Thursday, January 27, 2011

C&S-ian Naturalism?

Reading through The Chivalry & Sorcery Sourcebook, I came across a sub-section of "Designing C&S Monsters" entitled "Natural Law." Given my interest in Gygaxian naturalism, I was of course intrigued. The sub-section discusses the role natural laws should play in designing monsters and, by extension, campaign settings. Here are a couple of relevant paragraphs:
No matter how "fantastic" the setting, the basic laws of the universe should apply.

This fact about the nature of the universe -- any universe -- has been all too often lost on many game designers and players alike at one time or another. Part of the problem is that many players themselves are still acquiring a working knowledge of basic physics, chemistry, and biology -- as well as any other relevant science. There will be someone out there ready and eager to interject at this point that "it's only a game". I agree, but I will remind him that role games necessarily and inevitably simulate environments. Players have been too thoroughly conditioned by their own life experiences and have acquired enough knowledge about what happens in their own world to make setting it aside far too difficult. It is too much to expect of players to demand that they accept an arbitrary universe conceived by the Game Master which has natural laws too far removed from those of our real world. Water flows downhill, not up. Rocks do not suspend in midair (unless comprised of ferrous material and buoyed up by an electro-magnetic field). Living creatures can be damaged and killed by physical agencies. These are the facts of science. Why should it suddenly be different in a "fantasy" world?

A Game Master bent on violating natural laws should be required to present detailed explanations of the "laws" of his universe which conflict with those we know prior to playing in his world. Any surprises in this area are simply inexcusable.
Here, I think we very strongly see a difference between Gygaxian and C&S-ian naturalism. The Gygaxian variety is more concerned with verisimilitude than with simulation. C&S, on the other hand, is very much about simulation, as even the short passage above demonstrates. Throw in some high-handed rhetoric about players -- and other designers -- who don't know enough physics, chemistry, and biology and it's very easy to see why I had the impression of the game I did back in the day.

In this passage at least, Chivalry & Sorcery definitely comes across as the game of guys who take it a little too seriously and look down their nose at those who don't share their degree of obsessiveness. Of course, as with many things, that's not the whole story, as is evident even within the "Designing C&S Monsters" section from which I've quoted. Still, there's no question that C&S was one of those games that appealed primarily to those who'd already played D&D and found it unsatisfying, not because it was confusing or poorly written, but because it wasn't a good enough simulation. It's a game that was, in some sense, somewhat parasitic upon D&D, because it depended on dissatisfaction with D&D as an engine for generating its players.

That's nothing new by any means. Just as Benjamin Jowett was reputed to have said that all of Western philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato, so too one might argue that all of RPG design consists of a series of footnotes to Gygax and Arneson. C&S definitely feels that way to me, at least right now, but I reserve the right to change my opinion as I absorb more of these fascinating rulebooks.

31 comments:

  1. Since you've read my world building posts on Live Journal, you know that I favor a naturalistic, realistic approach to creating the game world. My first question when designing a place of mystery is "what is everyone eating, and how are they handling water?" Because unless it's the Temple of Generic Undead, food, water, and living space is important.

    Which leads to the second problem I have with most settings. The utterly astonishing number of large predators living in close quarters with other predators. Realistic looks at the available food sources will show why big predators are rare, and even pack predators need to cover hundreds of square miles to keep fed.

    This is one reason why I'm such a big fan of setting games on frontiers. Once humans got established in Europe, they quickly exterminated or drove out the large predators (there used to be lions in France) and established safe zones. Great for agrarian feudal society, not so great for adventures.

    Just for the record, I cut my fantasy teeth on C&S run by my equally obsessive older brother.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I can sympathize with the naturalism expressed in the quote above: while I can enjoy a dungeon given over whimsy as a one-off, it (or the wilderness, or the town, whatever setting one uses) has to make sense, even if that sense isn't immediately obvious. To take an example from published products, T1 "The Village of Hommlet" worked fine for me, but T2 "The Temple of Elemental Evil" utterly broke my "makes sense" boundaries.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I sometimes wonder if obsessive-compulsive naturalism like this -- of either the Gygaxian or C&S variety -- wasn't one of the driving forces behind the move away from "old school" games in the first place. Games like D&D and C&S used words like "fantasy" and "magic", but in fact their creators' ideas about magic were strictly sci-fi oriented: magic in these games is a kind of super-science or technology that operates according to familiar physical laws, distinguished from the mundane phenomena of our world only by a (always underspecified) link between the psychic and physical realms that allows a wizard's thoughts to directly influence the physical world.

