Monday, May 20, 2013

Thanks For The List, TSR

As blogland well knows, every sneezerag and post-it Tactical Studies Rules ever produced is secretly useful so long as you read it right.

And so, yes, that includes this.

What to do with TSR's list of things never to do? Well, obviously: do them.

But why? Because offending people with a D&D book generally only happens when people start acting nuts and people only start acting nuts when they start having genuine emotions. That's why they call crazy people "emotionally disturbed".

Offense is just the worst worst-case outcome for talking about things that people care about. So TSR's list is really just a list of things people care about.

Use them.

What'll Make Today's Game Interesting?
(Roll d20)

WHOA HEY: As everyone probably already knows, some players may have experienced traumas in their past which may make discussing some of the situations described below emotionally difficult for them. I mean, I guess--I've never actually seen it in real life. But, hey, I've heard about it on the internet and you have too. If you play with people like that then I guess, y'know, be careful and don't be a dick.


1: GOOD CONFUSED WITH EVIL
This session, evil may be portrayed in an attractive light and will be used to muddy a moral issue. NPCs present shall proclaim the antagonist as an agent of right. The PCs will be offered a devil's bargain--something they richly desire in exchange for committing an act with dire consequences. Satanic symbology, rituals, and phrases may  appear even more than usual.
The mixed-blessing bargain is an essential part of anything resembling intrigue. Even in the event that the PCs refuse the bargain, your campaign now has a new point around which drama can pivot and complexity can grow: the villainous would-be power broker can be hoodwinked, manipulated, blackmailed, used against itself. And they can do the same to you.

If you need a villain, here you go.

2: DUPLICATIBILITY
Go do research. Your adventure shall present explicit details and methods of crime, weapon construction, drug use, magic, science, or technologies that could be reasonably duplicated and misused in real life situations.

A central problem or puzzle in the game will turn on it. Go google up how to pick a lock or make crystal meth, then build an adventure around the key ingredients or steps.

A certain level of detail is central to something in the essential nature of any really satisfying puzzles: the ability to admit more than one solution. The more detailed the mechanics of the scenario are, the more points at which the PCs can interact with it--if you and they know exactly which part of the thaumaturgic circle correspond to which part of the summoning, control and dismissal of exactly how many devils then they can alter any single part of a spell to create something you didn't anticipate and send the campaign in all sorts of new directions.

You could start here or here or here or wherever.

3: AGENTS OF LAWFUL EVIL
An agent of law enforcement (constable, policeman, judge, government official, and respected institution) will be depicted in such a way as to create disrespect for current established authorities/social values. 

Someone in power sucks this session. It's essential that the surrounding power structure be at least tolerably functional or else it's just another Evil Empire scenario (see 4 below).

One nice thing about this kind of hook is that while it can be used to surround the PCs with dangers to the point that they can't ignore it, it can still take many forms and respond dynamically to the PCs' actions--it isn't rigid. Start imagining every single thing the government could do to you if it decided it didn't like you, specifically.

However, lest this get railroady--another nice thing about this kind of plot is the PCs have a lot of options about how to handle it--after all, the party just has to find a way to get to one person to end it all. People move, they take holidays, they have schedules and eat lunch. As long as you more or less know how the government works in your setting (and you do, because you're a crazy GM and think about this kind of thing all day or else you wouldn't be reading this blog), the scenes write themselves and the number of ways the PCs can interact with them is infinite.

For a decent outline of how this kind of plot could play out, read this. And saying that would normally be a dickhead move because I'm telling you to go read a whole trade paperback collection just to think up a goddamn D&D adventure but in this case it's not at all a dickhead move because it's maybe the best comic ever written so if you haven't read it you're just holistically better off no matter what, ok?

4: CRIME IS GOOD, CRIMINALS ARE GOOD
Crimes will be presented in such ways as to promote distrust of law enforcement agents/agencies or to inspire others with the desire to imitate criminals. Crime should be depicted as a noble and pleasant activity. Criminals may be presented in glamorous circumstances.

In this situation, the entire ruling class is totally corrupt, oppression is universal and criminals are freedom fighters whether or not they want to be. Think of it as scenario 3 but universalized and turned up to 11. This provides a perfect opportunity for a heroic sandbox: players roam a target-rich environment while working for a common good. For a particularly fine example (from TSR of course) check this out.

5: IMPLACABLE MONSTERS
Evil monsters will be unable to be clearly defeated in any obvious fashion. 

The players will either think of some way to stop the monster that you didn't (which is always good) or it'll be all about surviving a Call of Cthulhu-esque horror you cannot hope to destroy (which is always good).

