Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Legends & Lore

Legends &  Lore is an old-school D&D book that takes real world pantheons of gods and adapts them to Dungeons and Dragons. Which raises one obvious question - exactly how much cultural appropriation are we talking about here?

The answer: not as much as you might think. Ultimately, there's not enough culture in this book for it to appropriate much of anything. Each of the gods gets perhaps a paragraph or two to explain who they are and what they do, and then the rest of the entry details what it would be like to fight that deity.

It's an odd choice. The introduction to the book claims that it's not meant to be a Monster Manual, but rather a resource for DMs interested in worldbuilding, and that claim half checks out, because the actual divine stats are so ridiculous and over-the-top that no reasonable adventuring party would even come close to beating them. And yet . . .

This book is structured exactly like a Monster Manual. The individual entries for the various gods are Monster Manual entries. There is almost nothing about their relationships, theology, or role in the functioning of a campaign world. They might not be there for players to fight, but that is pretty much all the information in the book is good for.

I think this is a book that had a lot more utility prior to the internet. None of the gods in the book, not even the really obscure ones, have an entry longer than their individual wikipedia pages. Which means that from a modern perspective, a quick google search is about 100 times better than anything this book can do for you. But perhaps things were different in 1983. Perhaps, back then, a book like Legends and Lore would have been useful as a mythology index, even if it's not a great primary resource. I can imagine that if you were a kid back then, faced with the daunting prospect of a gigantic card catalogue to search through, then maybe it would help to see a drawing or a name or a brief power description in this book and thereby become inspired, allowing you to narrow down the questions you'd ask the librarian while doing your research.

In any event, this book is now a relic. Useful to me mainly as a curiosity, a way to make my 1st edition AD&D collection look less perfunctory. The cover is awesome, as all the covers from this period in the game happened to be. The interior art is . . . inconsistent, again, as was standard from works of this period. The actual text, however, was far too lacking for me to ever consider it an essential resource.

UKSS Contribution: This is a tough one, because technically I have the bulk of human mythology. But if I confine myself to the details that actually made it to the page, my options are a bit more limited. I think I'm going to go with the cloud chariots of the Sumerian pantheon. They're not just a stylish form of transportation. According to Legends & Lore, they are also a way that the Sumerian gods identify themselves to their followers - if someone shows up and they don't have a cloud chariot, then they're not (verifiable) a god.

I like that. It shows real consideration on the part of the gods to include some form of error-checking into their divine appearances. I probably won't give the cloud chariots of Ukss to actual gods, per se, but I can see them being the proprietary magic of some mystic order, which uses this signature form of transport to verify their involvement in particular situations.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Dungeoneer's Survival Guide

When I first started reading this book, I was afraid it would be The Wilderness Survival Guide all over again. The first half is filled with dry, overly-fiddly rules for things like climbing, navigating a boat through underground waters, and mining for minerals.

Part of me is tempted to just run with it. Say, "fuck heroic fantasy adventure, this game is about running a mine now." I like it when video games lose the thread that way (and may be the only person on Earth who approves of Mass Effect 2's scanning minigame), but it didn't work in the wilderness book, and it doesn't work here. The particulars of what the tedious rules actually are are not very fun to engage with. (This is where I suggest using Chuubo's pastoral genre for games about mineral exploration and running a business).

However, Dungeoneer's Survival Guide is largely redeemed by its second half. It details an underground setting filled with various elemental creatures, cthonic monsters, and exiles from the surface.

The lands of Deepearth would work pretty well for a series of adventures, but it's an oddly conservative type of fantasy. I suppose it makes sense, given how early in rpg history it is, but it feels off when they talk about "live caves" and "dead caves" and you realize they mean nothing more than the presence or absence of water. Or when you've got a wide array of fantasy races, but they mostly look human and do human-type things. And when even your unspeakable abominations from before the rise of man still manage to live in cities and care about some rather prosaic forms of treasure.

It might just be an artifact of being a short subsection of an already pretty short book. The DM's section does have to split its wordcount between Deepearth and a surprisingly long diversion into to generic DMing advice.

