Newton who "invented" the pirate speak by exaggerating his native Dorset accent when he played Long John Silver for Disney.  This is the sea food restaurant, drinks with umbrellas in, treasure hunting, plank walking, hook-hand-having, eye-patch-loving, raping, robbing, pillaging, freebooter lifestyle that inspires miniature golf courses and Halloween costumes and is typified today by Jack Sparrow.
Then there is the other conception, held by a very few (by comparison) and enjoyed fully by even fewer; let us call it the reality of pirates.  To the larger group, when asked about the reality of the pirates they so love to emulate, they will most likely sheepishly admit that pirates were bad, bad people who engaged in theft, murder and destruction.  Sadly that does not accurately or completely describe the reality and is akin to tarring all of a social group with the same brush for the rather public actions of a few.
Television and films, of course, are designed to appeal to the widest possible audience to garner the greatest possible market share.  This means that the overwhelming majority of piracy shown is of the first type.  When you do see more realistic piracy it is likely of the type seen in Captain Phillips, where Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama.  Desperate men taking desperate actions.  Yet this is not the same sort of thing as we would have seen during the age of Blackbeard.  To some degree it is, but the exact specifications are a bit different.  During the time of Blackbeard the vast majority of pirates were sailors, not just thieves and ruffians looking to make a buck.  Those were bandits and lived on land.  Ships at sea need skilled hands if they had any hope of staying at sea and those hands were accustomed to a certain amount of natural discipline.  Not the lash of the cat type of discipline, but the sort of routine that kept their ship afloat, which was the difference between life and death.  Piracy was, essentially, a business.  It was the livelihood of the men (and yes, occasionally women) who turned pirate.  If we look past the Hollywood and popular imagery and read the actual documents of the era we see a very different picture of piracy.  We see real people with varied attitudes and personalities banding together to achieve common goals of survival, revenge, and even political achievement.  Some of them, according to the documents of the era, where quite charming and intelligent even.
A pirate (no really, just ask the British)
So what, if anything, does this have to do with Crossbones?  Specifically this has to do with John Malkovich's portrayal of Blackbeard.  Malkovich is portraying a pirate lord, a self-styled commodore that is anything but Jack Sparrow.  Seafaring types tended to pick up odds and ends from across the globe.  Bits, baubles, interesting diseases, and customs were assimilated into an already alien (to a landsman) lifestyle.  A sash of fine silk from the Far East, a Mameluke sabre taken from a plundered enemy, or a fine hat obtained in some foreign port looking quite out of fashion to the homeland were the sorts of things a sailor could (and often did) obtain, along with strange habits gained from living in such close quarters as ships require.  The pirate lifestyle demanded election of leaders from among the crew, which meant that those who rose to such ranks tended (with varying degrees of success) to be cunning, charismatic, tough and skilled fellows.  Malkovich's Blackbeard does take something from Colin Woodard's The Republic of Pirates, although it seems more like the behavior of Benjamin Hornigold (who had been Teach's mentor as both a privateer and then a pirate).  In his decorating tastes, styles of clothing and habits there is a flair of the East.  He loves the silks and his outfits are often white and floral when not looking like a Han Emperor.  (Believe it or not fine gentlemen's coats were once very much in the pattern and style of your maiden aunt Sally's favorite sofa...the one in the living room, that she called the "parlor" where no one was allowed to sit unless they were a guest and there was no television and it always seemed  Just me?...carry on)  He seems to have a dangerous intelligence about him.  A desire, as far as we have seen, to maintain the sanctity of his fledgling republic seems to motivate him.  He speaks with a somewhat cultured air of topics outside of rum and wenching, but is also keenly aware that he has built a legend that must be maintained.  He makes threats that are far more effective than blustering boasts normally seen in such fare.  None of this, "I'll have yer guts for garters, you damned lubber" business.  You could imagine him as J.R. Ewing in Dallas, using his reputation and willingness to go to extreme measures to get what he wants.  Indeed this reminds us of Long John Silver as he was written by R.L. Stevenson in the novel Treasure Island.  Not physically imposing, Silver controlled men with his cunning and will.
We see this in Black Sails as well to a far larger degree.  In the persons of Captain Flint, John Silver, and Jack Rackham, among others (landsmen included).  With a show primarily about pirates each character must be a character, that is, must not be a simple stereotype, although plenty of extras will be.  It's only natural.  The swaggering, the "arrrs", the fannying about like a swishy gypsy rent boy (i.e. Jack Sparrow) are all absent.  This is not the ideal of piracy, nor is it, strictly speaking, the reality, but it lists far more to the reality, and that's a good thing.
Not a pirate.  Not even close.  Nancy the Swaggering Rent Boy, yes.  Pirate, not so much.
Of course the fact that these works are not engaging in the exploitation of the ideal of piracy is probably a sign of doom in terms of market share.  The vast majority expect the swagger and, sadly, want the swagger.  The swagger is fun.  I'll admit it.  It's an image that instantly says "Pirate!" and that visual shorthand is part of the nature of storytelling.  The audience doesn't want to be TOLD that Jack Tar is a pirate, they want to see Jack Tar and instantly KNOW he is a pirate.  So if it is a situation of image, of LEGEND, then perhaps the polyester pirate of Hollywood (and thousands of fan girls' disturbing fantasies...including the cross-dressing...oh Manga what have you wrought?) is what is needed to keep this sort of salty fare viable in the market today.
Even so, I confess that I do like Malkovich's portrayal thus far.  It is more cultured master villain than pirate, but to me it is far closer to the reality of the legend than all the Jack Sparrows combined.  In the hold.  Of a ship.  That is sinking.

