The Biblyon Broadsheet

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons
Biblyon, Highland
Monday, September 24, 1990
Jerry Stratton, Ed.
Cinematic roleplaying is an oxymoron—Wednesday, June 24th, 2020
Sacrifice to the Plot Queen

I recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the first time. It is amazingly different from the cinematic portrayals of the story, so much so that it isn’t the same story. The cinematic portrayal relies on cues—corpses, Germanic nobiliary particles, lightning-powered resurrections—that are entirely absent from the book and completely change what it’s about.

The differences are, I think, emblematic of what makes “cinematic roleplaying” an oxymoron. It doesn’t generally involve role-playing, but rather abbreviated telling and required actions. There is no need to roleplay because the cues determine PC actions. The PC is required to act this way because it follows, cinematically, from that thing.

If you don’t pay attention to how the pattern developed in cinema (scripts and directors controlling every action) you are likely to repeat it in role-playing games (rules and GMs controlling every action).

I recently got into a discussion on theRPGSite that went the way “cinematic roleplaying” discussions always seem to go. I don’t mean to single out this designer as exceptional. He may even come up with a good system. But I doubt it, because he’s locked himself into a rhetorical box, cinematic roleplaying, from which there is no escape. His specific complaint is that when he plays, he wants his character to do things that are not his definition of cinematic role-playing:

That [Player choice] won't work well, I'm afraid. A substantial part of the trad games community wants to take the optimal tactical decision and I largely share that sentiment.

He wants a game that forbids him from having his character do what he wants his character to do, because he doesn’t want his character to do it.

I wish there had been a rule in place that had kept me from attacking.

Choosing to do what isn’t optimal for your character is roleplaying. But the same choice, forced, is not a choice, and cannot be roleplaying.

This is not about whether he’s having fun; he claims his fun requires cinematic control of player choices. What I’m interested in is how trying for cinematic gaming necessarily requires the muddy thinking of wanting characters to do what you don’t want them to do. It is difficult to define what you want when you keep looking in the wrong place, when you define what you want as what you don’t want, or what you don’t want as what you want.

I am coming increasingly to the belief that, despite their superficial similarities, “cinematic roleplaying” is an oxymoron. Cinematic techniques are counterproductive in roleplaying because the needs of cinema are counter to the needs of roleplaying games.

Blackhawk: Blitzkrieg at North Texas RPG Con—Saturday, March 28th, 2020
Blackhawk (DC Heroes)

Update April 13: signup is now live.

If you’ve ever wanted to play DC Heroes, or play in DC Comics’s World War II setting, I’ll be running a Blackhawk game at North Texas on Thursday, June 4.

They are the subject of legend, the Blackhawk Squadron… a heroic group of fighter aces sworn to protect the Allied nations against the insidious Axis powers.

Now, the Squadron must penetrate Nazi-occupied territory for a crucial rescue and reconnaissance mission. The outcome of World War II hangs in the balance as the Blackhawks struggle against time to rescue American prisoners-of-war from a German factory… and discover what mad weapon the factory produces.

DC Heroes is an easy game to play. A little more difficult to run, but I’ll be handling that end of things. There is little in the way of powers among these characters, of course, as they’re all human pilots. Characters such as Stanislaus and Weng, and to a lesser extent Hendy, stray into superhero-level attributes or skills, but they’re still standard human skills, just amped up.

Of course the Blackhawks often face Nazi super-science—from the war wheel to flying tanks, to giant mechanical insects. But they defeat it with genuine human ingenuity, the killer instinct, as historian Victor Davis Hanson might say, of free men in the defense of liberty. What Epaminondas did to the Spartans, and Sherman to the Confederacy, Blackhawk and his pilots do to Nazi Germany: penetrate its tough outer shell to expose the weakness inherent in any slave society, any society that denies free speech and free expression.

Which is a lot deeper than this adventure gets, fortunately. There will be fist fights, gun fights, and, if you play your hand right, an aerial duel against an unbeatable and deadly foe.

becoming DM podcast for experienced and new dungeon masters—Friday, March 6th, 2020

“Whether you’re a classic or fresh DM, John and Felicia’s varied experience is sure to provide you that extra information you need to amp up your tabletop game.”

Becoming DM is a neat podcast about… becoming a DM, by an experienced game master and a new game master. The topics covered so far run from creating NPCs, to building a setting, to dealing with problem players.

They’ve been getting a little long-winded lately, but most of them run only about half an hour, for those of us with curious minds but short attention spans!

First Level Magic-Users are Useless—Thursday, January 16th, 2020

“That betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how early editions of the game are played. Basic, 1E, and to some extent 2E emphasized the problem-solving skills of the player, over the in-game-power skills of the character.”

