Saturday, July 13, 2019

'System Mastery' vs. 'World Settings'

The scene of the action(s)

Early last year, an experienced D&D 5e gamer told me I should get out of the campaign that I'd been playing for a while, as I was "holding the party back because I didn't have system mastery on the 5e rules". So, since I agreed with him, I handed my player-character sheets back to the very patient GM, and left the campaign. (And the table, and the game store, but that's a different story.)

It got me thinking. No, I don't 'know the rules'. I'd thought I'd known the world, as we were playing in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor. What I had failed to comprehend was that we were not playing in Dave's Blackmoor, but in the Zeigeist Games version - which is substantially different, with most of what made Dave's Blackmoor so unique and fun simply not being present. (Like Gertie, The Mother of All Dragons, for example.)

Back in the day, we didn't play rules sets; we played worlds, and game scenarios set in those worlds. We did this both for what has become the 'RPG genre' and the 'wargaming genre', as all of us being so young and inexperienced (I have also been called 'unsophisticated', about this now vital and very important difference in genres) we simply did know any better some forty years ago.

I get asked what I play, so here it is:

Tekumel - by M. A. R. Barker

I have always loved Phil's creation, and I enjoy campaigning in it. So, I do, and I use whatever rules set happens to fit that particular game session.

Barsoom - by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Phil introduced me to Barsoom, and I've never looked back. Sword And Planet Romance, in all it's glory. Those Therns continue to be a pain...

Ancient Egypt - by Hollywood and the Pulps

Historical gaming has always been something I've enjoyed, to the despair of Serious Historical Gamers. Real history is full of really wonderfully goofy stuff, like The Tangier Garrison of Charles II, and you can't make it up nearly as well. So, 'classic' Aegyptus as in the time of Lord Meren, and 'Hollywood' Aegyptus as in the time of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

The Dark Ages - by The Missus, Herself

More historical campaigning, but with lefse and open-faced sandwiches on the sideboard. Herself is Scandinavian, so she wanted to salvage the fifty Shieldmaiden figures I'd bought for an abortive campaign by adventuring in the Viking Age. I happen to have a bunch of old Ral Partha / RAFM 'Royal Armies of the Hyborian Age' figures as well, so we can have some raids to sack and pillage those Northern European buildings I have. And we can visit Novgorod and Constantinople, too, such is the depth of my scenery boxes

The Pyrates - by George Macdonald Frasier.

If you haven't read this book and wanted to break out the ships, dice, eyepatches, pieces-of-eight, and percentile dice, then nothing I can do will help you. Avast, me hearties!!!

Lots of maps are going up on the walls; I have heaps, and we'll be awash in adventure...

Conventions. Gaming Styles, and Logistics

The style of games that I usually see...

... and the kind of games that I usually do.

We've just finished up with the huge local F/SF convention, Convergence, and as usual post-convention I'm being asked why I wasn't there and doing my bit for Tekumel and gaming in general by running games. This discussion normally begins at the beginning of the year before the local game convention, Con of the North, continues through Gary Con and Convergence, and usually ends with Gen Con.

The assumption that is normally being made is that my games are just like everyone else's, a battle mat with a grid, and maybe a few of the pre-painted vinyl figures. Gamers and event organizers, despite the number of photos I've sent out, are always surprised and shocked to hear that I don't game that way, and that I'm going to need a fixed base of operations for the duration of the event due to the sheer vastness of what I bring to an event.

The assumption is that I can move around the event at will, hopping from  table to table and two-hour time slot to two-hour time slot; conventions and events, these days, use the same 'through-put' business model that food courts and fast-food places use. More and shorter games mean more customers can be serviced in a shorter interval of time and space; quantity is far more important then quantity, which is most noticeable in the deafening noise levels in the gaming spaces; the event organizers can get more through-put at a lower cost by putting as many game tables in a given room space as possible. This economizes on event staff and maximizes profit for the organizers.

Well, I don't game that way, and I have been told to conform to the 'programming format' or not run games at that event. I am very happy to not run games, which also baffles event organizers - they usually view their events as having 'prestige' or 'premium' status, and I have to say that the statement by an old friend is my mantra: "No gaming is better then bad gaming."

Som it's looking like that any games I run in the future will be here in my own game room; I like to run long-term campaigns / 'open ended sandbox play' anyway, and it's just easier on me to do things the way I always have. It takes as much effort to load out, set up, tear down, and load in a one day event as it does a four day event, and I normally get no help on either end of the logistics exercise. And I have to run the games in between, as well, so it just gets to be far more trouble then the trip may be worth.

