Friday 31 December 2021

Find Somebody Itching for Something to Start: A Soft Announcement

In the New Year, I'm planning to launch a new print 'zine via Noisms Games, featuring original art, gaming content, and (yes) fiction, with an emphasis on the beautiful, the heroic, and the fantastical. I'm thinking of calling it In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard.

The basic idea is to pay money up front for content and then use a Kickstarter to cover costs of printing and, hopefully, recoup other expenses. I will not contribute much myself; I would like to make the 'zine open for submissions, and selectively publish high quality stuff. I will think the venture a resounding success if I only end up publishing a small percentage of what is submitted. 

This is not yet an announcement or a notification of being open for submissions; I need to run numbers first and organise the website. Consider it the softest of soft launches, and await further news in early January.

Wednesday 29 December 2021

I Got Your Community Right Here

I have written quite a lot down the years about the word 'community' and its uses and abuses. 

I've recently been considering in some depth what it means, for two reasons. The first is that early this year I moved to an area with a very strong community (it's the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else by at most two degrees of separation) and found myself immersed within it by virtue of having a school age child. It is like living in the 1950s. There is a traditional high street with a butcher, greengrocer, baker and so on; the kids all walk to school together in the morning and all play in the local park afterwards; people stop and say 'hello' to each other as they pass; there are thriving karate clubs and weight-loss groups and baby yoga classes and all the rest. Elements of it are vomit-inducingly bourgeois (baby yoga being a case in point; the area even has 100% Liberal Democrat local councillors). But it certainly beats having no community at all. 

The second reason is that after decades of respectful agnosticism I've recently restarted semi-regular churchgoing, and have rediscovered the low-key virtues of high-church Anglicanism, the unique smell and temperature of English church halls, and the 'oddly reassuring and reassuringly odd' nature of parish life. A church congregation also has many of the characteristics of a community: a bunch of people who have nothing in common except that they live reasonably close by, and apparently share a common faith. (I use the word 'apparently' advisedly - it simply isn't done in Anglican churches to actually discuss personal religious belief.) It isn't the same as a 'community' strictly understood, for reasons which I'll come to, but there is a close connection. 

'Community' is a particular form of human association that is chiefly defined by what it is not. It is not family, or friendship. Nor is it what you might call 'civil association' - the loose ties of common respect for the law which are necessary to make society function at all. It's not a business or charity. It is not quite the same as a tribe or subculture or 'scene'. Nor is it exactly a neighbourhood, because there are plenty of neighbourhoods with no community at all. Rather, it's what you get when a certain number of people are brought together chiefly by happenstance - because they have ended up living in the same area - and interact with each other regularly enough to become familiar. They are together through fate rather than choice, but they do choose to engage with one another beyond the level of mere coexistence. 

It is not necessary to like, or even get along well with, the other members of a community. People can even detest one another - as long as they do it relatively discreetly and do not puncture the veneer of civility. All that is really necessary is polite toleration and somewhat regular interaction. Enough of the members have to see one another regularly enough - even if just to say 'hello' to - to generate a critical mass of baseline familiarity.

A church congregation, then - just like a baby yoga class, indeed - is not really a community in this sense. Nor is a sports club or political group or local charity, or a pub or cafe or post office. But all of these things do help foster it by providing the opportunities for interaction upon which community rests. (And it is often when all or most of these things have disappeared from a neighbourhood that its community collapses, because it means that people are no longer interacting with one another frequently enough to be familiar.) Some of these are more important than others, depending on the nature of the community in question. But all of them help.

What does this have to do with the OSR, then? Until recently, you would have had a very hard time convincing me that an online scene like the OSR could ever really meet the description of a 'community' as such. Too online, too diffuse, too anonymous, and with a membership united by a shared interest rather than the mere happenstance of living near one another. I am probably, on balance, still of that view. But I can also see that there is an argument from the other side - that the OSR might be thought of as a loose collective of individuals who interact frequently enough to generate a certain level of shared familiarity, such that, if we don't all know each other or communicate directly, there is a certain level of recognition of particular names, aliases and relationships sufficient enough to make us a simulacrum of what a real human community is. That it is no substitute for the real thing does not in itself invalidate the analogy.

