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Friday 28 July 2023

What is it good for?

“The finest, most courageous, truthful and humane book written in Europe in the course of this accursed war.”

That's Maxim Gorky talking about H G Wells's 1916 novel Mr Britling Sees It Through, a straight-from-the-heart response to the Great War that takes us through the experience of looking on at such a calamity. It's like the stages of grief, with anger, bargaining, negotiation, denial, guilt. A magnificent work full of anguish and humanity which was deservedly the best-selling book of its day.

Today the novel is in public domain, yet no major publisher offers an edition. There's a profusion of badly formatted editions from small publishers, including one that unaccountably has a photo of Montgomery Clift on the cover.

Do the big publishers think the book is no longer relevant? "All that was a century ago, let's move on..."? Not so, sadly. Wells would be appalled to learn that it's still possible for one man to order the invasion of a neighbouring country and unleash untold suffering on its inhabitants. Sons still die, daughters are still raped, civilians terrorized, all because of an autocrat's ambition and the senselessness of nationalist imperialism.

Don't take my word for it. Here's the author Adam Roberts writing in The Guardian:

"Strange to think a book so fêted and successful could drop so comprehensively off the radar. What makes it stranger is that the novel is exactly as good as Wells’s contemporaries thought: a wonderfully detailed, evocative and moving portrait of England at war."

You can get the ebook on Gutenberg, and that version is free, or you might like the new Spark Furnace edition with no fifties film star in sight. Available in the US from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and in the UK from Amazon, Blackwell's and Waterstones.

Friday 21 July 2023

It's not Jackanory

The T-Shirted Historian is right. Roleplaying is interesting when it allows events to take their own shape. If it's just going to be a story told to you by a GM then why bother even rolling the dice? There are other media that do that kind of storytelling better.

Professor Barker used to say there were no NPCs on Tekumel. Most narrative systems lean right other in the other direction, privileging player-characters to the extent of having them the only ones to roll for actions. In that kind of game, the PCs are intended to be the stars of their own show and the NPCs merely extras. 

We've talked about this before and everyone will (quite rightly) make their own choice. And most players now do seem to favour the tell-us-a-story form of roleplaying; I can't even find a group these days that's interested in my and the Historian's preferred style. (Told you I'm Biffen, not Milvain.)

But it goes beyond roleplaying styles. Consider the ambush scene in a movie. The first bullet misses one of the characters (probably just after he's made some comedic quip) and our heroes all dive for cover. That's The A-Team or a tongue-in-cheek knockabout action flick starring The Rock. If the bullet hits then we're watching a grittier movie entirely. Carpenter or Scorsese or Boorman, maybe, if the character survives. If he's maimed or killed then we could be watching something really uncompromising.

What about if the player-characters' enemy makes the roll, sets up an effective ambush, and then scores a nasty hit on one of the PCs? Well, too bad. They knew they were walking into danger, right? A character could get shot at any point during any firefight, so why should the opening salvo be any different? 

The point is that the story isn't what the GM decided it should be before the game starts. The story is what actually falls out when those intentions meet dice rolls and player choices. The death of Joe Lynch, a long-running character in our Iron Men campaign, came about because of a really bad roll during what should have been a routine skirmish against a small group of petty brigands. It was pure dumb luck -- and led to one of the most memorable games in that campaign. If the GM had come up with a get-out-of-Sheol-free card, in the moment we might all have been relieved (especially Tim Savin, who played Joe) but we'd have been cheated out of something great.

However, it's crucial that players have been given the choice to opt in to a disinterested game universe. When I am playing I insist on dice rolls that affect me being out in the open so that the GM can’t fudge it and let me survive a bad roll. However, when I'm running the game I probably wouldn’t let an opening shot from a sniper kill a player. So really it’s a case of personally wanting no favours or second chances, yet I will give them to players if I think the roll is too unfair. Any player who says they want the dice roll out in the open earns my respect; the rest can keep their plot armour.

You get the same kind of choices in prose fiction. Some people lap up cosy murders. (No other appalling crime is ever cosy; just murder.) Others prefer the darker writers, like Ian Rankin or Georges Simenon, who are less likely to hold a nannying protective hand over their characters. Or you might turn to In Cold Blood or You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat) if you appreciate that real life (or unsentimental roleplaying) throws up far more interesting and varied stories than authored fiction ever can.

As the author Joyce Carol Oates puts it:

“My belief is that art should not be comforting. For comfort we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.”

Oh, and as Columbo used to say: just one more thing. Whenever I write a post like this, someone will pop up and complain that I'm being dogmatic, and that they like escapist roleplaying with a GM who's out to tell them a story they'll like. Well, I already said that everyone will and should make their own choice. Blog posts are opinion pieces, not diktats. If you want your roleplaying games to be the equivalent of mass entertainment then perhaps you'll opt for the cosy option. If you think of roleplaying as an art form, you might demand more of it. Your call. (And yes, all that should go without saying, but I've been doing this blog for over a decade now and I've learned that some people just can't manage to parse a half-dozen paragraphs.)