Another nice bit about this kind of plot is it's easy to draw the PCs in: the plot hook is just everyone else running the other way screaming about how nothing can stop whatever the hell it is. Then imply there's treasure.

6: BE EXCESSIVE WITH THE PROFANITY
Profanity, obscenity, smut, and vulgarity will be used this session. While none of these things are interesting in themselves, the emotions they can produce are. The villains in this adventure are grotesquely decadent, but that isn't the point: the point is to keep laying on inversions and perversions until you hit a nerve--something that viscerally makes players (not PCs, players) want to fucking end these motherfuckers.

Once you've done that, the plot and mechanics can all be very simple: the players' intense desire to make it all go away will give the session a satisfying intensity that can push beyond the need for twists or inventions.

7: DRAMA CAN BE CREATED WITH HORROR
The use of drama or horror is acceptable and desirable. The detailing of sordid vices or excessive gore shall be not avoided. Horror, defined as the presence of uncertainty and fear in the tale, shall be permitted and will be graphically detailed.

The key word in the paragraph above is "use"--something graphic will happen and it will happen for a reason. Unlike 6 above, reasons are important here--the intent is not necessarily to inspire feelings of revulsion and horror in the players, the intent here is to emphasize the moral or supernatural excessiveness of the foe in question. Go ahead and write it down, detail the horrors, use a script, think of the worst things you can, and then, when it happens, read it to the players.
Generally the idea with gore is to make a point and it is often the same point: this is what really goes on. Or a metaphor for it. Gore as an aesthetic strategy is often linked to activism. As William Burroughs explained in the introduction to his gory classic Naked Lunch: "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."

The gore villain is the opposite of the sexy villain, and works well when juxtaposed with it: you want this? Then this is what you get.

8: JUST VIOLENCE AND GORE
Only lurid scenes of excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, filth, sadism, or masochism, presented in text or graphically, are acceptable today. Scenes of unnecessary violence, extreme brutality, physical agony, and gore, including but not limited to extreme graphic or descriptive scenes presenting cannibalism, decapitation, evisceration, amputation, or other gory injuries, should be actively sought out.

This is not in order to provoke an emotional reaction (6) or to express an idea (7) but just to provide atmosphere. In this adventure everything will be exceptionally bad all the time. 

Lay it on thick all day. Play Raining Blood and Cattle Decapitation. Whether this ends up as a majestically Howardian violence-opera or just funny is up to you and your players, but if every lost hit point is another eyeball rolling across the floor it'll be fun either way.

You'll need terrible vikings, cannibal halflings, maggot zombies or something.

9: SEXUAL THEMES  SHOW UP  
Sexual themes of all types will not be avoided.  Arranged marriage, seduction, droit de seigneur, unrequited attraction, teratophilic and/or sociopathic sexuality might be discussed.

The original TSR guidelines advise against the portrayal of graphic sex scenes and this is good advice given for the wrong reason: narrated sex in games should be avoided not because of The Children but because it appeals mostly to boring people who aren't getting properly fucked and you shouldn't be playing games with them.
However, sex as a dramatic element in intrigues and crimes can be very useful. As Romeo and Juliet cleanly illustrates: the nice thing about sex in drama is it can show up and work at completely cross-purposes with anyone's material interests. The princess wants the pearl: so what? She goes and takes it, it's a heist. The princess wants the pearl but also the pearlbearer's son? It's suddenly gotten very complicated. This may require deception, invention, research, persuasion, disguises.

Any conscientious game master has wondered, now and again, how could this nigh-omnipotent Dark Overlord eight levels higher than them end up letting this party anywhere fucking near the prisoner/command center/treasure hoard? Desire to produce an heir or seduce a subject are answers as good as any--and realistic, too.

10: NUDITY WILL OCCUR
Nudity is never acceptable, graphically, when done in a manner that complies with good taste and social standards: it is as hypocritical as the cleric's mace. Degrading depictions are impossible (this is fiction, nobody's grade is going anywhere) and salacious depiction is unavoidable (tastes vary wildly across the spectrum of all known images). Graphic display of reproductive organs, or any facsimiles will appear this session.
Why is up to you. It might be gory, it might be funny, it might be sexy, it might simply emphasize someone's helplessness, but here's the trick: whatever reason fuckorgans usually show up in your game (rust monster, crit chart, succubus shenanigans), don't use that reason this session. Pick one of the others and do it a different way.

