Monday, November 28, 2011

Book Review: The New Death and others

Even though this blog has been in existence for less than a month, I have been asked to write a book review. Naturally, I feel it is my duty to apprise my cherished readership about RPG related products they may find of use. The New Death and others * is not a set of rules, or a module, or a game supplement per se, but the author asked that I provide “either a normal book review, or a review of its suitability as gaming inspiration.” Well, 'gaming inspiration' certainly falls within the purview of this blog. Also, why write a blog and turn down free swag? (If Raggi is reading this, my sensibilities would not be offended by a complementary copy of Carcosa.) Thus I present my humble commentary.

The New Death and others (hereinafter 'New Death') is an e-book that collects short stories, poems, and vignettes by James Hutchings. This is the same James Hutchings who is responsible for the 'Age of Fable' website. (For the record, 'Age of Fable' earned a place on my Links page before Hutchings contacted me about New Death.) The short stories are indeed short; I think the longest runs no more than six pages. Make no mistake, I consider this a good thing. As the Bard said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I would think that someone traveling for the holidays might appreciate this format since it allows the reader to frequently start and stop without having to consider a given piece within the context of a longer narrative.

Among the poems, there are some that are based on stories by Howard, Lovecraft, Smith, and Dunsany. The influence of these staples of fantasy literature extends beyond Hutchings' poems and into his prose. (Perhaps I am mistaken, but there seems to be a hint of Borges as well.) I'm afraid that my appreciation of poetry is not what it could be. I make this disclaimer because my lack of praise for the poetry should not be interpreted necessarily as a deficit of merit, but as a deficit of my ability to evaluate such.

In “Everlasting Fire,” mention is made that making puns is the Eighth Deadly Sin. If this were indeed so, Hutchings would be on death row right now. Some of his stories (such as “The New God”) turn on a pun while others (such as “The Adventure of the Murdered Philanthropist”) are infested with them. If puns are to the reader's taste, then the reader is in store for a feast. Personally, I prefer them in small doses if they must be included in my literary diet at all.

All in all, there is a respectable variety of stories and there is little conceptual repetition. Some stories are cute and some are clever. With certain exceptions, New Death supplies as much gaming inspiration as any work of imaginative fiction. In my opinion, these exceptions are what sets New Death apart from 'any work' and permits me to add this book to the 'thoul approved' reading list. These exceptions are the stories (and one poem) that regard Telelee.

Telelee is Hutchings' outstanding setting that incorporates the city of Telelee and the wider world beyond. “How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name” provides the following description of the city:

...Telelee is as the sea into which all rivers flow, or the market where all gather, or as some moralists have it, the lowest point in all the world, to which all base matter must descend.

A story set in Telelee will have protagonists, but Telelee is always the star. This is where Hutchings' creativeness shines and if gaming inspiration is to be found anywhere in the book, it will be found here. Outside of New Death, Hutchings has a blog devoted to Telelee, although the blog refers to it as Teleleli. I don't know the reason for the difference. If Hutchings wants to provide gaming inspiration, I suggest that he cull his blog, excise the puns, organize the information, and publish Telelee / Teleleli as an actual setting – perhaps system neutral – for role-playing games. (He should then find some outlet for his puns and whatever other inner demons he might have.) Regardless, even without Telelee, New Death is suitable for gaming inspiration; with Telelee, such inspiration is almost guaranteed.

New Death is available for download from either Amazon or Smashwords for a low, low price of ninety-nine cents. Most people spend more than that on a cup of coffee. New Death is more valuable than a cup of coffee (and lasts longer), so the buyer is getting a real bargain here.

* From what I can tell, the 'o' in 'others' is not capitalized.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

It's Not Easy Being Human

In Metamorphosis Alpha, a player may choose to play a mutant with superhuman powers or a human without superhuman powers. The world of Metamorphosis Alpha is a dangerous place even for characters with superhuman powers, so there seems to be little reason to play a boring human. To add insult to injury (or rather injury to insult in this case), 'True Humans' are susceptible to more damage from weapons (according to page 19). Metamorphosis Alpha does provide subtle incentives to play a human, but can those incentives outweigh the obvious advantages of mutant abilities?

