Thursday, October 23, 2014

An Attempt At A Review of D&D

If anything unifies all the experiences (and maybe nothing does) it's those cliches of the early levels--tavern keepers, scrimping for splint mail and ten foot poles, comically patchwork parties with the clerics next to half-orc thieves--not simply because they are a common starting point from which different games fork into mutually excluding orbits but because these early moments contain the maximum of the RPG's unique weapon: that constant intimation of potential. The moment when the door is not yet all the way open, when the clues have not yet jelled, when even the genre of monster is purely hypothetical. The million "coulds" of an isolated plinth in a square-plan stone place with 4 exits into 4 dark halls. 

On the first page of the novel when you don't even know what it's about "Walter stepped over a wheel onto the low, clean lawn…" what is it? What will it be? That's the RPG--except always, every chapter, because while the novel begins, imperceptibly but eventually, to list toward its themes (you know it is a book, you know it had an author, if the author isn't building to something you can stop paying attention to all the sandwiches and weather along the way), you know the RPG can't, even if it wanted to, proceed without scattering usable toys (the sandwich and the weather are yours if you want them), the potentia is always there, never quite dwindling into clarity because theme, or unity, or even meaning, implies an ending--and an ending is a limit. And the power of it is equal to the ability to suspend you in its limitlessness.

You are (and--when it's very good--can feel yourself-) standing continuously and absolutely genuinely on the brink of what art can only fake: the infinite.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ontologically Ambiguous Banshee

click to enlarge
Out of the A's in my 5e Monster Manual, and onto: The Banshee.

Made some minor changes (I took a sharpie to the original illustration, stuck some hooks in her hair, threw on some random legends from wikipedia) and some bigger changes:

-The banshee wail breaks all glass and crockery in the area. So your potions will dribble all over your scrolls--though you may not notice right away and when you get home from the dungeon (do you have a home?) you'll be like "Fuuuck", and your roomate's like "What?" and you'll be like "I fought this Banshee and…""And all your sandwiches have Fire Giant strength now." "Yyyyyyyup".

-…or maybe you won't because maybe you'll just be dead because I changed it so you hear the banshee howl once and save or you're unconscious and then again and save or you're dead. Like Silver Banshee in the Superman comics it has to know who you are in order to kill you.

-Now Banshees do not suck: they are fine, gothic and creepy--but ghosts and ethereal undead in general suck in D&D because basically you just hit them with magic or magic weapons and that's not spooky. So I gave a lot of thought to how you'd deal with something ephemeral and semi-real

I put together that idea from the Silver Banshee about the banshee having to know who you are to kill you with something I got while I was reading Heidigger about how things only definitely exist relative to a perceiver and how the banshee is a kind of ghost so that means it's there but not there at the same time and so it's only relatively extant and we can only say we understand a thing's existence to the degree and in the ways we can test it…ok anyway:

Any quality of the banshee only exists so far as the first person in the party to test that specific quality is concerned.

So, like, only the first PC to hear the banshee (probably an elf) can hear it. Only the first PC to see the banshee can see it, only the first PC to physically attack it can hit it physically, only the first to use magic on it can use magic on it, only the first to make telepathic contact can make telepathic contact, etc.

So, very likely, you'll have the party having to cooperate to fight a foe they aren't certain is there--and the banshee can only focus on one party member at a time.

This lasts until the next night (only goes out at night, natchrly) or until one of the characters dies (the condition persists while a PC is unconscious)--in which case the next PC to test the creature can interact with it on the "taken" level.
In othier news, f you liked hearing Mandy's Warhammer army of choice yesterday, Mandy did a post on her tumblr about what she wants to see more of in video games (nsfw)...


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gender And Representation In Warhammer's Realms of Chaos

It was long ago. A Salt with a Deadly Pepa had just come out, Bad Religion had just done SufferDie Hard was in theaters--and nobody knew who Tzeentch was.

More than a decade earlier, Dungeons & Dragons--by fusing wargaming and SF fandom--had been be responsible for an influx of women into the hobby gaming scene. In three years, Vampire: The Masquerade would bring more in.

But this is wargaming and this is England, 1988, and Games Workshop was totally not doing that. And it's been that way ever since.

Why Pick On Warhammer?

