Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Curious Thought About Old vs. New School RPGs, and Player's Attitudes Towards Their Characters

Something about working late hours gets me philosophical, and I feel compelled to take that out on the rest of the web. (Or at least the few sturdy souls who read my blog, and all those search bots who are my loyal followers as well.)

Probably this is an epiphany only to me, but I think I finally get what the disconnect between Old School and New School gamers is with respect to their characters. I'm going to stick with D&D and Traveller as two examples of both Old School and New School games in their various editions. Plus, they're the games I'm most familiar with.

In an "Old School Game", your characters are very random. In both D&D and Traveller, players are admonished by the rules to "make do" with their characters, and only in truly hopeless cases do they get to roll up another before at least trying to play that character. (Traveller famously advises enrolling undesirable characters in the Scouts, because that is the service they're least likely to survive chargen in.)

In more "New School" games like D&D 3e and Mongoose Traveller, (and to a much greater extent games like GURPS or FateCore) you are encouraged to dream up a character concept and then "build" towards that concept through a combination of random and deterministic elements.

So where's the big revelation, you ask?

Well, it's this - in OSG, players are "dealt" characters, but in NSG, players create characters.

The difference has a profound effect on how players approach their games. "Dealt" characters are almost "pawns" or "hands" (as in poker) that give the player capabilities to use during the game, and some characteristics to aid in role playing (OSGs are still RPGs, after all). "Created" characters are drawn directly from the player's desires, and thus more closely represent the players' own alter-egoes.

In my case, I've generally viewed characters as being "dealt" - the challenge of dreaming up a way to play the stats and to employ the powers in a useful way is fun to me. Of course I also come to identify with my characters, since it's not really possible to play a role that does not contain your own personality to varying degrees. But a character's death isn't really any more disappointing to me than the death of a character in a TV show or book that I like.

Which I suppose puts me firmly in the OSG camp, though I think I enjoy the more elegant rule systems that the NSG camp generally has.

I can sympathize with those who view characters as a form of wish-fulfillment though, and given the preponderance of more NSG style games, it seems most people identify with their characters more than a little bit.

Friday, August 9, 2013

What Does Lovecraftian Gaming REALLY Mean?

I've been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and his peers since I first discovered weird fiction and cosmic horror back in High School. I read everything I could get my hands on - Machen, Chambers, Bloch, etc. The Chaosium fiction collections came out in my early adulthood, and I found (and still find) them a great source for stories I hadn't read before. (Aside: I had to stop reading "A Season in Carcosa" recently, because even though the stories seem innocuous enough, I found them seeping into my dreams. I'll read more once the creeping dread fades.)

But I have never had a lot of interest in "Lovecraftian" gaming. You know, lots of deep ones going after people, ghouls, big, floppy tentacled monsters, etc. Essentially, the "August Derleth" version of Lovecraft - name dropping and cataloging, but adding anything new.

While I enjoy a good historical wargame as much as the next guy, it seems to me that the general approach to Lovecraftian horror is more like quoting Monty Python skits than writing weird fiction. As a geek, I memorized plenty of M.P. in my youth, but laughing about their comedy is not the same thing as creating "Pythonesque" comedy for people to laugh at.

So, how then does one do something "Lovecraftian" without resorting to name dropping (or re-skinning)? It's a tough question, and I don't claim that I have the skill to produce such a thing. But perhaps I can categorize what it might look like.

What made Lovecraft's stories compelling to me was the way he took things that we all take for granted (or at least took for granted back in the dawn of the last century) and turned them inside out. Jesus' resurrection and plan of salvation, horribly echoed in Cthulhu's return and subsequent scouring of the Earth (recall that HLP was raised Baptist, though he renounced that faith), the fear of finding out that your ancestors were not what you were lead to believe and that you can't choose your own fate, the shock of discovering that maybe a brilliant artist is not as imaginative as everyone believes. The list goes on.

So how do you do something like that in Pathfinder/D&D or Traveller, specifically without invoking Elder Gods and Non-euclidean dimensions?

I'm not sure, but here are some thoughts.


