Thursday, May 15, 2014

Games About Stuff

I've had this thought kicking around since I finished Mass Effect 3 and didn't want to discuss it for fear of spoiling things. But the science fiction trilogy concluded a while ago and I figure I ought to get these thoughts out before they slip beyond the horizon of cultural relevance.

You may recall a great deal of anger about the ending of Mass Effect. I'm sympathetic to people's frustrations but also to the designers' desire to end their franchise.

I think people approach stories (including story-heavy games) in two different ways. Some people are in it for the story and some people are in it for the world. People also care about the characters, but the way most writers make stories, characters fall into two types: story-characters (who undergo fundamental character changes across the narrative, like Luke Skywalker) and setting-characters (who remain basically consistent, like Captain Kirk). Most people don't analyze how they enjoy stories, but I see people gravitate toward one type of story or another based on their preferences, and I've seen people get all kinds of angry when their initial assumptions about the type of story they're experiencing don't pan out.

Mass Effect had that problem. People thought--and some of it was wishful thinking--that Mass Effect was about the Mass Effect setting, and that was a reasonable view to have, because the setting had so much in it: Cerberus and Reapers and the Council and biotics and the Presidium and space pirates and a million other things. And it came as a shock to a lot of people when they learned Mass Effect was really about a single story (Shepherd's decision) and a single theme (the old man vs. machine chestnut). Mass Effect was a game about something, and it also happened to have a universe attached to it. Mass Effect 3 dragged together most of the previous two game's plot elements, from the Genophage to EDI, and showed how they were all the same kind of story.

Mass Effect 3 didn't do a perfect job at that, which is part of the reason why a lot of people were mad: ME3 was far from perfect; its execution was often heavy-handed and clumsy, and it exposed the fundamentally linear nature of Bioware's stories, despite all the writers' attempts to hide that fact. But more importantly, ME3 took people's universe away.

The Star Wars "expanded universe" has been lurching along for almost 40 years now. Almost everything in the EU sucks, I mean, it's worse than bad, it's completely terrible and full of elements so tone-deaf that I wonder how they ever seemed like a good idea. But as a tabletop gamer, I've had an absolute blast running games in the Star Wars universe.

The Mass Effect universe is just as cool (I imagine a whiteboard at Bioware, Day 1 of New Science Fiction Game, with "Universe Just As Cool As Star Wars" written on it and underlined three times), but I won't ever play in that universe because the designers destroyed it. Now, I'm not all broken up about that, because I can build my own settings and there are plenty of ready-made ones, but if I were the sort of person who loved Mass Effect for the universe, ME3 would have been a kick in the junk. No more Omega, no more Alliance, no more permanently-unresolved stories about the Krogan vs. the Salarians or the dangerous Batarians and their hatred of humanity's success.

But...Some of these desires, I think, are toxic to creativity. The Genophage was interesting for 2 1/2 games; dragging out the angst interminably is what makes superhero comic books so unreadable. Ditto the Batarians. And I think it's naive to expect that the "real story" of Mass Effect is Shepherd and his/her friends fighting Batarian gangsters forever. We all knew ME was going to be more than that, and anyone who knew the first thing about science fiction could see in what direction the plot was going to go.

Further, I kind of respect the designers for blowing up the universe. "No, Mass Effect isn't a setting that gets played out forever, that gets cluttered up with fanfiction-level content after ten years, that slowly spawns an incomprehensible and labyrinthine continuity that alienates all but hardcore fans; Mass Effect is a story about one thing and when that one story is done, the curtains come down." It takes integrity to do that, and it takes a firm understanding of what your story is about.

It's just a shame that what Mass Effect was about was handled so clumsily. But that's an issue of game design, which is outside the scope of this undirected musing. I respect what Bioware tried to do, but I think that, in their attempt to close off the universe, they closed off the story too, and gave us a strangled whimper to conclude their narrative. I don't want to mess around in the Mass Effect universe forever, with the setting's dramas frozen in time for my eternal savoring, but I wanted more of a decision about how I brought down the curtains.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

No Justice in Westeros

It's cool how Game of Thrones is anti-chivalry propaganda, and people like talking about that, but T.H. White's The Once and Future King was anti-chivalry propaganda a million years ago, so I don't think that's the coolest part of GoT.

The coolest part of Game of Thrones is that Martin thinks through the consequences of living in a society without a rule of law. Fantasy writers screw that up all the time. They either give their setting a robust rule of law (a legitimate choice, but one that often sticks out weirdly from the rest of the setting), or they don't follow through on the whole "these people are barbarians" thing.