The Metamorphosis Alpha rulebook contains two blank character sheets; one for humans and one for mutants. Essentially, the differences are that humans have the leadership potential ability and mutants have mutations. There are other differences between humans and mutants, most of which are not reflected on the character sheets. However, beneath the space for 'name,' the mutant character sheet has a space for 'creature type' while the human character sheet has a space for 'next of kin.' This underlies the sociability of humans as an advantage in Metamorphosis Alpha.

According to the section on Human Tribal Areas on page 23, all human player characters begin the game “in some sort of human settlement.” The implication is that mutant player characters do not begin the game as part of an organized society. (There is no section on Mutant Tribal Areas.) According to page 10, “Player mutations start in the forested area of the ship, with no material goods.”  Humans are “...assumed to possess the normal living materials common to [their] any other assorted items the referee sees fit to give...” (p. 11). Curiously, both the human and mutant character sheets have a section for 'judge-given items' separate from other item inventories. Societies of humanoids and mutant creatures are described in the rules, so depriving player character mutants of starting equipment and community support seems to be an artificially imposed factor in an attempt to balance humans against mutants.

Metamorphosis Alpha treats intelligence in inconsistent ways. The descriptions for the 'Time Field Manipulation' mutation and the 'Anti-Leadership Potential' mutation defect both treat intelligence as if it was an ability (like constitution or dexterity) with a maximum numerical value of 18. The 'Heightened Intelligence' mutation provides a bonus to mental resistance and “increases the ability to figure out ancient ship devices” (p. 14). The Devices, Equipment, Duals And Weapons* section on page 21 states, “While there is no separate category of intelligence, it is subsumed in leadership potential.”

Ward's article, “Some Ideas Missed In Metamorphosis Alpha” in issue number 5 of The Dragon (March 1977), claims that “...Mental roughly analogous to the Intelligence factor in D&D...” and should be used rather than leadership potential when figuring out technological items. This is incorporated in the 2007 official errata. When leadership potential was used as intelligence, only humans could figure out 'new' technology. This makes sense in that the technology was designed to be used by humans and humans could draw upon tribal folklore regarding technology. This also provides an advantage for human characters as opposed to mutants. Logically, however, what's to prevent someone (or something) from pressing buttons until a catastrophe occurs or the item's function is determined?

Leadership potential is an exclusively human ability. This is because, according to page 11, “nonhumans of any type” have an ingrained distrust of each other. (Do mutants not have 'next of kin' because they are estranged from them?) Again, this does not agree with the notion of organized societies of humanoid and mutant creature 'races' that are described in the rules. Because of leadership potential, human characters can acquire followers; another attempt to offset the advantages of mutations. The description of leadership potential continues:

When dealing with a mutated human, because of the change in him, he is too close to the “creature” and not close enough to the “human” to have this leadership potential.

When a player chooses to play a mutant character, he or she may play a mutant human ('humanoid') or a mutant creature ('monster-like'). The description of leadership potential suggests a 'spectrum' of human qualities, with 'human' at one extreme and 'creature' at the other. Evidently, mutated humans fall closer to the 'creature' end. At the risk of indulging in philosophical pedantry, what qualities are required in order to be human?

Page 10 expressly states what happens to a human who develops a mutation via radiation exposure, “...[H]is leadership potential is negated and his followers will...leave no matter what he does.” Will he be ostracized from his human community? What about non-obvious mutations? Page 10 also states that a player of a mutant human “...can pick mutations that will allow [the character] to pass among humans...” Certainly, there are benefits to being perceived as human.

Robotic units can be controlled by verbal orders from anyone with an appropriate color band, so it would seem that a human appearance is not necessary to control robots. However, per page 8, robots will not kill humans (or any form of life), but they will actively defend humans – apparently automatically. The main ship's computer, per page 23, will help humans but a “...mutant will be treated like any other dangerous creature...” Robots and the computer would have to rely on basic appearance and 'assume' that someone who looks like a human is a human.

