Monday 31 March 2014

Under The Skin and The Need for Real Humans

I watched Under the Skin the other week. It was worth a watch, because apart from anything else it is beautifully well-made: it's like the best put-together music video you've ever seen. But it's ultimately unsatisfactory because at a certain stage about two-thirds of the way through it steadily becomes ridiculous. I wouldn't want to reveal spoilers, but people who've seen it will probably know what I mean. It unravels from being an interesting and creepy film about an alien abducting men for some unknown purpose and turns into, "No, I don't buy it" - chiefly because the way the real people in the film behave is totally unbelievable.

An SF story can have weird aliens and incomprehensible technology and things can happen which are literally impossible, but it is unforgivable when the human beings involved don't act like real human beings would when interacting with those aliens/technology/literally impossible things. Doubly so when you consider that the raison d'etre of most SF is to think about what it means to be human by imagining how humans would behave if we postulate aliens or light-speed or time-travel or whatever.

The same is true of fantasy. I can forgive a fantasy book any sin when it comes to letting imagination run wild. But I can't accept it when what the characters do does not ring true given the circumstances. You can come up with any magical spell or bizarre monster or physical impossibility you like, but the reader knows human beings, so woe betide you if you don't get that right.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that most of the SF and fantasy books I've read which I think have failed have been those in which the behaviour of the characters is not credible based on what I know and understand about human beings and the way they act.

Sunday 30 March 2014

Revisiting Localism

A while ago I mused at some length about 'localism' in gaming. To summarise, I think setting games in your local area, or creating settings that are heavily inspired by your local area, allows you an intimacy, familiarity and level of detailed knowledge that can't be matched with a game set in an exotic/historic/mythological place and era, like Athas, the 13th Century Outer Mongolia of Genghis Khan, Ancient Greece, or New Zealand. Certain elements of setting which DMs struggle with (particularly the little intangible things like weather, scenery, geography, and so forth which give a setting a genuine feeling of place and verisimilitude) come ready-made, baked into your own brain.

I moved up to the North East of England about 18 months ago for a work. It's an area of the country I'd never been to before and, to be frank, I'd never had much intention of visiting. If you're not from the North East of England you tend to forget it exists. It's not on the way to anywhere. The cities are small, mostly poor, and isolated from other conurbations by swathes of sparsely populated countryside full of defunct, slowly de-populating former mining villages. Now and again you watch Match of the Day and the highlights of a Newcastle game come on and you might think to yourself, "Oh yeah, Newcastle. That's a city and it exists." But otherwise it doesn't occupy much of a space in the national psyche. Unless you're a fan of brown ale.

Which is a bit of a shame, because this corner of the country (well, Northumberland anyway) has a lot to offer - incredible scenery, beautiful little market towns and picturesque villages, castles by the dozen, Roman ruins, great local cuisine, hidden treasures like Holy Island - and ought to be a complete tourist trap. Though on the other hand, a large part of me quite likes the feeling of living in one of Britain's best-kept secrets.

I do a lot of hiking and today as I was walking around I started thinking about running a game of D&D incorporating the things that are typical elements of the Northumberland countryside. The game wouldn't be set in actual Northumberland, but would be strongly inspired by it - imbued with it. What might these things be?

  • Sheep. Northumberland is hilly, wild, barren. It's sheep country. In this game of D&D, "orcs" would be gangly sheep-headed humanoids carrying weapons of stone and possessing cruel, ovine eyes with long, horizontal pupils that would remain horribly emotionless as their owner skinned you alive.
  • Gorse. You see a lot of gorse bushes when out hiking. Impenetrably thick and totally unforgiving: hardy survivors of the plant world. In Northumberland D&D, "goblins" would be little people made of wiry, spiny, bitter, nasty, gorse. Waiting in the scrub motionless for hour after hour, day after day, week after week, for a lonely traveller to come by....
  • Wind. Northumberland must surely be England's windiest county. It comes barrelling down from the North Sea bringing the Arctic air with it to chill the very land itself right down to its roots. D&D Northumberland is a place of wind spirits - air elementals, sylphs, tempests, etc.
  • Ghosts. The border between Scotland and England is soaked in blood thanks to century on century of war, border raids, feuds, cattle-rustling and unpunished murder. Northumberland D&D would not have 'Scotland' and 'England' but it would have layer upon layer of violent history - and the ghosts that history had bequeathed.
  • Clerics. Northumberland is sometimes called the "cradle of Christianity" because it is where Christianity first took root in England. Again, Northumberland D&D wouldn't have 'Christianity' but it would have an overabundance of abbeys, monasteries, shrines and other holy places, full of monks singing strange chants and scratching with ink-and-quill in scrolls and weighty tomes for hour after hour by candlelight. At theme might be the conversion of unbelievers to a revolutionary new religion - or the resistance to it.
If you were going to run a game set in your local region, what characteristics would it have?

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Not Dead

Long-term readers of the blog will know that I have a bad habit of disappearing for weeks or months on end without updates. Basically, this is because as well as my day job I have a separate freelancing gig which sometimes results in me being very busy and also creatively and intellectually drained for extended periods. This is one of those periods. I apologise. I'm not dead (quite yet).