And this is really basic stuff, not connected to dungeoneering at all, except on those intermittent occasions when the author seems to remember that this is a specialist book. We're talking about things like player motivations, campaign structure, narrative vs sandbox play. All of the traditional DMing advice we've come to expect from the D&D Dungeon Master's Guides.

Except, inexplicably, it's here. In a book that's supposed to be about underground adventuring. I can't explain it, except perhaps with the theory that people back then were still figuring out how this whole "roleplaying game" thing was supposed to work, so they just did whatever seemed like a good idea at the time.

In any event, I may have to track down a later, more sophisticated version of the Underdark, one that perhaps understood that giant, underground mushroom forests inhabited by a race of sapient fungus men, was something interesting enough to warrant more than a couple of perfunctory paragraphs.

UKSS Contribution: I'm going to go off the beaten path here a little. There were some cool setting details, like magma-men who were only incidentally dangerous, but at heart playful and silly creatures that enjoyed climbing up high cliffs and then diving into pools of lava down below. Or, you know, creepy mythos-esque creatures like Illithids and Aboleths.

However, in the spirit of the book being entirely too mundane for its premise, I'm going to choose something that could exist in the real world, but which the rules strangely decide to focus on in a way that implies that it happens all the time in D&D world - naturally occurring lodestone deposits that generate magnetic fields so powerful they pose a danger to adventurers wearing metal armor.

I can't find evidence that there was ever a real lodestone strong enough to yank an adult man off his feet at 30 feet away, but in fantasy geology, anything's possible. There's probably some occult explanation for why this phenomenon occurs, but it isn't necessarily more occult than the explanations behind most other features of the terrain.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Fortitude: Glass Maker's Dragon - Chapters 3-5

Part 1

Literally 5 minutes before I sat down to write this post, I noticed for the first time that the print version of the book forgoes the word "Fortitude" in its title. I was just reflexively working off my memory of the kickstarter when I added it to my list. I suppose I could change the post titles to be more accurate, but I'm just going to let the mistake stand. Call it a monument to my carelessness as a critic.

With that said, let's get into the meat of The Glass Maker's Dragon.

The trickiest part of the book, or at least the part that took me longest to understand, is that you're meant to reuse the quest cycles. Part of this came down to a failure to grasp the system jargon - that the third quest on an arc is something different than a character's third arc. But the bulk of it is simply that I started off thinking of quests as something much more specific than they turned out to be.

Like, take Chuubo's quest set:

Wishing for Ease/Power
Wicked Creatures
Asserting Your Existence
Wishing For Healing

I thought that was meant to cover Chuubo's whole story - going to Fortitude to investigate his strange dreams, finding the Dream Witch in person, reaching some kind of rapprochement with her, and going back to being an ordinary kid (or perhaps turning into a new tree of worlds, in some future story). Chapter 5, which described the various characters' arcs, confused the hell out of me.

What I failed to realize (and there's no real excuse for this but poor reading comprehension on my part - see: my other blog where I'm constantly flubbing my way through video game plots for further context) was that chapter 5 was telling me that Chuubo had four stories in the overall campaign - Investigating/managing his dreams, Being tempted to use his wishing power for evil, A mystical vision quest tied up with that whole tree of worlds thing, and, finally, Dealing with the shard of the glass dragon that started this whole thing in the first place.

And because of who Chuubo is, his role as a character, all four of his stories share the same basic structure - he begins by being haunted by some outside force, he then uses his powers in a kind of reckless or irresponsible way, then he makes friends with the original dark forces - and that may be the end of it, but if it's not, then maybe the end is where he temporarily loses himself to the corruption/confusion of those dark forces before finding himself in the end. And if that fails, he'll wind up wishing himself back to normalcy.