To extend the analogy further: is a blog something like a village pub, with a rotating irregular cast of visitors coming and going from evening to evening? Is a Discord server like a post office or off-license through which people continuously flow through the course of the day? And is a forum like a church, full of ageing parishioners still gamely plodding along and slowly slewing off members from year to year?

Tuesday 28 December 2021

2021 in Review

2021 has been a good year in my gaming life, mirroring - whether through causation or mere correlation - a good year for personal development all round. 

In late January I began running a weekly D&D Rules Cyclopedia campaign, 'The Three Mile Tree'. which has continued all year, missing I think only two weeks total. Momentum is strong and the regular crew - you know who you are - have been great sports. (Next week, we find out whether any of them will survive their encounter with the giant lynx displacer beasts.) It has been good to be reminded that 'with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams' role playing is still a fun hobby. 

In July I published the first volume of Orbis Immobilis, the Fixed World. This is the first product I've actually managed to release since I think the spring of 2016, despite having three (count 'em) projects otherwise completed and ready to go. I sincerely hope that logjam will be cleared in 2022, releasing a veritable flood of sheer, unadulterated stuff - and the next volume of The Fixed World is already half done.

Overall I am pleased with my blogging output over the past 12 months. Quantity has been lower than I would have wished, but I think average quality has improved after a relatively barren 2020. Some posts that I was actually quite proud of include my review of the Lyonesse and Gaean Reach RPGs, Summerland, or the Spookiness of Rural England in AugustAsking 'What Then?'Name That SubcultureThe Patch Adams Problem, and this review of Jack Vance's Emphyrio. I also did a well-received interview with Patrick Stuart and enjoyed being interviewed in turn. (And, though nobody else seemed to like them, I got a kick of writing the Tournament of the Gods entries.)

I also actually bought quite a lot of stuff this year. Not all of it was great, but I really enjoyed Punth: A PrimerThe Gardens of Ynn, and Pariah. I was encouraged that there is still space within what I would call the 'substance over style' bracket. What I would like to see more of in 2022 is really excellent material that looks as though some earnest amateur, without particular artistic skill, really tried hard to put together something half-decent in MS Word and then exported it as a PDF. I mean that entirely non-facetiously.

Otherwise, let's keep going. Avoid social media, run games, write/draw stuff, and read good books. That's what I hope to do in the year to come. 

Monday 27 December 2021

Annoying Evil Idiot Fucks

Has it really come to this? Must we fight

95% of the RPG world is this. 4% of it is this. 0.9% is this and this. It is a terrible scene: over-excited, frothy, consumerist, bland, and decadent. 

In our sliver of the last 0.1% of the remaining terrain, we must pull together like emperor penguins at the onset of the antarctic autumn. Our aim: to survive the winter with our eggs intact - a task that is difficult enough given that the winter may be eternal. Disunity will do nothing but expose us to the wind and ice. Only common purpose will see us through.

Patrick, Prince: shake hands. I don't care who started it. Let's get back to doing what we do best - making stuff that people of discernment and taste will enjoy, and, above all, writing complete wank on our blogs.

[Edit, 27th December 2021: The title is a Bill Hicks reference, not a finger pointed at anybody.]

Thursday 23 December 2021

The Unbearable Lightness of Planescape

The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with Kundera's famous riff on Nietzsche's myth of eternal return. As Kundera's narrator points out, we don't (at least as far as we know) live our lives over and over again. Instead, we only live once. 

Because we only live once, we have no way of knowing whether any decision we have made was the right or wrong one, even after the fact. We can never know what would have happened if we had acted differently. This, the narrator suggests, liberates us. We can never really blame ourselves for any decision we make, because we never act with foresight. If we had chosen differently, things could have been worse, and there is never any way of knowing.

But, the narrator goes on to observe, as well as being liberating, this fact that we only live once makes our lives ephemeral: we can't go back and correct our mistakes, with the benefit of hindsight. Every decision we have made stands, and cannot be undone. It would be one thing if our lives were a rehearsal before the main event, so we could make a better go of it second time around. But since that's not the case, our lives are 'unbearably light' - we cannot blame ourselves for anything we have done, but nor can we right all of our many wrongs. In the end, since we only live once, 'we might as well not have lived at all'.