Why can't a mutant who appears to be human have followers? Page 11 states that “...leadership potential is usually given to humans of pure strain...” (my emphasis). Would it be too unbalancing for mutants 'passing' as humans to have leadership potential? Having followers is symbolic of status as well as 'proof' of one's humanity.

Lastly, Ward's article, “The Total Person In Metamorphosis Alpha” in issue number 14 of The Dragon (May 1978), presents other advantages for humans – a +2 bonus against poisons and using d8s instead of d6s for hit point determination. (Alas, these advantages were not incorporated into the 2007 official errata.) Interestingly, the article also presents the possibility of a mutated human with a 'pure' human parent (a sort of 'half-mutant' as it were). Such a character receives the constitution benefits above and will not have a physical mutation defect. The character would necessarily come from “a mixed village of mutants and humans,” which provides the organized society benefits otherwise denied mutant humans. (This 'half-mutant' possibility is also excluded from the 2007 official errata.)

* I assumed that 'Duals' was supposed to be 'Tools,' but 'Duals' appears uncorrected in the 2007 official errata.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Luke Skywalker vs Dorothy Gale (and her little dog, too)

A young person is raised on a farm by an aunt and uncle. Said young person despairs of life on said farm. Said young person is swept up into adventure and confronts the Forces of Evil. Along the way, said young person meets up with a metallic man and some furry dude. At the end of the story, it turns out the young person had the ability to accomplish the goal all along! Many sequels ensue.

Alexis (in this post) discusses heroes and how stereotypical D&D player characters are not heroes. There is not much in the post with which I disagree. Alexis seems to suggest that Dorothy Gale is a hero. OK, I'm down with that. So I ask Alexis if he considers Luke Skywalker to be a hero. (I mean, Alexis doesn't have to like Star Wars to agree that Luke Skywalker is a hero.) In Alexis' opinion, Luke Skywalker is not a hero. Then I ask why Dorothy is heroic if Luke is not. Alexis laughs this question off and does not deign to provide a straight answer. Why should he? Clearly, I'm going to interpret things however I want.

Is there anyone out there that can play devil's advocate (or, in this case, Alexis' advocate)? Seriously, I'd like to know what qualifies Dorothy to be a hero as opposed to Luke. From what he writes, it seems Alexis thinks Luke is self-centered; that his goals are selfish. I guess bringing freedom to the galaxy was just incidental to his plans. What about Dorothy? She wasn't a crusader. Her motivation was to return to her aunt and uncle. If not for that motivation, Dorothy could have chilled out with the Munchkins. Am I missing something or does Alexis need to take off his green spectacles?

To avoid quibbles of canonicity, let us restrict ourselves to the original movie (Episode IV) and the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Thanks.

Monday, November 21, 2011

At least I'm not a gnome

According to this quiz, your humble host is a

True Neutral Elf Wizard (5th Level)
Strength 11
Dexterity 11
Constitution 13
Intelligence 14
Wisdom 14
Charisma 11

With 'Perdustin' as my name, it would be embarrassing if I wasn't a wizard.  I guess this means I have at least 10 hit points.

(Please note that this is my "4d6 self" and not my "3d6 self.")

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Stack of Sandboxes


At what do the Wolfoids howl?

The setting for Metamorphosis Alpha is a colonization starship that encountered “unknown radiation.” Havoc ensued and the inhabitants regressed into primitives, eventually losing the knowledge that they were on a starship. Player characters explore the ship and encounter forgotten technology and mutated creatures.

The starship provided as an example, the Warden, is a huge ellipsoid about fifty miles long, twenty-five miles wide, and nine miles high. (The builders used a futuristic alloy of incredible properties.) The interior of the craft is divided into seventeen horizontal levels. Some levels are devoted to storage and/or the ship's functions. However, many levels are self-contained ecosystems inhabited by a plethora of terrestrial flora and fauna, now altered due to radiation exposure.

