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Monday 28 March 2022

Deities acute and obtuse

Here's a question that we really ought to settle once and for all. Richard Hetley, who is a veteran of Fabled Lands campaigns on Kickstarter and has been invaluable to us as an editor and design consultant, recently asked about Ebron, the god of Uttaku who crops up in The War-Torn Kingdom:

Richard Hetley: "I mention this delightfully angular deity because he came up in discussion about the Fabled Lands app. Replies there said 'Yes, it's been confirmed by the authors that Ebron has angles, not angels. Must be some sort of Lovecraftian non-Euclidean god.' I was fairly certain that this was not the case. I had even corrected the misconception where possible. But then I couldn't find a reference in our e-mails, so I didn't say anything. Care to clarify, for the ten thousandth time, whether Ebron was in possession of angles or angels?"

Jamie Thomson: "It most definitely is angles! And it first made an appearance in the Heart of Harkun radio play. And yes, he is a kind of non-Euclidean deity, that's a nice way of putting it, but not Lovecraftian. Imagine it more as a Zen koan, like you meditate on the mystery of how god can have fourteen angles in the same way the early Christian Greek churches used the Trinity as a mystery to meditate on, but not to be taken literally. Of course, the Western Christians decided to do just that, and so you get the Nicene creed, where they actually conceive of a threefold god."

Friday 25 March 2022

Pollution by association

So today I thought I’d have a go at defending J K Rowling…

Only kidding. I’ve already got morons on forums yapping that I’m a Nazi. Next thing they’d be saying I’m a Muggle sympathizer.

(For the record, if you want to insult me, take your pick from: socialist, humanist, agnostic, internationalist. Old-style leftie, obviously, not one of these new ones that hate freedom of speech. I guess Remoaner is a bit out of date, but still available if you prefer old-school slurs. Theresa May called me "a citizen of nowhere", but that's more of a badge of honour than an effective insult. Still, facts don't matter to the sort of people who bandy these accusations around.)

Recently I read The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. I didn’t like it much (review here) but the opening couple of chapters, set at the height of the Cultural Revolution, should be required reading for everybody who is going to be allowed to wield a keyboard online. I know that some people hate having to, you know, actually pay for books, so here's that bit free courtesy of the publisher.

Only a few years ago, we might have imagined in the West that we’d abandoned blasphemy thinking for Enlightenment values. Well, that light’s flickering. You know how denunciation works – fail to condemn and, bang, you’re guilty too. And if you’re interested in that (you should be; we desperately need to vaccinate our minds against it) the book you should definitely read is Darkness At Noon. Or, failing that, at least watch that TNG episode with the lights.

Comments are back, but after yesterday got as shouty as Yale Law School let's try to revert to the more sedately ivied ambiance of St Aldred's common room. (I guess you can add "elitist" to that insult list.)

Thursday 24 March 2022

Was Professor M A R Barker a Nazi?

No, of course he wasn't a Nazi. But if you were unlucky enough to get caught in the stampede of denunciation this week you might have got that impression. For example, there was this statement by the Tekumel Foundation:

“What Professor Barker did was wrong and forever tarnished his creative and academic legacy. As stewards of the world of Tekumel, we reject and repudiate Serpent’s Walk and everything it stands for and all other anti-Semitic activity Professor Barker was involved with.”

Or have a look at this. Suddenly he's as friendless as Kevin Spacey. 

It ought to go without saying that I am not in any way defending Nazism, which is a wholly toxic ideology directly opposed to everything I personally hold dear. The tyrannical methods of the Nazis are criminally monstrous and their beliefs are harmful and stupid. The great strength of the human race is its diversity; there are no master races, no inferior breeds. So if Barker was a Nazi then he was a fool. And it seems that he was indeed a fool -- that particular kind of too-clever-for-his-own-good fool that makes ordinary idiots seem quite harmless. But being a fool doesn't make him a Nazi, and what follows are my reasons for thinking that he actually imagined he was just using the Nazis, or whatever white supremacists these days call themselves. If so, he was fatally misguided. He didn't understand, as Von Papen didn't, that the Nazi creed is so poisonous that there is no way to control it other than direct opposition. OK, that being clear, let's go on...

