[Off Topic] Currently…

Currently PonderingEmergence vs. Determinism, although not in the usual “railroading r bad and u r bad for doin it” sense. It’s more to do with how the process of designing and ‘solving’ encounters works. Perhaps “Imagineer vs. Prepper” might be a better dichotomy.

Every so often Ben (co-host of that podcast I pretended to do for a while) pops up to ask for my perspective on a strategic or tactical choice that’s emerged in his Star Wars play-by-forum game, and I’m always flabberghasted by the amount of detail – if-this-then-that-ah-but-what-if-this that he presents in these scenarios. It’s not a PbP thing either – he’s the same in tabletop, he seems to think that he needs an elaborate map of his Brujah’s haven and a series of boltholes established all over the city.

Jaro, the DM of my intermittent Roll20 game, is the same – he’s a nice bloke but asking for exact rules on composition, cost and storage of bullets made me raise an eyebrow or two. In Jaro’s  case there’s an element of damage by a dick-move DM who once had an entire party die of exposure because nobody had said they were wearing clothes (this is a dick move because they were in mid-adventure when he dropped this bombshell). Jaro is something of an enthusiast for precision and adherence to rulebook and sourcebook, I think because he wants insulation from this sort of cockbothering behaviour, but it makes for some friction between us since I am definitely not inclined to the “gotcha” nor to the elaborate and intricate modelling of situations.

What I am about is a sketchier kind of gameplay where the fun is not in solving an elaborate situation with detailed resources and forward planning, but in making shit up as you go along. If there needs to be a chandelier for someone to swing off, there will be a chandelier (although dice must be rolled for swinging and the results of the roll are binding). If there needs to be an escape route it will be there when someone looks for it, if they look for it in a plausible place and if  they roll well on some sort of “can you find it in time” check.

This applies whether I’m playing or running the game. If I’m playing… well, the 5e game has now settled down into a predictable and well-oiled machine where I come up with a bare-bones plan which will work and leaves room to improvise, Charles overcomplicates it with needless flourishes and excessive moving parts which nevertheless impress Jaro into letting us get away with it, and we both have to bully Arianna into taking any sort of risk when executing the plan.

(Sidenote: Look, if you roll a rogue you have to accept that you’ll be sent on dangerous sneaky solo stuff, it’s the law, if you wanted to stay at the back and be safe you should have bagged the coveted Cleric/Mage slot and then I’d have been slavishly defending you and not Charles, and yes, I know you’re reading this, Ari, because you hang on my every golden word.)

I suspect this sort of thing has come to my attention because I’ve been playing a lot of single-player CRPGs lately, and those are all about picking your way through a predetermined encounter or chain of quests that trigger in a particular order. I generally suck at this since I’m used to muddling through and improvising, not having to talk to that guy to get that objective before I do this thing so I can actually get XP and phat lewtz and so on. I am getting better at it, but I still occasionally think “can I not just come out with my hands up, spin a plausible yarn about being attacked by four big lads with guns, and coming off best in the shoot-out because I’m brilliant, and then Dementate their disbelief away?”

Currently Playing: Besides occasional sessions of 5e or LotFP on the Intertrons, I am mostly playing Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines. I tried this for about five minutes back in the day (real time, strike one! FPS/action controls, strike two! likelihood of accidentally punching a hooker, breaching the Mass-Charade and getting shot in the cobblers, strike three!) but, like Planescape, I’ve reappraised it after a few years away. Buying one of those Razr game controller things (so that I didn’t wear out one half of my expensive split ergonomic keyboard, which I bought so that I didn’t wear out my ailing wrists while typing several thousand words a week for work) has helped me learn how to FPS even as it’s made my MMO-ing suffer and contributed to a drop-off in Warcraftery.

Bloodlines is fun, in a very oWoD kind of way – it feels like a sort of farewell tour of all the wacky shit which was due to disappear when Time of Judgement came out, and if approached in that style it’s not bad. Sadly, the game does indulge in the Major Sins of front-loading, reducing interactivity while NPCs show off in cutscenes, and including arbitrary combats which show up the limitations of my social-build Tremere, but… well, it’s oWoD.

