Wednesday 26 June 2019

Mythic Upperworlds

The existence of the megadungeon as mythic underworld, and faerie/wilderness as mythic otherworld, suggests of course that there is a third mythic -world - the Mythic Upperworld.

What is the mythic upperworld? The touchstones in fiction that occur to me are Zelazny's Amber, Miyazaki's Laputa, Wolfe's Skai (from The Wizard Knight), possibly the realm of the Q Continuum from Next Gen, possibly also Narnia, and possibly the lands at the top of the Magic Faraway Tree - the latter three depending on how you wish to draw the line between "upper-" and "other-". Where the underworld is the abode of dark chaos, and the otherworld is the abode of the natural weird, the uipperworld is where we find that which is both literally and metophorically above and beyond us - the ethereal, the ephemeral, the unattainable, the divine.

Don't mistake the mythic otherworld for heaven. It is a place that is hard to get to, and harder still to remain in, but it is not utopia. It is a dangerous place where demigods, giants and dragons dwell. Vast wealth can be found there, if you can find it - and if you can find a way to keep yourself from falling, and to grasp what is out of reach. 

Tuesday 25 June 2019

Mythic Underworlds, Mythic Otherworlds, and Psychic Geography

The dungeon as "mythic underworld" is a concept as old as any in what we now tend to refer to as the OSR (see, for example, Philotomy's thoughts on the subject from 2007, still available here). "Mythic otherworld" is newer - I like to think I coined that one myself in 2014 - but based on the same underlying motif: a place that "obeys its own laws and is weird, otherworldly, and apart from the natural order of things". The underworld/otherworld is a place where adventure happens - the place into which PCs go. It is set apart from the ordinary world of human civilization, towns and settlements, and the rules of physics which exist there. It is faerie, it is muspel, it is Mythago Wood, it is Moria, it is Angband, it is warp space, it is whatever other metaphor you choose to use.

Psychic geography is real. I was struck by this last week when I visited my home town, which like most urban or semi-urban English landscapes is a place of vast contrasts between rich and poor. (Britain, as a comparatively small and very densely populated country has the "haves" and "have nots" nestling alongside one other like almost nowhere else on earth.) Having an afternoon free on my hands I decided to take a drive to Noctorum, a place where a friend of mine used to live; I hadn't been there in 20 years so I wanted to see if I could find it.

Noctorum is not easy to get to. There are few signs pointing to it, and it's not really on the way to anywhere. This latter quality (what you might cynically call the "out of sight, out of mind" approach to poverty reduction) is perhaps one of the reasons why it was chosen as the location for the building of a council estate back in the 1960s - one of a string of such developments built in the local area as a way to, supposedly, provide bettter accommodation for the urban poor than the town-centre slums in which they had previously been living. This large estate was tacked on to the existing semi-rural village location of Noctorum proper, and is now commonly referred to locally and by the residents as "The Nocky".

What you get when you drive from Noctorum proper to the Nocky is a lesson in inequality in microcosm. Noctorum is stunningly wealthy. It is full of vast, detached homes which you can only get to by ignoring signs which say "PRIVATE ROAD" in big red letters, built in a landscape something like arcadia - a deliciously lush woodland on a secluded hillside in which it isn't unusual to see people trotting on horseback. Then suddenly you pass a crossroads at the bottom of the hill beyond which are tiny terraced houses and the only colours are beige and grey, and the sky itself seems to darken.

The Nocky itself resembles a stockade, though one formed from roads, not walls. It is surrounded by a big looping road, inside of which is the estate and outside of which on three sides, more or less, are open fields (the other side being Noctorum proper). This, you have the feeling, was done by design. You can't get out of the estate easily even in a car - you have to do a big circuit - but doing it on foot is hard. You have to slog it up hill to Noctorum, beyond which there is no real public transport, or you have to trek across fields, or just go the considerable distance along one road to the nearest train station. Whenever local people mention this they always say this was the result of a deliberate choice by the local authority "in case there was violence" - if riots ever took place they would have nowhere to spread. It also serves to keep criminal activity in general insulated from the outside world. And it also serves to keep the community itself cooped up with nowhere to go and nobody to turn to when things go wrong.

