Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Magic in D&D: Of Haves and Have Nots

In d&d land, there are two kinds of people: Those who have magic, and those who don't.

There a reason I mostly play spellcasters in d&d: I like having agency.

D&D has always been a disfunctional premise on a concept level from the moment it allows Haves and Have Nots in a same group, and if a player at my table insists on playing a muggle then so be it, but I warn said player that they're playing a concept with a limited shelf life.

This is not only as a player. As a GM I don't like dealing with magical Have Nots because they limit the stories I can tell and adventures I can run. D&D character levels go up and eventually "go hit the neighbouring orcs with a pointy stick" must grow into "ask the overdeity's oracle for the archfiend's true name, for which you have to go to a lost demiplane with access point in a sunken city under the sea," something the protagonist will never be able to do if all they can do is hitting things with a pointy stick. If I'm going to run an adventure, the character party must be able to pull their weight on their own power, because if I have to keep solving their every problem via McGuffins and Deux Ex Machina NPCs, then there was never a challenge, the whole thing is a travesty.

Fictional "muggle heroes" can be divided in two:

1) The Vanilla Action Hero: All this guy can do is fight. He's usually a blockhead whose fighting ability is only rivaled by his bull-headedness. Because of his lack of ambition, the call to adventure always falls straight on his lap, and because of his lack of brains or skills, the stumbles through the plot advancing only because of the purest serendipity, everything he needs just falls at his feet via the divine providence, and his foes tend to lose because of some contrived circumstance that creates an lethal opening at the exact point in time.

(The girl fell into his taxi without any input or effort from him: Check
The army literally knocked on his door to give him the means to get into
the resort cruise in space to meet the contact: Check.
The girl gave him every clue short of outright spelling-it-out for him to
figure out what the Fifth Element was: Check)

2) The Badass Normal: In a fantasy world (call it magic, superpowers, etc), the badass normal is a "non-superpowered person"... or rather, someone with only one superpower: Hypercompetence. The BN is ridiculously fit (regardless of apparent muscle mass), unrealistically resourceful, and crazy-prepared; they're all that and an order of fries; the pinnacle of human ambition. While people misleadingly sell BNs as "heroes like you," the thing about BNs in fiction is that, once you actually get to assess they things they do on a regular basis, you realize there's nothing "normal" about said badasses. Plus, they're often impossible to emulate in class-based games... or rather just impossible, period. Just the list of accomplishments of ANY BN (even Hawkeye's!) is impossible to normal humans in and of itself. If anything, being a BN is in itself a superpower.

(World's Greatest Detective... who also happens to be world's top weight lifter, 
best martial artist, accomplished gadgeteer, all-round Modern Man of the
Renaissance, billionaire, decked with technology at least ten years ahead of his time,
and has his life sorted out just the right way so his two lives never come in conflict in 
any way... sounds legit)

D&D biggest offense regarding the Fighter is that they sell you a Badass Normal but what they give you is a Vanilla Action Hero, and the Vanilla Action Hero works only in literature and otherwise passive media because the author arbitrarily resolves the hero's problems via contrivances, serendipity, and Swords Of Plot Advancement whenever is dramatically appropriate. If this VAH had no Plot Armor and a "benevolent God," he'd have no way to reach the underwater city, let alone traverse between the planes, or defeat a god.

In addition, I don't like my players getting frustrated, and classes like the Fighter are nothing but a recipe for frustration. All (useful) character classes bring something to the table, and ALL classes fight, so if all your character can do is fight then you're not contributing anything to the adventure. Furthermore, eventually the fighter can't do even that (fight) because eventually the party reaches lvl 5 special qualities make their appearance (incorporeals, damage immunities and resistances, etc) and waving a pointy stick at them won't do. Enemies with special qualities become more frequent as levels go up and the fighter player accuses me of "targetting them." In addition, the adventure eventually grows into "ask the overdeity's oracle for the archfiend's true name, for which you have to go to a lost demiplane with access point in a sunken city under the sea," and all he can do is watch the spellcasters asking deities for the city's location, growing gills to swim, sky diving into elemental planes, and he can't contribute to any of that, so yeah, of course the player gets frustrated.