11: THE AFFLICTED
Disparaging references to physical afflictions, handicaps and deformities are common throughout human history and will appear in the mouths of thoughtless NPCs.

Even today, people are often cruel and thoughtless toward the crippled, the diseased and the otherwise organically unlucky. In this session, this ugly facet of human nature will be on display.

Fairness is the most important thing in the world and unfairness is the most common thing. Biological unfairness is the most elemental--and gods and superstitions were largely been invented to excuse it. It is thus the source of a rich vein in folklore--and the game is based on folklore.
The mangled can be Tyrion Lannisters, Phantoms of the Opera, Todd Browning Freaks or island-bound Lost Souls. No matter what they achieve or fail to, they immediately highlight the central theme of RPGs: what you roll vs what you do with it. Put some damaged people into play, make them important this session, and see what happens.

12: PRETEND RACE MATTERS
Human and other non-monster character races and nationalities will not be depicted as inferior to other races, or superior to other races, or equal to other races: they will be depicted as individuals struggling with individual circumstances in a world which wholly fails to recognize this.

No races and nationalities shall be fairly portrayed by any other, and racism will be rife: the elf has a distorted view of the dwarf, the human a distorted view of the orc, the gnome a distorted view of the tiefling, the android a distorted view of the cyborg.

Imagine the patchwork of your PC party: imagine none of them are recognized as an individual by the next villains they encounter. One is taken to the mines, one is chosen as a concubine, one is made a vizier, all based on nothing but blind prejudice. Of course your players will fuck it all up, but that's the point.

13: FUCK: SLAVERY.
This session, slavery is depicted as unremarkable; though we can trust our players know it's a cruel and inhuman institution to be abolished, we can't trust the NPCs to know that.

Are they the Southerners in Django Unchained? Are they the Nazis in Inglorious Bastards? Likely neither: the institution is unremarkable to them and they take it as a matter of course, not a matter of debate and justification.
Are the PCs Nat Turner or Spartacus, or just trying to keep out of the way, or are they cynically weaponizing the slaves to use against the masters? Point is the institution will be there this session, and loom large in the plot.

14: RELIGION, MYTHOLOGY AND THE FREAKSHOW THEY ENTAIL
The use of religion in this session is to assist in complicating the struggle between good and evil. Actual current religions might be depicted, ridiculed, or attacked in any way that promotes disrespect. Ancient or mythological religions, such as those prevalent in ancient Grecian, Roman and Norse societies, may be portrayed in their historic roles (in compliance with this Code of Ethics) but only if you go read some shit and come up with at least one thing you didn't already know before running the game.  

In any case, make irrational demands the center of today's session. Like sex, faith is an incredibly convenient excuse for villains to allow for a crack in the armor of their pragmatism. "It is a gibbous moon: we must throw open the gates for 16 hours in compliance with the dictates of Norglyph The Frenetic!"

15: MAGIC, SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND YOU
Fantasy literature is distinguished by the presence of magic, super-science or artificial technology that exceeds natural law. The devices are to be portrayed as fictional and used for dramatic effect. They should, however, appear to be drawn from reality. Actual rituals (spells, incantations, sacrifices, etc.), weapon designs, illegal devices, and other activities of criminal or distasteful nature shall be presented or provided as reference in this session.
This is different from 2 in that you are totally going to fake it. Make every effort to make the thing look plausible, then print it out and show the players.

You'd be surprised how much GMing you can get out of an idea if you understand it well because you made it up.

16: NARCOTICS AND ALCOHOL AND BEARS, OH MY
Narcotic and alcohol abuse shall not be presented solely as dangerous habits. Such abuse should be not dealt with by focusing only on the harmful aspects.

In Phillip K Dick novels they let you see the future, in Palladium they make your stats better, in Deep Space Nine they control the spiky-faced guys, in most world religions they improve your relationship to the deity (wine anyone?). At any rate, useful drugs are a quick-and-simple devil's bargain and they'll feature prominently in today's session.
What will the players do when faced with juiced orcs? Flee in terror? Join them in their intoxicated orgies? Steal their supply? Do that thing where you trace a square in the air and go "You're in the box, you can't hear anyth..." and wait for them to freak out? It'll be a pip.

17: ERODE THE CONCEPT OF SELF
The distinction between players and player characters shall not be strictly observed.

It should not always be clear that the player's imaginary character is taking part in whatever imaginary action happens during game play.


You know that trick in Death Frost Doom where
SPOILERS!(highlight to read)
the GM passes a note to the player saying what the thing says and if anyone reads it aloud then something bad happens?
END SPOILERS
...well that trick is cool. Do something like that this session. Keep your players on their toes by making their actions map to character actions.

