Saturday 21 December 2019

Noisms' Theory of Scientastic Misalignment

We are willing to accept the highest of high fantasy and forget about what we know about "real" science. This is the case with, say, the Dragonlance books. Nobody reads them and insists that they are unrealistic because they have dragons in and technically dragons shouldn't be able to fly or breathe fire because it's impossible based on what we know about physics. Star Wars is also in this camp - nobody wonders how a lightsaber is actually supposed to work. You just go with it.

We are also willing to accept very hard science fiction which purports to be based on a realistic-ish depiction of real physics (Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books come to mind- and possibly the original Alien and some of William Gibson's stuff).

There is a third category: the spectrum in the middle in which we accept a certain amount of fantasy in return for the creators paying lip-service to the requirement for this to at least have a veneer of making some sort of sense in terms of real physics. The best example of this is, without doubt, Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is to all intents and purposes fantasy, but which goes to great lengths to make it appear as though there are genuine scientific explanations for everything going on in its universe.

Where audiences begin to smell a rat is when there is a misalignment between our legitimate expectations and what is actually delivered.

The most prominent illustration of scientastic misalignment is the midi-chlorians. Why, George? Why? You don't need to explain the Force. The audience accepts it's fantasy - mumbo-jumbo. In that scene, we saw our expectations (high fantasy) slipping out of alignment with what was being depicted (the 3rd category, namely of lip-service to science). George was thereby led into foolishness.

Another good example is JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboots. Here, our expectations were for lip-service to be paid to real physics in the finest traditions of Trek. But what we got instead was pure high fantasy. Think of all the scenes in which warp speed happens at precisely the speed it needs to for the plot to work. That has always been the case in Star Trek, but in Next Gen they would at least have had a line or two of dialogue in which somebody tells the captain why it will take 3 weeks (or whatever) to get from A to B. JJ Abrams dispensed with that entirely. Scientastic misalignment resulted.

Things can of course work the other way round: we can get scientastic misalignment where a previously hard-seeming SF or very low-fantasy story suddenly gets an injection of high fantasy. Oddly, this form of scientastic misalignment can work well: two decent examples that spring to mind are the Night's Dawn trilogy and A Song of Ice and Fire.

The most egregious event of scientastic misalignment that I can think of is, perhaps perversely, not a genre film at all - it's Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. (You know the scene I have in mind if you've seen the film.) You often actually encounter this problem at the pretentious end of so-called literary fiction and serious cinema, where an apparently normal, real-world story suddenly jerks into the fantastical or surreal without warning - typically to unwittingly hilarious effect, and typically also indicating that the film-maker has run out of ideas.

Friday 20 December 2019

The Star Wars Vaccine

I no longer care about Star Wars. I haven't watched anything related to it since The Force Remakes A New Hope (which I reviewed here and here). This feels increasingly like a blessed relief. I think back to being 13 years old and imagine what it would have been like to have been told, at that age, that there would be a new Star Wars film every year from then until kingdom come. My tiny head would have exploded. But it turns out that the burden of having to be interested in Star Wars is too much for the 38 year old me to bear.

I don't give a shit any more.

Looking back at my Star Wars-watching career, I think I can identify Attack of the Clones as a kind of innoculation. Watching that blight, that pestilence, that utter cow-pox of a film, was like an injection of a disease into my bloodstream that did not quite manage to kill me and left me forever after immune to the charms of the Star Wars smallpox. It scarred and maimed me, at least in psychic terms, but it made me also stronger. I can listen to the 21st Century Fox drum-beat and fanfare without feeling that shiver of excitement that I used to. Instead I hear only the gentle silence of an inner peace that whispers softly, "Keep you money in your wallet."

This is sad, too, of course. I suppose I never articulated this to myself at any point until...just now, really...but there were three pop-cultural artifacts from my childhood that I always expected to keep with me forever and pass on to my sons in due course. (My daughter will naturally only be permitted to watch and play with pink things, ponies, unicorns and dolphins.) They were Tolkien's ouevre, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Wars. Star Wars has now fallen. Only two remain.