(well duh! It's a fucking ghost! Of course waving a pointy stick at it
won't work. Now stand aside and let the adults work.)

Games are not books, or anime. the Vanilla Action Hero is an archetype that shouldn't exist on any fantasy game, since all it does is mislead the players. If you play one in full awareness that you won't have any agency (or actually just play for the combat minigame), then more power to you, but if you like to have agency and making choices that matter, muggles are a trap option. Don't even bother.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

More Than "Just Guidelines"

While d&d 3E was full of blessings in comparison to old AD&D, I think the best thing about it was the actual institution and enforcement of standards.

3E's rules were by no means perfect, but they were structured enough that you could go to any gaming table and know you had a pretty good chance that you didn't have to re-learn the game's rules all over again (hell, you could even play your character from your previous game mostly as-is). The rules stayed mostly the same from table to table.

And that's why every viking hat on twitter spewing rules-are-bad rhetoric (i.e "it's all guidelines!") to me sounds like this:

Rules exist so we can all agree on what game we're playing. They set expectations and ensure players can make informed choices (starting with the most basic choice of whether I want to join your game or not). Like most adults, I'm a busy person, so If I'm going to give you three hours of my time (or possibly 7, if commuting in meatspace), I better be damn well sure of what I'm getting. I don't sign blank cheques with my time.

I'm thankful to all those GMs that honestly answer the questions I ask them about their games and houserules, even those whose answers tell me I wouldn't be a good fit for their game (or rather, I thank especially them, since their honesty keeps me from wasting both my time and theirs).

It was supposed to come off as a longer rant.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Kiss and Module Design Tips

In an online community I hang at, we were talking about one thing but the topic eventually derailed to adventure building, and someone posted a nice checklist for module design.

Anyone who knows me knows I'm not a fan of canned adventures since they're railroads by definition.


There's a thin red line between a railroad and a theme park: A theme park is a railroad that's actually enjoyable.

If you ask me, there's just one requisite for a successful theme park:


(I was thinking of "Keep It Simple, Stupid," but KISS also makes everything better)

A module is, first and foremost, a scenario:

Definition of scenario

plural scenarios

1a an outline or synopsis of a play; especially a plot outline used by actors of the commedia dell'arte
the libretto of an opera

3a sequence of events especially when imagined; especially an account or synopsis of a possible course of action or events
  • his scenario for a settlement envisages … reunification
  •  —Selig Harrison
As a scenario, even the most flexible modules will offer you at most one out of two choices at specific moments in time (which is inevitable since writers can't account for all possible player actions). So, the best modules are those built around circumstances that:

1) Are so simple that changes are irrelevant.
2) Are inherently fun, so the players have no need to want things any differently.

Just keep things simple and fun. Just like GMs use modules when they don't feel like writing their own material, players are likewise entitled to put their brains in neutral and go with the flow.

Now, while "modules with rich stories and intricate plots" sound pretty on paper... the thing with rich stories is that you run the risk of players actually wanting in on said stories, and interacting with them... and your module's scenario happens to be written in stone, and 9 out of 10 GMs will stick to the script*, so the more complex the plot, the more it will look like a Second Order Idiot Plot from the outside (see Rise of the Runelords) and the more players will resent being railroaded.

((Boots, right before mysteriously contracting a case of lead poisoning))

So, say with me:
"I'm not the next JRR Tolkien."
"I'm not the next GRR Martin."
"I'm not the next Ryo Mizuno."

A module with such a simple premise as "the player characters wake up inside a labyrinth, don't ask why." is perfectly valid: The player characters are already there, it could be for any reason (it could be a dream for all we know), no motivations are needed, and there's no "story" the players can "disrupt" (also it used to work for Robert E. Howard, Conan used to start each tale in a different place under different circumstances with no explanations given).

Never underestimate the simple little things.

* P.D: Yeah, I know there are those few and proud unicorns who upon reading a module, they de-compile it in their heads and turn it into a sandbox where players can do anything with the story. In case you're one of them, congratulations, but you happen to be the exception, not the norm, and never having experienced a problem yourself doesn't make that problem inexistent to the rest of the world.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Paradox of Puzzles

Of all the old school's traditions, few I care less for than in-game puzzles and riddles.