Crossbones Episode 1: A Review

Danger: Spoilers ahead
Now that the obligatory warning is out of the way, let us proceed.
Friday 30th of May saw the series premiere of the newest NBC nighttime drama, Crossbones, a story of intrigue and human drama set in the 18th century Caribbean and loosely connected with pirates.
The tale presented in the premiere, and thus setting up the driving plot of the initial season (assuming that there will be a second and subsequent seasons, which I am not willing to do at this juncture), is of the British Empire ruling the waves, unmatched, but for pesky pirates in the New World, the worst among them, Blackbeard!  Secret Agent Tom Lowe (played by Brit Richard Coyle who famously played Jeff Murdock in the BBC's Coupling and starred in the adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal as Moist von Lipwig) is assigned cover as a ship's surgeon by the governor of Jamaica (played by Julian Sands of Warlock fame) as a prized chronometer, the plans for said device and the inventor are being transported back to England to present the marvelous MacGuffin to the king.  This device will allow sailing ships to accurately determine longitude at sea (if you know nothing about seamanship and navigation then just think of it as a GPS) and thus the British can immediately overcome all pirates everywhere all the time.  Take that, Blackbeard.  Only that's silly.  Plot contrivance notwithstanding, Lowe is NOT there to prevent the chronometer from falling into enemy hands.
He's there to kill Blackbeard, the infamous freedom fighter pirate who Lowe believes to be dead already; killed by the governor's own hand.  Only he's not. This fact the governor confirms and so off Lowe goes to, presumably, get captured on purpose as not a soul knows where Blackbeard hides out.  There are just so many islands out there and nobody has a chart...I guess.
As happens in these stories Lowe is captured after blowing up the chronometer, partially burning the plans for its creation and poisoning the inventor, but he is kept alive to keep the inventor alive as the pirates WANT THAT GPS.  But he dies anyway and Lowe buys his life by saying that he will decipher the unburned parts of the plans, which are encoded.
His meeting with Blackbeard reveals a worldly, intelligent, cultured man (played by the esteemed John Malkovich), who does have cruel streak and headaches with weird visions and nosebleeds.  Through a series of spy events Lowe successfully poisons Blackbeard and as he makes his escape discovers a plot forming between Spain and the pirates and so he turns back and risks his all to SAVE Blackbeard because if Eddie dies, Lowe will never know what the plans are to be with Spain to the demise of England.  And thus is the series set up.
Tom Lowe (port side) and Blackbeard (starboard)
This series is supposedly based on Collin Woodard's non-fiction account of the pirate republic in the Bahamas in the early 18th century entitled The Republic of Pirates, but I've read that book twice and it seems more like NBC's attempt to make STARZ's Black Sails without all the tits adrift.  Crossbones has the feel of the type of drama currently very fashionable on pay television, but taking that Game of Thrones market share is going to be damn nigh impossible.  As comfortable as prime time network TV is getting with lewd behavior, fisting on the big 3 is still many, many years away.
As with any series a certain liberty with historical accuracy is expected and not too jarring...yet.  There is a definite poetic comparison between Eddie Blackbeard, who calls himself commodore of the island, denounces kings, speaks intelligently about a variety of subjects (God is a clockmaker...supported by the imagery of many clocks surrounding him), and claims to govern by the authority of his people and the governor of Jamaica, who in the few scenes we see of him seems completely at home with torture and brutality, torturing and murdering a captured pirate while seeking information about Blackbeard.  In the middle is Lowe, loyal to his King and Country, seeking to kill Blackbeard upon orders but saving him for a higher purpose.  No doubt the two of them will have much cat and mouse playing and verbal fencing as the plot continues.
After the cancellation of NBC's Dracula, one cannot help but think that Crossbones is likely doomed to a single season.  Unlike the latest police procedural, shows such as this must go up against similar shows on pay channels that give the same intrigue and character development, but throw in lots of sex and language to get the jaded viewers to commit.  As it stands, Crossbones was more swashbuckling than I expected given the supposed basis (Woodard's book) and felt more like Black Sails than was comfortable (including the key, "I've got the secret code stored in my head so you can't kill me, ha ha" scene), but Black Sails, for all its fancy does seem to have more, dare I say it, historical verisimilitude.  Black Sails seems to focus often on piracy as a business and for all their bluster the pirates of Black Sails seem more like real people, not just stock villains, while much of the pirating on Crossbones seemed of the POTC variety.
I won't praise nor condemn the show on a single episode and I am intrigued enough to watch again next week.  It is a pirate show (well, there are pirates in it) after all.
If you are looking for Pirates of the Caribbean, however, you will be sadly disappointed.  There is not a swishing sugar-pants Jackie Sparrow amongst them.  Yet.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Mythology of Horror