The pattern repeats, but you're supposed to vary the particulars. At the start, it's Miramie that's haunting Chuubo. But the second time around, it's probably the Headmaster of the Bleak Academy. Third time, the tree on the Island of King Death. Fourth, the abstract burden of his own growing power. Same structure, but different stories

But then, there's also this whole parallel track, where you could tell these same stories with Miramie as a viewpoint character. That would use her quest pattern. Beautiful and Far Away - Fascination - This is So Surreal (or Such a Bad Idea) - You've Lost Them - Something Heals. Same story, but different structure. Because of this different structure, you're probably going to explore the story from a different perspective, and have access to different information, but the basic plot is the same.

And that's just using the material as it's presented. You can also vary the order of a quest set, depending on the color of your character's arc. And by searching out alternative options for Chuubo's main colors, you could adapt him to any of the other character's stories. It's wild how versatile this system is.

Which leads me into the second really obvious thing that I didn't quite understand - most of this book (arguably all of it) is PC-facing. In my defense, this took a long time to realize because it's the exact opposite of the way most "campaign" books operate. Usually, as the GM, you're supposed to be the one who has all the information about the story, and then orchestrate events to slow-drip that information to the players, over the course of the game. 

Here, if you are playing Chuubo (to stick with the example), you're supposed to read the whole of the summary of "Chuubo Makes a Terrible God-King" and allow it to inform your play. Which just seems bonkers, from a traditional roleplaying perspective. You're essentially asking the players to spoil themselves on the whole story before it begins.

But that's a matter for the third thing I didn't quite understand about The Glass Maker's Dragon, and the one that I'm least embarrassed by, because it doesn't quite spell itself out in the text. From my description above, you might get the impression that these various moving parts lend themselves to a very deterministic game, where all the players know their stories in advance and are more or less just arm-wrestling each other for the screentime to establish the facts in play.

That's not how it is at all, though. Because the individual story descriptions don't provide enough detail to actually do that. It's something that frustrated me the first couple of times I read the book, back when it was an unformatted pdf. You start with the heading "Chuubo Makes a Terrible God-King" and that's clearly a story, but when you look at the text, it's all about how various example NPCs might fit into the structure of your quests. It doesn't go into any detail about what happens.

It's kind of awful to read, actually. But the thunderbolt that came to me on this, my 3rd or 4th read of the text, was that the details of "what happens" are what happens in play. Which, okay, now that I write it down, seems like another super-obvious thing I should have picked up on before, but listen, it's the Rosetta Stone for unlocking what Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine is as a game.

The thing with the quests and the arcs and with players understanding and taking responsibility for the structure of their own stores can sometimes seem like the characters' stories are written down on their character sheets, before the game actually begins. But this ties in to my first point about reusing the quests.

"Haunted," the quest, isn't "the story of how Chuubo dealt with Miramie invading his dreams." No, it's more like the text of the story is what happens at the table, and the bullet points on your quest card are your English teacher's questions about the text.

I.e. "Chuubo Makes for a Terrible God-King's first act had a recurring motif of characters talking about dreams and comparing them to reality. Name three times this happened."

Except you're the author of the story, so you can cheat by writing a scene that fits the answer (except for Major Goals, which require the cooperation of the GM and/or other players). The English test questions aren't the whole (or even the bulk) of the story, but you can't get new answers unless the story is moving forward.

This is the source of the overwrought analogy in my original CMWGE post - I feel like my rpg universe is crumbling around me and that I'm finally seeing its true scope for the first time. It's kind of frustrating, because even after all the times I've read this book, I still can't be sure that I fully understand it, but I'm excited for a day when I can get a group with the same enthusiasm I have. I'm expecting something magical.

UKSS Contribution - Okay, this is even more specific than CMWGE, and thus I feel even more unease in plagiarizing something, but tradition is tradition, so I'll just take the dream beetles, that spawn in people's dreams and burrow into the real world. They're probably going to be a lot more horrifying in my reality, though.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Fortitude: Glass Maker's Dragon - Chapters 1 and 2

 Part 2

This book is an absolute brick. More than 550 pages. The same was true of the core book, but that felt more natural. Core books are supposed to cover every topic in the game. A campaign, on the other hand, seems like it should be a bit more compact. As of this morning, I was 300 pages into the book and I only just now finished reading all the preconstructed characters.