Make no mistake about it: the Nocky is in a different world to Noctorum. It would be completely crass, simplistic and stupid to describe it as a "mythic underworld" or something of that nature, but when you pass from one place into the other you can feel yourself crossing a barrier of some kind - an invisible and yet also somehow visible wall which keeps the two places apart. There is something of The City & The City about it - two communities living side by side but unable or unwilling to see each other - but something much more brutally real: you can see the Nocky easily enough from parts of Noctorum. But you don't want to go there.

It's not all that difficult to understand, then, how it would feel to live in a reality in which there was a forest "over there", or a cave system "down there", which people can nakedly see and yet into which they do not, and perhaps dare not, go. That feeling is one with which most of us are familiar from the societies in which we find ourselves - the difference of course being that in a fantasy setting it is based on the supernatural, whereas in our own it is merely due to the starkness of the distinctions which exist between life opportunities.

Friday 21 June 2019

Bad Reviews, Bad Moods and Bad Games

There is a certain school of thought, of which many RPG bloggers and online commenters are members, which holds that the superior way to review a game or gaming product is through play. "Ah," these people will pipe up whenever a review is posted, "But how does it work in play? How is it at the table?"

I know what they mean. What they want to make clear is that it's all very well for a book or product to read well and look good. But these things are made to be played, and in the final analysis it is how they work at the table, under fire as it were, that really matters.

I respectfully disagree with this view. Partly this is because I have never run anything I have bought as is, and can never really imagine how anybody would; I can only really imagine somebody buying an adventure or module and pulling out bits here, removing bits there, switching X around with Y and Z with A, or perhaps just going away inspired to do their own vague pastiche of the contents. Given that every reader is going to use the product differently, then, I'm never sure what value a review of how something works in play has beyond the individual reviewer.

Partly, though, it is also because of a related problem, which is that of the players. No two groups of players are the same, and no combination of players is the same as any other - we all know this, of course. This means that, much as with DMs, you have to wonder whether a review of the experience of a particular group of players can be generalised to others. But that's not the important point, for me, which is that while no two groups of players are the same, it is just as true that no group of players is the same from one session to the next. Sometimes somebody is in a bad mood. Sometimes people have had a few too many drinks. Sometimes people at the next table are noisy. Sometimes the DM has just had a row with his girlfriend. Sometimes people are just in the mood for one type of session and not another. Circumstances differ. The play experience is so subjective, and so variable, that it is very hard to trust an "actual play" review as being of widespread usefulness.

That's not to say that some products are not better than others. But I suspect this is something that can be discerned easily enough in the abstract merely through reading by an experienced eye. I don't need to play my way through a module to know if it's useful, mostly because I'm not going to play my way through it anyway, in that sense, but also because I have run some gaming sessions in my life and have a feel for what's good and what isn't.

And nor is to suggest there is no value in people going online to post about how they've just run a brilliant campaign set in Yoon-Suin* and how wonderful/terrible it was, because, let's face it, discussion and feedback are interesting in their own right. It's only to suggest that I would never not buy a product just because somebody posted a review in which they felt it hadn't worked as well as they would have liked in play.

*Other RPG products are available. [Do people outside the UK get this joke?]

Slang Which Builds the World

The real world is lived in. It's a home. And like any home, it gathers knick-knacks, clutter, and idiosyncrasies of layout and design. It is hard to replicate this as a DM designing a campaign setting, because you're only one person and the setting isn't home for anybody at all - just a small section of your brain, perhaps. This compares with the real world, which is home for billions of people and has been for tens of thousands of years.

One way of doing it might be through slang expressions. In my last post, in the list of examples of historical slang, there was the phrase, "As valiant as an Essex lion", meaning timid or cowardly. What do you think when you read that idiom? First, if you're not familiar with it, you might wonder where Essex is and what kind of place. But second, you might then wonder why an "Essex lion" is considered cowardly. Is it a regional stereotype about Essex people? Is it a reference to an actual sub-species of lion that lives in Essex? Is it a historical reference? (The truth is that an "Essex lion" is an old term for a calf in the cockney dialect, because Essex was the main source of cattle for the meat markets in London.) In any event, one little phrase sparks curiosity and provides a little bit more richness - what a social scientist might call "thickness" - to the world in which we live.

