Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Random Wednesday World Building

The in-laws left last night...finally. Dropped 'em off at the airport along with the wife, who had to take a last minute biz trip (just a day shot to San bigs). So to celebrate, I kicked up my feet (after putting the kids to bed) and settled in to watch something the Mrs. wouldn't normally dig on (as I am wont to do). In this particular case, I chose The Witcher.

This, by the way was partly due to curiosity, but mainly due to the recommendation of my old buddy Steve. I'd already got a bit of a taste of the show from Fr. Dave's blog (he did not recommend it), but Steve-O really sold me on it as "something you would like, Jon." He told me it's "just like D&D" far more than Game of Thrones with all that intricate political scheming and weepy plot/non-fun stuff...just badass monster kicking. While his read of what I like in a D&D game is pretty far off, I was intrigued enough by his enthusiasm to flip it on.

I fell asleep pretty fast. I tried to stay awake, and drifted in and out of consciousness through about three episodes, but my overall impression wasn't good enough to really maintain interest. Like, at all.

Maybe I'm being unfair to the show and I should give it another shake in the light of day, but the impression I got was indeed that the show was "just like D&D"...but bad D&D. The kind of D&D I'm not interested in playing. The kind where heroic (or anti-heroic) characters with little risk to survival, posture and weep through silly backstories of their own creation. Dungeons & Dragons by way of World of Darkness with a setting even more ridiculous that your usual high fantasy Tolkien riff.

Which, by the way, is not to say that a setting for a GAME needs to be a masterpiece of world building, because the game at its best is about the experience of playing, not the resolution of story. But for my FICTION, I want a little more robust world building, even if it does have insane demographic anomalies. And for both fiction AND role-playing, I'd like to see a little less trope when it comes to the main character. Damn, I am soooo tired of action heroes these days, especially outside of the superhero genre. Even the WB and Disney do better at assembling ensemble heroes.

[by the way, I won't say it's a terrible thing for a VIDEO GAME (such as the one on which The Witcher is based) to have an over-the-top badass of a protagonist who looks like a Targaryan-skinned Drizz't the Drow. One player CRPGs are generally exercises in mental masturbation anyway, with no serious challenge and just an interest in playing out some creator's particularly constructed story line in an awesome fashion...they are guilty pleasures and I've played my share over the years. But it's embarrassing for a TV show or film, and shameful in most tabletop games]

So it was around 2:30am or so that I finally dragged myself conscious enough that I could turn the damn thing off, mercifully cutting short some elf bitching and moaning about how humans gave their race a raw deal (gee, never heard that kind of thing before) and thus "we hates 'em forever" ...whereupon I discover the TV show behind the Netflix to be Alien Resurrection, a film I've never before seen, despite generally enjoying the franchise (at least enough to watch the first three films more than a couple times). Not only was it interesting enough that it brought me fully awake, but after 5 minutes of watching I enjoyed it enough that I restarted the movie (ahh...the magic of On Demand television), only forcing myself to turn it off an hour in so that I could get SOME sleep before starting the Wednesday routine (ahh...the curse of On Demand television).

Not that Alien Resurrection is a fantastic piece of cinema by ANY stretch. Spoiler Alert: it shares the same plot as pretty much every film in the franchise (humans underestimate xenomorphic entity and bloody massacre ensues within a claustrophobic labyrinth of a setting). Film doesn't even have the interesting bits found in the earlier franchise installments...loving attention to technophile detail, subverted genre tropes, brilliant character acting...instead being, well, a pastiche of the genre and about what you'd expect (it DOES have great character actors...including Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon, and Dan Hedaya...but they're largely wasted in a mediocre script).

However, at least there's an ensemble cast of characters, each on about equal footing in terms of both competence and fragility, and that piques some interest...even if it's only of the death pool variety.

And seeing this, and comparing and contrasting the two (the film and the TV show) in terms of what they both build, and mulling it over last night and this morning, I find myself calcifying some thoughts I've been having a LOT the last couple weeks.

