Monday, August 31, 2015

The Sandbox World Myth

GMs and DMs often like to formulate "sandbox" campaigns and worlds where the party can go and explore anything they like and do whatever they want.  This "bragging rights" aspect of a campaign is a myth, and I'm here to walk you through why I think so, and what we should replace it with.

The first aspect of any game is that it is about something, as determined by the mechanics used and the expectations of players involved.  Just like Dungeons and Dragons would not be the rule set to use for a game about investing in real estate, neither would Monopoly be a good ruleset for adventuring against monsters.  For this reason, the choice of "doing anything" has already been narrowed down when a ruleset is chosen.

Second, in games with advancement, there has to be a bit of the "quantum ogre" in the game, or PCs are just going to run into challenges way above or below their level 90% of the time, and end up dead or bored.  So even with the choice of where to go and what to do, there has to be path for them to take that leads them to appropriate challenges, or these challenges have to appear when they choose to go that direction.

Third, random encounters, even set in the backdrop of a world, makes for a boring game.  As a player, I don't want to just fight different creatures in the same way over and over again.  I want to manipulate the world to achieve my goals.  I want to make a difference. A series of random encounters in a disconnected world does not make for a good game.

Why are these encounters random?  Because locations on a large scale just simply aren't connected.  There is no reason for you to walk from the grocery store to the library and expect the encounters you have at each location to be connected in the real world; why would you expect something different in the game world?  An attribute of a sandbox world is this disconnection.

The bottom line is that sandbox is used to really mean the opposite of railroading, but the terminology is used incorrectly.  Railroading is simple eliminating player agency by either 1) not giving them a choice, or 2) by only allowing one outcome that doesn't depend on their actions.  Sandboxes are these mythical game worlds that exist outside the influence of the PCs and can be interacted with however the PCs decide to.

Instead of sandboxes, what we really want is a rich plot.  A rich plot is one that revolves around a series of motivated people / organizations trying to achieve goals which incite involvement by the PCs, but do not dictate the form that this involvement may take.  

For example, a rich plot might have a group of kobolds hiding out in a nearby mine, attacking caravans.  The kobolds have a goal of attacking and stealing from the caravans.  The caravan driver and guards have a goal of getting their shipments to the town without injury or loss.  The town has a desire for these shipments to arrive.  The PCs could do a number of things to interact with the town, kobolds, and caravans.  The PCs could be hired by the town to go clear out the mines.  The PCs could choose to guard the caravans themselves. The PCs could go enslave the kobolds and take over the operation to steal from the caravans. The PCs could completely ignore the situation and go find something else.  As a GM with a rich plot, you set up the plot, and let the players figure out how to interact with it.

Rich plots work because they give the PCs free reign while providing the framework for a good story.  They also work because they give the GM specific things to prepare in advance.  In the case of out kobolds, I need to prepare the town, the caravan along the road, and the kobold mine.  If the PCs jump into the plot, these are the obvious locations where they may encounter the NPCs relevant to the scenario.  I can stat out these locations, lay traps, and prepare motivations for each of the NPCs.  When the party comes along, I know what the NPCs will do, I know how they will fight, and I know how they will negotiate.  I can react to whatever the players decide to do.

Implied in the rich plot is the social contract clause that states that the PCs will follow the plots set out for them.  While interesting aspects can pop up occasionally outside the normal definition of what the game is about (like buying and running a business, or developing a romance with an NPC), generally the players agree implicitly to play the game as spooned out by the GM.  This doesn't mean they have to do everything, and so the GM is wise to offer several options on the menu.

So next time you hear the term "sandbox" thrown about by a GM, consider discussing with them what they / you really want: a rich plot. And help them to see the light in how a rich plot can greatly enhance the storytelling of the role playing game.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Some Thoughts on New Mechanics

I like to experiment more than any other GM I have known.  I guess there is a simulationist game designer always in my head just ready to get out.  I thought I would throw these few ideas out, in case anyone has interest.

Pass Around Curse

The idea with this mechanic is to pass around a boon or curse within the gaming group.  If a players rolls a natural 20/ natural 1 / whatever makes sense for your system, and they have the boon/curse, they get to choose to pass it to another player.

