Sharing: July 8, 2018

More links to stuff I like:

Comics: Marvel Unlimited
For $69 (U.S.) a year, Marvel Unlimited gives you all-you-can-read access to thousands of Marvel comics including much of their back list: all the way back to Fantastic Four #1 and even some earlier comics (from before they called themselves Marvel). When I first subscribed in 2013, I went back ten years and started reading everything Marvel had published beginning in 2003. I’m now on October 2014.

I should note that Marvel Unlimited doesn’t include comics from the most recent six months, so if you want the newest comics, you’ll have to buy those on your own. Or else, just wait six months and they’ll show up for free. (Well, for $69 a year, but that’s almost free, right?)

Role-Playing Game: Geist, the Sin-Eaters (Second Edition)
This is another Onyx Path game, set in the world of the Chronicles of Darkness. In this one, you play someone who dies but comes back to life by making a deal with a powerful archetypal ghost. This may sound grim, but the game actually evokes an atmosphere like Mardi-Gras or the Mexican Day of the Dead: hey, since you’ve already died, nothing worse can happen. So why not live life like a party? On the other hand, you gain fabulous supernatural powers based on the kind of things ghosts do in ghost stories.

Right now the game’s second edition is going through a Kickstarter, so it’s a good time to sign up and get goodies relatively cheap.

Podcast: Revolutions
This is another history podcast, dedicated to revolutions (duh). It’s now in its eight season, where it’s dealing with the revolution that killed the Second French Empire in 1870. Previous seasons have dealt with the English revolution (Oliver Cromwell et al), the American revolution, the French revolution (i.e. the biggie), the Haitian slave revolt, and more. The host, Mike Duncan, does a great job of making history accessible, even when the action gets messy (and of course, during revolutions, things can get very messy indeed).

RPG Setting: Divergent Hogwarts

I run role-playing games for various groups, and I thought it might be of interest if I shared some of the settings that I’ve “invented” (which often means “egregiously stolen”).

So let’s start with one I came up with for a group that included several teenagers. I knew they were interested in YA books, particularly the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth and the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling. So I invented a setting which combined the two in a way that I hoped would appeal to them.

As is only right for a YA-based campaign, the background is post-apocalyptic. The apocalypse was caused by an outbreak of magic in our modern world. (I was thinking of something like the Conjunction of Spheres from the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski, but it doesn’t really matter.) Things went to hell in a handbasket, thanks to the abrupt appearance of magical creatures and uncontrolled sorcerous outbursts.

Numerous enclaves and cultures arose out of civilization’s ashes. One such enclave was established by people who were fans of Divergent and Harry Potter. They created a school to train troubleshooters who could help other communities deal with problems. As you might expect from the school’s two inspirations, “Divergent Hogwarts” taught both magic and other useful skills as in the Divergent books.

Many role-playing games describe characters using an “X-axis” and a “Y-axis”. If you’re familiar with Dungeons & Dragons the X-axis is race (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) and the Y-axis is class/profession (wizard, fighter, rogue, etc.). Each axis choice gives you a set of abilities. By mixing and matching (elf wizard, human rogue, dwarf fighter, etc.), you get a wide variety of character possibilities that can be further developed in other ways.

In Divergent Hogwarts, the X-axis was Divergent faction (Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite) and the Y-axis was Hogwarts house (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin). Players would choose their character’s faction and house; each choice conveyed certain skills and attributes, giving the character a useful operating base.

For the game system, I chose Mage, the Awakening (Second Edition) from Onyx Path Publishing. Mage is well-suited for both magic and ass-kicking (as well as investigation and social life, which the teens were interested in too). Mage subdivides magical powers into ten arcana: Death, Fate, Forces, Life, and so on. Every mage has two primary arcana that they’re most adept with. In Divergent Hogwarts, one of your primary arcana was determined by your faction while the other was determined by your house. For example, a Dauntless Gryffindor would be good at Forces and Spirit, while an Erudite Slytherin would be good at Mind and Death.

With five factions and four houses, they almost covered the ten arcana. I decided that nobody would be good at “Prime” (which is essentially magic dealing with magic itself). Everyone would have to struggle with that.

