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Friday, 10 July 2020

Go with the flow

The referee of our latest campaign shared this (from Shamus Young's DM of the Rings on his TwentySided site) after I scored a series of critical successes that stopped the Big Bad dead in his tracks -- to the slack-jawed astonishment of everybody around the table.

The comic gave us all a good laugh, but like all good comedy it makes a serious point too. "We need to adjourn for a bit of re-writing." Not a bit of it! If something like Gollum getting shot happened in a game I was running my first thought would be, "Wow, didn't see that coming! I wonder where this will go now..?"

Roleplaying at its best is jazz, not an orchestra and conductor working from sheet music. The referee is one of the band, leading but not dictating -- which is the reason I don't like terms like GM. There need never be any pause for re-writing because there shouldn't be a prescripted storyline you're trying to shepherd the players through. Play to find out what happens, as they say. The story that emerges will always be more involving than a plot you wrote in advance because the players will be right there in the moment, not watching to see which clue or trope has been planted there for them to pick up on.

And consider too the campfire mythology of the game, the stories players tell each other afterwards. Occasionally I've seen players make astonishing dice rolls that allowed them to overcome a threat that looked almost insurmountable. Years later they'll talk about that kind of victory with much more passion than one where they found the magic whatsit that was the only way to defeat the evil whosis and they used it at the exact time the scenario said to.

The pre-planned finale is not roleplaying, it's the kind of story you get in a movie or novel. There you can't have million-to-one shots come off (much as writers strive to convince you they have) because there's no element of chance. Every outcome in a scripted story is (by definition) contrived. The USP of roleplaying is that genuinely unforeseen and unlikely outcomes do happen, and immediately get folded into the action. Celebrate that and use it, is my advice; don't try to shoehorn roleplaying games into the same genres and tropes that linear fiction is bound by.

I've been thinking about this because our group is about to try the Yellow King RPG mini-campaign The Wars. I get that it's all about playing in a genre, and I'm always willing to experiment, so I set out intending to embrace that. But what is the genre? (Genuine question, for anyone who's played the campaign.)

I started out looking at All Quiet On The Western Front and Charley's War -- and, yes, I know The Wars is not WW1, but the flavour is what I'm looking for. The trouble is, I can easily see the action moving from the very specific mystery-on-the-battlefield to other settings: home leave, quiet moments back at HQ, and so forth. Do I have to prepare injury and shock cards for every eventuality? The Yellow King system looks like it's intended for games where you've carefully set the rails beforehand, but what do you do in a game like that when the players do the unexpected? I could use a less prescriptive set of rules, obviously. One option is just to have generic -1, -2 and -3 injury cards and hand them to the players saying, "OK, that's the game effect; you tell me what the injury actually is." But the point of the exercise is to see what the YK system is like. If you've tried it out and can offer some tips, I'd love to hear your comments below.

There's a little bit more about themes like this in the latest episode of the always-excellent Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice. Mike and Roger cover some of the same ground as I have, only more winningly and in stereo. (If you enjoy their discussion, don't ignore the tip jar.) But before you scoot off to listen to them, I must make a very important point:

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Realism, not romance

People keep telling me I should watch The Expanse, but my tastes in science fiction lean more towards the literary end of the genre (Ted Chiang, Ken Liu, an occasional shot of Greg Benford or David Brin) rather than '50s pulps. I could go my whole life and never see another surly arm-wrestling belt miner snarling into a glass of synthohol or another outing for the trope of cowboy-as-maverick-space-pilot.