Metamorphosis Alpha gives brief descriptions of every level and detailed descriptions of two levels. Yet the rules emphasize (in bold lettering) that the provided descriptions “are intended only as examples...” After all, the focus of the game is exploration and players cannot genuinely 'explore' something with which they are familiar. The rules suggest that the general layout of the Warden should be used, but that the details of the levels should be unique for each referee.

I imagine that a prospective referee in 1976 would find the creation of so much detail to be a daunting task, even if only a small portion of the ship needed to be described for the commencement of play. Another confounding factor for the prospective referee being there was no obvious, introductory motivator for the players – a dungeon (for lack of a better term). In a dungeon, choices are constrained; open the door on the right or continue down the corridor. Relative to the wide open options that Metamorphosis Alpha presents, a 'dungeon' is more easily managed by a referee, but still provides sufficient interest for the players.

Nowadays, 'sandbox' is the term of art for a geographic region with which player characters can interact, pursuing whatever goals they choose. Back in the day, in our ignorance, referees only had maps with keyed encounters (and we were thankful for that much). In essence, the setting of Metamorphosis Alpha is a stack of sandboxes.

If we are going to make each level unique, we should understand the standard features that levels possess.

It seems that each level has artificial gravity, but should that necessarily be the case? Why bother with artificial gravity for a level primarily devoted to storage? Gravity might even be a detriment with regard to certain maintenance areas. According to the description of level 1, “There is a large...hatch...for on-planet removal of supplies.” This means the intent was to land the Warden on the colonization planet! No matter where the Warden sets down, its mass would cause it to sink into the ground, most likely to a depth that would prevent the hatch from opening. Even if the Warden used contra-gravity beams or some other kind of trickery to keep from sinking, there would be a great deal of damage to the 'landing area.' I like to think that the Warden would stay in orbit. Level 9 has “a section housing small space ships for scouting missions.” There's no reason why they couldn't be used as shuttles and 'small' is a relative term compared to the bulk of the Warden.

What about light? The section on 'Forested Areas' makes reference to night cycles and day cycles. Is there a solar disk at the 'center' of the sky for each level? Given the central elevator shaft, I don't think such a thing would be practical. What seems more likely is a 'ceiling' of diffuse luminescence. Along with this luminescence, there would be ultra-violet radiation. This is necessary for many (most?) living things, including humans, and also gives the robots something to do with their ultra-violet lenses. For the night cycles, the luminescence would be diminished significantly. Without a sun, why bother with a moon? Would stars appear on the artificial firmament? I doubt it. Which stars would they be; the stars as seen from Earth? It seems that the voyage of the Warden was to last for several generations. Imagine generations of people who know the sun, moon, and stars only as abstract concepts. Of course, given their lack of knowledge, the player characters and their generation would have no idea of what those terms mean. In Metamorphosis Alpha, poetry takes a backseat to survival.

To replicate the seasons, the length of the day and night cycles would need to change over time. There must also be weather. The description of the Weather Manipulation mutation indicates that “the computer has a 25% possibility of immediately correcting any weather disturbance on the starship.” This means that weather phenomena are somewhat fine-tuned by the computer. Is there a weather schedule? Does it always snow on the 346th day of the year?

P.S. (December 11, 2011)
I am embarrassed that I missed the following item from page 6:

The natural areas have an artificial moon and stars that cast enough light to travel by.

It seems there is the potential for poetry after all!  I assume that the moon goes through its usual phases.  Still, there is no description of an artificial sun, only "diffused [light] throughout the walls."

Now the question is, what stars are they?  The stars as seen from Earth?  Which hemisphere?  Is the pattern static or do they change seasonally?  Perhaps they are the stars as seen from the observation deck of the Warden.  Perhaps they are the stars as seen from the planet to be colonized.

P.P.S. (January 22, 2012)
Tucked away in the description of Small Warriors on page 18 there is the following statement...

Its nests are usually found in areas where the artificial sun does not shine...

I think that my notion of a 'ceiling' of light can properly still be called "artificial sun" and more practical than a solar disk that arcs along the roof of each level.