Oh, and yes, I am expected to foot all the bills for these event out of my pocket. For what I've spent this year alone on other peoples' events, I could have run a pretty decent little convention all by myself.

So, a change in direction seems to be in the wind - or maybe a return to my core values, perhaps...


Monday, July 1, 2019

Romance, In Phil's Games - Along With The Action And Adventure, Of Course...




Tim KnightJune 22, 2019 at 6:11 AM

That's so amazingly evocative and poetic. I'd be really interested to hear, one day, how you all handled the subject of romance, marriages, children in game. Was it hand-waved or was there role-play? How did Chirine fall in love with Si N’te?

The short answer is that we role-played. Romance - like the Glorious General and N'lel hi Chaishyani, or Narkhodlan and Arlua, or Vrisa and Koro Tai - happened in the course of our adventures and was often followed by marriage and children. Phil's Tekumel was - and still is, if you asked me - a living, breathing world full of people going about their lives; what I call his 'meta-game'. We lived our lives inside that game, and we interacted with it.

There wasn't a lot of 'game mechanics' involved; Phil usually just rolled for a reaction, we rolled for a reaction, and we all role-played the results. We didn't hand-wave this kind of thing; you courted, if that was the situation, or you were courted. We didn't go into role-playing where the children came from; we assumed that somewhere along the way, Phil's meta-game rolls would throw up who was having kids. I should also mention that we didn't have player- player romances in Phil's games; we played our characters, and they rarely had 'romances'. That's pretty much how we did it.

As for Her Ladyship and her husband...

4.1801 The Shores of the Goddess, And The Treasures Found There;

Winter Solstice, 2360 A. S.; Ru’su, in the Nyémesel Islands


The crowd in the central plaza was getting thicker and denser as the light began to fade; Chirine stopped where he was, and looked for a reasonably clear path across the plaza through the throngs of local people that were filling the broad space. He’d forgotten that this was the evening of the winter solstice, and despite never having been here in Ru’su before, he suspected that the theocrats who ruled these islands had some sort of ceremony in mind. Being a foreigner, and one who stood out amongst the crowds of the commoners due to his dress, he wanted to be out of sight and out of mind when the festivities got started; many of the places that he’d been in his career had interesting and unusual ideas regarding how strangers could take prominent parts in their colorful traditional ceremonies, and many of the less civilized ones usually resulted in the stranger being sacrificed to the local gods in interesting and unusual ways.

His linen kilt and gold collar of plaques, which in Tsolyánu would have been considered dreadfully informal for a high-ranking military priest-priest, looked like formal or ritual garb here among the commoners of these islands. They all wore minimal loincloths at best, even on this evening of ceremony, with the only finery on display being necklaces and hair ornaments made of the seashells that all of the islanders prized. Considering what they had to contend with to get those shells, he mused, he’d value them as well; fishing in the seas around the Nyémesel Islands was fraught with danger.

The sound of a conch-shell horn echoed over the plaza, and he felt the crowd draw back a bit; there were too many of them to be able to see anything. The horn sounded again, and a path opened in the crowd in front of him as if on command; the people on either side of the narrow corridor they’d just opened looked at him and gestured for him to pass ahead of them into the central part of the plaza. He could see the heads of several of the priests of Mrettén ahead of him, at the end of the corridor, and their bobbing sea-shell helmets gave the impression that they were looking for something. Or someone, and he had the feeling that he was what they were looking for.

The helmets were joined by a tall headdress of plumes as he moved towards them, and he wondered what that might indicate; Khéshchal plumes were an exceedingly valuable commodity here, and he’d never seen anyone wearing them in the short time they’d been docked in the harbor buying provisions. Hárchar, always eager to make a kaitar, had gone around buying up all the plumes he could from his passengers to sell to the ruling priesthood; he’d been truly annoyed by the heaps of reddish seashells he’d been offered in exchange until Chirine had reminded him that the shells were the local currency – and were quite valuable back in distant Tsolyánu, where they were used in the making of the deep purple dyes sacred to Lord Hrü'ü, and worth their weight in gold to the dyers’ clans. Hárchar was greatly relieved and reveled in his profits, much to all of their amusement.

