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?

Furry People, or Sapient Animals?

Over on Ron Edwards’ comics blog (warning: link probably NSFW), a discussion about the 1970s-80s erotica comic Omaha the Cat Dancer led to this gem of insight about anthro-animals:

I’m familiar with the difference between anthropomorphic character in the Stan Sakai sense, where animal form is simply shorthand for character traits or temperament, and also in the “these are actually different species of being” that may or may not uplifted or magical or whatever versions of animalified people or peopleified animals. — oberonthefool

“Oberon” then goes on to term these approaches as “theriomorphic people” and “anthropomorphic animals,” respectively. I realize now that in Pentra, I keep assuming that the latter is what I’m after, when the former might serve my purposes much better.

I’ve always been aware there are different degrees of animal-ness under the broad umbrella of “anthropomorphic animal” fiction. At one extreme would be Watership Down. The rabbits of the Down have a heightened intelligence over the rabbits we know, giving rise to sophisticated language and culture. But in all other respects, they’re rabbits through and through: they’re rabbit-sized, lack hands capable of fine manipulation, and eat and mate and crap exactly like real-world rabbits do. At the other extreme might be the sort of “cat girls” you see in trashy anime or visual novels, which are basically ordinary people with cat ears and tails attached. (“Ordinary people” with the bizarre anatomical proportions common to such things, anyway.) A setting like Redwall wouild lie somewhere in the middle. Its characters do human-like things such as building structures of wood and stone, but their features are depicted as entirely animal, no human-like faces in sight.

What I didn’t realize until reading Oberon’s comment, though, is that there’s not simply a sliding scale at work here, with “human-like” on one end and “animal-like” on the other. There are actually two philosophical approaches to the idea of characters depicted as part human, part animal, that operate on very different assumptions.

I’ve always defaulted to the Redwall mode, that of “anthropomorphic animals,” not noticing the possibility of an alternative. That scheme tends to a lot of world-building detail, defining the places of all these different species in the world culturally and ecologically. When the inevitable questions arise, like “how did so many different evolutionary branches reach sapience?” or “what happens when a tiger-person and a gazelle-person try to have children?”, those are legitimate topics to ponder. The rabbit hole* leads ever deeper from there. For the Pentra collaborative storytelling game, I’ve sketched out matters like “are there non-anthro horses and rabbits in this world?”, because, well, that’s what you do for a furry setting, right?

The thing is, my answers to those questions have become more and more hand-wavey as I realize they get in the way more than they help. On the matter of inter-species reproduction, for instance: “Well, biologically it doesn’t work, but magic that allows it is both very common and a little unpredictable. So it’s not unusual to see a wolf and a badger get together and have lemur children, or whatever.” In other words, a wizard does it. Which is of course absurd, as soon as you think about it for more than a moment. But the alternative—making a verisimilitudinous set of rules for how things work—would inevitably shut someone down. “This story’s about a lynx family, you can’t play an armadillo…”

But there’s another way to come at it, exemplified by the aforementioned Omaha, Webcomics like Better Days and Original Life by Jay Naylor, and so on. These works aren’t overly concerned with the mechanics of animalism. Rather, the assumption is that the characters are people first and foremost. Human beings, not voles and squid. The animal traits help characters stand out from one another visually and prime us to expect certain character traits (slyness for a fox, e.g.), expectations the narrative can consciously play to or subvert. The dialogue and action might acknowledge the physics of the thing, but only on a superficial level, and often tongue in cheek: a startled catperson’s tail puffing up, an avian character having the last name “Byrd,” etc. This gives the creator freedom to assign whatever species they’d like to each character without any particular gymnastics about how it all works. The animal visages form a filter over a fundamentally human story.

The worldbuilding-heavy approach has its place, of course. Kurt Busiek’s The Autumnlands, or Redwall for that matter, succeed in part by the loving detail they impart on different species, their physical attributes, cultures, and history. When I’m writing stories in the Pentra setting, I have no intention of erasing all the thought I’ve put into species’ respective territories, flavors of magic, and so on. But I now realize that when it comes to a participatory thing like the Pentra game, those are the kinds of creative constraints that stifle rather than inspire. Any given group sitting down to spin a tale in its framework can create mythic or fabled personalities like Br’er Rabbit and Reynard the Fox; species that work more like ethnic groups than taxonomic divisions, like in Jay Naylor’s work; or devise their own cultural and physical setting detail. Those are only possible within the same framework if the game itself assumes an agnostic stance on the furry hypothesis.

* If I may employ a trite turn of phrase for its humor value, here


Opiates of the Masses

Recently I read an article talking about how the eight hour work day is somewhat unnecessary, an artifact of outdated notions about employment. Despite various evidence that people tend not to be productive for more than three hours in a day, workplaces will settle for no less than a 40-hour week. The ensuing tiredness that your average worker feels upon returning home from one of these workdays then bolsters our consumer culture, because who wants to do anything besides sit and watch television and eat some easy-to-prepare food after such a long day?

I’ve also heard it said that our millennial generation is the generation of apathy. That the prevailing attitude about the great problems of our times is that there’s nothing you can do about it, so the best approach to take towards these topics is one of stoic acceptance. Putting these two things together, I began to wonder what else might be combining to reduce our culture’s ability to innovate, to create, to break free of its stale assumptions. I’ve written recently on my bad habits that keep me from being the creative and productive person I’d like to be, and I’m sure my experiences are not terribly unique. Recently I crested 80 hours of gameplay in the digital collectible card game Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014, and I have to ask myself: if I’d spent those hours on my creative projects, how far along would I be by this point?

