perjantai 21. joulukuuta 2018

Punching down

I had my first gaming session on the third grade. At that point, the label ”role-playing game” was only vaguely familiar to me, something associated with anime-inspired graphics and item inventories.

The game was a homebrew creation of an equally oblivious stablemate. I suspect him to have been inspired by the early installments of Final Fantasy and the like.

The core system was dead simple. Each character had but one stat: Toughness. When two characters battled, the higher Toughness score won. Each time a character defeated an opponent, their Toughness increased by one. No random element was involved; it was diceless role-playing at its finest.

We were enthralled by the game. We split into cliques to play the game at home and grind our Toughness scores to the heights; the next day we would compare our stats to see who was the best.

The fun ended quite abruptly when the children in possession of some real-life toughness declared us gamers ”Indians” (as in the Wild West — don’t ask), and the sole game-designer of our class renounced his creation.

Rules-wise, the game was abysmal. But the core mechanic haunts me to this day — not because my campaigns have been above similar tendencies, but because they have not.

Honestly — I bet there is no gamer who has not participated in a campaign with exactly the same premise. Punch down to grow more powerful to have more critters to punch down. The entire third edition of Dungeons & Dragons was built around the premise, and the fourth edition took it even further with its carefully balanced fights designed to challenge — but not to jeopardize — the player characters.

Players love to be the bullies. They cherish the Dionysian heat of combat, but abhor the idea of losing their beloved alter egos. Kicking the dog is almost as fun as taking changes with the three-horned dragon king, and considerably less dangerous.

Some players enjoy impersonating great white hunters, killing monsters for sport. I detest that sort of action. It offers no challenge whatsoever, and becomes awkwardly dull after a safari or two.

Therefore I have come to believe that all combat encounters should be designed to leave player characters with less than 50% chance of winning. All monsters would have a trick or two that made them a grave danger to even the most powerful player characters. Powers like dragons’ breath weapon or ghouls’ paralyzing touch.

As for ordinary folks, I’ve began to understand why their ”numbers appearing” amount in hundreds. Why not? Only the murderhobo of murderhobos would want to grind through 300 zero-level peasants. Even if the fight was winnable in theory, it would require such a nasty amount of accountancy and die-rolling that no sane person would be willing to take their chances.

torstai 20. joulukuuta 2018

Arabian Nights: Nur-Ed-Din and Enis-El-Jelis

Bondservants learn of Nur-Ed-Din's
and Enis-El-Jelis' affair.
Ali Nur-Ed-Din and Enis-El-Jelis, also known as Nur al-Din Ali and the Damsel Anis Al-Jalis or Two Wezirs and a Persian Woman, is among the core tales of The One Thousand and One Nights, found in the oldest surviving manuscript. It features many elements common for the early Arabic strata of the collection, including a relatively down-to-earth narrative with no supernatural element, and an extended cameo by Caliph Harun Ar-Rashid.

The king of Basrah has two ministers, one honest and honorable, the other evil and deceptive. The decent vizier is given ten thousand gold pieces and tasked to obtain an odalisque for the king to enjoy. After visiting the slave market, the vizier takes Enis-El-Jelis, a Persian damsel of great beauty and compassion, to his home.

The good vizier has a son Ali Nur-Ed-Din, as comely as the damsel. The convivial youth cannot resist alluring maidens, and, unavoidably, catches a glimpse of bathing Enis-El-Jelis. His urges immediately aroused, the two fall in love.

Learning that Enis-El-Jelis has been deflowered, Nur-Ed-Din’s father surreptitiously refunds the king, who seems to have forgotten about the entire matter. But alas! The good vizier dies of old age and Nur-Ed-Din goes on an endless squandering spree that does not stop before all of the inheritance has been coughed up.

Seeing his nemesis’ fall from grace, the evil vizier resumes his mischievous plots and the newlywed must escape to Baghdad. The two invite themselves into Caliph’s parterre and throw a party with a benevolent elderly gardener, consuming copious amounts of wine.

