Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Curse of Gothic

Meta Moment: I'm kinda back from the dead. Work and stuff. Whatever, I've had my absences before.

This post comes about because as I was thinking of DMing ' The Curse of Strahd,' a 5th ed Dungeons and Dragons module that is the Horror module for Dungeons and Dragons. It takes place in and around the infamous Castle Ravenloft and has players oppose the vampire Dracula Strahd von Barovich. 

 I'm instantly intrigued by the Halloween Level of Dungeons and Dragons that Castle Ravenloft has become, sitting alone on top of its mountainous perch. It's a unique and well remembered module and it's had an iteration in almost every edition of Dungeons and Dragons since first edition. A lot of modules have come out, this is one of the ones that has stood the test of time. In a way it mirrors its source material as it defiantly stands as a bastion to an age far past.

But things have changed.

'The Curse of Strahd' is the most recent iteration, like all iterations, draws from its Gothic Horror source material. Sometimes its from pulp, other-times its from the Victorian era, but a bothersome thread remains; it's lack of modern sensibilities.

The Curse

I know a lot of people dislike the Politically Correct Police and would rather not deal with it in their games. I know they will say "it is what it is" and "that's just part of Gothic Horror" and not think about it. There is also an asshole out there who will go on about censorship and how this is what's wrong with games today and whatever. Maybe an asshole will try to get smart and say its being subversive or something. But I think it doesn't really matter, and more importantly these people aren't asking the right questions (or any questions at all).

How do all the elements of 'The Curse of Strahd' make it better? How does it connect with itself and the real world to make a better d&d module?

I know people will say it reinforces the 'Gothic' element of the horror or references the source material it draws from. But that just pushes the question on to the source material. Do the elements we find racist today actually make the work better? Most times they don't. It's just a product of the times and culture the work was made in. It doesn't play into the story, and could be swapped around without making the story worse.

HP Lovecraft.

I like HP Lovecraft, and he's a racist. Actually, to be fair, I've never met the guy and I don't think I could really like someone so racist and so bothered by some romance stories to write a letter to the editor. But I think the racism does add something unintended to his work. It moves a lot of his characters into anti-hero territory. His characters and their racism are not aspirational. While it's certainly not true for all of Lovecraft's work, the racism sometimes serves the story. His themes of cosmic horror also tend to push against his racism; making it seem like a folly that befalls people who are eventually driven to madness. Authors of color have talked more about having complex relationships with Lovecraft. It's bigger than you think. (Oh and if you are writing a horror something, including issues like racism is probably not worth it. It's not a good way to make your story scarier).

Return to Castle Ravenloft

What first tipped me off to some questionable themes was the treatment of the Romani Vistani. They are portrayed as untrustworthy drinkers, travelers, charlatans, and thieves. I was honestly kinda surprised that this got through. This isn't some indie rpg, some small time author, some fan module. This is D&D, the property that is synonymous with table-top role-playing games. This came from Wizards of the Coast; one of the largest table top game makers in the world. They are a subsidiary of Hasbro! There is an HR department! They had editors and assistant editors, they had no less than 50 people involved on this. Did nobody notice? Did they decide it wasn't that bad? Did they just forget that Romani are a real people? Did nobody google 'Gypsy' or 'Romani' during the entire duration of the projects development? Did they just lock some intern in a cubicle and tell them to update Vistani for the setting? Was it too hard to change or revisit these issues? Was it considered 'ok' because you just changed the name? Did they not want to take the time to try to do something better? (to be fair, I think someone probably raised the issue and instead of delaying and rewriting the whole 'product' and then released it because of the schedule and money. I don't think that makes it OK, it kinda makes it worse).

This took me out of the setting. This prompted me to look to see if anyone else had issues with the setting and other people did have issues. It's not just the Romani, but also the portrayal of women, mental illness, violence against children, and racism. Do those things add to teh story? Could they be changed to make the module a better module?

