Bruce and the DMG, Prologue

Let’s get this show on the road! It’s time to take a look at the Dungeon Master’s Guide for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. But before we get to what’s in the book, I want to write a little about the biases I bring to bear.5e DMG cover

I’ve been playing roleplaying games a long time – since 1977 – and helping to create them on and off for a good long while. It’s my experience that a whole lot of RPGs do a bad job of helping the referee understand what a successful session and campaign of this game might be like, what choices they should be thinking about to craft a fun time for their particular group, and like that. We are, far too often, left with something like Bun Rab’s angry denunciation of lucky rabbit’s feet in a Pogo strip: “What’s a rabbit’s foot without the rabbit? Nothin’ but a handful of disembodied toes!” So I’m always on the lookout for games that actually do provide this kind of teaching and support for the whole process of play.

D&D 3rd edition was pretty good about this. D&D 4th edition was excellent, but not nearly enough people knew it; far too many people harshing on the game never actually looked at what it said, even when they’d bought the books. Further, in recent years there’ve been a whole bunch of good RPGs of all sorts that do referee support really well. So I come at this deeply curious to see what sort of influences I spot, and also what kinds of cool new stuff (or at least new-to-me stuff) there is.

Finally, I much prefer to get enthusiastic over things that make me happy than to rant on about ones that make me unhappy or angry. Most of the time, therefore, you’ll find me spending more time and effort to explain just why something delights me than on artisanal locally sourced slams on parts I dislike. Negativity’s easy to come by; (hopefully) thoughtful happiness is in shorter supply, and it’s what I prefer to offer.

Bruce and the DMG, Prologue

October Horror Movie Challenge: The Last Days

The Last Days (Los últimos días), written and directed by David and Alex Pastor, 2013

What a pleasure! The Pastor brothers have done something genuinely fresh here. This movie is set in modern Barcelona, some months after the outbreak of a sort of global plague of agoraphobia, so severe the victims inevitably die within seconds of being outdoors.

But we don’t actually get any kind of info dump for more than half an hour. The movie starts by showing us the situation most of a year later, and all the ways people struggle to cope indoors and underground. (They can look out without the Panic gripping them, but that’s as far as it goes.) It’s tough. In the midst of this, a couple of guys at a software firm work out a way they can each go check on someone they love, and off they go.

I’ve long been a sucker for empty-city scenes. This movie has some great ones – Barcelona is such a beautiful city. But they mean something different here, because those buildings aren’t full of bodies, or zombies, but of people alive and…not well, but managing, who simply can’t go out under the sky anymore.

The protagonists are engaging, the production is wonderful, the music is great. I can hardly recommend this too highly.

Tally: 7 new, 4 rewatched, 1 dumped (earlier posts in this series are up on my Google+ stream).


October Horror Movie Challenge: The Last Days

A few quick usage notes

I’ve set things up so that I need to manually approve the first comment by someone, and then they can comment away to their heart’s content. I apologize for that first-comment delay, but I think it’ll save me nuisance.

Markdown is enabled for comments (and posting, but that only matters to me). If you’ve been posting on G+ lately, same deal.

Once I settle in, I’ll be locking comments on posts older than a few weeks, to help manage spam.

Comments are not threaded, and will be on a single page, because that’s how I like it.

And now you know!

A few quick usage notes

Solipsist, by David Donachie

Solipsist cover

There’s a joking reference I learned from reading British stories. The original version is a 19th century cartoon from Punch magazine, showing an obviously intimidated curate as the guest of his much wealthier boss, the local bishop. The bishop says, “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr. Jones.” The curate replies, “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!” It caught on, as so many Punch lines have, and a “curate’s egg” can be any sort of thing with mixed good and bad qualities. Solipsist is a curate’s egg of an RPG.

The worst of the egg

I nearly didn’t review this game, and my hesitation is entirely due to one throwaway line:

Throughout the text we refer to Solipsists, players and the GM using “he”, “him”, “his”. etc. This is just a convention we’ve used in this book.