By "rule of law" I mean the understanding most of us modern people have that laws come from, well, laws (fixed rules written down somewhere) rather than directly from our rulers. We know that ultimately law comes from the threat of force, but we place buffers and cushions between our leaders and the application of their power, because the alternative is tyranny or anarchy. (You can usually spot political lunatics because they try to strip away the barriers of intermediation: they try to give everyone guns and banish fiat currency, for example. They want to get rid of the barriers and let power flow directly, and most people instinctively recoil from that.)

Westeros is a setting without as many layers of intermediation as our own world, and the buffers between the people who wield raw power and the people who suffer it are vanishing one by one. Westeros hasn't had the rule of law since Joffrey offed Ned Stark. Or since Jaime Lannister killed the Mad King. Or since Robert Baratheon fought a rebellion against the Targaryens. Or since Aegon the Conqueror showed up and decided that since he had dragons, he deserved a kingdom...

...Okay, Westeros has basically never recognized "law" as most people today understand the concept. It's all people wielding power directly. That's why the rift between the Starks and the Karstarks was so disastrous to Robb's hopes of winning the Iron Throne, and while it's easy to dismiss the Northerners as a bunch of pseudo-Scottish barbaric clansmen, the South is no better: North or South, power is just a bunch of rich families.

George RR Martin, unlike most fantasy authors, actually follows through on the promise of his setting, like a hard science-fiction author. He doesn't even use magic as the primary source of disintermediation. Obviously people who wield magic make it hard to have a rule of law (what do zoning ordinances matter to someone who can conjure castles and demons from thin air?), but Martin uses that trick sparingly. Instead he just shows the consequences of his setting's assumptions, without chickening out. Martin doesn't have a suspiciously modern senate moderating the excesses of kings; he doesn't have a bunch of barbarians re-create the United Federation of Planets; he doesn't even give you the solace of a modern-thinking viewpoint character looking smugly down on the savages (Tyrion may be ethical, but his ethics are purely interpersonal; he's no Seneca). People credit Martin's unflinching look at the cruelty of Westeros as his story's most interesting feature, but Martin's greatest strength is his meticulous exploration of a world with one key difference: not the magic, not the seasons, but the lack of law.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mage, Cultural Irrelevancy, and the New Despair

The other day someone who liked Genius: The Transgression asked me what Mage: The Ascension books were worth reading. White Wolf (what's left of it) is coming out with a 20th anniversary Mage just like they did with Vampire and Werewolf, trying to recapture the magic. Some of the designers seem aware of the problem with Mage: The Ascension: it's a New Age game about mysticism and technology-as-the-enemy, heir to Carlos Castaneda and the LSD-enlightenment movements of the 60s and 70s, and right now the Nerd World could not be further from that. Right now everything is steampunk and ray guns and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the anti-scientific thinking Mage pushes is about as hip as liberalism after the Iran Hostage Crisis or conservatism after Hurricane Katrina.

I watched as the 90s became the 2000s and geekdom shifted away from the pagan/postmodern thinking that helped produce Mage into the (often equally shallow, but still diametrically opposed) "hurray for science" attitude that continues to persist, despite economic and ecological calamity. Now Mage's themes look more dated than the Captain Planet ecofascism that litters Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Meanwhile, Marvel movies sweep up the box office because 1962 and 2014 are similar in a lot of ways. The same gee-whiz attitude unites the present day and the years when Kirby and co. were creating the Marvel universe; the early 90s might as well be the Cretaceous.

There are ways out of the 20th anniversary game's conundrum, though. I would emphasize the empowerment offered by Mage. Phil Brucato, one of the chief architects of Ascension, has spoken several times about Mage's empowering elements, and I think that message, more than the mysticism, is what still resonates. This is especially the case as more people from traditionally disadvantaged groups get online and realize that they are not as powerless or alone as society told them they were. Tumblr--much-maligned, frequently-ridiculous Tumblr--probably feels like a Mage-style Awakening to the historically disenfranchised people who get on there and realize their concerns and opinions are real and shared by thousands of others. Translating the energy of that discovery into Mage is a better idea than digging around in the detritus of postmodern philosophy and New Age.


I wonder if the pendulum of geek culture can swing back. It's hard to imagine, in the middle of it! No more steampunk, no more bacon science robots, no more happy Pinterest garden projects--at least, not as anything but a cultural relic. But culture shifts fast.

