[Meta Gaming] M. John Harrison on worldbuilding, writing, reading and play

Long long ago, in the before-time, I wrote a post that quite badly misapplied, misunderstood, or perhaps merely under-utilised M John Harrison on the matter of worldbuilding.

I stand by what I said – that the nerdist approach to games and literature and cinema is based on an obsessive and pedantic hoarding of facts that’s ultimately misguided, dull and ever so slightly dangerous – but I didn’t go all the way down and I regret that.

What Harrison actually talks about is the claim that an imagined world really exists, and is a thing that can be interacted with at all. It’s all just words – words written by an author or authors – and what you’re really engaging with is an exchange between author and reader in which you complete the process of creating fiction. It’s not real when the author writes it, and it’s not really real even after you’ve read it, and pretending that there is something real and “canonical” behind/underneath the author’s writing of it is a fundamental failure to apprehend how the real universe works.

Yes, to discuss a book relies on familiarity with what’s actually in it and what you’re bringing to it, and claiming that your headcanon is what the author wrote is factually incorrect, but that’s not a disservice to some external true-reality of what the author wrote about. The real object is the book. Paper and ink, forming words, with meanings, that express concepts. (Or the film, or the code, whatever medium you’re on about, I talk about books because they’re the most physical media objects, the easiest with which to make this point about what’s real and what’s not.)

That fundamentally transformative process is what interests me the most about roleplaying games in particular; if I ever go back to the PhD, I’d want to shift my focus into that, into drawing parallels between the RPG rulebook and the playscript as drama-texts that are very obviously only realised when the play’s afoot. Harrison is correct in that all reading works like that, but it’s a lot more obvious when you have a performative element at the readerly end of the process. It happens again, as another act of reception and re-creation in the universe of the Actual Play, which is something I wish I was more into so I could document it more thoroughly. (Those things are long, brother, and I work for a living.)

What doesn’t interest me is any sort of in-universe “explanation” (read “excuse”) for the failings of a text, be they narrative or ideological or technical craft-manifestations that just aren’t very good. These amuse me sometimes, but they’re not praxis, they’re not engaged with the material world on a level which matters, there’s a reason we used to call this sort of thing “wank” for pity’s sake. Pleasurable, but doesn’t get anything done.

This post is brought to you by my occasional frustrations with Vampire: the Masquerade fans online, and their lack of engagement with the production side of the game and text. I say “fans” because a lot of these people are media-fandom people, they’ve played the CRPGs or watched the actual plays but the game text itself is mostly of interest to them as a reference book. A map to a territory that does not exist. An act of world-building.

Under the cut you’ll find versions of Harrison’s original posts, synthesised into a rough and ready essay. I do this because they’re only available through the Internet Archive, and if that should ever fail they’ll be gone-gone, and I don’t want that. I understand the desire to delete and purge one’s online snail-trail, I’ve done it myself enough times, but I also understand that some things have an impact and a worth to posterity that warrants their preservation, just so long as the person who wrote them isn’t still getting their menchies blown up by people missing the point.

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[V5] Oblivion Discipline: Full Rewrite (and another hack)

Referring back to the previous post for context: Oblivion has some problems as a Discipline, I’ve attacked it in various different ways, this is probably the most developed. To ensure compliance with the Dark Pack guidelines I won’t be providing full writeups for the actual powers, only page references to Chicago by Night and Cults of the Blood Gods. I’ll add, in italics, any additional rules or changes to those powers as I go along.

It’s only fair, before you hit the wall of text, to say that it’s a lot simpler to just make The Binding Fetter the prerequisite power for all the “ghost path” Ceremonies (the ones with ‘Spirit’ in their name), Ashes to Ashes the prerequisite power for all the “zombie path” Ceremonies (the ones with statblocks for that which is summoned included), and Where The Shroud Thins for Split the Shroud and Ex Nihilo. That’s a really tidy way of doing it and I sort of wish I’d thought of that instead of having someone suggest it on Discord and me going “well, that’s a lot of my brain tape wasted.”

But the time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time, and I’m still quite pleased with what I did here, so: let’s begin.

