Thursday, February 28, 2019

5e Character Backgrounds - What Purpose Do They Serve?

Character backgrounds are a cool enough concept that they probably deserve their own post, but I've been thinking about D&D 5e recently, so I want to jump ahead and look at character backgrounds in 5e specifically.

Backgrounds in general serve a dual purpose in character generation. The first is to provide a list of starting equipment very quickly. Their second and more important function is to act as an aid to roleplaying, by providing just enough in the way of characterization, backstory, and purpose to make THIS fighter you're playing today different from THAT fighter you played last week (you know, the one who DIED and left you in need of a slightly different character concept for next session.) The most important difference between the starting equipment packages in the original version of Into the Odd and the starting occupations from I2TO Bastionland is that the occupations don't just tell you WHAT you're carrying, they tell you WHO is carrying those things.

In DCC you just get a job title, a weapon, and one item; in I2TO you get a bit more equipment, a sentence of describing your career, and a you roll on a pair of tables that give you a couple more sentences of backstory along with a couple skills or special abilities or what have you.

In 5e, your background gives you a couple skill proficiencies, a tool proficiency, a language or two, and a package of starting equipment. (You'll get more of each of these from your character's race and class as well.) They give you tables to roll if you want Character Traits, Ideals, Bonds, or Flaws. (Which you might, since those can be sources of roleplaying insight like I was just praising other backgrounds for.) They give you a "Feature," which is a special ability that typically relates to downtime activity.

They also almost all invite you to co-create part of the campaign setting with your DM.

I didn't notice that last one previously, because I didn't read any of the backgrounds closely enough, but that's kind of a big deal. If you follow the 5e's instructions to let each player co-create part of their shared campaign world as part of character generation, you probably end up with a "Session 0" of the type advocated by Dungeon World, Freebooters on the Frontier, and Beyond the Wall, among others. If you follow those instructions, then it seems that instead of the DM developing a campaign setting before play starts, the beginning of play is actually the DM and the players creating elements of the world together in an imaginative collaboration that happens at the same time as character generation.

Of course, nothing forces you to follow the instructions as written. If you're a DM who does have a campaign setting already, then you could simply tell the player "choose from this list of gods" or "choose from this list of military organizations" rather than asking them to invent one with you. In fact, you could pretty much automate the choices. 5e does a little of this already. It doesn't ask the player to invent an artform for their entertainer or a criminal enterprise for their charlatan, it simply asks them to roll on a random list to discover which one is their specialty. So you could simply take that process further and randomize all the choices 5e asks players to make about the world. If you have a campaign setting already, this would make char-gen that much faster, let you skip Session 0, and start playing the game that much faster. Over at Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeoneque, Jack is doing just that with his Cinderheim setting. (Clever Jack also noticed that there are 12 backgrounds and 12 character classes listed in the 5e Player's Handbook, so you can REALLY randomize character creation - and add a bit of I2TO-style random backstory - by making tables for EVERYTHING.)

You could also do the opposite and expand Session 0 to include even more worldbuilding tied to the character backgrounds. (One again, Jack got their first on this one.)

So, as I said, that's one thing that 5e backgrounds provide that's unusual, at least compared to DCC and I2TO. (Not unusual, obviously, for Dungeon World or other games that emphasize co-creation.) The other thing that's a little unusual is the Feature, which provides an ability that you'll probably use during downtime. My initial impression when I skimmed the backgrounds was that they all just had a Feature that entitled you to free room and board somewhere in the game world, but on closer inspection, there is some more variety, though not so much that every background is unique. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Background Features must have seemed challenging to design to WotC's staff writers, because several of them are basically repeated in the Player's Handbook, and because when they suggest additional backgrounds in other places, they typically suggest just borrowing one of the current Background Features rather than supplying a new one.

When I was running my Island of the Blue Giants campaign (I'll pick it back up again someday, I swear), and using  Zenopus Archives's OD&D backgrounds for human characters, I had this idea that the alien weirdos on the island wouldn't do any of the normal NPC stuff, and the only way to get those tasks accomplished would be to have the right background, or be forced to do without. So if you had an innkeeper in the party, you could convince people to let you pay them to sleep inside their buildings, but otherwise, you'd have to camp on the outskirts of every village you went to.

I relate this anecdote, because it connects to 5e's Background Features, and to the oft-repeated old-school lament that if you give one character the explicit ability to do something, you're implying that characters NEED the ability in order to do the thing. The go-to example is that giving thieves the ability to pick locks and do badass ambushes, you're implying that other characters can't do that. This doesn't have to be a lament though - remember my idea to deliberately award abilities to certain characters because I don't want others to have them. But with that in mind, if you're going to write a Background Feature that says a character can do something, then it should be clear how that task will go for characters without the Feature. And judged on that criteria, I think some of the 5e Features could be better written. There's a lot to criticize about the writing of feats in 3.5 and Pathfinder, but I will say this at least, if you take a feat that basically says "you punch real good" then there's also reminder text to make sure you know know what normal punches are like. With 5e's Background Features, it's not always clear.