Because by 1988 Warhammer had become basically its own hobby. After re-inventing tabletop wargaming for a post-D&D world with Warhammer Fantasy Battle (1983), they followed up with the one-two punch of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1986) and Warhammer 40,000 (1987) (the game which still looms over the miniatures hobby like a bleak and shouldery god) that was powerful enough that GW could afford to create a chain of Games Workshop stores. A teenager could scour the yellow pages for a place to buy tabletop stuff, go in, spend 45 minutes, come out and get picked up by mom without ever seeing a copy of Dragon or Call of Cthulhu anywhere near the top shelf.

In miniatures wargaming, Warhammer stuff was--and still is--nearly the only game in town, dominating the vast central plain that separates kids and their role-playing games on one coast from bent bearded men and their historical wargames on the other.

With power this great comes responsibility--and when it came to getting women into wargaming, the Warhammer franchise's Girlfriend Index, a quarter-century later, is still miserably low.

Why Pick On Realms of Chaos?

RoC was quite unique when it was first unleashed on the world. It was the first GW product to have so much time and money allotted to the artwork.
-Tony Ackland

Warhammer has elves and dwarves and trolls but it also has Chaos. The baroque imagery of Chaos is the defining difference between the Warhammer mythos and the D&D one and that--because of the role of mutations as an excuse to convert and scratch-build miniatures--drives a lot of the mini-painting and modelling sub-hobby. The two Realms of Chaos books (Slaves to Darkness and Lost And The Damned) were central to building the Warhammer games into a coherent universe, and the lavish nearly-300 page books still stand as a high-water mark for mechanical richness, inventive writing, graphic design, and especially art in hobby gaming.

Without Realms of Chaos--which made the bad guys as interesting, playable and prone to internal strife as the good guys--the Warhammer franchise is just another '80s D&D variant with D&D in space tacked on. With Chaos, all the pieces of the Warhammer cult the Internet knows and loves and loathes slide neatly into place. Such sins as Warhammer commits trace back to this garden.


Warhammer was nearly called Battleblade:  also, Warhammer was typed by Rick Priestley’s mum.
-Bryan Ansell

There were women around Games Workshop when RoChaos was gestating, but not a lot. Sixty-odd writers, artists and miscellaneous staff are credited on the first book, eight of whom are women--but none of them did any writing, illustrating or game design. About half worked on the short showcase of painted miniatures in the middle of the book--in addition to Trish Morrison, sculptor and co-founder of Marauder miniatures, three women (I think) painted minis: Suzanne Bladon, Katy Briggs and Lucie Richardson.

Only one female name reappears for the second book--Lindsey D. Le Doux Paton (now Priestley), previously credited as a typesetter, moves up to the writing staff for Realms of Chaos: Lost and the Damned. This makes a difference: while both books were loaded with the flavor fiction pieces Silver Age RPGs were so weirdly enamored of, the first one has nobody besides a nameless girl who "sniggers" while an old man's telling a Spooky Chaos story and an equally nameless woman who helps an artist summon something in some inscrutable way by "caressing" a statue, whereas the book Le Doux Paton worked on has a handful of stories that actually need the women in them in order to be stories.

The women in Lost and the Damned are mostly first-scene-of-the-horror-movie style sort of victim-protagonists: a blind woman's POV sets up the dramatic entrance of a skeletal champion, another sacrifices her husband to Nurgle for being too fat and then becomes the subject of a weird revenge as worms spout from his grave and turn her into a steed. Still: none of the women in these sidebars fight anybody, do anything particularly impressive, or know much more than anybody else.

There is exactly one gameable, named female character in all of the almost 600-pages of the two Realms of Chaos volumes. She is one entry in a list of 68 pre-generated chaos warband members: Jarea--a compatriot of Yrlman the Loose.

Lastly among the retinue is Jarea, a sorceress whose strange tastes have led her to Yrlman's side to learn the ways of pleasant perversity that he knows too well. But Jarea is far more powerful than Yrlman and is jealous of the favour he receives. For the moment she revels in her gnawing envy, biding her time--soon she too will take her first steps in the dangerous dance of Slaanesh's chosen…

So it's not much: an unillustrated jealous employee formerly in some creep's sexual thrall (would you say an ambitious male follower was "jealous"?--you'd probably just say he was "scheming" because that's a verb and so it's about what someone does, not an adjective about their emotions)--and she has an ant face. But she is Warhammer's first female chaos warrior. Hail Jarea, Shatterer of Ceilings.