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[V5] Oblivion Discipline, Bloat and Monobuild: a Take, and some House Rules

Ah, Oblivion. A controversial choice on the part of Onyx Path Publishing, and it really is their baby since it’s been laid out in the two books they’ve produced for V5.

Take the Obtenebration of the Lasombra and the Necromancy of the Giovanni (and the Mortis of the Cappadocians, the Thanatosis of the Samedi, the Nihilistics of the Nagaraja… Vampire necromancy is a right mess, whether you treat it as separate paths of one big thing or an array of similar-but-different Disciplines).

Tie together the obvious commonalities – Kiasyd used to have both! The Abyss, the bad place where the shadows are alive, is correspondent to Oblivion, the bad place that turns wraiths into spectres and defines that whole game line! Something to do with Werewolves, the Labyrinth, the Wyrm, honestly I’m not much of a Werewolf person but it’s there! Lasombra, the Antediluvian, is not as dead as everyone said he was! (spoiler warning for a book that came out in 2005 and has been Wiki-synopsised to death, I suppose. honestly, “spoilers” in an RPG book, who’d have… anyway.)

Then, think like Dawkins – a WoD superfan who’s owned more or less every Vampire book there is to own and actually remembers them all – and decide what if this was all coming from the same place? There’s something at the very bottom of the World of Darkness’ cosmology, it has something to do with ghosts and shadows and spiritually corrosive world poisoning nastiness, it’s always hungry and one day it might devour the world.

It makes sense. Sorry, haters, but from a worldbuilding point of view there’s enough there. From a mechanical point of view… eeeh. Good and bad. It’s great that the Hecata (as they now are) and the Lasombra have a single Discipline in common (much like how Protean has been used to cover the similar-enough remits of the Gangrel, Tzimisce and Followers Ministry of Set), and are otherwise very different in their spreads. (Giovanni and Lasombra having functionally the same spread outside their signature never sat well with me, really.)

However, Oblivion itself has suffered slightly from being developed across two books, by a team who I think might not have been sure they were going to do the second one when the first one was being worked on. As a result, in an age of streamlining Disciplines, eliminating redundancy, and controlling bloat, Oblivion has ended up with four powers per level where most Disciplines only get two, and the understandable desire to gatekeep “necromancy” behind the Ceremony system has led to a weird situation where this huge and flexible discipline has expensive monobuilds.

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[V:tR] Vampire: the Requiem (Second Edition) – Readthrough

So I’ve only actually played VtR once, with randoms, which is not optimal for me (I like to RPG with people who already know and like each other out of game), and I only owned 1e, so I never really gave the current rulebook a proper combing over from an “I want to run this” point of view.

I also spent last weekend laid up with some sort of terrible gut acid experience, so I thought it high time to address this absence.

I don’t want to make too many comparisons to Vampire: the Masquerade because I’m tired of Requiem only being discussed in that context: “is it better?” comes up every couple of weeks on the White Wolf RPG subreddit and has done for years and I’m tired. I want to talk about Requiem on its own merits where I can. That said, I cannot avoid being an old hand who knew VtM first and has been playing V5 for two years: I’m bound to evaluate what I discover in terms of what I already know.

Images are from the book in question, sourced via the Storytellers’ Vault, spirit of fair use, purely for illustrative/visual handhold purposes.

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[V:tM] Baby’s First Chronicle: Top Tips for Beginner Storytellers

To begin with: don’t be afraid. Your first game is going to be “wrong” in some sense. So is your second. I’ve run six chronicles over the last twenty years, some of them running for years on end, and I still get to the end of some sessions and think “well, that could’ve gone better” or have to write off a chronicle because of something we didn’t spot early on.

You’ll make rules calls that don’t work when you think about them afterwards. You’ll not be able to land the same voice for that SPC two scenes on the trot, never mind for the whole chronicle. You’ll forget who the Ventrue Justicar was “canonically” established to be in Buttfuck (MI) By Night (1994). None of that matters. One time I forgot that the Bastille was, you know, no longer a place that existed and that was the point of Bastille Day, in a session called ‘Bastille Day’. I promise that nine times out of ten you can pause for the laughter to stop, shrug, say “my World of Darkness, my rules” and crack on.

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