To see what I mean, let's look at the sailor's Feature, "Ship's Passage." This ability lets you ride for free on any ship you want, but the DM has official permission to be a dick about it to put you through a brief nautical adventure en route to your destination. So what happens if there's no sailor in the party? My instinct is that what happens is that the characters pay to ride on a ship and ...still have the same brief nautical adventure? I'm not really sure though, which is why I wish the alternative were stated instead of just being implied. So let's tinker with this example a little more, and see that reveals anything interesting.

A second interpretation is that other characters have to pay cash to ride on ships, while sailor ride free but get sidetracked by adventure. Except honestly, that sounds worse than just settling your check. I can see that a player choosing the sailing background might mean that they're interested in sailing adventures, but what I just described feels less like giving them the adventure they want and more like penalizing them for picking that background by throwing extra obstacles in their path.

But solving that problem would require the text of the Feature to be different than it currently is. I want it to be something like this - most characters are landubbers, they have to choose between paying cash or getting taken for a spin on an obligatory nautical adventure, but if you're a sailor, then you my friend, you ride for free AND get to arrive on time. I'm a little bit nervous about suggesting an ability that basically says "use this ability to skip being forced to play D&D", but on the other hand, if EVERYTHING'S a hassle, then your highly-motivated, goal-oriented characters might never actually get anything done, because every time they take a step down the path, two new paving stones spring up between them and their goal. Maybe sometimes what you need is an ability that says "skip THIS hassle and move on to the hassle you're actually interested in." It's the same argument in favor of character skills. We can waste an hour of real time narratively describing searching a room in order to find nothing, or we can roll the dice to see that we found nothing, and get on with having a game-night where we visit more than two rooms of the dungeon before everyone has to go home. In one sense, a quest is nothing but a series of hassles that stand between the player characters and their goal, but if the solution to EVERY problem just creates more troubles that get in the way, then no one is ever getting to Solla-Sollew. You need some decisive solutions, or you just get infinite regress. You go on a quest hoping that you'll complete it, not that you'll just be led further and further afield forever. All of which goes to say, that maybe one possible use for Background Features IS to skip specific narrative hassles so you can just move on to the next part of the game.

Another possibility would be to use Features to award some kind of narrative boon. One type of narrative boon could be relationships with NPCs. So, play a noble, get a loyal servant; play an urchin, get a fellow-orphan who tags along on all your journeys. I suspect there's more opportunities for this sort of thing, although for now, gaining access to special NPC followers that you can't get any other way stands out as an appealing option. (Like the way that ex-law enforcement characters on tv shows always have "a buddy on the force" so they can call in a favor to pull a copy of the criminal record of anyone they want.) Whatever other benefit you offered, it would need to be something that money can't buy, or at least, it needs to be expensive enough that it wouldn't otherwise be available to low-level characters. So maybe the sailors OWNS a ship, or at least has more-or-less permanent, unlimited access to one for the purpose of adventure - whereas other characters CAN'T just pay cash to ride on a boat because it costs a king's ransom. They'd have to form a relationship with an NPC who could offer them passage as a favor, while the sailor skips that step. Because they already have that relationship, they can just waltz right up onto the boat. (Is THAT what the "Ship's Passage" feature is supposed to mean?)

In the 5e Dungeon Master's Guide, they hold up the sage's Feature, "Researcher," as an ideal to strive for. The feature doesn't allow the sage to know information, or give them a bonus on rolls to know things; instead it says that if they don't know the information, then they will know where to go to find out. So, according to the DMG, this is a Feature that provides an impetus to go on quests, by providing the players with goals to quest for. (Although again, I wonder about what's implied about how this goes for non-sage characters? Wouldn't they just go hire an NPC sage, who'll either tell them the information, or tell them where to go find it? Is that even actually more difficult? Is the ONLY hassle you're skipping the hassle of hiring one NPC who wants you to hire them?) I'm not sure many of the other Features accomplish the stated goal of providing adventure-seeds. I suppose if the noble owns a building that occasionally has problems you have to go fix, or if the acolyte's temple needs you to run errands for it from time to time, that might rise to the level of providing quest-fodder. But as I said before, I would want it to feel like you're rewarding each player for their choice of character background, and these ideas feel more like punishments. No one wants to take a week off from their Quest for the Holy Grail because Camelot needs you to mow the lawn again.

The Features I mentioned earlier, the ones that give you room and board somewhere, actually do meet my standard for removing hassles, even if the hassle they remove isn't one that seems super relevant to me personally. So far when I've played 5e, I've played it as episodic and mission-based. I haven't known or cared much about what my character got up to between sessions. If I'm already not imagining where she sleeps, or deducting lodging fees from her treasure count, then the chance to let her sleep somewhere for free isn't especially enticing. Just because it doesn't interest me, though, doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it. In fact, if that's the case, maybe it's good if all the Features are equally useless to the way I game. That probably just means they're all serving a function in someone else's play-style. However, it also means that I want to keep brainstorming to think of features that might all be equally use-FUL to me.