I honestly doubt any of these stories (or lack thereof) per se turned off many potential female Warhammer players, or made male players take any extra effort to keep them out--you'd have to be pretty deep into the books already to notice them. They do, however, illustrate just how little it occurred to anybody at Games Workshop that there were girls inside the Warhammer world who did Warhammer stuff or girls in the real world who might want to do Warhammer stuff.

What does fail to turn young potential gamers off is seeing or not seeing themselves reflected in the art.
Left: dude, Right: dude
Also Not Appearing In This Book

Neither justice nor art are ever served by an artist making art about something they have no talent for  but once GW became both a corporate entity which openly did things just for the money and the largest voice in its entire hobby (and all the social spaces that entails) then the art directors and administrators become responsible for seeking out artists and writers who can do the things they can't.

If Adrian Smith insists the magnificent optical vortex he summons in that picture up there will dangerously unbalance if he drew in some tits, I have to trust him (he is, after all, an actual genius and I hate drawing guys, personally)--but it's preposterous to suggest the art director could find no decent and Warhammerable artist that was available to draw some woman on some other page.

In books stuffed with drawings and descriptions of dozens of creatures and societies, the number of missed opportunities here is amazing: centaurs are all drawn as guys, minotaurs are all guys, beastmen are all guys (despite how awesome and scary "she-goat" sounds), everyone involved in the Warhammer creation myth--the story of the Horus Heresy--is a guy, dragon-ogres are all guys (no rounded and distending green torsos), the Sensei--who possess a fraction of the Emperor's power and lead good-aligned warbands against chaos-- are only referred to as the Emperor's "sons", the word "coven" gets used a lot--and the leader of one is called a "magus"--with nary a "witch" anywhere (aside from the possibility of witch elves buried in the army list).

Crowning the casual archaisms (using "he" for everything, "Many wise men have been carried…""huntsmen") it's repeatedly pointed out that if your chaos champion does really well for a really long time he can become a daemon prince. And there's rules for daemon princes and point values and lots of pictures and generally just the word Demon Prince every third fucking page and nobody ever managed to think the words daemon princess yet somehow they do to remember note that wizard's familiars can take the form of "beautiful young women" as well as "sorcerer's imps and bizarre creatures"--and, oh yeah, the lesser daemon of Kweethul is a harpy. Women were treated not like audience members but like a sword & sorcery trope, in there attached to things just like snakes and snails and scorpion tails were.


There are two kinds of women in the Chaos art: sexy and not sexy.

Out of five or six-hundred pictures, here's pretty much every single not-sexy woman:

The vast majority, however, were very explicitly babes, which brings us rather neatly to...

"Slaanesh was meant to be a sibilant, erotic, breathy, whispered/murmured sound. The models didn’t turn out quite as erotically charged as I’d hoped."

-Bryan Ansell

One of the first Warhammer games I ever played--when I was fourteen--was with a girl fielding an army of Slaaanesh--and the last one I played had a girl fielding an army of Slaanesh.
There are four chaos powers: Nurgle, Tzeentch, and Khorne, who are male--and Slaanesh, lord of depravity--who is both male and female.

So: 7/8ths male and almost* the only time Warhammer talks about androgyny it's in the context of evil. If  teenagers play you and you're the only game in town, that's a message, and it's obviously a fucked up one.

Slaanesh also dips into the whole sex-as-evil trope since there's no Good God of Sex but what're you gonna do? It's hard to imagine how anybody would do that without some very boring hippie shit anyway. Something about sex as transgression goes beyond passing cultural norms and gets into taboos about adult spaces vs family spaces and how authority and religion are always an attempt to control sexuality (because desire can and routinely does ignore and disrupt the oligarchic status quos these institutions are based on--see Romeo and JulietHamlet, all noir movies ever made etc) and so, basically, the idea of sex being somehow a disruption is just kind of always there because it is.