The helmets resolved themselves into two priests, as he thought; the plumes, on the other hand, topped a masked helmet worn by a rather slender and rather muscular woman. Unlike the priests’ blanket-like wraps of dyed sea-grass, she wore a filmy garment of the finest Thésun gauze which was draped from her shoulders to her hips. Like the plumes, the silken gauze was both rare and valuable here, and he assumed that the woman was a priestess of Mrettén in some sort of ritual vestments. She saw him, as he broke through the last of the crowd, and gestured to the two priests. They turned and saw him, and both broke out into what looked like smiles of happiness or relief; Chirine had the feeling that somebody was late to the ceremony, and that he’d been tapped as the replacement. The woman turned away and walked into the plaza’s center, and the two priests fussed over him like two old women over a grandchild. They handed him a tall helmet similar to theirs, but with a masked face and various emblems worked on the surface of the shell that it had been made from. Once he had donned it, they led him through a line of yet more priests who had formed a large open circle around the middle of the plaza, and pointed to a spot in the exact center.

When Chirine had crossed the plaza earlier, he’d noticed that it was decorated by what looked like arcs of shells inset into the stone pavement; they had been in different colors, from what little he could see of them under the stalls and people’s feet, and now he could see that they formed large circles, five of them, paved with shells in different colors. The center spot that he was headed for was just large enough for one to stand in, and done in golden-colored shells that glittered in the fading light. Ahead of him, facing the setting sun, was what looked like the cleric who was going to preside over the coming ceremonies.

When Chirine stepped into the central circle, the cleric raised his arms and gestured to the ring of priests; half and half, alternately, they either blew conch-shell horns or uncovered lanterns that illuminated the plaza in a soft golden light. From behind this circle came five dancers, each in gauzy fabric costumes that had been dyed to match the color of the shells that made up the five concentric rings in the pavement. They spiraled inwards towards him until each stood on the circle that matched the color of their costume, and stood still for a moment while the presiding priest made an incantation; the conch-shells sounded once again when he was done, and the five dancers began a stately procession around their circles, dancing between formal poses as they went. Each moved at a specific pace, the outermost moving the slowest and the inner ones faster and faster, twirling in the light from the lanterns.

The dance might have looked like some ordinary folk ritual to one untutored in sorcery, but to anyone with even a smattering of temple knowledge it was more then that. To someone of his training, and his experiences, it was much more then that; he was at the center of what amounted to a human replica of an orrery. He’d seen the mechanical version from the height of the First Imperium of the Engsvanyáli that had survived in the Tsoléi Islands. There, the five planets that orbited Tuléng were represented by sorcerous globes; here, bejewelled dancers played the parts of the various worlds.

The next ranks of dancers who spiraled into the circles simply confirmed his surmise; a dancer for each of the little worldlets that orbited the primary planets in Tékumel's sky joined in the dance, again accompanied by fanfare from the shell trumpets. The middle dancer of the five was joined by two dancers, one in dusty red and one in bright green, and he started as he recognized the dancer portraying Tékumel as the woman he’d seen with the two priests. The two acolyte children, for such they were, revolved around the older woman in the same counter-rotating way that the two moons Gayél and Káshi did about Tékumel, and as they joined her the crowds beyond the ring of priests took up the chant of the high priest; drums, rattles, and other musical instruments came into play, and the air of festivity seemed general.

There also seemed to be an expectation that something else, perhaps of a more dramatic or miraculous nature, should be happening and Chirine had the feeling that the high priest who was presiding over this ceremony was giving him a certain look. Chirine had the feeling that he’d better do something interesting and appropriate, preferably of a dramatic or miraculous nature, in the very near future or it might go badly for himself and his companions.

The fading twilight gave him an idea, and when the music and chanting reached a high point Chirine raised his own arms and outlined a sigil in the air over his head. He cupped his hands together, and drew them apart; a sphere of golden light grew and shone over his head, and lit the dancers, the priests, and the near ranks of the crowd. The music and chanting stopped for a heartbeat, and the dancers all froze in their places; time itself seemed to stop, and there was a complete and utter silence in the plaza.

He spared an instant from his concentration on the spell for a glance at the high priest. That worthy had gone from astonished shock to euphoric happiness in that briefest of moments, and Chirine went back to concentrating on maintaining the sphere of energy. The high priest called out to the silent throngs, saying something that sounded very important and not a little triumphant; the crowds thundered back, and the music and the dance resumed with a new energy and a very real sense of satisfaction from everyone.