Some of these features may also be sneaking in more co-creation below the radar of my attention. The sailor, who as I mentioned, gets free passage on a boat. Well, what if it's a specific boat? It probably has a name, a little backstory, and an associated NPC or two. Those all need to be made up, presumably (if we follow the lead of how 5e asks us to make up other things) by the sailor's player and the DM working together collaboratively. The same goes for the acolyte and the entertainer, who get free room and board somewhere. My initial read on those was just that, in whatever village the characters end up in, the bard or acolyte will be able to get a free place to sleep for everyone. (That's more or less how it goes in season 3 of Robotech, where Yellow Dancer can put on a concert in every town her team passes through.) But maybe if the characters have a stable home base instead of being on the road, these Features should involve co-creating ONE temple or A theater that the characters have specific connections to.

In a way, some of these Features feel like they're a way to decide which specific take on a general activity will occur in the campaign. So for example, your characters are going to have to sleep somewhere, but drawing on the Background Features helps decide if you're being hosted at a temple, camping out in the dressing rooms of a theater, or what have you. It's not like if you DON'T have those backgrounds then you won't have anywhere to sleep, it's just that if you DO, then what could be a fairly generic activity becomes slightly personalized. I2TO does something like this too. In a Bastionland campaign, every adventuring party starts off owing a giant debt to somebody. But precisely WHO you owe all that money to depends on which character background you use to decide on the nature of the debt.

One final use for Backgrounds occurs to me, and that's as a limitation on disguises in any sort of intrigue game. In Person of Interest, the character of Finch is a computer programmer who becomes a billionaire. When he goes somewhere in disguise using a false identity, he can portray a tech worker or a rich man, BUT he can't formulate any plan that depends on him passing himself off as a tough guy. Reese is a former soldier who got trained as a tuxedo-wearing spy and assassin. Other military personnel recognize him as a veteran, hit-men instinctively know he's a killer, and and he wears a suit well enough to convince businessmen that he's only mercenary in a metaphorical sense, BUT no one would ever believe he was a social worker or a nurse. So maybe in a 5e game that involves disguises and spying, the players HAVE to come up with plans that rely on their characters pretending to be the same kind-of-person as their backgrounds, even for their fake identities. The sailor can pretend to be a cabin boy or an admiral, as the situation requires, but they won't fool anyone if they try claiming to be an entertainer. Their Backgrounds provide some scaffolding for the players' creativity in coming up with their cunning plans, and maybe lend a little continuity to the characters by ensuring that their successive fake identities all have SOMETHING in common. And like I just suggested, if you're playing an intrigue game, there ARE going to be disguises, of one sort or another. Drawing on the Backgrounds just helps to personalize that mandatory activity based on decisions the players have already made about what they want their characters to be like.

The thing that got me thinking about this is that if I'm able to run anything like the Nutcracker Princess campaign, then room and board is going to be provided to all characters as a matter of course. The hospitality of the local monarchs is NOT to be questioned. So any Feature that just says "you get free room and board" is de facto useless in that setting. And as I said before, I'm sort of okay with it if ALL the Features are equally useless, but I'd be even happier if I could think of replacement features that would be useful in that game.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

My Gift to You - The Old School Phoebe Meme

Alex Chalk from To Distant Lands managed to get me thinking about how Phoebe from the Magic School Bus cartoon always brought up her old school, and how things were different there.

Image by me. Image source.

This gave me the idea that there should be a meme where Phoebe talks about "old school" style roleplaying. Thus I present to you Old School Phoebe!

Image by me. Image source.

Mostly, I wanted something a bit lighthearted after a very heavy couple weeks. Feel free to make your own, but if I could make one request, it would be to keep them light. The image is from a kid's show, after all, and I really don't have the heart to look at any non-tongue-in-cheek defenses of "old school" style anymore. If you have an edition war to wage, find a different weapon.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Kyle Marquis's Dungeon I Want to Explore - The Sea of Vipers

Kyle Marquis is a game designers who tweets at @HexADay. His ongoing project is tweeting out hexmaps at a rate of, well, you can probably guess. Anyway, he's completely finished one so far - The Sea of Vipers. It looks pretty cool!
Sea of Vipers by Kyle Marquis
The general feel here is that particular gonzo blend of Stone Age meets Sorcery meets Saturday Morning Cartoons meets Super Science that I associate with the Anomalous Subsurface Environment or with Operation Unfathomable.

The world is ruled by a wizard called the Technogogic Implementer and administered by a bevy of vice-potentates, The Enthroned. Among the gods who rule this world are Ootoon, the Flowing One, the god/goddess of slime. Other NPCs and factions sound nearly as cool.