Horror fans, as well as Science Fiction fans and Fantasy fans, are nuts about the mythology of their genres.  I find this all too appropriate given that these are really sibling genres all birthed from the same mother: Mythology herself.
Other genres such as Action, Adventure, or Romance are all related in the sense that they are all fiction, but Horror and her younger sisters Fantasy and Sci-Fi (who I swear are twins) are different from the others, yet share a connection evident in their fandoms.  Surely any genre can be crossed with any other genre, such as a Horror-Adventure-Comedy (Army of Darkness, anyone?) but that is one genre taking on the characteristics of another for purposes of telling the story.  At their cores, the Sisters (which I will now call Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy as a group) are the true heirs of their respected mother, Mythology.  The fans of the Sisters are obsessed with minutia and continuity.  They are obsessed with the mythology of their fandoms.  I don't mean the mythological underpinnings, which is a legitimate concept in much of the works of the Sisters, but the mythologies that develop as part of the genre works themselves.  This is evident when we look at the blogs, the forums, the fanfics (love them or hate them, fanfiction works are some of the purest expressions of the mythologies of the genres), and the fan-films found all over the internet.  Prior to the internet there were newsletters, conventions, clubs, and simple meetings where the mythologies were developed and shared.  For the fans of the Sisters the mythology is as important as the works themselves.
Doubt me?
Look at the internet backlash when a new installment, episode, book, what have you, comes out and breaks the understood fan mythology.  Look at Jar Jar Binks, damn you!
Need I say it?  MIDICHLORIANS!
An excellent example of this can be seen in the Friday the 13th franchise.  The casual viewer of the Friday films can tell you Jason is the killer of the series.  Most casual viewers can probably also tell you his last name.  The hardcore fan will tell you that Jason is the only son of Pamela and Elias Voorhees, that he had a half-sister named Diana (daughter of Elias) that he was not the killer in the first and fifth films and that he got his hockey mask in the 3rd film.  The really hardcore fans will tell you even more, having gleaned information from interviews, screenplays, behind the scenes cutting room footage, issues of Fangoria, and dozens of spin-off media.
It's all part of the mythology of the franchise and the hardcore fan is interested in it.  Indeed the hardcore fan becomes offended when something breaks the "canon" of the franchise and will go to great lengths to establish how this occurred.
They do it with Star Trek.  They do it with Star Wars.  They do it with Dragonlance, Lord of the Rings, and all manner of genre work that collective are the darling daughters of Mythology herself.
Because Mythology was the first horror movie.
Yes, I know it is supposed to explain origins, culturally speaking, and what Joseph Campbell said about it, but these primordial monsters that have haunted us for generations come from Mythology.  It's the source of our nightmares, bless it.
Which is why, I believe, we have documentaries about how horror films have impacted society and reflected society.  We love, us fans, to delve into the mythology of our fandom.  You can't get this kind of mythology from an Action flick.  Not this level of commitment.
Anecdotal Evidence: When I was young the older kids I sometimes hung out with loved A Nightmare On Elm Street.   In the 80s Freddy Krueger was cool.  I learned from an authority on the subject (when you are 13 a 17 year old girl is an authority on horror movies, trust me) that, as she put it, Nightmare 2 sucked and was not part of the story.  Just skip it, was her advice.  It was A Nightmare On Elm Street and A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors.  She was not the only person to tell me this, by the way.  I suspect Don Dokken would agree.
And if you watch the films from start to finish, back-to-bloody-back you will see that Nightmare 2 just doesn't fit.  Freddy's powers are weird in that one, he seems to be trying new tricks.  The mythology is wrong.  Nightmare 2 does nothing to advance the mythology of the series, but Dream Warriors?  Ah, now that is proper mythological development.  Many of us like to pretend Nightmare 2 doesn't exist, but Nightmare 3 makes up for it.  Firstly it has Nancy.  Final girl from Nightmare 1.  That's a sequel.  Secondly it expands upon Freddy's dream powers and we have the kids who also have dream powers.  We are seeing a mythological development that is logical for the franchise.  Note that mythology does not have to be logical in the real world sense, but it does need to be logical to the IP itself.  All films after 3 followed the logical mythological development to a reboot, which kept with the established mythology.  That is how you win the fandom's love and admiration.  Well, and respect, I suppose.
Much like many people like to pretend Halloween III: Season of the Witch did not happen because it was not part of the Myers cycle.  Well TOUGH SHIT BECAUSE IT DID HAPPEN, SUNSHINE!  And it's a damn fine work, so there.  Yet it does suffer from breaking the mythology of the previous films and that was rectified in the following 5 films as well.  And then Rob Zombie happened.  Dammit.
And that is coming from someone who likes Zombie's work.  Except Lords of Salem.  That was pig shit.

That's my argument about the Mythology of Horror then.  Not the mythology underpinning horror, or why we are afraid, but the mythology of the franchises and works themselves, for which the true fans hunger and will develop.

