It’s Complicated, or is it Complex?

When you ask someone about their love life, and they say “it’s complicated”–

It’s not only that it’s difficult to explain. “It’s complicated” also has negative connotations, suggesting that things are tangled, confusing, or otherwise problematic.

I suspect we mean the same thing when we talk about the rules of a game or the plot of a media property. “Complicated” suggests the thing’s inscrutable, difficult to explain to someone who’s not already familiar.

When we want to say something similar to “complicated,” but with a more positive spin, we say that a work is “complex.” Complex suggests not so much that it’s incomprehensible or disorienting, but that it’s layered, rewarding close looks and thoughtful reading.

By way of examples, I find A Song of Ice and Fire complicated. There are countless little plot threads that spin up and wander around, to the point where it’s difficult to tell what the “main” story or characters are. Undertalefor all the simplicity of its systems and presentation, is complex; folks write deep, on point, thought-provoking essays unpacking its subtext all the time. Homestuck is complicated; even the recap posts necessary to keep its details straight from one chapter to the next are head-achingly impenetrable. A User’s Guide to the Apocalypse makes that complicated source material into something complex, dialing back the obsessive focus on crufty detail until it becomes a colorful garnish upon a rich, meaningful philosophical exploration.

If it’s not obvious, I don’t claim this is an objective distinction. Others find A Song of Ice and Fire to be comprehensible and enjoyable. I have no doubt that it’s possible to unpack real meaning from the reams of instant message conversations between humans and trolls in Homestuck, which I find superfluous and tiresome. Heck, User’s Guide wouldn’t exist if its author hadn’t connected with Homestuck itself on a profound level.

I am, however, going to tuck this into my vocabulary as a way to sum up the way I feel about something that’s, to grab for a neutral term in the same overall sphere, “not simple.” When I look at a cast of characters, or the moving parts of a game system, do the details complexify the work? Or just add complication?

Shattered Skies: Conceits and Tweaks

(This is the third in a series of posts about a hypothetical Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The concept kicked off here, and setting ideas for it fleshed out here.)

What rules changes, encounter guidelines, and social-contract expectations would I propose for a game in the “Time of Shattered Skies” setting?

Humans only. There are no elves, dwarves, tieflings, goliaths, etc. etc. All player characters use the Human statistics from the Player’s Handbook, including the feat-based option. From the other side of the table, there are no “monstrous humanoids” such as orcs, goblins, kobolds, etc. etc. Their stat blocks from the Monster Manual can still see play, but representing human opponents with different skill sets rather than varying species.

There are still nonhumanoid monsters. It’s hardly Dungeons & Dragons without dragons, now, is it? The aberrations associated with the starfalls represent the dominant “true monster” threat, but they may well prove to have discernible motives and needs by the end.

This supports the “jettison the genocidal bullshit” purpose. It also conveniently removes the impetus to choose a character species on the basis of its ability score synergy with a desired class, a nuisance that’s existed for most of D&D‘s history.

Collaborative setting creation… Mad Libs style. We don’t have elves and dwarves, but the myriad ranges of human diversity are still available to us. A place like Vadras, a civilization getting by in a dangerous world, accumulates people of different origins via expansion, trade, taking in refugees, and so on. Players help invent these cultures as they sketch out their character details.

“My people are from [place name], which is [a region within Vadras | a neighboring nation | a far-off place]. We are [rare | numerous] around here, and tend to be [physical feature(s)]. We are known for [cultural trait(s) and/or historical event(s)]. People also tend to think of us as [cultural trait], but that’s a stereotype. I feel I am more [personal trait] than most of my kin.”

Murder isn’t the only option. I’ve talked about bloody-minded kill-all-opponents encounters on this blog before, and my discomfort there has only deepened. I see players do things like have their victorious characters rove around a battlefield executing helpless wounded, and it turns my stomach. I promise, were I to run this campaign (or any other game, at this point), I will never screw you over for choosing not to kill. There may be logistical inconveniences in dealing with prisoners, that sort of thing, sure. But I won’t withhold experience points, or have spared enemies slit your throat in the night, or the like. Wherever possible, I’ll try to give incentives for mercy instead.

This axiom extends to the way I run encounters, too. People and magical beasts alike will try to disengage and flee when losing, rather than drag things out to the last hit point. If the player characters lose, enemies will accept surrender. They may celebrate routing you, but they’re not going to run you down and finish you off. It’s not “realistic,” I’m sure, but I don’t care. It’s a fantasy game. Use your imagination.