The individual entries are just as good, with that special blend of creative imagery, evocative names, and terse prose (imposed here by Twitter's character limit) that people love to see in their RPG writing.

I've picked out a handful that I enjoy, really just the first five that were too good to not write down. All these samples are from the left-hand side of that first island, because that's how quickly I got to five. I think Hex 0622 is my personal favorite so far. I really want to see those fish, kill that aboleth, and steal that treasure!

One thing you can't tell from this sample is that there seem to be a lot of interconnections between the hexes, as well as a lot of NPCs with agendas that the player characters could choose to become involved in. For example, one hex has a dragon searching for crystal shards from a half-dozen other hexes in order to assemble them into a weapon to go murder a wizard. If the players like that idea, they could easily spend a session or several tracking down the missing shards and pitching in to un-throne the potentate ... or they could just as easily try to defeat the dragon and earn the wizard's favor.

Hex 0416 "Werewoses. Cavemen bites shift your mind back to a prehistoric simian body when the moon rises, as your body runs amok in this time."

Hex 0622 "Beneath a long-dry riverbed: ancient aboleth mummy guarded by skeletal flying fish. In its treasure hoard: the TRILOBITE OF HOURS."

Hex 0723 "Rock troll vampire that couldn't reach its lair before dawn. It simultaneously burns and petrifies, forever, but can say 1 word/day."

Hex 0728 "Unicorn graveyard. Magically hidden until recently; anyone finding and speaking of it will trigger a horrible magic-horn gold rush."

Hex 1007 "Coast patrolled by mermaid pirates in upside-down catamarans. The captain has a lobster on her shoulder that says 'Yar!' "

Anyway, if that interests you, check it out on Kyle Marquis' website.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Laughing Panjandrum's ASCII Dungeons I Want to Explore - The Imminent Church Engine

I have no idea who Imminent Church Engine is, and I can't remember how I initially found a link to their website, but I'm glad I saved a copy. They've created two quite-beautiful dungeon maps using only colorful ASCII text characters, and I'm hopeful that they'll eventually create more.

Church of the Ailing Flower by Imminent Church Engine

Tomb of King Oraine by Imminent Church Engine

The first is the Church of the Ailing Flower. I think it may technically be the larger of the two, though that's in part because of the large exterior space. In all, there's fewer rooms and less going on in here. The small square rooms on the right-hand side are also meant to be stocked using a small random table during play.

The second in the Tomb of King Oraine (also called the Tomb of Cursed Glass on that index page I linked to.) This one has more rooms, more interesting paths and loops, and more going on. There's more treasure and a few different factions for the player characters to interact with. Personally, I also find this one prettier. There's more contrast, and even areas with a lot of similar-colored tiles have a bit of variation that breaks the possible monotone up nicely. The pink numbers also look good against all those cool colors. I think the only way I could like it more would be if the background were dark blue instead of black. I definitely feel an urge to try copying this visual style.

I would categorize both these adventures as "horror," since both involve exploring a creepy abandoned space, piecing together clues about what awful thing happened here in the past, and then potentially fighting a single large and extremely dangerous monster at the climax. Which isn't to say there aren't a number of small monsters in each dungeon, but the "boss" of each area is much more dangerous than anything else in the place. (Although by this argument, Mega Man is also a horror game, so my definition might be flawed.)

The writing here is pretty terse, but manages to pack in a lot of visual detail, and in both cases, the dungeons are fairly tightly themed. The Church has a lot of floral and, well, church imagery, while the Tomb is full of machines and glass. Here's an example that really highlights the visual imagery of the writing, from the entryway to the Tomb:

"1 Entrance - Tomb door is shut but unlocked, overgrown with vines. Hall also overgrown with lichen and flowers. Sunlight shines through cracks in the ceiling."

The monsters and treasures are all unique here. The monsters are written up in a way that's rules-light and is basically universally compatible. You get the number of hit dice, how they attack, and how they defend themselves. A couple monsters have special considerations, like the fact that if a Creeping Thing kills someone, it'll "begin to ravenously devour the victim, ignoring all else." Again, the writing here is brief, but I think gives you enough to work with so you're not grasping at straws. The treasure is similar, brief descriptions of the objects, followed by a price, denominated in silver.

There's something so fascinating seeing something like these two dungeons. The art is an aesthetic I've seen before, but not often, and not recently, outside of roguelike video-gaming. There's a spark of vital creativity, yet the text also has the hallmarks of someone who's well familiar with the evaluative standards that Bryce Lynch of Ten Foot Pole, for example, applies to adventure writing. But who is the author, what are their views, have they used these at the table, do they have a blog? Who knows. Instead they just sit there, deprived of context, not even a diamond in the rough - a diamond in the void.

Be sure to check Imminent Church Engine's page again in the future to see if they post any more of these images.

Update: After posting this, Laughing Panjandrum, the creator of these images, reached out to me and shared their blog link. You can find them at Imminent Demon Engine, where they're currently writing about a Dark Sun -esque setting!