I could be wrong.  It happens.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Confessions of a Stat Junkie

This is one of those posts about RPGs and such.  Just thought I'd warn you.

Some while back (years really) I noticed a trend in MMORPGs (hereafter called MMOs for brevity) where the player characters did not have stats or choices in stats at creation.  The player selects a race and class and the game provides a 1st level character.  Thus all characters of the same class and race have the same stats.  I don't suppose there is a problem with this, but at the time it struck me as odd.  Coming from an old school game background, and being the sort of person that compares and contrasts everything, I found myself a bit put out that I could not determine the stats for myself.  Yet why should I?  What does it matter if my Fighter has high strength and low dexterity and someone else's Fighter has low strength and high dexterity?  Ultimately it is level and gear that drives success.  It did make me think about my past in gaming.
I was a stat junkie.
So was everyone I ever played with.  EVERYONE.
If you area gamer you know what I mean.  If you come from that glorious old school world of describing characteristics with numbers vice descriptive adjectives you know what I mean.
"So this half-elven sexy is she?"
"19 Charisma, my man."

The simple fact is that we look at numerical scales as a rating of good, bad, and otherwise and why would anyone want a 17 when an 18 is available?  Or for that matter a 19 or 20?  When those stats comes with bonuses it is inevitable that everyone is going to want the high stats.  When the low stats come with penalties is is even more so.  This leads to players wanting better rolling methods for making super characters or simply trashing good characters to make better ones.  So why not just set all your stats to max and get on with the power gaming?
Well the problem is that we, as gamers, MUST OBEY THE DICE.  We can't just set the stats where we want them.  That would be cheating.  If the dice "give" us high rolls, that is okay.  Yet if everybody is working for max stats does that not raise the bar of normal to the high stats?  It does, that was rhetorical.

I can tell you from experience, however, that a "Straight 18" fighter of level 1 will still get killed in a trice by a level 5 fighter of average stats.  This leads to annoyance from gamers who live by the dice and the numbers.  Yes, the numbers are in the level 5's favor but "dammit, I have all 18s!"

Games use their stats, or ability scores, or characteristics (it's all the same) in two ways:
1) Provide a source for other abilities, usually in the form of bonuses to rolls, penalties to rolls, and benchmarks for qualifications (such as class entry and spell use).
2) An absolute value that directly affects the rolls.

Type 1 is the Dungeons and Dragons type where the stat score tells you the highest spell level you can cast, if you can be a Paladin, and how many points you add or subtract from attack rolls and the like.
Type 2 is common in skill-based games and dice pool games.  Type 2 can be further sub-divided into two more general classes: those that are the roll itself (dice pools and Savage Worlds work like this) and those that are added as a straight modifier to a dice roll (such as R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk 2020 system).  In Type 2 games the stat is EVERYTHING.  The difference between a 5 strength and a 6 is a real value of 1 die or point toward a roll.  It is always better to have a bigger number in a Type 2 game because it has a real effect on the outcomes.  Take the Cyberpunk system where you roll 1d10 and add the relevant stat and skill values.  A 6 is always better than a 5 because that is 1 more point.

This leads, of course, to being a stat junkie.  Rather than see the character as an alter ego to be played in a game, or even as a simple pawn, the player sees the character as a stack of numbers and he wants high numbers.  In skill-based RPG this is at its worst as the points MUST be high.  If your dex-based rogue-like character has less dex than the dex-based fighter-like character you become frustrated.  Even more so if you can't cast the spells you want because you put some points in a health stat to keep yourself from dying.  So now you have a bunch of fragile wizards with nuking overkill magic who will die if they trip and stumble into a Sheetrock wall.  Frankly I blame the games themselves.

And it's no good writing a clever little line in character creation sections of game manuals saying that a character with some flaws is more fun to play.  Yes, game designers, I'm taking to you.  We all know that is a lie.  The funny thing about being a stat junkie is that in a Type 1 game the stats quickly become outstripped by the class itself.  Having a +3 bonus to hit and damage will always be a good thing (it is, after all a +15% bonus to hit) but the class improvements, such as hit points and skills, are more important.  Or they should be.  A Wizard with a huge strength bonus, say a +4, has the same hit probability at level 1 as a 4th level fighter with no strength bonuses at all.  He will have the same probability as a 5th level fighter at levels 2 and 3, and then a 6th level fighter at level 4.  At 20th level the Wizard has the same hit probability as a 14th level fighter of no bonuses, except that the Fighter has far more hit points, uses better weapons, and can attack 3 times to the Wizard's 2.  Now that's 3.5 edition D&D, but it was always like this.  We aren't even taking the other things into account, like Saving Throws.  Just hit probability.  The class is more vital to the character than the stats themselves.