You wouldn't want to go crazy with this as a DM. A little would go a long way. But dropping in the odd idiomatic phrase of the "valiant as an Essex lion" variety here or there in NPC dialogue could be a nice way of doing exactly what is described above: sparking curiosity among the players about the world which the PCs inhabit, and if nothing else making it seem a little more "lived in" than it is in reality. "He's as tight as the arse of a Druk Yul quail." Where is this Druk Yul? And what's a Druk Yul quail? Let's find out. And the players become that little bit more invested in the world you're jointly creating. 

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Historical Slang for Your Edification and Amusement

From The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang, by Eric Partridge (which runs at 1000+ pages and is utterly fascinating), to smatter into NPC dialogue for that "authentic ye olden days" vibe. I chose a handful for each letter of the alphabet with the approximate dates of first usage according to the book. You could choose thousands more.

Abbey lubber - A lazy monk (1538-1750), a lazy, thriftless person (1750-1900)
Academician - A harlot (1760-1820). Ex academy, a brothel (late C. 17-18)
All wind and piss - Contemptuous (C. 19)
Avering - A boy's begging naked to arouse compassion (late C.17)
Avaunt, give the - Dismiss a person (C. 16-17)

Bachelor of law - A drinker (1650)
Bachelor's baby - An illegitimate child (1670)
Batty-fang - To beat (C.17)
Beggar-maker - A publican (C.18)
Beggar's velvet - Downy matter or fluff (C.19)

Chair-days - Old age (C. 19)
Chovey - A shop (C. 19)
Church-work - Work that proceeds very slowly (C. 17)
Clapper - The tongue (human) (C.17)
Cold cook - An undertaker (1720s)
Cunny-warren - A brothel (1785)

Dive in the dark - The act of coition [it actually says this] (C.19)
Dismais - In low spirits (1760)
Disguised - Drunk (C. 16)
Docked smack smooth, to be - To have one's penis amputated (C.18) [Be thankful you don't live at a time in which this was happening frequently enough to need a slang term]
Dusting - A thrashing; rough weather (C. 18)

Ebb-water - Lack of money (C. 17)
Earwig - A malicious prompter or flatterer; a crony (1610
Eve's custom-house - The female pudend [it actually says this] (C.18)
Execution day - Washing day (C.17)

Fair trader - A smuggler (C.19)
One of the faithful - A drunkard (C.17)
Fart-catcher - A footman or valet (mid-C.18)
Fingers made of lime-twigs, to have - To be a thief (1596)
Flying camp - A gang of beggars (Late C.17)

Gawk - A simpleton; a fool (C.17)
Gin-trap - The mouth; the throat (1827)
Glimmerer - A beggar alleging loss by fire (1560
Goats and monkeys (at), to look - To gaze lecherously (at) (1749)
Grin at the daisy-roots, to - To be dead (1880)

Hard neck - Extreme impudence (1870)
Hoddy-peak - A fool; a cuckold (1585)
Horn-thumb - A pickpocket (1565)
Howsomever - Nevertheless (1750
Hydromancy - The "study" of drink, i.e. alcoholism (1650)

Idea-box - Head (C.18)
Ivory-box - Mouth (1880)
Ivy-bush, like an owl in an - Having a large wig or very bushy hair (1606)

Jack Ketch's pippin - A candidate for the gallows (C. 18), also called a "Gallows apple"
Jelly-bag - The scrotum (C. 17)
Jug - A prison; to imprison; lock up (C.19)
Jump, see how the cat will - To watch the course of events before committing oneself (1820)

Keep back and belly - To clothe and feed (C.18)
Ken - A house or compound (1560)
Ken, crack a - To rob a house (late C.17)
Ken-crack lay - Housebreaking (C.17)
Ken-cracker - Housebreaker (C.17)
Key of the street, have the - To be shut out for the night or homeless (1835)
Kick the wind (or clouds) - To be hung (late C. 16)