Though not a Christian (or at any rate not a religious one) I’m always reluctant to cast the first stone. Others must make up their own minds, and I respect the Tekumel Foundation people and others for  stating what they believe, but I am far from convinced by the closet Nazi theory. Barker's novel wasn't a dark secret kept hidden from public view. He openly mentioned Serpent’s Walk to me and others in his correspondence in the 1980s. He was touting it around publishers (legitimate ones at that time, not the toxic publishers who came later) and I have seen the following letter that he sent about it to a major British publisher at the time:

“I do have a novel that is unsold and unwanted by anybody. This is what I call my ‘Nazi novel’. I did not show it to the Wollheims both because they don't do this sort of book and also because they are Jewish and would be terribly offended -- and they are nice people. I started out to write a ‘near-future’ thriller: young mercenary is hired to steal cannisters of germ warfare from an American stockpile in the 2040 A.D. period. This is used by a fearful Israeli government and various cronies to destroy the Soviet Union; the Soviets get in a retaliatory strike with germ warfare of their own, however, and take out many US, British, etc. cities. Out in India, where the young mercenary is employed, the descendants of the Nazi SS and other ‘refugees’ are quietly biding their time, building up economic resources for a come-back. With the presidency and vice-presidency of the United States open after the deaths of their incumbents, the Secretary of State takes over -- an old, reconstructed racist. He invites the Nazi movement to help in running the US. The mercenary hero, who is not a Nazi, is an employee of the Indian chemical company ‘front’ for the Nazis and gets into the situation as a sort of military expert for them. The Nazis manage to gain access to a giant computer with independent ideas, and they use this machine to rewrite Mein Kampf using every sales pitch and advertising trick in the book. The hero initially loves and marries an Indian girl, but later falls for a Nazi girl who is helping with publicity. The plot thickens, and various major events occur. The book ends with the Nazis taking over much of Western civilisation, and with our hero being chosen ‘Second Führer’ and riding into the stadium to the ‘Sieg Heils!’ of the masses.

“The only people I can imagine enjoying this book would be skinheads and Sir Oswald Mosley. It would probably create as much fuss as Rushdie's Satanic Verses, and could not be published under my own name. Both the author and the publisher would become the target of many rude remarks, letter-bombs, hand grenades, and visits from Mossad. I mentioned this book just to show you that I am not completely dead -- yet. Still alive and working. I don't expect you to want to publish it. Nobody will. I cannot even sell it to the Neo-Nazi presses here; they would not accept the idea of an Indian girl marrying the hero.”

(Just to be clear, because a lot of people have not understood: that's a short extract from a longer letter that Barker sent to a British publisher with whom I put him in touch to talk about Tekumel novels. SS-GB had come out ten years earlier and Fatherland, another alt-history about Nazi victory, was only a few years away, so maybe he thought the British were obsessed with the War or something. Neither the  publisher nor I wanted to hear about his alt-history novel, and in fact found it a pretty unpleasant subject, but he wasn't the only one peddling that kind of story back then.)

So what is going on here? Some people have discovered that Barker’s father, Loris, was a fascist and they have gleefully concluded that means the Professor was as well. But Jeff Berry has pointed out that the Professor didn’t have a good relationship with his father and abhorred his views:

“It's my perception – aided by my reading through Phil's letter files, after he passed away – that Phil was playing one of his involved pranks on Loris Barker, his associates and their descendants.”

We have clear evidence that Prof Barker was anti-racist in his younger days, so the conclusion that he later became a Nazi sympathiser needs to be approached with some scepticism. He wrote an alt-history novel with a US Nazi main character, and got the notion of doing it as a literary hoax under a pseudonym. Sort of L Ron Hubbard style only with politics rather than religion. We don’t assume Philip K Dick was a Nazi because he wrote The Man in the High Castle (actually, some people probably do). We don’t imagine that Thomas Harris is a serial killer, that Nabokov was a paedophile, or that Timur Vermes thinks Hitler was a good guy. Authors create characters – even the voice of the author is a character specific to the story they are telling. When they use a pseudonym, they’re signalling that even more strongly. Barker went further. I think he was creating a spoof writer who he could sell as a real person, enjoying the notion that if actual neo-Nazis bought into it he could shock them by revealing his own personal circumstances (an American convert to Islam married to a non-white woman).