I like this mechanic because one person's luck becomes another person's luck.  Whether that luck is good or bad depends on how you use it.

The Confusion Maze

In my online game, I have been struggling with a way to generate the realistic confusion that a party would experience in a labyrinth or maze.  The idea is to keep generating random shifts of the map while only allowing the party to see a small nearby area.

In my online game on roll20 this means making 4 copies of the maze, each rotated 90 degrees from the previous.  As the players move through the maze, using dynamic lighting with their torches (limited to 15 or 20 feet by magic darkness), they occasionally hit a point and then the whole party gets moved to the same location on the next map.

In a live game, the party is at the center of a large piece of poster board with a hole in it approximately 6 to 10 inches across.  This hole lets the map below show through.  The miniatures sit on this map.  As the characters move, the GM rotates and shifts the map below so the players only see the small section showing through the hole.

In both cases, the rotation is really what is going to mess with the players.  Thank goodness rotations are hard for most people to handle in complex mazes.


I don't like most sanity rules I have read, which reflect the Lovecraftian insanity of a mind being torn apart by the unnatural.  The DMG sanity rules for 5E are uninspired and don't give many details.  My version starts every character off with so many sanity points.  When the character can rest without worry, they regain some points. For 5E, I use the Wisdom mod as the recharge.

Now when something affects the character's sanity, they get a normal save.  Maybe it is a DEX save to look away or a CON save to avoid become physically ill.  Certainly, others can apply based on the scenario.  If they fail, the GM rolls sanity damage.

For 5E, this 1d6 to 3d6 sanity damage comes off an original 50 sanity points.  What the character hits 40, 30, 20, and 10, insanity increasingly starts to kick in, first with minor quirks to roleplay, and eventually causing the character to become distracted and end up with disadvantage on skills, unreliable results, and eventually disadvantage all rolls.  Finally, if the character hits zero, the character is insane and now controlled by the GM.  Players rolls a new character.

I really like this because it makes the character more interesting to play as things go through the first two levels.  Quirks add to the roleplaying of a tense atmosphere.  Hallucinations and delusions start to break apart the party and illustrate the cracks in the character.  Eventually the character falls apart with insanity and becomes ineffective and eventually insane.  This alternative to 0 HP is far more interesting.  That is what I want... mechanics that make roleplaying better.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The State of Games: August 2015

Things always change, and occasionally I like to share how things are going, what things are going, and what things just aren't going.  Welcome to the state of games.

As a player, I am looking for a game now.  I quit my Sunday game.  The GM moved the game back because players were always late, so they all started showing up even later.  The GM let it slide.  I got fed up, after the last game was starting 45 minutes late, and quit.  Sunday night games are bad for my sleep for work anyway.  The lesson I learned is that pushover GMs are pushovers.

As an online GM, my Wednesday game is going strong, albeit with continuous changes in cast.  Real life pulls a lot of players away.  I am starting a 5E Horror game on Saturdays, which should have its first session this week.  I think it is going to be a lot of fun.

As a live GM, I tried to get a Tuesday game going at the local game store, but it crashed and burned.  The two players, besides my daughters, that showed up seemed to think they knew how to play and even GM, but didn't seem to have any clue on game rules.  They ignored my character creation rules, so I just stopped it.  I left an open invitation for my daughters to start a weekend game with their friends, and I will leave it at that for now.  Once I start commuting to the "big city" again, I may try to start a game there.

As a creator and hopeful publisher, I am procrastinating on pulling together the 2.0 version of my Cyber Path rules.  The new version is going to be a lot simpler and prettier.  I am seeing at least the Core and 2 to 3 other books coming out of the material.  I am just waiting for motivation and inspiration to catch up to my to do list right now.  I have no idea how to release them, and they are in desperate need of artwork.  Currently I am using properly licensed clipart.  It is sad.  Maybe when I get them finished they might be worthy of a Kickstarter.  Maybe I should do a 5E version first.