To each their own, of course, but I found these comments by H P Lovecraft chime with what I'm looking for:
"A good interplanetary story must have realistic human characters; not the stock scientists, villainous assistants, invincible heroes, and lovely scientist’s-daughter heroines of the usual trash of this sort. Indeed, there is no reason why there should be any 'villain', 'hero', or 'heroine' at all. These artificial character-types belong wholly to artificial plot-forms, and have no place in serious fiction of any kind. [...] We must select only such characters (not necessarily stalwart or dashing or youthful or beautiful or picturesque characters) as would naturally be involved in the events to be depicted, and they must behave exactly as real persons would behave if confronted with the given marvels. The tone of the whole thing must be realism, not romance. [...] It must be remembered that non-human beings would be wholly apart from human motives and perspectives."
There's more from HPL's essay “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” on the excellent Robert E Howard site On An Underwood, though I would take issue with Mr Derie's statement that Lovecraft mostly wrote fantasy. The Cthulhu Mythos stories are SF, it just happens that the deluded humans who worship the Great Old Ones imagine that their prayers are heard and that the rituals they perform are magic.

image: "Lovecraft in Space" by Belthazubel on DeviantArt

Friday, 3 July 2020

One hundred and fifty

The human brain is the most complex structure we know of, but does it follow that human social networks are the most complex thing in the (known) universe? See what you think after this fascinating online seminar with Professor Robin Dunbar (he of Dunbar's Number) and Professor Lucy Bowes, presented by Sir David Clary.

It's a topical subject given the current reluctance to make physical contact with others. How does that affect our friendships? Does distance make the heart grow fonder? Among the ways we bond with others, Profs Dunbar and Bowes discuss grooming, singing (one hour's worth makes lifelong friends, apparently), feasting, dancing, laughter and emotional storytelling. The last of those is exactly what we're experiencing when we play an RPG, which could account for how important those Discord and Zoom game sessions have been over the last few months.

Oh, and if you hang around till the end you'll see why it's relevant to this blog. No peeking!

Friday, 26 June 2020

Reclaim the dame

Along with climate awareness, millennials like to imagine they invented gender equality. Truth is, we were talking about sexism and racism back in the 20th century (and earlier; see Gissing's novel, below) and we were just as committed to ending all prejudice. That’s what Star Trek was all about. Regardless of modern cynicism, “We come in peace for all mankind” wasn’t an ironic statement for most who heard Neil Armstrong say it.

Likewise in games. My own original campaign was set in Tsolyanu, the Empire of the Petal Throne, which overtly allows for sexual equality by a woman declaring herself aridani. At that point she ceases to be a ward of the clan, as most women remain throughout their lives, and becomes the equal of a man in rights and responsibilities. (More detail about that here if you scroll down.)

Other ‘70s roleplaying settings allowed for female adventurers, of course. EPT wasn’t unique in that respect. But Professor Barker actually thought about how societies organize, and what it would mean to have the cultural mechanism for women to declare themselves equal. In theory a female player-character could even choose to remain non-aridani, though I’m not sure how much fun that would be. The point is, it’s a real choice with an upside and a downside.

In the D&D games I occasionally looked in on back then, gender equality was dealt with by treating the world as a sort of huge cosplay arena, with most NPCs acting as if they were in the Middle Ages and PCs as the guests bringing 20th (or 21st) century mores into that.

In the heyday of gamebooks we knew that 90% of our readers were boys, but I was always mindful of the other 10% (if not, back then, much aware of the fuzzy area of overlap between the two) and made sure to keep descriptions gender-neutral. For instance, if you were running from the town militia, as often seemed to happen in gamebooks, and Jamie or Oliver or Mark had written passers-by yelling “Stop him!” I’d remind them to change it to “Stop that thief!” or “Grab the miscreant!”

In the land of Legend as described in Dragon Warriors there is no societal provision for becoming aridani. The world is supposed to be like our medieval times, that’s the whole point. Female player-characters in DW could be whatever they wanted to be, even knights, but the prodigy of a female knight would be remarked on by the people they met. In the same way, a Mungoda hunter strolling through the streets of Ongus should expect to attract attention – Melville talks in the opening paragraphs of Billy Budd about just such a (black) Handsome Sailor archetype attracting “the tribute of a pause and stare, and less frequently an exclamation”.