P.P.P.S.  (January 29, 2012)
Jim Ward's short story, "Footsteps in the Sky," contains some germane information.

First, regularly scheduled weather is confirmed.  "In the morning it rained, as it always did every third day."

Second, the statements "the sun was now out of sight" and "the sun went down," irrefutably indicate the presence of a solar disk.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Science Fiction Adventures On A Lost Starship

The first remarkable thing about Metamorphosis Alpha is that it is contained within twenty-four pages (not counting character sheets and reference pages). Many 'modern' Role Playing Games devote that much (or more) to fluff. Of course, brevity is the hallmark of 'old school' and the 'rules' are rather loose. In bold lettering on page 26 we have this decree:

Remember, however, that these rules (and specific portions thereof) are only intended as guidelines – and that many details are best described by the individual game judge.

I think that all RPGs subscribe to this concept to some extent; however, there are certain guidelines that have become standard convention, while alternative guidelines fell by the wayside over the years. Later RPGs (and their players and Game Masters) take these surviving guidelines as granted. I don't claim that this is a bad thing, it's just how RPGs developed.

For instance, I think most of today's table-top GMs would agree that – as an unstated guideline – more than six or seven players in a given campaign would be less than optimal. Metamorphosis Alpha puts the 'Number of Participants' at 2-24. While I think it would be rare that two dozen players would be participating in the same adventure, all of their characters would exist in the same, contemporaneous setting. In truly 'old school' campaigns, any given character could be “off stage” for several game months training, recovering from wounds, participating in a mercantile expedition, etc. A campaign was not merely a sequence of adventures for one party of characters, it was a shared environment for many characters engaged in various activities that could affect one another.

Another 'expected' guideline for modern RPGs is the notion of character advancement, typically in the form of a character 'earning' a volume of abstract 'experience points'; with enough experience points, the character's abilities improve. Character advancement in Metamorphosis Alpha, such as it is, does not follow this paradigm.

JDJarvis of Aeons & Augauries mentions six 'methods' of character advancement available in Metamorphosis Alpha. I have shamelessly copied his list from the OD&D Discussion Boards (for educational purposes).

Explore the ship and learn it's secrets.
Acquire technological devices.
Figure out and use those technological devices.
Acquire new occasionally useful mutations.
Survive mental assault and build mental resistance.
Recruit followers.

The first three are 'practical' while the last three are not necessarily practical. Acquiring mutations requires exposure to radiation. There is a 1% chance per die of radiation damage of getting a mutation or a 20% chance of getting a mutation (instead of dying) when the radiation chart indicates death. Also, the mutation so acquired could be a defect.

Increasing Mental Resistance is possible by resisting mental attacks; for every five such attacks a character resists, he or she gains one point of Mental Resistance.

Only humans can recruit followers.

I would generalize character advancement into two categories, 'physical treasure' and 'knowledge.'

Physical treasure includes not only ship technology; it also includes domars and conventional items like furs and tools that the characters can use or trade away. There is an interesting statement on page 3, “[Characters] can also make use of the secretions and liquids produced by the mutated plants and creatures of the forest levels.”

Knowledge includes how to use treasure (or even if something is 'treasure'). Knowledge can regard what abilities different 'monsters' possess. Characters learn about their environment (geographical features, tribal customs, et al.) through exploration and, as JDJarvis said, the ship's secrets.

We can think in terms of character advancement, but Ward also wrote about player advancement. The players learn how to interact with the fictional game environment, how the rules work, and (given the time when the book was originally published) how to role-play. “As players become more adept, [the referee] can then increase the difficulty of the problems they will face...,” is from page 3.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Revisionist Mythology II -- The Groundlings Strike Back

In the comments of our last thrilling installment, a dispute arose concerning the veracity of a statement made by Alexis:
“...this insistence that [Star Wars] is ‘the greatest movie ever made’ is merely a bit of social wish-fulfillment...”

