Smoke, Mirrors & Faerie Dust #2

Copyright ©1998 By Joseph Teller, Kiralee McCauley & Cindy Shettle

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Surface Mail: 266 Western Ave Cambridge Mass 02139


This issue I bring into the zine some efforts by the two people that share my daily life. These materials were originally included in the 14th zine we had done for Interregnum APA, but with the evident demise of IR it appears they will otherwise never see print.

Kiralee McCauley is the love of my life, the inspiration for much of my writing, and the editor who often makes my efforts of authorship into something presentable to the general public. She's been horribly overloaded by work and expanding her horizons academically in recent months, but will probably eventually become co-writer of this zine. She's been essential in our various game design projects, and in helping me to see the process of gaming from all sides of the equation.

Cynthia Shettle (Cindy) is our roommate, gaming companion and fan fiction author. She's fairly well known in Highlander fandom, among other places. She'll join in now and then with something for the zine when the muse finds her.

Aria: A Different Reflection

By Kiralee McCauley

I realize that the Last Unicorn Games' Aria Books (Aria Worlds, and Aria Roleplaying) have been out for nearly two years at this point. Yet I feel the need to reflect on their contents; to review their methodology and design. Though they are often maligned, there may be something of value in these books which deserves a second look. It would be foolish to throw the baby out with the bath water, because of the biases of some reviewers since their initial release.

By now, Aria has become well known for its convoluted language, as rich and overblown as opera, where the name originates. It is not the obvious things - the contrived and made up words like 'mythguide' - that are the biggest problem. These, for the most part, have simple analogs or definitions. But Aria uses many words, some of them familiar, in a technical manner, without giving adequate definitions. For example, despite several paragraphs on how a "primitive" society becomes "civilized", I am not sure whether the authors mean to conjure up the common images and meanings associated with these words, or not. All told, this makes for a very heavy read, but one which I found well worth the trouble.

Aria Worlds spends most of its 285 pages describing how to create a "society", which they define as any community large enough to need all the attributes Aria uses for the description. What this rather circular logic fails to explain is that a society is, essentially, a geo-political entity. However large or small it must have a territory, a population, and some form of political organization. Examples include: a village, a city district, a nomadic tribe (their territory being the region they wander through), and a confederation of city-states. Most of the important and detailed examples seem to be, more or less, countries.

In some cases the society is too primitive to have a written legal code, so law and political organization take the form of tradition and custom. Of course, tradition and custom often supplement the laws of more complex societies as well, so Aria has included them in its description for all societies. However, these are usually the purview of culture, which leads to further confusion about what a "society" defines. The designers of Aria are sophisticated enough to realize that more than one culture can exist within a country. So they advocate the use of cultural templates. The parameters of these templates were not covered in Aria Worlds, but from what I can gather they can include physical characteristics, are used in place of race in character design. Hopefully, are covered in more detail in Aria Menagerie, since I have not found them elsewhere.

Regardless of the cultural variety present, a dominant culture has a great deal of say about how things are done in the region it dominates. Although the relationship between a dominant culture and a society is not covered, the social determinates Aria uses to describe societies are, in some sense, the result. They also do an admirable job of describing a society's abilities. How it acquires food, its degree of technological development, how it trades, what form its military takes, how it organizes itself internally (status), and how it relates to its neighbors. All these topics are covered with considerably more breadth and depth than is usually found in a roleplaying book of this kind. For those, like me, more interested in the social aspects of roleplaying than the physical ones, it is an oasis in the desert, despite the language. It does what no other method of world design even considers.

This is not to say that Aria is without flaws. The mechanics for describing the liberal arts (religion, art, education, and magic) are particularly clumsy, and incomplete. The books detailing religion and magic will probably never even see print. Formulas for deriving one social determinate from others vary from page to page, and even within the same page. One of the scales seems to be upside down, so that the older a society gets the more insular it becomes, rather than the reverse. And the authors opinions of how a society progresses, no matter how well supported by real world research, tends to pigeon hole players and GMs.

To balance this Aria provides one stylistic advantage. A wealth of evocative, clearly written, examples. Two of these are covered in depth, with each step of the society design process. A third is given at the end, to tie everything together. Any one of these three alone makes an exciting worldbase in and of itself. Other examples illustrate how various determinates relate to each other, or provide ideas of how they might be used. Often they provide more insight into the system than the text they accompany.