Sunday, February 17, 2019

My Suggestion for a Community Response to the Abuser in the RPG Scene

On February 10th, Mandy Morbid spoke out publicly about how her ex-boyfriend abused her, and how he tried to manipulate her into helping him abuse other women. Her statement was immediately supported by two other women, Jennifer and Hannah, and on February 12th, Vivka Grey spoke out publicly as well. I believe these women. I think their bravery in speaking up to help protect others from being abused by this man in the future is nothing short of heroic.

The man who abused them is Zak Smith, one of the most prominent figures in the online RPG scene.

Very quickly, people who had once been Zak Smith's close friends spoke out to say that they knew him well, knew Mandy Morbid well, and although they hadn't seen the abuse taking place, they believed her account of it. They also explained how he had emotionally abused the people who thought they were his friends, including themselves. You can read accounts from Patrick Stuart, Scrap Princess, Kenneth Hite, Kiel ChanierStacy Dellorfano, Jack McNamee, Ben L, Arnold K, Emmy AllenZedeck Siew, Geist, Luka Rejec, Jeff RussellLSkirin, Fiona Maeve Geist. It also took bravery for these people to speak up, to admit things they did because Zak Smith asked them to, and to confess to ways he hurt them that they might have preferred to keep private. That takes courage too, and I admire it.

Zak Smith fought online endlessly with people in the RPG scene. He hurt the people he fought with, and his fights hurt the entire community of RPG players. You can read accounts from Michael Prescott, Alex Schroeder, Alex Schroeder, Brian Harbon, Skerples. My own experiences were most similar to theirs. I hid from him, was afraid of him. I never linked to his blog, never talked about him in any way, not even to condemn him. I watched him hurt people I considered friends so badly that they left the scene. But I also sometimes still read his blog and his other public statements, still permitted his words to influence my opinions about the things he talked about. I still paid money to buy his books. My silence haunts me.

I debated with myself whether to write anything about this. I questioned whether I had anything to add. I still wonder if the potential good of making a statement can possibly outweigh the risk of backlash for making it. But I think one thing that has gone under-remarked so far is the way that the abuse Zak Smith inflicted in his personal life was inextricably connected to his public persona within the RPG scene. I think understanding that is important for understanding what can be done about him now. Everything I say below are conclusions I've drawn from reading the statements I linked to above.

In brief, Zak Smith used his relationships with the women he abused as a way gain status among RPG players. In turn, he used the money, the fame, and yes, the infamy he got from the RPG scene as tools to facilitate his abuse of the women he lived with.

Zak Smith used his relationship with Mandy Morbid and the other women he lived with to promote his blog and his persona as a cool and well-liked guy who already had the private approval of glamorous women. He used their occupations as sex workers as a kind of bait to attract attention and fame. His blog made the promise that if you read it, you could vicariously experience his cool and glamorous lifestyle, that if you bought his books, you could own a small piece of that lifestyle, and that if you befriended him online, you could be part of it. He borrowed and stole these women's grandeur and laundered it through his blog to establish himself as a leader within the RPG scene.

He used his blog and his social-media presence to attract people to him. He drew them in with flattery and praise. He asked them to socially isolate themselves online by interacting only with himself and the others he'd already drawn into his orbit. He asked them to intervene in his fights with outsiders on social media. These people considered themselves his friends, but in their own way, they were also victims of his emotional abuse.

He attempted to make them dependent on him, and to make them complicit in their own abuse. He attempted to make them feel guilty, by telling them, whenever they disagreed with him, that they were abusing him. He attempted to make them place his requests higher than the demands of their own consciences by asking them, in online fights with outsiders, to say and do things that violated their personal morality. And whenever any one of them disagreed with him too much, he declared them outsiders, and used the full weight of everything he knew about them, every secret they confided in him, every bit of guilt he had established in them, to try to destroy them emotionally, and then to persuade them to publicly declare that they deserved to be destroyed.

The people Zak Smith approached often had marginalized identities, and many were socially isolated online and off. Prejudice and social injustice and isolation hurt these people and made them vulnerable, and Zak Smith noticed, affirmed, and then exploited these vulnerabilities, just as any predatory animal is drawn to the scent of blood from an open wound. Mandy Morbid was marginalized by her chronic illness and her occupation, but Zak Smith targeting people like her didn't make him an ally of oppressed peoples or a friend to sex workers.