After what seemed like an eternity, the music slowed and the dancers began to spiral back out to the ring of lanterns. The acolyte children from the outer rings left first, followed by the older dancers until only the woman and her two small companions were left. She began a slow spiral inwards to Chirine, and as they came closer to him he modulated the spell so that the sphere became both smaller and dimmer. The two acolytes continued their dance for a moment more, then they too spiraled off and were lost against the surrounding circle of dark shapes. The woman danced closer to him, and he could see the fine sheen of sweat on her skin.

As she came within arm’s reach, he lowered his arms, bringing the now man-high sphere of energy down to surround himself. She finally stopped, facing him, and she extended her own arms out to match his; they were both surrounded by the golden sphere of light, alone in the center of the empty and now silent plaza. He felt a delicate touch on his fingers, and let the spell fade slowly. As he did so, the priests in the surrounding ring extinguished their lanterns, leaving only the two of them lit in the glow of the now dim sphere. The woman gracefully swung away from him, still touching one hand so that they stood side by side in the glow of energy. She led him slowly to the high priest, who waited until they stood before him; the priest gestured to Chirine, and he let the sphere die away completely until they stood in the dark.

This seemed to be the signal that the crowd had been waiting for, and what sounded like general revelry broke out. The high priest stepped forward, took both their hands in his own, and led them out of the plaza to the gate of the Temple of Mrettén. The gates opened at their approach, and they went inside to a shrine that was just inside the temple grounds. It was small, not very grand, but endowed with an aura of sanctity that one could sense from outside the gates. The shrine’s doors were opened by kneeling priests of what looked to be high rank, and then he and the woman were alone inside; the high priest had ushered them in, and then closed the doors with his own hands while bowing deeply to them.

The small room was lit by a single hanging lamp, itself lit with a single candle. The woodwork that made up the walls, floor, and roof looked and felt palpably ancient; he wondered for a moment if the whole shrine was picked up and brought here for this festival. It was small enough, he thought, and he’d seen similar things during his travels. The center of the room was taken up by a waist-high dais, covered in the sea-grass cloth that was used for most fabric items here, but sea-grass of the best quality and the finest weave. The dais was built of wood, square in shape, and it looked to be about a man-height across. All of the woodwork of the room and dais was of exquisite quality, and it seemed to glow in the candlelight.

He started to quietly apologize to her for his appearance; while he wasn’t of such a visage as to frighten children in the marketplace, his broken nose was not very attractive by Tsolyáni standards. She silenced him with two fingers touched to his lips, and whispered even more quietly in accented Tsolyáni. “Your nose is not what I saw, back there in the plaza; I saw what you have within, and that is why I made my choice this night. I am called Sí N’te, and you are the foreigner called Chirine after the great hero of ancient times.”

“You have it exactly, Noble Lady, and I hope that I caused no offense tonight in the plaza with my sorcery.”

“And you are too kind; I am but a temple dancer in the service of the Temple of Mrettén, a priestess, as you would call it, but not what you foreigners would call a ‘noble lady’. No, you caused no offence at all; the high priest who was in charge of the Circle Dance ceremony was delighted with how everything went. The priesthood will be all talking about this, and they will be most happy with you for doing things so well. I would expect,” she said with a sidelong look at him, “that you will find it much easier to trade for provisions and supplies for your ship and crew tomorrow.”

“Then you are a most practical person, as well as being an excellent dancer.”

She smiled in the dim light from the now low candle flame. “My thanks for that compliment; you are most kind to your humble servant.”

He stirred. “Servant? Is that something you wish, or something that is required of you by your priests? Will I be expected to trade for you, or will my small part in tonight’s ceremonies be deemed enough?” He frowned; this was not something he’d expected, and from what he knew of the priesthood of Mrettén, they didn’t trade any of their members to foreigners who happened to pass by and participate in their local ceremonies.

She touched his lips, and tried to smooth away the frown there. “It is indeed what I wish, otherwise I would have waited for the priest who was originally supposed to participate. I saw you, took my chance, and made my choice; it is our tradition that the priestess who plays the role I did tonight chooses her consort for the Circle Dance ceremony and the ceremony afterwards here in Mretten’s most ancient and most sacred of shrines…” She stopped for a moment, with her head tilted to one side in thought. “I misspoke; I used your word for ‘servant’, and I should have used your word for ‘consort’, instead. I am sorry; I should have really used your word for ‘wife’.”

For the first time in his eventful life, Chirine was speechless…

It is now the year 2,398 A. S., in Phil's Long Count of Years. Si N'te and Chirine have been together for some 38 years; they are still very much in love.

This was one of the very best nights of gaming we had with Phil in his Tekumel.