Some have discovered that Professor Barker may have been listed on the editorial advisory board of The Journal of Historical Review, a Holocaust-denying magazine. Denial of the Holocaust is a monstrous lie, and to promote Holocaust denial is clearly anti-Semitic. But we still need evidence that Barker denied the Holocaust. A screenshot of the contents page of one issue in the early '90s (when he was actively trying to sell the novel) lists a “Phillip Barker, Ph.D”. Was that the Professor? It might well have been, but let’s not conclude that he’s more evil than Sauron just yet. I was a consulting editor on White Dwarf in the ‘80s – that doesn’t mean I agreed with their editorial or commercial policies. More to the point, if “Phillip Barker” submitted a letter or article to back up the credentials of “Randolph D Calverhall” (the author of Serpent’s Walk) that’s very likely just part of the cover story supporting his literary hoax.

And why do that as “Phillip Barker”? The Professor was Phil to his friends, but used his Islamic name professionally. Given its politics and readership, The Journal of Historical Review would presumably not have had anything to do with “Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker, Ph.D”. To infiltrate them he went in undercover.

I accept I could be wrong, and if shown definitive evidence I'll change my opinion. People do change their political opinions as they get older (HPL had veered sharply to the left economically and seemed to be becoming less racially prejudiced before his death) and we do know that Barker in later life had become cranky and embittered. In particular, if I see any statement from Barker that he denied the existence of the Holocaust then that destroys any possibility of a defence. Then guilt is clear. But to tar Barker as a Nazi, it's not enough to cite multiple pieces of "evidence" that all tie back to the novel, because if Serpent's Walk was indeed designed as a literary hoax then all of those collapse at the same time. To conclude that Prof Barker was anti-Semitic, we need separate and incontrovertible facts. For example, he ran roleplaying games twice a week for several decades. In all that time did he ever express anti-Semitic views to his players? Obviously not; they had no inkling of it. Other than Dave Arneson and a few others, Jeff Berry probably knew him better than any of his other gamers and is thus a reliable character witness. Mr Berry doesn't think it likely that Barker secretly harboured such views. Our only "evidence" is a novel, for which Mr Berry gives a credible explanation. As Barker deplored his father's political views, and his father was a fascist and anti-Semite, isn't the balance of probability that Barker was opposed to racism and fascism rather than the reverse?

While I think that all books should be available for anyone who wants to read them, I don't recommend you bother with Barker's. He was a terrible novelist, and if Serpent's Walk was intended as political satire then I don't doubt he'll have done it ineptly with wooden characters and laborious prose. Instead, if you are interested in fiction that shines a light on the Nazis, check out the reading and viewing list below.

None of this has anything to do with Tekumel, incidentally. Only an infantile mind mixes up the art and the artist. Even if Barker had been pro-Nazi, it would not have the slightest bearing on games played in the world of Tekumel. But I really don’t think he was pro-Nazi. It’s just one of those firestorms of public outrage that the internet loves: what do facts matter? Here's a mob, they think; let's join it. My own impression from over a decade of correspondence was that Barker's politics were, if anything, progressive rather than right-wing. For example, does this sound like the statement of a white supremacist?

"The lack of interest in South Asia and the Middle East here [in the US] is astounding. We [ie his university department] cover a third of the human race, yet the Regents voted to close us down."

That’s just one of dozens of comments in letters over the years that expressed his delight in human diversity. If Professor Barker was a Nazi, he certainly hid it well. And remember:

Honi soit qui mal y pense.

If indeed Barker embraced Nazi ideas in old age, that would be sad indeed given how outspoken he was in support of progressive ideals when younger. Let us try to remember him from views such as this, expressed in a letter to Startling Stories in March 1951. 

That reflects the Phil Barker I corresponded with in the late 1970s and early '80s, a very civilized and idealistic man and the creator of the most original and different fantasy setting in Western gaming. At the time he wrote to Startling Stories, Barker was 22 years old and already developing the world of Tekumel, which should not be tainted by his actions -- or supposed opinions -- half a century later. 

