Monday, 19 March 2018

Would You Play D&D with Donald Trump?

So, apparently WotC are going to introduce sexfluidity in elves by releasing a supplement for you to buy. The main purpose of this entry isn't to speak to that, but if you will, please indulge me digressing for just a moment. It always amazes me how people who define themselves as "geeks", who also I think in general tend to define themselves as being roughly "on the left" so much as they think about those things at all, will so readily and uncritically take on the status of capitalist consumers. A sizeable portion, indeed, will even do this to the extent that they buy (no pun intended) into the notion that progressive values themselves can be happily and unproblematically commodified. Do you want to be progressive when it comes to matters of gender, sex, and sexuality? Great: now buy a product to confirm it to yourself and others. For US$50 no less.

What a strange world we live in. Let's make no bones about it: in D&D you can play a dwarf with three penises married to a genderfluid asexual baboon if you really want to. Your imagination has no limits. Why buy a book giving you permission to enact the values you supposedly hold dear, when you can just do it anyway?

But so much for that. Lately I've been good about using the blog for fewer rants. What I'm more concerned about is the reaction to this announcement. And no, by this I don't mean that I've seen hundreds of blog posts or forum comments or had any conversations in which people have been expressing their opposition to sexfluid elves (who were always pretty genderfluid at least anyway, weren't they? I mean, come on). No: the reactions I have seen can be categorised as follows.

  • Roughly 50% saying "So what?" (The correct reaction.)
  • Roughly 50% saying "I wouldn't game with anybody who would have a problem with this, and I'm glad WotC have done this because it means people who are on the Wrong Side of the Debate will be flushed out and I won't have to game with them as a consequence."

I don't believe that the latter 50% actually proportionately represent half of all gamers. I think they are a tiny minority. But they are becoming ever more vociferous. For these people, social interactions, particularly the games one plays, are not just part and parcel of being a human living in the world, but are vehicles for expression of political stances. For them, being on the Wrong Side of the Debate doesn't just make you misguided or even stupid. No: it makes you worthy of being only an outcast, a pariah, somebody with whom no interaction of any kind can be permitted, least of all pretending to be elves together (sexfluid or otherwise).

I hate that kind of thing. I think it is awful. I look back in my life and think of all the great friendships and conversations I've had with people who hold diametrically or at least very fundamentally different views to mine: Communists, atheists, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, born-again-Christians, Northern Irish republicans, Scottish Nationalists, UKIP voters, Manchester United supporters, Black Supremacists, White Supremacists, gun nuts, Daily Mail readers, Guardian readers, radical feminists, Australians, even fans of Doctor Who. In the abstract I might have thought, or still think, that the views of those people are wrong - in many cases even odious, dangerous and appalling. But almost invariably, when opinions are filtered through the good humour, self-deprecation, negotiation and common sense of face-to-face conversation, they are revealed to be absolutely no reason for anybody not to enjoy another person's company. 

My heart sinks that so many intelligent people are turning their back on the possibility that those who violently disagree can get along. Not to be melodramatic about it, but what future is there for our poor sad species if we get to the point where people are no longer even willing to put certain differences to one side for the sake of having a bit of fun? I mean, hop on a plane to Israel or Kashmir or Belfast and you'll find endless swathes of charitable organisations trying to get people who would willingly actually kill one another for being on the Wrong Side of the Debate to just get together and enjoy a meal or play football or music or whatever. They do this in the entirely creditable and sensible belief that having people set aside their differences to do fun things together might actually help find ways round problems. Meanwhile in nerd land people are busy sticking their fingers in their ears and proclaiming loudly how vehemently opposed they are to playing D&D with imaginary people who wouldn't be in favour of sexfluid elves.

When I write down the list of types of people who I would categorically rule out playing D&D with, it's really very tiny indeed: it's just people I personally don't get along with or people whose behaviour has been such in the past that I would have difficulty trusting them. In other words, people I consider to be dicks. If you are going to be a dick about your opinions, whatever they might be, then fine - that qualifies you as somebody who I probably wouldn't willingly associate with. But in life I tend to find that actually most people aren't actually dicks (except on the internet, that is) - even people whose views I would actively probably find repellent if written down.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Caesar, Homer, Pytheas and Lugh

What if, when Julius Caesar first sailed across the Channel to carry out his first abortive foray into Kent, he had discovered that refugees and returnees from the Trojan War (Achaeans and Trojans alike) had got there first? And what if those larger-than-life heroes of Homeric myth had mingled with the figures of Celtic legend, the Fomorians, the Tuatha De Dannan, Math ap Mathonwy, the black dog and all the rest?