So many influences upon us in our daily environments are sedative in nature. We eat a diet high in carbohydrates that makes us sedentary and listless. Moreover, that diet is high in the psychoactive proteins found in modern dwarf wheat, putting us into a cycle of greater consumption and sluggishness of mind. Alcohol is cheap, widely available, and widely felt to be necessary to a good time or useful in escaping stress and other unpleasant feelings. Entertainment available at all hours spits out harsh blue light that diminishes our abilityto sleep, piling ever further on to the daily feeling of drowsiness and lack of ambition.

I’m no tinfoil hat wearer, but if there were some conspiracy to keep, say, the American public docile and compliant, it could hardly have come up with a better cocktail of influences. Sure, we can imbibe caffeine to give us back a bit of our lost energy and alertness, but it’s been my experience that this doesn’t entirely restore the cognitive faculties buried under the rest of this. Individually, one of these ingrained habits would be difficult enough to overcome, but in aggregate, they are overwhelming. Personal energy is crucial for fighting through frustrations and overcoming hurdles of motivation; our environments are all but tailored to afford us as little of that precious resource as possible.

I must marvel at the thought of what apotheosis we could attain if people the world over could break free of these things. If we weren’t narcotized by our food and our entertainment, how many more brilliant creative works would appear? How much easier would it be to enact political change, fight against kyriarchal systems, or pursue our “unrealistic” dreams? For those people who do manage to get out from under these widespread dulling factors and create something amazing, what is the secret sauce that enables them?

I can hope to make some dents in these things in my own life via the Zen Habits or other little insights I’ve picked up along the way, but it isn’t easy. When I get home from my standard eight hour shift, I feel a malaise that reminds me of the anhedonia of depression. I don’t want to so much as wash the dishes, much less write a novel or attend a rally. And so I play my computer games, and my life slowly ebbs away. Can I break free somehow, or will I be musing upon these same observations 20 years from now?

Idioms of Collaboration

Kithia Verdon:

I’m currently involved in a game design collaboration with two dear friends of mine. This is a fantastic thing! I frequently feel the longing to team up with someone on a creative endeavor, yearning back to the glory days of collaborative writing on AOL’s Interactive Fiction forums or my own Galaxy Corps forum. It’s great to have the chance to do something along those lines again.

I’m grappling with a bit of culture shock, though. My approach to collaboration, my very mental model of what collaboration is, doesn’t quite click with the way the other two-thirds of the operation think about things. Creative differences, amirite? It’s not an insurmountable thing; it’s not going to doom the project or force me to drop out. But it does lead to weird moments of dissonance, a Twilight Zone episode about game design.

The short version: I want to go all scrummy with it, taking each other’s material and editing at will, tinkering and exchanging ideas uninhibited. The rest of the crew tends to more a sense of ownership, where if you make a thing, the others need to ask permission before adding to or changing it.

To an extent I can understand the feeling. I used to be that way about my writing; back in the Galaxy Corps days I remember quashing a couple of proposed plot threads because they interfered with my vision for the story as a whole. Today I regret that, and think the project suffered for it. As you might surmise from my posts on copyright, I’ve grown out of permission culture as a whole. The way I now see it, when I scribble some thought and let it loose in the wild, it’s yours as much as it is mine. You want to repost it and change it to express the exact opposite idea of what I originally wrote? Awesome, that’s some frickin’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies coolness there. You want to put it into a book and sell it for moneys? Sweet, more people get to read a thing I wrote!

I acknowledge of course that this attitude doesn’t work well at all stages of a creative project. If we were in the home stretch, heavily playtested, the text polished and copy-edited (especially if laid out), tearing out or fiddling with things sans careful change control would be a sure-fire way to block your project from ever going out the door. But right now, when we’re still revising core ideas about the game…

It’s like this. I picture this phase of creative collaboration like people sitting around a sandbox full of wet clay. Each person’s sculpting as the feeling strikes them, looking at what the others are doing and taking inspiration from it, working together to make a whole cityscape. Sometimes somebody stops by to add water to the mixture to keep things from drying out, and you have to deal with the fact that can mess with your nascent sculpture in the process. And sometimes you look across at your neighbor’s thing and go, “ooh, what if you added something like this here?” and just tack on a gob of clay as a balcony or spire or whatever to their structure. Maybe their eyes light up and they go “Yeah!” Maybe they make a face and take your addition back off, saying “eh, I don’t think so,” and have to repair the damage, but it’s all part of the fun.

Whereas the hands-off perspective feels to me like making a jigsaw puzzle all backward. Instead of painting the picture and then carving it up, you cut a blank board into pieces, hand them to different people, and start painting on the individual bits, maintaining a careful dialogue along the way where you try to make sure each person’s bits are going to line up correctly with the rest when it all comes back together. Exhausting!

It’ll turn out all right in the end, I’m sure. But along the way, I have to keep reminding myself what world I’m in. “Why don’t I have edit access to this file? Oh, right, that’s NN’s thing.” “Why are we waiting around on this edit we all agreed to? Oh, right, I started this class design so I have to finalize everything.” Tch!