In turn, Zak Smith's online fame and notoriety fed back into his abuse of the women he lived with. The money, celebrity, and pool of supporters he attracted obviously gave him that many more tools to economically, emotionally, socially, medically, physically, and sexually abuse them. But his enemies were a tool as well. Getting into online fights appears to be the thing he enjoyed most in life, and he used these fights as a tool of control. When Zak Smith appeared to be hurt by an online fight, it led Mandy Morbid to feel sympathetic and protective toward him, it lent her the appearance of power, which he immediately asked her to relinquish to protect him. When the people Zak Smith fought with lashed out at Mandy Morbid, their attacks did hurt her - and while it's true that these attacks remain the fault of the people who committed them, it's also true that he sought out and cultivated conflicts that could rise to that level of hostility, and that he made full use of the hurt those attacks caused to increase her dependency on him for protection. He also directly exploited her name, her reputation, and their relationship in these online fights by writing a defense of himself and demanding that she claim authorship of it and post it on her own website. For countless of his supporters, the idea that he was a good provider and a loving caretaker to Mandy Morbid underwrote their ongoing acceptance of his behavior online.

Zak Smith sought to make the entirety of the RPG scene complicit in his abuse, by giving him attention, money, supporters, and enemies, all of which he used as tools of control. And we let him.

I obviously didn't know about Zak Smith's abuse of Mandy Morbid or the other women he lived with, but it turns out I didn't really understand his public persona either. In one way, I knew that he was a bully who got into online fights, recruited his friends to fight on his behalf, and who was inexhaustible, so that anyone who fought him gave up first. But in another way, I didn't understand him at all. I believed his self-presentation as a smart man with big ideas about art and games, even if I found the way he argued in favor of those big ideas to be abhorrent. I sometimes admired his eloquence, and appreciated when he spoke favorably about something I also enjoyed.

But based on what his former friends have said, I think I was wrong. I think Zak Smith only ever had one idea - and that idea was that Zak Smith is perfect, and other things are good and true to the extent that they resemble Zak Smith, and are false and wrong and evil to the extent that they are different from or displeasing to him.

Based on what his former friends are said, I think you have to presumptively assume that every word he ever said was a lie.

I think all his alleged opinions were just sophistry, pleasant sounding falsehoods masquerading as reasons or causes that he made up to disguise his actual motivation - to praise himself by praising things that reminded him of himself. He said a lot of smart-sounding things about why some RPGs were good, but I think those were post-hoc justifications meant to paper over decisions made purely on the basis of self-interest. I think his only aesthetic theory was that his own art was best.

He said a lot of things that sounded high-minded and morally-righteous against games he disliked and the people who made those games, but I don't think he disliked them because they were wrong, I think they were wrong, in his eyes, because he disliked them, possibly just because they were too different from him for him to praise himself by praising them. And I think his moral theory extended no further than to believe that anything that displeased him was a lie, was ugly, was incorrect, was not merely wrong but actually immoral, that anything and anyone he disliked must be evil. He made so many accusations against others because it followed logically from his first and only axiom that anyone he disliked was guilty of something, even if not the sin he tried framing them for.

He was famously a man who would tell you that you're lying if you quoted his own words back to him. He would say that it was because in quoting him, you were imputing meaning to his words that he didn't intend. But really, it was because anything you said that he disagreed with must be false, and anything he says in response must be true. All his theories and ideas, all his online fights, appeared to be about art or games, but in his eyes they were really only about the issue of his own superiority. If that sounds insane, that's because it is. It's narcissism so severe it verges on solipsism, on believing yourself to be the only real person in the world, and seeing everyone else as akin to animals, or toys, or just things. It's only a step or so removed from declaring yourself to be god.

And as I said before, he tried to make the whole of the RPG scene complicit, by getting us to accept his judgments, to agree with his aesthetics, to believe the false reasons he gave to hide the true basis for his beliefs, to accept his pronouncements of morality.

So what can be done?

There are four theories about the punishment, about the purpose it serves, about the goals is can accomplish. The oldest is retribution, that punishment should harm those who have harmed others. Rehabilitation says that punishment is intended to give the guilty party an opportunity to reform themselves and become better. Deterrence is the idea that we punish one person with the goal of clarifying a moral boundary so that others are forewarned not to cross it. And then there's incapacitation, the idea that you punish someone so that, at least for as long as they're being punished, they can't hurt anyone else.

I know people worry about the justice of attempts to punish people on the internet. But the RPG scene exists at least partially online, and though he hurt Mandy Morbid worse, Zak Smith also hurt the online community of RPG fans. I'm not recommending retribution. I don't think rehabilitation is within our power. I don't know what deterrence would mean here. Drawing a collective moral red-line against abuse might be an important statement of community values, but I doubt that the threat of expulsion from online roleplaying will truly deter any would-be abusers.

But incapacitation interests me, because I think it might just be possible. I think the RPG scene collectively has the power to incapacitate Zak Smith, at least to a limited degree. We may not be able to prevent him from doing harm in the future, but we can reduce his capacity for it. Do not give him money. Do not give him attention. Do not give him a forum to talk in or an audience to listen to him speak. Don't be his friend. Don't be his enemy. Don't try to hurt him. Don't fight with him. Don't stalk, threaten, or harass him. Don't talk with him at all. He is happy enough to have infamy and opponents to fight, and he has proved that he knows how to use those fights to do harm. Let him be ignored. Let him be alone. Deny him the money and materiel and munitions and supporters and foes he needs to make war.