As much as I love this book, I have to admit it's a weakness. After 300 pages, you really get to know the Glass Maker's Dragon cast - their history, their inner life, their relationships - and they're all great, both individually and as an ensemble. But who's going to read 300 pages?

Well, me, obviously. And a lot of other fans. Which I'm sure is part of what contributes to a sense I've gotten around the internet that Chuubo's is perceived as too lore-heavy, and the fanbase too insular, for the game to really be accessible to newbies.

On the other hand, if you can find some way to communicate the basic concept of the characters well enough to let your players pick one, then that cuts down the reading significantly. Twenty to thirty pages and you've got everything you need to know to play a character, including variants, options, and generalized roleplaying advice.

The question, then, is "are the characters good enough to warrant even that much work?" And that's tricky. Of course the characters are good. Jenna Moran is one of the best writers in the rpg business today. If you pick up Glass Maker's Dragon (and judiciously skip over the drier mechanical bits) you will be entertained by these first two chapters.

However, I worry that maybe the characters are too good. Too distinct. There's a sense there that they've already been written. That you're not so much playing the preconstructs as trying to guess how they'd react to the game's situations. It's a weird feeling, like writing fanfiction to a story that's never been published.

Personally, I kind of like it, especially since I know that the characters tend to get reused and remixed in other CMWGE products, making them a cast of stock characters, a sort of anime-inspired commedia dell' arte. I wish it was an approach more games took with their signature characters.

But I can also understand how some might find it alienating.

Overall, I'm having a pretty good time with Glass Maker's Dragon so far. The real test is going to come in the last half of the book, though. I could never quite pin down how it's supposed to work as a campaign.

But that's a discussion for my next post.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Wilderness Survival Guide

This book is deeply weird. Not necessarily in its content, but in its conception. It was a not infrequent occurrence for me to stop reading and exclaim, to no one in particular, "why did they decide to publish this, who is it for?" The main variation in this ritual was my fluctuating levels of exacerbation and despair.

The Wilderness Survival Guide is an omnibus of rules about what happens when your characters are outdoors. But not, like, cool fantasy adventure type stuff. It's whatever the opposite of that is. If you ever wanted to calculate much wear-and-tear your tent suffers under various prevailing wind and precipitation levels or the relative encumbrance values of your travel rations based on their total protein composition, this is the book for you. Open this book to any random page and you're practically guaranteed to come across a rule you'd claw your DM's eyes out over, were it consistently enforced.

Ah, to wit - page 57, fishing:

 Each entry on the table represents a number generated by a dice roll, and in most cases a modifier that is applied to that roll. The resulting number represents how many fish are caught in one hour by one character with a baited hook and line. The use of a net will increase the take to 50% more than the modified dice roll. If a negative modifier brings the die roll result to zero or lower, no fish are caught, regardless of the gear being used.
The table being referred to is one of the book's smaller, less obtrusive affairs. Only three rows and three columns, listing the quality of the fishing spot and the time of day at which the attempt was made.

The fishing section continues for another 6 paragraphs.

Far be it for me to complain about this level of picayune detail. I, for one, love survival video games, and, indeed, am currently in the middle of playing a Starbound mod that adds dozens of new resources and planet types and almost as many new crafting stations and their associated subsystems. So I get the appeal.

But my god, the bookkeeping. Did people actually play in this style? With the DM asking "what time of day do you go down to the fishing hole, and did you remember to buy a net while you were in town - because if it's not on your sheet, it doesn't count." And then keeping track of each individual fish, and whether that was sufficient to nourish the whole party, counting down the time until the PCs suffer staged status effects from hunger, in the event that it wasn't.

There's a section-header called "Relative Humidity." It's got a chart. It's an "optional rule." Implying that everything preceding it in the chapter wasn't.

Like I said. Deeply weird.