1) They take you out of the game since they're meant for the player, not the character. It's as if the GM said that, to beat the BBEG of the game, you had to beat him in Super Smash Bros. This breaks narrative flow and immersion.

2) They break roleplay. You are not your character, nor you are obligated to. You are not presented with vector calculus sheets whenever your character needs to land a plane. You are not required to narrate the full procedure when your character is performing surgery. You are not required to study at the police academy and then take the detective course to play a private eye. Whenever your character undertakes something you can't, that's where the skills, attributes, and dice come in the picture.

Warning: This only works in cartoons, or in campaigns with overbearing, micromanaging GMs

3) GMs are rarely (if ever) actual game designers themselves. I say this as a GM: "Clever puzzles" usually aren't. Descriptions always seem clearer in our heads than the way they're actually conveyed to players. The solutions to each puzzle are always "obvious" to us because we wrote them; as GMs, we play with a full deck. Truth is: Our descriptions are usually as incomplete as our clues, which means players have as easy a time trying to solve our puzzles as a female creator trying to get to the top in Marvel comics.

 (Tip: Ask Chelsea Cain about her feminist agenda).

Puzzles are something I lump straight with bait&switch, BDSM, and playing Numenera. If the whole table is into it then go ahead, more power to you all, but never force it on the unwilling, and be aware that the lesser your degree of expertise, the higher the chances of one or more of your players flipping the table on you.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Shounen Anime, Superheroes, Oil, and Water

Saying that adding superpowers to a story automatically makes it a "superhero story" is like saying adding lasers and spaceships to a tale automatically makes it "science fiction" or slapping gears everywhere automatically turns it into "steampunk." While you may see anime with superpowered people (like My Hero Academia or One Punch Man), these are still shounen anime, and follow the genre conventions of shounen anime, any similarities with actual superhero comics are merely superficial. In fact, after reading this, you'll see how both genres are almost polar opposites.

Warning: This comparison is for superhero comics. Superhero tv series and movies are their own thing that only take the occasional trope from the genre.

The Hero

As much backlash as the genre has faced by modern collectivists, at heart, superheroes are still all about the might of the self-realized individual, and superheroes are individualists of the highest order. A solo superhero may have contacts and otherwise "supporting cast," but they'll never have -peers-. Other than (perhaps) those closest to them, everyone else sees the superhero differently. Not only that, the hero tends to see themselves differently. Being on a different level in the food-chain as everyone else comes with a different perspective on things, that's why one of the main struggles of the superhero is not losing touch with the people they protect (one that Superman deals with way better than Batman, but that will be stuff for another post).

The shounen anime hero, on the other hand, is educated that only the power of friendship and unity can help him overcome adversity and the monster of the season, so he gets himself a band of merry men, from which he gets backup and emotional support. Also, unlike the superhero (who starts the story already a made person), the shounen anime hero is always a boy out to meet the world and wet behind the ears; as such, he has a mentor/surrogate paternal figure who will help guide him (the shounen anime hero is always a teen, and a male) through the "coming of age" part of his story. The shounen anime hero is always part of a family of which he is spiritually the youngest. In addition, regardless of the amount of power possesed, shounen anime heroes are somehow immune to the power changing their world view (as it would normally happen to anyone else), and will always be the same chuckleheads who can't show up in time for school. Furthermore, this power somehow doesn't alienate those around the shounen anime hero (as it would usually happen in any other case when people finds out their neighbour can erase them from existence with a sneeze).

Beginnings and Narrative Flow

Most if not all superhero comics start In Media Res, with the superhero already fully formed and springing to action in issue #1; "origin stories" are usually told only after issue 2, and in a most abreviated way. The narrartive/marketing model for the superhero comic is a self-contained, episodic one. The reasons for this are twofold: The most immediate one is that, as a product, the superhero must remain recognizable, so the basic premise must not change (just like syndicated shows, the objective is that your potential audience can pick up any random issue and take it from there). The second reason is the same reason why George Lucas started Star Wars with Episode IV and not Episode I: Given the choice, audiences would rather skip straight to the good stuff rather than waiting months/years before being given what they actually paid for (Batman Begins' reception was poorer among the critics than Warner would like to acknowledge).