18: LIVE ACTION ROLE-PLAYING KIND OF
It is my policy to not support any live action role-playing game system, no matter how violent the style of gaming is said to be, until I meet someone hot who does it.

However, right when the players go into, like, the trap in the Temple of the Arachnid Fathers you should say "Hold on, I have to go to the bathroom" and then on the way back go and grab that bag of rubber spiders you bought and when you are about to sit down you should empty it on top of whichever player has the PC in the front.

Things like that. 

So, yeah, time for a trip to the 99¢ store.

19: HISTORY IS TERRIFYING
In this session you'll depict certain historical situations, institutions, or attitudes in a game product that should not be condoned. However: they happened. Pick one. Read up. Learn all about it. Then just translate it into your campaign.

Here's one.

20. ROLL TWICE
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EDIT:
If you're at work, make sure your boss isn't watching because you're about to roll on the floor crying with laughter.  So, ok--I know half you were thinking "I bet the rubes at Story-Games would, even today, totally sign off on half this list"
Turns out they would. Jesus.
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9 comments:

  1. #19, "[w]hile TSR may depict certain historical situations, institutions, or attitudes in a game product, it should not be construed that TSR condones these practices."

    Really...covers all of this & undercuts the stupid moral panic code, doesn't it? Without being a list of things that you aren't suposed to use. "Hey, just because the sheriff is a misogynistic, racist jerk who picks on your party because you use intravenous healing potions, doesn't mean we support it." Oh no kidding?

    Seems like whoever wrote this list needs to revisit #17: THE CONCEPT OF SELF IN ROLE PLAYING GAMES, because they are having a hard time distinguishing from fantasy & reality.

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  2. I thought the list of rules were actually a joke when I first saw them. It's like they were actively trying to make their own work as bleached and sad as possible.

    Where is the image under number 15 from? The diagram with the box and labels, I mean.

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    1. dunno, i got it off jeff rients' tumblr Xanthor's Perfect Cromulence, it's from Hellraiser

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  3. Worth a lot more than the actual Code. And yes, when I learned of it at the age of fifteen, I immediately thought about turning it into a blueprint for making adventures (even though there are rules in there I have probably never broken, or at least not intentionally).

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  4. A session involving all of these seems much more interesting than one using none.
    Also, loved "roll twice".

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  5. HOLY SHIT: I knew Story-Games was kind of a self-parody but didn't realize it'd gotten this bad:

    http://story-games.com/forums/discussion/18380/tsr-explains-how-to-write-for-add-in-1995

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  6. Thanks for the list, once again helping us make our hobbies more interesting and fun. It's hard to do violence and horror and sex and stuff in ways that make the game work, so good pointers, I'll be using this. Also thanks for the link to Crowley, I kind of forgot about him for a moment there...

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  7. Good post. One of the designs in this year's One Page Dungeon contest is based on a high voltage generator, similar to what you say in #2. It's the one by Michael Getridge http://campaignwiki.org/wiki/DungeonMaps/One_Page_Dungeon_Contest_2013

    As for breaking TSRs rules, I have an old Dragon magazine that has a Necromancer prestige class called a Deathmonger or Death Master or Skull Fucker or something. It implicitly states that it is to be used as NPC only (because it is Evil), yet is clearly printed to be used by a player, as it has experience tables starting at level 1 and going up to, like, 30. I don't know anyone who didn't play evil (in-game alignment-wise) campaigns when they were a teenager, so I assume this class (and others like it) was published as a wink to those players and a way to circumvent their own imposed rules.

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  8. I remember reading that list back in the '90s, and remembering it as the dumbest thing put to print. I might have been a naive teenager back then, but I still had the good sense to know that those elements they were denouncing, make for great and compelling story telling. Its like in Star Trek: TNG, when Gene wanted his setting to be a damned utopia, void of any relatable human drama - grown beyond all negative emotions, save for abject smugness! You could have adventures in a perpetual paradise, but it would be really, really boring. And in the case of TSR, they were just being moralistic pussies, who were trying to make themselves look good to interest groups who will *never* like the brand, no matter how nice and clean they make it!

    I was happy when TSR got bought out for *that* reason, and hoped WotC would not follow in their misguided footsteps... Then the Valar Project (Book of Erotic Fantasy) happened and Wizards totally lost their shit! After throwing out a morality clause (with much of the policies) for their updated licensing, I lost any respect I had for them, and assume that they are just going to make bland, family-friendly products.

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