But the weirdest part of this book is in what it's not. It is most assuredly not a guide to things you might find in a magical fantasy wilderness. No, this book is purely about survival under earth-like conditions. It acknowledges the potential for DMs to put fantastical elements into their rpg wilderness, but then almost immediately forswearing its responsibility by claiming that fantasy was beyond the scope of the book. There aren't even any guidelines for random encounters, something that took up quite a lot of real estate in the DMG.

I can't imagine that I'll ever actually use this book. There's a part of me that's tempted. Just find 6-8 players and pitch them on a nightmarish, pixel-bitching deathmarch of a hexcrawl. Mwah ha ha! Total party kill and they never even see a monster! But then I come back down to earth and remember that I'd ideally like to keep my friends.

I expect that even in AD&D's heyday, this was the sort of book that was only spot referenced to add some spice to the occasional encounter, but maybe even that is giving it too much. My copy is in totally pristine, like-new condition, and I bought it from a local used book store. Either its previous owner was incredibly responsible with their possessions, or people in 1986 had the same gut reaction I did.

UKSS Contribution: Oh, this is a tough one. Distressingly large portions of this book are devoted to explaining the concept of weather. And the ones that aren't tend to be even less evocative. Luckily, there is one table where the book let its freak flag fly - the one explaining the encumbrance levels and long-term endurance of flying mounts. How long can you ride a dragon or a pegasus before it needs to stop for rest and whatnot.

So I could just steal a monster from the list, say it exists in Ukss and be done with it. But one particular entry caught my eye - the giant mantis.

Giant mantis.

In a list of flying mounts.

Obviously, I must extrapolate from this an entire knightly order of mantis-riders, who take to the skies to keep the world safe from various airborne threats.

It's the only logical thing to do.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine - Chapters 10-14

 Part 1

Part 2  

Part 3

This latest stretch was perhaps the driest part of the book, with whole chapters filled with nothing but example quests and suggestions for perks. It's all useful information, central to the nitty-gritty of actually playing the game and (for the last chapter especially) establishing the boundaries of the setting's weird magic, but there was very little that called for a comprehensive read-through, rather than the occasional spot referencing.

The most memorable part of the last half of the book was undoubtedly the miraculous arcs. Like everything else in CMWGE, they are inventive, deceptively versatile, and also kind of hard to fully understand.

The issue with the arcs is that they're meant to be generic templates upon which you build up your individual suite of powers, but they're filled with highly specific idiosyncrasies. You're meant to reskin the powers to fit your character, but then you'll get something like the Keeper of Gardens arc which is mostly about creating and ruling a magical alternate world, but which also requires you to be actively toxic wherever you go. Whatever innate connection exists between those ideas is at a level too subtle for me to see, so it really just feels like you're stretching to fit into someone else's box.

In the long run, this can be very satisfying, especially if you have the campaign and you can see examples of how the general arcs adapt to specific characters. But in the short term, it feels so unnatural that you begin to doubt if that's really what you're supposed to be doing.

I guess what I really want from CMWGE is to get to a place of mastery. Where I've navigated its ambiguities long enough that I have an instinctive feel for the terrain, and I can use it to build the sort of games whose potential I now just vaguely sense. But I have to admit, getting there is going to be difficult. This game is a tough sell.

"Hey everyone, do y'all want to play a game where your progress is measured by your emotional experiences and the default setting is a candy-coated mishmash of anime tropes and your assumed character type is a teenaged demigod with subtle and primordial powers, who nonetheless is mostly concerned with the everyday pleasures and stresses that come with growing up?"

I mean, it's cool. Maybe even the coolest thing I own. But when I try to pitch it, I can't help feeling like the earnestly dorky kid who is try to affect coolness. Here's this cool thing, and though I don't entirely understand it, I will attempt to bask in its reflected coolness by becoming its biggest booster.

It's a little embarrassing, but you know what? Screw it. I can't help but be what I am.

Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine set my mind afire. In the history of my personal engagement with the rpg hobby, it is epochal (for fun, here's my best guess at a list of the epochs: AD&D 2nd edition -> Dark Sun Boxed Set -> Mage: the Ascension, Revised -> Exalted -> D&D 4th edition -> CMWGE -> ???) and I'm pretty sure that it will have a similar effect on anyone who is interested in the nuts and bolts of rpg design.