Traveller's Third Imperium (The 3I) is in theory the easiest type of setting to convert to horror, since it rests in the conventions of the real world. However, it already has some "Elder Gods" (The Ancients - not godlike in stature, but certainly in power), hidden secrets (like who the Ancients were - spoiler alert from the 1980's: they were a mutation of a reclusive alien species found in enclaves throughout charted space), strange madness inducing phenomena (some people go mad seeing jumpspace) and hints that there was something more going on with how interstellar travel worked than anyone really knew.

These elements were not blatant expressed in the setting though. In fact, I suspect very few groups actually explored the darker side of the Traveller universe, preferring to focus on its decidedly humanistic and capitalistic themes. Mongoose Publishing's "Secrete of the Ancients" campaign did a good job of re-casting the Ancients as a living force within charted space, and had a nicely Lovecraft-y feel without invoking squid-headed super-beings. (Though there were some interesting ways that the Ancients achieved immortality.) But in the end, it was a Humanist's view of extradimensional horror seasoned with a dash of conspiracy theory, not something that contradicts your concepts of what reality is.

Clearly, something like Mass Effect's Reapers would work for Traveller, though they're more directly Cthuloid, not being "alive" as we know it, etc. But the Reapers are still re-skinned Elder Gods, returning when the stars are right to cleanse the galaxy for their own twisted reasons.

Where can we go in Traveller to reach the disturbing "We were SO WRONG ABOUT EVERYTHING" state required by cosmic horror?

Maybe psionic powers are really a mental connection with higher-dimensional beings from "jump space", who can cause the familiar psionic effects, but at a terrible if not obvious price to the psionic. And maybe these beings have a plan? Maybe that's too obvious - science is wrong, mystics are right seems like a cop-out.

Maybe the dawning realization that the entire Nobility structure of the 3rd Imperium is in fact composed of "Manchurian Candidate" type Bioconstructs. And maybe they have been deliberately directing technological progress for the last thousand years, relentlessly pushing for higher and higher power jump drives. And now, misjumps seem to be happening more frequently than in the past. Recently, a long-missing ship has appeared in the outer system with only minimal power signatures on board. A local professor wants to hire a ship to investigate....

Better, even if it's a little "God Emperor of Dune" crossed with the Star Trek:TNG episode "Conspiracy". It undermines with the understanding of how society works, if not the structure of the universe itself. That fits well with Traveller's humanistic focus, which might be a drawback to the concept.

I suppose you could imagine some setting in which punching ships through jump space is disturbing some sleeping entity (reverse-Azathoth?), but then we're back to re-skinning.


(Sorry, Pathfinder doesn't have an iconic title format like Traveller does, and the web doesn't have their font. But that's not a bad match for the color.)

Pathfinder is already rife with Lovecraft inspired nastiness, but none of it is truly creepy. (ok, maybe Aboleths....) Of course that's because once you catalog something, it's no longer surprising. Many write ups have great atmosphere when you first read them, or really stop to think about them though. But ultimately, it's just another kind of monster to defeat or flee from. Paizo does a good job with huge, world-shattering plots and clearly are fans of Lovecraft (almost too much so, I sometimes think), but I wonder if it would be possible to take a more subtle approach?

What does that cosmic horror even mean in a world with magic, demons, aberrant horrors and monsters? Can you add anything that would invoke actual horror for the players?

What we need is to take something simple and fundamental to the setting, and turn it inside out, changing the significance into something more horrible than you would expect. That's not as easy as it sounds, since countless authors before you have already pushed the envelope on this one.

To really up-end a D&D type fantasy setting, you would need to do something screwy like have the entire thing be happening inside The Matrix. That's right, not magic and gods, but a transhuman post-singularity setting, where reality was a simulation that could be hacked from the inside. The "twist" is that though reality appears infinitely diverse, full of life, magic and will, it is in fact only the shadow cast by cold data, interacting in complex but ultimately artificial ways. Fantasy lives because of the wonder and infinite potential of the fantastical realty. Showing all that to be merely an illusion would be soul-crushing to a denizen of such a reality.

But would that be cosmic horror for the players, or their characters? I imagine it would cause more than a few players to stop playing, though that's only a victory for horror in a meta sense....

As I mentioned at the start, I don't have any good answers. I'm curious if anyone reading has some ideas how to bring cosmic horror to RPGs without simply invoking Lovecraft's memory.