The Caliph is most perplexed to find out that his gazebo has been occupied by unknown celebrators. His servants concoct a desperate series of fibs — including a cohort of pious mendicants praying overnight — to protect the poor gardener. What follows is a delightfully absurd sequence of misunderstandings and irony.

Of course, the story concludes happily, with Nur-Ed-Din and Enis-El-Jelis returning to Basrah and growing into respected and responsible members of the society. The evil vizier orders Nur-Ed-Din to be beheaded, but the Caliph makes a timely appearance and installs our hero as the new king of Basrah.

Nur-Ed-Din and Enis-El-Jelis is a simple but entertaining tale. What it lacks in terms of plot and action, it makes up with likeable characterization and witty humor. By far its most memorable scene is the extended comedy in the nightly garden, joyous enough to make me laugh out loud.

The young couple make for an agreeable pair of protagonists. They seem like folks that would be fun to know in person — not without human weaknesses, but honest and jovial nonetheless. They are young, foolish, and reckless, but never in a way that would leave innocent in danger. Their naive, maddening love and enduring friendship in the face of misfortune rings true.

One final note. I may be over-interpreting the tale, but something in the history of Ali Nur-Ed-Din is vaguely reminiscent of the Passion Play.

Our hero is an unselfish (if a little rakish) benefactor, yet the townsfolk refuse to help him when he falls upon hard times. A crooked bureaucrat twists his words and arranges him to be executed for bogus charges; all of a sudden the townsfolk find this a tragedy most dreadful and a weeping congregation crowds the streets. In line with the Islamic tradition — that Jesus was not crucified, but someone more deserving of torture was executed in his place — Nur-Ed-Din is saved at the last minute and his persecutor is punished instead.

The tale of Nur-Ed-Din and Enis-El-Jelis, with the illustration above, can be found here.

torstai 13. joulukuuta 2018

William Beckford: Vathek (1783)

William Beckford (1760-1844) was an eccentric art-collector and heir to a fabulous fortune — a fortune he managed to squander almost entirely. His more ambitious projects included the construction of a Gothic cathedral to serve as a residence.

Much could be said about Beckford and his questionable habits — including an affair with a preadolescent boy — but I will focus on what is likely to interest pulp enthusiasts the most. Beckford’s most famous work, The History of Caliph Vathek, was written in French, finished by early 1783, and first published as an English translation — An Arabian Tale, from an Unpublished Manuscript — in 1786.

It is an intriguing short novel, written in the elaborate prose so typical for the Oriental vogue of the 18th century. But, unlike the typical Arabian Nights-esque tale, Vathek does not include childish adventure or moralizing parables.

Quite the contrary, it revels in wickedness and debauchery. The protagonist, ”ninth Caliph of the race of the Abassides”, is a puerile tyrant, with the social skills of a toddler and the attention span of a goat. He cares of nothing but pleasure, and erects five palaces dedicated for various fleshly joys.

Vathek also erects a Babelian tower to dwell in. At its zenith, he reads omens from the stars and practices necromancy with his mother Carathis, a Greek erudite and a ”votary of the religion of the Magi”.

A Satanic envoy approaches Vathek to offer him the keys to the Subterranean Palace of Fire. The Caliph provides him fifty beautiful youths to eat, but this proves insufficient to please the monstrous emissary. Henceforth, Vathek strives to be decadent enough to qualify for an abode that turns out to be the Hell.

Vathek has been long hailed as a classic of Gothic horror. Among others, it has inspired H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique. Both aim to reproduce Beckford’s feverish stream of consciousness and his penchant for dark irony and lavish turpitude.

Interestingly, Jorge Luis Borges has claimed the Subterranean Palace of Fire to be the first genuinely frightening Hell in Western literature. Dante Alighieri and his followers focused on grisly torture, but Beckford went to craft a place terrifying in itself.