It's rare to get a game that attempts something truly different, and rarer still for that different thing to be creatively fruitful. But that's what CMWGE achieved. It made rpgs feel new again.

UKSS Contribution: Ah, this one is tough, because so many of the best aspects of the setting are little details that wouldn't really mesh anywhere else. It feels more like plagiarism than usual. Then again, it's always been plagiarism, so let's do it - Fortitude Rats.

They're an entire race of Reepicheeps. Tiny adventurers with big attitudes and a flair for the dramatic. A perfect fit for any number of adventure fantasy settings.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine - Chapter 9

 Part 1

Part 2  

Part 4

This chapter was pretty great. It is inventive and weird (seriously - "pillow teeth tea" - what is that even), but it also expertly deploys well-used tropes and cliches to instantly feel comfortable and familiar. The setting feels like it was adapted from a long-running and extensive fictional canon that we are only getting a brief cross-section of, despite the fact that, near as I can tell, it is mostly original to this work in particular. The closest thing to it is probably the thoroughly worked-out backstory behind the Sentinels of the Multiverse flavor text, and it makes me wonder if there's a similar process at work here.

It made me desperately want to see the Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine anime that surely exists in a more just universe (though, this feeling actually reaches its height in the Glass Maker's Dragon campaign, which, if anything, is more brilliant and more frustrating even than the core book).

The only flaw of the setting, and I'd call it more of a nitpick, really, is that it ties itself to a very particular mood and style of play, when the CMWGE is capable of so much more (and that probably explains why, whenever it comes to actually playing Chuubo's, my first instinct is to go with an alternate setting - my storytelling instincts take me away from the setting's fundamental strengths).

The best way I can describe the feel of Chuubo's default setting is "adult nostalgia for childhood media." It's warm-hearted and whimsical and it has a sort of idealized coming-of-age sensibility, but it's also clear that this sensibility is at least a little bit affected. That affect, though, is probably the setting's secret weapon. They're not everywhere, but there are undercurrents of melancholy, mischievousness, and philosophical insight that keep Chuubo's from being too twee.

Or, to put it another way, if you were a parent interested in roleplaying with your children, it would only take a little bit of tweaking to make Town and its environs completely child-safe, but the book itself isn't for them, it's for you. (Not that I can unreservedly recommend Chuubo's as an rpg for children - the system is pretty complex and requires some moderately sophisticated metagaming, but it's also likely that kids are a lot smarter than I give them credit for).

Like I said, though, that's more in the nature of a nitpick. The strength of Town as a setting is that it immediately foregrounds the sort of stories that CMWGE is uniquely suited to tell. You take Chuubo's Epic Fantasy genre and apply it to something like Forgotten Realms, you're going to be telling stories in a dramatically different way than you would if you were playing D&D, but they're still going to be Forgotten Realms D&D-type stories. Practically nothing else out there is doing games where the main plot points are going on a shopping trip with friends or sitting on the docks watching the sunset.

As much as I love the rest of the game, the Setting chapter is definitely the high point of the book, the part that is effortlessly easy to understand, even coming in cold, and which will undoubtedly provide inspiration for gaming experiences scarcely even imagined in other systems.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine - Chapters 3-8

Part 1 

Part 3  

Part 4

There are are a lot of novel ideas, both big and small, being thrown at you in these six chapters and it can often feel just a little bit dizzying. The system has a lot of moving parts, and I, personally, didn't see how it all hung together until I read some examples of play and other extra-textual online sources.

The big mystery of CMWGE is "how did this happen?" Jenna Moran's prose is both engaging and articulate, and most of those extra-textual sources that cleared up my confusion - they came from the woman herself. So why is the book itself so hard to understand?

I think it boils down to something they talk about in rpg theory (yes, it exists, but no, I am not an expert) - narrative stance. At the risk of oversimplifying, narrative stance is the rubric by which a player decides how to roleplay their character. Many different stances have been proposed over the years, but for our purposes here, only two are relevant - actor stance and author stance.

