Saturday, April 26, 2014

What the OSR means to me

Wow, it's been a while.  I posted a comment over at Tenkar's Tavern, which I thought I'd repeat here.  Over the past year or two (i.e., while I've been away from this blog), I've been reading and listening to a lot of material coming out of the Old School Renaissance (or Old School Revival), a return, more or less, to the Old Ways of the earlier days of the hobby of table-top role playing.  Tenkar asks his readership what the OSR means to them personally.  My response was this:

The primacy of adventure over story.

The primacy of surrender to the wonderful, the fateful, and the weird over rules mastery.

And Appendix N. Not Gygax's specific list, nor any other, but the attitude behind it in which one seeks to take the best elements of the exciting and the evocative and bring them quite literally to the table.

If you are interested in this sort of thing, Tenkar's is a great site to visit.  Not grandmother-friendly, perhaps, but a consistently fun and interesting read.

A lot of folks naturally think of old school D&D when they think of the OSR, but it encompasses more than that.  Seventies & Eighties gaming is probably a better characterization of its focus.  Most of what we play today is really just a remix and refinement of what we played in those earlier years.  The OSR crowd, at its best, seeks to recover and revitalize the finer elements of those games.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Organized Religion

Some time ago, I overhead two ladies making plans to visit some religious establishment - whether temple or mosque or church, I couldn't say.  I wasn't paying that much attention.  I did hear one of them speak of "organized religion" in what sounded like a dissatisfied tone.  It reminded me that many folks think of it as a bad thing.  And this puzzles me.  I don't doubt that bad or ineffectual stuff happens in and through organized religion.  But it strikes me that knocking organized religion as such is - with all due respect to those who do the knocking - kind of silly.

Folks who have any interest in religion at all would obviously agree that there is some value to it.  And that we seem to have some natural desire for it.  Of course, "it" takes many forms, but all strive for things that are in some sense holy or spiritual.  The naturalists and materialists among us might think that it's more of an infection or disorder (a la Freud) that we really should rid of ourselves of.  But those who take religious options as live options probably don't have a problem acknowledging that it's a natural impulse.  It's quite human.

Now humans also have a tendency (again, quite naturally) to organize themselves.  This is true on a lot of levels.  In our personal relationships, we settle into routines, establish traditions, regularly commemorate events.  It's quite common, and typically our relationships are better for it.  While routines can become ruts, traditions mindless, and celebrations empty, they are a very good thing when they work right.

The same is true of communities.  We pitch in on projects, we guard each other's backs, we share resources, knowledge, and skills.   Insofar as we hold common beliefs and embrace common values, we encourage each other.  Indeed, we'll hold each accountable to those shared values.  And just as individuals establish routines, traditions, and celebrations among themselves, so too do larger communities.  They may even establish, to good effect, institutions that span generations, that far outlive their creators.  They can go wrong, to be sure.  But they can also accomplish great good.  Again, this tendency to self-organize is a very human thing.  It's not just important - at times, it's downright essential.

Now put the two together.  What have you got?  The thing that many rail against.  They often do so for good reason.  But it shouldn't be because religion + organization is some kind of freak event, some mutation that is always and ever bad.

It's much better, I think, to say that organization can emerge for both good reasons and bad, and that it can be done well or badly.  So it's not a matter of ditching religion or organizations (of whatever level).  It's a matter of getting them right.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fifth Edition Rules!

Yes, as noted on EN World, D&D 5th Edition (or whatever it will be called) is in development.

What do I think, you ask? (Hey, you are reading this aren't you, so don't complain.)

Well, I've signed up for the play test, if for no other reason to get a preliminary peek.  I have to be upfront about it, though - I'm not a fan of hit points as they are normally played in D&D.  (Recently, while reading some of the Salvatore's Drizzt stuff, I cracked up when I realized that you couldn't actually play out some of the scenes he described, definitely not with the ruleset of the time.)  That won't go away in 5th.