    Honestly, while this conception of magic is kind of kooky and fun in its own way, I can't think of a less appealing way of presenting magic in a fantastic setting. I have less than zero interest in dragons who can only fly because of their hollow bones and internal bladders filled with bouyant gasses. It's Tolkein by way of Isaac Asimov; The Iliad written as a military simulation by Pentagon technocrats. At the risk of sounding overly critical, it reflects the autism-spectrum mentality of its creators. The ideas of magic that prevail in actual existing human cultures -- a social compact with unseen dark forces, a consequence of the interconnectedness of a human wizard with animate forces of nature -- are replaced with a kind of Uri Gellerism that bends spoons using brain waves.

    When White Wolf and its cohorts showed up, written by people with a humanistic, poetic conception of "magic", I think that did a lot to pull everyone except the Asperger's set away from the old-school games. A lot of people, I think, found more fruitful tools for thinking about "magic" in mythology than in physics textbooks.

    (I say all of this as an engineer and someone who has tremendous respect for math, physics, and the use of algorithms in creating simulations. I just happen to think that those things aren't always the best tools for modeling "magic" in a fantastical setting. If your game has rules for decreasing air density as one ascends Mount Olympus to visit the gods, that's kind of awesome, but I probably don't want to play it.)

    ReplyDelete
  4. I just finished Yann Martel's "Life of Pi."

    I'm not sure whether I can comment further without giving out spoilers. So if you have any inclination whatsoever to read the book, avoid the rest of my post.

    In "Life of Pi" the reader is given two alternate stories to explain a remarkable event. One story has a number of improbable verging on impossible elements, which run counter to our understanding of science. (Including an absolutely awesome floating island that would make for an incredible dungeon setting.) The other story more fit with our concept of how the world works, but was gruesome and depressing.

    The Reader was then asked which story was better. While "Life of Pi's" answer has to do with religion and spirituality, I think the answer in the rpg context comes down to which approach you think is funner.

    I personally think that embracing the gonzo of D&D and just going for it, is far more fun. Others, including I'm sure the writers of C&S, may feel differently. But that's why we have more than one frpg.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow...a great example of the simulationist creative agenda within an early RPG! Does C&S still track experience "points" and award "levels?"

    ReplyDelete
  6. "...[S]o too one might argue that all of RPG design consists of a series of footnotes to Gygax and Arneson."

    Quite right. The number of frpgs that read like point/counter-point rebuttals of either OD&D or AD&D are legion. Tunnels & Trolls, Fantasy War Gaming, and the first edition of Palladium FRPG all come to mind instantly.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Long time reader,
    first time poster

    I GMed a lot of C&S 2nd edition from 83-87 and loved it.

    I will say that some of the articles in the C&S sourcebooks stayed with me forever and changed my GM style. The one article about monster motivation (I seem to remember something about hungry goblins bargaining for some vension rather than attacking) really changed everything for me.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Picador: There's a difference between wanting to have an explanation for why things work, and being obsessive about it.

    But also...you think White Wolf ranks lower on the Asperger's Scale than O/AD&D? That's wholly different from my experience with the game, where I have two acquaintances who claim to suffer from the disorder, and I would readily, if unprofessionally, diagnose a couple of other WoD fans with it. Just because people don't obsess over physics doesn't mean they don't obsess.

    (Case in point of my non-professionalism: maybe that makes it OCD rather than Asperger's.)