As a miniature painter, I am making good progress.  I am completing a couple of miniatures a week on average.  That means I should have all my miniatures painted in only 4 years!  Yeah, I have a huge kickstarter backlog of minis.  The good news is that my skills are improving, and I getting happier and happier with the outcome.  The bad news is that I need to see an eye doctor soon.  Near vision is becoming more challenging -- typical for my age, I am told.

As a collector, I am waiting to get back to work to have extra money for collecting.  Too bad too, since I found a copy of Rappan Athuk the other day for half off.  My biggest project when things settle again will be building a set of rustic bookshelves for the collection.  I think I might put wooden shingles over them as a rustic roof.  If will both improve my game room feel and protect the volumes in the case that a leaky pipe or some other disaster sends moisture into my gaming dungeon below.

So overall, things are good.  My gaming hobby is getting reshaped for me to go back to work at some point.  I am having a lot of fun.  I am spending time what I enjoy.  What more can a person ask for, from a hobby.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Finding Reasonable Players Online: Approach and Experience

When it comes to gaming, online is the wild west.  It is an endless sea of names and nicknames with no real way of telling who is going to be a good player and who is going to be a jerk and drop before the first session after asking a thousand questions.  To wade through this, I developed a 4 point system to find reasonable players.

When posting online games, I post my rules, a description of the game, and a description of me.  I think players should know what they are getting into.  Then I post "The Great Filter".

The Great Filter is a set of directions for how to apply to the campaign.  It is compact and precise and warns heavily against not following the directions, and usually looks something like a recipe with a bunch of warnings.  It tells exactly what information to post and warns about not posting additional or voluminous information.  It requires players to state that they have a good headset, a copy of the core players' book.  It asks for a quantitative explanation (in months and years) of their experience with the system and the online environment. It asks for a short blurb on a character that can be changed later.  It also says not to post character concepts that break the rules.

This recipe, it turns out, is almost impossible for some people to follow.  They post that they want to join, and nothing else.  They post that they have illegal PDF copies of the rule books.  They post that they have "a lot of experience" without any duration in months or years like what is asked for.  They post volumes on multiple characters.  They again and again, break the simple paragraph of rules.  And when they do this, I delete their application post without hesitation.

Sometimes players immediately learn their lesson, reread the rules, get it right, and I let them in.  Others continue to repost with mistakes.  Others never return to post again.  In another case, players post over and over and over again until I have to block them.  The response is always the same: why?!

The simple answer is that I need a test to see if these players are going to have the skills for the game.  These 4 simple hurdles are my "Great Filter".  The first hurdle is that they have to read the rules.  This gets some players right away and they fail.  Second, they have to follow the rules.  A lot of players get knocked out at this level too.  Third, they have to resist the urge to ramble on about their character or lots of characters.  Fourth, they have to give me what I need as a GM in the form I request it, namely their experience in months and years.  I don't even use the experience to judge who can join.  For me, it lets me know how much I need to plan on helping this candidate.

When they mess up, which all players will do sometimes (even me, when I play), I give them a chance to fix it.  If they can't fix it after a second chance, I block and ban them from the game.

Now I am usually pretty lenient with these rules.  If a rule is clear, but there is no warning I might let it slide.  Then I let the player in and add a warning.  If a players messes up despite the rule being clear and the warning about what not to do, they are rejected.  They can't follow my paragraph of rules, so how will they follow the rules in a hundred page rulebook?

Despite "The Great Filter" I still get somewhere between 10% to 20% of my players dropping before the first session.  It is hard to filter for people being flaky with their commitments.  Of the remaining, about 5%-10% will just stop showing up to the campaign without warning -- a very rude thing to do.  Over the period of 9 months of one online campaign, only 1 of the original 6 players remains.  The other 5 slots have occupied nearly 15 other players that have come and gone.  This is a long-term campaign that was described as long-term in the original post.  There is no test for longevity.  Real life sucks away even the best players.

So maybe my campaign just sucks?  I worry about this too, so I ask players for feedback on the campaign -- what they like, what they don't like.  They like the campaign.  I even went to far to ask for contributions to buying tokens for the game, because players won't donate to a game they hate.  There were considerable donations.  Based on my assessment, players like the game.  Every one of the players that dropped, besides a couple that just disappeared, gave good reasons why they left.