But I was very impressed with Mearles' work in Iron Heroes.  And Monte Cook has done excellent stuff with his variations on 3rd Edition.  Now I never played any of their spin-off material, but when just reading the rules is fun, you know you are on to something really cool.  I'm sad I didn't get to play any of it.  But I do want to see what they do with 5th.

I'm sure I'll play 5th when it's out because most everybody will want to play at least one campaign.  And I'm sure I'll have a good time.  Not much else to say.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Narrative in Role-playing Games - Continued

Theologian Randy Harris, in his post, "contra narrative" (on his seemingly now defunct Postmodern Mystic blog) is still available in Google's RSS cache, so I copy it here:

I want to share with you one of my favorite short stories in its entirety. It is written by the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms.

“Now one day a man went to work and on the way he met another man, who having bought a loaf of Polish bread, was heading back home where he came from.
And thats about it, more or less”

Is that a great story or what?

You see, Kharms understood that our life is not a story as some contend. It is not full of action and sometimes the plot is meandering or totally non existent. Most of life is utterly mundane.  To expect life to have the neatness of a well written story is bound to lead to disappointment and even anger.  What the mystic asks us to see is that all of those mundane moments are filled with the presence of God - and that is the ultimate meaning of our lives – not the story as we would have it.

I think this one post helped me a lot to let go of the desire for every event, no matter how insignificant, to have some wide-ranging meaning.  And this carries over into what I now expect from table-top role-playing.

Friday, November 4, 2011

1st Edition Ish - Part Two

I stumbled upon a comment that I'd made to some friends in an email, which I'll also post here, slightly edited, because it still resonates with me now - and it's a good follow up to my comments earlier:

A confession here:  although it's true that I do dislike the absence of "true" (i.e. 3.x edition) multi-classing in 4th edition, I never actually got to DO that.  I only ever played 1st edition multi-class characters, and I think just one - a Wood Elf Druid/Thief.  The closest thing after that (and it doesn't really count) was a 2nd Edition Bard with the Swashbuckler kit, one of my all-time favorites.  Other than that, I only played single-class characters.  I wanted to do true multi-classing, but when it finally came around, I just wasn't playing all that much. 
For the record, I'm actually okay with multi-classing in 4th,  I just hate that they call it multi-classing.  I'd be happier with "dabbling" or "borrowing" or something equivalent.   It's one of my pet peeves with the current game system - the ever-present misnomers. When the effects of Two-Weapon "Eviscerate" last about a round or so, that just makes my head explode.  I have no problem with the exploit as written, just don't call it that.  It sounds like they are marketing to junior-high kids - "Look, Dad, I can do this really cool thing!!!"  Though I suppose that's exactly what they are doing. 
Meanwhile, Dad, the 1st Ed player, steps into the backyard and has a good cry.  After a while, his neighbor sticks his head over the fence.  "Kid playing 4th again?"  Dad doesn't say anything.  He just sniffles once or twice and goes quiet.  It's okay.  He and his neighbor have been buddies for a long time.

I have only one thing to say to the many, many watered-down, grossly misnamed Awesomely Awesome Power powers out there.

Save or die.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Narrative in Role-playing Games

I've heard it said that role-playing games, especially those of the indie sort, are really about telling stories. I don't think that's the case.  We do tell stories, out of game, about the game sessions we've played.  All the more reason to play and play well.  And there's no question that a character within a game can relate a story to other characters during play.  But gaming isn't equivalent to creating a single story or even a set of stories.  There's no script - at least, not one that survives much into any given game session.  In role-playing games, the characters do interact with and within imagined situations.  But it's improvised.  The choices and events don't fully merge into some over-arching, cohesive plot, nor should we require that they do so.  Any given interaction or event within a session may be enjoyable or satisfying in itself, aesthetically, viscerally, morally.  It need not tie into a story arc to be worth playing out.

