Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A New Home for The Culture Tsar

Yes, yes, yes, it's been a long time.

Lots of things can change in two years, but the Culture Tsar never truly goes into retirement. Once again, he has the need to sound off on all manner of cultural happenings, but he will no longer be doing so on this blog. 

Effective immediately, the Culture Tsar's missives and pronouncements will be appearing on www.benjaminsperduto.com. While this website will remain active as an archive, no new posts will be appearing here for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

It's all in a Name

It came to The Culture Tsar’s attention today that the tsarevich’s music class was recently tasked with coming up with pretend bands for a class project. This sounded like a cute little exercise until I heard that one of the girls in the class came up with what might be the best name that a ten year old could possibly make up for a band:

Soviet Soldier.

Maybe it’s The Culture Tsar’s fixation on all things Russian, but I’ll be damned if that doesn’t sound like the most metal name ever. It’s telling that my very first thought after hearing this was wondering if it would be unethical to steal the name and start a new heavy metal band that performs fifteen minute long epics about the siege of Stalingrad or the storming of the Winter Palace (yes, yes, I know that the Bolsheviks didn’t ACTUALLY storm the Winter Palace, but “strolling up to the Winter Palace and going in through the front door” just doesn’t have the same ring to it; also, it doesn’t have a bitching representation in Soviet propaganda art). I even love the fact that it’s a singular noun. Somehow, Soviet Soldiers doesn’t sound nearly as cool.

The name got me thinking about the importance of names to a band’s success. A great name goes a long way, sometimes making the difference between whether or not a listener ever gives a band a chance. For instance, The Culture Tsar first wanted to listen to his favorite band, Paradise Lost, because they had such a great name. Luckily, they ended up being awesome, so it was a win-win. On the other hand, names also serve as a nice warning signal for bands you should probably avoid. I’m pretty sure that I knew Limp Bizkit was a band I needed to avoid before I heard their (awful) music. However, even though Limp Bizkit is probably one of the ten worst names I’ve ever heard for a band, the name somehow manages to match the tone (and quality) of the music. So it manages to succeed by failing…or something.

Anyway, with that in mind, here’s a quick list of names that jumped out at me from my iTunes library and my CD cabinet. I could have done a lengthy online search, but it’s late, I’ve got more important things to do, this post is already a day behind, and this is a ridiculous topic to devote time and energy to writing anyway. Each name is ranked according to two categories (1-5): Awesomeness (how cool is the name) and Appropriateness (does the name match the music).

Awesomeness (4): As single word names go, a giant, hairy prehistoric elephant that crushes everything beneath its feet is pretty great. My only reservation is that it’s a little simplistic. Sometimes simple is good, but it can also box you in if you go TOO simple.

Appropriateness (4): This would have been a 5 if you asked me about it three albums ago. Mastodon is still one of the best metal bands around today, but their last couple of albums have been much more experimental and cerebral. Not quite what I’d expect from a band named for a prehistoric behemoth. Now if we’re talking about songs like March of the Fire Ants and Blood and Thunder? That’s what I expect a real mastodon to listen to.

A Place to Bury Strangers
Awesomeness (5): Awkwardly morbid? Check. Disturbing for parents and authority figures? Check. Memorable? Check. Guaranteed to draw a second look? Check. Looks like we’re done here.

Appropriateness (5): This band sounds like a lobotomy being performed with a jackhammer. The only question is whether or not the strangers get buried in one piece.

Mechanical Poet
Awesomeness (3): Interesting, but open to interpretation. Nice combination of imagery that could lend itself to a variety of musical styles. Good potential for cover art and concert posters, but also a little flakey. As cool as it could be, this sounds like it might have been the best name that a bunch of anime steampunk nerds could come up with. If the band sucked, it might be a liability, but fortunately we don’t have to worry about that.

Appropriateness (5): A delightfully weird band that veers from straightforward heavy metal to twisted fairy tale lullabies to high concept rock to polka (yes, polka). Somehow, the name makes perfect sense when you hear them. Really.

Nine Inch Nails
Awesomeness (5): Manages to be blasphemous without being outwardly offensive, which is no small feat. Also has the added benefit of attracting people who would be offended by the name if they realized what it referred to. It’s like if Rush actually meant Runners Under Satan’s Hand, which it doesn’t (though there may still be five people in the world that believe this; they probably hang out with the “Dungeons & Dragons is devil worship” crowd).

Appropriateness (5): I mean, have you listened to The Downward Spiral lately?

Elysian Fields
Awesomeness (4): A cool name in a weird sort of way. It evokes some interesting imagery and could fit a lot of genres. Definitely a name to pique a potential listener’s interest. How do you think I ended up with this CD, anyway?

