Friday, January 12, 2024

Ave Atque Vale, Jennell

Jennell Jaquays passed away two days ago, and it's hitting me hard.  

I had a chance to meet Jennell at NTRPG 2016 (and '17), and even get into a playtest game of hers. She was friendly and welcoming and kind, both there and online.


This was already one of the books most important to me in my gaming collection; it has become infinitely more so. 

Jennell's contributions to the gaming industry are well documented & known. But her activism in support of LGBTQIA rights, and her mentorship and guidance for other folks in gaming (particularly folks from marginalized backgrounds) were also hugely important and influential.

She'd been working on releasing a revised and improved version of Central Casting, but passed before the process was complete. Her wife Becky plans to finalize and release it, though

Becky could also use assistance with Jennell's medical bills and funeral costs.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Campaign Stats: First Attempt

"Swordsman with Book" by Evlyn M

"Swordsman with Book,"
by Evlyn M (back her on Patreon!)
Over a recent Discord call, Jenx (player of the doughty Rustam the Relentless) mentioned his fondness for campaign statistics posts, like these two from the Hill Cantons (one, two), or his own (here). I agreed, regretting that it wouldn’t be possible for me to track material like this for Legacy of the Bieth, since I hadn’t kept sufficient notes during each session. But talking with Jenx further, I realized that there were enough notes on Discord for me to calculate some of the relevant stats that the campaign’s had, at least over the (very irregular) two years that I’ve run it over Discord.

Sessions Played: 23 (more or less)
Least Session XP: 0
Greatest Session XP: 4068 per character
Average XP per Session: 608 per character

Total Players: 22
Total Player Characters: 26
Highest Level Achieved: 4
PCs Incapacitated Long-term: 3
PCs Killed: 3
Hirelings Advanced to PCs: 5
“Weird” Classes Played: 2 (Blood Servitor, Lamia)

Going forward, I'm certainly going to try keeping better track of additional stats (including such favorites as "Number of Times Rolled on the Death & Dismemberment Chart" and "Average Hirelings Lost Per Session"). 

How are your campaigns going? Any particular stats that you or your players have been tracking?

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Modified Death & Dismemberment; Campaign Update

During my time playing in the Hill Cantons campaign, I faced far too many rolls on Chris's Death and Dismemberment chart to not have its tension seared into my brain. As a result (and because I am a lazy/overwhelmed GM) I've been using it in my own Legacy of the Bieth sessions. 

After the most recent roll on the chart, my players and I discussed the feel of some of the consequences on the chart. Due to the limited scheduling and times of play, some of the nastier rolls on the table were effectively the same as removing a character permanently from the campaign. Sure, there wasn't a sting of death, but the practical result was the same.

After a few suggestions from Rustam's player (spawned in part from discussion on the OSR Discord server) I wound up putting together a revised Death and Dismemberment table which I think I'll be using, going forward.

Death & Dismemberment:

When a PC hits 0 to -10 HP, roll 1d10.

1: Stunned. Knocked out for 1d6 rounds. At the end of this time, is at 0 HP and able to slowly crawl along, but another hit of any sort will kill the character until they get back to positive HP.
2-5: Lingering Wound. Character is incapacitated for 1 week, and player + GM jointly figure what sort of lasting but largely cosmetic scar the wound has left.
6-8: Lasting Wound. Character is incapacitated for 1 week, and some other permanent damage to the character also results (missing eye, mis-set bone, permanently weak knee, etc.). Again jointly determined by player + GM, but will result in some statistical change to the character.
9+: Dead dead dead

Add 1 to a Death & Dismemberment roll (and to number of weeks incapacitated) for every Lingering or Lasting Wound your PC has taken throughout the course of play.

(This was inspired in part by the game Battle Brothers, where your WFRP-esque mercenary scum can take on lasting wounds if reduced to 0 HP, or through a bad crit.)

Tuco and the one-armed man discuss the
effects of Lasting Wounds on a PC.

On the campaign front, the players have continued delving into the sanctum of a long-vanished wizard, hoping to track down the bandit Red Mansur and recover some anti-mutagenic compounds created by the alchemist the Whisper. 

I attach some notes from Rustam the Red, a bounty hunter and one of the PCs (played by Kalin). These are clearly in no way me shirking the task of writing campaign updates and instead foisting it off on the players. 

(Oh, don't look at me like that. All the players get 100 XP times their PC level for a session report. Hell, sometimes a session report might be more XP than the session itself!)

~~Fragments from the journal of Rustam the Red~~
Sketch of Rustam by Kalin.

Entry 7

Did I forget I had a journal? You’ll never know! 

The last six months were spent in recovery and recuperation. After a mostly successful job, the details of which I shall not put down in writing (because you do not put that kind of stuff down in writing) I was in possession of several rare and valuable tomes. Those tomes were traded in to a witch for an amulet that she fashioned me, and by God’s name my knees have stopped hurting for the first time in the past 10 years! 

NOTE TO SELF: Does it make sense to praise God when a witch did all the work? Is asking this question damning already? Do I care?

[In the middle of the journal is a rough sketch of some blocks arranged in geometric patterns]

Just in time, as we are off on another job. I find myself once again in the employ of Saleema and alongside Krim the Rat. Despite my desire to pursue another avenue of business, I am now yet again off chasing after a bandit. Perhaps this is my punishment from God for the sins I have done in my life? To always be stuck in this endless cycle. 

The band, Red Mansur, is apparently hiding in the lair of some deceased magician. We do not appear to have any magicians with us on this job. That’s a bad sign. This thing is in some cave, there’s green magical images appearing everywhere, some of them harmful, some of them just babbling on in some unknown tongue. Magician stuff, in short.

We find a corpse and a dead end. I missed the first foray into this place, so I make sure the others (Krim, as I said, and a….snake person named Sybaris? I don’t even know if I am actually surprised at this point.) actually do their due diligence.

Lo and behold, they had not. I find a secret passageway behind one of the statues. The passage went into a small room of some kind, a study or a bedroom. There’s valuables in here, this is more like it! Less bandit chasing and more making up the money spent on the previous job.  The lamia could not break open one of the chests and got struck by a needle, ageing her significantly. 

NOTE TO SELF: Commission reinforced leather gloves when back in Maaqil. 

The desk had strange playing tiles on it, arranged in geometric patterns. Some of these were made of ivory, so they are coming with us too. Same with the rugs and the various jewels we found. For the sake of everyone’s health, we did not open the smaller chest. 

Satisfied with the haul, I suggested we secure all of this back at base camp, before we proceed. The lamia kept insisting on finding these anti-mutagen vials that Red Mansur stole. I have no idea why this being is so focused on the task, is it like a guard dog in how it stays on orders? Maybe not my place to question. 

Problem - how to get the chests and rugs out through the stupid obsidian magical image in the entryway? I tried to put a bag over it. I don’t know, I miss Wali and the other magicians from the old crew. They would know what to do about it. The bag worked. The thing went crazy and kept repeating itself, its defensive attack growing weaker and weaker. Krim read poetry to it. He seemed happy with its reaction, so I let him have this one.

We took the loot out. It feels good to once again write those words. 

Personal thought of the Day: Why is it that magicians can’t simply place a poisoned needle in their protective mechanisms like a normal person? Why try and age someone? Who does that??

Entry 8

I suppose this is what I get for blasphemy, huh? Returning once more into this accursed magician’s lair, this time with a magician of our own just to be safe, we did not unfortunately get too far. While back in camp we did realise that the strange brass disks we got last time were, in fact, some kind of magical spell book, we did not get too much more information from Izohr once we were back inside.