In that way, RPG's are like life.  Though I'm a Christian, I'm not one who believes that everything happens for a reason, as part of One Big Plan.  A great many things do happen for a reason, though I tend to be pretty careful about reading meanings into events.  God is constantly involved in what we do, but He is under no obligation to make this obvious or to explain any of it to our satisfaction.  It isn't One Big Story that binds history together, it's God himself.  God involves Himself with His creation in such a way that it can and should be conveyed as story.  "Can" because God is intimately involved in events, and events flow from one another.  "Should" because we are story-telling creatures.  We recognize sequence and closure and, through story, find and create meaning.  "In the beginning" isn't just the beginning of all things, but the beginning of a story.  And our lives aren't complete without those stories.  But a single isolated event can have profound meaning, simply because God is behind it.

So I'm much more open to saying that RPG's are about drama, than about story.  Stories will emerge, and our play will be better for it.  But  there's no need to worry if a party's jaunt through the woods isn't worthy of some novel.  It can still be exciting, amusing, or even deeply touching - no script required.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Attending the Ancestral Health Symposium 2011

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the first Ancestral Health Symposium this last weekend at UCLA.  Quite a variety of speakers from the paleo, low-carb, and traditional food camps presented.  (You can see slides, videos, and abstracts here.)

All of these camps, at their best, attempt to define with some precision the real meaning of living naturally*, i.e. acting in accordance with our biological nature rather than against it.  The paleo folks start with a practical heuristic: how homo sapiens has lived and eaten, for the longest period of time, is probably the sort of thing we are most genetically adapted to.  The traditional diet folks use a similar though less expansive heuristic: the kinds of foods that successful (i.e., relatively healthy, long-lived, vibrant) traditional cultures have eaten, and the methods by which they've prepared them, serve as a better standard of diet that the current food culture, which has failed miserably.  And the low-carbers, often by trial-and-error, have discovered that the amount of digestible carbohydrate in the Western diet is thoroughly excessive, that very little (if any) carbohydrate is necessary in the diet, and that the restriction of carbohydrates can have remarkable health benefits.  Each of these camps recognize valid insights within the others, and thus we had a meeting of the minds and of kindred spirits.

Most of what I saw at the symposium I'd already been exposed to, typically in more detail, through the blogs or books of the presenters.  The more technical presentations were both new and fascinating, but I can't really say I walked away understanding more.  I need to dust off my old chemistry and math books before I can come away from those sessions saying that I really learned something.  Yes, I can rattle off some of those explanations - but that doesn't mean I understand them.  Still, I am motivated to return to those old textbooks.  That's the biggest thing that I've taken away from this.  That, and getting out of the office for a few days to enjoy the Los Angeles weather.

A lot that I heard was worth mentioning, but I note only a few things here:

Gary Taubes, in his ongoing campaign to oppose Blind Mutual Admiration, Fluff, and thus the Nutritional Academy way, questioned Stephan Guyenet on the quality (completeness, really) of his examples justifying his explanation of obesity.  Gary was nervous, perhaps thinking, "Great.  As I see it, this just isn't up to standards.  I'm going to appear like a jerk, but I've got to call him on this."  If this was what Gary was thinking, well, kudos to him for bravery.  He's taken a lot of heat for that.  Stephan, as neurobiologist, was, I think, simply asking, "Okay, I've got just this sort of hammer, so, considering the obesity problem as nail, what can we say about it?"  Very good stuff there, at least from this layman's view.

Mark Sisson's thoughts on play were great.  I'm not so much the "hedonist" that Mark claims to be, but life, insofar as it is good, is indeed something to be enjoyed.  He got me to thinking about how so many of the things that we consider drudgery today - cooking, walking, gathering (what we'd call "shopping") - used to be sources of great joy.  Now, not so much.  That's something to be recovered.

Tom Naughton (of Fathead Movie fame, and the accompanying blog) was an absolute riot.  He gave a talk on science for the layman and how to recognize bad science (and bad science journalism) when you see it.

This was well worth the time, and, Lord willing, I'll do it again next year.

*No doubt, "Natural" is, sadly, a ruined word, except to marketers.  But this is really what the folks there were about.