Believing that once a character’s special abilities on the character sheet are done, there’s nothing left to do, is a very modern attitude and ultimately alien to the original aesthetic of the game. — Greyhawk Grognard (First Level Magic-Users are Useless)

Great tips for game masters—Thursday, January 9th, 2020

“… if there are no stakes, then there’s no real victory… The best campaigns are based on the players interacting with the environment, and if they have no real choice, then there’s no real interaction.”

These are great tips for any game master, not just Dungeon Masters. Regarding the first tip, “don’t fudge”, I’ve long come to the point where I prefer not to use a shield to hide die rolls. It’s both a lot harder to fudge die rolls when the players know what they were, and it’s a lot more exciting to see how close the monster came to succeeding or failing.

An IP lawyer talks about role-playing and copyrights—Saturday, November 9th, 2019

“WotC has a history of taking advantage of gamers’ ignorance of contract and intellectual property law and lack of wealth when making similar demands, thus harming the gaming community and industry, so it’s time those issues are addressed.”

It’s been a long time since I wrote my series on gaming copyright and why, and what kind of, open source licenses are useful and what are merely backdoor attempts to bar people from doing what they’re legally entitled to do under copyright law. As I stated regularly, I am not a lawyer, just an interested amateur. Frylock, as his name might suggest to you if you’re up on your Shakespeare, is a lawyer. He’s just started a series on copyrightability in RPGs, specifically stat blocks, at Frylock’s Gaming & Geekery.

His inspiration is very similar to my initial inspiration for writing Gods & Monsters: a threat from Wizards of the Coast. His came directly, however; mine only came obliquely through Ryan Dancey on Usenet. Keep an eye on his series—the first installment is very informative—and keep an eye on whether there’s a legal battle at all, or WotC/Hasbro just ignores him.

House on Crane Hill at North Texas 2019—Wednesday, February 13th, 2019
Belle Grove through cypress

The sky is grey toward the sea. The water beats steadily against the high grass, and a low mist rolls across the waves toward you.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before:

Recently, you have each been contacted by Dr. Jean deMontagne, some of you directly, some of you after a friend recommended you, to take a seaside vacation at Delarosa Manor, which the locals call Crane House, forty miles up the coast from Crosspoint between King’s Head and Jackson Village. You should set out on Monday, November 2, and thus arrive on November 3 or 4.

This is a working vacation. Dr. deMontagne asks that you search the house for a small, brass coffer once owned by Louis Merrikitt and marked with two strange symbols. He offers you ten shillings each to compensate you for that small task, and he offers another hundred for the coffer, should you find it. He tells you that the manor is yours for the month of November as you wish, although the actual task should take no more than a day or two.

House on Crane Hill is a haunted house adventure inspired not just by Shirley Jackson’s amazing story but also by her many imitators1, some good, some bad, and some horrorble. I have been fascinated by haunted house stories ever since I read the Hell House rip-off in Werewolf by Night back in the seventies—a comic I still read from time to time. These stories don’t just hint at a fundamental weakness in reality. They shove it down our throats. It took a long time for me to get around to reading the source for them all, but once I read The Haunting of Hill House I was hooked on Shirley Jackson, too.

Was table-top gaming inevitable?—Monday, October 22nd, 2018
Runequest cover

Today, Gods & Monsters in its public form turned 18. On October 22, 2000, I posted a link to “The Game” on rec.games.frp.misc asking for Blues Brothers-style constructive criticism. Eighteen, of course, is only significant in gaming terms or adulthood, and in the former case only for those games that use 3d6 for stats. Combined with a sad event from two weeks ago, it has me thinking again about role-playing history and how lucky we are to have had Dungeons & Dragons in particular and tabletop fantasy roleplaying in general.

The other event is that Greg Stafford died on October 12. He founded the Chaosium in 1975 to publish his fantasy board game. Through it he published, in 1978, the highly influential RuneQuest game, set in the highly influential Glorantha world, which used the same world that his earlier board game did.

It is hard for someone who wasn’t quite there—I started gaming in 1981—to describe just how influential Glorantha and RuneQuest was, the idea of basing the rules on the setting.

In his tribute to Stafford, Zenopus relates a fascinating and telling story about how Greg Stafford was introduced to D&D:

I used to work for Bergamot Brass Works, a belt buckle company out of Lake Geneva, WI after high school. Real hippy job. I’d take buckles, hitch hike around and sell them to shops, etc. After a while, though, I moved to California. My friend of the time remained there, selling buckles (we were called Buckle-itis).

Through various circumstances I’d decided to publish my first boardgame, White Bear & Red Moon, on my own. As I was finishing up work on it, I got a package in the mail from my old partner Jeff. His cover letter said, “I was picking up my catalogues from the printer the other day and there was this guy waiting for his stuff. I asked what it was, and he said it was a fantasy game. I said, ‘Hey, my buddy in California is doing one too! Can I buy one from ya?’”

Of course the guy was happy to, and so Jeff sent me this strange little booklet called Dungeons & Dragons.

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