The rise of New Age coincides with the failure of the Space Age. I'm not sure if that's a coincidence or a cause, but the timing is conspicuous, and we have another failure on the horizon: the second dotcom bust. No one can look at the death spiral of Yahoo!, the frenzied world of pointless app creation, the corrosion of Google, and see anything but disaster on the horizon. When the whole farce comes crashing down--harder than the first dotcom bust, maybe harder than any collapse we've seen since the gutting of American manufacturing or the slow death of American unions--we will see more than enough despair to fuel a furious reaction against the science-fetishism that characterized the early 60s and that characterizes our current age. Maybe, the collapse of Silicon Valley will be enough to end this age of do-it-yourself tinkering and can-do spirit. Maybe in a few years, we can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas again and look west, and see another high-water mark, where the wave broke and rolled back once more.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hex Map Encounters in Yane (Part 5)

You can follow along with the map here.


18|04. Coastal/Sathini Forest. Shipwreck of Keidian sailors from back during the Ghostmark War, hidden under a bluff. One of the paladins onboard cursed the gods and now exists as a death knight with a small unholy retinue. He wields a +1 sword of the unclean road.

18|05. Coastal/Sathini Forest. Villagers receive advice by studying the tracks of lynxes. Anyone who can track the animals can gain valuable political insight.

18|06. FREE CITY OF OLONTO. 5,200 people in a bay marked by colossal Old Realm statues, ruled by Baron Gancella si’Tromio (adult human male aristocrat 5, cn). He dreams of ruling the City of Lahaz (Hex 15|15), perhaps by wedding the Imperatrix Zulphine. His chamberlain, Wodo (old male halfling aristocrat 7, le) considers infernal sources of advancement for his young and naïve protégé.  As Lahaz abandoned its piratical ways, Olonto has taken them up and has become a dangerous port-of-call for criminals and adventurers.

18|07. Coastal/Sathini Forest. An Old Realm road stretches from Olonto to Lake Amillo, a reservoir. Lights appear on the water; this is the court of the Candle King, a fire elemental who knows about the fire devil in Hex 10|19 and wants him stopped.

18|08. Coastal/Sathini Forest. Rumors of a siren in this area actually refer to an elf princess (sister to the elf in Hex 17|20) who escaped her guardianship with magic only to become trapped in an old watchtower. She will pay dearly to go home.

10|09. Coastal/Sathini Forest. A lighthouse-keeper sells reefs maps. These are moderately accurate but also enchanted to reveal the location of any ship to the Jotunn pirate queen Lissuth in Hex 19|06.

18|14. Coastal/Southern Forest. Antlered murderers hunt the woods as bandits, offering sacrifices to an idol of the Stag of Starry Heavens in Hex 04|16. (He gains nothing from this, but has instructed them to capture a skilled wizard.)

18|15. Coastal/Southern Forest. TOWN OF MUNCIPER. Population 1,300; Keidian. The Gray River terminates here. Munciper has a decent library. Two librarian-priests, one of Coth, one of the Iconess, wander endlessly among the halls seeking tomes that will let them win theological disputes against one-another.

18|16. Coastal/Southern Forest. A forgotten Old Realm fountain, still in good repair, contains water that burns in the light of the sun, freezes in the light of the moon, and generates an electrical shock during rain storms. The water appears normal. It can be bottled and will discharge so long as kept away from light. Up to three bottles worth of water can be removed per day.

18|19. Coastal/Southern Plains. Storms that touch down here create whirlwinds that can suck up anything up to a small-sized boat and deposit it on the island at Hex 21|14, mostly unscathed. (This strange wind affects other water hexes, but only touches land here, and only here is the trip less than fatal.)

18|20. Coastal/Owl Forest. The Frotha Lacha River splits into tributaries and reaches a lake full of silver fish. The lake contains a turtle that exactly duplicates the appearance of the Jotunn Turtleship (wandering coastal encounter) as a result of forgotten elven defensive magic.

19|03. Coastal/Sathini Forest. The Uth Quara River spills into the sea. An old graveyard causes some travelers to turn ethereal and invisible if sufficiently frightened. People from the nearby village have been cursed this way for years and believe they’re dead. They’ve grown feral and nihilistic, manipulated by a (real) specter.

19|04. Sathini Forest. The Uth Quara River flows northwest-southeast. Small (120) Jotunn colony tolerated by the humans, riddled with Tazhikar spies loyal to different political bureaus.

19|05. Sathini Forest. A damp, ruined library. The words in the books have grown intelligent and escaped to the top row of books, which haven’t been eaten by mold. The mold has grown clever on the words. The over-crowded words will ask to be taken en masse out of their book-slum to the forgotten tower in Hex 21|03 where they can enter the sun clock and live there safely. The mold will try to stop this.