(20 years training...but you don't want to hear about that)

While shounen anime also follows an (relatively) episodic formula, there are important differences. Your average shounen anime can usually be split in two parts: "Coming of Age" and "Monster of the Season." The first act is a standard, almost cookie-cutter analogy for adolescence, adding some miscelaneous weirdness to the usual "boy meets world". The second part is optional, and is the more familiar, repetitive narrative where a stronger monster appears and lays the smackdown on the hero who then has to "level up" and get a new power in order to beat the enemy. Unlike superhero comics where an episode rarely takes more than three issues, an anime Monster of the Season arc actually takes several months. Once the monster of the season is defeated, repeat the same format with a different villain ad nauseam.

(Just add different villains. Source:

Crime and Punishment

Superheroes operate outside the law, but still acknowledge the existence of the state and the need to respect it. When not government-sanctioned, superheroes are sometimes persecuted as outlaws, and if they become problematic the state is willing to escalate the conflict (still, even when the superhero could easily overpower law enforcers, they choose not to, just running away instead). In the most extreme cases, world powers have been known to go nuclear once superhumans prove themselves a threat to the establishment (see Kingdom Come).

Shounen anime settings, on the other hand, are basically Westerns; lawless communities where the only effective authority is that of the fastest gun (in this case, the heroes and villains). Law enforcement bodies (i.e police and the army) are, for all practical purposes, non-existant, and the few times they do show up, they're ineffectual at best and openly ridiculed at worst (see Dragonball-Z). Because of the authority of the state being held in contempt, shounen anime heroes are free of the consequences of their actions, just like gunmen in the wild west: Murder, collateral damage, and property damage ranging in the millions of dollars are the order of the day in your average shounen show. This freedom from consequences and contempt for the state also breeds anti-heroes who are considerably less conscientious than their western counterparts. The unshown collateral deaths in your average shounen anime fight would make Frank Castle sick.

(Remember that time the JSDF declared war on 
Mazinger-Z for destroying half Tokyo? Yeah, me neither)


Can you imagine how many death threats Robert Mueller (the man leading the current investigation on 45, for those who don't read the news) gets per week? And we're talking about a figure that's so public that is impossible to just disappear (and such incidents have happened, see Hoffa). Now try to take down a Mexican drug cartel while showing your face and having your data available in the phone book and tell me how that works for you and your family. That's why superheroes wear masks, because no good deed goes unpunished.

(One day you're the most beloved lawyer in Hell's Kitchen, and the next you're
sleeping with hobos because your ex sold your secret identity for drug money)

In the case of shounen anime, it's hard to tell how much of this is due to genre conventions and how much to Japan's face-saving-based culture, but shounen anime heroes have no need for secret identities because they have never had to deal with the consequences of stepping on the wrong toes. For some reason, they never have to deal with the possibility of waking up with the head of their significant others next to them, or being sent shoeboxes with their childrens' fingers and genitals, or being fired from their jobs and evicted from their homes (and since it's a western, they don't have to fear incarceration for their multiple, heinous crimes either).

Power Levels

Reed Richards doesn't get smarter or "more elastic" with time. With very few exceptions (like Iron-Man), a superhero gets his superpowers and they mostly stay the same throughout their career. While every (print) decade or so an event may increase the hero's powers, they are given as a straight bump with an in-story explanation (like Captain America getting an indestructible shield during the Secret Wars, and Spider-Man getting the infamous black costume). Most important, a superhero always stays within a same "league" so to speak: No matter how many decades' worth of issues pass, you'll never see Batgirl duking it out with Parallax (not without being butchered at least, see Zero Hour). There are two exceptions to this rule, however, the first one is writers, as writers with favorites then to give specific characters unreasonable boosts as long as they're writing the title. The second exception is characters with "power of plot": Back in the silver age, Superman was plainly as strong as the story needed him to be.