Thursday 17 March 2022

The mystery at the desert's heart

Why do people roleplay? For as many diverse reasons as they indulge any other activity. Somebody on Twitter was discussing the best way to include traps in RPGs, citing the example of a curse of fire and ice inscribed on a tomb. That’ll be interesting, I thought; how would a curse of fire and ice manifest? How would it take its toll on the violators of the tomb, whittling them away, pushing each to abandon his comrades and selfishly try to save his own hide? It wasn’t like that. It was just a fireball followed by a treasure sealed in ice and protected by extreme cold. So the players had to figure out a way to chip the treasure out before they froze to death.

Well, I enjoy lateral thinking problems, just not usually as part of my roleplaying games. Not that I have anything against the dungeoneers who like traps and secret doors and wandering monsters and rooms with puzzles. Whatever floats your boat. If you adventure in Legend, though, it’s likely to be because you prefer your fantasy to feel more real, peopled by adversaries with nuanced motives and allies who could in extreme circumstances abandon or even betray you. You want credible storylines, complexity of relationships, and richness of character interaction. If there are puzzles they shouldn’t feel like something in a game show but will arise organically out of the dynamics of the world and the society. 

If that sounds like your thing, take a look at David Donachie’s superb Outremer gamebook Icon of Death, which plays out like a real Dragon Warriors adventure with mysteries and uncertainty, fully rounded NPCs, and action that’s all the more exciting and involving for arising out of a completely convincing background. You get a 320+ section gamebook with superb artwork that brings the characters to life, and it’s entirely free.

David Donachie also has a strong contender for the Lindenbaum Prize with his gamebook The Garden of Earthly Regrets. For me it felt like Max Payne crossed with The Romance of the Rose and directed by Jan Švankmajer. You can try it along with all the other entries and vote for your favourites. And those too are all free.

I began by talking about fire and ice. If Icon of Death provides the desert fire L'Hiver des Hommes, Akonost's new release in the Destins series, brings the ice. It is of course the French version of Heart of Ice, now out in a beautifully produced edition with a couple of all-new illustrations by Russ.

Friday 11 March 2022

The Marmite of gamebooks?

Last year Jamie and I published the first four Vulcanverse gamebooks – a revisiting of the open-world concept of Fabled Lands – to mixed reactions, at least as far as my contributions to the series were concerned. In gamebooks I like to leave the player to their own devices as much as possible, because that’s how I prefer my roleplaying games. If the referee starts to feed me the hook to a story, I’ll sigh and go along with it because he or she has put the work in, but I’d rather pick my own goals and discover stories for myself.

The idea of a pure open world gamebook is that you will explore and come across various elements of a story in no particular order. You might find a silver key and wonder which door it unlocks. Or you might be faced with a door that needs you to go in search of a silver key. Or a wizard might tell you that if you go to such and such a tower and locate a locked door and open it with a silver key then you can bring him the item you’ll find there and get a reward.

It's sometimes said that open world gamebooks lack quests, but’s that’s not true. Spoilers here for The Hammer of the Sun, in which you can team up with the last devotee of the river goddess Tethys, and he will teach you the mysteries of the cult, and if you find certain sacred objects and perform the rituals you have learnt you can bring back the river that once flowed through the desert. In doing that, you restore the fortunes of a city that fell into ruin when the river dried up. In that city you can build yourself a reputation, help to increase the city’s prestige, and make friends who will steer you on other quests. And then further events bring the city back to the edge of oblivion, and only you can save it and raise it to greater heights than it reached even in its heyday. And that in turn embroils you in a gathering mystery and potentially a major war.

So there’s a lot of story there, but few breadcrumb trails to get you started. You might gad about exploring tombs and pyramids or fighting dragons or getting involved in a bunch of unconnected mini-adventures. And sometimes you’ll hear a hint about what you need to do to make the river flow again. What I was aiming for was a hidden kernel that the player would stumble upon, and it would then suddenly unfold before your eyes into the Yellow Brick Road of a long and inviting narrative.