19|06. Sathini Hills. Ifando’s River begins here and flows east. A well-hidden cenote contains the base and trading camp used by the jotunn pirate queen Lissuth (adult female jotunn ranger 9, ne). Her ship, White Death, usually holds 50 seasoned cutthroats, and her base holds another 50. The underground river flows to a cave in Hex 19|08 beneath the surface river.

19|07. Sathini Forest. Ifando’s River flows east-west. An ogress with power over darkness dwells here. She created the enchanted pigs (that now wander the Muro Forest) to escape Baron Gancella’s justice, but Captain Chotwaith (now in Hex 4|21) and his pirate crew stole them. Now she waits for the baron’s assassins.

19|08. Coastal/Sethini Forest. Ifando’s River spills into the sea. Wodo, the halfling castellan of Olonto, keeps an estate here. His priest is convinced (correctly) that Wodo uses the catacombs in an attempt to commune with devils.

19|14. Coastal/Southern Forest. A rectangular grid of alternating white and red grass that resists all attempts to remove it forms a colossal game area. A few huge clay checker-pieces are buried beneath hills, and one is used as a village moot-stone. Taken to the Blue Sun Keep in Hex 7|23, a piece will help stabilize the magic of the other checker-pieces, allowing for easier travel through the Keep.

19|15. Coastal/Southern Forest. The Castigation of Morodus, a terrible necrotic war machine (four spellcasting faces—one necromancy, one conjuration, one evocation, one transmutation—on a rolling juggernaut frame), has begun to stir. It can disguise itself as a wagon driven by a halfling.

19|16. Coastal/Southern Forest. Scarred undead-hunters (mostly Keimians, one elf) track the Castigation of Morodus. One of their number has a side-business killing inconvenient villagers and claiming they were vampires.

19|17. Coastal/Southern Forest. An elderly failed hero who fled his destiny during the Ghostmark War, now a hermit. A birthmark covers his back—it’s actually a spellbook filled with powerful arcane anti-undead spells, plus the magic word that opens the door to the fortress of the Corpse-Tiger General in Hex

19|20. Coastal/Southern Plains. Prehistorical cave paintings of bison, deer, and mammoth come alive at night and have begun to attack travelers. An ancient godling in the caves knows that the “one who dreams in ice” in Hex 21|03 can banish the paintings.

19|21. Coastal/Owl Forest. Elves have shaped trees into living runes. Running certain (dangerous) paths through the forest-roads can activate defensive and enhancing spells.

20|04. Sathini Forest. A destroyed farmstead leads to the goblin warrens in Hex 21|04. The dead people all have wounds filled with animal teeth.

20|05. Sathini Hills. Bubbling hot springs around the origins of several rivers. The hot springs used to have healing powers (and resort villas) until a devil defiled them. He now inhabits a handsome, if rotting, villa.

20|06. Sathini Forest. This east-west river, called the Gamales, has grown corrupt at its source (Hex 20|05). People have abandoned the riverways and trolls have moved in. The mayor refuses to tell the baron or his tax collectors what has happened.

20|07. TOWN OF SIRENZEI. 800 people under Zirenno Esk (human elderly male aristocrat 6, n), a retired captain. Olonto’s shipyards. The apotropaic eyes painted on the newest ships cause evil people to grow sick; the docks are shorthanded as the scummier laborers can no longer work.

20|16. Coastal/Southern Forest. A lighthouse-priory to the Iconess. The piety of the nuns produces the light, and also the devastating energy blasts that assail any pirate ships that sail too close.

20|19. Coastal/Southern Plains. Any piece from a game of chance (cards, dice, etc.), when used anywhere in this hex, flies to a central location atop a low hill. A god of chance is trying to create itself in our world, but its assembled parts dissolve under the full moon and it has yet to get itself even half-assembled.

20|20. Coastal/Owl Forest. Elven warriors train in the trees. Numerous carnivorous beasts stalk the woods, but they are placid unless you bow to them in the fairy style, in which case they attack.

21|02. Sathini Forest. Eyes on wings flap through the woods, the creations of the long-dead wizard in Hex 22|05.

21|03. Sathini Hills. Abandoned pre-Old Realm gnome tower with a huge and intricate solar clock computer. Badly damaged. All the automata are destroyed except for a medical bot that will try to place injured people in a cryo-pod underground. One working cryo-pod contains a gnome child, the rest are full of skeletons. One skeleton has a bundle of scrolls, including one that will banish the living cave paintings in Hex 19|20.
21|04. Sathini Hills. Goblins warren. The goblins arrived on the surface recently, having been displaced by something terrible far below the surface. Every goblin has a second, biting mouth somewhere on its body.