Ever.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

"Lady, will you dance?"



It is the summer solstice.

Nearly forty years ago, Prof. M. A. R. Barker created one of his most memorable non-player characters: the Priestess of Mretten, Si N’te. She very quickly developed a personality all her own, despite her creator’s best efforts, and became a very real person to all of us who played in Phil’s Tekumel.

She’s had her share of adventures; she’s collected four wives – Kiya, Tsahul, Nyssa, and Fishface; one husband – Chirine; and a host of children along the way - two, the twins Kashi and Gayel, are her own, and the rest – Sitre, Menwe, Ten’er, Mridan, Takhmet, Takhmin, Aliya, Sirin, and Djel have all come to her on the winds of fate and been welcomed into her family.

It is the summer solstice.

The harbor and the skies over the palace have been filled with great ships arriving for this day, and bearing her guests to her home. Captain Harchar’s “Splendor of the Gods” rides at anchor, the “Prince Ahmed” out of Basra is tied up at the quay, and a great skyship flying the colors of the twin towers of Helium pivots into the wind while at hover. Gay Deceiver and her sister Dora sit on their landing pads on the Legion of the All-Consuming Flame’s parade ground, along with the flying sphere of Turshamu the Undying Wizard and the gleaming silver ovoid of an intra-system ship of the Ancients.

Her guests have names like Fafherd, Kimball Kinnison, Lapis Lazuli, John Carter, Hisvet, Ozma, Lorelei Lee,  Dejah Thoris, and the Grey Mouser. For this day, the barriers that separate the 772 worlds of the Multiverse have been sundered, and the old palace is filled with the life and laughter of them all.

It is the summer solstice.

The great plaza that lies in front of the old Engsvanyali palace that now serves her and her family has been cleared. Five mosaic rings, in different colors, had been set into the pavement in ancient times, with a solid round spot – done in bright gold – in the exact center. The plaza was ringed by an expectant crowd, all of whom fell silent when the drummers in their crimson tunics embroidered with a great leaping golden dragon began to sound a marching beat.

Two companies of elite solders, the Black Guard – composed entirely of male beings – and the White Guard – composed entirely of female beings – march out of the old palace’s gates, down the steps to the plaza, and form up in ranks across the front of the palace. They re followed by Lord Chirine’s bodyguard; six troopers of the Legion of the All-Consuming Flame; they are not the very best soldiers of the Legion, as one might expect – they are, instead, the despair of their officers. But, they are the very best warriors that the Legion has in the ranks.
The drums continue; from out of the tall double gates, armored in buffed and polished armor, comes Lord Chirine himself ; he is what he is, the commanding general of his legion, and a mighty and powerful sorcerer. He goes to the golden spot in the center of the plaza, and waits.

It is the summer solstice.

The drums fall silent. A single flute begins a tune, and one by one Their Ladyships, Si N’te and her wives, spiral out to the five circles set into the pavement. Each takes a color; she herself takes the blue circle, and as more flutes and conch-shell horns take up the melody she is joined by her two twins, who each circle around her in opposite directions like their namesakes do in Tekumel’s sky.

It is the night of The Circle Dance, sacred to the Goddess Mretten, and the dance is being danced by the Goddess’ own First Dancer, Lady Si n’te with her family. As the last of the sun touches the horizon, her husband raises his hands and the plaza is illuminated by his sorcery. Their Ladyships and the twins spiral away, leaving Chirine and Si N’te alone and together in the plaza as then have been for nearly forty years of action, adventure, and romance.

Chirine lets his spell fade, and the night’s revelry begins.

It is the summer solstice.

Thank you Phil, for the world that you gave us and the adventures we had with you in it…



Monday, June 17, 2019

A Look Around The Table





 A moment in time during the 'Free RPG Day' game, when we were in one of the many 'cake breaks' in a valiant attempt by the party to Do Something about all that cake I'd gotten in a midnight raid on the grocery store.

Going around the table: The Glorious General, a Sacred Cat of Bast, a Librarian, a Lady-in-Waiting, a dodgy Yan Koryani nobleman (we think; he's kinda vague about his past), a Nlyss mercenary (the famous Murr dir Oboe, no less!!!), some guy who popped out of a telephone booth and says he's a Physician (Personally, I think he needed to get his washing machine fixed, as it made all sorts of terrible noises), and our very own Vampire Real Estate Agent.

A lot of other people showed up, too, but I was so busy I forgot to take pictures...