Am I suggesting do away with stats entirely?  Well, not exactly.  I just don't like how the bonus structure or outright roll value makes them the driving goal of character creation.  MMOs haven't done away with stats, indeed the MMO is so driven by math that its binary brain cannot function without it.  I might be suggesting that bonus structures put too much importance on them, however.  I look back at OD&D (the 1974 inaugural release, pre Greyhawk) and note that Strength, Wisdom and Intelligence where only bonuses for the class for whom they were the prime requisite, and then only for purposes of XP gain.  I look at other games I have played and enjoyed (HeroQuest, Warhammer Quest) where the stats are fixed for each class (well character model technically) and the party works together.  Yeah the Barbarian is strongest of all but he won't be disarming a trap or phasing through a stone wall anytime soon.  What these minimalist games and MMOs are saying is, "This is what a warrior looks like.  This is what a wizard looks like."  It's simple but effective.  A wizard may be quite a fine physical specimen in terms of strength, dexterity and constitution, but rather than learn to make athletic use of it he studied arcane mysteries.  The warrior might be very smart in absolute terms of IQ and quite the brilliant field tactician, but he simply didn't take the time to learn the dead languages of magic.  It is more about a simplified way of looking at the character as a role within an established work of interactive fiction.  It does not do away with stats or math, indeed the class abilities will be key to the success of the character in the game, but it does away with the obsessive drive to use special rolling methods, scrapping characters, and stat jealousy.  It frees the player and allows him or her to simply PLAY THE GAME.  Isn't that why we do this?  Play.  Fun.  Games.

Which links back to my complaints about wizards not being allowed to use swords.  By all means let the wizard use a sword.  He won't ever be as good with it as the fighter.  He is not supposed to be.  That's okay.  I prefer it that way.  The warrior is not supposed to use a magic wand.

Anyway, so that's about me having been, in the past, a stat junkie.  Bloody games.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Understanding the Working Wizard

Thinking old school gaming...

So you have character classes like Fighting Man and Magic User and then you have NPCs who do real jobs, like blacksmith or apothecary or even castle guard.  Now it might be that the castle guard is actually a 2nd level Fighting Man, but the blacksmith and apothecary?  No, they are just regular working people.  They are what the adventurers would be if they had to give up their adventuring and get real jobs.  Of course these workaday NPCs do get better at their jobs through practice and training, but PCs have to earn experience by going out in the world and completing quests.  Imagine then that the blacksmith does earn experience, but it is very specific experience.  He learns his craft and that is what he "levels" as he lives his life.  The PCs, however, aren't working or training or practicing.  No, they are going out in the world and having experiences and from this they learn.  This experience might be practical, such as the first time they meet a rust monster and learn what a rust monster does and how to deal with that, or it might be hard to define.  For that there are experience points.  Either way the PCs must go out and find more and more experiences to get better because that is, more or less, their calling in life.

So what has this to do with wizards?

Well traditionally we see wizards in towers (or dank dungeons) full of magical paraphernalia such as candles, tomes, stuffed creatures, magic circles on the floor, symbols all over the place, perhaps cauldrons as well.  Does this bear any resemblance to the average adventuring wizard?

Well, no.  But we know that wizards can research spells and scribe scrolls and brew potions and enchant items, all of which requires an outlay of time and gold, and requires labs and such.  So how is the adventuring wizard different from this other type?
A working wizard...this is what he does ALL DAY.

Consider the non-adventuring wizard a "working" wizard.  His job is being a wizard.  He studies magic, focusing on the deeper mysteries of magic for his own reasons such as a thirst for forbidden knowledge or profit.  These sorts of wizards don't gain experience from killing monsters or delving dungeons, but they do learn and study and practice.  They don't bother with weapons or fighting, spending their time amassing libraries full of material, including spell books, but also histories, philosophies and other tomes.  They build labs and research spells.  They are to wizards what blacksmiths are to warriors, creators of the tools used for adventure and action.
Adventuring Wizard! (note the sword and combat beard)

Now the adventuring wizard is a different story.  For the adventuring wizard the adventuring is his actual job, not the wizarding.  Think about it; it is the truth.  The adventuring wizard spends the bulk of his time exploring dungeons, trekking through the wilderness and battling monsters.  He does employ magic (at times) to do this, but he does not have the time to simply stop the action and look through his library of magical tomes for the right spell, or to pause in the middle of a ritual (not that he has time to set up and perform a ritual with a horde of bloodthirsty orcs bearing down upon the party) to find the perfect reagent for the spell.  He has to cast a timely spell to blast the orcs or save the party from an earthquake.  He can gain magical knowledge through research but he gets the vast bulk of it from exploration of the world (and plundering of dungeons where an old spell books or some scrolls are found in the treasure horde).  He also has to fight in melee at times and while he'll never be the combatant that his fighter and cleric friends are, he learns about weapons and tactics in a sort of on-the-job training.  For this reason (dependent upon the system) he only has a few key spells ready (or spell points) and often relies on magical trinkets to round out his arsenal.

