Friday, January 23, 2009

Monster Manual Comics

Just a quick one; feelin' the writing urge today.

Check out Lore's Monster Manual comics. Especially if you're of a certain age, you'll find them hilarious. But be warned: They might ruin your ability to take some classic D&D monsters seriously. Or take the Allman Brothers seriously, for that matter.

Just hit the back button to flip through all of the Monster Manual ones. (His other stuff is good, too. Lore is one-half of the Brunching Shuttlecocks team. Remember them?)


Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Great Freakin' Book

If you like Conan...
If you like Elric...
If you like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser...

...get yourself a copy of Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon. Pay off those library fines if you have to. Sell your plasma if you must.

This book is rollicking adventure in that classic style--and almost no one writes like that anymore. (Heck, not even Moorcock, and he's still around.) It's got a big guy and a little guy, so the obvious parallel is with Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. But Chabon is a better writer, and the fantasy dial is set very low--low like in Howard's later Conan work. I very much got a "People of the Black Circle" (my favorite Conan story) vibe from this.

Yes, it's that Michael Chabon: The Wonder Boys guy, the Kavalier and Klay guy, etc. Chabon is always quick to defend "genre" fiction, and I think given his druthers, he'd write a bunch of good, pulpy stuff. It's clear that he's using his Wonder Boys fame and the glow of that Pulitzer Prize to satisfy some of his creative urges. And what a happy day when his creative urges happen to match something I crave to read! 

Chabon is a wordsmith, and you'll savor the way he strings together a sentence. But all his fancy wordsmithin' doesn't get in the way of the rollicking. You will burn through this book and wish it was twice as long.

And that's my only regret. He's Michael Chabon, dammit. He's not chained to his typewriter cranking more Gentlemen of the Road stories to sell to Weird Tales for three cents a word. This is probably the only one we get.

But--bright side time--we do get this really, really excellent book.

P.S. Wikipedia informs me that Gentlemen of the Road was originally serialized in the New York Times Magazine in 2007. See, serialized! It doesn't get any pulpier than that.

Out of Context: "Are you the angel of death?"
"Even worse, fatty," the pale stranger said. "I'm the angel of fools."
Music: CSS, Cansei De Ser Sexy

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Fantasy Language Barrier, Part II

World of Warcraft has languages, too. And if D&D’s languages sometimes impose unfortunate barriers to communication, WoW’s language system imposes exactly one barrier. Horde PCs and Alliance PCs can’t talk to each other. Period.

How It Works: Each faction has its own common tongue, and there’s no way (absolutely no way, period, end of discussion) for a Horde PC to learn Common or an Alliance PC to learn Orcish. That was a fantastic decision that I don’t think Blizzard gets enough credit for. That language barrier prevents the tidal wave of trash-talking that would drown out everything else whenever the Horde and Alliance are in proximity—including key places like battlegrounds and main cities like Dalaran and Shattrath.

Maybe I’m old, and maybe I have delicate sensibilities, but I shudder to think at what the shouting in Dalaran would sound like. Remember, WoW is a big place. The player population is almost six million strong (and another six million play Alliance characters!), and even spread across multiple servers, that's a lot of shouting.

When a Warcraft character of the opposite faction yells something, the game translates it into gibberish with a consistent letter- and syllable-replacement system. Back in 2005 or so, some enterprising WoW players made some rudimentary efforts at reverse-engineering that gibberish translation, enabling some awkward two-letter communication between Horde and Alliance. Predictably, it was used for trash talking, and Blizzard changed the translation algorithm to confound the effort.

If you aren’t a human or an orc, you get a racial language. But the vast majority of Warcraft players never, ever use Zandali, Taurahi, Gutterspeak, Thalassian, Darnassian, Dwarvish, Gnomish, or Draenei. The game has unlimited person-to-person whispering and unfettered ability to create chat channels (to say nothing of actual voice chatting), so there’s no need for a “secret language” to facilitate PC-to-PC communication. Those languages exist only because Blizzard was contemplating a broader language system fairly late in the design. For very good reasons (the trash-talking thing above), bilingual WoW PCs never happened, and they never will happen.

