Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Are We Stupider or More Discerning?

Layout has moved on a lot. Take a look at these spreads:

The first is from Cyberspace, the little-mentioned ICE cyberpunk Rolemaster variant from 1989. The second is from Judge Dredd: The Roleplaying Game, from 1985, by Games Workshop (and authored by Rick Priestley and Marc Gascoigne, no less).

Notice anything? Christ, that's a lot of text, isn't it? And, to the modern eye, isn't it presented in an almost aggressively unapproachable way? It's not just boring. It's also unintuitive - to get the hang of the rules you would have to devote careful study, almost as a separate project, making your own notes and staying up all night to revise before each session. They look like law textbooks with a few more interesting pictures.

I got these two games, along with quite a few others, secondhand over the course of a number of years from various physical shops, with the idea of reviewing them for the blog. (These two cost £3 and £5 respectively, since you're asking.) But each time I have sat down to begin this task, I have failed miserably. I just can't be bothered. Whatever initial enthusiasm I have drains out of me like air from a rapidly deflating bouncy castle, leaving me a flacid floppy mound of rubber - the party long gone and not even a doggy bag left.

What's wrong with me? At the age of 14 I would have lapped all this stuff up. The impenetrability wouldn't have bothered me one jot. Partly this is age, and lack of time, and better things to do, and fewer brain cells. But also I think it's because when I was 14 basically all RPG books looked pretty much like this (the text might have had nicer backgrounds in the mid-90s and the internal illos were usually in colour by then, but that's about all that would have changed). And I hadn't experienced "good" information design - I hadn't grown up in a world in which you had to do anything other than just sit down and digest a massive shitload of infodump text if you wanted to know how to play an RPG. I hadn't been molly-coddled, in other words. I was a better and more focused reader.

All of that is to ask: am I just old and stupid now? Or is it the case that getting used to information being presented in an accessible format has made me less able to actually just sit down and do some proper reading and retain the information I've read?

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Ex-Pat Rogues

For the first time in quite a while I heard Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns and Money" today. This song speaks to ex-pats, or people who have been ex-pats, quite profoundly. This is because it manages in its light-hearted way to communicate two indelible truths that anybody who has lived in a foreign country will know. First, when you are a foreigner you have license to live outside conventional social mores, which is very enjoyable. But second, and because of this, it's easy to get into crazy hijinks, and when you do, you might get into "shit hitting the fan" territory very quickly - indeed before you even know it.

Ex-pats (and here I am talking really about young ex-pats, and mostly male ones) are basically D&D PCs. They generally have no family or responsibilities in the country in which they live; they usually have a fairly high disposable income because they have no real financial commitments beyond paying rent; they are treated as exotic outsiders by the mainstream culture; and they often also have the unconscious arrogance that comes from being "young, dumb and full of cum" in an exciting location far from home. The sense of freedom one gets is intoxicating. Everything feels like an adventure.

While they might not be going around slaying orcs and pillaging dragons' treasure hordes, they do find themselves getting into all manner of scrapes, both good and bad. I moved to Japan when I was 21 1/2. Before I was 22 I had broken my toes diving off a sea cliff, had numerous fights, dated and broken up with a stripper, befriended a Peruvian drug dealer, fallen asleep on at least three or four 5am trains after nights out on a Sunday mornings and woken up at strange railway stations with no idea how to get home, had flings with several married women, and imbibed about three times more alcohol than I had in my entire life prior to that point.

And I was by far and away the most sensible of my friends. One of my housemates was robbed of all his possessions by associates of said Peruvian drug dealer after a party; another fled Japan for Australia after having apparently taken something or other that disagreed with him and descending into serious paranoid delusions about being pursued everywhere by an old woman on a bike with a camera. I knew a number of people who did prison time for various offences concerning drug possession, theft and/or violence, several of whom were subsequently deported. Like me, I am sure that they all left their home countries as sensible young men imbued only with a spirit of adventure.* Being at large in foreign climes with no roots or ties or social constraints turned them into rogues. Not quite murderhoboes. But possibly getting there.

I would not like to go back to those days. But I would like to run a sort of ur-cyberpunk campaign set among petty ex-pat criminals in an exotic location. Picture it as an Elmore Leonard novel taking place in a non-existent simulacrum of a Havana, Shanghai, Zanzibar or Adelaide, but with cyberarms and Johnny Silverhand songs on the radio. That I could get behind.


*That's not to mention the people who go to live overseas because they are fleeing the law in their home country, quite a number of whom I have met, nor those who are just crazy, weird, or psychopathic to begin with; it's possible of course that I fall into that latter category somewhere without me knowing it.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Don't Fall in Love

Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels are a case study in what goes wrong when a creator falls in love with a main character. In Red Dragon, Lecter is a sinister and inexplicably malicious psychopath who seems to be a minor plot point until he becomes the joker in the pack right at the end. His presence is a tour de force. In The Silence of the Lambs, he is a mysterious and compelling anti-hero, brilliantly rendered. But something happened to Harris in the course of writing that book. He started to get carried away with this Hannibal Lecter fellow. By the time Hannibal is completed Lecter is practically a demigod and his every word and action has turned into high camp. He's impossible to take seriously. With Hannibal Rising we get a descent into farce with a laughable origin story complete with Nazis (of course), a ludicrous, sexy suicidal Japanese femme fatale, and, well, an explanation for Lecter's descent into psychopathy that it is charitable to describe as implausible.