Opening the last remaining door we were accosted by those strange lion-headed beasts that appear out of thin air, though Sybaris the Lamia says she saw a strange machine that might be responsible for them.

That thing was a nightmare. It slew two of our fellows but with a slash of its tentacled limbs, nearly managed to kill the last one and almost was the end of me as well. By God’s will I only came away with an awful headache and a nasty scar on my cheek to add to the collection that has been growing there for the last few years. 

I need rest. 

Personal Thought of the Day: Magicians are awful people, but their places of residence are somehow worse. Also, I need to get more flaming oil. It is time to start using extreme measures.

Rustam, post-scar. Art by Kalin.
Entry 9

Writing this in a spare moment. I am done with this place and this wizard nonsense. Going to burn this place down, one flask of oil at a time.

Working pretty well so far. Found a room with loads of skulls and strange helmets. Got one with bat wings on it. 

Killed a strange warrior made of shadow. Fire consumes all, even shadows. Found one box of the anti-mutagens, two more to go. Burned down the nest of an enormous spider too. 

Zaynab is quite competent. She is someone to keep contact with when I need muscle for the future. 

[The notes end as a mess of scribbles.] 

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Bundles of Holding, Bellairs, and a Session Report

Firstly: the Bundle of Holding is running a Quick Deal for the Hydra Cooperative!

It's a heck of a lot of awesome stuff, available for $15 instead of the usual $75. Check it out here!

Next: To borrow Granny Weatherwax's phrase, "I ATEN'T DED." Been over a year since I've updated this! (I'd apologize, but we all know it'll happen again.)

I've started running Legacy of the Bieth again, which I'm hoping will help with both thinking about and actually creating RPG materials (and updating the blog with session reports). There's a golden zone somewhere out there, where social media interaction helps with brainstorming and creating but doesn't wind up taking away the energy for same. Maybe one day I'll find it. 

I did make a serendipitous discovery recently, though. 

Art by Edward Gorey for (presumably)
Bellairs' The Dark Secret of Weatherend,
via Brian Ashcraft

When I was a wee kid, I fell in love with the work of John Bellairs, a YA horror writer. He mostly wrote YA horror-fantasy, centering on kids in white 1950s-era US small towns encountering the eldritch. (One of his books, The House with a Clock in its Walls, got made into a movie a few years ago.) Bellairs wrote one adult fantasy/horror novel, The Face in the Frost, which is amazing -- wonderfully atmospheric and creepy, while also containing a great deal of whimsy and fun. The Face in the Frost made it onto Appendix N, and so has had a couple of folks discussing it in our scene (Appendix N Book Club, Dump Stat Adventures, and a surprisingly underpopulated Bellairs tag at Grognardia) Bellairs wound up passing away in his 50s or so from a cardiac issue, in 1991. 

A couple of weeks ago I found out that:
  • Bellairs had gotten like 1/3 of the way through a sequel to The Face in the Frost, called "The Dolphin Cross"
  • Ellen Kushner, who had worked as his editor, found a copy (perhaps the only copy) of The Dolphin Cross draft in like 2009
  • This had made its way into a Bellairs anthology, Magic Mirrors, released shortly thereafter by the New England SF Association
  • As a Real True Adult with Spending Money, I could purchase a copy of Magic Mirrors and cause it to be delivered to my home
So I immediately ordered a copy, and got to see a favorite author returning to a world I thought would never be touched again. It was a delight. 

The Face in the Frost is a charming novel, that reminds me in parts of T.H. White's Sword in the Stone, with its whimsical tone and complete and cheerful disregard for anachronism. At the same time, it's got scenes of strange magic and horror that absolutely stand out and grip the mind, and spots of quiet and incredibly evocative worldbuilding. There are two parts of the book that don't age well (no women characters at all, and a positive-intentions-but-awkward incorporation of a Kabbalah practitioner), so worth noting beforehand. If those two aren't dealbreakers for you (and very reasonable if they are!), I do legitimately recommend the book.

The fragment of The Dolphin Cross shows what might have been. It doesn't hold together quite as well as The Face in the Frost (which is to be expected, as a fragment of a first draft). But what little we do get, is more of the same: both in the charming and in the quietly creepy-as-hell. 

It's mixed feelings, reading through an unfinished manuscript of an author who you love. The last time I recall encountering it was coming upon the 21st (untitled) book of the Aubrey + Maturin series. Joy at seeing old friends, sadness knowing that this is the last time...but unlike many final volumes, a strange haziness of possibility. Less definite, perhaps, but more evocative of possibilities.  

Oh -- if you do pick up any John Bellairs books, make sure to get copies with the original art if possible (Marilyn Fitschen for Face in the Frost, and Edward Gorey for the YA books). Bizarrely, there are later editions that don't use the Gorey art. 

Another Gorey illo from a Bellairs YA.
Bellairs's description of the hooded figure
with tentacle was actually a slow-burn
inspiration for the Bieth...

Legacy of the Bieth Session Report, 7/15/23:

Three adventurers of Maaqil -- street urchin and aspiring assassin-poet Krim the Rat, Turanian lamia Sybaris, and nomad bounty hunter Uqab -- were on the trail of Red Mansur, a bandit who had stolen a box of anti-mutagens from local alchemist "the Whisper." Saleema the Sparrow, a local fixer who Krim knew, had hired the group to retrieve the anti-mutagens. Red Mansur's capture or death would be an added bonus.

The PCs tracked Red Mansur and his gang to the nearby town of Fara Yeni, where they found that one of Governor al-Hakam's cavalry patrols had serendipitously intercepted the bandits as they were striking a passing caravan. The cavalry troop had failed to take out the whole gang, however, and the PCs set off in pursuit of the escapees.

They managed to track the bandits into a cave complex, which the locals of Fara Yeni had informed them was once the redoubt of a dark sorcerer. As the PCs and their hirelings followed the bloodtrails, they discovered that the cave complex had been expanded at some point into an underground maze of worked stone. The corpses of two of Red Mansur's bandits lay abandoned outside the complex. 

After encountering a magical projection of a robed man that barked strange phrases and hurled a sphere of all-too-real energy at the group, the PCs entered a large room with four statues - three figures in armor (two androgynous statues wearing strangely jeweled armor and bearing maces, and a male warrior clad in chain with a shamshir), and a female figure wearing a robe similar to the magical projection's. Torches burned at the ends of the chamber, with a strange heatless green flame made out of crackling lines similar to an audio waveform projection. 

After briefly investigating the statues and torches, the group entered a door to their right, following a winding corridor to a partially flooded room, strewn with wrecked furniture and the body of another of Red Mansur's goons, this one with fresh wounds. As they investigated the body, the group heard a strange scraping sound approaching them from down the corridor. Electing to use the room's chokepoint and ambush any threat, they buckled down. A flash of green light from down the corridor collided with one of the walls, then resolved itself into a strange creature - leonine in form, but bearing two tentacles instead of a normal head, and the whole of its body defined by more green audio waveform lines. As the scraping sounds receded, the tentacle beast charged the PCs, but was dispatched in surprisingly short order by them and their hirelings. 

Behind the Curtain:

I'm currently kickstarting play by dropping the players at the entrance to a one-page dungeon, a resource I had forgotten about until relatively late last week. The One Page Dungeon Contest is seriously one of the best free resources out there for GMs who, like me, punted their prep until close to the last minute.