I Must Have Missed Looting That Babelfish: Just saying “no…period” to cross-faction communication was a gutsy call on Blizzard’s part. Beyond that, though, WoW seems content to blithely ignore language. When my Horde druid stealths his way through Stormwind and Ironforge, I can often overhear when the NPCs are saying—and I doubt they’re speaking Orcish or Taurahe. In quests and instances where I meet major NPCs like Thrall and Jaina Proudmoore, I can understand what everyone’s saying perfectly. If a monster speaks, I understand it. And when a demon or a dragon or another big, bad NPC addresses the Horde and the Alliance together (like in the cinematic you see after you get the “Veteran of the Wrathgate” achievement), everyone understands everyone else. My character has met Arthas maybe a half-dozen times so far. What language does he speak? And what language do all those death knights in the Ebon Hold speak, anyway?

So Who Does Languages Right? D&D strives for a realistic treatment of languages, but that realism often gets in the way of communication that everyone at the table wants to happen. Warcraft blows off realism almost completely, but it’s left one singular, key language barrier in place where it’s needed most.

I suppose maybe that leads to the following principle: only erect language barriers where you want there to be an actual barrier. Once you know the barriers you want, then let everyone else talk to each other—especially in a game like D&D which relies almost exclusively on the spoken word for communication among the players.

But justify your language setup! Don’t just blow it off like WoW did. Especially in a fantasy world, you have the ammunition to believably justify as many or as few languages as you want. And think big! Have a player-discoverable reason for your language setup. You won’t be the first to have an earth-shattering event that changes the nature of language. If you want more languages, pull off something at your campaign table like the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). And if you want everyone talking to everyone else, you could do a lot worse than cloven tongues of fire…like in Pentacost (Acts 2:1-12). Like I said, you won’t be the first.

Out of Context: “That one’s Snow White. That one’s Cinder-gorilla.”
Music: Blur, Think Tank

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Fantasy Language Barrier, Part I

Two of my favorite games handle the issue of language—what the heck it sounds like when the PCs and NPCs are talking—very differently. Today…Dungeons and Dragons!

More Barriers Than You Think: In 4th Edition D&D, there’s a lingua franca: a language called “Common.” But it’s not truly universal. In fact, it isn’t even particularly widespread. Sure, a lot of creatures—including all the PCs—speak Common. But many key creatures don’t, including entire categories like angels, archons, beholders, most demons, most devils, driders (curious given that they used to be Common-speaking drow, huh?), efreets, elementals, giants, lizardfolk, salamanders, slaads, treants, troglodytes, trolls…and those are just the heavy hitters.

Some of the above speak Supernal, of course, but Supernal doesn’t enable universal communication. If you speak Supernal, everyone understands you. You don’t necessarily understand their non-Supernal replies.

Why Do Languages At All? The conventional wisdom is that it’s sometimes fun to try to play through a language barrier, resorting to pantomime and gesture to communicate with a monster. And there’s a long D&D tradition of PCs collectively learning an obscure language and using it to talk among themselves when NPCs might overhear them.

I think the first part of that conventional wisdom is largely bogus; the pantomime encounter is fun once or twice, but it becomes tiresome after that. And you can still have the occasional pantomime encounter without hard-coding so many language barriers into the game. Make those language-barrier situations what they truly are: the exception, not the rule.

I’m more sympathetic to the second use of the language barrier: a PC-only language. It has a nice side effect: It provides a degree of story-legitimacy to the table-talk that happens among the PCs anyway. But again, the many language barriers seem to be forcing the issue a bit.

I guess there's a third reason for the existing system: The game designers' natural inclination to reward PCs who expended the effort to learn the languages in the first place. But in 4th edition, those language choices (if indeed your character gets any choices at all) are almost entirely made at character generation. And if you quiz the third floor at Wizards, I doubt you'll get many designers who say they want lots of players picking up the Linguist feat. That reason, though well-intentioned, is the most bogus of all. Rewarding someone for being an elf is the same as punishing someone for not being an elf. 

It's All About Monster Dialogue: The real point where the rubber meets the road is with NPCs talking to other NPCs, however. The D&D language system has created a world where monsters can’t talk to other monsters--not as easily as I'd like, anyway. And in a game that stresses heterogenous monster mixes in a given encounter—and monsters with identifiable roles in combat—that’s a problem. 