I share all of this information, so other online GMs can see that online games are tough.  Be prepared to filter through the applicants in whatever way you choose.  Be prepared for players to leave.  Be prepared to add new players throughout the campaign.  None of this need be a reflection on you.  Online, in the wild west, it just happens.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Effective Combat Strategies for 5E

5E redefines a lot of major factors in terms of combat strategy.  Today we're going to walk through some of the new effective strategies and discuss how to use them.

What we're not covering is tactics.  Tactics are specific combinations of things you do in combat.  If this specific scenario emerges, this is the thing to do.  We might address that in another article.

First let's define a strategy.  A strategy is basically your character's plan for taking out foes (creatures, NPCs, other hostiles) in combat without death taking you or the rest of your party.  Let's divide this into two pieces -- doing damage and staying alive.  We'll also talk about healing, how to use movement and terrain, and finally how to deal with weaknesses.

Doing Damage

Every class has a number of ways to do damage.  Melee and ranged weapon combat can now be strength or dexterity based, so pick one and use it for both, or use a combination, if you have a good reason for doing so.  Doing effective damage means hitting, getting through the foes armor and damage resistances, and whittling away at those precious hitpoints.  To do this, optimize your attack and damage stat, use terrain, hiding, and class features to get advantage, and then unleash your wrath.  Where possible, use your bonus action every round to increase you attack or increase your damage. Feats can do a lot to augment weapon attacks, so read up on them.

Many classes are full casters or at least partial casters, and are built to do damage with spells.  Combat spells come in two flavors: spell attacks and saves vs damage. A good combination of the two is good; some foes will fair poorer against one or the other.  Watch the weapon fighters to get a feel for the armor of the foe, and then choose.  For spells that affect spaces rather than targets, have combinations of line and area effects.  Being able to have smaller spaces increases their effectiveness.  Maximize your casting stat to be able to hit more often and increase the save DC. Don't forget to increase your spell slot level to increase your damage.  When you can't seem to hit or beat the save of a tough opponent, break out a high level Magic Missile.  It requires no save and no attack to do damage.

Reckless attack is a huge deal in 5E, if you have damage resistance.  Reckless attack makes hits happen more often.  When combined with damage resistance, it guarantees that the other guys is going to take damage faster than you, and brings them down more quickly. Without damage resistance, reckless attack will hurry the result of the battle.  Only use it without damage resistance when you are doing more damage than you are taking.

Special Attacks

Sometimes doing damage can be replaced with special attacks like grappling or shoving.  These special attacks can be a trap too, because they feel cool, but may not help with staying alive or doing damage.

Grappling is really good if you can push a target prone and hold them there.  However, keep in mind that it uses a free hand, so you are losing the chance at an attack or a shield.  In addition, your strength (athletics) check can be opposed by either strength(athletics) or dexterity(acrobatics) so your target has a good chance of getting out of it.  I still recommend looking at grapple, especially if your character is strength-based or a goliath.  If your DM is as cool as me, he might even let the you wield any grappled target you can lift as an improvised weapon.

Shoving is handy to use with terrain, as is discussed in the terrain section.  If you feel like shoving might be a good thing to use quite often in game, definitely take a look at the action options in the DMG, and see if your DM will let you use them.  They drastically improve shove, and open up some other better options in certain cases.

Staying Alive

You have several things keeping you alive: your hit points, your armor, your damage resistance, and your saves.  If your strategy is to stay alive, these things need to be decent.

The most common saves in the game in combat are dexterity, wisdom, and constitution.  It would be really good if you were proficient in at least one of these.  Try to get inspiration dice or another magical effects to boost them when you know save spells are coming.

Your hit points are based on class and constitution modifier.  For this reason, it is probably a bad idea to have a constitution score of less than 10, with 12 or higher preferred.  The toughness feat can augment this too.

Damage resistance is a huge deal if you can get it. Barbarians get it for non-magical weapons, and it improves with Bear Totem.  Dragonborn and other races may also have specific resistances that are situation specific.