The Anonymous Timothy expressed a desire for Alexis to prove this statement; after all, the burden of proof lies with the party making the assertion. Alexis indicated that Alec Guinness' autobiography contains sufficient proof; alas, Guinness' statements are hearsay and we cannot accept them as proof. Alexis then said, “Try Google.” Personally, I take this to be a cop-out. Nonetheless, as a nascent blogger attempting to cater to his audience, I followed up on Alexis' suggestion. (I used dogpile instead of Google, but that's how I roll.)

Of course, nearly every movie has its proponents. (Some wag has even put forth an argument for The Dukes of Hazzard.)

Anyway, this BBC poll from ten years ago seems on-point...and, yes, it tends to support Alexis' position. So, there are (many) people who consider Star Wars to be “the greatest movie ever made.” We may not concur but, to these people, Star Wars is the greatest movie ever made. The world will never come to a consensus as to “the greatest movie” because such a determination is inherently subjective. Certainly Star Wars is a very popular movie but, in terms of cinematic art, it is subject to criticism.

Thus we have an elitist/populist dichotomy; the intelligentsia as opposed to the groundlings, the people who read Proust as opposed to the people who don't and (if I may be permitted once again to invoke Orwell) the Party as opposed to the Proles.

So where does Joseph Campbell fit in to all of this? Well, Alexis suggests the possibility that Campbell may have been misquoted. This is a valid observation and if we expect Alexis to provide proof of his assertions, we should practice what we preach. However, it doesn't really matter what Campbell said because, according to Alexis, Classicist academia considers Campbell to be “something of a whack job.” Thus, the elitist/populist dichotomy is at work again, academics versus the mythology of pop culture. Whether whack job or uncultured dolt, we are back to where we began.

I find Campbell's insight to be fascinating and educational. Without further ado, here are some quotes from Campbell's The Power of Myth.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think...that a movie like Star Wars fills some...need for a model of the hero?

CAMPBELL: I've heard youngsters use some of George Lucas' terms – “the Force” and “the dark side.” So it must be hitting somewhere. It's a good sound teaching, I would say.

CAMPBELL: Well, you see, that movie [Star Wars] communicates. It is in a language that talks to young people, and that's what counts.

CAMPBELL: ...Star Wars is not a simple morality play, it has to do with the powers of life as they are either fulfilled or broken and suppressed through the action of man.

CAMPBELL: Certainly Lucas was using standard mythological figures.


I think these quotes give us a good idea of Campbell's attitude about Star Wars.  This movie may no longer 'speak' to Alexis' view of life, but it 'speaks' to a great many others' view of life.

As this post draws to a close, I pose a question. With regard to “social wish-fulfillment,” isn't that the basis of mythology after all?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Revisionist Mythology

The other day, Alexis at The Tao of D&D* trash talked Star Wars. Alexis is kind enough to inform us that any adult who appreciates Star Wars is an uncultured dolt. Joseph Campbell believed that Star Wars re-introduced modern audiences to the concept of the monomyth. Ergo, by Alexis' estimation, Joseph Campbell was an uncultured dolt. If I am an uncultured dolt for liking such a well regarded film, then at least I'm in good company.

Star Wars is an example of intellectual property with significant cultural impact. Sometimes there is conflict between the 'owner' of such a property and the people ('fans') deeply affected by that property; such has been the case with some of George Lucas' efforts to 'revise' certain details of Star Wars. (For the record, not only did Han shoot first, but Greedo didn't get off a shot at all. Those are the facts. Deal.) I am reminded of when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes; public outcry was so great, he was eventually compelled to bring Holmes back. When does should an artist lose control of his creation?

Another intellectual property with significant cultural impact (well, impact to Our Hobby at least) is The World's Most Popular Role-Playing Game. There is occasional discord between the owning Wizards and those who cherish the game's origins. At least we have the Open Game License; the Wizards are free to take the path where My Little Pony leads them and we are free to preserve, if not enhance, what we hold dear.

Han shot first.

The Great Detective lives.

D&D is ours (except for beholders and displacer beasts and stuff).