And anyway problems with this part of Slaanesh are pretty much part-and-parcel of the pseudocosmic 70s glam rock androgyny it grew out of--Slaanesh basically plugs into the same socket as Bowie, KISS and Manson:

Pastel and electric shades are the chief colours, although white is often used as well. These colours are also sometimes carried over into everyday wear, although they may be modified to fit in with current fashions. Regardless of any considerations, all Slaanesh followers wear garb of sensuously high quality.

….its troops parade in frivolous colours and clashing patterns, fantastic jewels and flamboyant costumes. The whole impression is that of a costume ball or masque rather than a battle…Its Daemons and warriors shriek obscene jokes to each other, disport themselves with the dead and laugh with pleasure even as their own lives are taken. Any sensation is, after all, to be experienced and enjoyed. To express horror is regarded as a dreadful failing, one that is sure to be punished by the lord of pleasure.

Slaanesh's creatures concatenate the sensual with the fucked--the mounts of Slaanesh are lean Gigeresques with phallic heads, "long, feminine legs" and at least 4 boobs running down the front, the fiends are pale insect-centaurs with whiplike tongues, and the greater daemons are Tom-of-Finland minotaurs with extra arms in studded leather. Many creatures of Slaanesh exude a musk that makes you want to stand near them, doing nothing.

And then there's the daemonettes--

The Realms of Chaos books are full of daemonettes and sexy babes for the best possible reason: the artists all liked to draw them. The artists all liked to draw them for the worst possible reason: it didn't occur to the art director to hire a wider variety of artists.

Regardless of the reasons they got there--Mandy will not roll without her daemonettes. Period. You can pry them from her cold, dead, feminist-gamer fingers.

Slaanesh and his panoply suggest a basic problem with de-sexualization. If you took away the daemonettes and replaced them with Female Champions in Reasonable Armor, you'd be inviting every woman and every feminist I've ever seen play Warhammer to leave the table. And that would be--in the most results-based and scientific sense--a sexist effect. Less women getting what they want, less women period. Suggesting the daemonettes are sexist or a problem is suggesting it's sexist or a problem to invite Whitney B. and Vivka V. and Mandy M. to come and play and be happy. And it isn't--not even a little.

A certain kind of girl really likes fielding an army of half-naked hellions in fetish gear--it happens to be a kind of girl I know a lot of. Unfortunately, it's pretty much the only kind you can be if you like having women in your army and you want to play Chaos.

There are thousands of male miniatures and male characters in the Games Workshop catalogue--for women it's the relatively recent Sisters of Battle, the egalitarian-but-enigmatically-masked Eldar, or the daemonettes and the rest of Slaanesh's slutty army. It's this asymmetry that's bad and sexist. The men in Chaos are about war or disease or mutation or fucking. The women are about fucking. You can be whatever you want, so long as it's a choice.

To put it another way: it's not Slaanesh's fault if the only women in the Realms of Chaos work for Slaanesh, it's Khorne's fault for not hiring more women.

The Distaff Powers

The easiest way to untwist the genderweirdness in the Realms of Chaos is just to do what most adult gamers reflexively do anyway: ignore it. But there might be more interesting ways.

Let's posit a few things:

We know the people of the Imperium and Old World are Orwellian satires of hidebound xenophobes invented by Thatcher-era Britpunks.
We know these people--Space Marine chaplains, Grey Knights, Keepers of the Black Library, etc--are the sources of most of the legends we have about Chaos.


What "everyone knows" about the Chaos powers is also filtered through a comically backward worldview.

The fact is there are at least three other major chaos powers--with Beasts, Mounts, Daemons, Marks, Sigils and Gifts of their own, but these are spoken of only in the quietest and most secure vaults of the Black Library. The old men call them the Distaff Powers. The existence of warp beings even more powerful than the Emperor is disturbing enough--female creatures of such status are a downright obscenity.

One is Lolth, Queen of All Shadows, but the other two…?

…and there are probably others with no gender at all.

This runs smack into the Shreyas Paradox (named after an RPG guy who actually believes it): If you reproduce a medieval (or any past) time period or mindset in a game, you're reproducing a time when people were oppressed--which might offend people. But if you change the past so it reflects contemporary values you're whitewashing oppression out of history--which might offend people.

But since you should only be gaming with people you trust to handle any conversation that might come up, this paradox doesn't matter.

p.s. Yes I gave this entry a goofy pseudoacademic title on purpose.