(This was NOT the cover of Action Comics #1,
because this is NOT how the superhero genre works)

Shounen anime, on the other hand, goes full on "videogame logic." Shounen anime series are "zero-to-hero" narratives where the hero is constantly gaining "experience levels" in a steady vertical growth and acquiring new powers whenever a stronger villain appears. The hero starts like an apprentice and ends up like unto the gods, much like a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Group Dynamics

In teams, superheroes have peers... alas, peers with egos just as big as theirs. Each superhero is used to be the big fish in the pond, and to do things their way; because of this, in-fighting is common in hero teams, and their greatest weakness is usually their lack of cohesion. Only when they manage to set aside their differences long enough to get things done is that they come victorious. Superhero teams may or may not go for the Five Man Band format, but in either case, the spotlight rotates among team members as much as possible, giving each the chance to save the day regularly (even Hawkeye, and he's the butt of all Avengers' jokes).

(Now picture them trying to decide on where to go for lunch)

Shounen anime presents an interesting contradiction here. You see, while in the theory, the hero needs the friendship and strength of his merry men to overcome adversity, in the practice all that pretty talk goes out of the window about one third into the story, point at which the rest of the casting gets their "experience points" income cut in half so they can get invariably left in the dust by the main protagonist, who is then stated as the one and only valid savior, and the only one who is in any position to face the subsequent monsters of the following seasons. While the merry men still get symbolic promotions, once badass decay settles in, the merry men's fuction in the narrative is reduced to serving as a buffer of human shields so the hero can run the gauntlet set by the monster of the season with as little damage as possible.

(See that name in the title? It's MINE, so stay back, bitches!)

The Role of Women

It's 2017, and I'm still asking WHERE's NATASHA? Much to my dismay, in 2017, the Big Two are still pretty much a boys' club. However, while boys outnumber girls by at least 20 to 1, we have at least a handful of big-league superheroines (see Wonder Woman, Sue Richards, Raven, Jenny Sparks, Jean Grey/Phoenix, Scarlet Witch, Squirrel Girl) to say with confidence that we DO have superheroines that are actually super on their own right. Alas, as already mentioned, the industry is still largely a boys' club, and with the illustrious, aforementioned exceptions, women are not only painfully underrepresented in superhero comics, they are also made purposefully vulnerable. Every superhero goes through dark moments, but heroines are intentionally bereft of the plot armor inherent to male heroes, and are prone to being killed, depowered, and otherwise destroyed with impunity (Women In Refridgerators, anyone?).

(Because nothing says "drama" like killing or maiming a heroine
just to rouse the manly hero into action... NOT)

Now, for women in shounen anime... oh boy, where do I start? While superhero comics have been dragging their feet the last two decades, the industry at least acknowledges we live in different times now (to a degree), whereas shounen anime is unrepentant in its firm belief that we're still in 1950. A lot of people read manga in Japan, and there are genres for almost all demographics... in this case, shounen manga/anime is aimed strictly at a male teen demographic... or rather, a male -juvenile- demographic... a male, juvenile, misogynistic demographic, to be precise: Women in shounen anime are written specifically to be The Chick of the Five Man Band, and are there strictly to be love interests, damsels in distress, or backstage support for the big boys. While a female co-protagonist will always possess a useful skill or even be presented as an apparent badass, once the chips are down, all pretensions of competence will be dropped like a hot potato and she'll be invariably beaten like a chump, relying on the manly man of a protagonist to pull her bacon out of the fire. Even when the story requires the woman to be pivotal to the monster of the season's downfall and even if she actually has the means to do so, it is only after she is mansplained motivated by the manly man that she'll realize her own strength  (See Clockwork Planet). Only rarely you'll see a true Action Girl in shounen anime (like Kill La Kill's Ryuko Matoi), and there will always be a catch to keep the target audience happy (namely, all the fanservice in Kill La Kill).

(Oh, sorry Erza, did you really think you were the team's ace?)

Note: While this is a comparison and not a competition, in this area, both sides are almost as bad.