When most people think of creating a world, they think of it as a setting, a place. They start by defining a map, which they populate with various countries, cities, and races, and then detail with the name of the local king, duke, or council members. This method tends to lead to a very physical view of creation - where various objects and people are. Aria takes another approach by defining, not a landscape, but a society. Instead of focusing on the terrain, they focus on the people, designing populations almost as if they were characters with goals, limitations, and methods for accomplishing things. They describe a group and its relationships, both within and outside itself. In place of a physical view of creation, a social one. In the end Aria is a brilliant concept which falls short in the execution. But though the book is too flawed to be used alone, it can be mined for ideas, connections, and possibilities, and provides a decent framework for the social aspects of world creation. As such, it deserves to be more than a maligned and forgotten footnote.

Forever Knight: Intimations of Mortality

book by Susan M. Garrett

review by Cynthia A Shettle

There is an innate limitation in books based on a television series that they cannot make major changes to the status quo. Since Nick is still a vampire in episodes that take place after Intimations of Mortality, it comes as no surprise that he does not obtain a permanent cure during the course of the novel. In spite of this, Susan Garrett was able to create a suspense-filled novel. Once I started reading, I could hardly put the book down.

The premise of the book is that, as part of his quest to become mortal again, Nick obtains a doll that gives him a series of dreams. The dreams take place in a world that is both like and unlike that of the television series. In them Nick and several other vampires are (and always have been) mortal, while many of the mortals from the show are vampires. The dream world, besides being interesting in its own right, is free from the restrictions of the waking world. There is no built in guarantee that the protagonists will even survive the events taking place.

To complicate matters even further, there are indications that the dream world might actually be an alternate universe, just as real as the waking world. As Nick travels back and forth between the two worlds, each version seems to have a greater affect on the other, in a manner inexplicable to the (effectively) sleep-deprived police detective.

The transitions between the two worlds are well done. It is clearly established that, whichever way he is traveling, Nick will wake up in one world after falling asleep in the other. Still, many of his napping places have enough similarity between worlds that it takes a few paragraphs to be absolutely certain that he has switched again. This makes the transitions seem smooth and yet properly simulates the haziness most people have upon waking up.

All in all, I found it a very enjoyable book. The characters were true to the series and their dream world counterparts allow the reader to view them under circumstances that could never occur in the main Forever Knight timeline.

A Comment On SHADIS:

The 49th issue of Shadis just arrived and I thought I'd share a few personal comments on this "Independent" roleplaying magazine that I thought important. I've been reading Shadis for quite some time... (a glance at the shelf shows my oldest issue is #9) and its gone thru a lot of changes in recent years, not all for the good. The current editor appears to be doing 'Theme' issues, some work and some fall flat on their faces. The real problem is that Shadis is not really as independent as it likes to claim.

If you have a game that is not being advertised in their magazine, is not by a major publisher (TSR, White Wolf or SJG) and which is not providing them free copies to give away to subscribers with each renewal, they not only won't offer any real support for your system in the magazine, they won't give you a review (good or bad). They give lots of excuses, but this appears to be the real reason.

I've talked with a number of small press game producers, and all of them have had this same experience. I personally ran into this when we released our own roleplaying game CD of material (for and by fans). I know its on the current editors desk, I spoke with him a few months ago when I was renewing my subscription. Our CD (which contains 8 roleplaying games and lots of articles, fiction, etc.) is sitting on his desk..... unreviewed. His only excuse is that there was 'Too much stuff on it' and thus it would take too long for them to review!

I know, there's nothing much anyone can do when dealing with this sort of thing. Its just another stupidity in the gaming field, the sort that will help towards its eventual demise. It's just damn frustrating.

Reflections In The Mirror :

I've been doing a lot of personal reflection and introspective thought lately about gaming, some of it coming from recent experiences with my own gaming group and some of it coming from interaction with a number of Game Designers (GDs), Game Managers (GMs) and Game Players on the various Internet mailing lists I post on.