But race is another post (and in fact I have an interesting tale about that; remind me). I said there was no formal cultural mechanism for gender equality in the Middle Ages, but knights belong to the nobility, and with class comes a whole set of social passkeys. Celia Fiennes or Lady Mary Wortley Montagu could carry themselves with swashbuckling disregard for the attitudes of their times and merely be regarded as eccentric. Agnes Hotot even reputedly tilted in the lists. (She was probably more Ronda Rousey than Keira Knightley, as I doubt if I could even move in tournament plate myself, much less climb onto a horse while carrying a lance.)

To be equal doesn’t have to mean being the same. In our world I doubt if we’ll ever see a lot of women firefighters or oil riggers. Female PCs in my Legend games usually opt to be sorcerer or assassin rather than an armour-clad beefcake, but if a female PC wants to be a knight, how should she style herself? There’s a trend these days to stamp out any gender difference in titles (actor/actress, dominator/dominatrix, etc) and there’s very good reason for that: we want to eliminate the preconceptions that may come with gender-specific titles. But a fantasy world should be colourful rather than politically correct, so I’m going to make a plea that players don’t opt for styling their female knights “Sir Agnes Hotot” or whatever. It’s a horrible, Gradgrindian intrusion of modern attitudes into the game world. What’s wrong with “Dame Agnes”? Dame is Middle English for a female ruler (cf the Dame of Sark) and derives from the Latin domina. By contrast, Sir comes from sire, which comes from the Latin word senior, in the sense of having higher status. And that ain't bad, but it's nothing like a dame.

Friday, 19 June 2020

A good book is never hard work

What exactly is it that makes a book ‘difficult’? It could be handy to know. Lots of people cite difficulty as their main reason for giving up on a book, or not even getting past the first page and, if we don’t want to drown in the rapidly rising tide that is modern publishing, knowing what not to read is a knack we could all do with.

Some people have told me they find Dostoevsky and Tolstoy difficult. ‘It’s all the words.’ But isn’t prolixity a whole other thing? Granted, a long book can be as daunting as a hard one. I nearly reached for Game of Thrones until I saw the bookshelf sagging under the burden of those other volumes. But ‘all the words’ didn’t put people off Harry Potter or the Neapolitan novels – or Dan Brown’s thrillers which, by a corollary to Zeno’s Paradox, are technically interminable. From Dickens to Stephen King, popular fiction has never shied away from a swaggering word count, so that can’t be where difficulty really lies.

Is it in the unfamiliarity of the story’s setting? Now we might be getting somewhere. Readers prefer a world they can relate to. Ah, you say, but what about the million fathoms of fantasy and science fiction? Yet that’s not really a leap into the strange; all of it is populated by 21st century characters. Most readers of historical fiction just want a theme park Middle Ages, not the wild, hallucinatory, plague- and atrocity-ridden reality. It takes a bit of coaxing to get folks off the tour bus and backpacking along the more obscure trails through the literary jungle.

So is difficulty in fiction about straying from the readers’ comfort zones? The problem with comfortable writing – a likeable character, a cosy setting, a plot that ticks the boxes – is that it often makes for very bad books. And bad books are the most difficult to read. Listen to Papa:
‘For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.’
Doing something new doesn’t have to mean brain-blisteringly ergodic works like The House of Leaves or that French thing with no letter e. But now we’re steering in towards the genuine reefs on which many readers founder. Opening a book that is radically unlike anything we’ve seen before prompts the question, ‘How am I meant to approach this?’ The thousand-line poem at the start of Pale Fire, the stream of consciousness of Ulysses, the curlicued digressions of Tristram Shandy, the post-apocalypsese of Riddley Walker. Out of our familiar territory, with no map to guide us, what are we to do but panic?

Take a few deep breaths, though, and none of those books need be difficult. Resist the urge to flip to every note in the back; the author didn’t mean for any of it to be homework. Skip the critical introduction; it’s just an excuse for an academic to show off. Get stuck into the book itself. All experimental literature comes from a sense of exhilaration and (the same root as any fiction) a striving to connect. ‘Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.’ It doesn’t make sense? You can’t parse it? Well, the only problem there is thinking that you have to. Dive in. You can’t drown, and you might find the water’s lovely.

