Sunday 31 March 2019

On Childlike Media

Only tangentially game-related, basically a big stream of conscious ramble.
Here's a list of some* media properties I like, in no particular order:

  • -Changeling: the Dreaming
  • -Old D&D
  • -Calvin and Hobbes
  • -Over The Garden Wall
  • -The Cat Returns
  • -Adventure Time
  • -Blood in the Chocolate, and the novel it's based on, the filmed versions to a lesser extent.
  • -Sylvie & Bruno (I could honestly write many blogposts about my thoughts on this, it's the best thing Carrol wrote IMHO).
  • -Made in Abyss
  • -Ynn
  • -Spirited Away
  • -Basically everything by Neil Gaiman, the Sandman in particular.
  • -Wallace and Grommit
  • -Spongebob
  • -Narnia (in particular the old BBC versions)
These are, while not representative of everything I'm into, a pretty good representation of my default tastes. If I need to watch a familiar film and relax, I'll pick something like The Cat Returns. 
There's a pretty consistent thematic thread running through them, and this little blogpost is gonna be my attempt at unpicking what exactly that is, and why I like it. Maybe why it's gaming-relevant.

An immediate thought is that childhood is a theme here. About half that list is made with kids as the intended audience. Others have prominent child characters or deal with innocence as a theme.
But it's not that I like children's media per se. Steven Universe is a show lauded as 'kids TV that adults can enjoy' and it's super fucking gay which ought to mean I'm into it, but I can't fucking stand it; it feels insipid and shallow to me**. Same for a lot of stuff. I don't like feeling like I'm being talked down to. 

I think a big part of it is about juxtaposing childishness and maturity and how they interplay. 
Like this is the central conflict in Changeling, between a sense of innocence/wonder/glee and the crushing force of mundanity in the shitty modern world. It's a game about struggling to keep the glamour of childhood (with all its joy and terror) alive in an adult world that wants desperately to smother it out. Work in retail and it fucking feels like your soul is being killed; changeling just makes that feeling horribly literal.
And then look at something like Adventure Time (which has been a huge creative influence on me). Sure, your protagonist is like 12 (to begin with, at least), and some of the show's plots involve shit like a quest to eat a magic crystal apple (that turns out to make you explode). But then you've got stuff like I Remember You which is... I mean, shit, it's not even subtle about how it's about Altzheimer's. When I first saw that episode, I'd just lost a relative to it and it hit me pretty hard and honestly the show just nails it. And then like the whole setting is horribly post-apocalyptic and full of stuff that's just nasty. I mean, look at this shit.

Now that I think about it, senility is a big theme in Changeling, too. Forgetting things that used to be important to you. A lot of people reading this are gonna be in that 21-30 bracket where you're an adult now and you're not quite used to it and not quite sure if you're doing adulthood properly. And you look back at being a kid and even though it feels like it was just yesterday, it's now distant. You remember it like looking through a telescope.

Like being a kid was not, for me at least, all that great for reasons I don't wanna go into in much depth here, but suffice to say plenty of people and circumstances contributed to making me pretty unhappy at times. But at the same time, as a kid I never had to deal with losing my home or holding down a job. Never had to look at the total fucking circus that is politics and the media. My problems were simple back then, and there was much less resting on my shoulders.
Growing up feels like losing something that, as a kid, seemed fundamental to who I was. It's hard to express succinctly but in short; the ability to throw yourself into something that you imagine or feel or enjoy whole-heatedly, with no worry about the outcome - to simply take things for what they are.***  

A lot of media I enjoy places characters with that perspective - that ability to be totally absorbed by their inner world and the moment they find themselves in - and throws them against adult concerns and adult perspectives. So Finn the Human is - or begins as - an innocent in a seemingly charming world full of candy people and talking animals, but over the course of the show he has to deal with all sorts of messed up shit, both on a grand scale (nukes) and a very personal one (turns out his dad is a total dirtbag). Seeing how his sense of innocence reacts and adapts to these situations is fascinating.

(This is a gaming blog, though, so I'll talk for a bit about this in a game context.)