Real Horror

The real problem is that changing this stuff could result in a better module. It might be more inclusive, but definitely more believable, more nuanced, and better written. The very ending of the module has a moment where Ireena (a reincarnation of Strahd's unrequited love, Tatyana) meets up with Sergei (the actual lover of the long dead Tatyana). Magically her memories for Sergei come back and they walk off into the sunrise. Like, what the fuck? That's not romantic, that's weird! It's a strange and terrible end to the story, to one of the NPCs arcs, to everything. I get it's the Epilogue and nobody is supposed to really care, but seriously. There is an optional earlier scene around reuniting Ireena and Sergei that's not much better.

Instead of some convoluted magical true love triangle of vampires and reincarnation, what if the same thing still happened but there was not magical true love reincarnation? What if Strahd is so delusional that he just thinks it's the case? Maybe his unrequited love for Tatyana all those years ago was all in his head, and she was just blissfully unaware of his attention when she fell for the dashing (prehaps promiscuous) Sergei. Maybe every reincarnation was an attempt to find a reincarnation of a Tatayna that only existed in Strahd's imagination; a soul that never existed. The Curse of Strahd could be a real tragic horror, something not so simple as a vampire in a castle, but a curse people all too often inflict upon themselves. For Strahd, so wrapped up in his world, he makes the curse it's own realm, trapping everyone inside his beautiful dark twisted fantasy. #kino

To Run the Game

I already did want to add some stuff to 'The Curse of Strahd', but I was really hoping for something that I could slap down and be done with. You know just run and not offend anyone. Honestly, I know I can run this for a group of white guys and it wont be an issue (unless I find out one of my friends has Romani in his family). D&D has always had issues and is slowly but surely getting more inclusive and better; but it's the main stream Table Top RPG and it needs to act like it. I'm not supposed to have to deal with this from professionals.

I know not everyone only gets to feel disappointed that 'The Curse of Strahd' isn't something you can just read and run. While it's always good practice to have open communication with your players, it's probably more important with this setting. At some point some serious modification is gonna have to be done to punch up the characters and remove some things that really distract from the tone. I think with some modification it can be a really interesting setting. But for now, I have to comb through 255 pages to edit it into something a little bit more interesting.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Keeping things level

In my earlier post I talked about this concept called ‘RPG elements’ and how it wasn't really that prevalent across Rpgs, especially the Trpgs where these games are supposed to be inspired by. Last time I focused exclusively on classes, showing them as neither good nor bad, but a choice designers need to make for their system. However, once you get into play you start to deal with a new set of problems. RPG elements are also defined with the idea of getting gear and getting levels and upgrading your character with new abilities. Basically, it's character advancement.

Most players are familiar with character advancement in terms of levels. You grind exp until you get a new level, right? Well no, just like how many Trpgs don't have classes, many don't have levels or exp. Often levels tends to go along with classes. But let's get to the good stuff… how do you advance characters without levels? With loot of course!

Oh and yes, many games eschew loot as well. Players do not track money and pinch pennies, as that can be tedious and a waste of time. Commonly loot is abstracted as a skill or a stat. Sometimes loot itself is entirely inconsequential to the game itself. However, the results are the same; economics is removed as a way for advancement. So now we are back to the original problem. How do you advance characters? How do you show players getting better?

Could you just, like, not?

Well the easiest answer is the laziest. Just don't advance characters. While that is actually pretty lazy, it's not as bad as it sounds. Actually if you are playing a one shot adventure or a short game inspired by a song about trying not to be killed by a ex-disney actor who goes full hannibal lecter in the middle of the woods; well you don't really need character advancement.

Often many games deal with advancement in this way in spirit. Which is a flattering way of saying that lots of games handwave it. A very small amount of books really devote a lot of time or pages to advancement and understanding how that impacts the game; lots of that work is left up to the GM. The concept of a monster manual or encounters with levels themselves likewise isn’t very common.

