Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The English Himalaya

I recently went on holiday to the Lake District with a group of friends, and while we were there, three of us decided that we would mount an expedition to become the first people to climb Scafell Pike, AKA The English Himalaya.

With this decided, one morning we bid sombre farewells to our friends and loved ones, uncertain when or if we would return, and drove out to the Base Camp, where the National Trust has set up a car park. This might have proven an insurmountable obstacle, but fortunately one of our party, B, was a member.

Our Expedition at the base of the mountain, prior to the ascent and before casualties.
With the car parked, we prepared to begin our ascent. Our expedition did not begin in the most auspicious way. Within five minutes of setting off, B had realised he’d forgotten his walking stick, and I’d got suntan lotion in my eye. This was rather painful, but I consoled myself with the thought that I could now look directly into the Sun and suffer no ill effects, with my left eye at least. We’d also not gone very far when we were accosted by a man who was extremely annoyed because he’d just climbed the wrong mountain. Since it wasn’t our fault, and there wasn’t much we could do about it, we merely commiserated and moved on as quickly as possible.

We started climbing, and it immediately become extremely warm. I became concerned for the snack food I’d brought with me, and said that I wished I had a cool bag for my nuts. The others agreed wholeheartedly, which surprised me. I hadn’t thought either of them were the healthy snack types.

We continued our ascent, but it became inexplicably harder and harder, and we found ourselves growing increasingly weary. None of us could account for it at all, until I suggested an explanation. Every so often we would realise what a wonderful view there was from where we happened to be, and would stop for a few minutes to drink in the scenery and take photographs on our digital cameras. We would also breathe heavily to take in as much healthy mountain air as possible, and examine the local geology, primarily by sitting on it. Since we were taking so many pictures, it only made sense that the memory cards in our cameras would be gaining weight. B agreed, and pointed out that since his camera was an expensive one that took very high resolution pictures, his must be gaining weight much faster than mine and P’s. This explained why he kept on falling behind. With the mystery solved, we pressed on.

A particularly heavy image that weighed me down considerably, but gave me an excuse to stop climbing for a few seconds.

As we climbed, we discussed our roles within the expedition. P was designated as the guide, since he’d climbed Scafell Pike once before, seven years ago and from the opposite direction. He’d also won an orienteering prize whilst in the Boy Scouts. I was designated as the scout. This was largely, I suspect, because I kept wandering off the path or going on ahead while the others sat on the geology. We all agreed that B was along in case we ran out of food and needed to eat someone.

After climbing non-stop for several hours, we reached a fork in the path. P insisted that we go left. I pointed out that the path disappeared after about twenty yards, lost amongst the boulders. P was insistent though, so left we went. We picked our way through the boulders, and my feelings of foreboding were more than confirmed when we came across a burial cairn next to the path. There was another further up the path, and yet another further still. I pointed these out to P, and said that they must be the bodies of climbers who’d strayed off the path, as we had done. He stubbornly claimed that they were there to mark the path when there’s deep snow. I find this kind of wilful ignorance rather saddening. Based on the large number of cairns built at intervals all along the path, the death toll of this dreadful mountain has been horrific.

One of the very many burial cairns we passed. Oh the humanity!
Eventually, I suggested that we stop and make camp for lunch. P replied that we’d only done about a mile and a half, and that we should wait for at least another 45 minutes. I gave into despair at this point, and remember little else for some time.

I came out of my funk to find B peering at a boulder, and asking us if we thought it looked cubic. We cautiously responded that from certain directions it might. He was holding a gadget, peering at it, glancing around and tutting. It turned out to be a GPS, and he was trying to find a geocache that someone had left up there. We spent a little while trying to find a cube-shaped rock, since that was the clue, but without success. There were more cairns up here, no doubt for the poor souls who refused to give up, and died on the mountain sides clutching their GPSs with dogged determination. Idiots.

Eventually we decided that it was time to stop for lunch. We found a large outcropping of rock that we could sit down behind, out of the wind, and did so. We started getting out our sandwiches, at which point the wind shifted course, and started trying to steal our food. However, we’d sat down now, with no intention of rising again until we’d eaten, and just bore it stoically. After a while, B suggested that he would go for a walk, and might be some time. P and I knew that he was just trying to sneak back down to the car, and forbade it.

Our camp.

Once we’d restored our tissues, we continued climbing. We eventually reached the very top, but to our horror and despair, we discovered that we’d been beaten to the summit! A rival team had made it up here and left an enormous stone platform, a triangulation point and a carved plaque. Alas, according to this, we’d been beaten by only a bare hundred years.