I'm happy with the hirelings setup I'm using, inspired by Gus L's start of play setup from Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier (which I used for the previous phase of the campaign). The players will have a pool of faceless hirelings back at base camp (guarding their communal resources), but can also take some into the dungeon with them (at which point the hirelings suddenly acquire faces, personalities, and quirks). If a PC dies or becomes incapacitated -- or a drop-in player joins up -- there's a fixed pool of hirelings (either established or faceless) for them to hop into (but a limited resource while the group is still away from their home base). 

I've got grand plans for the urban and factional side of play, but getting the bandwidth and time to do things the way I want is tricky. So I'm trying to find ways to move forward, and keep the dynamic of play going, while building the structure I want in the background. Having a really committed player who's only going to be available for a limited time will also provide an incentive! 

Friday, April 22, 2022

Returning to Krynn

WotC just dropped news that they'll be bringing back the AD+D 2e settings of Spelljammer and Dragonlance. You can read all about that over at EnWorld if you're so inclined. 

I never got into Spelljammer -- I missed a chance to pick up some of the old boxed sets for literal pennies, and I still kick myself for it -- but the concept still holds loads of intrinsic appeal to me. I don't feel like I've seen a satisfying treatment of naval play in a D+D framework yet, and I'm curious to see how WotC approaches it. (I suspect that their approach to voyages and space probably won't be one that quite scratches the yearnings I have, but seeing how they tackle it certainly isn't a bad thing.) 

But Dragonlance? Dragonlance was one of my main entrypoints into D+D. I started off with the superlative Return to Brookmere, certainly, but Dragonlance was one of the core lenses for my understanding of D&D in elementary and middle school (only getting displaced by the Forgotten Realms after I picked up Baldur's Gate). I went hard into the TSR novels as a kid, y'all. Even the clunkers. In some ways, it takes on the role that I think Greyhawk does for some of my friends - the intro setting that dominated a lot of our early gaming visions. 

In the light of my thirties, the Dragonlance of my youth seems excruciatingly twee in all of the Renn Faire ways that late AD+D could hit. But I think there are still some glimmerings of compelling ideas in the thousand-foot pitch, and hell, getting a trailer from Shohreh Aghdahloo goes a long way.

So instead of turning up my nose, I ask - what could a revision of the Dragonlance setup look like in a context that wouldn't make me balk? Here's my initial stab at it:

  • Under the Dark Fist*. The original Dragonlance books open with evil on the rise. The dragonarmies stand poised to roll over the continent of Krynn; they've got organization, divine backing, and a gazillion evil dragons all working to crush out the various points of opposition to Takhsis. I think that there's a lot of potential in having a setting where evil begins as being triumphant or in control, and players are placed in a framework of organizing and leading resistance. It works quite well for Star Wars, after all. (For a fantasy context, see FFG's 'Midnight' setting for 3e, or the Black Company books, for other examples of the evil overlord having won as the starting point.)

  • Apocalypse Then / When In Rome... Others have written about the post-apocalyptic nature of AD+D, but Krynn very much seeks to foreground it -- theoretically, at least. At the start of the War of the Lance, Krynn is still making its way out of the big old world-wrecking Cataclysm. In the original Dragonlance materials, the main ways this was showcased were the absence of the gods and their associated cleric-y/paladin-y powers, the physical wreckage of the continent, steel coins instead of gold, and Lord Soth the death knight (Dragonlance's own Darth Vader). These feel a bit underwhelming, honestly, and I find myself of two minds about how to reframe this part of the setting. On the one hand, I'd like to see more treatment of overcoming scarcity and cultural adaptation to their surroundings, taking an apocalypse's effects seriously. On the other hand, there's definitely more than a little Rome in the presentation of Istar, and now I'm curious about how a treatment of post-Cataclysm Krynn informed by more recent scholarship and discussion about post-Roman Europe would turn out. (Solamnia as the cultural equivalent of Byzantium...?)

    The Doom Brigade
    Margaret Weis & Don Perrin
  • We Are More Than Our Past. D+D has been struggling with the 'hard-coded biological alignment' for a while. Dragonlance is somewhat infamous for the magically mandated obnoxiousness of the kender, gully dwarves, and gnomes, along with the standard goblins and hobgoblins being always evil cannon fodder, so it might seem like this setting would be likely to continue putting its foot in it. All that said, Krynn might actually be a pretty good setting for seriously wrestling with this, if folks wanted to put the time in. I remember seeing the pitch for The Doom Brigade as a kid and being curious -- how would former bio-engineered soldiers of the evil overlord be presented as sympathetic protagonists? What's more, some of the major pieces of the setting are all about beings long dismissed as "evil" breaking past societal and/or divine hierarchy treatment and doing good - the red dragon Flamestrike striking down the villain of the first book because of his threats to children, Raistlin's soft spot for the downtrodden and oppressed, and even the nonsensical Green Gemstone Man trying to fix his original sin and serving as deus machinae prohibitus. (Please don't ask me exactly how little of that I had to look up.) 

    In practice, I see this as an opportunity for D+D to explicitly push back against some of the missteps of the past, and of Dragonlance in particular. In the specific context of Dragonlance, this might look like less focus on good and evil as specific cosmic teams with their own bioengineered servitor races (elves and metal dragons for Team Good, minotaurs and chromatic dragons for Team Evil) and more on individual choices and sway. 

  • Si vis ludem, para bellum. Dragonlance is a setting designed around grand sweeping conflicts (not to mention dragon dogfights and flying citadels). It makes sense that a modern treatment of DL would feature some serious thought of how to meaningfully integrate that sort of conflict into the standard scope of play. It's no surprise that my thoughts turn to wargame integration at the drop of a hat, but it seems WotC is at least looking in that direction as well, with a planned mass combat system ("Dragonlance: Warriors of Krynn") to be released.
Those are my initial thoughts. I don't know that writing this all out makes me motivated to go out and run something in Krynn just yet, but I'm thinking about what might do that. Certainly I'd give it a go if I could get Shohreh Aghdahloo voiceovers...

* Sorry-not-sorry. It's far too good a title to leave languishing as a Spelljammer module.  

Friday, March 4, 2022

Protecting Our Spaces: A Response to Raggi

 Somewhere in the 2009-2011 range, when I was just discovering the OSR scene, I ran across a retroclone which stuck out to me and zoomed up into my favorites for quite some time. In contrast to most of the other rulesets I had seen at the time, it had a lot of referee advice -- and it had safety tools

No, seriously! They were perhaps a bit rudimentary compared to the codified tools that are out there today, but I didn't see many other rulesets (OSR or otherwise) including quotes like "The Referee shall realize that Rule 0 is for the purpose of establishing the desired atmosphere for his campaign, and not as an excuse to abuse players or a license to be a despot at the game table… The Referee’s role is to challenge players, not victimize them." or "Know your players. Communicate outside of the game, and find where the limits lie. Your job as Referee is not to shock, scare, scandalize, or assault the senses. Respect for the real person sitting before you playing the game comes before any idea for the game you actually have." (emphasis added)

The ruleset, of course/ironically enough, was the original Referee Book for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. 

LotFP Referee Book cover

LotFP has, uh, gone some directions since those days, to say the least. Raggi's outlook seems to have gone from "good art may sometimes be transgressive" to "if it's transgressive, it must be good art!" For years, I've had LotFP in its various channels muted, while I try to do my own thing. But a friend recently tagged me in a FB post of Raggi's, and I felt the need to respond. 

Raggi writes (FB):

Let me give all the people who hate me more and more reason to do so, because why the fuck not at this point:

People in my industry always seem to be shocked and horrified and "oh how can this happen here?" because Varg Vikernes is a tabletop RPG publisher. 