    ReplyDelete
  9. The idea that RPGs must neccesarilu and inevitably simulate real world physics is of course total horseshit. Get up and tell me why you love an rpg that does that and I'll give you a rousing "Bravo!". But don't expect me to design my worlds on those lines or try and tell me what I'm doing isn't real roleplaying.
    My own preferences are totally with Picador's post. I love Asimov and insist on Asimovan logic in Asimov style stories but when it comes to fantasy I want my magic to follow S&S blood and horror, or Old Europe fairy tale creepiness, or epic Bronze Age myth. The real world literature on magic is much more interesting to me than the faux-science model. Vance pulled it off but that was his own special genius, not IMO repeated.
    The writers of the C&S quote obviously conflated "internal consistency" with "consistence with real world physics". The first is absolutely a necessity (althoughthe degree needed can vary - personally I like mine pretty high). The second is a preference, nothing more.

    ReplyDelete
  10. @charles ferguson:

    I definitely agree with all of your points--something that's always a little bit irritated me is the formulaic way magic is handed in D&D (probably as much by necessity as anything else, at least in the early days).

    I am a serious fan of magic through mystical communion, demonic pacts, numerology, concordance, the movement of celestial bodies, psychic powers, and basically everything else as long as a convincing story can be told about it. In my games, the basic idea is--if some people believe strongly in something, it is probably true (at least after a fashion).

    I started to address this issue abstractly, then with some more concrete ideas, in a recent series of blog posts:

    http://noxpadventures.blogspot.com/2011/01/parochialism-in-magic-systems-part-i.html

    ReplyDelete
  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I remember my first experience with Chivalry & Sorcery. A friend had bought the boxed set for $20 (which edition I cannot recall at the moment), and had gifted me with it when he couldn't suss out the rules.

    I made sense of them, and they seemed quite common sense. Back then, I loved the fact that they had multiple types of damage (impact, cutting) that could be dealt with a single swipe of specific weapons. I loved the detail of character creation, and the descriptors for each stat.

    I think you fairly nailed why I left D&D for a time. The inconsistencies and odd rules left me cold, and it was exciting to find other rules that made better sense of the world. Palladium, GURPS, C&S, Champions, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  13. While the simulation factor should be balanced for the audience's threshold for such things. To take a fantasy world and build it on modern understanding of science and biology seems a bit limiting and downright boring.

    Part of the fun can be to use the science, folklore, and world understanding of time periods long gone. There were many beliefs that were held as fact in previous generations that you can use as fact to make a fantasy world seem alive. And since it was the world view at the time it seems perfectly natural. The Japanese had a belief that objects that existed for too long became alive with personalities. The long held belief in spontaneous generation, Flat Earth, Hollow Earth, animals tied to omens, and so forth. In a world of such concepts as fact I don't I need to worry about how a dragon really flies or have a need to create a fesible ecology for a the Blood Eyed Serpent of the Dark Woods. Anymore then I need to explain away Steel Heel Jack or The Jersey Devil if I use them as creatures in my game world. I like things in my world to mesh but they don't have to mesh with the world where I get up every morning and go to my day job.

    But, to be fair I make my players track arrows and trail rations since I want that element of resource management in my games. A thing lots of people like to gloss over. Nothing builds tension like being trapped in a dungeon with a dwindling supply of arrows, food, and supplies. So I know I suffer from simulationist bouts myself.

    [Comment box acting odd, sorry if i post more than once]

    ReplyDelete
  14. Irrelevant (and obsessive) question: are you sure the quote about footnotes was by Benjamin Jowett ? Whitehead wrote that sentence at the beginning of Process & Reality but I didn't know the original author should be Jowett.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Irrelevant (and obsessive) question: are you sure the quote about footnotes was by Benjamin Jowett ? Whitehead wrote that sentence at the beginning of Process & Reality but I didn't know the original author should be Jowett.

    I am mistaken. For some reason, I regularly misattribute that quote to Jowett rather than, as you correctly say, Whitehead.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I love Asimov... but when it comes to fantasy I want my magic to follow S&S blood and horror, or Old Europe fairy tale creepiness, or epic Bronze Age myth.