Certainly, as it was in the old school days, the adventuring wizard can settle down and retire (or semi-retire) and build a tower and spend more and more of his time doing the "working wizard" things, perhaps inventing several new spells that adventuring wizards will no doubt use in their own careers (possibly paying a pretty silver for as well) making legends of the creators.  The adventuring wizard is a more eclectic magic-user than a working wizard who spends his whole time focusing on single goal or a battle mage that studies at some academy to be a mobile siege engine on the field.  Adventuring wizards tend to learn their spells by finding them in old treasure hordes or researching them when they have some downtime and the cash.  Yet they are also more versatile and level faster.  If you are going to play old school you have to embrace this notion of the Swiss Army Wizard, or as a friend of mine puts it "the iWiz...I've got a spell for that".  Sure he won't be turning lead into gold anytime soon, but when you have to jump off the edge of a gorge to escape a rampaging orc horde Feather Fall is a far more useful thing to have than a pocket full of loose change.

Greatest Wizard of all!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

And so the Pirate Renaissance draws to a close

Yes, there was a Pirate Renaissance.  It started with the runaway success of Pirates of the Caribbean Curse of the Black Pearl and continued on until about On Stranger Tides when things started to just, sort of, go away.  Now we have NBC's Crossbones coming in 2014 and STARZ Black Sails currently, but trust me this is not a continuation of the Pirate Renaissance.  It is the Pirate Sunset, you see, and these are the last ships we will see for some time.

Now one of the things we saw during the Pirate Renaissance was a large amount of pirate media (e.g. books, comics, films) and pirate games (board, RPG and video) hit the market, not all of them winners.  When it comes to pirate gaming the problem is obvious to me.  Pirates games are, by and large, of the board game ship variety, or treasure hunting variety.  Pirates and RPGs just don't mix well.
Why, you ask?
RPGs are best with small groups of individual characters, usually playing complementary classes, that can work together in a compartmentalized fashion to achieve a goal.  The wizard has his job, the cleric has her job, the fighter has his job and the thief has its job.  Small teams of 3-6 members allow for the players to work together without too much overlap and to function as individuals.
Pirates are, however, a bunch of sailors on a ship doing pirate shit.  That means robbing, looting, pillaging and so forth.  First and foremost they need to be sailors.  That's your class, mate.  Sailor.
But don't sailors have individual jobs?
Yes they do, but ship's wizard is not one of them and what is the awesome dungeon crawling potential for a carpenter?
Crews tend to be a bit larger than 3-6 members as well.
Then there is the adventure potential problem.  One of the most famous of all pirate stories is Treasure Island and it is a classic of adventure.  Sadly it is a book about a treasure hunt, not a book about piracy.  There are pirates in it, but it is not in and of itself a story about piracy.  POTC:CotBP is also, actually, a treasure hunting story.  Most so-called pirate films are actually treasure hunting films (most I said, not all).
Well is not the gist of any RPG adventure essentially a treasure hunt?
Maybe in the old days of nothing but dungeon crawling, but we've moved past that in gaming.

Okay, so can you not have pirate adventures?
Sure you can, but a whole game about nothing but pirates is going to get boring pretty quickly.  I say this as a dedicated pirate...I mean "pirate fan".
So let's have a pirate class in our RPG.
And again, a pirate is a sailor that takes up a life of sea borne robbery.  His class, if such a thing can be called a class, is sailor.  What special abilities do you want?  Get drunk and still show up for watch?
Actually that's quite useful, but I digress.

There is also this captain problem.  Everyone knows pirate captains.  Of course they do.  Those are the ones history wrote about, but we can't all be Blackbeard.  Hell, we can't all even be Jack Sugarbritches Sparrow.  Indeed most of us are lucky to be Gibbs.  So now that you can't have a party full of captains what do you do?

Then there is the railroad problem.  A railroad adventure is one that offers the players no options or freewill.  They are "on the tracks" so to speak going wherever the GM sends the railroad.  Players tend to dislike that.  What is the ultimate railroad?  A ship in the middle of the bloody ocean.  Not only can you not just get off the train like a hobo nearing a particularly scenic town, you can't change the ship either.  You are basically sitting around waiting for the GM to put another sea monster in your path.  So you make land and do adventure stuff, probably treasure hunting and...congratulations you are not playing pirates anymore.

Now most board games (again not all) about pirates are at the ship level.  Sure you might have the named captains and such and even might fight some boarding actions but the games are about ships, which makes sense because, as we have established, pirates are sailors.  Land pirates steal music.  Not exactly awesome RPG potential, especially since so many bastards are already doing it.
So ships, which is cool for a board game but not for an RPG.  A ship as a character?
No, no, just leave that behind.

Of course it comes down to setting and a pirate setting must be aquatic.  This can be a problem as well.  How popular is Aquaman?  I know I like Aquaman, but pop culture still likes to poke fun at the king of the seas.  If you are the average asshole who thinks Aquaman is a joke you have no business playing a nautical RPG.  Aquaman is the ideal of the nautical RPG.  Most folks I've spoken to, read the blog of, met, etc. don't want a true nautical adventure.  They want to swagger around acting like a concussed bisexual gypsy saying "savvy" every third bloody word.  Savage Worlds created the 50 Fathoms setting which is a water world (without Kevin Costner).  Sparse islands and no big continents and ships galore.  Yes there are pirates all over the place and yes it is fantasy.  Now who wants to play?
Again popular polling (and reading of internets blogging and reviews) tells me that people don't deal well with aquatic settings.  It's just too alien and people tend to think, "pshaw...water...that's boring."
Except you can't breathe it, can you, smart boy?