Roleplaying Gaming is in a major decline nationally, and it seems to be fed by a number of different sources. Putting aside those of Competition (With Computers, CCGs, etc.), changes in Society (Loss of Attention Span in Younger Generation, Increasing work week, increasing commute time, stagnant wages and Increasing need to retrain for jobs while working), and those related to the Business of Gaming (Failure of Several Distributors, High Cost of Retail Space, High Cost of Printing etc.), oftentimes it seems like the real problem is gamers themselves.

There is very little cooperation between the Game Designers (and their Publishers) - everyone is far too litigious, and far too attached to the concept of the almighty dollar. They spend too much time sending out legal notices to web site owners, usually fans. They spend too much time suing each other. They also spend too much time trying to charge each other outrageous amounts of money to license each others products when they are willing to attempt to cooperate. No one really is willing to give the fan an even break, and no one is willing to compromise.

Additionally far too many people are trying in their game systems to re-invent the wheel. This is partially brought on by the litigious problems above, instead of fixing mechanics they get replaced by an entirely different mechanic with an entirely different set of problems. Or they take a concept and re-work it for the nth time, ending up with the nth version of exactly what a vampire is and what it can do. There is no unity of thought, no unified effort and thus thousands of imperfect variations on things that have been done, none really better than another.

In public, such as on the Internet, gamers spend large amounts of time arguing over trivial things and comparisons of apples and oranges. They become rude, insulting and childish in such arguments, often doing more harm than good both to the points of their arguments and the way people perceive them. Who wants to get involved in a pastime that has all the civility of an abortion rights battle? This quick escalation isn't just a problem in discussions, but in gaming groups as well. What do you do with a problem player? Toss them out of the game. What do you do with a problem GM? Leave. Resorting so quickly to ultimatums tears the social fabric, and destroys what unity exists.

How gamers treat new players or interested people can also be very hostile. A new player has to be given a certain amount of leeway when entering a group or dealing with a game for the first time, or they won't be back. Unlike many GMs I've encountered in recent years, I don't believe that there is an unending supply of gamers lining up at the door. If a player doesn't know all the mechanics, don't sneer at them, or throw a mound of books at them and say 'read', but be willing to sit down with them and guide them thru the process of character generation and explain more about the game. If you can't take some time for new players, don't ask for such to join. Patience is often the best tool a GM can develop with their players.

There's also a lot of folks I've encountered in recent years who lack what I call 'Game Management 101' and 'Game Design 101' who continue to try to be the loud voices on the Internet and elsewhere. They often forget what I consider the basic rule of running or designing a game : If you aren't willing to put in the time needed to run or design a game in regards to preparation, then you shouldn't be doing it. Roleplaying requires time, effort, research and a willingness to consider exactly who the game is for.

Generally I consider it a standard rule that a GM should be willing to spend as much time preparing for a game as they plan on playing it. There is no excuse for poor preparation, despite what many Internet GMs have claimed. Most GMs cannot run a game "off the top of their head" as well as they can with preparation, though many believe that they can. This results in poor performance, disgruntled players and a bad reputation. If a GM has a bad reputation, it reflects on all of gaming, not just that GM, as that is how people think and how word of mouth works. If one GM goes off the deep end and tries to establish himself as a vampire-lord, starts drinking blood and committing criminal acts, the general population starts thinking that this is true of all GMs. If one GM uses gaming as a means of picking up women, then word gets around that many do.

I've known people that will refuse to play a specific game, or any game, based on one bad experience with it. One gamer I know won't play about a dozen different settings/game (like Harn, Tekumel, anything WOD, Champions, etc.) because in each case their first experience with the setting was with a terrible GM who didn't read the materials, played off the top of their head or in some cases went off the deep end of egomania. First experiences and impressions stay with gamers for a lifetime, don't be the cause of a bad experience.

I know, I'm sounding preachy and authoritarian. I can't help it, it use to be my job to train people on how to GM, to monitor games at a gaming club and critique styles so that people could be better GMs (and to refuse gaming space at the club to those who had gone off the deep end or were just unwilling to do the work of Gming so that they would not drive away players). These attitudes stuck with me, and though I have softened a bit over time and haven't worked that kind of job in a long time, I still feel the need to do what I can to ensure the survival of gaming as a hobby (and for some a lifestyle).