* Yes, there is the very neglected Liadriel. Try googling him/her.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Azer--"…as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff"

-Isaiah 5:24

Aaaaaaaaaaaanother sucky "A" monster. Possibly the absolute bottom of the barrel, the Azer is supposed to be a flaming beardy dwarf from the plane of fire. It's like the kind of idea a disembodied butt with wheels would have if that butt worked for TSR in the 80s and hated people who played D&D and could hold a pen and sucked.

Anyway, here's mine:
Click to enlarge
The Azerites are the victims of a cruel and innovative goblin joke dating from the 8th Agon: dwarf prisoners were given a hallucinogen that made them both susceptible to suggestion and immune to flame, then set their faces alight and sent them charging at their fellows.

While under the influence of the burning Serums of Liao, the Azerite is not only borne into a manic fury, but perceives all non-dwarves as goblins.

The early Azerites became addicted to the Serums, as did their descendants. These pyrolatrous tribes have only two moods:

1. Berserk
2. Quiet, tragic, coal-socketed staring at anything inert enough not to drive them berserk.

On the right-hand half of the yellow statblock you'll see d4 things that happen while you fight ignited Azerites (wood things explode in sparks, etc) next to that you'll see a list of 8 titles of various Azerite warriors, the 8th is simply called "Serums of Liao" because the serums are actually more important than the identity of the dwarf who bears them. "The Path" is likely the honorific for their Bad Fire Wizard. The rest maybe have extra weapons or drugborne powers related to their names.

Below that is a list of short term goals for a randomly encountered group of azerites-- 1-4 are things they want to sacrifice to the flames, 5 and 6 ("all die in flames and battle"(including them) and "convert infidels" are self-explanatory.

The "Lair Actions" beneath are proper Lair Actions but also just things you might find going on in there. I suppose I could call them "Lair Features" but it's my monster manual so whatever.

Also replaced the hammer with an axe because why would you ever not?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fucking Cutting Edge Tabletop Jetset Here Y'All

Long weekend. Hit Little Tokyo...

… then over to the Indiecade convention

It's Dungeons & Dragons' 40th anniversary so Jon Peterson (author of Playing At The World--the only not-unbelievably-shallow book about the history of Dungeons & Dragons and the only one written by someone whose favorite band is Shellac) and Jennell Jaquays were up on stage talking about the early days of gaming and the explosion of little zines that came out after the D&D rules.
Jennell and Zak
Jennell is awesome--she did Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower--and then went to video games and basically got in on the ground floor there, too--working a lot of the seminal stuff in the field

Indiecade is largely a videogame convention and even some of the heavy hitters there had no idea how important Jennell had been. I had to be all "DO YOU FUCKING KNOW WHO THIS IS? PAC MAN! QUAKE 3! COLECOVISION! FUCK!"

Then I fanboyed:

Zak: "I'm totally missing my Dark Tower game this morning so I could be here"

Jennell: "I'm sorry"

Z: "After you did Thracia and Dark Tower it seems like everybody else just dropped the ball on big dungeons and started doing nothing but, like, monster-in-a-room and funhouses and…"

J: "It was funhouses and Here's A Story You Have to Run Through In This Order."

Z: "And you came back later after you'd done video games but you didn't do more design?"

J: "Well I stopped because I thought I was repeating myself."

Z: "So it wasn't an external thing?"

J: "No, I just didn't want to do the same thing over again, I wanted to move on."

Z: "That's so cool."

Historical tidbit: Jon told me that this picture from the original D&D "Men & Magic" was done by a woman named Cookie Corey:

Then I got to run some of the adventures from Red & Pleasant Land. This is what I look like when I do vampire children voices...
I had to run it off my laptop because the printed book hasn't shipped yet.

I had this conversation 1000 times at Indiecade:

"Is Red & Pleasant Land out?"

"Nah James wanted to ship it with Death Frost Doom and he sent Death Frost Doom back to the printer because it wasn't black enough"

"That's so James"

The game was fun though. First group killed one monster and escaped with a 300 gp chafing dish and the otherpretty much got Total Party Killed by vampires.

