Tuesday 28 September 2010

Once more, I sally forth in to the lists...

Must be the passing of the autumnal equinox or something, but there's a new mood of Tolkien-baiting out there in internet land. It's not just Tolkien - even Howard is getting it in the neck (much more deservedly, of course, but pointing out that Howard was a racist is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel).

I was thinking about this sort of thing earlier on myself. I'm re-reading Tales of the Dying Earth at the moment, and it occurred to me that people could, especially when it comes to Cugel, read all manner of misogynistic ideas into Vance's work. I don't particularly entertain such readings myself, but I don't doubt that they can and have been made.

What interests me about all this is the way in which people tend to imprint onto works of fiction what they want those works to represent (i.e., the devil incarnate), rather than engaging with them in any sort of formalist sense. This was one of the tendencies that turned me strongly away from English literature as an undergraduate. Feminists, Marxists, New Historicists, Deconstructionists, all of these groups tend to read subtexts into works of fiction that not only do not exist, but which always coincidentally happen to reinforce their own worldview perfectly. It's almost as if, desparate to reassure themselves that their own opinions are in fact true, people clutch on to a literary work and set it up as a strawman for themselves to beat down and thereby reinforce their own political standpoints. Thus you get Marxists such as Moorcock and Melville berating Tolkien for nonexistent crimes while simultaneously digging the foundations of their own Marxist beliefs ever deeper, almost as if they need and are desparate for some sort of enemy to define themselves against.

People remorselessly search for enemies, so as to better define their own opinions - especially when they themselves feel somewhat insecure. This seems to me a fundamental flaw in the human condition which is especially prevalent in people who study English literature. I expect the same flaw was at the root of the rise of nationalism during the 1930s (though of course I'm not comparing idiotic literary pseuds to Hitler); in countries like Germany, Japan, etc. in which the very foundations of society had been rocked, traumatised and destabilised by historical events, society itself began casting about for enemies so as to better and more clearly define what it itself stood for. Thus Germany fixated upon Jews, Slavs and Bolsheviks as a means of differentiating and reinforcing a (ridiculous) notion of what it meant to be German and what a perfect German society should be (i.e., the opposite of what Jews and Bolsheviks were like). This impulse is at the heart of a lot that is bad in the world. Including bad literary criticism.

Monday 27 September 2010

Sunday Evening Linkage

Some links for your delectation, amusement and edification:
Substantive posting resumes tomorrow.

Saturday 25 September 2010

The Magic Faraway Orient Express Sailing to Utopia

I've been doing some thinking recently about what game I'd like to run next, once All Zombies on the Eastern Front (which I expect to last five or six sessions) is done and dusted. What I have in mind is a campaign I call The Magic Faraway Orient Express Sailing to Utopia, which as the name suggests is a cross between The Magic Faraway Tree stories, tales featuring the Orient Express (like From Russia with Love and Murder on the Orient Express), and Michael Moorcock's Sailing to Utopia.

I have given this campaign the genre moniker "railroad which is literally on a train but with sandboxy knobs on". The core concept is as follows: the players are travellers on a stream train which is on a year-long journey between a great Bespin-like dystopic cloud city and a place known only as Utopia (left ill-defined; my idea is to let the players imagine what it's like for themselves). The train travels through the sky on an ancient railway, about whose builders legends abound but whose origins are essentially unknown. I imagine this being a little like the train in Spirited Away, which travels over the surface of the sea - except in the clouds. It stops every so often in a totally different reality a la The Magic Faraway Tree (although of course in this case the protagonists are arriving in new worlds, rather than having new worlds come to them) and in those different realities the players have to pursue some sort of task or other - I'm picturing something like a Holy Grail quest (they have to find a special magical artefact at each stop) or maybe an assassination.

Play would revolve as much around the other passengers as it would the "stops". I like the idea of the train being some sort of moving equivalent of Sigil or (spit) Babylon 5; a neutral zone in which violence is forbidden and everybody has to live in enforced harmony. This would make plenty of scope for cloak-and-dagger antics on board between the players and their enemies. I also like the idea of having a real-world time limit in each stop - maybe I'll buy a big egg timer that I'll turn over as the train arrives; when the sand runs out the train leaves, and if the players haven't made it back on board they're stuck...

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Be Prepared

I suppose an explanation is in order for the growing gaps between posts on this blog. I'm afraid it's nothing remotely interesting - just the daily grind of trying to juggle work, shoving together a PhD, social commitments and flat-hunting - but I hope it will serve as an explanation nevertheless. Suffice to say: I am both busy and knackered, all the time, at the moment.

But I am still finding time for actual play, on a bi-weekly/sometimes monthly basis. As coincidence would have it I happen to be planning a campaign due for launch in October, and since the blog carnival this month (which I am amazed is still going) is all about game prep, I think this is a perfect opportunity to both kick Monsters & Manuals into gear and show off my super duper game planning skillz.

The game I am planning is called All Zombies on the Eastern Front (AZotEF!!!! for short) and is a World War II/Zombie Apocalypse game. The core concept of the campaign is, essentially, "You're in the middle of World War II, then something even worse happens" - and in keeping with this spirit I've tried to make it as bad as possible for the players: they begin as Axis POWs in the hands of the Soviets, trapped on a prison train heading into Siberia...an area of the world which happens to be in the first stages of being overtaken by a zombie epidemic. The email blurb I sent out to the players sums things up nicely, I think, and runs as follows:

...All Zombies on the Eastern Front will be about one part Zombieland, one part Twilight 2000-esque “soldiers in a post-apocalyptic Europe”, one part John Carpenter’s The Thing, and one part I Am Legend (the book, not the cruddy Will Smith version). There’s quite a bit of flexibility in that players can be of any rank or branch of the armed services, and can be German, Italian, Hungarian, Romanian, even foreign volunteers in the Waffen-SS (though I stress the focus of the game is escaping the clutches of zombies, not Nazism), and although I’ll be using the Cyberpunk 2020 rules they’re quite heavily hacked (no classes, very different skill list).

Content-wise, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to mow down hordes of the undead with your stolen PPD-40 and its 71-round drum magazine, but combat is by no means the be all and end all, and there’ll be a lot of NPC interaction and investigative stuff going on too, as well as all the travails that go along with post-apocalyptic gaming (finding food, ammo and shelter; overcoming moral quandaries about protecting innocent fellow survivors; avoiding cannibal bandits, etc.) and quite a bit of wilderness exploration.

You read that right; I'm using a hack of the Cyberpunk 2020 rules. This is mainly because I want to lift the Friday Night Firefight rules wholesale; my philosophy on World War II games is that you want combat to be frightening and deadly, and without armour or cybergear believe me, Cyberpunk 2020's combat rules are very deadly. I'm yet to see how it will work in play (I'm slightly worried there'll be a TPK within an hour), but the first signs are encouraging - the players are making noises along the lines of avoiding combat and playing intelligently, which is always nice to hear.

Logistically my prep is involving lots of maps, random encounter tables, random NPCs, and random name generators - stuff which I generally enjoy - as I envisage a lot of travelling on the part of the PCs, and I'm leaving it open ended, which makes for little in the way of pre-planned encounters/adventures. (Whether the players want to head back to Europe, go East and try to make Japan, hunker down and see if they can survive or investigate the source of the Zombie plague is up to them.) I expect all this stuff to run into the pages and pages, which will be a further drain on my time but one I'll actually enjoy - a rarity at the moment.