First is this: I am just about done with heroic fiction. I intend to watch the last Star Wars film (for the sake of completeness) but I am about ready to give the whole thing up. Finally. The same way I gave up Star Trek circa 1988...I'm just not interested in it anymore. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ruined the action genre for everyone. Yes, I realize this paragraph makes little requires a very long, detailed, and intricate rant. One of these days.

Second is this: While I've long been in the "loathe" category for RPGs that seek to emulate the heroic action play style typified of popular computer RPGs (i.e. stuff like late edition D&D), I have now come around to being done with "story type" RPGs of the indie school. I'm just not interested in group storytelling at all except, maybe, as the occasional one-off at a convention or something. Probably not even then: if I want to tell stories, I'll tell stories, thank you very much. While I'm not saying I'm capable of creating my own decent fiction without help, I have zero interest in collaboration when it comes to story-telling: you tell your story and I'll tell mine, thank you very much. And let's keep BOTH our stories off the gaming table, because that type of action is NOT what I want to be playing at. My escapism requires a little more direction.

Third is this: in making a list of RPGs that I would still want to play, I'm finding the list shrinking rapidly to a handful of games all of which are of the EARLIEST variety. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Classic Traveller. First edition Gamma World. First edition Top Secret. Etc. It's not that later games (or editions) don't do good things when they come along, clarifying and streamlining rules, fixing systems that are broken and such. It's just that:

  • Much of the time, the kernel of the game (or the thing that made it great) gets lost in an update. See the transition from 1E to 2E Gamma World or 1E to 2E Heroes Unlimited or 1E to 2E AD&D for blatant examples. 
  • Many of the changes are ones that don't NEED to be fixed; this is especially true with much of AD&D (I would argue that 2E's reworking of the default XP system is the main rule change that "broke" D&D). Many designers, kowtowing to the whining of the masses ("why didn't you include a skill system?") inadvertently ruin their own, mostly solid, games. 
  • Most of the updates are things I could do myself and/or could probably do better. And even in cases where a game's writers are more elegant in their design than myself, I'd still prefer to make these changes myself because they're for MY game and MY needs...the needs of MY table. Plus, I'm more likely to remember and use design changes that I implement myself.

But really, it's just that it's hard to the originator of a subject or game, even when the original game suffers in execution. Would you really try to "out-Tolkien" Tolkien? I probably wouldn't, but even if I did, I hope I wouldn't try to make a buck off it (looking at you, uber-popular genre writers who shall remain unnamed). Yes, 1E Gamma World is ridiculous, but it is coherent and sensible and theme-oriented within itself, and I can adjust its level of ridiculousness to suit my tastes, which may not be to the taste of others; I don't need every new edition that comes out doubling down on the sheer absurdity of the game just to provide "more of the same."

[I've been thinking about GW a lot lately...probably another post needed]

Fourth (and final) thing is this: In any tabletop RPG, the world building is immensely important. It may, in fact, be the most essential element that a GM needs to handle and something to be approached with care and a serious mind (regardless of the seriousness of the game/genre). Knowing the rules, running the game...these things are, of course, super-duper important things to a GM, but you always have the rulebook (and possibly knowledgeable players) to help with that aspect of GMing. World building rests squarely on the GM's shoulders; even GMs incorporating input from players needs to act as final editor of what is included in a world and how it interacts with the rest of the setting. And without a viable world, you lose the ability to have satisfying, long-term game. World building is absolutely essential.

I'm just sorry I haven't prioritized it higher in the past; I'll try not to make that mistake moving forward.

All right, that's enough for now.


  1. I also fell asleep durring the first episode of the Witcher.

    I would argue that the "kernel" of D&D was lost between OD&D and 1st edition, then refound in BX. In my opinion 1e is a over complicated rules mess versus a DM driven more freeform experience.

    1. I went and finished watching Alien Resurrection yesterday was pretty ridiculous, silly, and formulaic. On the other hand, I still watched it. I might give Witcher another chance, but...*sigh* Life is so short!

      I know that you aren't the only one who feels that way about OD&D (and AD&D). In a way, AD&D is a very specific game compared to OD&D (and it's inheritor, B/X). Recently I find I've developed a newfound appreciation for that specificity.

  2. Jury's still out. I saw the first Witcher episode and enjoyed it, but that doesn't mean I'm going to love the series.