Justin Achilli

Month: September, 2009

Life At First Level

Ethan and I engaged in a pickup game of old-school D&D as I waited for my client to update. Here’s the transcript.

Hell Harbor Update

Hell Harbor’s third chapter is up and ready for your feedback. The poll closes next Tuesday, so make sure you cast your vote before then.

Exploration, System, and Genre

Talking to Rich got me thinking a little more about the exploration game I wanted to run. He and Monte Cook had a conversation a while back, which I won’t pretend to paraphrase (because I don’t want to misrepresent either party in a conversation I didn’t actually hear), but the gist was that the beauty of older versions of D&D was that, as a collection of systems that didn’t fit together seamlessly, they encouraged the GM to fill in the gaps. The GM made adjudications on the fly that fit the campaign as it was being told.

The interstices caught my attention. What the rules didn’t cover was as important as what they did cover. The patchy systems were still open-ended enough that the fact that this was a game was secondary to the opportunity it provided to, in Rich’s words, “stretch the imagination.”

Later editions of D&D became much more mechanical than the early ones. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily — they focus more on the game aspect of the RPG appellation. The earlier ones, while hardly taking the tack of games that expressly labeled themselves “storytelling” exercises, emulated the experience of the experience more than the mechanics. Sure, you could min-max, and a significant magic item might break the game by virtue of its introduction, but neither the character nor the systems were sacrosanct. Players didn’t have the same sort of personal investment in their characters as they do in today’s storytelling games, but neither did they approach characters in the way that, say, 4e encourages, with emphasis on which benchmarks, mathematically and in the context of party role, the player wanted to accomplish.

(Note that you couldn’t release that perforated game today. It’d be incomplete. You’d take a beating on the forums.)

An anecdotal but real gaming group might include an artist-type, a pair of athletes, a military history enthusiast who would go on to become a career soldier, and an actor. Only after the game became more of mechanical exercise did the math-nerd stereotype come to be associated with it.

No indictment, this. There’s nothing wrong with liking the mechanics of the gaming hobby, or viewing a ruleset as a puzzle to solve. That’s just not my approach.

I’m likewise less interested these days in focusing on story first and foremost than my tenure with Vampire. I don’t want to tell a scripted story, I want to get together with my players and let the story tell itself. I’m more interested in the player interactions right now than I am with being the focal point of their entertainment. Not that I never want to play story-heavy again, I just have this admittedly nostalgic itch I want to scratch.

Vampire is one of those super-polished games that avoids gaps in its ruleset. While the previous World of Darkness admittedly handwaved a lot, it did give enough infrastructure that a Storyteller could make an educated and fair ruling on the spot — combine some Attribute and some Ability and let that do the work. The new World of Darkness under the Storytelling system does the same, though it’s well defined enough to leave fewer holes that the Storyteller has to plug.

This looks like an interesting modern place to explore.
I was originally going to suggest that the difference between them is because the play style is different, but I’m not entirely convinced that’s the case. The old-school methodology behind early D&D is exploration, whether it be of dungeon-map square grid or hex-map wilderness. Vampire explores a cityscape in most cases, and city geography and architecture can signify literal, geographical exploration, or it can take the form of negotiating a political landscape or a mystery for which the metaphor holds. It’s not the same style of exploration, but it’s definitely a journey into the unknown.

To diverge briefly a little more (trust me), check out James M.’s interview with D&D stalwart Ed Greenwood. Check out what Ed says specifically when he’s talking about his campaign and creating new material. People accuse D&D of the old “roll-playing versus role-playing” chestnut (which I’d gladly pay a dollar never to hear again), but read Ed’s commentary. He talks about ham acting, sessions in which no one draws a weapon, and writing setting material first for which the rules become secondary. Let me tell you straight up, that’s a familiar approach. One of my writer’s guidelines for Vampire was to be cool and let the rules serve the setting. It’s cool to see that happening across the supposed ideological divide.

What’s the upshot? What’s the significance of comparing Vampire with D&D instead of contrasting them? I’m thinking I can use a lot of what I learned working on Vampire to make a foray into fantasy gaming, but without using the story-heavy structure that characterized Vampire under my guidance, sine that’s not the chroni– er, campaign I’m wanting to undertake. That’s because perhaps they’re not that different in the first place.

Where To Write?

In Stephen King’s On Writing – a great memoir, and my favorite book by King — the author poses a problem. He places a vast desk in the middle of a room he has declared to be his office, puts the typewriter on the desk, and pronounces his studio ready for action. Thereafter, he quickly realizes that he doesn’t like  writing at his giant desk in his new office, and sets up shop at his old familiar, a card table just outside the laundry room.

I have Stephen King’s problem. I have this great room at the front of the house with a lot of natural light. My bookcases are there. The closet is full of my belongings.