That maybe worked back in the ‘90s (and not for everyone even then) but we all have less time now. No filmmaker now would spend two minutes having Sherif Ali ride up to an oasis, or several minutes of Bowman jogging around Discovery One. Some readers of The Hammer of the Sun came across the city storyline before their patience ran out, and their reaction was enthusiastic; here’s James Spearing:

“While open world books have a reputation for not having major story arcs, this gamebook combines the sense of freedom of exploring this large desert area, with moments where your previous actions spark major world-changing events. Even the map gives clues about where you might need to visit, and it soon becomes apparent that there are at least two major quests that give further meaning to exploring, as you visit various similar sites to unlock new secrets.”

But if you are unlucky enough not to unearth the start of an important narrative early on, it can mean quite a negative experience, as Andreas Brueckner describes:

“It felt like I was walking through the desert for an hour without anything really happening. I was asked now and again whether one or another person was with me; the answer was always no, giving the feeling every time that I was missing something. Then I died. […] At the beginning of a game there should be some simple quests that bring you closer to the game world, whereas here you start with boredom and wasteland.”

The clincher for me was the video review at the top of this post. Here’s a discerning gamebook critic who has been very positive about my earlier work but who has been disappointed by not having had enough guidance towards the major quests in the Vulcanverse books. He explains his reasoning very clearly -- which is something every writer should be grateful for, even when they are being told some painful truths. Also, I have to acknowledge that sales of the Vulcanverse books have been very poor and almost nobody has bothered to review them. Clearly there is a lesson I must learn.

Luckily we still have one more book to come in the Vulcanverse series. That gives me the opportunity to cater for the players who don’t like to be left to explore without any guidance. Jamie is busy with the NFTs and so forth for the online Vulcanverse, so it was already on the cards that I’d do most of the writing for Workshop of the Gods. Now, properly chastised by my critics, I’m putting my mind to ways that I can steer readers who start in that book towards the major plot threads that are waiting for them in all the others. Expect something different that will, I think, appeal to both the fans of truly sandbox play and those who want some gentle nudges in the direction of the story.

Thursday 3 March 2022

Choose your universe

"What will determine the [online virtual worlds] that we want to invest our time in?" asks SF writer Damien Walter. "That we want to be immersed in? That we want to live lives within? Story. Story is what's going to determine which unreal worlds we choose. That's why I think it's very likely, despite the disappointing track record of Lord of the Rings games, that because Tolkien's storytelling has been so important to us, that we will choose to participate in the digital Middle Earth."

What Mr Walter has to say in this podcast is interesting, and I urge you to listen to the whole thing. [ADDENDUM 27/01/24: If you can find it online; the video has been deleted.] But I'm not convinced about Middle Earth being such a shoo-in as a leading virtual world. It may well have a cracking story, but it's not the story you'll be getting in the online virtual version. It's the scenery. The world-building. And the problem with Middle Earth, through no fault of Tolkien's, is that it looks pretty much like every medieval-ish European-ish fantasy world created since: The Witcher, D&D, Skyrim, Game of Thrones, whatever.

Middle Earth is not (these days) brandably distinct. It is just a primogenitor of the medieval imaginary. Anything with elves and dwarves probably swiped its act from Tolkien, but they've overploughed that ground so much by now that the original uniqueness is lost.

I think the design of virtual worlds will no more be driven by story than cinema as an art form was driven by literature and theatre. Which is to say, maybe a little bit, but most of it will be something else. We're going to want the virtual equivalent of exciting tourist destinations.

"The author can only say that he enjoys societies which are not simply reruns of the usual Graeco-Roman or Mediaeval fantasy mythos, but which present something really different; something akin to stepping off an airplane in Bhutan or Medina, rather than in familiar old London or Paris."

That's Professor M A R Barker justifying his exotic world of Tekumel. Nobody could mistake Tekumel for any other world. It has multiple influences, but it's impossible to say "it's the Maya" or "it's ancient Egypt" or "it's India" the way you can pin most fantasy down to Europe in the Middle Ages. That might not make for stories that the average punter can relate to the way they lap up cowboys-in-space or intrigues in Westeros, but virtual worlds aren't about the stories. What matters is the originality and quality of the world-building. And there Tekumel is in a class of its own.