One group got put on trial for being too good at croquet and ran from a pudding--the other tried turning the Queen, then blackmail, to no avail.

with Anna Anthropy/Auntie Pixelante

Then back home to play D&D with the usual suspects:

"Instead of trying to deceive him, can i just, while he's confused, hit him in the kneecap with a hatchet?"

Then I ran my game after and the players decided to sleep under Deathfrost Mountain. 3 are insane, 2 are blind.

Then we went to the USC Playthink salon and they talked about putting more games in art museums and I was like Yeah hurry up.

Next up tomorrow probably I sow you what I did to the Azer which, seriously, I had to because Azer is the dumbest monster.

Monday, October 13, 2014

(sigh) Ankhegs

First, obligatory Red & Pleasant Land preview. It is actually back from the printer...

…not quite available to order yet--but soon. Soon. Sooooon.

Anyway, on with fucking up the Monster Manual...

So obviously: fuck ankhegs.

They're big boring insects, in every sense. Unlike real animals or mythical monsters, it hasn't got a stable, imaginable core and unlike other totally made up Gygaxian monsters like the beholder it's never had an illustration that stuck this particular image and not that one into anybody's brain. It's a handful of minor gimmicks glued to a pair of awkwardly mated syllables.

But, again, I got this. Check it:

So I changed the name because "ankheg" sounds like the last name of a session keyboardist in an 80s band with a yellow and dark blue album jacket. Rick Ankheg from the Wild Shoulder, y'know, the guys who did "Domes of Passion"? No? Anyway now it's Ankhara.

I made them non-boring so they'd be less boring and obviously redrew them as riding beasts which you can see and why am I even telling you that. But ok, here's the main thing:

The riders are not masters of the beasts, nor even are they Bravestarr-and-Thirty Thirty-like equals: the ankheg controls the rider. Like so many insect empires, they seek to enslave humanoids--uniquely, however, they don't want anyone to know.

So for all your party knows, there's just a ranged panoply of warriors striding boldly across the weatherbeaten plateau atop their chitinous mounts, rearing headlong at the face of a twisting column of  bleak, grey dust. And a violence rings out as the party and the strange cavalry join and mutually assail each other. Then the party slaughters the warriors smugly, but are left tired, bleeding, needing aid. Then and only then do the insects reveal they were the masterminds all the time.

They drag you back to their immensely-sophisticated cave-temple (they can't do the fine carving, so they rip human arms off and slide them over their own pokey arms like gloves) and then let their young batter you psychically by turning your own spoken language into awful insect reverberations (like  locust sounds in a night that only happens between your own ears). If you escape you might walk into sticky honeywax muqarnas falling from the ceiling or a pit where rival subqueens fight using only the limbs of men or find the precious paper they make from spit.

They are at war with driders.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

John Wick's 'Chess Is Not A Roleplaying Game' Does Not Necessarily Indicate He Is Psychotic

First, old business:

1. More preview art for Red & Pleasant Land, available here in the next few days.
click to enlarge

"God, it's so beautiful, I love this. It just makes D&D look so fucking now"
--Molly Crabapple

2. Yes, I got paid in actual money for consulting on D&D. Thousands of dollars. Ask them.

3. No, I don't think there's only one way to enjoy playing role playing games. The internet is just dumb and interprets "Here's how I like to make pizza!" as "Only ever make pizza." Remember the Golden Rule of Internet Shit-Talking: Ask anyone who says otherwise for a quote.

Now, new business:

Like everyone else I know, I saw John Wick's "Chess Is Not A Roleplaying Game" essay and was like "Ok, that's crazy…next".

Someone then plussed John Wick into the conversation where I opined that John saying stuff like  "D&D is not a role-playing game" and "Just a moment ago, I called weapon lists one of the most common features in roleplaying games. These things are not features. They’re bugs. And it’s time to get rid of them." as evidence of a highly advanced state of degenerative lunacy on John's part and John showed up and argued with me.

Then, eventually, he was like Ok, let's actually talk (like, with speech) about this.

So we did. Here's a video of us debating what John said.

For the kind of people who actually care about this kind of nitpicky RPG-definition argument, it was really good. It was an actually interesting conversation. There should be more of these.

Next time I'll ask John what's up with his whole "Indiscriminately killing orcs is bad" thing.