A thing I enjoy about gaming is it can give you a space to slip back into that sense of innocent wonder. I put a lot of stuff in my games that defies a banal mature perspective (giant carnivorous cakes! evil squid-men with ray-guns and trenchcoats! talking spider gourmands! Floating psychic eyeballs!) and a lot of my PCs fit that mould: one of my current Vampire the Masquerade PCs is a kiasyd who can only be described as aggressively whimsical. 
RPGs give you a space where you can explore other perspectives and ways of dealing with the world. I would argue that in a lot of them - OSR stuff in particular - suspending your adult need for things to make sense is conductive to a fun game, where you can return to that less banal way of looking at the world.

So how can you foster this feeling in games? It's a mixture of GMing style and setting content. The setting is the easy part; if you put in stuff that's a little bit nonsensical, that jams mundane stuff into unfamiliar contexts, you'll get the feel quite nicely. Animated objects work well here, particularly things like clothes, food, tools... day to day things. Likewise giant talking animals, giant bugs, that sort of thing.The familiar presented in surreal ways.
GMing style is a little harder. I think the core principle is don't think too hard about it. Let things work according to dream-logic. When improbable or weird things happen, roll with it. Don't address apparent contradictions or incongruities, let them be and if the players  comment your response is just "yes, that is weird, huh?" rather than justifying it. Don't pin the PCs down to routine responsibilities, let them be irresponsible, let them wreak glorious havoc in your setting without trying to get things 'back to normal'.
Let things be in flux, uncertain, bizarre and mundane at once.

It's not a tone that's going to be to everybody's taste. Lots of people enjoy gritty realism, or melodramatic angst, or action-packed over the top bombast. Those are fine, whatever works for your group. But, I find there's something very satisfying in playing games with a deliberate child-like openness to them.

*there's other stuff I like, lots of horror in there and lots of romantic stuff. It's not like I exist to personify a particular set of tastes.

**Fundamentally I found it's message of everybody will stop being evil if you have a heartfelt chat with them to be pretty fucking patronising, and the idea of steven using diplomancy to fix a bunch of millenia-old alien intelligences leading what amount to the tyranids or the flood was a massive let down. Like it felt like SU was unwilling to follow through with the threats it had deployed. And it felt really fucking preachy.

***Maybe this isn't a universal experience and I was just a weird kid, but this is my blog so fuck it.

Monday 18 March 2019

The Confectionary Princess

A class for LotFP and similar games, with inspiration stolen from Adventure Time.
Written because I just finished the show, and it was good, and I love me some magical lesbian princesses.

Hit Dice: d4
Saves: As a magic-user
Attacks: As non-fighters (use the MU progression if in doubt)
Equipment restrictions: As a fighter/MU.
Leveling Up: At the same rate as a Fighter.
Special Abilities:
Candy flesh: while made of sugar and flavourings rather than meat and gristle, a confectionery princess is biologically alive and must eat, breathe, sleep and so on like anybody else.
Unaging: Confectionery princesses don't age. Sugar is a preservative, you know! (+50)
Super Gay: Confectionery princesses are totally immune to charm effects cast by men, and likewise no magic or charm can compel the princess to feel affection, love or lust towards a man. She just doesn't swing that way.
Alcohol Vulnerability: Raw alcohol affects the princess like holy water affects an undead monster or elf: it dissolves her candy flesh like acid, as well as getting her kinda drunk just from touching it.
Cute yet Inspiring: Confectionery princesses treat their Charisma modifier as +1 better.
Royalty: The princess must purchase a crown, signet ring, mantle or other badge of office during character creation, at the same cost as a magician's spellbook. Her create raw confectionery, shape confectionery and create candy citizens abilities don't function unless she's wearing this badge of office. For as long as she possesses it, she's also the undisputed ruler of a small confectionery kingdom safely hidden away somewhere in the setting, largely self-governing but loyal to her commands. Finding the kingdom to resume active rulership will probably be a quest worthy of a high-level princess.
Create Raw Confectionery: As the spell Wall of Stone, cast by a magician of equivalent level, but the wall is a slab of raw candy (chocolate, peppermint, toffee or whatever the princess wants). Creates candy instead of stone. Can be cast once per day.
Shape Confectionery: As the spell Shape Stone, cast by a magician of equivalent level. Only affects candy.
Create Candy Citizens: Given a day to work, a laboratory and/or kitchen and suitable raw candy materials, the princess can create citizens for herself. This costs as much as the monthly fee to hire a follower in rare materials (create raw confectionery is not sufficient here, the materials are esoteric and hard to source). The citizenry have the stats of any normal 0th level human, do not age, and have unshakeable morale and loyalty when serving the princess (or whoever holds her crown); roll for morale/loyalty normally when dealing with anybody else.