Well... every single store I buy metal from (not including label-specific webstores or individual band storefronts of course), from Amazon (and when I buy Amazon, I buy from Amazon Germany) down to my local record store chain, carries Burzum. He's also distributed on Youtube by a Sony subsidiary.

Somehow the metal world hasn't ended because a bad person has been an artist in public for thirty years, and it hasn't prevented good people or good creations from existing within metal. You have a popular (give or take at any particular moment) subgenre that attracts all sorts of people, and when something attracts all sorts of people, that means ALL SORTS of people.

And Varg (and a decent number of his contemporaries) has quite obviously been a tabletop RPGer for all that time before becoming a publisher, and somehow RPGs made it through the 90s, 2000s, and 2010s without being taken over by his type of thinking, and the 2020s will be fine as well.

This wouldn't be a thing to remark about, except there are people who think that there should be a just-so uniform way of thinking in the tabletop RPG world, and if you don't sign on to that thinking (or *gasp* you even disagree with it) then people either think that's opening the gates to the Varg types to take over, and/or want to try to associate you with Varg and/or his thinking to try to isolate you and drive you out.

Funny thing is, to me, it is their behavior that I associate with Varg's sort of thinking.

Ancestry doesn't make you a better or worse person. And people of different ancestries are all over the place and they aren't going back where they came from and "they" are not going to leave "your" women alone (because the "they" and "your" do not actually exist, and both the "they" and the women know this). You have to live with them, you are never going to "cleanse" the gene pool, so get the fuck over yourselves, racists.

Similarly, you're not going to purify the thinking pool. People will think differently and prefer different creative expressions and they're not going to go away or conform to what you think is the "right" way to create or express any more than you're going to conform with theirs. You have to live with them, so get the fuck over yourselves, conformist censors.

Well, I don't hate Raggi. But this post is bullshit

Well, that second-to-last paragraph calling out Varg's racism isn't too bad, and the comparison between the OSR and metal is actually pretty apt on multiple levels. (But that's not nearly as much of a vindication for Raggi as he thinks.) 

"Somehow the metal world hasn't ended because a bad person has been an artist in public for thirty years, and it hasn't prevented good people or good creations from existing within metal." 

Good people and good creations exist within metal, no question about it. But the presence of shitheels within the scene absolutely makes it harder for marginalized folks to exist within the scene, either as fans enjoying it, or as musicians creating their own work. It also serves as a deterrent from people getting into metal.

Similarly, the presence of shitheels within the OSR scene - and folks who normalize their presence - makes it harder for marginalized folks to enjoy it, either as fans or as creators. Let's go back to that LotFP Referee book for a second. Here's another quote, from the section on organizing a group: "If someone is homophobic or racist or sexist, you want to find that out before exposing a group of strangers (who may include women, gays, or ethnic minorities) to them – that will kill a group before it gets started."

Past-Raggi was right - having a poisonous person in the group will absolutely kill a group and cause it to collapse, and rightly so. Because people will conclude two things:

1) This group isn't safe for marginalized people, because of the presence of the shitheel in question. 

2) The person organizing the group thought that it was worthwhile to bring the shitheel along. 

Even if the shitheel in question leaves or is booted out, there may still be lingering questions about the organizer's decision-making and judgment. Marginalized folks will continue to wonder if the group is a safe place to be, because clearly the organizer didn't think this person was a problem when putting the group together in the first place.

Now think about those dynamics in a creative scene. It's not a 1:1 correlation, of course - there's no single central organizer or leader that folks can point to, no single Arbiter of Metal (or OSR) to control group composition and membership. But people do notice when there are toxic folks in a community, and it starts to become known for that.

I don't have the capacity to stop Varg (or Venger, or RPGPundit, or whatever shitheel of the week) from creating metal or gaming stuff. But I can absolutely protest and call out their grossness, and actively work to create proudly inclusive and welcoming materials. Because when people in a scene treat the shitheels as 'just another creator' who we have to all get along with? Marginalized folks will conclude (and rightly so!) that the scene in question isn't likely to have their backs. 

There is a distinction to be made here, though, between pushing back against abhorrent folks and launching purity tests. I don’t want everyone thinking the same way in a scene! Not every disagreement is something worth booting people out for. There has to be room for people to be wrong and maybe change their mind over time, and sometimes a tiresome Hot Take is just a tiresome Hot Take. But there’s a distinction to be made between someone being wrong, and someone making statements (or taking action!) to harm others.

Kim Kelly is a metal critic/labor rights journalist. Here’s an excerpt from a great piece of hers: There's No Room In Metal for Racists, Abusers, and Bigots. The translation and application of the principles espoused to, say, other scenes is left as an exercise for the reader.

To be perfectly honest with you all, I personally feel that, as metal fans, the practice of separating the art from the artist is no longer a luxury that we can in good conscience afford ourselves... Is buying a bigot or an abuser’s new album or going to see them play a show the same as participating in wide-scale ethnic cleansing? Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. However, is tacitly (or explicitly) supporting the violent ideologies they espouse, materially or otherwise, a dangerous, inhumane, shameful thing? Yes. Does purposefully ignoring or waving away the import of politics in art make you a coward? Also yes. Now is not the time to hand out hall passes because of fucking riffs...

It would be silly for me to write all this without acknowledging metal’s long history of creating space for and supporting the actions of bigots, abusers, and other scum. Some of our most cherished folktales center on violence and hate, and many rotten people have made indelible marks on the genre, from Varg Vikernes to that racist ding-dong from Malevolent Creation. For black metal fans, this is a particularly acute issue, as some of our most lionized figures are fucking terrible people—or at the very least, people who have done fucking terrible things.

This is something I’ve dealt with personally for years now, as my politics have evolved and I’ve worked to figure out my view on the world....We all fuck up sometimes—the most important thing is how we clean up the mess afterwards.

So how do we do that? There’s no one answer, and even though I know where I stand, it took me a long time to figure that out, and I’m still actively working on it (and still dealing with my mistakes). It comes down to personal responsibility, and your own politics, and your own level of willingness to engage with, and interrogate, and sometimes abandon the things you love in pursuit of greater understanding, and lesser harm...

There are a lot of metal bands in the world; asking yourself, “are these riffs really worth it?” is a small step, but a crucial one.

It starts with us. It starts with you.

That old Referee book is actually not too bad, on a reread. But where Raggi’s at these days? That’s not a position I can support. Calling out and vigorously criticizing those who would contribute to marginalizing others is crucial for our, or any, scene. Because that’s how you make sure that you actually keep as diverse and broad a scene as possible, with as many different perspectives and interesting ideas as you can: by making it safe for the most vulnerable. 

It starts with you. It starts with us. 

Metal, elfgames, and "defiantly anti-fascist":
Bolt Thrower has it all!

Further Reading:

Metal’s Inclusive Future Looks Like a Zeal & Ardor Show:

The thought that I keep coming back to this week is that representation matters so, so much—especially in a scene like this, where racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry remain rampant, and any scrap of progress is still looked at askance by gatekeepers or shouted down by reactionaries.

Back when I was a teenager, I’d go to shows and look out for other girls and women. In my 20s, as I got older and grew into a more informed, intersectional perspective, I’d look out for other marginalized people, especially those who reflected my own experience as a physically disabled person. Walking into a place and seeing a face that looks like yours is an immediate relief, whether it’s a bank or a job interview or a black metal show. For me, it came via those first early crowd scans, when I’d light upon another girl in a Morbid Angel shirt standing across the room, and feel my heart swell.