Appropriateness (4): Another good fit for a weird, sometimes haunting band. This might be a 5 if their second album didn’t exist (blah), but it definitely evokes the spirit of their first album.

Awesomeness (2): This one pains me because I love Triptykon. No amount of love, however, can deny that giving your avant garde metal band a name that sounds like a bad Transformer (oh wait, it actually IS a Transformer) was a bad call. I realize that this is a European band and all, but it seems like somebody could have done a quick Google search or something to avoid this sort of embarrassment. This is particularly painful because the founder of Triptykon is also the founder of Celtic Frost, which is easily a 5 on the awesomeness scale. Guess you can’t win them all.

Appropriateness (2): It’s hard to get over that name. Despite being one of the better metal bands of the last few years, Triptykon’s name isn’t doing them many favors. The name sounds like it should belong to a Japanese pop metal act or one of those bad European power metal bands that insist on replacing “c” with “k” and “i” with “y.”

Savage Garden
Awesomeness (4): I’ve always loved this name. Good mix of aggressive and ethereal, like it could work for a prog metal band, a goth band, or a shoegaze band.

Appropriateness (1): Or you could be none of those cool things and opt for techno-pop instead. Seems like a bad choice. While I confess to enjoying their first two singles “I Want You" and "To the Moon and Back," this band was never cool at any point in their career. The name deserved better.

Sleigh Bells
Awesomeness (1): Not a good name. Really. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to think when I hear this. Christmas music? Have I mentioned how much I hate Christmas music (I worked in retail for years, don’t you dare judge me)?

Appropriateness (4): And yet…it works. This is one of those odd instances where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I can’t explain why this is a good name for this band. It just…is.

Okay, that was a fun little diversion, but it’s getting late and I have several classrooms of helpless victims…er, I mean…eager learners to teach tomorrow so I need to wrap this up. Feel free to chime in with any additional suggestions. I’m sure I could do fifty of these if I sat down and really thought about it, but it would be much easer to have everyone else do the work for me.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

"A Man With No Name" No Longer

Stop me if you’ve heard this conversation at a roleplaying game table before:

GM: So, tell me about your character’s backstory.

Player: I have no backstory.

GM: Oh, you mean you haven’t thought about it yet?

Player: No, I have no backstory. I’m a mysterious loner with a shadowy past.

GM: So what about your past is so shadowy?

Player: No one else knows about it.

GM: Um…okay. What about your parents?

Player: Dead. Killed by orcs.

GM: Are the orcs still at large?

Player: Nope. Killed by local army.

GM: Hometown?

Player: Razed by bandits.

GM: Are they still around?

Player: Nope. Brought to justice and executed.

GM: Brothers? Sisters?

Player: Only child.

GM: Friends?

Player: Nope. I’m a loner. I hate people.

GM: But you’re an elven bard with an 18 Charisma score. How can you not like people?

Player: Um…people can’t be trusted.

GM: Okay, you don’t trust people, fine. But you don’t have to trust people to know them.

Player: (thinking) I’m a loner. I have no friends or family.

GM: (sighs) Fine. What do you want to get out of this game?

Player: I want to have a rich roleplaying experience that lets my character overcome personal challenges, find his place in the world, and resolve his inner conflicts.

GM: Let me get this straight, you’re a loner with no friends, no family, no home, no history, and no connections with the world, and you want me to make sure that the game focuses on your character’s life and personal struggles?

Player: Yep.

GM: (stares at player) Do you have any pets?

Player: No, I hate animals.

While a bit exaggerated, this hypothetical exchange isn’t all that different from conversations you hear regarding the backstories of RPG characters. In some cases, the player just doesn’t put much thought into a backstory because previous games have conditioned them to not think about it. If the only types of games you’ve played focused on going into the dungeon, killing monsters, taking their stuff, and then going back to town to spend the money drinking and whoring, your character’s backstory is kind of superfluous. At the other end of the spectrum are the players that, at some point or another, got royally screwed over by an oppositional GM who used characters from their backstory to torment them. Maybe your parents are always getting kidnapped, or your siblings were turned to evil for no reason and came to kill you, or maybe a villain slaughtered the people of your hometown because the GM wanted you to “hate the bad guy.” At best, your backstory was rendered totally irrelevant for a cheap narrative moment; at worst, it became a weapon to be used against you.

Most of the time, though, players just don’t put enough thought into backstories. They usually end up being pretty pedestrian, really. On the other hand, sometimes players put way too much thought into the backstory, throwing pages and pages worth of information at the GM and expecting every moment of it to be incorporated into the campaign somehow. Unfortunately, very few groups have one type of player, so the average group will have backstories of wildly inconsistent depth. It’s not really fair to all of the players if one person has a much more detailed backstory. Sure, there’s nothing to stop other players from putting in more work on developing their character’s history, but not everyone is good at coming up with backstories (and most of the time, neither are the people who do write lengthy backstories).