(ETA: This is the sort of business decision which only makes sense if you’re White Wolf. You’re in the process of wrapping up your old game line and launching a whole new universe, and you make your tie-in video game a valedictory salute to the old rather than a launch platform for the new world with its new concepts, encouraging crossover and buy-in. It’s almost as bad as making a mechanistic nerdy-boy game with no particular focus while paranormal romance is ruling the roost, or taking the makers of a major motion picture based on a short story within your setting to court instead of using the buzz to republish and revamp said material. Essentially, you are spectacularly dumb and you deserve to go out of business within the decade.)

I am playing the GOG.com version with the extensive fan patch that actually makes it playable. I am also playing a Malkavian who thinks he’s a ninja (with a katana and a six dot Melee pool he is not entirely wrong about this, and shafting Sabbat thugs up the arse from Obfuscated safety has yet to get old) and a Tremere lounge singer (shagging her way through most encounters and heavily reliant on Disciplines in a scrap). I experimented, briefly, with a Ventrue dominatrix and a Nosferatu eco-terrorist hacker, but the Ventrue was a bit dull and the Nosferatu is definitely hard mode for someone not accustomed to first-person stealth-em-up. If this lot were all in the same party it’d be ‘perfect’ Classic WoD.

Incidentally, while the other V:tM game was very faithful in its adoption of Disciplines but introduced some overly granular percentile bollocks for stats and had an awful level-by-dots feeding/healing/buffing mechanic, this one keeps the elegance of the dot-based system (streamlining it with fewer dots and more defined combinations) and does good things with Disciplines. Streamlining Auspex, Presence, Obfuscate and so on as per the physical Disciplines and eliminating the action economy horrors  of Celerity (as far as I can tell, having not gotten to use it yet) is a good idea. I’ll have to try it in the tabletop game at some point. Hacking White Wolf’s excessive mechanisation = good call.

Currently Reading: The Prince (the treatise by Machiavelli, not the Netherese review/antiSocJus blogger/belch-vector, although I’m reading his blog too). Rob Kuntz was surprised that I could manage to write decent Renaissance-esque intrigue settings without having read The Prince and I’ve been meaning to make good on this for a while now. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (decently accessible social history, conveniently attuned to the needs of a modern reader who wants to understand the difference between Now and Then, possibly recommended reading for twenty-first century gamer-prats). The first four Discworld books (yes, again), although I’m currently on a reduced-fiction diet as I have bought quite a lot of non-fiction (Spinoza, Castaneda, Bowker’s biography of Orwell, the rest of Padel’s poetry essays, and a collection of excerpted Brecht) and had it sitting there for months.

Currently HobbyingI bought a job lot of cultists, demons, villains, zombies etc.  from Heresy Miniatures (they have a sale on until the end of July, buy now, beat the rush, help Andy recover from honourable Dragon-related fiscal suicide). These will be making up a Blood Bowl team/rounding out a Frostgrave warband/providing something for my Otherworld adventurers to slap around in RPGs. I was working on a new wargaming table but space seems to be at a premium these days and that one may have to go the way of the dodo. I realise that I barely wargame at all these days, which has checked my hand every time I consider giving Frostgrave or SAGA a proper poke. Insert gripe about how I am old and tired and hate learning new rules, too.

Currently Smoking: Poles.

11 thoughts on “[Off Topic] Currently…

  1. [Determinism vs Emergent Gameplay]

    Let me know when you have discovered the One True Way ™. As a GM I have at least the ideal of preparation even though with something like Carcosa this becomes swiftly impossible and I have learned to simply wing it with the occasional nice setpiece adventure if I feel like stirring the hornet’s nest.

    As a player, anything more then 15 minutes of prep is boring to me. Ride the tiger or be gloriously crushed in its wake.