21|05. Sathini Hills. Abandoned watchtower. Taken over by were-eagles, who fling humans off the cliff to see whom they have successfully infected. (If infected—which is rare—they will transform before they hit the rocks below.)

21|06. Coastal/Sathini Forest. Out to sea, three abstract aberrations keep watch in the direction of the Claw of the West in Hex 04|15. If banished back to their native realities, the Claw will be one step closer to awakening.

21|14. Coastal/Southern Forest. Broken ships litter the woods, still full of cargo. Winds and fog make this island hard to approach but easy to escape—if a boat can be fixed! The ships are full of old valuables, but haunted by spirits of terror and violent death.

21|19. Coastal/Southern Forest. PORT RIDLEY. Keimian naval base. 140 sailors under Commander Naneel Paxroid (middle-aged human female ranger 8, lg). At least one of Keidia’s four Arkat Bay warships is usually in dock. The station cook, Panderly (female adult halfling sorcerer 5, ng) brews potion-dinners and is an incurable gossip about other sorcerers and wizards.

21|19. Sailors from Mirlace convinced they’re marooned forever. Anyone who explains their situation will earn the gratitude of their captain, Rançoisse (middle-aged male human fighter 7, ln), and his eternal love if they can take his crew and their supplies to Lahaz. But Rancoisse’s second mate, Dalçon (adult male human fighter 4, ce) was press-ganged and will do anything to betray his commander and escape with the supplies. Also here: the hidden cave from Hex 14|23.

21|20. Coastal/Owl Forest. 80 Gnomes in a crystal castle. They are unaware that the treasure map possessed by the pirates in Hex 23|04 marks their castle as the treasure.

22|01. Coastal/Sathini Agricultre. TOWN OF THULIA. 1,200 people ruled by Lady Phaedria (adult female human aristocrat 5, n). Her people despise her as a murderer because she has been married three times and buried three husbands; the second two were in fact murdered by the ghost of her first husband, whom her second husband killed in a duel over Phaedria—the Lady knows none of this. The Nurio River enters the sea here.

22|02. Coastal/Sathini Agriculture. Lake Nurio; the river flows east-to-west. Irrigated marshland that contains the half-sunk, monster-haunted first attempt Baron Alrecco si’Tromio (the current baron’s father, son of the original settler) made at building a castle.

22|03. Coastal/Sathini Hills. The Bloody Cliffs, famous for fog, shipwrecks and suicides. A narrow cliffside road is occasionally used by members of the petty gentry for death-defying horse or carriage races.

22|04. Coastal/Sathini Agriculture. DRANICCA MONASTERY. An upside-down gothic fortress; once a death knight’s castle, it was literally inverted by a powerful cleric during the Ghostmark War and drained of its evil. Now it shines golden and beautiful. Its evil drained downhill to infest Hex 23|05. The abbot, Flein (old human male expert 5, lg) and his 40 monks and nuns, are not-so-secretly loyal to Keidia.

22|05. Coastal/Sathini Forest. The vine-choked tower of a dead wizard, filled with hundreds of mirrors and cages. Owlbears have taken up residence. Amidst the wreckage, explorers can find three globes of silver castigation and shoes of the fan-dancer.

23|01. Coastal/Sathini Plains. Petrified trees line the shore, the distress signal of a lost and injured earth elemental trying to return home.

23|02. Coastal/Sathini Plains.  Angry farmers evicted from their lands near Olonto mix shepherding with banditry.

23|03. Coastal/Sathini Forest. A hidden marble fountain, an Old Realm remnant, turns up to one object per week invisible until exposed to sunlight.

23|04. Coastal/Sathini Forest. Pirate cove. Merchants-turned-pirates. Captain Dromello (middle-aged human male rogue 8, ce) of the Fate Wind killed the previous captain and took over, to the anger of his crew. But he managed one good theft. Recently he spoke to the Oracle of Droom in Hex
05|14 and learned of an incredible treasure in Hex 21|20. He doesn’t know yet that the castle is the treasure.

23|05. Coastal/Sathini Forest. The stains of evil from Dranicca Monastery in Hex 22|04 congealed here to form wraith-eels. Drowned men from Hex 22|03 have learned to ride them and they plan an invasion.


This concludes the Yane entries. I had plans for several wandering encounter tables, but the tables are tabled for now, as it doesn't look like I will be able to run a campaign. (People and schedules, you know how it is.) Nonetheless, I hope readers can mine these entries for ideas and use them in their own campaigns. Please use whatever you want.