Later, it came in seeing women like Arch Enemy’s Angela Gossow or Bolt Thrower’s Jo Bench onstage, in seeing Liz Ciavarella-Brenner edit Metal Maniacs, in reading Jeanne Fury and Zena Tsarfin’s work in magazines, and in working with Paula Hogan at Candlelight Records. Since then, a lot has changed for the better, but those early role models and fellow fans gave me the reassurance I needed that I did belong there; it gave me permission to be who I was, to be a metalhead sans caveat.

Fuck Nazi Metal Sympathy:

"Barnes explained his justification to allow known fascists to play the venue he personally owns in familiar terms. “You get put in a no-win situation in whatever you do here,” he told “Being an owner of the club you look at it as freedom of speech. When does the censorship issue come in and where does it escalate from here?” Because apparently, the Founding Fathers were extremely concerned with the future “right” for some subpar black metal jagoffs to be paid to play in front of a paying audience in a privately-held venue. By now, “free speech” has become a right-wing dog-whistle for “I want to be an asshole without suffering any consequences for my actions,” so that seems to cover his view here quite nicely."

What Covering Heavy Metal Taught Me About Spotting Nazis (aka the social-media-review dance that I, and others, find ourselves doing when checking out previously unknown OSR folks)

By combing through album lyrics, parsing interviews, and inspecting tattoos, journalists covering black metal—and even casual fans—become adept at rooting out bigotry. Doing so has, by now, become a conscious part of the wider black-metal experience: for leftist fans, a familiar ritual involves poring methodically through all available information to decipher an exciting new band’s political position. It’s kind of like playing a heavy metal version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, except the locus is invariably a Polish neo-Nazi or racist death metal guy from Florida, and winning is really losing. The thrill of discovering a killer new record is attended, always, by anticipation as you scour the lyrics and artwork and member lists and touring history—and then, all too often, you discover that (dammit!) the guitarist has a racist side project, or their label has released anti-Semitic material. But metal is too good for Nazis. Surveilling black-metal artists’ activities and exposing any associations with violent far-right networks is a means of defending a community I hold dear.

Why I Booked An Anti-Fascist Metal Festival:

Metal and its acolytes have many sins to answer for—but that shouldn’t overshadow all the brilliance, positivity, and joy that this genre and its culture have brought to millions of people around the world. Sometimes we forget to see the forest for the trees, and that the vast majority of metalheads are good, caring people who want to listen to their favorite music without having to worry that they’re enabling poisonous genocidal rhetoric.

I also think that it’s very easy to get caught up in the constant, punishing feedback loop of rediscovering over and over (and over…) that racists, neo-Nazis, bigots, abusers, and other trash people walk amongst us when we’re at a show, or in a record shop, or just trying to walk down the fucking street. Burnout is real, and I understand why some metal folk would rather just ignore the whole thing and burrow into their record collections. I used to be the same way when I was younger and more blind to my privilege (and as a result, made some mistakes in terms of supporting or covering bands that now I’d never touch); however, as I’ve grown up and become more politically active, I’ve realized that—for me, at least—that approach is just not going to cut it anymore. Zero tolerance is the only approach that makes sense when it comes to cleaning up our scene, and it’s been incredible to witness more and more metalheads standing up to say as much, online and in song.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

A Darkness Strewn with Gems: Session Recaps, LotB Campaign

After many years, I've finally gotten my brains together enough to start running a Legacy of the Bieth campaign again. It's brief spurts -- 2-3 hours over Discord -- but I need to bite off small chunks to get my head in the game (and make sure I'm adapting properly to the schedule). 

I'm adapting Gus L's Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier as the introductory dungeon. TRCF does a really good job at tapping into some of the Roadside Picnic-meets-spaghetti-western feel that I've craved over the years. I've had to use a bit of elbow grease to make details fit with my own setting, but of course that's going to be the case with any module! The core ruleset is currently a modification of  "Savage World of Krul," created by Hydra Coop colleague Robert Parker. 

The game is drop-in/drop-out, so not all the players are expected to be in a single session. (The conceit of TRCF, which starts players with a preexisting expedition to join, helps a lot with this framing.) The current roster of PCs:

  • Rahat al-Qamar, charming ex-street brat (warrior)
  • Tizemt, caravan guard turned adventurer (warrior)
  • Kifli, mercenary guard (warrior)
  • Fadhil Barwari, poet-assassin (warrior)
  • Izohr, distracted academic (magic-user)
  • Wali, mercenary guard (magic-user)
  • Dassin al-Kahina, nimble marabout (warrior)
Incapacitated PCs:
  • Nikoloz, magus from the steppes (magic-user)
  • Azod, phlegmatic merchant (warrior)
    The Adventure So Far...

    Saleema the Sparrow
    "Yellow Elf" by Uzlolzu
    The players were hired on as specialists by Saleema the Sparrow, a fixer based in the city of Maaqil. Saleema, a specialist in delving into Bieth ruins, had discovered a major find that a rival fixer, Murtaza, had been excitedly crowing about before his (assumed) demise, and wanted to put together a crew to investigate the site. She offered them a deal: conduct an initial survey of the site and bring her whatever valuables they find, in exchange for 500 dinars. She'd provide the expeditionary support, supplies, and the method for getting into the find. If the players wished to continue past the initial survey, they could keep any not-readily-salable artifacts they found. 

    (A bit of a railroady start -- not something I like generally! -- but I needed an easy pitch to get myself started running the game and not just thinking about how to run the game. TRCF offers a good setup for this, which is part of why I went with it as a starting spot. The initial caravan also has a nebulously sized group of hirelings, who can serve as convenient PC replacements if any of the PCs bites it or is otherwise incapacitated. Alas for the fragility of first level!)

    The group headed southwest out of Maaqil, away from the fertile river valley and into the wastes - not quite the deep desert or the twisted regions of the Zone, but bad enough. Around midday, the group noticed that Wali, the hireling who was taking point, seemed to be stumbling, drifting off course, and non-responsive. When the group investigated, they found that a strange honey-and-lemon taste filled their mouths. Those who were closely investigating were drawn off-course in the same direction as Wali, unable to step back or move away from an otherwise unremarkable patch of land. Those remaining further behind were able to lasso Wali and the others, drawing them away...but after they were secured, Nikoloz the wizard wanted to investigate the phenomenon more closely. Moving towards the strange taste, Nikoloz found himself unable to break away...and instead chose to run full-tilt towards the phenomenon. The remaining group saw him dash forward briefly, then thud flat onto his back and lie completely still. Lassoing him away and pulling him further back, the group found Nikoloz completely insensate. When he recovered consciousness, the wizard repeatedly attempted to dash right back towards the strange patch of land, remaining otherwise nonresponsive. The group managed to tie the wizard up and prevent him from dashing back to the site. 

    Maaqil at 04, 03; Oasis at 02, 04
    Delve Site at 02, 05
    Wali's diversion had pulled the group off-course, and they had to alter their route in order to get back towards their goal. As the group approached a nearby valley (housing the Spinetooth Oasis, source of some renowned purple flowers used for some of the most sought-after intoxicants in Maaqil), they came upon a massive fissure opening near the cliff face. Two of the group heard strange whispers coming from the fissure, one with tidings of encouragement and one with a warning about strange owls. Moving closer to the fissure, the group were startled to see three gaseous, vaguely humanoid forms rocket out of the fissure, crackling with energy, then streak towards the party. As the group retreated post-haste, Rahat, the closest of the party towards the three forms, flinched as they flew left, right, and overhead, bracketing him. As they loomed close, he heard a raspy whisper, "Congratulations, mortal - you have been visited by the jinn this day," before the three forms reversed course and flew back into the fissure. 