Sea dragon!
Yes, the oceans are full of exciting and dangerous things (like sharks and giant squid and jelly fish) and a fantasy ocean all the more so, but all your lovely plate armor and magic scrolls just aren't going to help.  So people tend to shy away from the aquatic setting.  Oh, it's okay to have the odd game on the water, but the whole setting?  Just doesn't appeal to people it seems.

So this all started as me talking about the end of the Pirate Renaissance and ended up being about why pirate RPGs don't work.  That was me flying false colors, mates.  Very pirate thing to do.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

RPG notes: There is just no making some people happy

And by some people I mean ME.

I've discussed the wizard thing before and focused on elements such as not having swords or not being able to read a spell from a book, but something occurred to me today and I think it is the root of my annoyance.

The source of all RPG is competition.  It's true.  The FIRST GAME* was created from a tabletop wargame by tabletop wargamers.  The hobby evolved into a cooperative experience but its roots began with Player Versus Player (PVP) conflict.  The thing that divides RPG from wargaming more than any other, more than the amateur dramatics, the leveling, the puffed corn based cheese snacks, carbonated beverages, geekdom and all night playing sessions is simply that RPG is, unlike its venerable ancestor, a game about cooperation.  In order to play it, enjoy it and get the most out of it the players, including the Game Master (GM) must work TOGETHER to do it.  The conflict is, thus, sublimated.  This does not mean there is not some competition, friendly and otherwise (I've thrown my fair share of dice at a group member in my time), but it is not the sole purpose of the game.  Part of working together is seen in the way the classes interact with one another and the game world.  Today it is fashionable to refer to roles, which I call metaclasses, such as tank, healer, DPSer and the like.  These are terms that evolved naturally through observation and now developers design classes to meet these roles, but it was not always the case.  A look at the original three classes from OD&D (fighting man, cleric, magic user) does not show strict adherence to a metaclass model.  The melee fighting abilities of these three classes were much closer to one another from the start, the cleric's healing ability is minor compared to a modern MMO and the wizard's magic is more subtle for the most part (no direct damage spells until level 5) and the hit points and fighting abilities cease improving earlier than one might expect today.  As gaming evolved the classes found their niches within the party.  This is important because the heart of the RPG game is the party itself.
Look at Lord of the Rings.  The Fellowship of the Ring is the party and it is their interactions with one another within the world Tolkien wrote for them that ultimately leads to success.  At times this means working together to solve a problem and at other times an individual's special talents solve the conflict at hand.
This looks like a job for an Istari!  
In the Mines of Moria as the Fellowship flees from the Balrog only Gandalf has the qualifications to stand on the bridge and face it, for the Balrog is a Maia, as is Gandalf.  We would not expect Gandalf to be able to fulfill the prophecy that recruits the dead men of Dunharrow for that required the heir of Isildur.  Similarly in the tales of King Arthur, Lancelot is a champion among men, unbeaten in war or tournament, but he cannot achieve the Holy Grail.  Authors craft their stories to give characters appropriate conflict and resolution; a GM/Developer should do the same.  No one wants to play and feel useless or not needed, for from this stems boredom and dissatisfaction and from that destructive impulses are given free rein and the whole thing falls apart.
Which brings me closer to my point.  In the classic RPG model, and indeed in board games that adapt it well (e.g. HeroQuest, Warhammer Quest, Advanced HeroQuest) each class (or model or character in a board game) is designed to fulfill a role within the adventuring party.  This is not a rigid straight-jacket of a role, for there is freedom to play around with it, but it is a vital role and when everyone is working together well success follows.  In a board game you can set absolute victory conditions such as "find the lost treasure of Kinothos" and if your team does so you win.  In an RPG victory is not so absolute and indeed in a campaign style dungeon crawl board game each victory is a milestone leading forward to greater challenges and rewards.  The measure of success is not simply whoever kills the most enemies, although depending upon the game it might be.
MMOs, however, seem to have forgotten when they were MMORPGs and lost the RPG format that created their initial success.  RPG is a social event, honestly, it is.  I know it looks like a bunch of antisocial nerds, but dammit that is a society right there.  Bunch=many, nerds=social category.  The essence of the game is the social interaction and early on that is what the MMORPG offered, only on a global scale via the magic of the internet!  While classes might seem a bit archaic, they are part of a balanced party which is part of the magic of the game itself.  Think of the cereal commercials where they told you that Fruit Loops were part of a well-balanced breakfast and then they showed this table full of food with toast, milk, juice, bacon, eggs, a black pudding, a mimosa and maybe a bloody mary.  Balanced.  Just a bowl of Fruit Loops won't cut it.  Without the full party you are just eating Hot Pockets and I think we know what happens when you just eat Hot Pockets, don't we?