It's a lot of work to determine monsters and how much damage they deal, and if they are right for the characters to face to create an interesting challenge (and if you characters can even hit those monsters… oh and that exploding dice mechanic isn't going to help you calculate those numbers). There is also the likelihood that the characters create a dynamic that is unique to the party and the monsters that you are likely to face, even if balanced for their level, can be overcome without challenge due to luck or clever thinking. In a way it's kind of a waste to determine or even guess at what players can realistically face... right?

Advancing Forward

The amount of complexity that advancements adds can make it an unattractive mechanic to game designers. But there are many simple ways of performing advancement; often this is tied to character creation or some sort of additional extension to it.

Most point buy systems allow for characters to advance by gaining additional points to invest. This typically leads to better characters and helps players patch over rough spots of their character. But this generally creates a system that makes it easy for a character to specialize at character creation and get fairly powerful early on (basically they just min/max their stats). You tend to end up with a dynamic that reinforces characters specializing their investment. Being a jack of all trades tends to seem like it's not a very useful character path.

Burning Wheel uses a system where you are required to succeed and fail at using a skill to eventually advance it. This is similar to many Crpgs where players advance skills by using them more often (Skyrim is a recent and popular example). However it's really hard to keep track of every time you use your skill (which is why the popular example is a videogame that does that for you).

There is also a social dynamics concern to this whole mess. Unless you are D&D or GURPS or maybe Vampires or Shadowrun, the majority of your players will play once and be done. Nobody is going to play your Regan-era-post-apocalyptic-nuns-on-motorcycles-trpg more than once or maybe twice. Playing Trpgs is an interesting scenario, most players may not play long enough to advance or they may not keep playing because advancement is bad. All you can do is hedge your bets and do work that maybe nobody will see.

How D&D does it

So if some systems can get it to work, how do they do it? Why does D&D advancement even work? Well, it's a combination of how levels work in conjunction with monsters and challenges. Certain set statistics (HP, skill cap/proficiency, saves, base attack bonus) advance with the character’s level. This ends up meaning that lower level characters will generate lower results to rolls, and higher level characters generate higher results. That sounds really dumb and obvious but it has massive ramifications. It means there are average results I can expect form a 1st level character and a 6th level character, 9th level character ect. That small amount of predictability means I can design a monster with comparable rolls and have a reasonable chance of getting a good encounter to happen. I can have things like ‘Challenge Rating’ for traps and monsters and get reasonable results when I pit them against my players.

Now this isn't to say that you can't work this out for other level-less systems before hand, but there is another side effect of levels; it creates a baseline for players. Players now know what stats are good and if they are above or below the average that they should be for that level. This baseline helps players figure out if they are good at something or just ok at it or at what ‘level’ they can operate at and expect to accomplish. D&D creates expectations and adds additional predictability to what was once the realm of guesswork and fudging numbers.

Oh and as far as loot and gold goes… well.. It's kinda like experience but it's for upgrading your gear. There is a reason why a lot of systems eschew loot, its just another redundant way of advancement (sort of).

What does this mean?

Well there are a lot of things to think about when it comes to advancement and it certainly doesn't mean that levels or additional skill points or no advancement at all is the way to go. However what it does help with is showing the strengths of each system. It means there is no perfect system until you determine what the rpg is going for and how it should be used.

What this certainly means though is that this idea that you should have classes and levels or only have a skill based system or have no advancement is wrong. No dogmatic adherence to any of these is required for a game to be a proper rpg.

It’s also important to remember that a lot of rpgs can come from many other sources. Mechanics are certainly not limited to d&d and GURPS and if you are willing to dig around in source material or borrow from other Trpgs you can find a lot more interesting systems out there.

In a way I'm saying you have permission to do whatever is correct for your game with the caveat that you should be aware of they common systems used and why. Make the choices about advancement for good reasons.