I will not here do a full-bore spiel about the concept of privilege as manifest in gaming writing. Nonetheless, that’s an archetypal bit of privilege in action. Donachie can be flippant about it, because nobody with any clout is going to suggest that as someone with a male-sounding name and who’s referred to by the publisher and others with male pronouns, he is presumptively not a gamer and should be regarded with suspicion. It’s very unlikely that anyone will insist that if he games with miniature figures, they should all have enormous penises and wear bondage gear, or that his characters should expect to be subservient to all those of any other group of players. He will probably never get groped in a game store; if he does, it’s very unlikely that the store owner will start by assuming that he did something to bring it on. The odds are excellent that he will never show up at a gaming session pitched to him as male-friendly only to have his character raped and enslaved. And on, and on, and on, and on.

(As always, someone will doubt that the inverse of these things actually happen to anyone. Another time I’ll do a post about educational resources. For now…yes, in fact, they do, and careful, reliable accounts are readily available via common search engines.)

The point here is that for a lot of gamers, it’s not at all a given that they should be allowed to identify as gamers or associate with other gamers. Women, people of color whatever their sex and gender, LGBT people…quite a few kinds of people who like to game and wish to participate in gaming scenes have to struggle to get more advantaged gamers to accept them as equals. They don’t get to casually toss off their choice of associations and usages. I know that some of the people who read my reviews will look at that line and think “I can sit on this batch of bucks and save it for someone who’s willing to write about players, GMs, and characters in ways that include me in”. And I’ll think they’re being pretty sensible.

The rest of the egg

Example page

Solipsist is a 98-page digest-sized RPG, available in PDF from DriveThruRPG for $10 US. It’s not bookmarked, though the organization is good, the index is accurate and thorough, and the actual rules are so compact that I never felt more than simply annoyed by the absence. As with a lot of digest-sized books, it’s got a single-column layout and the art is all either full-page or nearly so. The layout and typography are very crisp and clean. The footer space on some pages has authorial comments or mood-inspiring quotations, and is blank on others.

This is a game about people who have the right kind of force of will to change reality. What they want hard enough may come true. But there are complications.

Solipsists who wish for everything they want, all at one, disappear into their own pocket universes, and leave behind a tear in the fabric of consensus reality. Through those tears come the shadows, mysterious and possibly unknowable forces or entities out to devour all of reality and solipsists in particular. So solipsists who’d like their works to last and who don’t want to annihilate reality at large have to pace themselves, balancing the changes they wish for with affirmations of their connections to consensus reality. As Queen nearly put it, “Too much wishing will kill you just as sure as not enough.”

A brief observation on terminology

Solipsist capitalizes game terms. Lots and lots of game terms. So it has sentences like this: “Overshoot: Succeeding at Changing Reality so completely that your Obsessions run away with you and the Change goes out of your control.”

I’m not going to say that this is wrong, because it’s a stylistic issue. I do say that I don’t believe it helps, and that the risks of ambiguity between game-mechanical terms and more general usages is often overrated by gaming authors (including me in the past). I think that where there’s any risk of confusion, it’s almost always possible to clarify by simple adjustments to the passage; I strongly recommend that authors try out passages on a variety of readers and see whether confusion actually occurs, and where it doesn’t, don’t add complications.

More of the rest of the egg

Mechanically, Solipsist is a strikingly minimalist game.

It’s diceless, and that’s a big part of why I went ahead with the review despite reservations. I really love diceless games and want to see more of them, and am doing my part to get the word out about what’s available in this part of the gaming ecosystem.

There are no skills, and only certain very specific kinds of attribute. Broadly speaking, if you want your character to do something that doesn’t contradict local reality as established so far in play, they can go ahead and do it. You could, of course, plug in any of many fine rules sets to provide a simple addendum to cover the mundane side of this game’s solipsists, but there’s something to be said for the “sure, go ahead” approach.

These are the features each solipsist has:

#1. A vision. Example characters’ visions include:

  • My vision is of a just world. A place where I preside over a fair society. My rules are followed and I am respected. There is no injustice here, only order and my law.
  • My vision is of a world covered by ocean, where no humans exist. I am the mermaid princess of this underwater kingdom.
  • My vision is of a world where family is so important that each family shares its life essence. I am the sole survivor of my whole family and they live on through me.
  • My vision is of an endless and glorious summer, where the flowers are ever in bloom and in the balmy evenings my new-found friends drink with me and smile.

