Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Specific Injuries

I wiped out on my bicycle yesterday morning and suffered an abrasion somewhat mitigated by formerly sturdy trousers sacrificing their right knee in my defence. Since this happened midway between home and campus, I thought it would make more sense to continue onward and stop into the campus dispensary as soon as I arrived, rather than return home and probably not find a bandage big enough. Besides, I reasoned, the campus nurse worked at a primary school before; she'd probably dealt with hundreds of skinned knees.
So I ambled in, a bit worse for wear, only to find a sign on the nurse's door saying she was off for the day. 
Sometimes it's quite easy to use the minor inconveniences of real life as inspiration for the game. Simply by amplifying the severity of the wound and removing the recourse to modern antiseptic methods, the treatment of hit points lost in battle can become an adventure in itself.
I once heard, incidentally, that once that a man in New York City skinned his knee on the sidewalk and contracted something resembling ebola, but I prefer to think that this is a literal urban legend. On the other hand, I've also heard that Henry V took an arrow to the face during battle and his surgeons successfully removed it. Just to one side of his nose, if I remember correctly.
Here in the comfort of my office all I had to do was splash some peroxide on my knee and beg a bandage from a colleague's first-aid kit. Today I'm almost normal.
We tend to gloss over a lot of the combat injuries because they're a logistical bother, but the spreadsheets used in our campaign do have spaces to record scarring and maiming. This doesn't quite match the spirit of the original rules. The 2e Dungeon Master's Guide spells out its comic-book style approach to deadly combat in a wee section entitled 'Specific Injuries (Optional Rule)':
The AD&D combat system does not call for specific wounds--scars, broken bones, missing limbs, and the like. And in most cases they shouldn't be applied. Remember that this is a game of heroic fantasy. If characters were to suffer real-life effects from all their battles and combats, they would quickly be some of the sorriest and most depressing characters in the campaign world. It's hard to get excited when your character is recovering from a broken leg and a dislocated shoulder suffered in a fall off a 15-foot wall. It is not recommended that characters suffer specific injuries. In general, stick with the basic pool of hit points.

Right, because the game is so much more convincing and engrossing when we put ourselves in the place of Gumby superheroes who bounce back from all sorts of damage, rathern than real men who value their blood and limbs enough to try their damnedest not to lose them. 
In particular, the assertion that seasoned fighters would be 'the sorriest and most depressing characters in our campaign world' seems to assume that even if we allow specific injuries to PCs, we have to keep all of our NPCs Gumbies. I can't speak for anyone else, but I might find it difficult to repress snide remarks if I played in what was supposed to be a medieval world and didn't see people missing eyes, ears, hands, and legs with some frequency. It's the same school of thought that removes characters' needs to eat and excrete, or even makes death less than permanent. Are none of the people in our fantasy world supposed to wrinkle and grey as they age, either?
At the start of our game plenty of the characters have rolled the loss of fingers and other appendages from accidents before the game even started. (One of the most heroic characters we've had in the campaign, in fact, began the game having lost half of his right hand in his father's shop, and in at least one combat, this turned out to be a blessing: Having been forced to learn to use his sword left-handed, he had the literal upper hand when storming a castle and fighting its defenders up a spiral stairway.)
It should make perfect sense that if characters have lived through enough combat to have attained a considerable level, they should be scarred and limping from previous injuries. Unfortunately, we haven't yet had a character live past his early twenties. When they've been hit hard enough to receive a permanent scar or broken bone, they're usually dead. Surviving long enough to evince serious battle wounds, then, should be something all players should aspire for their characters to achieve.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Dealing with the Inevitable Data Loss

Our last session was the first one in half a year, and I was rather pleased with the relatively low number of mistakes I made. There were certain things that I should have played up more. The paladin's search for ailing people to heal, for example, should in retrospect been much more fruitful; any medium-sized town should have a visible marginalised leper population as well as a goodly portion of its citizens maimed, infested, or scrofulous. Aside from that, though, the party ended up pursuing some information that I was just making up as I went along, but that could lead to an actual quest I had hoped to eventually use at some point. It was something that I imagined would take place at the opposite end of the shire, but could conceivably take place, in some form, closer to where the party now find themselves.
In the interim, though, I've had two USB teeth go bad on me in the space of a week. With the help of recovery software, I was able to get back most, but not all, of my D&D material. I had foolishly saved it all to the same place, which I carried in my pocket to work on here and there whenever I had a free moment. Apparently USBs aren't meant for repeated rewriting. On the other hand, most of the really important information was already printed and filed in a series of doorstop-sized binders: Adventures, Goods and Prices in Shropshire, House Rules, and the largest of all being an overview of the world with geographic and demographic information as well as the most useful charts and a collection of NPCs that might appear. Since some of this now only exists in hard copy, it should eventually force me to rework some of it from scratch.
I'm more chagrined about having lost my latest research paper, an analysis of the treatment of dialect in Japanese translations of The Canterbury Tales, but I've got several pages of poorly-written notes from which to reconstruct that, too.
Thich Nhat Hanh told a story of the Buddha and some of his monks meditating in the forest, when a man came frantically toward them asking if they'd seen his cows. All of his cows had run away, and he said he was going to die if he didn't find them. They said they hadn't seen any sign of them, and suggested the man look in another part of the forest. After the man had gone, the Buddha turned to his monks and said, 'You all are very lucky--you don't have any cows'.
I still think it's a good idea to have multiple backup copies, but I've realised that I have enough in my head to run a fairly decent session without much of anything. The world in which we play is very much alive to me; I have a clear picture of the layout of the land, the cultural zeitgeist, the way people talk and act, what they are likely to do or beleive, and what they are capable of. I can see the forest landscape before the advent of most modern species of evergreen trees, when the only squirrels were red and livestock were much smaller than now; I can smell the linen-encased bodies at a time when only monks and the rich bathed more than a few times a year, the interior of inns and alehouses where body odour mingles with manure and mud tracked in from the street and stale beer and dog piss mixed into the old rushes strewn about the floor; I hear the strains of lively tunes, the shouting, bickering and laughing of voices in the market, and the overwhelming quiet of a countryside before electricity. I know what the food tastes like because I prepare it in my own kitchen. And I can almost feel the wonder, credulity, and desperation of a people who knew almost nothing about how nature or the human body functioned, for whom alchemists could certainly turn lead into gold, sorcery was real, foreign lands were peopled with antipodes and cynocephali, and all manner of beasts and demons lurked around the corner.
That's enough for a capital game, I'd say.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Soundtrack