Thus in the glory days you had your fighter, you had your cleric, you had your thief and you had your mage and metaclassing aside, each had his or her job to do in the party, and they did them together.  You didn't just measure victory by kills.  As much as I loathe Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition (and make no mistake, I do loathe that bastard MMO on paper) the developers designed it with the PARTY in mind.  Their spin on the tank, healer, DPSer, etc. was DEFENDER, CONTROLLER, LEADER, and STRIKER.  Leaders, which include clerics, have a host of abilities mostly centered on helping teammates.  Without teammates these are just wasted abilities.  Think of it in terms of the Avengers, since that was a popular movie and a pop culture reference seems to be the only damn way to get through to anybody these days, Captain America was the star and hero of his own movie, but in the Avengers he is the field captain, the battle leader.  Cap is the one that keeps a cool head, assesses the situation and gives orders.  It is not his job to take down Loki single-handed.  I'm pretty sure that is not even an option.  However he organizes the team to do the job, take out the boss, and bring order out of the chaos of battle.  Each class has its place, or at least it did.
The current trend seems to be individuals loosely organized to do what?  Seek individual glory?  Too many games these days seem to be nothing but combat.  No dungeons, no puzzles, no clever and deadly traps, only wave after wave of respawning enemies to kill, kill, kill in a lather, rinse, repeat fashion.  What is the purpose of having classes when each of them exists solely to kill monsters?  It becomes a race to kill and sadly the metaclassing works well enough to prevent the tank from making kills while the bloody stealthers and DPSers (into which group stealthers usually fall) get kill blow after kill blow.  By the end of the night all the accolades the game has to give go to those bastards.  What other way do lazy developers have of programming their pointless games to rack up scores, so to speak?  Kills and loot.
Thus why group at all?  And the trend seems to be to move to more and more solo play options.  This leads to an annoying dichotomy where the game is either simple stupid for solo play or deadly hard for dungeons where you MUST have a group, but then when the group is together it is not balanced for team play because everybody is built for solo play else they'd never get to the damned dungeons in the first place.
This is as annoying as getting stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel and having the four bacon chili dogs and the prune smoothie you had for lunch decide they have to come out NOW.  And you are on a date.  First date.  Oh yeah.
Now all of this would not be so bad if it wasn't for that damned balance issue.  Even if you give a wizard a sword or a stick the law of aggregate bitching** says that he won't be able to use the bloody thing anyway.  His total lack of hit points, armor, strength and melee skills means that should some blood simple monster (you thought I forgot where this started) get past the spells, now all optimized for killing (because nobody is going to put points into strength as a wizard when the strength does not benefit them even a tenth as much as it would a warrior and the intelligence is providing the magic damage buffs anyway) any melee attempts will be laughable.  I am talking about Jerry Lewis laughable.  And for all of you younguns out there (if you really are a youngun you won't even know what that means so younglings, okay) Jerry Lewis was a comedian that commanded big bucks in the black and white days partnered with Dean Martin (go ask your grandparents) and then had a stellar solo career before semi-retiring to work on a charity near and dear to his heart.  Today he is known, if he is known at all, primarily for being famous in France.  So go to Netflix and stream The Nutty Professor (1963, NOT the 1996 version with Eddie Murphy, but that's funny too, and if you want to see an Eddie Murphy film let me recommend The Adventures of Pluto Nash from 2002 but to understand that you will need to watch The Maltese Falcon from 1941 first know what; fuck it, just, just never mind, go watch Family Guy reruns or something you little bastards) to get an idea of what I am talking about.
This is the problem then: if you make the wizard too survivable for solo play, that is armor, weapons, fighting skills and magic blasting things all to Hell you ruin group dynamics and thus RPG.  Wizard don't need no party and party, being made up of other solo players, don't need no wizard.  If you make him balanced for party play, inevitably he is destroyed in PVP and possibly PVE and the party don't want him around.  Just giving him a sword solves nothing because everyone thinks, nay BELIEVES, nay KNOWS IN THEIR HEART that THEIR class, regardless of what it is, should be able to solo the whole damn game and always win in PVP all the time.
I think I hear another Balrog falling to a 3rd level rogue.  What is that, 500 this week?

*Dungeons and Dragons, published by TSR in 1974, oftentimes referred to as 0e, 0 edition and OD&D

**The Law of Aggregate Bitching: Within a free and democratic society the voice of the individual is heard, but rarely heeded, commensurate with the size of the society itself.  When multiple individuals agree upon an item or course their voices join together to create a larger, and thus more audible, sound.  When enough of these voices aggregate they will be heeded by the powers that be.  Thus those who bitch the most vociferously become, by dint of the mob rule, those in the right.  The powers that be will capitulate to the aggregate vociferous minority simply because they bothered to show up and bitch loudly while the more productive members of the society were busy doing actual work.  The correctness of the vociferous minority will not be measured against any logical or realistic benchmark and the powers that be will say they are enacting the will of the people for they have the mandate of the people.  In MMO terms this means that the DPS and Stealthers will always get the best from a new patch while ensuring that all other class types get nerfed by the developers such that tanks will do no damage, healers will not be allowed to heal any sort of stealth or burst damage and wizards will be completely unable to wield weapons to any good effect, use protective magic, or walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.