Lay in water - To defer judgement (C.16)
Lion, as valiant as an Essex - Timid or fearful (C.18) [substituting "Essex" for a suitable location of your choice]
Loose fish - A person or irregular, esp. of dissipated habits (1827)
Lullaby - The male member (C.19)
Lump and bump - A fool; a simpleton (C.19)

Marriage face - A sad face (C.19)
Maunding cove - A beggar (C.17)
Maw-wallop - A filthy dish of food (C.18)
Maw-wormy - Captious; pessimistic (C.19)
Moon's man - A gypsy; a robber by night (C.16)

Nail - A person of an overreaching, imposing disposition (1812)
Napkin, take sheet and - To eat and sleep with someone or in some place (C.17)
Nasty man - A garrotter; the one in a garrotting gang who does the critical work (1840)
Night-flea - A boarder (C.19)
Number the waves - To engage in a pointless or time-wasting task (C.18)

Old man's milk - Whisky or other spirit (1860)
Otherguess - Different (C.16)
Oysters, drink to one's - To fare accordingly (esp. badly) (C.15)

Pad in the straw - A hidden dagger (C.15)
Peery - Sly (C.17)
Pickers and stealers - Hands (C.16)
Play the duck - To show oneself a coward (C.17)
Priggism - Thieving (1743)

Queer duke - A decayed gentleman (C.17)
Quiet as a wasp in one's nose - Uneasy, restless (1670)
Quirklum - A puzzle (C.18)

Give green rats - To slander; to malign (1860)
Ride out - To become a highwayman (C.17)
Rise arse upwards - To be lucky (1670)
Rum dubber - A dextrous picklock (C.17)
Running snavel - A robber of children (C.18)

Safe as a crow in a gutter - Very safe (1630)
Satyr - Professional sheep-rustler (1714)
Secret - in the grand - Dead (1780)
Snail's gallop, go a - Go very slowly (1545)
Snub-devil - A clergyman (1780)

Tip the lion - To press a man's nose against his face and gouge his eyes out (1712)
Toad on a chopping block - Somebody sitting awkwardly, e.g. on a horse (C.17)
Tongue enough for two sets of teeth - To be very talkative (1786)
Topsail, pay one's debts with the - Got to sea having left debts unpaid (1785)
Town bull - A wencher or lady's man (C.17)

Umble-cum-stumble - To understand (C.19)
Upper storey - The head; the brain (C.18)
Useless as tits on a bull - Utterly useless (C.19)
Used up - Killed (C.18)

Vegetable breakfast - A hanging (C.19) [Because it's a "hearty choke" - geddit??]
Voyage of discovery - Going out stealing (C.19)
Virtue, to have one's [...] rewarded - To be imprisoned (1870)

Warming-pan - A bedfellow (C.17)
Waste, house of - A tavern or alehouse (1780)
Water in one's shoes - A source of annoyance (C.18)
Wedge-hunter - A thief specialising in silver plate and watches (C.19)
Well-fucked and far from home - To be very tired (C.19)

X, Y, Z
Yappy - Foolishly generous (C.19)
Yellow stockings, wear - To be jealous (C.17)

Friday 14 June 2019

The Island Campaign

Like I suppose a lot of people do, I have a romantic feeling for islands, particularly small ones. I think this has three roots. First and most obviously, all of us (some more so than others) have fantasies from time to time about being able to retreat from the world and live in splendid isolation from its worries and woes, and life on an island promises this. Second, there is something attractive in the idea that, in living on an island, one could eventually come to know its entire geography and contents intimately, so as to extend a sense of homeliness and familiarity - of ownership, even - over everything on it. Third, there is simply something inherently beautiful about island views and island life; whether a sandy atoll in the aquamarine of the Pacific or a windswept rock in the grey North Atlantic, an island almost invariably comes with a picture-postcard aesthetic that is hard to resist.