    "Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier"
    Gus L

    After clambering down the cliff face and skirting Spinetooth Oasis, the group took about another day's journey to reach Murtaza's delve site. In the midst of the desert, a large impact crater was visible, with vast irregular spires of purple crystal jutting out into the sky -- their position indicating that much of the structure was likely beneath the surface as well. Approaching, they discovered that some of the crystals bore carvings and architectural ornamentation, that a ragged pathway had been smashed in through some of the crystal and covered with some canvas, and that another potential entrance was visible. Saleema advised them that the smashed pathway was "typical Murtaza slop" and that they should sit tight while Faiza, her gemcutter specialist, opened a safer entryway (the dust from improperly broken crystals can lead to an incurable progressive disease). 

    As the gemcutter prepared her work, Wali and Fadhil investigated the architectural ornamentations, and found two concentric circles with strange glyphs on them. Wali's read magic spell revealed the cryptic message:
    "Praise to the Ascended Regent! Praise to his line! He has cast down those who opposed his reign and scattered their hosts. The winds howl over their bones. Their servants rend their garments, and their steeds have spilt their red blood. He was a warlord during the time of <unintelligible> and a warlord during the time of <unintelligible>. The High One used to cause him to descend to the sacred bark, that he might perform escort duty, that he might come to the ways, and that his gifts be made as though he were a prince, while the like was not done for any equal of his. Now this palace is his. Now and forever."

    The inner inscription read: "My body fails and my hands grow weak. But my spirit does not yield. I am a wall which comes out of a wall. My mouth is strong, and I am equipped against the right eye of the sky and the left eye of the sky. Let them not have dominion over me. I am master of my throne. I advance of this season. I have opened a path."
    Handling blooderfly eyes isn't quite
    dealing with a warp core, but still...
    (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)
    As the group settled in for the night to await the completion of Faiza's work, the second watch heard the beating of vast wings approaching the camp. A colossal crystal butterfly was swooping towards the group. As the party scrambled to alert the camp and form a defensive posture, the behemoth turned its gaze towards one of the hirelings. A torrent of blood burst forth from the man's orifices and surged into the still-flying butterfly, turning its previously clear wings slightly pink. Horrified, the group volleyed spears (and bullets from Fadhil's matchlock) into the beast, finally bringing it down. The wizard Izohr instructed his two apprentices to go retrieve wingscales and the still-glowing eyes of the creature, but was stymied when the apprentice Anokalis screamed in pain, suffering significant burns from his attempt at removing the butterfly's eyes. 

    The next day, Faiza completed her preparations and was able to carefully shatter some of the crystals, revealing an entry into the depths of the crystal structure. Saleema, Faiza, and the rest of the carvan hirelings would maintain a base camp up above, while the party would enter the crystals and conduct an initial mapping survey. The group descended into a small round antechamber with two exits, where smaller crystals were slowly forming around the exterior. The group attempted to carefully pick their way past the small crystals towards one of the exits, but the warrior Tizemt missed her footing slightly and trod on some of the growing crystals, sending up a cloud of the feared crystal dust. The group surged forward towards the exit, barely making it away from the dust in time. Moving forward, Fadhil the assassin-poet peered into the room ahead andits strange shadows, and was seized with visions of the crystal complex in the past. The group retreated to the antechamber, where Tizemt managed to step in the same patch of crystals again, prompting the group to flee to safety a second time.

    The next day, Fadhil, Wali, and Azod gathered their strength for another delve into the structure. Proceeding towards the unexplored (and less crystal-festooned) exit, they found two doors engraved with strange scenes. One door swung open readily and revealed blackness beyond, while the other was wrenched open, making an awful shriek. As the group observed the path beyond the second door, a sound like metal tearing echoed down the hallway towards them. Sensing some movement in the area beyond their light, Fadhil fired his matchlock blindly -- only for the group to be extremely surprised when his bullet found its mark. A small rubbery humanoid creature, its body a shade of verdigris, lay in the hallway beyond.

    Azod the trader - art by his player
    Brother Juniper
    Pressing onwards, the group found a dead end with three bundles wrapped in canvas and a wall festooned with packs, saddlebags, and the like. Suspicious, the trio prodded the canvas bundles, and were alarmed but unsurprised to see the bundles writhe and rotting, crystal-infused hands ripping their way out of the wrappings. The undead monstrosities demanded to know who the group were, but wasted precious little time in badinage before attempting to maul the trio. Fadhil, Wali, and Azod struck back, and in short order the three undead were struck down. Azod lopped off the heads of two of the three monstrosities. Investigating the bodies and the packs, the group found a great deal of mundane equipment (which they seized for the expedition's general usage), an impressively fashionable cloak styled after a manta ray, an unworked crystal emitting a pale orange glow, and a shamshir and animal-tooth necklace on the central undead. As they worked to stow the newly acquired loot, they heard skittering noises flicking down the hallway towards them. Adopting a defensive posture, the trio saw a swarm of five or six glass spiders rushing towards them, eager to attack this new prey.

    Azod was bitten by one of the glass spiders, a grotesquely warm venom pumped into his veins -- but between his slicing, Fadhil's stabbing, and a well-placed flask of burning oil from Wali, the group managed to eliminate most of the arachnid assailants. As they sighed in triumph, however, Azod looked queasy and toppled to the ground. His comrades confirmed that he was still breathing, but he was clearly out for the count. Sighing, the two dragged the doughty merchant-marauder back to the camp, where it was determined that he'd be in recovery for over a week. Once they had returned to the basecamp, Saleema was able to confirm, with a smug grin, that the shamshir and animal-tooth necklace were certainly those of Murtaza, the fixer who had first attempted to claim the spires. 

    The next day, the group essayed one of the side tunnels they had bypassed earlier, encountering a mess of crystals that began ringing if touched or interacted with. As the ringing escalated from "painfully loud" to "blood dripping from nostrils and ears," the group beat a hasty retreat. Venturing to the door with blackness beyond, the group found that the darkness contained a large chasm...festooned with more undead bearing shards of crystal within their flesh. Dassin the marabout dared to pole-vault from the narrow ledge the group stood on over to another ledge farther out, but discovered that there did not seem to be a ready path to the other side. 

    This is summarizing like six or seven sessions, and I've been delaying putting this up for a while, so some bits may have been elided over. Hopefully future session recaps will be easier and quicker to get together!

    Next steps on a campaign level, after this dungeon exploration concludes, include revising and tweaking the PHB rules and presenting the urban neighborhood notes I've been working on -- with Evlyn M art! -- coming soon.

    Treasure and XP:

    From Blooderfly -- scales from the wings were recovered. (Izohr's apprentice was unable to recover the creature's eye before suffering his strange burns.) 

    115 XP each for Rahat, Tizemt, Fadhil, Azod, Izohr, and Wali

    From Murtaza's Expedition -- orange-glowing occulith stone worth 1,000 dinars, along with: 22 dinars, in mixed currency, 6 daggers, 100’ rope, 4 bundles of torches, a lantern, 12  flasks of oil, a crowbar, 8 iron spikes, a mallet, 4 cloaks (one of which was a very cool-looking manta-styled cloak), and a set of thieves’ tools including lockpicks, lubrication oil, and flash powder). Murtaza himself had an impressive-looking shamshir, gold-and-animal-tooth necklace (200 dinars). Creatures slain: 2 crystal zombies, 1 crystal wight (Murtaza), 1 rubbery verdigris...thing..., and 6 glass spiders.