* Alexis is like Emmanuel Goldstein in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Just as Goldstein served as the focus of the Two Minutes Hate, Alexis is a target for cathartic release. If Alexis did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Love Child of Metamorphosis Alpha

Have you ever encountered a moose with quills? Or a teleporting woodpecker with a double brain and a poison beak? How about a nearly invincible jaguar, complete with the ability to change its body density and emit a sonic shriek, but which fears birds?

No, it's not The World of Synnibarr, it's the back cover of Metamorphosis Alpha! Still, in essence, Synnibarr is Metamorphosis Alpha on a planetary scale and steeped in concentrated gonzo. So, thinking about this similarity, I went to Raven c.s. McCracken's official site. It seems that in October, McCracken posted an article about Synnibarr and it's quite interesting.

Yes, this post is about Synnibarr more than Metamorphosis Alpha.

No, Synnibarr technically isn't “old school,” but I feel justified in discussing Synnibarr because of the influence of “old school” upon it. (Also, I notice that the first copyright date for the first edition of Synnibarr is 1980.)

It turns out that McCracken's very first exposure to a role-playing game was Metamorphosis Alpha. Viola! McCracken eventually played D&D and (after a couple of incidents you can read about for yourself) was psychologically scarred. Through this crucible of destiny, Synnibarr was formed.

What sort of game would McCracken have devised if D&D had been his first RPG? Or Tunnels & Trolls? Or Traveller? Would he have created any game at all? Would we have ever heard of him? Some may think we would be better off without Synnibarr; a philistine attitude.

Synnibarr has a dubious reputation; so dubious as to be included among the worst role-playing games ever. This is a harsh assessment. In the twenty years since Synnibarr was first released, RPGs that are truly abominable have crawled out from under the rocks. The trouble is that Synnibarr is three things: it is a rules system, it is a setting, and it is the presentation of the system and setting. The rules leave much to be desired and the presentation is less than ideal. On the other hand, the setting is beautiful, glorious, and majestic...from a gonzo perspective.

McCracken concedes that at least some of the dubious reputation is deserved. Nobody's perfect. The man had some ideas – not all of them bad – and he published his game. This was before print-on-demand; before the Internet. Cut the dude some slack.

Another reason Synnibarr is looked upon with disfavor is because it enables power gaming. (McCracken readily admits to being a power gamer.) Power gamers can be tiresome when they interact with players who want to cast spells and kill dragons on more moderate terms; however, there is nothing wrong with power gaming when all players are on board for that kind of experience. Sometimes it's fun to play a mutant cyborg Panther Man ninja.

Anyway, McCracken says he's been working on updating The World of Synnibarr. I am impressed by his perseverance. A lesser man, bowed by ridicule, would have slouched into obscurity; instead, McCracken refines his original vision. It does not seem as if this new edition will be available anytime soon, but this is definitely a goal McCracken is working toward. From the article:

The first publication will be the new combat and game engine and just the bare bones required to fully make a few characters,  and include races (six at this point), basic equipment, abilities, skills, and of course, details about the setting of the Worldship itself.

I assume that talking raccoons are among the six included races.

McCracken writes that he wants simple rules and has a “goal of unrestricted imagination.” So far, so good. However, he also wants “to maintain as much realism as possible...” Maintain realism? We're talking about ninja tesseracts, midnight sunstone bazookas, and flying elk. You can't maintain realism if you don't have any to start with. People who want to play Synnibarr are looking for an outlandish, over-the-top experience; they're looking for fun, not “a hard mathematical basis.”

McCracken says the whole point of gaming is to have fun. I wholeheartedly agree. Alas, beyond this common ground, McCracken's viewpoints start to diverge from my own. McCracken is excited about something he calls the PHYSICAL PROPERTIES OF MATERIALS TABLE (all caps). To me, this sounds almost as thrilling as the periodic table (no caps). “Without this table,” McCracken comments, “things such as damage are simply fictionalized approximations.” Unlike McCracken, I happen to think that fictionalized approximations are fine for fictional environments.