The tune that I taught myself to play on the flute this morning is the one that Loreena McKenitt is scatting wordlessly in the above video. I first heard the song when I was a teenager and found it enchanting. What I didn’t know at the time was that the melody was lifted directly from a medieval Spanish song, the title ’Santiago’ being a reference to the original lyrics, which tell the story of a man’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The story is that the man spends the night with a prostitute before his journey, and along the way he meets the Devil who, disguised as St James, persuades him to hack off his penis. The man obliges, and swiftly bleeds to death. His traveling companions then discover the body, and make a swift escape to avoid being accused of murdering him. The Devil and his minions return to claim body and soul, but Mary intercepts them and commands them to return it, on the grounds that they won it unfairly, and they have to let it go. The man is restored to life, but his penis is never returned. 

The title of the song is ‘Non e’ gran cousa se sabe’ and there are several versions available online with the original lyrics. 

Now, it’s really quite impossible for me to convey, in the context of a D&D game, what a profound effect medieval music has always had on me. The best I can really do is to describe the physical and cultural landscape, from the gritty to the sublime, and provide a sense of the world that inspired the music. Simply playing it in the background during games didn't work. 

My first experience with D&D was as a kid playing outside, with books and dice spread over the sidewalk. This was in the days before portable devices and iTunes made music ubiquitous, so the issue never came up--and besides, my only exposure to medieval music was an anthology my father had on vinyl, and perhaps the flute section in the intro to 'Stairway to Heaven'. When I started playing again as an adult, and was somewhat awkwardly shoved into the role of DM, I fancied myself punctuating my exposition with a few bars on the flute here and there. For the sake of convenience I settled on letting things like this flow throughout the game:

My idea was that it would enhance the setting. In practice at least one player found it inappropriate and distracting. I was told, eventually, by a member of our campaign who offered to take a turn DMing so that I could play for a change, that he could use music more effectively than I was doing. What that turned out to mean was that he played certain video game soundtrack loops as he deemed appropriate for the setting of the current scene of the game. This struck me, though, as cheesy and contrived, and not merely because of the cheapness and inauthenticity of the music itself, although that was certainly a factor. The impression I got was of a ham-fisted attempt to dictate the mood we were supposed to be feeling. 

Certainly I'm guilty of susceptibility to mood. I'm moved everytime I hear Anwnn's rendition of 'Douce Dame Jolie', for instance. It's breathtakingly evocative, and my frame of mind completely alters toward it, no matter the situation. Especially when preceded by the instrumental virelai in the clip below, I'm sucked right into the pathos. 

I don't suppose it does much for the spirit of combat, though, if that happens to be the emotional orientation of the campaign at the moment. 

Eventually, after some discussion with the players last year, I settled into the habit of using sound effects more than music. After all, in the actual fourteenth century, that's mostly what the characters would have heard. I organised a plethora of clips in YouTube and iTunes to fit different situations, and most of them are related to the weather and environment. (Sadly, the only place 'Douce Dame Jolie' might be appropriate is at a noble's private party, and our party isn't at that level socially.) There's bawdy and off-key a cappella mingled with rough chatter for the alehouses and low-end taverns, pipers and drums mixed with conversation for the better establishments and certain parts of town, lots of premodern street noise for the cities, and a variety of nature-based noise for the countryside. A ton of different rain sounds, for example.

One obvious benefit of this is that it frees me up to focus on other aspects of narration. We've certainly had players who were less than snappy in the past, and who, five minutes after my detailed description of how the icy rain is soaking everyone to the bone and painfully numbing their extremities, ask, 'What's the weather like?'

I doubt many players are going to feel the way I do, and perhaps the far more common preference is for so-called 'epic' cinematic music with the subdued string section and bass drums that so often go along with warriors racing into battle on horseback in period films, but the musicians who try to bring the arrangement and instrumentation as close to authentic as possible are the ones that get me going in the morning.