Nobody expects every work to break new experimental boundaries, but fresh and surprising isn’t too much to ask. Even then one encounters the complaint of the challenged reader – ‘I just want something to take to the beach.’ ‘I’m looking for a relaxing read.’ Geoffrey Hill addresses this point in a Paris Review interview:
‘One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. […] I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who […] argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement.’
Not to be flippant where Nazis are concerned, but ‘slogans of incitement’ perfectly sums up my impression of most pulp writing. Surely we can all agree that the unlovely, screenplay-shallow prose of a typical contemporary potboiler is very far from being a relaxing read? It glides away before the eyes but gives us nothing to hold onto. The world it presents leaves us on the outside looking in, munching the literary popcorn as the story washes over us and is gone.

It’s curious that, just as television drama is getting more complex, slippery about genre, aiming for ambiguity and interiority – as, in a sense, it’s becoming more literary – the medium of the written word, which is so much better suited for handling those elements, is often favouring a superficial style – declarative, depthless, all surface action. Are those authors trying to leave a calling card with Hollywood? Because – newsflash: if we leave aside the unscalable pinnacles of nine figure blockbusters, what the networks really want is intricacy, richness, innovation, unpredictability. You know, ‘difficult’ stuff.

What is the source of this myth that good books must be a struggle, that you can only relax with ‘trash’? A good book is more difficult than a bad one only in the sense that a relationship is more difficult than paying a prostitute. So why are so many people phobic about literary commitment? It must be an impression picked up at school that ossifies in later life into a Pavlovian insecurity about quality – in all the arts, not just in literature. A silly, muddle-headed submission that ‘fancy stuff’s too much for me’.

Why does this matter? Because for most people the phobia goes much deeper than choosing bad books over good ones. It is the reason that most people don’t read books at all. In perpetuating the fallacy that quality and entertainment value are a zero sum, in dismissing good writing as somehow elitist, we are setting a course towards a world where books are no longer read. Not even the bad ones.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Gathering steam

The Fabled Lands CRPG that is currently in development at Prime Games is now on Steam. It's not going to be ready for a few months yet, but you can sign up so as not to miss any updates.

If these screenshots don't excite you, what can I say? You don't deserve to be an initiate of Nagil, or to have dinner with the worshippers of B-----r the Unspoken! Jamie and I have been playing it and it's everything we could have wished for in a Fabled Lands CRPG.

If the FL game sells well, hopefully Prime Games will follow up with a Blood Sword CRPG. But that could be a year or more off, so in the meantime take a look at Adam Samson's playthrough on YouTube:

Thursday, 11 June 2020

The Machine Stops

I had no idea there were so many adaptations of E M Forster's 111-year-old science fiction novella The Machine Stops. These two student film versions, for example (above and below).

Those movies are both quite abbreviated, but at 44 minutes this radio dramatisation does justice to the story:

Or if you want the original Forster prose with no modern trimmings, try the audiobook:

Or you could go full purist (you just know that's my call, right?) and read the thing.

And why now? Because Forster proposes a world of extreme social distancing in which everybody communicates via the Machine (the Internet, basically). He thinks it would become a dystopian nightmare, requiring technological collapse to restore the soul of mankind. The reality is that, like most futures, it may not appeal to us Cro-Magnons but it will be the accepted way of life for those who grow up with it.

Not that we'd ever want to give up all in-person contact, sure, but there are upsides. Our roleplaying games have benefited because we now don’t have to travel across London to get to the game – and that's never a pleasant prospect on a weekday evening. So instead of two and a half hours’ gaming once a fortnight, we can now fit in three or four hours every week. And, pushed online by necessity, I'm hooking up with friends I sometimes don't see for years at a time. Even when the pandemic is really over (spoiler: that's probably not when politicians tell you it is) there are some good habits learned now that will be worth hanging onto.

"Only connect!" as Forster said. If only we could pop back in time and tell him about Skype.