Torture doesn’t workI find it similarly distressing how often the supposedly heroic protagonists in RPGs turn to depraved interrogation techniques. I don’t want encouragement of prisoner-taking to become encouragement of war crimes. In this case even the realism objection doesn’t hold much weight; it’s a bad idea in real life too. Cuffing a sassy villain over the head to shut them up, OK. But getting out the knives or whips or whatever to get them to talk? I’m gonna veil the scene, inform you that your attempts to “break” the bad guy have failed and moreover brought additional consequences on your head (allies realizing you’re a monstrous fuck and wanting nothing more to do with you, for instance), and now let’s have an OOC conversation about why this shit is unacceptable at my table.

The above isn’t the only thing I’d kibosh if it came up, of course, but it’s most likely to be a new expectation for people.

Bonus experience via hybrid Chuubo’sShadow of Yesterday quests. Players can pick up extra eeps by taking actions laid out on quest cards. You’ll start play with a couple–something related to your alignment, and something expressing your character traits, perhaps–and can adopt more in play. The DM can suggest ones for you from those they’ve sketched out for the campaign’s themes, and you can propose your own related to storylines that catch your interest as they come up. There’s never any penalty for ignoring or abandoning a quest card, but if you dig in, they can speed up advancement, mitigating the need to constantly get in fights to level up. Examples, tuned for 1st-level characters:

Chaotic Good: You’re a rebel for righteousness, dedicated to making people’s lives better via disruptive action. Once per scene, you may earn 5 XP by doing one of the following:

  • Flaunting or breaking a law to help someone else
  • Lightening the mood with an in-character joke
  • Stepping away from the group to satisfy your conscience
  • Openly defying or exposing a corrupt institution

If you have a change of heart and become open to the value of law and structure, or turn your interests toward selfishness, you may change your alignment accordingly. Discard this quest and earn 25 XP.

Armiger’s Call: So you’re blessed with godsluck. What are you going to do with it? Once per scene, you may earn 5 XP by doing one of the following:

  • Boasting about your strength or your exploits
  • Wondering aloud why you received this gift
  • Spending time caring for your arms and armor
  • Training for or worrying about an armiger’s test
  • Conversing with another charmed hero about their adventures and plans

When you declare allegiance to a family or organization, earning and accepting their emblem; or swear before witnesses that you will walk the path of the warrior-vagrant, you complete this quest and earn 25 XP.

That’s it for now! I have at last exhausted my brainstorm, other than perhaps more quest card ideas. What do you think?

The Time of Shattered Skies

(Continued from the previous post, this entry paints the broad strokes of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting arising from my daydreaming there. Credit also goes to my wife for throwing the political conflict idea into the mix. More yet to come!)

In the land of Vadras, one need not be born into a landed family, join a monastery, or amass great wealth to rise to the middle tiers of society. Whether serf, scoundrel, nameless, or disinherited, you can rise from your lot if you demonstrate the peculiar quality called charmed life, godsluck, or heroism. Those with this gift can fall from great heights and emerge merely shaken, weather deadly poisons as easily as a bad meal, and shake off mortal wounds with a bandage and a night’s rest. Those who put this superhuman endurance to work with martial prowess are called armigers; those who channel arcane powers magi; and those who receive boons from Heaven when they pray are divines.

If you do two or more of those, or call forth forces of nature by no god’s leave, or achieve victory by artifice without ever drawing blade–

Well. It is not a perfect system. Perhaps in faraway Meroc they have names for these things.

These gifted individuals have shaped Vadran history for centuries. The houses of the aristocracy compete to gather charmed heroes to their flags. Those who prove their mettle, and swear to defend noble interests with it, earn titles, land, and power. Every highborn family has special heraldry and emblems to identify its heroes as armigers, magi, or divines, and boast their relative strengths. Many have died trying to earn those badges: both heroes who overestimate their skills, and common folk fooling themselves they have heroic skill in the first place.

Others refuse the lure of feudal power, content to remain folk heroes among the people who raised them. These are the warriors-vagrant, the hedge-magi, the mendicants-divine, unpredictable and proud. Their gifts come unannounced by badge or banner, and their sudden interventions have upset many a grand scheme.

It is a ripe time for ambition. The Vadran princess Nehamara prepares to ascend her mother’s throne, but her younger brother Esrech mounts a campaign to take her inheritance. As of now, it is a game of rumor and politics, the prince arraying voices to discredit her. But few doubt that he would shy from launching a coup, should the game drag on too long. Every charmed hero finds the question, “if it came to civil war, who would you support?”, coming up in conversation with uncomfortable frequency.