My gaming group came up with an entertaining solution to this problem by using a random background generator. Adapted from a system used in R. Talsorian Games’s Cyberpunk 2020 RPG, the generator is a series of randomized charts that provides characters with a series of life events that flesh out their histories in ways that most players would never come up with on their own. The system was adapted to a fantasy setting by an RPG blogger named Wrathofzombie. It’s available in PDF format on his blog’s website. The site also provides an excellent hack of the Shadowrun RPG for use with the Savage Worlds rules. Given The Culture Tsar’s longstanding love/hate relationship (more hate/hate, really) with Shadowrun’s game system, I really can’t recommend this Savage Worlds adaptation enough.

Quite frankly, using this background generator makes for an entertaining game session on its own. The Culture Tsar recommends doing every character background at the same time because there will be ample opportunities to establish connections between the characters. In my current game, we rolled out each character’s family history to establish the status of their parents and their siblings (if any). From there, we assumed that since every character was beginning roughly at age twenty, we rolled out four life events leading up to that point. It bears mentioning that one of the life event options says that nothing happens, but we threw that result out because it wasn’t as much fun.

The results were…interesting. Players ended up with very detailed backstories that fundamentally altered their view of the character. Now, you may wonder how players might respond to having what is essentially random chance determining their character’s history. Amazingly, the players loved it. The process produced events and connections that the players never would have thought up on their own, but wound up being interesting additions. More importantly, it provided the GM (yours truly) with a readymade stable of NPCS with preexisting connections to many of the characters.

In order for this process to work properly, however, you have to do more than just roll on the chart. If you just take the results of the chart, the players will be stuck with rather haphazard backstories that don’t really tie together. The key to making the background generator work is to take notes on the results as you go through the chart and then review them with the player. Rolling on the chart is just a starting point; the real magic happens when you go back over the results and try to fit them into a logical, coherent backstory that is true to the character. The best part of this process is watching the player get wrapped up in the creative aspect of making a living, breathing character who has a life filled with genuine relationships and experiences.

To give an example of how wild this can get, one of my players made a human druid for a 5e D&D game. Had we not rolled on the chart, he would have wound up playing a hippy shapeshifter with a taste for pipeweed. By the time we rammed him through the background generator, we got a character who was born one of identical triplets in a family of six children. A group of wizards experimenting with breeding techniques to produce a clone army heard about his birth and then captured and experimented upon his entire family. He managed to escape with his youngest sibling, but the siblings he could not save now despise him for leaving them behind. Later life events landed him in a relationship with a cleric who was imprisoned after a misunderstanding with a local noble, and a later relationship nearly got him killed when his lover proved to be a cultist of the spider goddess Lolth (the table exploded with laughter when he randomly rolled to determine which deity contributed to the end of the relationship).

This bonanza produced a huge group of NPCs for the GM to work with and set up a number of motivations for the character right from the get-go (his imprisoned lover, his desire for revenge on the wizards, his bad relationship with some of his siblings, his need to protect his youngest brother, etc). Another pair of players wound up with characters with interconnected NPC relationships, only one player regards them as allies and another as enemies. Another player who had no idea of what his character was like beyond his race and class came out of the session with a major enemy for him to focus on in the short term and a bitter rival perfectly positioned to become a primary villain later in the campaign. No one felt like the random results distorted what they wanted to do in any way (though to be fair, we did permit some results to be re-rolled if they seemed particularly unsuitable or matched previous results too closely).

The backstory generator facilitates a collaborative process of character creation that helps bring the players closer together. What’s most amazing is the number of times the random results matched the initial concept of the character so perfectly. For instance, the rogue randomly ended up growing up in a thieves guild and the paladin randomly grew up in a monastery. In other cases, the results are vague enough that they are easily bent to fit the developing interpretation of the character.

I really can’t recommend using the background generator enough. It injects a much-needed shot in the arm to most characters, breathing more life into them than the average RPG character typically possesses. Running a player through the generator only takes about half an hour or so, which makes it well suited for game systems with quick character generation like 5e D&D. Players with a lot of courage might even consider running through the background generator BEFORE character creation, which would allow them to select a class and abilities based upon the results, but my group stuck with doing character creation first to assure that the group balance wasn’t thrown off too badly.

If you need something to spice up your upcoming campaign, give it a try. If nothing else, the results will give everyone a good laugh.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Assembling Your Fellowship (Beware the Ogres)

So, getting a D&D group together…

Well, what else is there to say, really?