Friday 14 July 2023

A faerie contest

Talking the other week about Mark Smith's Virtual Reality gamebooks reminded me that I was also called in to do some editorial work on the first one, Green Blood. In the original version, your only chance of dealing with the elves was if you'd picked SWORDPLAY, SPELLS or UNARMED COMBAT at the start of the book. Given that you create a character by picking four out of a list of twelve skills, that means that more than one in four randomly chosen characters wouldn't be able to complete the adventure.

Mark's argument was that a player would be crazy not to start with at least one of those skills, but I was more used to roleplaying games like RuneQuest, and there the whole point is to customize the character by picking skills. It's never a given that you have to be a fighter or a wizard, as in D&D. Even one of the pregen characters in Green Blood (the thief) couldn't have finished the adventure.

It's really no fun to learn halfway through a gamebook that you never had a chance, so the publishers asked me to create some other contests you can use to best the elves using FOLKLORE, CUNNING or ARCHERY. You can play that sequence of the book here -- start at 21, and if you don't use any of the options I added then you'll eventually be sent to 18, which was the entirety of the original contest. 

You can also read the whole book here or try Stuart Lloyd's version Ravages of Hate, which weaves Green Blood into the material of Coils of Hate.

Friday 7 July 2023

It's called irony

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts over the last couple of years, to go with the long country walks of the covid era. One of my favourites (podcasts, not walks) looks at the books and authors Gary Gygax cited as influences on D&D. But, oh my, it can be wearing to hear genre fans blunder their way through an interpretation of what an author is saying. You'd think that reading fantasy and SF would open you up to ambiguity and nuance, but instead those readers are often the most insistently literal.

Take this episode about Lin Carter’s The Warrior of World’s End. Xarda the knightrix (sic) says: “Knighthood promises a colourful and exciting life of action, such as every red-blooded woman normally craves.” (26m 23s in.) But, the presenters solemnly go on to say, Lin Carter then undercuts this with a further passage: 

“Many folks would doubtless say that a lady knight is a strange thing, or an intelligent metal bird that flies, or an old geezer who covers his face with lavender smoke.” 

Oh no, the sexist hound. One of the presenters grumbles that “it’s putting a warrior woman in the same category as a flying bird and an illusionist with purple haze over his face as though it’s just as wacky and weird!” Oh yes, agrees another earnestly, those were the deplorable attitudes of the time.

Does anyone think that when Jane Austen writes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” that she is expressing her own personal view of the matter? Or that Hilary Mantel’s description of the Duchess of Cambridge as "a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore” was intended as Mantel’s unfiltered opinion? Mantel should not have had to explain that she was employing irony; that is, using a variety of free indirect speech to convey and expose the attitudes she was criticizing.

I found the same thing in some reviews of my political gamebook Can You Brexit that complained about the snobbish and dismissive attitudes of the central character. Well, duh. That character was modelled on the senior Tory politicians of the day. If you disagreed with the tone of their inner voice, so too did I.

Authors do this all the time. Carter in that excerpt from The Warrior of World’s End is not telling us the attitudes of the 1970s – at least, that wasn’t his purpose. He is using a form of generalized free indirect speech to express the general astonishment at a female knight in terms that place us in the mindset of the people who inhabit his fantasy setting. The mechanical bird and the smoke-wrapped sorcerer are other characters in the adventuring “party”, incidentally, so it’s also self-aware irony on their part. But even when a sentiment like that is expressed in the narrator’s voice, it’s a technique writers use a lot, and usually to express precisely the opposite of their personal opinions. Unfortunately it seems like it’s wasted in genre fiction if the readers insist on taking every word literally.

Why it matters: you are missing nine-tenths of the value of fiction if you think that authors write simply to express personal points of view. The presenters of another podcast were vexed by how Arthur Conan Doyle could have believed in fairies having created the arch-rationalist Sherlock Holmes. "Doyle would regard seances and fairies as unknown science," theorized one. "He wasn't Holmes, he was Watson," countered the other. No, no, no. Authors aren't that careless. They don't typically just drop themselves into any one character but into all of them. I've written religiously devout characters, for example, and indeed stories that have a Christian message, despite being in real life an agnostic. Neither Jack Ember nor Estelle Meadowvane are me, though naturally they must have something of me in them.

(Incidentally, it seems like I'm really whaling on those two podcasts, but in fact they're both firm favourites of mine. They just happened to end up in the firing line when I was looking around for examples. But give them both a chance, do.)

I once wrote a vampire novel for a YA horror series. An editor at the publisher's office said, "There is a bookshop called Horniman's and the school is called Urnfield. I don't think the writer is aware of the connotations." What, I wasn't aware that those names might evoke themes of sex and death? In a vampire novel? What do publishers think authors do all day? We don't just slap this stuff down without any thought.

So, next time you're reading a book -- even a trashy fantasy adventure novel -- it might pay off to park your own assumptions and attitudes outside and dive in with the faith that the author is not simply some dope who unthinkingly uses his or her characters as mere mouthpieces for the -- shock horror! -- discredited views of the unsafe bygone era when the novel was written. Here is the finest literary podcast I know of, and one that will dispel any notion that "literature" has to mean difficult, or sombre, or even highbrow. Open your mind and even the humblest book might change your life.