Armor class is probably the biggest effect in staying alive.  Armor class is based on the armor you wear, your dexterity, and possibly your constitution.  Class features may also increase it.  Generally 16 is a good minimum to shoot for if you are going to be in melee.  21 or higher will make you very hard to hit in combat.  To get a good AC, buy the best armor you can wear, take feats to make it stealthy if you need to, and try not to dump dexterity unless you are going heavy armor.  Dexterity helps with weapon attacks, saves, and AC, so it is king of the ability scores.

If you can't wear armor or can't wear good armor, you might be a caster.  In this case, you need a good defensive spell.  At lower spell levels I recommend Blur, because it is concentration. At higher levels, Greater Invisibility is a good step up, because it also stays up with concentration in combat. Also, don't forget casting Mage Armor to get that AC up in addition to other defensive strategies.  A  first level of cleric can also get a caster into a breast plate and add some cantrips, if you don't mind the multiclass.

Other classes may need to defend themselves by hiding, staying out of melee, and using cover.  All of these are good strategies in the general, but when a hidden enemy appears unexpectedly, you can die if you don't have a backup plan.  Don't skimp on your other defenses because you are sneaky.


Healing is that magic patch to the AC problem that never works as well as you would like.  The bottom line is that if you have poor defenses, healing cannot keep up with the HP loss you will incur in game.  Healing is almost always limited to a temporary extension of your life in combat, perhaps to finish off a foe or two.  Because healing with a potion and many spells takes an action, it stops your damage dealing for a round.  Much better options are those that use a bonus action.  Healing Word is very good in combat at lower levels for this reason.

Movement and Terrain

Moving around in combat has been freed up a lot in 5E, and their are new options.  If there is one areas where everything changed in 5E, this is it.  Movement allows you to do a lot of useful things.

First movement, allows you to take multiple attacks and hit multiple foes.  This, unfortunately is a trap.  The most effective way to take down enemies is one at a time, because enemies deal full damage until they are dead.  Two half-dead enemies are doing full damage, when 1 healthy and 1 dead enemy do half as much. Focus your damage on targets where possible. Move on when your target is dead.

Movement also allows you to open / block lines of sight and give sneak attack opportunities.  When in combat, keep within 5 ft of enemies that sneak attackers are targeting so they get sneak.  Get out of the line of sight of your casters and ranged attackers.  Block the line of sight of enemy casters. This can all be done while staying in the attack range of whatever enemy you are engaging.

If you have cunning action, use it every round that your don't have a bonus action.  Disengage as a bonus action allows you to hit and run a target while keeping out of the middle of getting attacked.  This works especially well if you are hasted or have a significant movement speed.  Casters can do similar things with Misty Step, so use it similarly when you can.

Terrain is the turner of tides in battles. Use terrain to hang up melee attackers so you can hit them with ranged.  Use terrain to block ranged attackers.  Use terrain to get advantage or give opponents disadvantage.  Use terrain as a weapon, by pushing foes into lava or off a cliff. Also, combine movement and terrain to double the effectiveness of your normal movement strategies.

Every hero has a weakness.  The dumb barbarian might be easily persuaded to believe stupid things by enemies. The sorcerer may be so squishy that he can't take being hit.  The ranger may only be effective at dealing damage at a distance.  Play your character to minimize the effect of your weakness.  As you level up, attempt to address your weakness.  In the end, realize that what makes a hero is succeeding in spite of your weaknesses.

In Conclusion

We didn't cover everything here, but hopefully this is a solid introduction that gets you thinking about combat strategies.  Combat strategies are not the most important thing in the game, but they can turn a bland character into a cool character in a hurry.  Nothing written here is going to be perfect for every character, so take what you can use, and leave the rest behind, and...

Have more fun gaming!

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Physics of Magic in the Realms

An excerpt from the "Physics of Things in the World", a scientific book written as part of the Volumes of Knowledge of the Chultan Empire of Gnomes, 1488 DR, by Tr. F. N. Bookerfeltendraftter

Magical energy, though seemingly misunderstood to most, is just another aspect of interaction within the universe.  In its natural state, magic is a zero sum chaotic force that can only manifest minute effects over short periods of time and space.  However, with the proper direction, magic can become the most powerful force imaginable.