    [VTM Bloodlinez]

    Vtm rocked but the Tremere dude was OP as shit. The Nosferatu stealth option was nicely done for as long as I played around with it.

    [The Prince]

    I’m currently reading Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals after having read SJWs Always Lie on a whim. The Prince is next. Must be the season for statecraft (or stateuncraft if one prefers).


    1. [One True Way]
      I have yet to find the One True Way for anything other than Filthy Storygaming. If you cast your eyes back across the blog posts of yore you will find germs of insight, but it boils down to “have basic dice pools, motives and Disciplines planned for your NPCs, have cool locations, and learn to say ‘why are you asking?’ to any players’ request for information.”

      [Player Prep Time]
      I am still amazed that a group can take two hours to fight half a dozen goblins. NO IFS, NO BUTS, JUST PUNCH GOBLIN NUTS. I’m not usually bloodthirsty but my 5e group is turning me that way.

      Stealth seems to be about sewer navigation, at which I kinda suck, but it must be noted that half my play time is running around trying to remember the way to the Last Round from Confession. I have also failed to stick to my guns in ref. my Tremere chick, who now has several dots in Melee for finishing the job or dealing with tricky bosses.

      [SJWs Always Lie]
      Sure. A ‘whim’.


      1. [One Way to Rule them all]

        I’ll do some digging through the archives under ‘theory’ and see what gold I find amidst the rubble. This had better not be an elaborate ruse to get people to read about VtM.

        [Player prep time]

        The more abilities one’s character the less time for the glorious Cunning Plan(tm). Also my character died in a hacked autosurgeon yesterday :( There was no cunning plan.


        1. Put everything in Thaumaturgy.
        2. Deal insane damage and get more blood points then the cost of the ability.
        3. The laughter of thirsting gods.

        [SJWs always lie]

        Giggety. The handbook is a bit too pragmatic for my tastes since I am not currently under SJW attack nor a member of an organization likely to suffer from SJW entryism. There is an interesting segment on dialectic vs rhetoric but overall I would not recommend it to those of a more academic persuasion. Nothing one cannot mine from the author’s blog.

        Rules for radicals is frightening in its implication, any organization or government that would know of its existence would be awful by design in order to counter its effects (THANK GOD THE GOVERMENTS OF THE FREE WORLD HAVE NOTHING BUT LOVE AND KINDNESS FOR EVERY LIVING THING). I suspect any subjected populance that know its goverment is leading by way of the Prince to be similarly shit. A sort of sociopolitical Chicken dilemma.


      2. [An elaborate ruse to get people to read about VTM]

        You’ve described a good quarter of my content there.

        [Ability cruft and planning time]

        Yes, there is definitely something in that. A multitude of defined options increases the evaluative burden. Not for nothing do I now avoid the caster-type and not for nothing have I become disillusioned with MMORPGs.


        The Tremere demonstrates the above point perfectly. Two Disciplines have five discrete powers each, meaning ten things to be scrolled through and selected. The Brujah, meanwhile, reclines in the arms of Sweet Elegance, mother of Flow and goddess to us all, with three “one thing that gets better” Disciplines under his ample belt.

        [Rules for Radicals]

        I shall add it to the speculative list.


  2. Tell you what though, boys and girls: either I’m getting better at stealth or Bloodlines is going easy on people who play Nosferatu. I suspect it’s Obfuscate. Perhaps Hard Mode is a Nos with only one dot in the signature Discipline?


  3. Hey Von I missed this earlier as I am now being an internet Ent, as I once saw it put – mostly asleep but every now and them looming ponderously out of the foliage with a half-remembered opinion.

    Your GM style re: the chandelier thing and the prep is pretty much exactly the same as mine. A related problem I have is that I’ve noticed the best games are of course the ones where everyone is in a limber imaginative and social mood, and they tend to either stray from whatever sketchy plan I had as GM, or get stuck entertainingly on something that I originally envisioned as a side point. You know, an NPC bard or a mole the ranger tries to question or something. Because of this I accidentally-on-purpose don’t prep quite enough, in the hopes that this will terrify me in to amazing GM-itude. I was never a drama type or performer and I find it really draining. It’s my cross to bear that I’m always the GM, never the PC.