The Hero's Journey

Because of their episodic nature and need to keep an unchanging premise, superhero stories are narratives without a third act: there's no Return and no Freedom to Live, Batman will never hang the cowl. Instead, every time the narrative enters its act 2, something happens and things revert to the second half of act 1 before things reach the point of no return (or sometimes, right after the point of no return, but the farther you take it from there, the more stupid the retcon will look, see One More Day and Maximum Clonage). In the most egregious cases, superheroes live frozen in time: Batman has been 28 years old for almost a century now, and even when his narrative includes 10 years of sidekicks, he is still 28.

(And I want my 20 minutes back)

While the Monster of the Season part of every shounen anime is always the same formula, the Coming of Age part follows Campbell's structure to a Tee. Depending on the series' popularity, however, the return to normalcy may or may not be followed by the Monster of the Season iterations. While shounen anime stories are meant to have an ending, and most do, successful authors risk becoming prisoners of their own success and casted into the hell of churning filler issues and monster of the season iterations until they die (see One Piece).

(There, I just spoiled you the plot of every 
shounen anime ever. You're welcome)

Conclusion: Both genres are action oriented, and both are about heroic figures who stand head-and-shoulders above the norm, but each genre has its own unique method to get there, and the results obtained are different for each.


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Monday, August 28, 2017

Daleks, Face Punching, and "Disproportionate Response"

When either of opposing sides in a conflict adopts a Dalek stance of genocide and/or "ethnic cleansing," all civility has been pre-emptively stabbed in the face and the possibility of any peaceful solution becomes zero.

You can't reason with daleks, you can't bargain with daleks, and you'll never be able to peacefully co-exist with daleks, for as long as they exist, they'll try to destroy you and everything you stand for time and time again until they succeed.

And that's the catch for them: Good has to be forever vigilant, evil only has to win once.

This is the reason why being actually committed to tolerance requires immediate rejection of any philosophy of hatred, and expedient action whenever such hate groups form and acquire power... and if the institutions won't do something about it, you must, physically and forcefully if necessary (for the reading-impaired: Because if you don't, the intolerant ones will kill you, and tolerance dies with you).

So, when the nazis' ultimate goal is either to run you out of your own country or kill you, is a "punch in the face" a disproportionate response?

Yes... disporportionately HARMLESS.

How come Arpaio (or the Fergusson killers in blue, or their successors, etc) hasn't been greeted by a lynching mob yet is anyone's guess. The people is not angry enough, not by a long shot. I hope it's not too late by the time they finally are.

Peace (just remember the price of peace, just saying).

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Mei, Hollywood Fatness, and Wish Fulfillment

Last Wednesday, Blizzard uploaded a beautiful video on the "origin story" of Mei, one of Overwatch' characters... and  inevitably, the theme of her weight came about at the twittersphere.

Number One: No, Mei isn't fat, she's just thick, and calling her "plus sized" just because she isn't a willowy size 0 is probably offensive to actual plus-sized people.

If anything, she'd be videogames' equivalent to "Hollywood Fat."

Number Two: She isn't even meant to to be "fat."

As some of you know, Overwatch was originally meant to be the superhero MMO dubbed "Project Titan" while in development (which was cancelled, but then the devs re-pitched as the arena FPS you now know, for which they just re-used prior game assets)... and there are no fat superheroes.

Now put down your torches and pitchforks, people, I'm not done yet. Let's get into context:

In the classical sense, the superhero genre is first and foremost a power fantasy. Superheroes are not about what we -are-, but about FANTASIZING. Yes, it's important that we learn to love and accept ourselves as we are (or alternatively, improve, if it is within our means), but if you can't love yourself while reading Superman then I can only pity your inability to tell reality from fiction (and recommend you to stay away from open windows before you get yourself killed trying to fly).

Mei's physique, while on the thick side, is still an idealized version of her body type. If we were bringing "realizms" to the table, she'd be an endomorph who goes through great pains just to stay the way she is now.

Now, while there are in fact two schools of the superhero genre, the "Marvel vs. DC" thing will have to wait for another post.


P.D: In case you missed the video: