Thursday 27 July 2017

High Court Bailiffs Story Game

I am not a great one for TV or reality shows in particular but I have a real soft spot for Can't Pay? We'll Take it Away! For the uninitiated, it's a programme which follows around High Court Enforcement Agents (bailiffs to you and me) as they try to recover debts, or carry out evictions, arising from High Court judgments. Surprisingly, it's not as trashy as it sounds. For what it is - a cheaply made Channel 5 documentary series (Channel 5 is the barrel-scrapingest of the 5 main terrestrial TV networks in the UK) - it is quite sensitively done and even manages to mix in a lot of social commentary through the back door. You do get cases of genuine deceitfulness, villainy and/or fecklessness but most of the cases are purely about bad luck, and the producers are good at emphasising that. In some of the episodes the bailiffs personally become involved in fighting against poorly-run local authorities for the rights of evicted tenants to get access to emergency social housing. In others they choose not to enforce their writ because the subject is disabled, in dire straits, ill, and so on. What you get is an interesting and quite depressing depiction of life in early 21st century Britain (particularly London): lots of consumer debt, huge pressure on the housing system, lots of renters, lots of squatters, lots of self-employed people living on the edge of the bread line, lots of people who don't really understand the legal system but end up at its sharp end nonetheless.

The first two seasons are now available on Netflix and I recommend checking it out if you have never seen it. In the episode we watched last night, which is illustrative, the team had to evict a tenant who hadn't paid rent in 18 months and whose landlord was his own mother; evict illegal migrant tenants with a disabled son from a tiny one-room flat in a house in London because the landlord wanted to renovate it (quite heart-rending); remove a Spanish guy from an appallingly tiny room with no windows in a London tower block; and deal with an eviction of a tenant with clear psychotic issues whose pastor was trying to act as a go-between. Describing them in this way makes the series sound like gawking at human misery. I think it's the opposite: an objective but sympathetic depiction of an astonishingly difficult job carried out in trying circumstances, and a really rather shocking indictment of circumstances in Britain today.

You could make a great story game based on it. It is by nature episodic and has the same basic structure: High Court bailiffs arrive somewhere needing to solve a case (i.e., get money or carry out an eviction). They may face a web of lies which they have to untangle. They may face violence. They may face obfuscation. They may face pleas for compassion. There are also all sorts of complications which can arise: battles with local government; misunderstandings with the police; language problems; logistical difficulties (how do you value a light aircraft and remove it for auction to pay off a debt?). And there are different methods of achieving success: friendliness, tough love, physical coercion, mercy. Every subject of every writ is different - one day it might be a taxi company who owe money to a contractor; the next a tenant who hasn't paid rent in two years because he or she thinks the landlord is doing a lousy job; the next an eviction of a young family. Victory could be defined in terms of getting the job done, but equally could be defined as getting the best possible outcome for everyone.

Random tables of course: random writ (evict or recover a debt or both); random client; random subject; table of complications. You could do it in 12 pages. High Court Enforcement Agents in the Vineyard, you could call it.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

It Doesn't Matter Who Plays Dr Who

I have never understood the appeal of Dr Who - in my view its rightful place is surely alongside repeats of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and The Brittas Empire on Gold at 3pm on weekday afternoons - but be that as it may, for some reason it's popular and I have to accept that in the same way I accept that there are people who buy recordings by the Black Eyed Peas. 

Anyway. It turns out that the next Dr Who (I refuse to refer to this person as "the Doctor") is going to be played by a woman. Gadzooks! Another victory in the gender wars! My opinion on this is pretty similar to Brendan O'Neill's - as it typically is (if you want my opinion on anything going on in pop culture you could basically phone up Brendan O'Neill and ask him) - namely, I thought that at some point, like, 20 or 30 years ago, there was a general consensus that your identity, sex, race, creed, background, religion and so forth didn't matter and it was your own unique personhood, character, talents and abilities which were to be valued; but it seems that we've collectively decided to go back to 1957 and act as though actually people in the old days were right all along and it's important to put each other in boxes again. So whereas we seemed to have reached a stage where we could get past all that bollocks about identity mattering and be free to just be people, all of a sudden it matters again and we are collectively diminished as a result. When Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the important thing being the content of one's character, he was just talking out of his arse, and bizarrely it is the supposedly liberal left-leaning chattering classes who are leading the vanguard against him. The important thing about Dr Who is not the content of his character. It's his uterus, or lack of it.

I suppose you can trace all this back to Hegel via Kojeve and the French Marxists of the 1960s - the notion that ideas are the vehicles of historical change and hence you can actually shape the world through pop culture. Having a woman play Dr Who can actually contribute to sexual equality in this way: you produce fiction which points towards sexual equality and thus another small step goes in the right direction and influences things that little bit more. It's a very attractive idea to intellectuals, academics artists, writers and so on, of course, because it makes it seem as though their work is deeply important in some sense. And it seems to be becoming, ironically enough, increasingly attractive to the politically engaged modern nerd via the mechanism of consumer capitalism: you can contribute to changing the world through your hobbies and pastimes and choices as a consumer. By watching Dr Who, the half-formed thought goes, you can actually now have a stake in promoting sexual equality, just as you can by watching Wonder Woman or the remake of Ghostbusters. (And the producers of movies, TV programmes, books and whatnot are well aware of this trend - what a shot in the arm all this is going to be for BBC Worldwide.)

There is an alternative take on this, which is simply that trends in pop culture tend to reflect and come after changes in the general culture. In this view, the female Dr Who is just a more-or-less inevitable consequence of a big societal shift towards female empowerment that has nothing to do with what people watch on TV and everything to do with technological development. There's nothing trailblazing about it, in other words - it would have been if it had been produced in the 1890s - it's just reflective of the way the world is, or is becoming. This I think is actually generally speaking the way things work, although there are of course outliers like William Wilberforce or Mary Shelley who act as "norm entrepreneurs" or whatever you want to call them. 

Irrespective of that, I find it kind of sad and strange that people feel as though this sort of thing matters - as though there are legions of young girls out there who will now watch Dr Who and feel empowered as a result. It's odd to imagine that people would need a character in a TV show to allow them to aspire to something, rather than actual real family members, friends and role models. And I think it is even odder that somebody would need such a character to look like them in order to be inspiring - the characters in Star Wars I always aspired to be like were Lando and Chewbacca, and when I was a kid I used to have inspirational quotes by American Indians on posters on the wall. It didn't matter a jot to me that these people weren't white men and hence couldn't inspire me, and I can't think of much that is more small-mindedly conservative than imagining anything different. So in my view not only is the notion that having a female Dr Who matters for sexual equality empirically wrong, it is also morally bankrupt and narrowing. Let's be grown-ups: David Tennant can inspire young girls if that's their thing and Jodie Whittaker can inspire young boys. 

(And I would add as an addendum that all of my criticisms can be leveled at the Men's Rights Activist types getting their knickers in a twist about all of this - but doubly so.)

Sunday 16 July 2017

Tolkien's Drow, the Bizarro Orc, and Corrupt Elfdom

As a general rule I try not to re-read books these days, but I make certain exceptions. I'm currently on may way through The Two Towers for the first time in years (one of my favourite sections in the trilogy - the travails of Pippin and Merry - which I always found more interesting than the Frodo and Sam bits). It gave me an opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the way Tolkien presents orcs in the series - taken in isolation from the goblins in The Hobbit.

It's probably worth noting that Tolkien takes his time with the orcs. They appear first as rumours in The Fellowship of the Ring, then as brief encounters, and finally in the Mines of Moria as a kind of general menace, but they are barely described, and I don't think there is a line of dialogue involving an orc until Chapter 3 of The Two Towers. Then suddenly you're in their world, and it's a very different one from the world of Warhammer or D&D orcs. These are in their own way quite articulate ("Saruman is a fool, and a dirty treacherous fool"; "..., I daresay"; "You speak of what is deep beyond the reach of your muddy dreams..."; "Untie your legs? I'll untie every string in your bodies!"; "I'll cut you both to quivering shreds!"). They seem to know all about civilized life even if they despise it ("You'll get bed and breakfast alright..."; "What do you think? Sit on the grass and wait for the whiteskins to join the picnic?"). They are sarcastic ("Splendid!" "Fine leadership!"). They even seem to have a sense of comradeship and loyalty ("stout fellows"). 

That's when you remember that for Tolkien orcs are, of course, originally supposed to be twisted and corrupted elves. They are not green-skinned thugs. They're a warped vision of perfection. (Is it possible that they also live forever?)

It makes you wonder about dark elves, and "drow". It isn't really worth rehearsing all the many arguments one could have about drow, but perhaps worth considering: orcs and drow are in a sense the same thing. That closes off certain options but opens up a lot of others. If orcs were corrupted elves, what would that mean?

In classic D&D, elves have the following abilities:

-Detection of hidden doors
-Immunity to ghoul paralysis
-Spell casting
-Friendship with animals

So let's imagine orcs as things which can:

-Magically conceal any doorway or entrance
-Cause paralysis with a touch
-Dispel magical spells cast by others
-Destroy natural life, maybe by draining its essence in their surroundings?

This gives orcs more of a feeling of a creature from a fairy tale, but not one that is entirely displeasing. It certainly makes them seem more dangerous

Wednesday 12 July 2017

When Thoughts Collide (and Have Sex and Make Baby Thoughts)

It's funny how two streams of ideas can come together gradually in your mind without conscious effort - just time. A bit like your brain being a primordial ocean in which molecules of carbon and oxygen and whatever float around and gradually make stromatolites after being zapped by lightning at random (or something - I was never the best at science).

For a long time I've been ruminating over at some stage creating an animal fantasy-based RPG. I have written dozens of posts about this over the years, probably, but still feel compelled to insist that this is nothing to do with a love of either furries or manga. (The more I think about it the more I come to the realization that it's just being English. As in many other obscure fields, we are world leaders at making up talking animal stories - I suspect because, as Roger Scruton would put it, the English countryside is a home. Other countries have wildernesses full of danger. We have hedges and wild flower meadows. Nature is friendly and safe. But I digress.)

I have also been thinking of different iterations of an idea which seems to have burrowed its way into my psyche and won't let go: the megadungeon inside a giant tree.

Well, at some stage the animal-fantasy molecules and the megadungeon-inside-a-tree molecules seem to have coalesced together to produce life of sorts. What if there was a giant tree the size of a mountain and it was populated in its roots by dwarves who look like badgers, trolls who look like hedgehogs, elves that look like spiders, goblins that look like foxes? What if the heartwood was burrowed through by kobolds that look like ants? What if orcs who look like woodpeckers infested the bark all the way up, burrowing tunnel-cities into its walls? What if a dragon who looked like a tawny owl had a nest somewhere in a hollow? What if a society of bugbears who look like robins inhabited its branches?

Tuesday 11 July 2017

Monster Connections Table

Having a baby has led to me reading lots of Beatrix Potter books out loud. (Babies, it turns out, just like to listen to anything. I could probably read my daughter At the Mountains of Madness and it would have the same reaction - but it would be a terrible affront to her dignity to do something like that, so I won't.) The other day it was the turn of The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. (If you want recommendations/reviews, Two Bad Mice and Jeremy Fisher are the best ones in my opinion.)

The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is a strange beast. In the other Potter books the animal and human worlds interact in a realist fashion - Peter Rabbit is actually a rabbit who actually wears human clothes. But in Mrs Tiggy-Winkle things slip into a fairy tale reality in which the talking hedgehog might simply be a figment of a little girl's imagination (or IS IT?). It also isn't really a proper story; it is rather a kind of extended vignette in which the author simply riffs on the idea of a hedgehog washerwoman.

But I digress. The point of interest in Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is its implication of a kind of animal society existing under our noses. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle isn't just a washerwoman in the abstract - she does jobs for the other animals in the local area (washing cock robin's waistcoat, cobbling Sally Henny-Penny the chicken's shoes, etc.). I was quite taken with this idea of an entire community of animals who actually have neighbourly connections with each other and an economy of sorts, and I got to thinking, naturally enough, about D&D. A troll's lair is in one hex; in the next hex to the West is a dragon; in the next hex to the East is a dwarf mine. Instead of existing in isolation, why not make them connected?

Hence, I bring you the Monster Connections Table:

Monster A
Monster B
Is rival to
Is friends with
Trades with
Performs tasks for
Is subservient to
Has an alliance of convenience with
Secretly controls
Pretends to be allied to
Has been bewitched by
Is master of

Should be fairly self-explanatory - after stocking your hex map pick a monster as Monster A and see what his connection is to Monster B in the next hex.

Friday 7 July 2017

Generating the Infinite River

A long time ago I wrote a blog entry about exploring an infinite river. I've always had it in mind to take that idea somewhere, wherever it may be. The answer: probably nowhere, but at least in theory there could be a game lost in the tributaries.

The PCs start off at an original base in a port on the river. From there, they can explore. They do this hex by hex, with a method for procedurally generating hexes and their contents as necessary. Every six miles (or twenty miles or whatever) there is a new hex with new contents - geography, adventure locales, settlements, etc.

What I hadn't realised at the time but which is increasingly clear to me is that the only way that this can really make sense conceptually is if the PCs are only able to move downstream from a location upriver (perhaps because the flow of the current is so strong it's impossible to row or sail against it for any length of time). This is because the inhabitants of each hex, which are procedurally generated, can be fairly easily created so that they have knowledge of what's upstream (because the DM and players know this also) but not what's downstream (because that hasn't been generated yet). In other words, since every downstream hex is not generated until the PCs actually go there, the inhabitants of existing hexes can't really have any interactions with the inhabitants of downstream hexes. Only upstream ones. This means the flow of traffic/exploration must all be downstream.

What this means, of course, is that the Infinite River never reaches the sea. The question then becomes: is there a sea at all? I leave that question to the philosophers.