Meanwhile, the skies burn nightly with falling stars. Where they land within the borders of Vadras, fear takes root. People report sightings of horrific creatures. Fires burn without cease. Folk vanish from the fields, never to be found. If some supernatural force has begun an assault upon the land, it is a dangerous time for Vadras to be divided.

Here and now, a power stirs within you. How will you use it?

Superheroes in Dungeons

Dungeons & Dragons is the uncommonly spry grandparent of the hobby: old-fashioned, a little goofy, but fun to spend time with if you can put up with the odd bit of yesteryear nonsense. For all my love of impeccable, focused independent game designs, I still find myself rubbing elbows with the same six ability scores and crowing over rolls of 20 three games out of four. It’s not that it’s the only game in town, but everyone knows it so well that random samples come up full of it.

I haven’t yet run (“DMed,” c’mon, precision of language) the latest edition of the game, though. What might I do with it, had I the opportunity? Those who’ve played with me know I can’t help but author little deconstructions of the venerable property. Even as I praised Fourth Edition‘s bold focus on tactical board-game battles, I gleefully hacked it to reward players for inventing setting elements and plot twists. I’d be shy of trying to live up to the sprawling fun that hack produced, not least because of the spectacular way the game finally imploded, but I do daydream about the next great wrench to throw.

Jettison the genocidal bullshit. I have no patience anymore with stories of “evil races” needing to be put in their place by shiny colonial saviors. And D&Desque fantasy species in general–why do we still call them “races” in 2016, anyway?–range from trite through cringeworthy to entirely pointless. I find myself pulled in two directions: (a) run a game where the only sapient species are humans, ala the original Final Fantasy Tactics or the majority of Game of Thrones; or (b) run a gonzo-cosmopolitan setting like Planescape with the “give everyone personhood” principle from Dungeon World’s Planarch Codex. There are no monsters, only people who look different from you, trying to get by!

Superheroes in dungeons. Somebody I know tends to grump about how the current game isn’t lethal enough, what with people bouncing back from near death after just a night’s rest. I have no trouble with that, personally; it’s Dungeons & Dragons, not Cowards & Convalescents. But it does make me wonder about the setting implications of the player characters’ resilience. What if we acknowledged that there’s something kinda weird and awe-inspiring about how bloody hard it is to kill even a second-level wizard these days? I picture a D&D gone all X-Men, with governments trying to exert control via “hero registration” and a populace by turns afraid and worshipful. Under the right regime, I could see old-school elements like titles by level, and having to pass tests to attain them, making sense…

Chuubo’s Marvelous Dungeon-Crawling Posse. Alternate experience rewards are all but necessary if you want to hack D&D‘s play priorities. When the only way to advance in the game is by killing things and taking their stuff, by God, there will be a lot of killing things and taking their stuff. One of the cleverest things in Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine is the Quest advancement system. You pick out cards for your character that represent a part of their life: a project they’re undertaking, a problem they’re working through, a mystery they face. Each card has a list of key events and roleplay behaviors that, when you make them happen in pursuit of the quest, earn you points toward advancement. I think that could port nicely to D&D! Written well, they could turn arbitrarily restrictive “alignment” and easily forgotten “character traits” into something players would enjoy engaging with.

Add all three musings together, and you get… something. Stay tuned?

See What Sticks

I praise the Flag Framing approach to GM prep from Deeper in the Game every chance I get. It works! Some of the best game sessions I’ve been part of have owed their oomph to those techniques.

Unfortunately, I don’t always manage to pull it off. Sometimes the game doesn’t provide good flags and I’m short on time to do detective work. Sometimes the players’ interests are more scenery-chewing things they want to gawk at in the setting than flags I can challenge them on. Sometimes I look at legit flags and draw a complete blank on how I can stress or foreground them.

In these situations, it helps to have a fallback strategy. Something that’s maybe not the ideal solution, but which can fill in the gaps if you’re failing too hard that day to be optimal.

My fallback lately: throw it out there, see what sticks. Instead of prepping NPCs designed to push players’ and player characters’ buttons, have a grab bag of characters and situations that you draw from when you need a fresh scene–and discard if they prove not to catch players’ attention. All the advice about maintaining energy and pacing from “Flag Framing” applies. We simply replace the up-front flag querying and planning part with a process of experimentation.

You start a scene. You introduce a character from your list. She’s got eyes of night and falling stars, and she’s talking about turning people into clockwork mecha! Weird! Are the players intrigued? Reveal a plot seed you’ve got. The deviant scientist trying to reanimate the dead? Starry Night’s heard a rumor about it and is planning to investigate! Is it something the players feel like getting into? If not, move on to something new!