Getting a group together usually just plain sucks if you’re over the age of 22 or so. Prior to that, you can count on being able to scrounge up a group at your high school/college. But once you’re out of school and venturing into the real world, the options for recruitment dry up pretty quickly. The Culture Tsar decided to get back into gaming a little over a year ago and the experience has been mixed. Without a relatively homogenous school group to draw upon, prospective players and DMs are left to scrounge the depths of Meetup groups and Craigslist, which can yield all sorts of…interesting results. If you’re lucky enough to have a gaming store nearby, you might try there, though you’ll have to wade through the sea of people playing competitive card games to find someone willing to stretch their horizons a bit beyond the rote tedium of card accumulation and deck building.

More than any other activity, roleplaying games live or die on the relationships formed between the participants. You can play a game of pickup basketball at the local YMCA with people that you either don’t know or dislike. Sure, you’d prefer to like the people you’re playing with, but when you’re playing competitive sports, you just need to get along well enough that you don’t get into fistfights in the middle of the game. You don’t care if someone’s a reprehensible human being who disgusts you every time they open their mouth; if they keep knocking down that corner 3, you’ll find a way to coexist.

But roleplaying games don’t work like that. Nothing will kill a group faster than bad interpersonal relationships. Contrary to popular stereotypes, gamers generally aren’t antisocial loners who can’t string a coherent sentence together. If that were the case, getting a group together and keeping it from imploding would be easy because there wouldn’t be any conflict (though it would make for a boring game). In many cases, the exact opposite is true. Gamers are often quite outgoing and extremely vocal in their opinions. They’re passionate about their interests and love interacting with other people. Gaming is fundamentally a social hobby, so generating interaction isn’t the problem.

The problem is that the gaming table is more than just about the game itself. It’s also a meeting place where a group of people occupy the same physical and social space for several hours at a time. In this sense, it’s really no different than sitting down at a table in a bar or restaurant. Imagine what it would be like to sit down at a table with five people, only one of whom you actually know. Maybe you know one or two other people in passing, but not well enough to feel comfortable sharing personal information with them. Obviously, this is an awkward situation, especially if you get the sense quite early that you don’t like one of these strangers. Things get worse when someone crosses a line of some sort; maybe he’s that guy that makes a slightly racist/sexist remark or spouts of some provocative political opinion that has little relevance to what you’re actually discussing. Suddenly everyone is uncomfortable and you can’t wait for the food to show up so you can stop interacting.

But at the gaming table, you HAVE to keep interacting or the game comes to a screeching halt. When you really stop and think about it, roleplaying games are probably one of the most demanding forms of social interaction. You can’t just tune out and play the game like you would in any team sport or even in a board game. What people can do, however, is learn to tolerate a lot of dysfunction to keep the game going. That might work for a while, but sooner or later, people just won’t be able to put up with each other’s shit anymore and they take their dice and go home, leaving everyone else in the lurch.

Since interpersonal dynamics are so vital to a successful group, it’s very important to start out with the right group of people. Nothing will torpedo a game faster than having a toxic relationship present from the get-go. Gamers are often so eager to get a game underway that they overlook potential problems, either assuming that people will “work things out” or “learn to deal with it.” Generally speaking, though, things do not “sort themselves out” on their own. If two players obviously dislike each other or a player makes others uncomfortable, the situation is only going to escalate. At best, they’ll make each other miserable. At worst, they’ll make everyone else miserable.

Last year, The Culture Tsar made a horrible decision to admit an unconscionable number of players into a game. With thirteen people (yes, 13; I told you it was a horrible decision) gathered around the table, problems were almost guaranteed and became apparent within the first few minutes of play. There was the creepy troll (the player, not his character) who made everyone uncomfortable (especially every woman at the table). There was the standoffish guy that immediately set about trying to screw over everyone else in the game and blatantly cheated without shame. Then there was the OTHER standoffish guy that tried to screw everyone over and was only slightly less blatant about cheating. They were kicked out after the first night.

But those were just the obvious problems. Others took longer to fester. There was the guy that didn’t know when to let the bad joke go. There was the girl who took offense at everything, but dished out vicious insults. There was the guy that relished provoking reactions out of other people. Factions formed quickly, with one group of players constantly seeking to undermine the other. The situation became so toxic that The Culture Tsar finally pulled the plug on the entire group, citing “not enough time to plan the game,” but really just exhausted from dealing with a bunch of people that couldn’t get along.

Now, this isn’t a condemnation of the social skills of gamers. Some people just don’t get along no matter the context. The point to take away is that there’s probably nothing more important to the long-term health and viability of a roleplaying game campaign than getting the player composition right. And yet, this is a factor that DMs consistently overlook, putting far more emphasis on the personalities of the characters rather than the players. It’s difficult to pull together 4-6 people, some of whom barely know each other, and expect them to not only get along, but work together effectively as a team while, hopefully, enjoying each other’s company.

The Culture Tsar’s party is up to three players at the moment. Time will tell if we can push that number to four or five.