Wednesday 11 December 2019

On Violence: The Irishman, In Bruges, You Were Never Really Here

In recent years I've more or less stopped watching films and TV. But with my wife and bairn away, the last three nights I sat down to watch The Irishman, In Bruges and You Were Never Really Here  (YWNRH) on Netflix. (This review has very minor spoilers.)

Brief reviews: The Irishman is utterly fabulous, with Al Pacino giving a highly pleasurable performance as Al Pacino on steroids, and Joe Pesci brilliantly understated, but I could imagine getting restless if I'd watched it in the cinema. In Bruges was enjoyable and in its own way emotionally affecting, but the ending was too contrived and I can't shake inexplicably finding Colin Farrell a bit annoying. YWNRH was pretentious nonsense, like a boring music video, made worse because it poked at my very biggest pet hate in films - mumbly dialogue too low in the mix so you have to turn up the volume absurdly loud to hear it.

All that said, the three films formed an interesting sort of triptych on the theme of violence. In the middle, The Irishman, a grand statement on a suitably large canvas, showing us how violence consumes and destroys but also has a way of attracting and even entertaining us - an ambivalent phenomenon. On the left, In Bruges, carefully walking the line between cartoonishness and realism to brilliant and often hilarious effect - a use of violence that primarily amuses us for all its capacity to shock. And on the right, YWNRH, which preaches a message that violence is nasty and brutal, so much so that it denies the audience the opportunity to even see the proper exciting climax that ought to have been brewing. (David Cronenberg made its mirror image in A History of Violence, which knocks spots off it, if you're in the market for a viewing recommendation.) 

Of the three of them, The Irishman is like a giant walking among grasshoppers, which is as you would expect from a filmmaker as good as Scorsese. That's because he understands that while a violent society has something sick at its heart, finally a film-maker has to entertain - and that there is nothing illegitimate about violence as entertainment. The violence in The Irishman is tense, exciting, and explosive. The consequences are bad. But the gunplay has you hooked. 

Scorsese is too clever to shy away from the fact that violence thrills us. In this sense The Irishman is very similar to A Wolf of Wall Street and indeed Goodfellas - if you don't show the audience why a certain way of life, obnoxious on its face, is actually highly appealing, you're doing them a disservice.  The world is much more complex than "Bad guys do bad things" but it's also more complex than "Good people are regrettably forced into violence". Rather, violence has the capacity to terrify but also excite, and that applies across the board. 

What does this have to do with D&D? There is nothing worse than getting preachy about violence in games. But you can make it interesting by keeping the message of a film like The Irishman in mind - violence has consequences, but it's also fun. If you can capture the right mix (by making combat both thrilling and terrifying) you are almost certainly doing it right. 

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Hexology Revisited: What is in a Hex?

A topic of occasional interest on the blog has been the contents of hexes (see posts passim hereherehere and here). I thought I would revisit the theme.

Today I got up nice and early and did this hike:

As you can see - the blue squares are 1 mile squared - I walked roughly 6 miles. This took 3 hours with fairly frequent stops for photos and a few detours. If you also count stuff that was within striking distance of my route, you could say that this morning I made a preliminary exploration of a 3-mile hex. And this, a fairly desolate and isolated spot with ostensibly "nothing" in it in the grand scheme of things, contains more than enough adventure to last several sessions of game time. Let's see what I discovered:

The path from (1) to (7) on the map runs parallel to this shelf of rock:

This heugh, as they're known in these parts, runs for a good 400 yards at least, and all up and down its length are these cracks. While all of them look shallow, it doesn't take much imagination to think that they could extend down, deep down, into networks of tunnels far below the surface.

Past the heugh, we're crossing some pastureland and then quickly into woods (heading West on the map). 

Consider how dark those woods are and think about what might be dwelling there. And look at the fox skeleton. That doesn't have to be a fox - it could be anything. A manticore. A person.