The players will ignore some things. They’ll find some NPCs annoying or uninteresting. Never bring those up again! But far more often, they will find certain NPCs fascinating, or cook up some theory about the way NPC A relates to plot hook or rumor B. Riff on those! Jot little notes about what made your players’ eyes light up, and use those notes as the basis for your second session. As you go, you’ll start spending more time reincorporating than spitballing, playing your NPCs just like advised in Flag Framing. It’s whenever you’ve got a void of energy or inspiration that you look to your bag of hooks.

This approach works particularly well with games that

  • feature lots of unique off-the-shelf NPCs and story seeds; and
  • don’t require meticulous balancing of challenge levels or encounters.

I’m currently doing this with Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. I could see using it with the third edition of Exalted. Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons would work, if you’ve got one of the better setting books from any edition (Planescape?) involved. Dungeon World… you might want something like The Perilous Wilds to help you generate on-the-fly hazards, but the random NPC tables are often intriguing enough to use in this style until you can build a proper Front.

Note that I’m not even considering the old illusions-and-railroads method of plotting stories out, trailing breadcrumbs for the PCs to follow, and yanking them along if they don’t catch on. That just sucks. Never go there.

Is this something you do? Do you have a way to make a Flag Framing approach work even when the material at hand isn’t clicking for it? Let me have it in the comments!

The User’s Guide

While browsing about for Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine resources, I happened upon A User’s Guide to the Apocalypse, a fan supplement of uncommon size and depth.

It is extraordinary.

I haven’t finished reading the thing, but even from partial experience, the layers of meaning in the project boggle the mind. User’s Guide* can, to scratch the surface, be read as:

  • A playable alternative campaign setting for Chuubo’s
  • A reflection on life and relationships while dealing with abuse or the lingering trauma thereof
  • A love letter to/eulogy for a now unraveled online community
  • A codex of or guide to Replay Value, a Homestuck alternate universe
  • Speculative fiction of the cautionary tale variety, exploring the potentially disastrous nexus of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and gamification
  • An existentialist parable, grappling with the search for meaning in a universe where, given sufficient time, all things are futile
  • A deconstruction of video game tropes, particularly those belonging to the MMORPG genre
  • An examination of digital addictions to games and discussion fora
  • A sociological commentary on the communities that come and go across the Internet

The author herself lays out the first few I listed; the rest unfold in emergent fashion from the work. It’s the kind of thing that makes me wish I still had a foot in the educational sphere, to teach this text or write a thesis on it!

Prior to discovering User’s Guide, I hadn’t quite understood alternate universe fandoms, or AUs. The idea of an alternate universe for a fictional setting was straightforward enough, but e.g. Undertale with its Underfell, Reapertale, Flowertale, etc., etc., each with their own fan art and other assorted media, mystified me. User’s Guide, though, made it click. When a fandom grows large enough, like-minded individuals within it gather into sub-fandoms, and one way such a group can coalesce is around a particular AU. The AU itself—whether via the ongoing efforts of a central author, or the roleplay and works of its fandom, or both—takes on a life of its own. It brings back a sense of belonging to those longtime fans of the parent work who feel crowded out by its becoming too popular or mainstream. And it revitalizes fannish activity when the depths of the parent canon might otherwise seem tapped out.

Now I’m in the curious position of becoming a fan of a specific AU’s commemorative project, without any familiarity in the parent work. I know Chuubo’s, of course, but I’ve never made it further than a couple of pages into Homestuck. I’ll take a look again, but it may be that’s how it stays! If that’s how it goes, all the more credit to User’s Guide author Elaine “OJ” Wang for managing to so mesmerize someone who doesn’t even get Homestuck.


* The author tends to refer to the work as “RV Chuubo’s,” but I find that a bit cumbersome for casual use. Not least because it suggests a Chuubo’s campaign involving road trips with really bad gas mileage.

We Got Undertold

Following close on the heels of Steven UniverseToby Fox’s Undertale snared the part of my brain given to fannish obsession. Not surprisingly, bloggable thoughts followed! While I don’t intend to discuss any of the game’s specific plot points, I will talk about its themes and structures in some depth. So if you’re a deep purist for experiencing media “blind,” I suggest you go play the game first!

Undertale comments on video game violence via a focus on the player’s decisions to kill or spare the characters they face in fight scenes. The game only ends in an unmitigated success for the protagonist if they refrained from killing anyone for the duration. What’s more, the ending obtained by killing everything in sight has repercussions that sour even future playthroughs, no-kill or otherwise. The more violent the protagonist, the clearer it becomes that they are the villain, not the hero, of the piece; the other characters react with believable shock, grief, and anger to the deaths the main character causes. In other words, though the NPCs are “monsters,” Undertale declares that they are people, and holds unflinchingly to that assertion.