    I'm also with Charles Ferguson here - and I think maybe the author of the C&S piece might be too, but at the time he was writing a lot of the theory of game design hadn't been written yet. I suspect (even though I know this is not what the piece says) that the author was really concerned about internal consistency and legibility of the game world for the players. For things to work according to some stable scheme that allows the players to plan and react and strategize, confident that their mental world will mesh with the game world. This point is very often forgotten in game designs even now, and it was fairly submerged in AD&D unless you did the legwork through Appendix N, which might clue you into some of the assumptions underlying the system (eg Vancian magic, which although an internally consistent system makes no intuitive sense unless you've read Vance [ducks]).

    ReplyDelete
  17. ...my witness for the defense: that in the final paragraph he says A Game Master bent on violating natural laws should be required to present detailed explanations... prior to playing in his world. This conflicts with his previous "just don't do it" bit and railing about the poor state of science education among the youth of today. He's really against surprises in the game physics, and I bet we'd mostly agree on that.

    Because if you don't avoid accidental surprises, how are you going to identify the Weird?

    Also, the plea for Real Science rather conflicts with the Real Medieval Worldview claims (which I now see as equally spurious, BTW) of C&S 2e, so I have to think an "Asimovan" approach wasn't an article of deep faith fundamental to the game...

    ReplyDelete
  18. @amp108: You're right. My post was sloppy and overly harsh, and the disclaimer I tacked on the end was just a lazy way of apologizing for that instead of going back and fixing it.

    "White Wolf" probably isn't the best example of what I'm thinking about, and both "autism spectrum" and "Asperger's" were not only low blows, but also not very precise ways of trying to say what I meant.

    I think my argument conflated two different conflicts. First, we have a pretty standard Forge-style GNS conflict between the Simulationists who largely (but not entirely, as James has pointed out) dominated the old school and the Narrativists who were drawn to the new "storytelling" games. You could say that the C&S quote deals with this when it stresses the importance of internal consistency in a game world: Simulation require consistency, but Narrative can bend the rules from one moment to the next in service of the story. On this point, the position articulated in the C&S quote is perfectly legitimate as a statement about the requirements of Simulation (which most RPGs need, at least to some extent, to continue being "games" and not "improv acting").

    Second, we have a conflict between two takes on Simulationism, one of which insists on specifically adhering to real-world physical laws, and another which is more open-ended. This is where I think the C&S quote goes too far, almost into the realm of self-parody. Obviously, the money quote here is "Rocks do not suspend in midair (unless comprised of ferrous material and buoyed up by an electro-magnetic field)." To illustrate my dissent, I hereby provide a perfectly cromulent chart for determining why a rock is floating in the air, each entry of which follows internally consistent rules that can form part of a simulation of a fantasy world.


    Floating Rock Exaplanation Table (d8)

    1-2 The rock is happy.

    3 The rock is the eroded remains of a levitating yogi who was petrified by a Medusa.

    4 The rock is the spot where one of the lesser Buddhas was sitting at the moement when he achieved enlightenment and realized the timeless, unchanging nature of the cosmos and the human soul. The rock on which he was sitting also achieved the same realization, and now exists in a timeless, unchanging state even as the other rocks around and under it were eroded away by the elements.

    5 The rock is a fragment of pure Orichalcum, the metal used by Perseus to forge the lance with which he slew the Chimera, favorite child of the Earth Mother Gaia. In her spite, Gaia expelled the metal from her body and forbade its return, but all pieces of Orichalcum long to return to their source, so they hover just as close as the Earth's anger lets them.

    6 The rock is a projection of a larger, grounded structure through a trans-dimensional portal into our world.

    7 The rock is an illusion caused by the adventurers' accidental ingestion of hallucinogenic chemicals. Remember that pool of water in the last dungeon?

    8 The rock is comprised of ferrous material and buoyed up by an electro-magnetic field. Like all ferrous materials, it can be used to form compass needles, which (as every schoolboy knows) point North on weekdays, South-Southwest on Saturdays, and toward the nearest witch on Sundays.

    ReplyDelete
  19. @picador:

    Nice chart! #3 is especially nice since (if we're continuing the internal-consistency theme) the medusa would be long-dead by the time the yogi had eroded that much, meaning the adventurers would be totally confounded by such an "unnatural" occurrence!