Harris's love for Lecter became his downfall. Not in terms of his bank balance, I'm sure. But as a serious author his reputation is forever shot.

Something similar happened to George Lucas. George just couldn't let Darth Vader be. Pause at the end of The Return of the Jedi and we have a highly satisfying resolution of that character's "arc", as I believe the cool kids call it nowadays (and of the entire trilogy itself for that matter). But George was a fool in love. He couldn't leave well alone. Like an over-eager suitor, he came on too strong. Incapable of having a good first date and then giving the girl some space, he had to call. And call. And call. The inevitable result then followed. 

Origin stories are bad news. They sell tickets. But they disappoint. There was never any way for Harris to provide a reason for Lecter being what he is which would have been anything other than an anticlimax. It's the same with Darth Vader: no explanation for why Anakin turned to the dark side could possibly have matched the audience's expectations. Not because the audience would have had a good explanation themselves - it's not that good characters are mysteries who call on the viewer or reader to try to fill in the blanks. It's that good characters are mysterious in such a way that their "blanks" appear so deep, complex or terrifying that their existence alone is a thrill. We didn't like the Hannibal Lecter of Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs because we wanted to speculate about what turned him into a cannibalistic serial killer. We liked him because he appeared to us to be inexplicable, and thus made us shiver deliciously at the prospect that evil is out there and cannot possibly be rendered banal by being understood. 

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Virtuosity and Practicing RPGs

Practice makes you a better DM and a better player. But it's not something you can practice on your own. This is significant.

When a human is able to practice a skill on his or her own, it can result in a level of accomplishment that seems to the untrained eye to be practically superhuman - a point at which the practitioner's technical ability is such that his or her movements manage to be both so effortless and yet so full of energy and precision that it does not seem possible for something to be so simultaneously relaxed and powerful. Check out Paco de Lucia here, for instance - there is more strength and volume in his index finger naturally strumming than I could muster with a plectrum and a full arm swing:

Or the performance of this Okinawan master karateka, so gentle and soft, almost, and yet done with such strength:

Or the way Jimmy Chamberlin drumming live somehow looks like he is both pre-programmed (so precise) and yet also hitting the drums at random:

The only way to approach these levels of skill is to practice. A lot. On your own. Single-mindedly. Al di Meola once said in an interview that he basically played the guitar 8 hours a day, every day, when he was growing up. This is how you get this kind of result:

And to put a stop to all this YouTube stuff, here's Keith Brymer Jones speaking quite nicely and simply about certain elements of all this:

Being a DM or an RPG player is not a skill anybody can practice for 8 hours a day - unless you have really available friends, or slaves, or something. And it's not something you can just sit down and do because you "have to". That's because you can't do it on your own. But that's only if you take a narrow view of what constitutes practice. Think about how much time each day you spend:

-Talking to people (telling them what to do; making them laugh; arguing with them, whatever)
-Listening to people
-Making decisions
-Pretending to be somebody you are not (you do it all the time - admit it)

And consider that reflecting on those activities and making efforts to improve them will also make you a better RPGer.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Booze as Treasure

Alcohol is important. 13,000 years ago people were using it to honour their dead (and presumably also to get pissed). More recently, it has had great commercial significance. I was reminded of this by the news that the US is putting a 25% import duty on whisky among other things produced in the EU in retaliation for subsidies given to Airbus. Apparently over £1 billion worth of whisky was exported from Scotland to the US last year. Next year we can presume it will be less. But it matters.

It mattered even more during the Middle Ages in Europe, when practically everybody drank only alcoholic drinks, and alcohol was the only way to ensure an unspoiled supply of hydration for sailors on long voyages. It was also in itself a powerful motivator to engage in trade and exploration overseas. Later, it became a luxury: I was going to say that Poet Laureates of England were originally paid with a butt of sherry or "sack" (I heard that this was worth in the region of £25,000 in today's money) but apparently they still are - 720 bottles' worth.

Alcohol has throughout our history been a safe way to hydrate oneself, a social glue, a religiously sacred substance (think of the Eucharist; think of the Incas drinking chicha at festivals to honour their gods), and a valuable commodity. We humans also just really like it.

Yet it does not generally appear in D&D treasure tables. Is this the result of a vestigal suspicion of alcohol in certain sections of the American midwestern culture that served as the crucible for the game? Is it because D&D has to appeal to "kids"? Is it just because "my character gets drunk" is one of the most annoying things that a player can do at the table and must be stamped out with extreme prejudice?

The logistics of transportation are what interest me the most. A butt of "sack" would weigh something like 500 kg. Smaller barrels like hogsheads are about 250 kg. They may be worth moving if they are going to be worth, say, £25,000 gold pieces. But the extraction of a 500 kg barrel from a dungeon is an adventure in itself.

But that's not to mention the other possibilities. What do the contents of a mighty wizard's wine cellar look like? What rarities are found within? More to the point: what do elves drink? What about orcs?

(Further reading: https://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-oenophile-campaign.html)