It’s better for the game if the leader monster can shout out to the skirmishers “Stop the one with the crystal!” or tell the artillery, “Cover me while I retreat to the Sanctum of Skulls!” As a DM, I usually want the PCs to overhear stuff like that. It adds some exposition, some verisimilitude, and a tactical hint—and it gives me a way to provide some color and characterization for the monsters. Even if the PCs don’t understand the language the monsters are using, they’ll get a different vibe from a harshly whispered “Ruthek kaura naaa…ruthek kaura naaa…” or a hysterical, screaming “Ruthek kaura naaa! Ruthek kaura naaa!

But a lot of monsters can’t talk to each other. I once flipped through the Monster Manual and looked for language barriers in the sample encounters. I don’t remember the exact figure (and I’m not about to duplicate the effort), but somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent of the sample encounters include a language barrier. And that doesn’t count sample encounters where one of the monsters is a hyena or something that doesn’t speak at all. No one at the table is going to bat an eyelid at that. But the number of “intelligent speakers that can’t talk to the rest of the intelligent speakers the Monster Manual groups them with” is way too high.

And the language barriers strewn throughout the game can jump up and bite a DM when no one’s expecting it. All it takes is one curious player to say, “Hey, what language is the fire titan ordering the fire archon around in?” At the very least, that creates a needless “um…” moment for the DM.

Quit Throwing Bricks, Dude: So what should you do? Well, you can play it as it lies, of course. Embrace those language barriers. Show the fire titan gesturing wildly at the fire archon. Have the red dragon wing-slap the salamanders into position. There are too many language barriers for my table, but there might not be too many for your table. And that’s what really matters, huh?

Alternatively, you can make a really expansive interpretation of DMG 171: “intelligent creatures [the PCs] encounter speak at least a little Common.” You can decide for your table that “a little Common” is enough to engage in light conversation, give and receive tactical commands, taunt the PCs, beg for mercy, and deliver key clues. You’re pushing the envelope of that rule’s intent—heck, you’re probably outside the envelope. But I think the payoff at the table is pretty good. You don’t get stuck with monsters that can’t talk to each other. Their choice of language is the spice, not the stew. And that's the way I think it ought to be.

Out of Context: "It's an RP realm. You're supposed to say, 'Weep more, novice.'"
Music: Joe Satriani, Engines of Creation

Friday, January 16, 2009

How I spent my Christmas vacation

I took a nice vacation to visit family down in Southern California. Took the kids to the beach, Disneyland, that sort of thing.

And I happened across something from my adolescence: Megaforce! Check it out. It's the dune buggy! The dune buggy...that shoots LASERS!

Believe it or not, this thing--apparently a prop left over from the movie--is parked in front of an Army/Navy surplus store in Newport Beach, right on Pacific Coast Highway. And a close-up inspection revealed that it hasn't moved in years.

Now, the movie Megaforce...well, it hasn't exactly aged well. But man, when you're 13 years old, the notion of an elite team equipped with laser-shooting dune buggies and flying motorcycles that shoot missiles is completely awesome. 

You can see the last few minutes of the film--a pretty accurate sampling of the movie as a whole--here. And here's the opening few minutes. 

Yeah, it's terrible, Still, it would be difficult to exaggerate what a charge I got out of seeing the dune buggy on a parking lot on PCH. The actual quality of the movie in no way diminishes my fondness for it. I guess a lot of the things we're fond of are like that, huh?

Out of Context: "I was being the wild card!"
Music: Nouvelle Vague, Nouvelle Vague

So this is the new year...

I find I miss blogging, and thus this little spot. On an every-other-day-or-so basis, I'll blog about games (especially D&D, World of Warcraft, and various German board games), stuff that inspires games and game design, and (like any blog) whatever fuels my sense of caprice and whimsy.

I used to work for Wizards of the Coast as a game designer, and while there I was among their more prolific bloggers. (You can see all that stuff here.) I imagine this blog will have the same general tenor as that one. I am by no means a super-blogger, but I'm reasonably regular. When I worked at Wizards, I'd often crank out a blog post first thing in the morning as a writer's warm-up before digging in on the design tasks for the day.

And writing is what I do, so once again my blogging will probably serve as some light calisthenics before I get to work on other things.

Out of Context: "I guess I'm a magnet for floods now."
Music: Jeff Buckley, Grace