The lovely thing about this set-up is that the teens didn’t have to read the rule book much to get started. They were, after all, just beginning students at the school. They’d know what types of magic they were good at (thanks to a version of the Sorting Hat which helped them determine their faction and house), but beyond that, they’d pick up the niceties as they went along.

Whenever they wanted to cast a spell, I just asked them what they wanted to do and what kind of magic mumbo-jumbo they’d do to improve their chances of success. Of course, shouting magic words and waving “wands” are basic (although lots of objects could be used in place of wands…guns and knives, for example). But the players soon started using other familiar tricks from fantasy books. For example, if they were trying to find someone who was missing, they knew it would be useful to get an article of the missing person’s clothing or perhaps some hairs off their comb. The players had a lot of fun figuring out cool ways to improve their chances of successfully casting spells.

Early adventures were restricted to the Divergent Hogwarts enclave…and I admit I stole some scenarios straight from the books. When the group got more comfortable with the game system and with working together, they started being sent on outside missions: helping other enclaves with various types of problems.

All in all, it was a really fun setting. We spent about a year there, until they discovered a big secret which propelled them into something completely different. But I offer this up as inspiration for anyone who wants to game with YA readers and is looking for something they’ll connect with.

[Rabbit picture from “Easter Bunny Rabbit The Magic Hats Clip art – Hat Bunny @kisspng”]

Sharing: June 11, 2018

Cool things for the day:

Book Bundle: British Mysteries Ultimate Collection
I picked up this bundle over the weekend, and I’m thrilled. On Amazon Canada (see the link above), it was only 73 cents. For that tiny price, you get a huge number of Kindle books, including all the Sherlock Holmes books plus more from Conan Doyle, all the Wilkie Collins books, all the A.J. Raffles books, all the Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, a ton from Edgar Wallace, and much more. I’m sure all the books are just taken from Project Gutenberg, but the convenience of downloading them with a single click is well worth 73 cents.
Comic Book Series: Lumberjanes
Lumberjanes is a lovely comic series for kids and those who’ve never grown up. Let’s say the series is for people age 7 to infinity. It’s about a diverse group of hardcore lady-types (i.e. girls, not all straight, not all cis) at a wilderness camp that’s enjoying an endless summer full of weirdness. I faithfully buy and read the collections when they come out, then pass them on to the daughters of some friends.
Role-Playing System: Mage the Awakening, Second Edition
I’m a big fan of games from The Onyx Path, who hold a license to create games that follow on from the old White Wolf games. I’d recommend pretty much any of their games, and will probably do so in the months to come. However, I’ve played Mage most recently, so I’ll lead with that. By default, the game is set in today’s world where you play (duh) a mage…which can mean any type of magic-using character you can imagine. The game system is very flexible; while it has long lists of predefined spells, you aren’t restricted to them. Since one of the groups I play with has several players who aren’t into reading rule books, I said, “Just tell me what you want to do. We’ll see if you’re powerful enough to do it.” For those who’ve only played games like Dungeons & Dragons, Mage can be an eye-opener.


Models: Multiplicity

In a previous post, I talked about science being all about making models. You observe a lot of phenomena, then you try to make a model that represents your observations. By creating a model, you make a generalization that (you hope) will apply to things you haven’t seen as well as the things you have.

But there’s a huge caveat that applies here: sometimes different models can be used to represent the same phenomena.

Most famously, light can be modeled as a wave or a particle. (Light is also modeled as a ray in Geometrical Optics.) It’s important to stress that these are models. We’re sometimes sloppy and say that light is a wave or a particle, but that’s going too far. Light is light. Waves and particles are models that help us predict how light will behave, and although they’re excellent models, they’re abstractions. We can’t say they’re real.

Another famous example of models are the different ways to represent the solar system, specifically the Copernican and Ptolemaic models. It’s well known that the Ptolemaic system used to fit observational data better than the Copernican model did, at least to begin with. Ptolemy’s system of multiple spheres had so many fudge factors that it could be adjusted to match reality pretty closely, whereas Copernicus had problems because he tried to use circular orbits instead of ellipses. But in the long run, the Copernican model was modified to become more accurate, and it “won” because it was much much simpler than Ptolemy’s spheres.

