Lacking Natural Simplicity

Random musings on books, code, and tabletop games.

Recent Reading

  • Neuromancer, by William Gibson, copyright 1984; Books on Tape, 1994. Read by Arthur Addison. It's been several years since I've re- read Neuromancer, but I was surprised by how much impact listening to it for the first time had: I think it recaptured a lot of the newness of the experience of reading it for the first time. Neuromancer is often credited as launching the cyberpunk genre; although there were earlier books with similar themes Neuromancer seems to have been the first to make a big impact on SF-reading public. Books with a significant computer component often age ungracefully, and there are a very few places in this book where I wince a little, but on the whole it stands up well. Well worth reading and re-reading.

Recent Reading

  • An Unpardonable Crime, by Andrew Taylor, copyright 2004; Theia Books, an imprint of Hyperion Books, 2004. This intriguing historical crime novel includes a young Edgar Allan Poe in a supporting role and a number of other, if less historical, interesting characters. Very good. Taylor has a number of other books that I will now seek out.

Recent Reading

  • The Towers of the Sunset, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr; Tor, 1993. This is, I think, the second of Modesitt's Recluce in order of publication, though not by the series' internal chronology. It tells of the founding of Recluce, and contains some more interesting looks at the magic of Recluce. Enjoyable non-psuedo-Medieval fantasy.

  • Hide & Seek, by Ian Rankin, copyright 1990; Otto Penzler Books, 1994. I started reading the Rebus books later in the series; it's interesting to see Rebus in the middle of his career. Enjoyable Scottish police mystery.

Recent Reading; Isolated Gamers?

Recent Reading

  • The Intergral Trees, by Larry Niven; Del Rey/Ballantine, 1984.

  • World of Ptavvs, by Larry Niven; Del Rey/Ballantine, 1966.

I've been on a Niven kick lately, instigated by listening to The Ringworld Throne a year or so ago (apparently prior to my establishing this weblog) in a Books-on-Tape edition. One of my local libraries has a few of his books on audio tape, and I've been working my way through them, and through the libraries copies of his books and through my copies when they turn up in random places in my pile of boxes of books. So far, I've been pleased by how well they all re- read.

Are Most Roleplaying Gamers Isolated?

On roleplaying forums on the Internet (such as rpg.net) there is an illusion that roleplaying gamers are part of a community or collection of communities, with a shared background and history. I'm not convinced that this is true for the vast majority of roleplaying gamers. In fact, I suspect that the vast majorigy of roleplaying gamers play with one group of friends or a small number of groups and have little or no connection to other roleplayers, and that people who read roleplaying magazines, go to roleplaying conventions, or follow roleplaying forums on the internet are a small minority. I wish I had some evidence about this one way or another, but I suspect that gathering the data would be beyond the abilities or will of almost everybody in the roleplaying game hobby.

Early TSR; Early vs Later GURPS; D&D Dislike

Early History of TSR

There's a very interesting interview with Gary Gygax in issues nine and ten of OD&DITIES, a zine about Original D&D, with a lot of details about the internals of TSR during Gygax's tenure that make for fascinating reading for anyone interested in the corporate history of the makers of D&D. I think it's a wonderful example of how corporate America goes wrong.

Early GURPS vs. Later GURPS

Gurpsian, posting at rpg.net, said that GURPS Swashbucklers (here actually refering to the original edition) defined GURPS for him when it was originally released 1 and that GURPS Vehicles defined for him the different road GURPS took in the later 1990s. I think that's an insightful observation. I've travelled a way down the road that GURPS Vehicles took and, although I admire it and CORPS VDS and others of their ilk, I've decide that at this point in my life I don't have any great interest in going any further along that road: if I want to design vehicles for a game the crunchiest I'll get is BESM, and Fudge, Risus, or Story Engine would probably do nicely for most things.

D&D Dislike

I went through a long period where I disliked D&D intensely; I think this is a fairly common reaction. Why does it happen? I think it is because “System Does Matter”: D&D imparts a particular tone or flavor to a game that uses it, a flavor which some find unsatisfactory, and those dissatisfied may over-react and reject the game entirely. For instance, in my case I was irritated firstly by the artificial distinction in AD&D between player characters and the other residents of the shared imaginary world, a distinction rooted in the different mechanical approaches to the two types of characters (PCs on the one hand and monsters and NPCs and later zero-level humans on the other), and secondly by coarse quantification of beings into classes and levels, both things which I think tend to restrict the range of actions and reactions that PCs take with regard to NPCs, forcing them into an unsatisfactory subset of possibilites by the artifacts of the D&D game mechanics. I entirely abandoned D&D (and Tunnels & Trolls as well) for a long time. This was probably an over-reaction, but it did prompt me to explore the alternatives, which was all to the good.

Eventually I got a grip and got over my D&D dislike. I've played (and enjoyed) D&D since; many of the things I disliked about D&D have been fixed in the most recent versions, in an admirable example of applied RPG engineering, but enough remain that I still prefer other games.

However, there is a valuable lesson in this: D&D, as market leader in this field, makes a set of assumptions that are implicitly accepted without any discussion, and in fact the vast majority of people playing D&D lack any vocabulary for analyzing and discussing those assumptions because D&D itself has no use for that vocabulary. Only those dissatisfied with those assumptions find that they need that vocabulary, and then they have to look outside D&D to find it. Due to the insular nature of the roleplaying hobby it may be that many of those dissatisfied players never find an that vocabulary and the alternatives and end up dropping out of the hobby. After all, how frustraing must it be to be dissatisfied with something and not even have a useful vocabulary to express that dissatisfaction?

It is for this reason that I think that the vocabulary and discussion that rec.games.frp.advocacy produced in its heyday and which the The Forge has produced more recently is invaluable: the people involved in those forums have taken the time to distill many of the most important terms and ideas from a vast but largely ephemeral body of folklore and present them in a lasting and organized fashion. Regardless of whether individual elements such as r.g.f.a's “Three-fold Model” or the Forge's “GNS” are useful, the terminology they've developed to talk about these things is invaluable: it lets you figure out what you want from roleplaying games.

1

Amazon lists an edition as being published in 1990; my copies of both the first and second editions lack a copyright date, as far as I can tell, but the first edition refers to the third edition of the GURPS Basic Set, which has a 1988 copyright..

The Health of the RPG Industry

Mark Arsenault, president of Gold Rush Games, had some unhappy observations on the health of the RPG industry in his post Changes in the Air: A GRG Update for our Fans on the Gold Rush Games forums on May 5th. One item in particular was the small sales size:

[T]he general consensus is that sales are down across the board (with new product sales in the 200-800 unit range; very low compared to just 2 years ago)...

The market leaders, of course, are selling in larger quantities, but even if these sales figures are only common among the second tier companies it's still ominous. Why have sales declined like this? Ron Edwards has argued in the past that this is due to the myth that a successful game must be an large rulebook supported by an ongoing stream of extensive support materials. Others have suggested that part of the problem is the supplement treadmill.

Recent Reading

  • Sharpe's Escape, by Bernard Cornwell; HarperCollins, USA, 2004. This volume of Sharpe's adventures takes place during the Bussaco campaign in Portugal in 1810, starting at Bussaco, visiting Coimbra, and ending along the Lines of Torres Vedras, near the Tagus River. While it maintains the formula (another incompetent British officer to plague Sharpe, another vicious enemy, another woman) the main characters remain engaging and the historical background fascinating. I enjoyed the homage to C.S. Forester. Overall, it was another good episode in the Sharpe saga.