The weave can be thought of as an ocean of magical energy, swirling in chaos, parallel to the dimensions of the universe.  This ocean, in the beginning, flowed back on itself, giving no currents large enough to manifest in discernible ways.  

First came Mystral, and later Mystra and other incarnations to bring order and direction to the magical chaos of the weave.  Much like Umberlee controls the flow of the oceans, Mystra brings order to the flows of magic.  She directed the random motions into rivulets and currents and flows of enormous magnitude.  The energy of the weave came alive.

Once magic is flowing, it can be directed to action.  Directing magic to action requires increasing the disorder (entropy) of the plane where it is to manifest.  When this occurs, in just the right way, tuned to the proper flowing currents of the weave, the entropy draws the organized energy from the weave into the plane.  Raw magical energy cannot exist in free space outside of the weave, so it immediately transforms into some form of information, matter, or energy.

Disruptions in the flow of the energies of the weave cause conversion towards chaos.  As a result of Karsus' folly, the weave first surged as its chaos returned, giving a moment of extreme magical power. It then blinked back into its natural state of zero sum, with no direction, no power to manifest.  Only the divine intervention of Mystra restored the natural flows of magical energy to the weave.  Unfortunately, it was too late for the Netherese, who lost their floating cities to the lack of magical power for a moment.

During the spell plague, the loss of control of the flows caused convulsions in the weave, spilling random energies in regional surges.  Like a piece of paper that has been laid flat for a very long time, the folding of the weave back towards chaos did not proceed so easily as during Karsus' folly.  The result was dumping of magical energies across multiple planes, surging magical energies called azure flames, and the warping of reality.  Only the return of the mitigator of magical energy flow, Mystra, did the chaos subside.

Based on the trends of Karsus' folly and the spell plague, it is expected that in approximately 5000 years, the weave state of flow and its connection to the mitigator will become permanent.  When this occurs, Mystra will essentially become the flow of the weave and lose her separateness as a deity.  When this occurs, the universe will finally be free of the threats of magical chaos unleashed from the breakdown of the weave.

In addition to maintaining the flow of energies, Mystra can increase or decrease the magnitude of these flows.  With this, Mystra, can effectively limit the instantiation of energy in a manifestation, allowing her to enforce the 10th level spell limit without fail.  In addition, because Mystra is the organized flow within the weave, she is tightly bonded to all of those that pull the energy from the flows of the weave.  The flow patterns of the weave also also purposely manipulated through a "spell" of Mystra to disallow time travel.  This is accomplished by a paradox that eliminates the source energy in the future of any connection to the past, negating time travel spell capabilities.

The shadow weave operates similarly to the normal weave; however, the flow of entropy is effectively reversed.  The shadow weave operates at high entropy.  The user of shadow weave energy inserts order into the shadow weave by pulling it from the manifestation plane.  This cause a reverse surge of chaotic energy that can be transformed into energy, matter, or information.  Because the reversal of the flow of information, the caster must be linked to the organizer of the shadow weave, Shar, or accept a level of chaotic madness to be able to read its local entropy.  Shar, because her relationship to the shadow weave is inverse that to Mystra, will never be able to merge the same way as Mystra someday will.

The storage of raw magical energy is a difficult prospect on the material place.  Some magical items have the ability to permanently store energy using specialized vessel designed to exact specification.  These items act as batteries for the energy in a pseudo state between raw magical energy and the released state of the spell.  As a result, these items typically can only perform operations with similar energy manifestations.  Storage-based devices must be recharged.

Rather than storing energy, some magical items have permanent connections to the weave.  This connection is quantum in nature and allows only the smallest trickle of energy.  When the energy reaches a maximum level, the back pressure of the vessel effectively cuts the rate of flow.  Generally these items can build up charges automatically that can be expended.  However, in some cases, the full discharge of these items can increase the flow rate of magical energy too much, potentially damaging the item.  All of these mechanisms require clean, predictable magical energy from the weave source.  During times of disruption, these items may malfunction or be destroyed.