    444 XP each for Fadhil, Azod, and Wali

    Wednesday, April 28, 2021

    Productive Scab-picking: On Oppressive Themes in Gaming

    Preamble -- On Helicopters and Hugos:

    Last year, an author named Isabel Fall wrote an amazing milSF story in Clarkesworld magazine, now titled "Helicopter Story," but previously "I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter."

     Fall took a ugly transphobic 'joke' and turned it into an amazing, provocative, and thoughtful story. She also suffered a great deal because of it. People reacted badly to the title - which makes sense, given the incredibly hurtful associations the phrase has. Unfortunately, this also led to Fall receiving a lot of harassment herself. She pulled the story from Clarkesworld about two weeks after it dropped, and was also forced to out herself as being trans, in part of responding to the accusations of transphobia leveled at her.

    Helicopter Story is not currently available online anymore, but if that changes, I'll edit in a link here. It recently became a Hugo finalist for best Novelette. (Disclosure here: I'm one of the people who nominated it, and I'm really happy that it's up for a Hugo.)

    * * *

    Fall's Hugo nomination generated a Twitter thread here from Elizabeth Sandifer: 

    One thing that I don’t think has been discussed enough around Isabel Fall or in general is that there are two diametrically opposed visions of how to write queer literature. Let’s call them hugboxing and scab-picking, and do a quick thread...

    The basic divide between hugboxing and scab-picking comes in how they engage with queer oppression. Hugboxing imagines its absence, creating safer, better worlds. Scab-picking probes its wounds in deliberately painful and uncomfortable ways. 

    This got me thinking about the way that this is treated in the games we create and play. Sandifer's discussion of hugboxing and scab-picking (loaded terms! but ones I'm going to continue with for now) is centered in queer literature, but I think that the two poles have resonance for treatment of other axes of oppression (racism, sexism, imperialism, and colonialism for example). In games, it's a bit trickier than the binary state that Sandifer proposes -- instead of a single creation being put forth to be taken on its own merits (with an audience able to take or leave it as desired), you're dealing with a shared group interaction, often iterated over multiple instances. People's thresholds and goals are going to vary, both between people and sometimes within the same person from session to session.

    I think I fall on the scab-picking side of the spectrum, by and large - but I reiterate that it's a spectrum, and that operating on one side doesn't mean that the other doesn't have very valid outlook and uses. The gaming projects I'm most proud of (Lorn Song of the Bachelor and the forthcoming Haunted West adventure "Home is the Hangman") both fall on the scab-picking side regarding colonialism and racism...but I've veered away from the most recent editions of Paranoia, a game I have significant history with, in part because the decision to rebrand Alpha Complex's enemy du jour from "Communists" to "terrorists" felt a bit too on-the-nose for me, given what it felt like going through high school post 9/11. Everyone's got a different line that they will draw.

    * * *

    First, some perspectives from other thoughtful folks regarding the valid role of presenting oppression in a gaming context.

    Another Twitter thread here from Chris Kutalik (creator of the Hill Cantons and my longtime GM): 

    @ChrisKutalik: I sympathize with the motivation, the need for a clean bright shiny place for our brains to go when we roll weird shaped dice. One that doesn’t have women treated as chattel and the layers of racist projection...

     But I also think it’s an ironically reactionary impulse, the need to project heroism and romanticized ideals of stabbing living things with sharp things...I do draw the world of the Hill Cantons in a society I wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—want to live in. A rich one (I hope) with the pervasive weirdness, ugliness that the European medieval world was along with a more complicated society than many give it credit for.

    And this discussion from Pam Punzalan (TheDovetailor) and TrooperSJP (Academic Foxhole):

    @TheDoveTailor: The Philippines was colonized four times, and has a long history of trans-cultural exchange with upwards of three nations via trade prior to the Spanish coming around. If you're saying we should not deal with colonialism in our stories, you're telling us we have no story.

    @AcademicFoxhole: Everytime I hear: No POC wants to read about racism I think: Toni Morrison? Everytime I hear: No woman wants to read about sexual assault I think: Margaret Atwood? No Queer person wants to read about homophobia? Quentin Crisp? There is power in being able to define my own story.

    And of course, Zedeck Siew's thread here:

    @ZedeckSiew: Firstly: "D&D is colonialist" is similar to "the English language is colonialist".

    If your method of decolonising RPGs is to abandon D&D- some folks abandon English; they don't want to work in the language of the coloniser. More power to them!

    ...[I]t's an error to "decolonise D&D" by scrubbing such content from the game. That feels like erasure; like an unwillingness to face history / context; like a way to appease one's own settler guilt. Remember: if you -white or PoC- live in the West, or in an Asian urban centre (say), you are already complicit in colonialist / capitalist (they are inextricably linked) behaviour.

    Removing such stuff from RPGs might let you feel better. But won't change what you are. 

    I think it more truthful *and* more useful, to not avert one's eyes from D&D's colonialism.

    The fact that going forth into the hinterland to seek treasure and slay monsters is a thing and *fucking fun* tells us valuable things about the shape and psychology of colonialism.  

    Finally, a quote from Chris Spivey's Harlem Unbound:

    Harlem Unbound is built on the concept of tackling issues head-on. Some say Lovecraft was 'of his time,' but we know that his racism was even worse than that... So what does the popularity of his work, built on racism, say about our current society? And, how do you address the popular work which is so tethered to his reprehensible world view? We can't change the past, but we can tear it down and rebuild it into something that focuses on bringing us together. This can only be done by facing ugly truths. 

    * * *

    So. How do we, as creators, responsibly deal with and tackle those ugly truths Chris mentions? How does one pick at those scabs in a productive manner? A few of my takes:

    1. Stay Fluid

    As mentioned, people's thresholds and goals re: the level of oppression that they are willing to deal with in gaming are likely to fluctuate. Sure, one can have a Session Zero where some baselines are hashed out, but those can change on even a session-by-session basis. The real-life people around the table come first, and sometimes that means further check-ins or even rerouting session plans because of a spike in player discomfort. Make space for that, and make space for people to voice discomfort.

    "The Feral Shore" - section of the HC campaign
    where this story went down
    Personal example: I had a really bad time with a Hill Cantons game session a few years back, triggered by one player's actions in particular but rooted in discomfort with some of the colonialist facets of play that were being brought to the fore. It's not a thing I would have thought to flag when joining the campaign or even when the domain-game-heavy phase of play began, and I didn't realize how uncomfortable I was feeling or why until I had some time to unpack it afterwards. This led to some tough-but-clear conversations over G+ regarding what each of us was willing to play through and deal with at the table, and how we, as a group, felt comfortable progressing. The individual session was rough, but ultimately led to a better perspective on where we were at as a group. 

    Folks may move from being down to pick at scabs to needing to strongly divert away, and back again. Listen to where they're at, and try to accommodate. What that accommodation looks like may vary! If you as GM are preparing a heavy scab-picking session and a player needs something more hugboxy (or vice versa), maybe change the dynamics of the session...OR hold off on the session for a while, or maybe change the player composition for the session so that both parties can get the gaming experience they're seeking. There's no one right answer here, and the answer definitely isn't always "change your intended work." 

    Using safety tools may help for this, but those are generally something for after things have gone sideways, not a replacement for fluidity in terms of game approach. Further, not all safety tools are going to match with all tables. Just saying "oh, we have these tools, we're fine" isn't enough; you've got to think about these things before problems occur at the table.

    2. Work with Intentionality

    "Broken Blade," Evlyn Moreau
    One of the critiques often levelled at works reproducing systems of oppression is that it's all fictional - so why include these elements that serve to remind folks of real-world oppression? I think there's certainly some truth to this; our imagined worlds aren't limited by the scars of history, and don't need to go down those paths and recreate those pains in-game. But if one wants to engage with those issues in game, then they are going to have to come up in some form. 