As another example, think of maps. Maps are models: abstractions of actual landscapes. We have road maps, topographical maps, numerous kinds of geological maps, and much more. Each can be based on the same terrain; the difference depends on what you choose to include and exclude.

Let me emphasize exclusion. The whole point of a map is that you leave things out for the sake of simplicity. Maps only show a tiny subset of what’s actually on the ground. They may also exaggerate the size of some geographical objects so they’re easier to see; a road map, for example, shows roads much wider than they would be if they were actually drawn to scale. We might say that maps are deliberately wrong—they deliberately hide some things and distort others in order to make certain information more comprehensible.

The same is true of economic models. The actual economy is hopelessly complex; it consists of a huge number of transactions between people, companies, governments, and other organizations. No model could possibly capture so much complexity. As a result, economic models make enormous simplifications—they ignore almost everything that actually happens.

We all know how that can lead to problems. Different economic models arise from ignoring different things, and what you ignore may be precisely what bites you in the ass during a financial crisis.

But my favorite example of multiplicity in models is what we see in role-playing games. Every RPG contains a system for representing characters: often a list of numbers and abilities aimed at modeling human beings (or human-like entities). Different games use different models…and while some game systems are moderately similar to one another, others are wildly divergent.

Even more interestingly, slight differences in models can lead to substantially different gaming experiences. The Call of Cthulhu character model, for example, is pretty close to a lot of other models, except for a single number: a ranking of your sanity. That SAN rating takes on an overwhelming importance as you play the game. Sanity considerations can affect every action taken by individuals and by entire groups. It gives the game a much different ambiance from games that might otherwise be similar.

My point is that models are chosen, and often by selectively omitting or exaggerating details. Models often impose and reinforce a view of what is and isn’t important. This has consequences…and in the next installment of this series, I’ll take a look at what those might be.

[Picture of Cthulhu by Alexander Liptak. Image used with permission under Creative Commons repository. Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.]

Sharing: June 6, 2018

Things I’ve enjoyed recently.

Article: There Are No Laws of Physics. There’s Only the Landscape
A good introduction to the concept of “the landscape” in modern physics, and why it has physicists both excited and disappointed.
Book: Gothicka by Victoria Nelson
A survey of recent developments in Gothic fiction. To a first approximation, Gothic fiction used to be synonymous with supernatural horror, but in recent years, not so much. Classic monsters like vampires and werewolves are more likely to be heroes than villains these days, as in the entire genre of urban fantasy. Why did this happen and what does it mean? I don’t agree with Nelson on numerous points, and she gets a few specifics wrong (especially when it comes to comic books), but there’s lots of food for thought.
Computer Game: The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (I recommend the Game of the Year edition containing all the DLC)
It took me a while to get around to The Witcher 3, partly because I got super-annoyed with technical glitches in The Witcher 1 and partly because the creators said ill-informed things when taken to task for the game’s lack of diversity. But as Anita Sarkeesian often says in Feminist Frequency videos, it’s possible to both enjoy a game and be aware of its problematic aspects.
The Witcher 3 is too male-gaze-y and lacks people of color, yet it’s the most inventive computer role-playing game I’ve ever played. It has many great story arcs, long and short, great game-play, and plenty of surprises. Over and over, I found myself encountering things I’d never seen in any other game…and even though it’s now several years old, nothing since has ever come close to its level of variety and story-telling. After more than 200 hours of play, I’ve started it again from the beginning and am still enjoying it a lot.

Chase Scenes in RPGs

I take part in tabletop role-playing games on a regular basis, both as a player and as GM. Some of my absolute most favorite sessions are based around chase scenes, so I thought I’d write a little about them.

Chase scenes are classic bits in adventure movies and TV. They’re less common in books and stories, perhaps because it’s harder to pace them well in prose. If a chase in a book goes on more than a page or two, it feels slow. You just can’t create the breakneck pace that you get on a screen.

In typical tabletop games, chase scenes tend to be short. If you’re using a tabletop map, the quarry escapes by reaching the edge of the map. That’s often possible in a single turn. But players feel cheated if a quarry gets away when it seems easy to catch. On the other hand, it’s not very interesting if a chase just comes down to seeing whose running speed is higher. In movies, chases aren’t just a case of comparing numbers.