I don’t like writing in that room, though.

Ain’t that a kick in the pants? Having a dedicated office was one of the things I really looked forward to when we were shopping for houses and closing on the one we bought. Then we moved ourselves in and… eh.

The floor in front of the desk is a little uneven, so I have to hold myself in place while I’m sitting at the desk. The office is a bit isolated from the rest of the house, which I thought would be part of its appeal when I staked my claim there, but instead it makes me feel detached and distracted. I haven’t even really finished unpacking it, and a few of the bookshelves are piled with loose junk, wires, etc.

Well, that stinks.

Undaunted, I’ve ordered a netbook, in the hopes of moving around and keeping the creative juices flowing. Of late, I’ve been working a lot in my longhand Moleskine, and I’ve been especially prolific with notes hastily scribbled into the margins. Hastily scribbled notes don’t make for drafts or finished manuscripts, though, so I’m trying to remain flexible.

I chose the netbook specifically because I want bare bones. I got the solid-state hard drive, which is really small, because I don’t want to be dragging around a ton of music. I didn’t want a full notebook because I don’t want full-scale computing. I don’t want games. I don’t even want the Office suite. I just want browsing, e-mail, and something I can use to draft from the couch or the reading room.

It’s a shame about the office. But maybe my wife can put it to some clever use.

Modern Magical Marvels

Do not open. Srsly.
The concept of “magic items” in a modern setting is a precarious one. One the one hand, having an object that doesn’t operate according to how natural law says a contemporary world works is exciting. It conjures a gothic sense of anachronism or barbarism, providing the unsettling element of the object in question being inarguably Other. The opposite side of the coin is that such an object can feel gratuitous, clumsy, or even corny. The puzzle box from Hellraiser and the Necronomicon are good examples of modern magic items that feel right. Aaron’s Feeding Razor, from Vampire, was another good example: It felt creepy and a bit outdated, but it had a story unique to it that made sense, and it highlighted some horrific aspect of the world.

Modern magical items lose their luster, though, when that sense of otherness wanes. That’s the point of magic as a wondrous element. If the item feels commonplace, or the sense of utility outweighs the strangeness of the item, the object becomes silly. A cell phone that allows its user to fly — what? A car that sees into the future? A computer that accesses the web pages of Tartarus? None of these examples make any real sense. None of them say anything about the world proper. That third one is maybe the closest to being functional, as it at least defines that Tartarus is an aspect of the setting, but why a computer? Do demons have Facebook pages? Why wouldn’t a madman’s journal that revealed the location of Tartarus or a ship once used to sail into its chthonian waters work better?

Lo, the crimes of my sinful family weigh heavily on my YEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAHHHH EAT IT, ZOMBIES!
Working around these sorts of limitation is possible, of course. Sure, mentally projecting your voice into another person’s mind might not be the amazingly spooky circumstance it was in ages past from a technological perspective — mobile phones make this obsolete — but the idea that the information being communicated is secure or intrusive makes that mysterious item powerful or scary.

Contrast that with, say, a magic flamethrower. A flamethrower that shoots the FIRES OF HELL. While this might be an awesome topic for a Dimmu Borgir song, it lacks the sublime element of horror though it sounds like it’d fit perfectly in a splatter or modern high fantasy. If you’re not working with modern high fantasy, though, it’s just too much. It’s not Other, it’s simply (in a weird use of the word) fantastical. It tells us that hell is real, but it also tells us that we’re probably in for a fiery rampage of mayhem. That’s all fine and good, but that’s definitely a different story than creeping revelation, Lovecraftian nihilism, gothic madness, or crumbling moral probity.

This is especially relevant if, like a good storyteller, you’re asking the world to carry a lot of the burden of communicating the story. When you have a flamethrower that shoots the FIRES OF HELL, you’re explicitly working with something more over the top and cinematic than you are if you have an ivory cameo that whispers the deepest fears of the previous wearer into your head.

Another Weekend, Another Party!


That’s right. This weekend it’s PAX, up in Seattle. The party is going to be at the Heaven nightclub (formerly the Catwalk, for all you vintage club aficionados) and once again, you’ll need an invitation. Come by the booth at PAX to grab one!

Another Weekend, Another Party!

That’s right. This weekend it’s PAX, up in Seattle. The party is going to be at the Heaven nightclub (formerly the Catwalk, for all you vintage club aficionados) and once again, you’ll need an invitation. Come by the booth at PAX to grab one!

Hell Harbor Update

Hey, fiction readers, there’s a new chapter of Hell Harbor over in that section of the site. Read and vote! The poll closes next Tuesday night, so be sure to give your feedback by then.

Hell Harbor Update

Hey, fiction readers, there’s a new chapter of Hell Harbor over in that section of the site. Read and vote! The poll closes next Tuesday night, so be sure to give your feedback by then.


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