An island, or a small archipelago of islands, is also a great location for a D&D campaign. It's a confined territory that PCs can come to know in detail relatively easily - which always makes for a richer experience for both DM and players. It's an isolated territory, so that it can "plug and play" into almost any wider setting, or simply have no relationship to an outside world at all. And it's a small territory, so it provides a framework in which to give player choice real consequence; they're not going to want to piss off that tribe of orcs who live on the other side of the island, because those orcs are going to be able to figure out where the PCs live pretty easily, and there's going to be nowhere to run when they do.

There are 187 permanently inhabited islands in the British Isles, so there are plenty of examples to choose from, but I think the best has to be St Kilda. St Kilda can not only lay claim to encompassing all the virtues of a small archipelago of islands as outlined above. It can also very probably lay claim to being about the most interesting place of its size in the world.

It has neolithic sheepholds dating back to 1850 BC. It has a ruined house of an "Amazon" who supposedly lived on the main island in prehistoric times. It has a ruined fort that was supposed to have been built by the Fir Bolg. It is covered in neolithic cleitan - small rock-built bothies for storing and preserving items (including, surely, magic ones) on a treeless island. It has an empty medieval village (which is, surely, haunted). It has feral sheep who are thought to be the remnants of the earliest domesticated sheep in Europe. It had a system of paying rent with seabirds. It has a name that is not actually that of a saint (except maybe it was).

Above all, it also has sea-stacks, cliffs that look like faces, and landscape features to die for. I loved this line from Baxter and Crumley's St Kilda: A Portrait of Britain's Remotest Island Landscape, cited in the wikipedia entry:

[St Kilda] is a mad, imperfect God's hoard of all unnecessary lavish landscape luxuries he ever devised in his madness. These he has scattered at random in Atlantic isolation 100 miles from the corrupting influences of the mainland, 40 miles west of the westmost Western Isles. He has kept for himself only the best pieces and woven around them a plot as evidence of his madness.

Add a thriving village with some interesting NPCs, a dragon, a giant, a few orcs, some pirates, a mad archmage's tower, a hermit druid and an entrance to some variant of the Underdark on one of the islands and you're good to go for an entire year-long campaign.

Wednesday 12 June 2019

Eight Sample Hex Locations in the Bay of Sweetness

Galletue, self-styled Queen of Mist and Rain, a lunatic exile-turned pirate matriarch. She is mostly convinced that anyone who has ever been touched by mist or rain belongs to her, except for rare lucid moments when the horror of her new reality confronts her. She rules over a small band of disaffected and decadent former nobles manipulating her for their own ends, and a much larger band of thugs and killers she believes will help conquer what is rightfully hers.

The Old Man of Bariloche, monstrous inhabitant of a small island lying off the coast. He is a chimera with the rear of an elephant seal, the front of a cave bear, the wings of a huge seabird, and the heads of a red dragon, cave bear, and giant herring gull. His presence is used as a bogeyman to scare children, but he is very real - as is the treasure he has amassed over the years from passing ships.

Long Sands. A stretch of beach on which, for the duration of the gibbous and full phases of the moon every other month, tiny purple jellyfish are washed up in their dead thousands. They are the young of breeding adults who spawn in unison at these times; the bodies of the larva are collected and used for dye, while the adults are caught in nets and dried out to make tough slabs used for armour. The people of the nearby port-states intermittently war over possession of the beach.

The Seal King. A huge statue of an elephant seal, built from granite by a mad exile of long ago. It stands on the tip of a narrow peninsular overlooking the sea all around. Hollow, it has a door in its belly leading to a staircase down to a series of chambers in which the mad exile’s heirlooms can be found - along with his entombed and now-undead followers.

The Kelpie Cult. A religion of death, formed from those who long to find blissful extinction in drowning in the embrace of a kelpie. Each lunar month, one of their number is selected for presentation to a local kelpie in an elaborate ceremony of joyful worship; the kelpie merrily fulfils her part of the bargain. The cult live in a stockade from which they send beggars and thieves out into neighbouring areas to sustain the endeavour.

The Ribs. An ancient sea-elf structure which still partially rises above the sea’s surface not far from shore. It consists of three dozen columns encrusted with barnacles and seaweed arranged in two parallel lines of approximately 150 yards; the first two dozen columns are visible above the surface. Swimming underwater all the way up the route formed by these columns when the moon is full transports the swimmer to the Elemental Plane of Water. This is only known about by the very long-lived and wise. Otherwise the Ribs are described by local people as being haunted and/or the bones of a giant who will one day rise from the dead.

The Flotsam Giant. An ungainly, towering long-limbed figure which appears permanently on the verge of collapse. It is formed from some of the remnants of a wrecked ship which was once carrying a cargo of spirit-beings from elsewhere in Orbis Immobilis - in the aftermath of the wrecking, they escaped and imbued the detritus with their sentient energy. The giant roams a large island attacking all it encounters; it long ago drove away the human inhabitants, who live as refugees in a nearby port-state.

The Broiling Channel of Malalhue. A large whirlpool which forms in the channel between two islands when the tide rushes in and out shortly before moonrise and the high moon. This produces 1d6 sea-spray mephits (treat as mist mephits) who then fly off in search of employment or mischief; they dissipate after one lunar day. There is a 1 in 6 chance on any visit at the specified times that a wizard or cleric is present to try to convince the mephits to join him in some endeavour.

Monday 10 June 2019

The RPG Hobby is Bigger Than You Think

It depends on how "role playing" is defined.

I've come to believe that human beings cannot help themselves role-playing under certain conditions. Yes, I know that in a broad sense we are all always inescapably playing various roles - father, mother, husband, wife, teacher, plumber, professional snooker player, etc. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking specifically about games.

There are certain types of games - war games, board games and computer games - in which players naturally start to associate themselves with a certain role or character such that at a phenomenological level they begin to think "as" somebody else, somebody who they are not. 

The most obvious example of this from my experience is the computer game Football Manager and its earlier iteration Championship Manager. Here, the player notionally takes on the persona of the manager of a football club somewhere in the world, and the game simulates the decisions that a manager supposedly takes - buying/selling players, picking the team before matches, carrying out training, coming up with tactics, and so on. It would be entirely possible to play Football Manager in the manner of chess - just doing what is necessary to win as an abstract challenge. But the actual experience of playing Football Manager is nothing like this. In fact it is an emotional rollercoaster in which every last outcome is keenly felt and in which one comes to identify so strongly with one's abstract "manager" that one can quite readily come to hate opposing managers, clubs, and even one's own players for frustrating one's wishes in-game. (One of the reasons I stopped playing the game in around 2013 was because it was making me so angry and stressed that I thought it was no longer worth the inescapable emotional investment. I would be better off with the real-life stresses of actually managing a football club, and being paid for it.) Football Manager is not just a computer game. It's actually a role-playing game. It just isn't thought of in that way.

Other examples which may be more pertinent to your experience are strategy games like Civilization and those in the Paradox Interactive stable. I don't think anybody plays Civilization as though it is just an abstract challenge like Scrabble or Go. Instead, they quickly take on the personas of all-powerful Gods, bossing their little Egyptians/Mayans/Mongols around and taking against those dastardly Persians while looking favourably on the sexy Carthaginians (or whatever). They may not take it as far as writing Crusader Kings II After Action Reports in the first or third person, which thousands of people do. But they certainly, to some extent or other, come to feel as though they occupy a "role" - and become emotionally involved in the decisions and activities associated with it. 

Some board games - the best examples I can think of being Monopoly and Diplomacy - also have this character. Play a game of Monopoly and you'll quickly find that the players will begin to act as though they are real-estate entrepreneurs, threatening each other with bankruptcy and bargaining ferociously once all the locations are bought. It's not as though their entire personality changes for four hours. But there's slippage from the role of player into the role of character. They aren't just rolling the dice and trying to amass money as though they are just a stand-in for abstract points. They are trying to amass money because, briefly and conditionally, they want money.

What, then, are the conditions in which "role playing" takes place? I'd suggest:
  1. There's a game
  2. The game is one which has at least some connection to a concrete reality, typically the real world but perhaps a made-up one (from Football Manager, which is about the real world right down to accurately modelling the abilities and actions of tens of thousands of living professional footballers, to Civilization V, which isn't about the real world at all)
  3. The game conceals its mechanics behind an interface (like Crusader Kings II), or a fake set of tokens or other realia (like Monopoly) and isn't based on abstracted or notional items like cards (poker)
These conditions may simply be ideal ones. Chess probably doesn't meet them, and yet it is possible to think of oneself as "being" the King when playing (although most players likely don't do this). 

Thought of in these terms, there are hundreds of millions of us - maybe billions - around the world. 

Thursday 6 June 2019

CRPGs and the Silver Age

Very little to my (admittedly rudimentary) knowledge has been written about the synergies between computer-game RPGs and RPGs-proper during what has been called the hobby's Silver Age and the Bronze one which followed.

This is somewhat surprising, because the period in question, roughly 1984 to 1999 or thereabouts, was one in which both fields might have been said to have entered "maturity". It's also one in which there was presumably considerable overlap between people involved in the RPG hobby during its development into an industry and people who played CRPGs.

It would have been odd if the two fields had not influenced each other. And we are all familiar with how the RPG hobby lead the way for CRPGs. Many of the early successful RPG games were actually D&D based (Pools of Radiance) and the others borrowed many of its tropes such as classes, levels, hit points, equipment list management etc. A lot less is said about the cross pollinisation going on in reverse, though, and I think this may have been even more significant for all that it was often hidden.

The thing about CRPGs is that, until recently, it was impossible to realistically use them for proper sandbox play except in very limited "kind" environments like early roguelike games (more on "kind" versus "wicked" play in a future blog post). There simply wasn't the processing power or data storage. This meant that one simply couldn't use them for genuinely open-ended exploration. Instead, there had to be constrained environments with a "story" to follow. These games - the Final Fantasy series being maybe the paradigm examples - had to take on the nature of interactive fiction almost by default. There was a bit of freedom to move around and a bit of chance in terms of encounters. But by and large play was a matter of going from cut-scene to cut-scene.

It is surely no accident that this kind of play rose to such prominence in the RPG hobby as well during the era of CRPGs prominence. Any such discussion will of course rapidly devolve into an argument over chickens and eggs. But one that is nonetheless perhaps worth having.

Tuesday 4 June 2019

Avatar 10 Years On

It is hard to believe that Avatar was released in 2009 - in both senses in which that can be true. On the one hand it's difficult to accept that it's not just yesterday. And yet on the other it feels like several eons have passed since it came out.

The overwhelming sensation, though, is a vague doubt that it ever even came out at all. What happened to Avatar? Where did it go? Considering that it is the highest-grossing film of all time, it's amazing that it's so rarely mentioned: when was the last time Avatar came up in conversation in your hearing?

I have a soft spot for James Cameron's films in general and Avatar in particular. In a way, there is a lot of the George Lucas about him: the end product may be dreadful, but at least he seems like he's trying do do something grand and original and amazing. There's a peculiar honour in George Lucas's tilting-at-windmills endeavours with the Star Wars prequels (terrible as they are), and James Cameron is frequently the same. Avatar is dreadfully flawed. But, at the same time, wow. That is the sensation that I left the cinema with after having watched it, and the sensation I still vaguely remember now: Wow. The script was dreadful. The plot was formulaic. The acting was wooden. But still, the spectacle was quite something.

Here was a man who not only did something BIG, but sensed it. Doing something BIG in itself isn't enough, of course - just watch the John Carter film, or Oliver Stone's Alexander, for instance. But Avatar is more than that. There's feeling in it too. I think in the final analysis that's what carries it over the line: James Cameron's own emotional investment in the project which finds its way through the Hollywood machine, the money, the special effects, the awful cliches, and communicates itself to the audience - in the thinnest of whispers, but communicated nonetheless. He really wanted to make Dances with Wolves in space with blue aliens, god damn it, and he will carry you along with him, come what may.

I am uplifted by Avatar. There is so much wrong with it. But the sheer genuineness of it shines through. It sweeps you along. I can't tell you why, any more than I can tell you why the first Star Wars film does. All I can tell you is that enthusiasm counts for a lot, and that even on a project as big as Avatar undoubtedly was, it can still manage to make itself felt.