And then it's off across wide open, windswept spaces, heading north towards (2) on the map. Look at those grassy tussocks - which could hide anything, including ambushers lying close to the ground. And look at these bogs and rivulets - every dozen yards or so you have to stop to figure out how you're going to get past one of these impromptu barriers. What might be living in them, in a D&D campaign world? What might creep up on you while you're gazing at the ground looking for somewhere dry to place your next step?

From here, we travel east, to points marked (3) and (4). To our left is a deep wooded valley - completely still and dead in mid-winter. It could easily be haunted, or the home of outlaws or evil spirits. There is supposed to be a 3,000 year old burial mound somewhere around here; my best guess was the mound you can see in the middle distance on the third picture down. I'm not entirely sure about that, though. And there's also a holly tree here, completely out of place. Around its feet are stones - it was clearly placed here long ago for some symbolic purpose. As I stood looking at it, a very spry old man suddenly appeared from behind it to have a chat about the weather, looking for all the world like some wizard or shaman (though the effect was spoiled by his nice blue North Face jacket). 

Now it's through woodland and the shore of the reservoir, through point (5). What is the significance of that boulder for the local druids? What lurks in the depths of that lake? The plaque attached to the tree is placed there in memory of a regular fisherman. Imagine a carving, commemorating a local hero, or signifying a warning... See also the buildings in the distance. Looks almost like a fortress, or perhaps a wizard's citadel? 

The final leg takes us south and then south-west, heading past (6) and back to (7). What at first glance seems like featureless moorland (almost prairie) turns out to be anything but. There are sinkholes and spring where water trickles up from underground, a copse of trees in which there are deep, hidden clefts couged out of the ground, and then - all of a sudden - a vast quarry, blasted and barren, looking  almost like the surface of Mars. What is in those sinkholes? What lies among the trees? Who made the quarry, and what lives in it now?

This is just a 3-mile hex. More than enough to detain a party of PCs for some time if they choose to spend some time exploring it. And bear in mind, all I did was walk in a big circle in the middle of it. I can hardly be said to have exhausted the potential adventure sites within it. And this is just a random, mundane chunk of rural England. 

The world is big, and sometimes quite staggeringly complicated. 

Monday 9 December 2019

Freedom, Ethics and Self-Enactment

D&D is just a game. And it's fun simply to play without thinking too deeply about. But there are lots of other things going on in it.

Why do kids play "let's pretend"? You're not allowed to say "Because it's fun". It seems to me that it's at least partly to do with discovery of the self. You can't have light without darkness, and you can't have a sense of self-hood without knowing what the self is not. Pretending to be other things gives you a feeling for what you are not, and in doing so provides you with the limits of what you are. It helps you map your own contours. 

(Let me stress that I think it is partly to do with this - there are plenty of other reasons, too.)

As an adult playing an RPG you can do something similar. Foucault said "freedom is the ontological condition of ethics". For him, ethics was not doing the right thing - it was reflecting on one's own actions and the underlying motives for them, and then cultivating in oneself the sentiments and impulses which one desires to motivate one's future actions. In other words it was a continuous practice of self-critique against self-selected criteria. Ethics is not abiding by the rules - it is the practices by which one brings oneself to align oneself with a particular set of standards or, if you want to get fancy, telos. Free choice is a necessary condition of this.

Michael Oakeshott makes a similar observation in drawing a distinction between moralities of self-disclosure and self-enactment. A morality of self-disclosure is simply abiding by the rules so as to "disclose" oneself as moral. In other words, it requires no exercise of free will - just doing what the rules say. A morality of self-enactment, on the other hand, is reflective. It is a matter of acting, and then reflecting on what motivated one to act. This allows one to gradually choose to emphasise or discard such motivations in future conduct, in on ongoing process of self-realisation. Free agency is a pre-requisite. 

(Mindfulness meditation helps in this, though French post-structuralists and High Tory philosophers tend not to get particularly new age.)

As an adult, playing "let's pretend" (i.e., D&D and similar) is in its own way a method of practising self-enactment of Foucauldian ethics - or can be. It is a kind of experimental safe space (I use those words advisedly) in which one can, as one's PC, make choices to act and then reflect, not on one's own motivations exactly, but on those of one's character. It like a dress-rehearsal for the real thing: why did my dwarf kill the prisoner? What were his underlying motivations? And what motivations are best cultivating to guide future conduct? At the same time - what does this say about my underlying motivations for acting?

