Wednesday, May 22, 2013


And then there's Skyfall, which is in many ways the opposite of Silverway.

I really love the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I've been trying to figure out why. 40K is the quintessential gothic science fiction, which I mean surprisingly literally - gothic in the sense that it combines horror, a romantic preference for evoking rather than detailing (not to mention a fixation upon its own twisted version of medievalism), melodrama, and parody. But unlike The DM, I have no particular love for gothicism. I think, for me, the thing I find most compelling about 40K is that it's endlessly deconstructible. At some point when I wasn't looking, I became a pathological deconstructionist when it comes to my sci-fi (and to a lesser extent, all my art) - I just can't stop saying, "Well actually, if you remember this tiny detail you said or implied two hundred pages/two hours ago, what you're suggesting now doesn't make sense ..."

Precisely because 40K is so gothic, one can deconstruct it in this way ad nauseum and simply be filling in the gaps, like trying to bring a pointilistic painting into photographic focus. But I also love the way 40K handles the issue of good and evil. Lots of fictional milieus have "there are no good guys" as a feature, but I think 40K does it more entertainingly than most. All the good guys in 40K can be deconstructed to be shown to be evil, and all the bad guys can be deconstructed to be shown to be good. You can be a hero in 40K and still be a terrible person.

Earlier in my life this probably would have just seemed eye-rollingly silly to me, but right now, as a Christian, I find it immensely appealing. I wouldn't call 40K Christian fiction, but I do think you can't really understand Christianity without rejecting the notion that people's essences fall on some kind of good-vs.-evil spectrum - to say that people "are" good, "are" bad, or "are" a mix of both is all to miss the point.

So anyway, I find 40K immensely appealing, but I've struggled for some time to find a way to run a roleplaying game in the 40K universe. Unlike Twilight, the immense scale of 40K doesn't appeal to my narrative sensibilities. The stories that most appeal to me, even if they have cosmic consequences or take place against the backdrop of cosmic events, are ultimately very small. In the words of Mordin Solus, "Can't anthropomorphize galaxy. But can think of favorite nephew." And although I love warfighting in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium (where, as the tagline reminds us, there is only war), I didn't think I could run a roleplaying game about soldiers without an entire party of Xenophon clones (which would be awesome, but is unlikely). I could come up with the story, but I don't think I have the right players for it.

What I finally realized was that I love looking at 40K most from the outside - and thus Skyfall was born, a game that explores what happens to the people caught in the endless wars of the grimdark. It is the 40K story I have always wanted to tell - not in terms of the plot skeleton, but in terms of how it presents the setting.

As always happens when you introduce players into a plot, actual events have not gone precisely according to script. But in a larger sense, I am immensely pleased with the oppressive sense of inferiority that pervades the game. The party consists of three individually very capable characters with a diverse range of skills, and after twenty-six sessions of gameplay one would normally expect them to be developing normal adventurers' bravura. In Silverway, for instance, the party will cheerfully tackle any challenge, even a dragon that is twice their level. To my Skyfall party, a squad of cooks presents an unthinkable challenge.

This leads to all sorts of delightful roleplaying moments, where characters - even Philippa, who in any other game would be considered quite the badass fighter - routinely do the sensible thing and run away (if that doesn't seem unusual to you, you haven't DMed enough). Nor does the party merely have a pessimistic view of its chances in a violent encounter; the whole game has a wonderfully gothic, hopeless tone to it. Everything seems like an almost insurmountable obstacle - fighting, figuring out what is going on, even moving through the rain forest (I apparently still had "green wastelands" on the brain when I chose the setting for Skyfall's opening acts).

It is extremely difficult to hammer the collective psyche of a group of players so hard that they feel their characters' helplessness, and I think Skyfall is my best hammering to date. But besides the technical achievement I think this represents (and not just on my part, mind, but the players' as well), artistically I think it ties the game together. As gothic science fiction, 40K has a heavy medieval flavor to it, and Skyfall is self-consciously set on a feudal world. In part this is because I was re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire at the start of the game, and I wanted to try my hand at a totally straight medieval setting (I've done science fantasy, near-future science fiction, Hellenistic, and Dark Ages, but never medieval), but it also blinds the characters to certain realities about wider galactic society that the republican players are less blind to, and I think part of the DM's art is to manage the gap between player and character perspective to create dramatic irony.

I'm also really very pleased with how much people are enjoying Skyfall's dearth of combat. I never planned for the game to be combat-heavy (especially as I am running the game using Phoenix Earth rules, if the party were to engage in even semi-routine combat I would have to fudge things so much to keep them alive that it would spoil the tone of the game), and the party's own self-imposed risk aversion has even avoided some combat that might otherwise have happened. In twenty-six sessions, there have been ... I think five combat encounters, and only one of those was longer than two rounds (the party combatants also unequivocally lost three of them). The entire rest of the game has been nothing but ... well, living. This was a major structural experiment for me: not only to play a game with much more roleplaying than combat, but also to play a game in which the mundane features heavily. In Skyfall, the conversation a maid has with her lady while combing out her hair at night or the silent barbs traded over a family dinner are fairly significant "on-camera" events. To my great relief, nobody has been bored. Quite the opposite, they seem to enjoy the chance to live their characters in a fuller way than usual, and I think this pays real dividends when it comes to how well players inhabit their characters in the more dramatic moments. Skyfall also hands-down wins the prize for the best use of sex in a roleplaying game that I have personally run, which I also don't think is a coincidence.