For me, Vathek was a revelation. Having read the opening sentences and the elaborate details of Caliph’s debauched predilections, I knew from the very beginning that I would love the novel.

What really makes Vathek to stand out is the way it embraces corruption and extols evil. Beckford seems to have genuinely enjoyed writing the novel. Its general attitude is much scarier than any horror described, and the utter absurdity of the whole is more amusing than any of the black comedy contained within.

Much of the satire is aimed at the prudish ideals of the era, and the idealized depictions of the Middle East. Beckford’s Orient is not a day-dream of joyous escapism, but a hellish otherness of grandiloquent decay and nightmarish terror. Beckford was a man of diabolic reputation, with little interest for things decorous and modest, and his magnum opus was made in the image of its creator.

torstai 6. joulukuuta 2018

Guilty pleasures

There are two OSR rules that modern gamers love to hate: mapping and encumbrance. They’re nothing but tedious exercises in accountancy, with little impact on the actual game. Except that they are my two favorite parts of old-school Dungeons & Dragons. Some of my sweetest role-playing memories tie directly to these two wrongfully despised practices.

In the real life, I easily get lost and have trouble telling left from right. No joke — I never remember which is which, especially when driving a car. Now, as most of my gamer friends are not that fond of pencils and grid paper, I’m usually the mapper if I’m not refereeing.

Consequently, our adventuring parties have a chronical problem with navigation. And honestly, I think it makes for a better game. If you wander in wilderness or excavate a subterranean tomb complex, you will very likely lose your sense of direction, sooner or later.

My point is that dungeoneering becomes more interesting if you screw with the maps and get lost; it enforces an air of desperation and rewards good memory. And all the while, random encounters are ticking.

The same applies to encumbrance. Nowadays, we try to bear as much food as possible, but when we were young and foolish our characters were equally naive and negligent.

A few times our characters nearly died of starvation. It made for a terrific adventuring session. We had loads and loads of gold, but nothing to eat. Luckily, our Halfling was a seasoned hunter.

The lesson to be learnt is that encumbrance and mapping become interesting only if something goes awry.

Therefore I firmly believe that both should be made more difficult to handle. Less slots for items, and there will an abundance of tough choices. Yes, you can buy camels or bearers, but they can flee in panic or die.

As for mapping, I’ve conceived a devious plan. The mapper will be given nothing but a blank sheet of paper and a charcoal. No grid. No eraser or ruler. I can’t wait my turn to be the Referee again; I bet my friends can't either.

maanantai 3. joulukuuta 2018

Empire of the Petal Throne

Cover art by M. A. R. Barker.
Many grognards have nominated Empire of the Petal Throne (1976, by M. A. R. Barker) the favorite game they never played. I share this sentiment, even though I am not a grognard and have been refereeing EPT for a while.

For reasons, however, our campaign quickly drifted away from the assumptions made in the original rules. To add insult to injury, we could not resist the urge to bring in house-rules from more ”elegant” games familiar to us.

Our campaign has lasted for several years and it has been a successful one. As of now, we do not use EPT rules anymore. In fact, we use very few rules at all — which, I believe, mirrors the developments of Prof. Barker’s own campaign.

Regardless, something makes me regret that I never sampled Empire of the Petal Throne as written, raw and undistilled. It is quite unique for an old-school game with its focus on patron-client relationships.

EPT never included a pre-made adventure. No official modules were published for the game. What it does include, however, is a pre-written plot.

Characters commence play as murderhobos, but there is a rationale for them being that way. They are barbarians arriving to the decadent metropolis of Jakalla. At first, they are secluded to the ”Foreigners’ Quarters”. If they dare to leave it without escort, an etiquette mistake is likely to occur — with grave consequences.

As players progress through levels of experience, their social status improves. Level titles are not merely a selection of synonyms, but actually indicate that Warriors gain new military ranks and larger contingents of troops to command. Similarly, a Priest might become a Temple Commandant, for example.