Which is not to say you shouldn't just kill things and take their stuff. Rather, it's that you can peel away layers of the onion if you'd like to. 

Thursday 5 December 2019

Nazi Sympathiser

A friend of mine showed me a photo yesterday of somebody in the OSR Twittersphere describing me as a Nazi sympathiser. (The same person was describing another RPG blogger in the same thread as something like "radical centrist scum".)

I wasn't going to write a blog post about this - it really just struck me as funny. A lot of what happens on Twitter, and particularly OSR-related Twitter, looks to me like the antics of some obscure race of decadent high elves or sentient androids, long ago descended into insanity and ennui, incapable of understanding basic human interactions and preoccuppied with their own bizarre and whimsical flights of fancy. So I was going to leave it at that.

But then a colleague came by my office to ask me for a favour. He's a staunch left-winger of the genuinely socialist variety, a shop steward and union activist to his very core. We get along very well, and he wanted me to witness his application for a renewal of his driving license. It struck me as we chatted that here was I, somebody on the centre-right politically, having a normal friendly conversation with him, a hard leftist, and neither of us could have cared less about our genuine and serious disagreements about who should be running the country. In the real world, this shit doesn't matter. Yet for some extremely online people, it apparently does. To them, it's actually important not to associate with people who have bad opinions, and, what's more, to then paint those people as the extremists.

Thinking this is strange, and probably a bad idea, makes me a "Nazi Sympathiser".

Would George Orwell even have a role if he were alive today? What is left to satirise when the world continually satirises itself? Answers on a postcard.

[Addendum: I have had to go back to moderating comments because the spam/Kent sock puppets have been getting ridiculous. Apologies for that.]

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Replicating the Lord of the Rings (The Replication of the Ring?)

Yesterday, walking across frosty fields in the early morning with sheep dashing about in gleeful panic, I was reminded that my favourite bit of The Lord of the Rings is its first section - really the first few chapters, but extending until Rivendell.

Tolkien's genius, which I am sure was partly accidental but partly by design, comes from something which is rarely remarked upon. In the Shire, he created an island which is not an island. It's possible for his characters to go from bucolic pastoralism to mighty wilderness by just walking for a bit. (And possible for the mighty wilderness to invade the bucolic pastoral with a horse ride or two.) This allows him to produce a realistic "Hero's Journey" motif not just once, but twice (five times, actually, if you count Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin). The young hobbit finds his way in a vast and dangerous world, and comes back a grown man, and more.

It is hard to imagine a better way of appealing to a British, particularly an English, audience than this - it hits on so many themes that scratch our national itch it is unreal. There's the "sensible, down-to-earth and freedom-loving humble Englishmen go and show sinister and dictatorial Johnny Foreigner what for". (This was our favourite type of story even BEFORE the Nazis.) And there's "uncouth but honest Englishman goes out into the big bad world and proves his mettle in spite of the snootiness of Johnny Foreigner". These are two motifs writ large across our national psyche.

But in setting the Shire in the middle of a continent, Tolkien manages to avoid making it all seem a bit too "on the nose" with the English romanticism and taps into something much more universal: the love of home and the familiar, which all human beings feel, combined with the need to leave it and an existential threat which may well destroy it. This is dynamite, and he lights the fuse with aplomb.

This is hard to replicate in a game. Beginner PCs do not love the world the DM creates (yet, anyway), and travelling across a continent is not the type of scenario which makes D&D sing. There is something of it in the descent into the underworld which beginner PCs undertake. But because they do not inhabit a social milieu, their heroes' journeys are not rooted in a sense of home, and because they die easily, it's easy to treat them as throwaway at first. D&D lends itself to arch detachment rather than emotional investment. This is not a bad thing. But it does provide yet another reason (there are many) for suggesting The Lord of the Rings is not really a true "Appendix N' book - if what we mean by that is a book that really influences D&D in play.