Fast forward a hundred or so years, and there would be a walled Roman settlement there on the Thanet coast. It would be a place to trade for tin, slaves, and other commodities, and also for magic and druidic mystery and wisdom. Inland, there would be hill forts and towns, some ruled by native Celts, others ruled by Achaean and Trojan demigods, living in an uneasy and chaotic network of alliances, rivalries, conflicts and betrayals. In the forests would be fey beings of Celtic myth, "fair folk", dragons and giants. And the glory-obsessed Achaean and Trojan sons would be forever straying into the fairy realm to try to win eternal fame for themselves.

That would be a good place to run a campaign of D&D.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

RPG Books as Imagination Training

We are now in the Bronze Age of OSR blogs (the Golden Age being 2008-2009 and the Silver Age being around 2009-2012), and I think Joseph Manola's Against the Wicked City may be the best and most important blog started in this era. By which I mean he is consistently finding new and useful things to say at a point where most other blogs have grown jaundiced and tired.

A case in point is his most recent post, RPG Books as Fiction. Go and read it. It's long, but worth it.

Where I think Joseph is precisely on the money (the whole thing is on the money, but on this point it is especially so - if that isn't a tautology) is here:

"I suspect that what [most RPG books] primarily provide, which traditional adventure fiction does not, is a form of meta-fantasy: not a chance to imagine yourself as a fantasy hero, but a chance to imagine yourself as part of a group of RPG players who are, in turn, imagining themselves as fantasy heroes as they experience the material in the book. People read RPG rulebooks, and they imagine how much fun it would be to play a character with a certain set of abilities. They read monster books, and imagine how much fun it would be to encounter those monsters during an RPG session. They read setting books, and imagine how great it would be to participate in a campaign set in that world. They read adventure modules, and imagine how much fun those adventures would be to play in. Then they put them back on the shelf and do something else, instead."

This describes much of my teenage experience of reading RPG books to a 't'. Yes, my friends and I played a lot of games. But how much published material did we actually use for its intended purpose? I can remember a couple of sessions where we played some published Planescape adventures. But the vast bulk of my memories associated with RPG books was paging through them on long car journeys or while on holiday and just, well, imagining what it would be like to use them. "Wouldn't it be great to be in a session where we encountered a morkoth?" I would think as I browsed through the Monstrous Manual. "Wouldn't it be great to have a PC find the Hand of Vecna?" I would think as I read the section of the 2nd edition DMG on 'artifacts'. "Wouldn't it be great to run an all-druid campaign?" I would think as I flicked through the Complete Druid's Handbook. "I'd love to run a campaign set in the Philippines," I would think as I sat reading the Cyberpunk 2020 Pacific Rim Sourcebook. My experience of actual gaming was a pale shadow of the kind of things that my adolescent brain could come up with left to its own devices.

(Not incidentally, I had a similar relationship, thinking back, to Games Workshop books. My friends and I played a heck of a lot of Warhammer, Warhammer 40k, and Necromunda. But being impoverished 13 year olds, we could barely afford any models. We primarily resorted to using a huge mass of ancient lead figures bequeathed to one of us by an older brother or cousin, and we could only dream about the possibilities of actually being able to buy a Basilisk/Lehman Russ Battle Tank/Dark Angel Dreadnought/Orc Shaman Riding a Wyvern or whatever, while paging through 'Codex' books. With Games Workshop, though, the requirement to just sit around reading books and imagining was more or less a nakedly commercial phenomenon rather than anything else.)

It may seem that this makes buying and reading RPG books an extremely decadent and even perverse activity - like a kind of unexciting pornography in which you don't even get to imagine having sex with a beautiful woman but instead just imagine being a horrendous nerd. One view is that it's basically impossible to sink any lower in the hierarchy of cool than fantasizing about playing D&D; you're so tragic that you can't even find a few catpiss-stinking neckbeards to game with and have to simply wish that they existed.