You can change what sort of princess this is by altering what material they work with. An ice princess gets 'create raw ice' 'shape ice' and 'create ice citizens', and replaces alcohol vulnerability with heat vulnerability, for example. Ice, rust, bone, goo and glass princesses are all possibilities.

If anybody actually is crazy enough to include this in their games, please let me know how it goes.

Tuesday 12 March 2019

Electrical Vampires

A preview of what I'm working on for the Dreamscapes game. One of the more minor monsters. A bit spoilersy for how it all fits together.

Non-physical life forms. Where physical life is made of matter - the particle side of the wave-particle duality -  these beings are the opposide, being made of waves and fields.Such life forms are not uncommon. Most exist in a rarefied intangible way, occupying frequencies that  humans simply don’t perceive, unable to interact with matter in a meaningful fashion.
Whole ecosystems of flickering light-forms exist just beyond the bounds of human experience. Most are simple patterns of light or radiation, flickering and propagating themselves, much like plants or corals. Less are animalistic, displaying agency and action. A few reach intelligence comparable to human sentience. Of these, the most dangerous is the electric vampire.The electric vampire is a stable wave-form composed of complex self-sustaining electromagnetic fields. It flows down cables, inhabits machinery, projects itself across radio equipment. It craves the complex electrical activity of the human brain, luring victims close to dangerously faulty wiring, and absorbs the magnetically-encoded memories from within their skulls. It's intangible, ever-shifting, flickering and drifting, always hungry. Humanity's ever-more-complex machinery have turned the world into a glorious all-you-can-eat buffet for these electrical parasites.
They don’t have some grand organisation; each such vampire is an entity of its own, only loosely allied with other electric vampires. Nonetheless, their intelligence and mastery of electrical technology is such that they can become masterful manipulators of human society.
While they have no capacity to travel between universes on their own, they can possess and hijack the technological means of others. When the squid-men travel between worlds, they inadvertently carry electric vampires that wait torpid in their strange machines. Even worse, the use of an FBPI Machine opens up an electrical highway between worlds that the vampires are learning to traverse.
 Electrical Vampire HD 5, HP 10, Save 14+, Defence 19+.
Electric Shocks (11+, d6 damage, and save vs normal hazards to avoid paralysis & the electrocution continuing just like other electrical shocks).  Can only be used while inhabiting something appropriate.Brain feeding (13+, d6 Intelligence lost, the vampire absorbs the victim’s memories). Can only be used on helpless targets. Immune to all physical damage. Cannot be touched. Cannot be perceived through normal sight (although the technological means to see their electromagnetic field exists).An EMP does d4 to d12 damage to the electric vampire, depending on size.When not inhabiting an electrical device, the vampire moves only slowly - drifting at the rate of a gentle breeze - and can do little other than inhabiting a machine or using its Brain-feeding ability.When it inhabits an electrical device, assign the device a number of HP based on its size and durability (from 1-3 for a phone to 50+ for an aeroplane). The physical object can take damage normally, and when it has no HP left the electric vampire is forced out of it.When inhabiting an electrical device, has total control over that object’s functioning. It can cause it to do anything that item would be capable of.
Can cause an inhabited device to malfunction, doing things it wouldn’t normally such as throw of sparks, overheat, etc. Doing so causes 1 damage to the item inhabited.
 Death By Electric VampireIf a victim is killed by shocks, the vampire can imediately brain-feed on them for d6 intelligence loss before they leave the mission.
Furthermore, when a victim is killed by brain-feeding or shocks, the electric vampire can hitch a ride on the signal carrying their mind back to their body, using it to travel back to the waking world with them.A vampire inhabiting an FBPI machine while it’s in use is a terrifying thought.

And here's some art by Scrap Princess, depicting one.