The other fundamental nature of magical energy is that the complex patterns required to charm it into manifestation, rather being communicated by figure, motion, and word, can also be mimicked by neural circuits within the brain and nervous system.  As a result, some creature and humanoids evolve natural abilities to channel magical energies.  Those that use their entire nervous systems are typically consider sorcerers.  Sorcerers still include many of the verbal and somatic context of their purely artificial wizard kin, while relaying on their nerves to form the other components.  Psionic magics are formed entirely within the complex confines of the brain, often without the need for additional components.

Divine intervention can also cause manifestation.  Much like Mystra, other deities have control over the flow of the weave, albeit far limited compared to that of Mystra.  Using this limited control, they can use combinations of weave manipulations (aka divine intervention) and manifestation plain mechanics (divine spells and rituals) to cause spell effects.  These divine spells are different from arcane spells because they only work with the assistance of the specific deity for which they were designed.  In modern times, many deities may use the same manifestation plane ritual to generate an oft-needed effect.

Considering all of these aspects, it is important to understand that magic is simply a force.  Much like with other forces, magic can be manipulated by care preparation of certain patterns of materials to generate all sorts of useful effects.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Exploring Genderless Society in RPG

In recent years, gender evolved in RPGs from a simple boolean choice of male or female to a plain text field with no limits.  Roll20 now directly defines this concept as direction for its community character sheet builders.  D&D 5e contains a direct discussion of this concept.  These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg on releasing old stereotypes on gender in gaming.  No longer is gender the defacto descriptor of every character.

Why is this important?  The interesting feature of gender in society is that it has become layer upon layers of meaning and stereotype.  The traditional definition of "being a man" contains multiple levels of meaning.  There is a invisible genetic layer.  There are the physical attributes, both sexual and non-sexual.  Even the definition of being physically attractive is different for a man.  "Being a man" traditionally defines what you like, how you relate to people, what behavior is acceptable, what jobs you do, what career you have.  Traditionally men communicate and relate differently to other men than they do women. All of this baggage has left some people feeling boxed in.  Our society is slowly accepting people who not only break these stereotypes with men that like pink, play with dolls as children, and become nurses, but also people who reject these titles completely in favor of their own gender identities.  Gender identity and everything that goes with it is quickly becoming a choice.

As a student of Asimov, Stephenson, Orwell, Huxley, and Clarke, looking into the evolution of gender is intriguing to me.  I've read Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness" (a masterpiece exploring an alien genderless society) but I want to take it farther, in a more traditional setting.  What could it mean to all forms of interaction if gender were eliminated as a simple recordable and defining fact for every individual?  Like those before me, I could passively explore this concept in a narrative, but we have much greater tools at our disposal.  We can run a game to find out what this genderless society might be.

So here are my proposed rules for running a genderless society game, as a point of exploration, in whatever system you choose.
  • All identifiers of specific gender are eliminated from the language and are not allowed in the description of any character. (No male, female)
  • The pronouns he / him / his are eliminated. She / her are used for all characters without reflecting gender. Preferred form is to use the person's name, rather than a pronoun.
  • No gender specific titles (Mr., Mrs., Ms.) are allowed.
  • All gender specific nouns revert either to a gender neutral form (mail carrier, not mailman), or where such is lacking, the shortest form is used (monarch preferred, but otherwise king rather than queen; hunter over huntress; prince over princess, etc).
  • No gender specific stereotypes are associated with gender; i.e. anyone can wear a dress, ear rings, etc.
  • Gender is no longer a defining characteristic in matters of love, emotional or physical.
Why should we play this game?  Just like Kagematsu allows an exploration of story from points of view of different genders, I believe a genderless game will allow us to explore aspects of society and interaction unbound by gender stereotypes that pervade most current human societies.  In this exploration, perhaps we can learn more about ourselves and what it might mean to really put gender behind us as the defining characteristic of a person.  Conclusion to be drawn are left as an exercise to the player.


Updated: The overwhelming response to the article is "I don't get it."  A lot of people don't understand why gender identity as traditional male and female is changing. I, myself, was in that same situation not too long ago, so I added a bit of explanation about one aspect of the drive behind changes in how we look at gender. I am by no means an expert in this subject, but perhaps this brief introduction can give people a bit more interest in exploring further, rather than just simply professing their ignorance and moving on.