Don't buy his books. Don't visit his website. Don't play his games. Don't listen to his explanations. Don't quote his ideas to me. Don't tell me you still think he was right about this, or that his enemies were wrong about that. I don't want to hear it. I'm sure some of the people he accused of misdeeds actually are guilty - for example the people who used their online fight with him as an excuse to heap further injury onto the women he lived with - but I no longer believe it's possible to think a person is guilty just because Zak Smith said so. If he praised something you liked, find a new reason to praise it. If he criticized something you disliked, find a true reason to criticize it. And in both cases ask yourself if you really liked or disliked them, or if you just let Zak Smith convince you you did. Incapacitate him. Block him, ban him, mute him, ignore him. Take away the tools he used to hurt us. You can't stop him from hurting anyone else in his personal life - Mandy Morbid has done more to protect other women from him than anyone in the online RPG scene ever possibly could - but you can refuse to be complicit in supporting him any longer.

If you've done something wrong, notice that you did it and acknowledge it. Stop doing it now and figure out how to stop yourself from doing it again in the future. Find a way to make amends. An actual "I'm sorry" apology is one way to acknowledge, one possible step in making amends, but it might not be necessary, might even be counterproductive. Don't just do what might make you feel better about yourself. Do something that might genuinely help someone you hurt, or might help others who have been hurt in the same way by someone else.

This is the first time I have posted about Zak Smith on my blog, and I hope it will be the only time. Let this be the end of him.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

My Fifth Edition Fantasies

I'd eventually like to try running a D&D 5e game, although in the mean time, I'm somewhat torn about what campaign I'd like to use 5e for. I have three main campaign ideas, so I'm going to write about each one to help me think about them.

Another time, I'll try to set out exactly what kind of game I think the 5e rules are really good for. For now, suffice it to say that I think 5e characters are most interesting when they're pursuing either personal quests or faction missions, and that the best combats in 5e are "boss fights" with powerful enemies whose defeat is directly related to the characters accomplishing their goals.

Option 1 - The Nutcracker Princess Campaign

In this campaign, the player characters are human children from our world, on the cusp of young-adulthood, who are swept away to a frozen wonderland, where they're the only ones who can broker the peace between once-allied, now-distant kingdoms that face the threat of an invading conqueror. (You know, now that I write that out, this sounds a lot like the plot of the new She-Ra show. That wasn't intentional, I'm okay with it. It might be better, actually, than the campaign would be without that second touchstone.) 

Like human children in Narnia or, well, "The Nutcracker," the player characters are basically considered foreign royalty. Their initial contact is probably with the Mouse-Elf Queen or the Nutcracker King, both of whom want to build a new alliance among the old kingdoms, raise an army of Toy Soldiers, and repel the advances of the Rat King and his terrible army.

The neighboring kingdoms should be familiar to Tchaikovsky fans, the Sugarplum Faeries, Swan Princesses, various lands of candy and pastry. The players missions would likely be to serve as emissaries to the old kingdoms, participating in courtly intrigue, solving problems to win allies, recovering lost regiments of Toy Soldiers, defeating incursions by the Rat King's armies, building a coalition to drive them back to their own distant shore.

Picture everyone in Regency Era and Napoleonic fashion, picture lots of anthropomorphic foodstuffs and objects like in Adventure Time or Beauty & the Beast, imagine navigating strict rules for manners and decorum to arrive at fleeting moments of emotional honesty, imagine lots of ballet dancing, and listen to music tracks on quiet repeat to set the ambiance for each area the players enter.

(If I ran this as something other than 5e, I2TO is tempting for its mass combat rules and its novice-friendly simplicity, while Numenera might make it relatively easy for every princess to have a unique superpower.)

Human children become royalty and recruit Toy Soldiers
image from The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Royal court in the Flower Kingdom
image from Ballet West and photographer Luke Isley

Lots of princesses
image from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

Lots and lots and lots of princesses
image from Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet

Option 2 - The Vaults of Azurth

If good artists borrow and great artists steal, then surely the greatest artists of all copy two different things and mash them up. In this campaign, the idea would be to remix Trey Causey's Land of Azurth and Jeff Reints' Vaults of Vyzor. (When you consider that Azurth is Trey's own fanciful take on Oz, and Vyzor is a tribute to the funhouse dungeon's of yore, it's clear that there are also several more layers of borrowing going on here. That also means that I could mix in new ideas based on the same original sources that inspired Trey and Jeff.)

Above ground, the Azurth's World's Fair 189Z is starting to be assembled. Each of the realms of Azurth is converting an abandoned building fairgrounds into an exhibition space, and the fairgrounds are starting to fill with vendors of all stripes. Below ground ... well, who know's what's down there? An adventurer who's brave and resourceful could find out, and potentially earn the favor of the World Emperor in the invitation-only Azure-Windowed Palace at the center of the fair, or catch the attention of one of the fair's other patrons, such as The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes or Princess In Another Castle.