    The problem is that if I’m feeling a bit run-down, which is not uncommon for us Grown Ups, all that happens is I flail awkwardly through an ill-prepared ho-hum session. I’m experienced enough that I can’t seem to run truly bad games at least. But I wish I could do better.

    I know the secret is slightly more prep, but prep is boring and a lot like work. Actual GM-ing is neither.


    1. Prep to the extent that I do prep (i.e. design of NPCs and notes on key abilities for quick reference, plus looking at maps and photos of exciting and dramatic actual places) isn’t that boring, if you ask me. :p

      Why do YOU always end up GMing, James?


      1. Not exactly sure. Oddly enough I’ve never analysed it, just accepted it. I think maybe because I was the instigator of D+D with my peers as a boy, I was the first DM, and thus the default when no-one else felt like doing it. But I always preferred being a player. Later on I was the instigator of TMNT, Shadowrun and Mage as well, so was the initial GM in those games.

        As life goes on and people move about I find myself instigating games again with people I know. But since adult friends come and go with jobs, moving interstate and overseas etc., I never seem to have a full complement of players with any real RPG experience. I’ve found adults are just as enthusiastic players as kids, but less enthusiastic about studying rules or stepping outside of the familiar and having a go behind the screen. In my current group there’s one player with experience who would happily DM a game or two, but not outright take over the job. The other three… well it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that it could be anyone but me, and coming to TTRPGs as thirty-somethings they have a hard enough time keeping the rules for their PCs straight.

        Basically it’s a lifelong pattern, it’s easy for me to fall into and tolerate the role, and I’ve never been lucky enough to introduce someone to RPGing who turned out to be a natural GM type and could take over the role. If there is such a thing as a natural GM type…


  4. Ooh, Machiavelli. I went on a big Machiavelli trip some years ago–not just The Prince, but also the Discourses on Livy and the Art of War. Would you believe the last of the three was by far the most widely received in proximity to his lifetime? Pretty direct line from there to Maurice of Orange, Gustavus Adolphus and Cromwell. And not to say, “Oh, you have to read this too,” because a) you don’t, and b) it’s far longer, but too many readers have made the mistake of looking at The Prince without the Discourses.

    Anyhow, if you’ll permit, a brief note on The Prince, which might be helpful or might be incredibly obvious. Question of genre–if you’re familiar with what a mirror of princes is, then not much else need be said. If you’re not, look up some slightly less well-known (but far more typical) examples to compare to Niccolo’s great oddity. E.g., Erasmus’ The Education of a Christian Prince, or Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. Even earlier medieval examples will do the trick. Machiavelli is cutting hard against the grain. Hence his hilarious redefinition of ‘virtue’, ripping it away from Aristotle and practically the entire medieval ethical tradition (but note also the contemporaneous and somewhat parallel moves by Luther).


    1. I’m aware that it’s not a typical example of the genre, but I’ll take a list of recommendations if they’re going! Much obliged to you sir – as ever, you are a gentleman, a scholar and a genuine intellectual.

      I’ve now finished The Prince and am in the market for some fresh reading, so I might have a look at the Discourses later in the year.


      1. I’ve only read excerpts of Castiglione and Erasmus, but those were both contemporary with Machiavelli, so they will tell you a lot. Erasmus, in particular, is instructive–he sees no gap between Christian virtues and what is ideal for a political leader.

        As far as Machiavelli goes, I don’t read him as using religion as a noble lie (that’s Leo Strauss’s view), but he does belong to a tradition (fairly deep in Florentine politics, it seems to me) that was quite wary of church claims to worldly authority. And alongside that, he’s willing to distinguish between what makes a Christian and what makes an effective ruler.

        But in the Discourses, you get to see more of why he thinks such a prince is even important.


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