In actor stance, you try to be your character, as much as possible. You make your decisions based on what the character knows. You choose your actions based on the character's motivations and traits. Your goals as a player are basically the same as your character's goals in the fiction of the game.

In author stance, you try to make your character entertaining. You can base your decisions not just on your in-character knowledge, but also on out-of-character and metagame knowledge, like the trajectory of the plot. You probably want your character to act consistently with their traits, but you also want to steer them into interesting situations. Your goals as a player can be at odds with what your character wants, because ultimately you and your friends are an audience for your character's story.

Most games are written around the assumption of a universal actor stance, but even in the most traditional of rpgs, there is some room for nuance here. Players have been making odd decisions in order to stir the pot since practically the very beginning, and even though actor stance encourages you to "do what your character would do" players have gotten around that by choosing characters who would do entertainingly self-destructive things due to their own well-established flaws.

This porous boundary between stances is important because I think it points to CMWGE's greatest weakness. I've mentioned before about how the game does remarkable things to allow players to engage with the author stance on a more complex, satisfying level and all that is still true, but only after my most recent read-through, where I had that specific idea in mind, did I notice that the bulk of the book is written as if it were assuming an actor stance.

Take, for example, the skills section. Skills in CMWGE are player-defined, and since the system is diceless, success and failure on actions are a bit more nebulous. It seems like it would work just fine, but there's an interesting wrinkle - a relatively large portion of the word count is devoted to explaining why you shouldn't use the skill system to break the game. There is, in fact, a half a page (a full column) that tells you what happens if you try to use your Cooking skill to blow up the earth.

In a sense, this is necessary because this is something you can do with an overly literal reading of the rules, but there's a part of me that feels this wouldn't be necessary if the introduction to the skill section had made it clear that CMWGE isn't the sort of game where you need to be overly solicitous of your character points. To put it in perspective: one of the preconstructs from the campaign has a skill of "Good Smile 2" and at one point in the skill section "Superior God King 4" is tossed out as a possibility.

When you look at the skill section as a whole, you can see what it's trying to do - the chart that describes the outcomes of your skill usage does so in terms of "effectiveness" and "productivity." A level 4 result will move you closer to your goals and a level 5 result will make your life better, regardless of whether you are using your good smile or god king magic. And these questions are separate almost entirely from whether the particular action "succeeds" (there's a hierarchy - all productive actions are successful, but not all successful actions are productive.)

There's definitely an underlying tension here. Making your character more powerful from an actor-stance perspective is trivial. The skills Ordinary Kid 2 and Unstoppable Ninja Assassin 2 cost the exact same amount of points. So the reward for spending more points on a skill is really an author-stance reward. The Ordinary Kid 5 is going to be consistently more effective than the Unstoppable Ninja Assassin 1. And yet the whole act of spending points, of having limited numbers of them, of needing to choose between specialist and generalist builds - it's such an actor-stance way of looking at things. The book never quite reaches the point where it openly tells you "don't sweat too hard about making a strong character, your skills actually represent your character's strategy for solving problems and the skills you choose are basically just tags for what you, the player, want your character to be doing when they're looking cool."

A lot of the book's more innovative mechanics are like that. The wounds chapter does come right out and say that the system exists because you have the final say over the ultimate fate of your character, and that your wounds basically act as a limited reserve of vetoes over changes you don't approve of. But then, they're called wounds and they look a lot like a series of health boxes.

While this ambiguity is definitely the major contributing factor for why CMWGE can be so hard to understand, I'm not sure that it isn't a bit of subtle design brilliance at the same time. It offers a bridge between the stances and sort of molds you into an author-stance player through its fundamental gameplay loop. On the other hand, I've got to be wary of slipping too deep into fanboyism here. It's just as likely that the ambiguity is due to the author being out on a limb and having an originally more traditional game morph into an author-stance workshop halfway through development.