Trey's Azurth has four lands with different themes - boy's-own-adventure in Sang, girl's-own-adventure in Virid, fairy tales in Nox, and tall tales in Yanth, plus Sapphire City, which I don't know much about. Jeff's Vyzor had color-coded underground vaults with exciting random cultural exhibitions happening on the surface. The vaults were tricky to navigate, but also full of set-piece attractions that made finding the way through worth it. The vaults were also interconnected by secret doors, and finding those interconnections was a goal in itself, and that connectivity is definitely something I'd want to imitate.

(If I ran this one as something other than 5e, the campaign might benefit from the gozo character concepts that are possible in DCC, or GLOG, or why not, even Pathfinder.)

Azurth adventuring party by Steve LeCuilliard

Azurth monsters by Jeff Call

Player's map of Vyzor by Jeff Reints

Judge's map of Vyzor by Jeff Reints

Option 3 - Alchemical Planetary Romance

I'll admit, I've had the seed of this idea ever since reading Dungeon of Sign's review of Twilight Calling. A ring of planets orbits a central castle. Each planet is mis-ruled by a dinosaur tyrant; if the tyrant can be defeated (or persuaded to abdicate, by providing them with their heart's desire) then the planet will be freed, and the revolutionaries will be awarded a prize. With the rewards from all 7 planets - Venus, Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Sun, and Mercury - the player characters can finally enter the last castle and confront (or join!) the court of the dinosaur overlords.

The villagers on each planet have a problem caused by the tyrant, and removing the tyrant solves the problem and transforms the landscape, as in Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. Each planet probably has only a couple villages, a handful of adventure sites, plus a lieutenant's fortress and the tyrant's castle, just as in Mario 3. Each tyrant also has some influence on the other worlds, so the next world in the sequence becomes safer after the previous tyrant is overthrown, like in Mega Man X. The shops in each village start out fairly bare, but trade flows between freed cities, making more cool stuff available to purchase. Each planet is also defined by alchemical correspondences between metal, color, and astrology.

So Venus, for example, is the Green Planet, the Copper Star; it is an over-tended garden, stifled and choked, but if its Brontosaurus Empress is removed, the jungle will will run riot over the land. Mars is the Red Planet, the Iron Star. It's a barren desert with only a few dry canals running through it. If the Icthyosaurus Lich is defeated, the ice caps melt and the desert becomes the seafloor once again and all the tower-cities are revealed to be islands.

In Mystic Quest, the first boss is a Tyrannosaurus skeleton,
and when you beat him, the dying forest you started the game in suddenly turns green. 
I like the juxtaposition of pixel art and concept art.
My all-time favorite concept art is artist Yoshitaka Amano's designs for Final Fantasy VI.
My vision of each planet's surface is a pointcrawl that resembles Mario 3.
Defeating the tyrants transforms each planet and removes hazards from neighboring worlds,
like in Mega Man X where defeating one boss makes another stage safer to navigate.

The problem with all these ideas is that they probably take too much preparatory work to set up. The Nutcracker Princess Campaign probably needs the least, just enough of an idea about what each kingdom and court is like, and a better concept on my part of what actually happens during a game session in this campaign. The Vaults of Azurth would be next; it would take quite a bit of map drawing to get started, and at least the start of the random tables that would populate the exhibition spaces and vendor stalls.

The Alchemical Planetary Romance would be a real labor of love. Doing it right would mean having adventuring sites and dungeons at least one of the planets, a notion of what the tyrant wants that would persuade them to abdicate rather being forced to fight to overthrow them, and plans for the interconnections between planets. Really, that's one that if I could ever do it right, I'd want to be sure to put it into a book, or perhaps a boxed set with cardboard playing mats to represent the planets and the villages and the castles. It would need art, and lots of it, images of each planet before and after it transformed, 16-bit pixel art and hand-drawn "concept art" to depict each world and monster and boss. It's such an oversized idea that it's absurd even to consider it, and yet I hope it's something I could have the time and resources to put together someday.

In the meantime, the Nutcracker Princess Campaign would probably benefit from a consistent player base, while the Vaults of Azurth would likely be the most fun in an open-table setting where different groups of players could compete to find the coolest stuff. It'd be fun to do something set in space, even if my current inspiration is a non-starter. Writing this was helpful, because it lets me see some commonalities across my current ideas. However, if these three are my only ideas for 5e gaming, then I might need to go back to the drawing board...

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Nasjonalmuseet's Treasures I Want to Steal - Arkitekturstriper Tote Bag

I really want this bag.

Design by Bielke & Yang

I can't have it, because I wasn't in Oslo between October 2015 and February 2016, and so I didn't go to the Norwegian National Museum of Architecture, or have the opportunity to pick one up at the museum store.

So I can't have it.

Design by Bielke & Yang

But I want it.

I really want it.