Proof that we were not the first, alas!

Still, the view was impressive, and we weighed down our cameras with more pictures. Eventually, we bored of being the highest people in England, and began our descent.

The Expedition at the Summit, after casualties.

This proved a little easier, but was marred somewhat since we were continually being teased by sheep.  They would approach, stand in picturesque and photogenic ways, and then, just as we got our cameras out, they’d let out a baa-ing laugh and leap away. Especially cruel in this regard were the little black lambs, who were adorable to look at, but had souls as black as their fleeces, and would turn and run as soon as you focused on them.

As we neared the bottom, it occurred to P and I that although he'd guided and I'd scouted, B had completely failed to be eaten. He didn't seem to feel at all bad about this dereliction of duty, and after some thought, we decided that on the whole we didn't mind either. After all, we don't know where he's been. Also, he got us free parking, so we can't complain too much.

Eventually, we reached the base of the mountain, and returned to the car. Happily, I wasn’t driving, and was able to relax as we returned to our cottage, bearing the scars of our journey, but all a little stronger and wiser than when we began.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Good GM

I have mentioned several times before my hobby of tabletop roleplaying, and used it to discuss ‘railroading’ vis-à-vis predestination and free will, and talked about the fictional religions often used in such games.

I tend to run more games than I play in, and I’m a fairly experienced GM. I read online forums like RPG.net, I’ve written my own set of rules, and created several different worlds in which to run games. Recently I’ve been watching RPG streams like Titansgrave and Critical Role (the latter especially is excellent) and got some quite good GMing tips from these. I really enjoy running games. I love the creativity, the story-telling, the necessary improvisation when your players do something really unexpected (i.e. stupid). Even the frustration (e.g. when your players spend an entire hour discussing how to give a group of guards the slip, and then pop back to let them know where they’ve gone, just to give an example) is entertaining in its own way.

There are certain things that are considered good and bad practice when it comes to running games. I’ve discussed railroading (forcing the players into a given action instead of letting them choose) before. However, one of the other devices usually considered a significant no-no in GMing is the GM player character, or GMPC.

This is essentially what it sounds like. Usually, there is a firm divide between the one player character (PC) controlled by each player, and the vast number of non-player characters (NPCs) controlled by the GM, and with whom the PCs interact. The GMPC blurs that division, and can potentially take advantage of out-of-character knowledge that the PC’s can’t possibly have, purely by dint of being controlled by the person who knows the plot. At it’s very worst, the GMPC can become a self-insert for the GM, a power-trip in which the character is more knowledgeable and competent than the PCs, and becomes the main character in the plot, relegating the players to the role of observers, or, at best, assistants. It’s rarely much fun for the players, who rightly expect to be the focus of the unfolding story.

However, the GMPC can also be used effectively to help steer characters in the right direction and avoid the forbidden railroading, and if there are a limited number of players, can be used to fill a gap in a party’s capabilities. The GM has to take great care though that the GMPC never makes decisions for the rest of the party. It can and has been done well, but the dangers are constant and real.

C S Lewis used chess as an analogy (in Mere Christianity, I think) when discussing miracles and nature, but I am convinced that he was limited by the technology of his time, writing as he was before the invention of Dungeons & Dragons. I am not so limited, and can utilise resources denied to writers who would have been able to make much better use of them than myself, but I’ll do my best. With Easter just behind us, I’d like to think about the Good GM, and his GMPC.

The Great GM in the Sky is (if it’s not blasphemous to say so) a mega-nerd of the kind who has not only created His own campaign world, He’s even created the rules-set by which it operates. The best number of players for a game is generally considered to be between three and six, but God is currently running for several billion, and inviting more in all the time. That there is a plot, I have no doubt, although as a PC obviously I have no idea what that plot might be. The GM’s screen is vast and impenetrable, and we’ll only get a look at His notes when we lose our last hit point and our character sheet is relegated to the Folder of Dead PCs.

Like all players, we seem to have a remarkable ability to ignore the plot, and when we’re not ignoring it we’re messing it up. The Good GM will not railroad us though. We must choose to follow the plot, or else there’s not much point of playing, either for us or the GM.

Instead, He has done what other GMs have done since, and sent NPCs to us with tasks to draw us back into the story, or dropped clues or information that we ought to be following up to get us back on track. Instead we’ve either ignored the NPCs, or beaten them up and looted their treasure. We then complain that we’re getting bored, that the campaign doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and that we’re not levelling up as quickly as we think we ought to be.