The attraction of Synnibarr is the setting. It doesn't need a game engine that tries to emulate reality. You can't facilitate unrestricted imagination by employing a formula that equates “things like the calories required to change the temperature of a gram of water plus or minus one degree centigrade and the energy’s relationship to Joules.” Sweet Aridius!

In my unsolicited opinion, Synnibarr needs something like the 4C System; it's available, simple, proven, versatile, and scalable. Regardless, I wish McCracken well on his endeavor.

If there is a just and loving God in the Centiverse, then one day I shall play a talking raccoon who wears a sombrero...with tassels.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Happy Birthday Tom Moldvay!

According to the Social Security Death Index, Thomas Steven Moldvay was born on November 5, 1948.  Were he alive today, he would be 63; he was taken from us too soon.  Aside from being the editor for the best instance of D&D ever, he demonstrated his talents in many other game-related products.  I would be remiss if I did not include a link to his bibliography on Dragonsfoot.  He is an underappreciated genius.

Among his other accomplishments, Moldvay wrote (i.e., designed and developed) Lords of Creation, a multi-genre role-playing game.  (I can't state definitively that it was the first multi-genre RPG, but I can't think of an earlier one.)  In the main rulebook, Moldvay presented several settings he called Lands of Wonder:
  • The Elder Lands -- A fantasy setting representing an aggregate of 'mythological' versions of ancient cultures (including Sumerian, Hittite, Egyptian, Greek, et al.).
  • Imperial Terra -- A science fiction setting which is somewhat generic.  Still, with only a page-and-a-half of descriptive text, Moldvay included some kernels of inspiration.  It really deserved to be fleshed-out.
  • The Land of Ulro -- A fascinating, if not bizarre, setting "inspired by the mystical poetry of William Blake."
  • The Swashbuckling Era -- An historical setting which gets almost three pages, including a map of 17th century Paris.
  • Priddo -- A parallel world setting where "[s]cience was used to explore and codify the reality behind magic.  The technology of Priddo is based on magic."
  • The Elemental Planes -- a setting of 'pocket universes' representing the five 'elements' (earth, air, fire, water, and shadow).
  • The Nine Worlds -- An 'alternate dimension' setting representing the cosmology of Norse mythology.
In the rulebook, the map of Priddo is difficult to read, given its size and the fact that it is depicted in black and white.  For my own edification, I created a more 'user-friendly' map.  I present here the fruit of my humble effort.  Gray areas represent unexplored regions.

In honor of Moldvay, I think today I will "pimp" my copy of Revolt On Antares.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

See No Evil

Behold!  Or not.

This transformative image is displayed for satirical purposes.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

'Your Dungeon Is Suck' Died for Your Sins...

...and He is risen! Hallelujah!

Certain segments of the OSR community gleefully reveled in the greatly exaggerated demise of YDIS. They cast aspersions upon YDIS, oblivious to the hypocrisy of their hateful actions. Why all the hatred? Why not ignore Him? YDIS must strike a nerve; thereby He justifies His existence.

YDIS proclaims that the OSR has no clothes. People are angry at their nakedness and they disparage the messenger.

I think that part of what riles the haters is that YDIS does not take Himself seriously. Unfortunately, it does not seem that He is taking His Sacred Vow seriously either. The cult of personality that has grown around Him has caused Him to become complacent. Let us review YDIS' 'mission statement' as it were:

Gary & Dave’s rotting corpses have life within them yet… after a fashion.  They twitch, shudder, spasm and spin with each daily affront inflicted upon the hobby and industry they created.  I channel the dead and speak on their behalf, to document everything they despise.
                                                                           Your Dungeon Is Suck
                                                                           February 9, 2010

(Apropos for Dia de los Muertos, no?)

Please note that last bit, “...document everything they despise.” Not “document some of what they despise” or “document what they despise if and when I feel like it.” Everything. That's a tall order and if it seemed like He was really trying, I wouldn't call Him on it.

Fortunately, someone is out in the trenches, doing what YDIS should be doing. The self-proclaimed Misstress of Doom [sic] is making a name for herself. More power to her.