Of course, I picked the Skyfall party specifically because I wanted players I knew I could count on to immerse themselves in the lore of the game world and who were attracted to playing people, as opposed to any of the other perfectly valid reasons to roleplay. I know the lessons I've learned running Skyfall's roleplaying elements are applicable to my other games, but I'm not sure exactly how far.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Game post. I really enjoy reading Neani's posts about my games, and doing so has kicked off some thoughts about them in my own head.

It seems incredible to me that I have been playing Silverway for nearly three years. That is to say, I have been actively playing Dungeons and Dragons for three years. That just doesn't sound like me. While I revere D&D for its place in the history of roleplaying generally and my personal history of roleplaying in particular (cf. the fact that I self-consciously call all runners-of-games "dungeon masters," rather than the more generic "game masters"), I have only ever been attracted to it in the abstract. On the positive side of the ledger, D&D stands for the thrill of the unknown - the band of adventurers in a small town dealing with a small menace, who are slowly sucked into a wider world - that I think is one of the essential elements of roleplaying. Collaborative storytelling is cool precisely because neither the storyteller nor his audience has complete control over the direction or content of the story. It is in the unknown that the magic happens. No roleplaying product I have ever encountered stands for the essence of the unknown like D&D does. Not for me, at least.

On the negative side of the ledger, D&D stands for mechanics that don't tell a story. As a DM - that is, as a storyteller - this is a major problem for me. I feel like virtually no mechanic in D&D structurally reflects what is actually going on in the story, but the easiest example is this: combatants in D&D can routinely take half a dozen "successful" attacks to render incapacitated. There are various ways to narrate these "hits" in ways that are more realistic, but (i) I've tried all the ones I know of and they only confuse my players, and (ii) I don't think the mechanics of a narrative game should be so divorced from the narrative that you need to think up workarounds. As far as I'm concerned, that's a design flaw. It happens to be my pet design flaw, and Phoenix Earth 4th edition is still driven largely by my burning hatred of game mechanics that don't structurally reflect what is happening.

And yet, here I am, nearly three years into a D&D campaign.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. I find the mechanics of D&D 4th edition genuinely engaging as a game, and I thought it would be fun to play a simple little boardgame-like D&D campaign for my cousin. I've always been intrigued by the forest-as-wasteland motif in Miyazaki's NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind, and I'd recently read a book on the history of the Byzantine Empire, so I thought I would just cross the two and be on my way. But when it came time to figure out what the story actually was, those darn narrative-defying mechanics came back to haunt me.

Whenever I start a new campaign, I more or less consciously (often less) try to do something new for myself. In part I think this is because I don't really think of roleplaying games as, well, games (I'm beginning to suspect I think of very few "games" as games, but that's probably a post for another time). I approach a campaign more as performance art, so when I think about a new campaign, I try (or instinctively end up doing so, anyway) to give myself a sort of artistic hook to organize my thoughts. In Apocalyptic Phoenix Earth, that hook was to tell a fictional story that used Christian mythology completely straight (as opposed to using it as an inspiration, the way stories like Neon Genesis Evangelion do). In Classical Phoenix Earth, it was to really double down on letting the players' choices drive the story. In Modern Phoenix Earth (its second/current incarnation, anyway), it was using fully-realized characters who don't increase in power over time.

In Silverway there are a couple of new challenges, but the most fundamental one was to take D&D on its own terms and make those terms work for me. Classes, levels, battles with pyrotechnics straight out of Michael Bay - I wanted to take it all and tell a serious, Natalie-style story in a Natalie-style, Homer-inspired way. I don't feel that I've been 100% successful, but I am pretty proud of what I've been able to do with classes, levels, and power sources - the full impact of which I don't think is going to become clear for a few levels, which is frustrating giving the whole moving-to-New-York thing. I hope that we'll be able to continue playing via Roll20 (future, don't fail me now!), but it's also a little frustrating in that one of the other challenges was to expand the roleplaying-as-performance-art metaphor beyond the mind. I've never been much for roleplaying with miniatures, or even maps, but D&D 4th edition sort of requires a battle map at the very least. Armed with Campaign Cartographer, inspired by Mike Krahulik's mind-blowing visuals for his campaign, and fresh from my success in making a custom miniature for the short-lived Dark Sun campaign that got me into D&D 4th to begin with, I decided that if I must play with physical objects like a barbarian, they weren't just going to be mere visual aids. I think I was starting to get good at making the maps and models part of the performance, too. Now I'm going to have to figure out how to do the same thing with a virtual tabletop.