Whatever the vision, it needs to center on the solipsist: what do they want to do and be, and what must the world be to accommodate that?

#2. Obsessions. These are particular drives that feed into the vision. They may be specific aspects of the vision itself, or desires that would move the character closer to the vision without being part of it themselves. These are the obsessions for the would-be mermaid, for instance:

  • I want to have a house by the sea (3 points)
  • I want to become a mermaid (3 points)
  • I want to breathe water (1 point)
  • I want to free the killer whales (1 point)
  • I want to see the sea cover the Earth (1 point)

I’ll come back to the point values in a moment; for now, just know that each character has exactly 5 obsessions, and divides 9 points between them. Higher-ranked ones will be more significant in attempts to change reality in the character’s here-and-now.

#3. Limitations. These are the things that make the character hesitate, feel unable or unworthy to pursue their vision, and connect them to consensus reality. As with obsessions, there are always 5, with 9 points divided between them. Here are the ones for the would-be mermaid:

  • My son would die (4 points)
  • My family love me (2 points)
  • I cannot swim (1 point)
  • I hate what being alone does to me (1 point)
  • My pet snake cannot breathe water (1 point)

#4. Tears. Over time, uncontrolled and overpowered shifts in reality tear it. Characters start off with no legacy of tears, but they build them up over time, and must make efforts to fix the tears before everything just breaks down.

#5. Infestation. In Solipsist‘s cosmology, the fundamental units of the universe are almost infinitely small living beings, named animacules in an homage to Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s term for the bacteria and other microorganisms he was the first to see through primitive microscopes. The animacules shape reality in response to the conscious and unconscious desires of all living beings, and most efficiently when reflecting solipsists’ desires. The infestation score is a pool of points you can spend on useful tasks, and can regain with suitable effort.

Something I like about this game is that infestation scores could work just as well for other things, from generic fate/action points to Mage-style Arete ratings, with no dislocation at all to anything else in the game. A sidebar specifically discusses ways of modifying play to reflect various ambiences, and one option is Mage-inspired, with non-solipsist bystanders affecting the difficulty of reality changes. This is a very tinker-friendly game that way, and that always makes me happy.

Once made, of course, characters go about trying to change reality. This is mechanically simple but quite elegant. The proposed change must include and affect the solipsist then and there, and it must be in accord with their vision. Changes that have no consequence for the solipsist just don’t happen, and neither do ones that work against the world the solipsist dreams of.

The GM sets the difficulty, and there are simple rules for this: 3, +1 if a change contradicts facts established in the current story or +2 if it contradicts facts established in the current scene, +2 or more if shadows are active in the area (more about them later), plus the ratings of all the solipsist’s relevant limitations. This is where the strategic element of assigning points feeds into the tactics of any particular change.

Now the player sets about reducing the difficulty, subtracting the rating of each relevant obsession. The goal is to get the difficulty to 0. If juggling obsessions doesn’t do it, you’ve got two options. One is to spend infestation points, shifting it closer to 0 on a 1-for-1 basis. If that’s still not enough, you can have your character push it, gaining a tear and reducing the difficulty by 5.

The outcome falls into one of three categories. If the final difficulty is greater than 0, the attempted change fails. Involved limitations get experience ticks, and the GM narrates the results. If the difficulty is exactly 0, the change goes as you want, and you narrate the results. If the difficulty is below 0, the change happens in an uncontrolled way. Obsessions get experience ticks, your character gains a tear, new infestation points come in, and whatever happens is to going to highlight the impact of runaway obsessions and limitations.

And that’s the heart of the game, right there.

A clever subheading evoking eggs and development

I’m not going to cover character development in nearly so much detail.

It’s possible for a character to fulfill enough obsessions and have enough tears accumulated that they fall into their own pocket universe. That’s the last they’ll be seen in play for good or bad; their last connection to the campaign will be the player narrating how the disappearance seems – whether it’s got a mundane cover or is overtly strange, and so on – to those who remain in consensus reality.