That's one way of looking at it, but when I look back now I can't help but feel that I would have been wasting my time even more egregiously by, for example, playing video games or even reading bog-standard fantasy novels. It might be true that most RPG books aren't particularly well-written, and you couldn't class any of them as being 'literature' in any real sense. But their great virtue is their open-endedness. They don't pretend to be coherent narratives - except for the most railroady of published adventures. At their best, they are a kind of springboard for the imagination: 96 pages of ideas, some better than others, but all of them at least capable of being played around with and squeezed and squashed and stretched and turned upside-down and kicked about until they turn into something wonderful. I may never have got to play in a game in which a morkoth was involved, but I was able to imagine dozens of potential morkoth-scenarios.

In other words, that time spent just browsing RPG books and imagining never-to-be-realised possibilities was a kind of imagination boot-camp, imagination circuit-training, imagination bikram yoga. Since the imagination is a muscle, I think it came in more than handy. Still does, as a matter of fact: I don't think I'll ever run, say, The Veins of the Earth, A Red and Pleasant Land, Qelong etc. at the table, but the thing about the imagination is, there's never a bad time to tone it up a bit.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

When is a Quantum Ogre a Quantum Ogre?

The answer: when it's really a quantum ogre.

2011. Halcyon days. Summers were warmer then, and chocolate was tastier. There wasn't so much rubbish on TV, and children were polite to their elders. You could get change out of a £5 when you ordered a pint, and Suzanna Reid was still on BBC Breakfast. We will not see times like those again.

The talk of the town back then was quantum ogres. Like paleontologists picking over the bones in a mound of Inner Mongolian dust, it is impossible for us in these much-diminished days to establish just how that discussion began and what colour feathers it had. (A post I wrote in September of that year may bear some important clues.) Suffice to say: in that era, a mighty beast stalked the earth, and its scientific name, "Palette Shifting", gives some indication as to its nature.

I return to the desert to conduct more field work on the topic with some trepidation. But I believe that I may be able to at least provide a footnote to our understanding of the quantum ogre's life-cycle and behaviour.

Let's put it this way: palette shifting, meaning the quasi-railroading practice of substituting one encounter or location for another, to make sure the PCs experience it come what may (or to make sure they avoid something dangerous), is dastardly, rotten behaviour that cannot be countenanced. But the quantum ogre is nothing to be afraid of; in fact, the quantum ogre is your friend. Most of the work of running an RPG is, when it boils down to it, quantum ogres. Quantum ogres are everywhere.

What is a random encounter table, but a list of quantum ogres? An encounter takes place: the dice dictate it. But until the random encounter table is consulted, nobody knows what the encounter is. Like Schrodinger's Cat, until the dice are rolled, the encounter is all the encounters on the random encounter table. It is quantum ogres all the way down.

But that's obvious. Let's think a little bit more: when it comes down to it, isn't most of what a DM does at the table a matter of quantum ogres? Almost all that a DM does is to react to what the PCs do. What does such-and-such an NPC say in reaction to what the PCs say to him? What does such-and-such a monster do when the PCs do such-and-such? What happens when the PCs try such-and-such on the trap? It almost always comes from the same place: you don't know the answer to any of those questions until forced to produce an answer. The DM's head is a Schrodinger's Box: the answers are in there, in a sense, but until there's a need for them, he typically doesn't know what they are.

In that sense, your brain is full of quantum ogres. More than that, it should be full of quantum ogres, because the alternative is preconceptions about what is going to happen in any given circumstance, which is the enemy of flexible and responsive DMing. Quantum ogres in this view are not palette shifts; they are palettes full of colours whose hue you can't see until they're on the canvas.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Japanese Kids' Books

Children's books (I mean little kids' books, not YA fiction) are an often-untapped resource for inspiration. This is especially true of little kids' books from non-English speaking countries. I'm in the lucky position to have access to lots of Japanese kids' books, and thanks to that I've been introduced to the work of the inimitable Katayama Ken.

Here are some pieces from his 楽しい冬ごもり, a particular favourite:

See what I mean? It's like Van Gogh had a love child with Brian Jacques. I especially love the way the firelight in the second and third pictures imbues the scene: it may be the most effective painting of firelight I've ever seen.

Then there's Matsutani Miyoko, whose work is more like brass rubbings made by Monet:

Finally, there's Kimoto Momoko, whose works looks like Salvador Dali crossed with Dick King Smith:

Grainy internet pictures may not do them justice; I hope this isn't the case.