    ReplyDelete
  20. I suspect his ragging on floating rocks comes from a long-nursed antipathy for Roger Dean album cover art.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I'm all for consistency in games, but at the end of the day, Rule of Cool beats out realism every time.

    ReplyDelete
  22. @richardthinks: yep, I get the internal consistency gripe coming through the article. It's something I have low tolerance for as well, so I'm with the authors 100% on this. It's equating this with real-world physics that I draw the line at.

    For the record, I have no problem with Vancian magic in OD&D. If you accept the premise (which I absolutely do) that resource depletion is a fundamental and irreducible part of OD&D*, then it's impossible** to imagine any magic system that could work anywhere near as as simply and elegantly as the Vancian model, at least at low to mid levels.

    * That is, you can play it without and have a fine old time, but you're playing a different breed of game.
    ** at least I've been unable to do so.

    ReplyDelete
  23. This is one reason why I'm such a big fan of setting games on frontiers. Once humans got established in Europe, they quickly exterminated or drove out the large predators (there used to be lions in France) and established safe zones. Great for agrarian feudal society, not so great for adventures.

    Indeed. I prefer frontier settings too, which is why my fantasy campaigns are almost always set in places far from large population centers.

    ReplyDelete
  24. To take an example from published products, T1 "The Village of Hommlet" worked fine for me, but T2 "The Temple of Elemental Evil" utterly broke my "makes sense" boundaries.

    That's probably because The Temple of Elemental Evil was a very mediocre product, especially when compared to T1.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I sometimes wonder if obsessive-compulsive naturalism like this -- of either the Gygaxian or C&S variety -- wasn't one of the driving forces behind the move away from "old school" games in the first place.

    There's probably some truth to this, I think, although I think a bigger factor was the entry into the hobby of players who bought into the idea that roleplaying was "like a book, where you are the hero." To guys sold on the hobby with that, the level of detail in games like C&S made no sense whatsoever.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I personally think that embracing the gonzo of D&D and just going for it, is far more fun. Others, including I'm sure the writers of C&S, may feel differently. But that's why we have more than one frpg.

    Well said.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Does C&S still track experience "points" and award "levels?"

    Yes.

    ReplyDelete
  28. "That's probably because The Temple of Elemental Evil was a very mediocre product, especially when compared to T1. "

    You're being too kind by half to T2, but that's a rant for another day.

    ReplyDelete
  29. You're being too kind by half to T2

    Oh, I know I am. I just couched my comment in a charitable way in order to avoid the ire of the people for whom T1-4 is inexplicably the greatest AD&D module ever written. I've never understood why anyone would think that, but a lot of people do.

    ReplyDelete
  30. I think this is really interesting as a cautionary tale. The claim that, "Any surprises in this area are simply inexcusable" is obviously one bridge or more too far.

    It's interesting to contrast the work that James Raggi/Zak S., etc., are doing these days, and specifically how important it is to position D&D in a dangerous gray-zone borderland between the known and the inexplicable; it is the unstable admixture of the two where the real magic happens.

    Consider also the "wizards" in Conan stories, for example, who are given tantalizing clues that they may be not magicians but misunderstood scientist/technologists, with the truth left hanging and unresolved.

    ReplyDelete
  31. One of the biggest challenges I've found in game design is to present unfamiliar situations in a way where the players can still make tactical decisions - where they are sure enough of the ground beneath their feet and the consequences of their actions that they can actually engage in play, rather than merely reacting. The reduced instruction sets of computer games allow for this play space to open up relatively quickly, even when the environments are completely outre (as in Mario Galaxy on the Wii, for instance), but in "tactically infinite" RPGs it's a much bigger problem. That, I think, is the impulse beneath the quote. And you can generally tell when you've broken the rules of the setting because it leads first to PC death (because the player saw no reason to be cautious) and then to party blindness paralysis (because suddenly players don't trust anything they thought they knew).

    I love what Raggi and Zak do, and Joesky and Telecanter, but they very rarely betray the physics of the game, or when they do it's through some recognisable device - a potion or a puzzle ring or what have you, that is known to be a special case in the world.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.