    So, if you're going to bring in those elements of oppression into your setting or your game, fine -- but make a deliberate choice to do so. Think about the implications on a societal level, and what dealing with those means for players. Have some thought beyond "oh, things were bad in (Renn Faire Fantasy Times), let's put it in that way, it'll add atmosphere." You're making a conscious choice to include this material in your setting. Is it being presented in a meaningful way? Is there personal experience that you're able to draw on when including this material? 

    3. Know Yourself, Know Your Audience

    Are you creating material for your home table, or planning on publishing this for others to interact with? If you're tackling material that's outside of your personal experience, have you thought about how you're going to make sure you don't hit some of the pitfalls associated with that? If you're planning on publishing something that's centering on experience outside of your own, are you the right person to be tackling this work? 

    And even if you're just focusing on something for your home table, are you sure that your crew is on board with the material you're bringing in? If you can, try to touch base beforehand and make sure folks are on the same page. 

    4. Take Your Lumps -- But Know Who's Talking

    If you're going to put issues of oppression in your work, you have to be willing to listen, sincerely listen, if and when folks call you out about the treatment of a given issue. And this is hard! It's even harder if someone calls you out in an angry fashion, because it can feel like they're coming after you and your work personally. 

    If someone's calling you out? Try to listen. Because that's often someone who legitimately wants to see you do better. And even if you don't agree with their takeaway and you still think you did it right, you might have a better feel for how you want to handle a similar issue in the future. But at the same time, also pay attention to who's critiquing you, and the substance of those critiques. Most are going to be in good faith, but there are folks who thrive on call-outs for Internet clout.* Listen to what people are saying, but don't assume that they're automatically correct. 

    Fall's example is on point here. Many of the critiques she faced were good-faith critiques, understandably on edge from the (original) title and the red flags that it raised for people. Some critiques went a hell of a lot further than that. I think that while the critiques may have been made in good faith, the story was legitimate and should not have been pulled; she was right to pen it and publish it. 

    * * *

    These are not easy things to do. But I think they are necessary if we're going to create thoughtfully. It can feel like a lot - particularly when the context for folks reading this is likely far more towards "RPG as fun group problem-solving game" instead of "RPG as deep raw emotional catharsis" or "RPG as art piece." 

    At the same time, I think that even games focused on the fun problem-solving side of things have the potential to tackle painful material in a thoughtful way, whether it's in a satirical or direct format. We can walk and chew gum at the same time here. If the fictional worlds we're envisioning are to have axes of oppression within them, then the least we can do is put time and effort into making sure those worlds are thoughtful and deliberate, that the scab-picking is productive. One of the strengths of the people I hang with has long been the compelling and fascinating settings that folks have put together. I see this as just taking the next logical, necessary step. 

    Y'all with me?

    (Special thanks to Yoshi and Momatoes for providing feedback on this post.)

    *Call-outs can be necessary sometimes! But they can also be a pernicious thing, because you feel like you're doing the righteous thing and you're getting positive attention and reinforcement. If you're going to call someone out on bad behavior, think about it, make sure you know why you're doing it, and make sure you're centering the folks actually harmed by the bad behavior. I've tried to keep this framework in mind, and I think I've done a decent job on this front? But it can be tricky. 

    Wednesday, April 21, 2021

    Landsknecht Link Round Up, 2021

    While I try to put together two actual posts of my own, here are a few recent(ish) OSR blog posts that I thought were interesting/compelling, and a little bit about why I thought that they were worth checking out.

    • All Dead Generations: So You Want To Build a Dungeon: This is a series of tips on how to construct the epitome of the Classic Dungeon Crawl, with discussion on some major features that designers ought to consider. Gus has been thoughtfully discussing some of the components in this process for a while, but it's nice to see a one-stop codified "best practices and design tips" location. I'm definitely going to be checking this out when working on my next dungeon.

    • Realm of Zhu: Some Ludological Influences on the early adoption of Dungeons & Dragons Etc.: Hopping into the Jon Petersen Playing At The World/The Elusive Shift zone of assessing influences on proto-D&D, Zhu looks at the influence of Tony Bath-style wargames and the board game Mastermind. I've been interested in the Tony Bath school of play for a while, ever since Hill Cantons blogged about it a while back, but I hadn't expected the connections that Zhu is drawing re: Mastermind. My preference in selecting these blog entries is generally more towards "building forward" than retrospectives, but I think that this entry is worthwhile because it generates some fruitful questions: are there still useful tools to be gleaned from the wargaming side of things? Are there changes in game design on the adversarial boardgame side that can provide some useful frameworks for bringing into OSR-style play?

    • Le Chaudron Chromatique: Some advice to represent trans characters in game: Evlyn M has some thoughts about how to portray trans characters in one's gaming and worldbuilding, both tropes to avoid but also areas that she recommends making a point to think about and fill in.

    • Le Chaudron Chromatique: Setup of my new OSE campaign: Hey, while you're at the Chromatic Cauldron, also check out this post regarding the setup and framework for a new campaign Evlyn's putting together. I really like these sorts of posts - they let you see a fellow GM's worldbuilding and design framework. It's always interesting to get a feel for how other GMs are approaching their campaigns, and getting a brief taste of the ideas they've got percolating. In this particular instance, Evlyn's put together a neat setup envisioning adventurers picking through the ruins of a vanished Elven civilization as their forest enters a perpetual autumn, while a dread wizard-king takes over the world in the background.

    • Mazirian's Garden: Injury and the Abstract Combat Round: Ben's been putting together a new OSR ruleset, Jorune: Evolutions. In the course of this design process, he's been dropping some absolutely great posts looking at various subsystems and facets of play, and thinking seriously about how they can be improved for what he wants at the table. This entry deals with the traditional combat round of OD&D and presents an alternative to try and increase flavor/dynamic feel of combat by abstracting out some of the details and stepping further away from the "one roll = one stab" zone.

    • Gundobad Games: Dressing Your Monsters: Raging Swan Press Monstrous Lairs I & II [REVIEW]: I was really impressed by this review, because it actually does the work to examine "can this help me put together better ideas than what I'm coming up with on my own?" and provides some extremely useful thoughts on how a GM can use this to help prep their own material.

    • From The Sorcerer's Skull: Guns of Middle-Earth: No, people haven't gone back in time to arm Sauron's armies with AK-47s (at least in this entry; Mary Gentle's 'Grunts' might beg to differ). In Guns of Middle-Earth, Trey takes a look at some of the Victorianisms of Middle-Earth and muses on how to heighten the 19th-century feel. Middle-Earth feels very much like a 'closed setting' to me, so I do very much appreciate seeing takes on how to remix it and present a fresh setting to engage with.

    • DIY and Dragons: Tolkienian Science Fantasy -- Replacing the PC Species: In a similar vein to Trey's post, Anne's take on replacing trad Tolkien species with some more traditional SF species (from Trek and Babylon 5) and imagining the changes in tone that would come from this. Anne coins the brilliant term 'French vanilla setting' here -- something that clearly draws upon the basic format of Trad Fantasy, but simultaneously brings something new, extra, and unique to the table.

    • DIY and Dragons: Advice from the Blogosphere in 2020: I'll close out my survey post with this survey post from Anne, which catalogs some of the best advice posted on blogs in 2020.
    So! What have y'all been reading or working on in the OSR sphere? Anyone planning on participating in the Megadungeon Jam over on

    (Crossposted from