Improving social status means more freedom. After a few adventures, characters can leave the Foreigners’ Quarters on their own. Next, they get the permit to act as patrons themselves. At some point they are adopted into a clan and granted citizenship. Finally, they will be rewarded with a fief to rule!

Original Dungeons & Dragons had a broadly similar premise, but it lacked the rationale. What does it mean to be a noble in a world of no social structure other than survival of the fittest? OD&D assumed a wild west teeming with mercenaries and monsters. Empire of the Petal Throne provides an existing hierarchy, and lets the players to fight their way to the top.

If EPT lacks something, it would be a selection of pre-generated patrons with names and sketches for personal history. (James Maliszewski has done just that with his aptly named The Excellent Traveling Volume fanzine.) The problem is alleviated somewhat by several tables for generating patrons and missions. These range from courtesans asking the players to visit their homes to imperial agents with high-risk commissions.

I always appreciate games that generate interesting stories on their own. An Empire of the Petal Throne referee doesn’t really need to do much else than prepare a few dungeons and a d100 list of Tsolyáni names.

Almost everything else needed to run a campaign lasting for several years will be provided by the game. Quite a feat, actually.

The Gods from Outer Space

Secrets of the Space
After Erich von Däniken’s motif
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
Ancient Mesopotamians, being the first people to develop writing, irrigation, organized religion, and a few other staples of civilization, are the time-tested favorite of fringe theorists. By a happenstance, I stumbled upon a series of comic albums on the subject, apparently authored in 1978–1982 by a Polish fellow named Boguslaw Polch.

The original name of the eight-installment series was Bogowie z Gwiazd (Gods from the Stars). The first four issues were published in Britain under the name The Gods from Outer Space, which sounds significantly more edwoodian. I own the entries published in Finland, titled Avaruuden salaisuudet (Secrets of the Space), although the Finnish run sadly covered issues #5 and #6 only.

I'll focus on the latter due to its Mesopotamian setting. Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a delicious combination of ancient Near East and pseudo-scientific insanity. Its cover proudly declares that the plot derives from Erich von Däniken’s research (”much discussed by scientists all around the globe”), lending the work an air of credibility.

We are introduced to two human-like aliens, Aistar and Marduk, who are sent to the ”Blue Planet” to battle Azazel and Satham — a duo of mad, immortal scientists dwelling in the bottom of the sea. Azazel and Satham have persuaded Sargon, the king of Babylon, to erect a massive comlink tower. They also have corrupted the denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, who have grown so wicked that their cities must be destroyed with a precisely aimed comet, lest they spread their evil everywhere.

It goes without saying that the plot is a confused mish-mash with little regard for fact or logic. There appears to be an interstellar war between humanoids and insectoids; likely a long-term story-arc spanning the entire series. While nominal focus are the rationalizations of Biblical myths, the actual plot mainly comprises of cheap thrills and threats, dispatched as quickly as they are introduced.

On the other hand, the art is decent for the most part, and excellent at times. Much attention is given to detail, such as the finely ornated walls of Babylon. The drawings lack motion, however, leaving the action sequences with even less tension.

Suddenly. — Hiooo! — What’s going on?
You die! — Shoot, Aistar, quickly!
Aistar's radiation weapon obliterates the assailant. — Take that, cannibals!
They outnumber us! Back to the ship!

What really makes The Gods from Outer Space an interesting read is its innocent enthusiasm. The author seems to truly believe in his work, in more than one meaning of the phrase.

We have Babylon just a stone’s throw away from a jungle teeming with head-hunters.  We have king Sargon of Akkad — a contemporary of Loot’s, we are told — constructing the Tower of Babel. We have mutants, clones, nuclear weapons, hallucinogenic drugs, rebellious robot slaves, and giant grasshopper-men reminiscent of the priest-kings of Gor.