It’s also possible to take steps to avoid that. The game describes ways to reduce limitations and obsessions, and also to develop new ones,and to close up tears.

Mechanics cover multiple solipsists working together or just being near each other and not helping out. I admit that I think this game may be strongest for one-on-one play just because clashing visions looks likely to bring in more nuisance than reward. I’ve only had the chance to play it one-on-one, though, so I can’t be a voice of experience in the matter.

Earlier, I referred to the shadows. These are the unnatural forces that challenge solipsists’ ability to pursue their vision. The game offers a whole spread of possibilities: they’re a force of nature (predators feeding on animacules, perhaps), or other solipsists who don’t otherwise interact with the characters, or ascended solipsists returning to consensus reality to steal more animacules as needed, or the dark side of the solipsists’ own nature, or the doctors in the asylum trying to cure the characters’ delusions. They may also not appear at all, if you want to dispense with them as a source of threat and difficulty.

The game offers quite nifty mechanics for handling the shadows. As GM, you set an overall shadow strength, and give yourself that many shadow tokens or shadow points; the game has guidelines for how many points per character you’ll want to consider, with an eye on characters being able to prevail after good and perhaps costly effort. I will pause here to say that this is another reason I’m reviewing the game. I love that expectation for the outcome of play, and love to say “Here’s another game doing it just the way I like it!”

Some shadow points go to establishing one or several threads, each with its own rating. The thread strength raises the difficulty of reality-changing attempts when the person, place, thing, quality, or whatever that it represents is present as a solipsist tries to do their stuff. There’s always some way to resolve it: burn the tape (or copy it and inflict its vision on another person before seven days expire), find the missing person, complete the unfinished novel, etc. Other shadow points measure the overall strength of the underlying shadow, which can undertake reality-destroying changes of its own and can be engaged directly once the solipsists have identified and isolated it.

So, depending on the priorities mutually agreeable to players and GM, Solipsist games can cover a wide spread of combos of “I shall pursue my vision” and “I shall save the world from being negated and annihilated”. The advice on evolving development is compact but good.

There are some ways the game shows its origins as an individual project within a small development community. There are some “oh you hadda been there” moments, like a joke that is explained by artwork that’s supposed to explain it only if you’ve heard or read the rest of the story somewhere outside the rulebook. The example of play is long but oddly incomplete in some ways, offering no clear sense at all of how two characters with such divergent visions ever came together or got to the point they’re at when the example begins. It reads like a lot of drafts I’ve read and some I’ve written, where the author finds their early readers not getting something and fills it in personally. This works right up until you distribute it to people who don’t have you within easy access reach all the time.

One final criticism that’s not a problem with the book, but with the consensus reality of us the gamers. 🙂 It’s got multiple references to online discussions that simply don’t exist anymore. Forums do crash, get hacked, and otherwise wear out, and I’m not driven to fits of rage over it or anything. But I’d have liked to see some of those discussions. Perhaps in future there could be an archive site under the author’s or publisher’s own control with backups?

At meal’s end: a verdict

There’s enough about Solipsist I dislike that I can’t give it any kind of straight-on, no-major-reservations recommendation, of the sort I’ve given other books I’ve reviewed lately. If the doubts and problems I’ve pointed out seem like they’d be problems for you too, I can only recommend that you see about gathering some more info before making a purchase.

On the other hand, though, in many ways this is one of those games I think I’ve always wanted without quite knowing it. Yearning for a different reality, but held back by elements of oneself just as strong as important as the escape-fueling obsessions? Yeah, I know a thing or two about that myself, and I also find it a really great source of fantasy drama and adventure. The lightness and personal focus of this game let it open new windows on scenes often viewed through more weighty edifices’ galleries, like Mage and Nobilis; because the cosmological framework is so sparce, there’s room to welcome in very idiosyncratic and deeply personal visions without them clashing with or requiring adjustments to lots of existing setting material. Its dicelessness makes it fine for playing at a distance without needing any dice rollers and such.

I like it, but I’d love to see a new edition that would bring the not-so-excellent parts up to the standard of the rest.

Solipsist, by David Donachie