The first time I saw a good mechanic for chases was in Night’s Black Agents from Pelgrane Press. It’s an abstract mechanic that works quite well.

All pursuers start a chase with a distance number of 5 from the quarry. Each turn, everyone in the chase can just keep going as is, or they can take a risk to improve their situation. A risk may be some crazy running/driving maneuver, or it may involve using a skill (e.g. knowledge of the city streets) to outdo the opposition.

If the quarry succeeds in a risk, all pursuers have their distance number go up by 1. If the quarry fails, the distance numbers go down. Similarly, if a pursuer succeeds in a risk, his or her distance number goes down; if the pursuer fails, the distance number goes up. Particularly crazy risks may change the distance number by 2 (up or down).

If a pursuer’s distance number reaches zero, the pursuer has caught the quarry. If a pursuer’s number reaches 10, that pursuer is out of the chase. Maybe the pursuer has just lost the trail. Maybe the pursuer’s horse has gone lame, or the car smashes into a building. It’s up to the GM to come up with something interesting, usually based on the individual pursuer’s most recent risk.

This system is simple and easy to adjust. For example, if you want a shorter chase, set the initial distance number at 3 and declare that the quarry gets away at 6.

But distance numbers are just a way of keeping score. The real fun comes from the risks, especially when you use them to emulate the kind of action that happens in movie chases.

Ideally, the GM should prepare a list of props and events in advance. As an example, here’s what I did when I ran a chase in a cyberpunk campaign set in Vancouver.

First, I set up the stakes: a bad guy does a deal and acquires a suitcase nuke at a gigantic rock concert. He then hops onto a motorbike and speeds away.

Obviously, the heroes will want to pursue. What can they chase the bad guy with? I supplied a selection of interesting vehicles. It just so happens that a gang of outlaw bikers have left their Harleys unattended. Throw in a sports car, an autogyro, a jetpack, and maybe a cybernetic horse. Each player character gets a choice of how to pursue. The horse and jetpack are bound to go first, then a lot of motorbikes. I made sure to have bikes left over, so the outlaw bikers could chase after the heroes: all part of the same chase.

One way or another, all the player characters had a chance to grab a vehicle and speed off in pursuit. From that point on, I made sure to have an appropriate set of hazards to spring along the way. For example, the quarry chose the risk of driving into a street festival: one with fireworks, a Chinese dragon parade, etc., etc. The quarry had to make a driving roll to get through the crowd. Pursuers could make similar rolls…but what if a player character is better at acrobatics than driving? In that case, maybe the character is better off doing wire fu moves up the side of a building and along the rooftops, avoiding all the confusion in the street. On the far side of the festival, there happens to be a taxi idling its engine. “Follow that motorbike!” And the chase continues.

The GM should let players improvise within the spirit of such chases. For example, if a player successfully makes an acrobatics roll to reach the rooftops, don’t require a roll for a taxi to be waiting. In movies, there’s always a taxi waiting…or a motorbike or a horse, a beautiful woman in a Ferrari or a hot-looking guy on a hover-board. You want your players to feel free to try wild stunts without penalty—just like in the movies.

Naturally, everyone will be shooting while all this is going on: guns, arrows, magic spells, whatever. But as in the movies, a successful shot doesn’t end the chase prematurely. If you shoot out the bad guy’s tires, he simply steals a new car…or he stays on foot and runs down into the subway where the chase continues.

As GM, you should have plenty of contingency plans to avoid premature endings. On the other hand, if the players do something really clever (or lucky), don’t be afraid to reward them by letting them catch the quarry, even though their distance number isn’t zero yet.

My favorite chases have been deliriously over the top. That cyberpunk campaign also included a highway chase with 18-wheelers, and it had a super-high death count. (The exploding oil truck was a contributing factor.) But you can always have more serious chases, especially if the heroes are the ones being pursued. The secret is still to have a big toolkit ready ahead of time: a list of possible events and stunts inspired by appropriate movie chases. Running across dark rooftops while you try to stay silent can be a nail-biting experience if done right.

If you’ve never done a chase in a role-playing game, I encourage you give it a shot. We did one in my 13th Age campaign last night…and as soon as the players realized a chase was coming, they practically started cheering. (Flying brooms and a flying Ford Anglia were involved.)