The reason behind Finnish Secrets of the Space's prematurely aborted run is a mystery to me. Perhaps Finland was too small a market for a niche product. I also suspect that more conservative parents might have taken offence at the suggestion that ancient astronauts Ishtar and Marduk were responsible for the Biblical miracles.

Either way, I would have gladly read through the entire series. Time to learn Polish, I suppose.

Arabian Nights: Aladdin Abush-Shamat

Aladdin strikes the king of Genoa dead.
One of the lesser-known entries in the One Thousand and One Nights, the story of Aladdin Abush-Shamat is a relatively long narrative that some versions of the collection omit in entirety. The protagonist’s original Arabic name is Ala Al-Din Abu Al-Shamat, but the collection I’m reading renders it phonetically and I’ll stick with that.

The story opens as an elderly merchant in Cairo realizes that he has no heir to inherit his considerable wealth, so the soon-to-be-father buys a potion from the Bazaar. Nine months later his wife gives birth to so beautiful a son that the couple decides to hide the newborn in a basement to prevent the jealous from striking the boy with the evil eye.

Years pass, Aladdin the Basement-Dweller escapes his confinement and gets bullied by other kids for his obliviousness. He decides to prove himself a man and leaves for Baghdad with a huge entourage of camels and merchandise. An evil homosexual attempts to seduce Aladdin en route, but Aladdin politely declines his advances. As Baghdad comes nearer, our hero insists on camping in a region teeming with heretic bandits, with predictable results.

Aladdin enters Baghdad destitute, falls in love with a beautiful woman, and attains the favor of the Caliph who gifts him the money needed for dower. The Caliph grows fond of Aladdin, or rather, his wife Zubaide who is a talented musician. Aladdin is appointed to the imperial council, but is framed as a criminal and sentenced to death.

With the help of his friends, Aladdin escapes, only to be enslaved by the sociopathic king of Genova. There, our hero encounters a local princess who has embraced Islam, and Zubaide as well, the latter having been abducted by a pair of malicious Genii.

The said princess falls in love with Aladdin and conjures a flying divan which they employ to visit the major metropolises of the Islamic world. The fast-forward Grand Tour ends in Baghdad, where we meet Aladdin’s son, who happens to look exactly like his father and has similarly gained Caliph’s favor. The guilty are executed and Aladdin’s family leads a happy life ever after.

The plot synopsis above might seem chaotic, but let it be known that I have omitted many a detail. I have no knowledge about the textual evolution of this particular story, but I firmly believe it to show signs of considerable redaction. There may have been an entire story-cycle about Aladdin the Basement-Dweller, which was subsequently truncated into a single narrative.

I may be wrong, of course, but in the end the background of the tale matters a little. In all honesty, I don’t appreciate Aladdin Abush-Shamat much; it is a little-known yarn for a reason. In essence, it is a tale of court intrigue, but lacks the tight plotting so essential for the genre. It has no real tension and reads like stream of consciousness.

Not that I have something against stream of consciousness. Many Oriental tales are little more than a series of separate episodes connected by a shared protagonist. Aladdin Abush-Shamat, however, dedicates so few words to each incident that the reader doesn’t really care. Aladdin himself is a mere shadow of a protagonist, with no personality or likeable traits.

He was born rich. He is popular only because of his pleasant looks. He has no objectives or useful skills. He rarely takes action, and when he so does, it is usually for the worse. Even when faced with a fait accompli he does not react but merely waits until a friend or a wealthy patron comes to the rescue. Yet Aladdin is presented as the hero, faultless and beloved.

The story itself is rather uninteresting as well. No scenes of fast-paced action and wicked sorcery; no exotic locales or dream-like visions of supernatural peril. The sequence of events lacks a clear framework in which they are supposed to take place. Whereas Sindbad the Sailor deliberately seeks out the marvels of the world, Aladdin Abush-Shamat merely drifts from one meaningless affair to another.

Punching down

I had my first gaming session on the third grade. At that point, the label ”role-playing game” was only vaguely familiar to me, something ...