The GM considered His campaign, and what would happen if events continued to unfold in the way in which they were. According to both the nature of His campaign world, and the rules by which He was running it, the only obvious conclusion was a massive and inescapable TPK; the complete destruction of both the world and every character within it.

With every other reasonable option exhausted, the Good GM had to take a drastic step, and introduce a GMPC. He had to insert Himself into his game world, build a character according to the rules by which His universe operates, and interact directly with the players. It is not best practice, but if anyone could do it well, it’s Him. Nor did the GM stop being the GM just because he was also the GMPC. He is capable of being and doing both at once.

The GMPC walked amongst us, but didn’t try to overshadow us with His perfect knowledge of the plot, or make decisions on our behalf. The Good GM used Him well, giving us extra information, dropping hints and clues, pushing us gently back towards the plot.

We beat him up and looted his treasure.

No doubt holding His head in His hands even though He knew it was coming, and as much as perhaps He wanted to, the Good GM could not fix things by merely breaking the rules. If he did so, then the game became meaningless and pointless. Instead, he did the next best thing. He fudged.

Every GM occasionally has to ignore a dice roll or hand-wave a rule to further the plot, and the Good GM has been no exception. From our limited perspective within the game, we call such things ‘miracles’. However, if you ignore every dice roll and hand-wave every rule, then there’s no game left to play. The rules are there for a reason, and have to be followed, at least most of the time.

Now though it wasn’t simply ignoring a bad roll or conveniently forgetting an incidental rule for a moment or two. This time, He had to fudge the rules in a massive way, but without breaking the world or the game. He also had to do it in a manner which didn’t remove player agency; which avoided the dreaded and game-breaking railroads.

He found a way. The GM subverted His own rules, and the GMPC sacrificed himself to change the way the game was going, and pull us back from the brink of destruction. The plot isn’t over; it’s still up to us PCs to get back on track and follow the story to its conclusion. It’s up to us to ensure that we play in the best way possible, use our abilities and equipment to greatest effect, cooperate to maximise the overall capabilities of the vast player party in which we find ourselves, and eventually bring the campaign to the end the Good GM has envisioned all along, whatever that might be. Whatever it is, I believe that it will be the best of possible endings, both for the Good GM who so ardently desires the enjoyment and satisfaction of His players, and for those players and their PCs, for as long as the great Campaign runs, and for ever afterwards.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Small Kitchen Waltz

Time to inflict some more of my writing on you. I am, apparently, a ‘millennial’. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it is a word used by trendy but idiotic people to pigeonhole every single person born between about 1980 and 2000. Because obviously generalisations made about such a broad range of ages, influenced as we have been by the rapid advances in communication technology over this period, must hold good. Ok, rant over.

One of the ‘millennial’ traits that does hold true is the fact that I do not own my own house; I’ve lived in a string of different rented flats and houses over the last decade. One common feature of such places, especially when shared with partners or housemates, is that the kitchen is usually woefully inadequate to requirements. As a result, when more than one of you wishes to use it, you are forced into an intricate dance in which you circle and weave around each other, often while holding hot pans or full kettles.

It is to people who have lived or still live in such circumstances that the below is respectfully dedicated. This is actually written as a song rather than a poem, and I do have a tune in mind. If you’re very unlucky and run into me in person I will share it with you.

The Small Kitchen Waltz

My darling we rented a small maisonette,
When we viewed it, it seemed rather ace.
But when we inspected one thing we neglected:
Does the kitchen have quite enough space?
It’s something we both should have noticed at once,
But really it’s neither our faults,
And we both can get in if we side-step and spin,
And we join in the Small Kitchen Waltz!

The space from the sink to the bin’s rather small,
From the fridge to the cooker’s not wide.
And when I am in it, you must wait a minute,
There’s no room to work side by side!
But if I step this way and you move around,
We can cook and wash up without halts.
And each day of the week we’ll be pressed cheek to cheek,
As we dance to the Small Kitchen Waltz!

As we join in the dance that’s been trodden before,
By those with no room to manoeuvre,
If you pass me the saucepan, and move to your left,
I can turn and then plug in the hoover.
Then I’ll move to the right, and we’ll circle again,
As you get down the spices and salts,
And my dear we’ll make do, though there’s no room for two,
We will circle and slide and we’ll spin to the side,
Taking our chance in this romantic dance,
As we master the Small Kitchen Waltz!

Copyright Thomas Jones 2017