Either way, the book up to this point has been a rollercoaster of inviting prose, frustrating lapses in reading comprehension, and breathtakingly bold ideas. The balance is more good than bad, but I am looking forward to Chapter 9, which is pure good all the way through.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine - Chapters 1 & 2

Part 2 

Part 3 

Part 4

In the Douglas Adams book Life, The Universe, and Everything a ruined supercomputer creates a full-scale model of a spaceship and crashes it into an isolated planet. From the wreckage of that spaceship, the people of the planet are able to reverse-engineer the science of interstellar travel, despite having never even conceived of the existence of a universe outside their own world.

That's how Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine makes me feel. Like I have received a communication from some superior intelligence and it has revealed a whole new sphere of possibility that I had not hitherto imagined.

Which sounds like pretty over-the-top praise (and I must admit that this is one of my top three "save this from the fire" objects, should my house ever burn down), but it's not purely a compliment. Much like a coded message from a pulverized alien computer, this book can sometimes be a bit tough to decipher. It took me a couple of read-throughs and a lot of online conversation to fully realize what Chuubo's was trying to do, and despite my enthusiasm, I've never been able to pitch it successfully to my friends.

So what is this game, and why am I geeking out about it so hard? Some of it goes a bit beyond the scope of the first two chapters. Quests, Arcs, and Issues are important aspects of the formula, and I'm still a few days away from getting there. But the overview in Chapter 1 and the genres in Chapter 2 cover enough ground that I'm comfortable talking about it in general terms.

Ordinarily, when you're playing a roleplaying game, you are describing what your character does and then the GM describes the outcome and then you describe what you're doing next and that sequence of events, whatever they might be, becomes the story. CMWGE doesn't do anything especially different from that, but its mechanics are designed to make you aware of what you're doing. At any given moment, you are on the lookout for opportunities to express the campaign's themes, or demonstrate something about your character's inner life or advance a dangling side-plot because doing those things engages with the mechanical widgets on your character sheet. The net result is an rpg that posits "what if you did the story stuff on purpose."

And that's what made it such a revelation for me. It made me realize that all the stuff about plot pacing and character emotions and player engagement could be part of the game. What you're physically doing at the table doesn't have to be wholly abstracted away from what you're trying to achieve in the fiction of the game. The game rules don't have to simulate the physics of the world. They could, instead, simulate the structure of the story.  I wouldn't say that CMWGE is necessarily the best game out there, but there's no other book on my shelf that will do more to make you a better game designer.

Let's wrap up by getting concrete. What do you actually do? Well, the whole game revolves around earning XP, and much of the space on your character sheet is devoted to your character's idiosyncratic way of doing that. For example, every character has an "xp emotion." This is some exaggerated reaction that you're trying to elicit from the other players, like making them roll their eyes or audibly say "aww." And the fascinating part of this is that serves as a sort of protection for your character's niche in the story. Whereas other games might have you aiming to be "the brawny one" or "the smart one," here you're consciously aiming to be "the goofy one" or "the tragic one."

Other methods of earning xp will be detailed later, but they tend to have their own specific trigger actions that, say, remind the other players of an activity you're doing in the background (like off-handedly mentioning how you just got back from the gym) or play out your character's internal struggles (by staring soulfully off into the distance and sighing) or just demonstrate one of your character's persistent quirks (like, if you're an alien, saying "well, that's not how they do things on my planet.")

And bracketing all the character-specific ways of gaining xp are the campaign specific xp actions that any character can take, and which serve to set the pace for the game at large. For example, if you're playing an epic fantasy game, then the events of the story are going to periodically be punctuated by characters boldly declaring their intentions or succumbing to the temptations of their tragic flaw.

The fun of the game lies in seeking out (or, more accurately, arranging) opportunities to perform these xp granting actions and the game works best when players aggressively move from one action to the next. Because then, story is happening all the time and because players choose their own xp emotion and quests, that story is the one the players want to tell.

It's a remarkable accomplishment and one which I wish I was better at selling to my players, because I'm convinced that once a Chuubo's game hits its groove, it can't help but be anything but amazing.