After playing through the game once, I read through a lengthy discussion thread about it, and noted with interest the criticisms of those who didn’t share in its nearly universal praise. Setting aside dislikes of a merely aesthetic nature, some of the more thought-provoking objections included (deeply paraphrased):

  • The game is too emotionally manipulative, trying to force the player to feel a certain way
  • If its goal was to demonstrate it’s possible to make a nonviolent video game RPG, it shouldn’t have included violent options at all
  • The implication that there’s something messed up about RPGs that reward you for massive killing is an insult to those games and the people who enjoy them1
  • The ethos depicted is too black-and-white; they should have included more situations where it was justified to fight back or kill

Others in the thread pointed out how most of these complaints miss the point of the game. If it’d been made in such a way as to satisfy those critiques, it would lack most of its uniqueness and artistic worth. What interests me, though, is the common ground upon which all those criticisms rest: people are deeply averse to being confronted with the idea that their choices of entertainment, or their choices within that entertainment, might bear an ugly moral character.

On its face, why shouldn’t people resist that? The implication that violent video gaming is something perverse sounds like the cultural warfare of Tipper Gore and Jack Thompson. From a justice- or consequence-based moral framework, choosing to “kill” a video game character is a morally neutral act: some non-sapient bits and bytes get reconfigured from one basically indistinguishable state to another.

But sometimes, the interesting part isn’t the moral calculus of the act itself. Rather, the decision raises the question, “What does this say about me?” What kind of person does this sort of thing?

Undertale employs every possible device to try to get us to ask that question of ourselves, playing to our empathy with means nothing short of brilliant. Our tendency to anthropomorphize unthinking, unfeeling entities like video game characters is a curious side effect of human compassion, but it provides a safe barometer for someone’s habits of mind (virtues, if you will) in consideration for others. The range of Undertale characters’ visible emotions, the depth of their characterization, and the complexity of their reactions to events in their world make it very easy to think of them as people rather than blocks of code.

I’m no psychologist, but knowing what I do about habit formation, aren’t all these things practice of sorts for the real world? As children, we ascribe thoughts and feelings and motivations to our cherished toys. When they’re lost or damaged, the ensuing heartache is a mix of “poor me, I have lost a thing I liked” and “poor Teddy, how he must suffer!” As our minds mature, those attitudes move outward from the the playroom microcosm to the broader circles of our family, friends, and the world. Our degree of success in that transition translates into adult life as a compassionate person or a detached and uncaring one, and everything in between.

So if we accept the phenomenon with an open heart, carefully avoiding any violence against the emotive blobs of pixels in front of us, that says something about our character. Likewise, if we pack those warm feelings away, maintaining emotional distance and the conviction that these digital entities aren’t real, so that we can freely indulge in their wholesale slaughter–that says something, too. And Undertale makes sure we know as much: it periodically breaks the fourth wall to address the player with exactly that challenge.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying everyone who plays the genocidal-maniac route in Undertale is a sociopath.2 Nor am I saying that doing so, or playing a bunch of other games featuring similar mass murder, makes someone into a sociopath. Heck, I don’t even think Fox would venture one of those theses. The game richly rewards you with exclusive gameplay, writing, and music on the murder path even as it deconstructs your actions, which would be a strange design decision if utter disapproval were the point. What the game does do, however, is force us to take a hard look at our emotional skill set. Those synaptic paths that help us shut down our empathy for digital characters also enable us to do the same for real people. “It’s just a game” and “I want to see all the content,” in another context, become “I don’t care what they think” and “It’s cold, but this is best for both of us.” That’s an important skill to have, but how readily do we reach for it, when a response with more heart might still be possible and praiseworthy?

That kind of introspection can make a body squirm, and I suspect that discomfort drives some of the missing-the-point critiques aforementioned. It’s the same well of resistance that powers backlash against cultural commentary like Feminist Frequency, and that leads white people to think being called “racist” is somehow worse than racism itself. But self-examination is not an enemy. The best works of art get us to take a hard look at ourselves, to think about whether our habits of thought and action express the kind of person we want to be. Undertale reaches that level of incisive meaning, making it a rare gem among computer games.


1 From what sense I can make of the word soup in his news post, this is basically Jerry Holkins’ gripe over on Penny Arcade, if you’ve seen or heard of their comic strip about it. If you haven’t, never mind. Not going to link, because fuck those guys.

2 That would be silly of me, considering I’m playing a “No Mercy” run myself as of this writing.