Archive for May, 2005

Alternate Alchemies

Friday, May 27th, 2005

I’ve just been reading an article on alchemy which suggests that the Arab alchemists’ development of mineral acids — that is, acids stronger than the vinegar derivatives which were their predecessors — was far more valuable to civilization than if they had succeeded in transmuting base metals to gold.

It made me imagine an alternate world where alchemists did indeed learn the secret of transmutation, and metals are thus completely fungible, but where the strongest acids possible are highly concentrated solutions of acetic acid.

On the one hand, many technological applications would be eased — there would never be shortages of metals — and if transmutation could be applied to finished objects one could fabricate in a soft metal and then transmute to a hard one. On the other, chemical fertilizers and explosives would be impossible. No batteries, and some plastic would be impossible. Come to think of it, certain metals — aluminum, for example — might be unavailable; sure, they could be achieved through transmutation, but if the alchemists don’t know that a metal exists, they may never figure out how to make it.

It seems like an interesting way to kick alternate-historical industry in the rear right up to the beginning of the industrial age, at which point you’re screwed.

Aesthetics of Play: Masquerade

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

The masquerade aesthetic is an aesthetic of character design, like the cathartic aesthetic. The masquerade playstyle approaches roleplaying as an opportunity for the player to try on new personalities, to be someone that he isn’t. Masquerade play draws its fun from novelty.

Masquerade characters are therefore little like their players, except sometimes in superficial ways. The core of the character — the element around which the character forms — is selected for its very alienness. I, for example, often design impulsive masquerade characters; they make an interesting contrast to the reflective types that are closer to my everyday self.

There can be an escapist dimension to masquerade play; sometimes people design characters as a refuge from parts of themselves of which they’re not so fond.

Aesthetics of Play: Catharsis

Wednesday, May 4th, 2005

Many players bring to their relationships with their characters an aesthetic that I call cathartic play. The cathartic playstyle approaching roleplaying as a venue where players can take risks or indulge impulses in ways that might have unacceptable consequences in real life. The satisfaction of cathartic play is the opportunity to blow off steam.

Consequently, cathartic characters are often much like their players, but with certain traits amplified and certain inhibitions muted. In a more extreme form of the aesthetics, these characters may be wholly designed around the trait in question. I’ve known people who used short-tempered characters to work through anger issues; I like to play con men and Secret Masters from time to time.

More commonly, however, a cathartic character is simply a version of the player who kicks more ass and isn’t afraid to be a jerk. This milder form of the aesthetic is extremely popular — at its root, traditional “hack and slash” gaming boils down to “It’s us, but we’re killin’ orcs and takin’ no guff from nobody.”