It must be pointed out that although Kundera writes in the first person here, the argument is being made by an unreliable narrator and the whole point of the novel (spoiler alert) is that this nihilistic notion must be utterly refuted. But there is something to this idea that total liberation is attendant on existence being ultimately futile. Absolute freedom presumes there being absolutely no constraint on one's field of action, which means absolute absence of consequence. But the consequence of that is an 'unbearable lightness'. Where our actions have no consequence, we might as well not act, or exist, at all.

I was thinking about this while looking through old Planescape materials yesterday. There is something intangible, airy, ineffectual about Planescape. Yes, the art is beautiful, the production values second to none. Yes, it has a mood and a tonal palette that is totally different from any other fantasy setting. Those qualities impressed me as an adolescent. But now it feels inconsequential, in all senses of the word - like a museum piece, to be regarded and admired, rather than a real world to be explored. Nothing going on within it really seems to matter. 

The problem, I think, is that in an infinite multiverse in which anything can happen, one slips easily to the conclusion that nothing might as well happen. What, ultimately, are the consequences to anything one does? A character dies, another comes along, totally different to the one before; one location is explored, another multitude of others presents itself; one level of the Abyss is visited, and an infinite number more await; the cosmic ballet goes on - and the setting remains, held in a ball of infinitely large aspic. 

It is a little like the experience I now have whenever I put on Netflix or another streaming service. A million options present themselves, and ennui sets in. It's not as simple as 'analysis paralysis', though that's part of it; it's something deeper. It's that, given so many options, the very act of choosing itself becomes diminished. If one can watch only four channels, as was the case when I were a lad, the choice is imbued with significance: you might end up watching something bad, and missing something good. If one can watch more or less anything, and switch between them at will, the choice becomes so insignificant and devoid of consequence that it hardly feels worth being made. If one can watch anything, why indeed watch anything at all? If one can play any sort of campaign in an infinite multiverse, why play anything at all?

Tuesday 21 December 2021

I Got My Philosophy

Can game design be applied philosophy? I think so. Some people might say everything is applied philosophy, but usually unconsciously; I will leave that topic for another occasion.

Michael Oakeshott understood modernity as a response to the dissolution of communal ties that existed in the medieval era. In times past, people understood themselves primarily in accordance with their status, and the rights and obligations that derived from it. This made their self-understanding relational, and comparatively fixed. In modernity, by contrast, people became free, whether they liked it or not, and now had to confront the world as individuals. You are not who you are because of a status deriving from birth or marriage - you are what you make of yourself

This makes freedom a challenge. Some people relish this prospect, and use the opportunity to pursue their life as an adventure. Others see it as a burden, full of unwanted risk and anxiety, and seek to avoid freedom where they can. The former are the stuff of classical liberalism (what a post-structuralist would call 'the liberal subject'); the latter are vulnerable to exploitation by authoritarians, who are willing to exert choices and make decisions on their behalf. 

This was a common concern among 20th century philosophers who had witnessed first hand the rise of authoritarianism in the interwar period. The thinkers of the Frankfurt School - Fromm, Horkheimer, Marcuse - would very much have agreed with Oakeshott's assessment. Something about the conditions of postindustrial modernity produced in a large section of the population (perhaps even the majority of the population) a deep sense of alienation, powerlessness and unease, and it was this that led them to put their faith in the hypertrophied State. The 'fear of freedom', as Fromm called it, drove the masses into the arms of totalitarianism: better that than suffer the psychic angst of having to make decisions for oneself and deal with the consequences.

This bleak vision is tempered by William Galston's notion that education can inculcate in people the kind of character traits that will equip them for life in a liberal society. If they do not inherit the virtues of self-reliance, prudence, civility, and cooperativeness from their parents and communities, they can be taught them. This is what a liberal education is ultimately all about - shaping future generations into responsible actors who will respond to freedom in the appropriate way, and will be able to take advantage of its opportunities without fear (or descent into license). 

In other words, while there are probably people who are predisposed, due to innate character traits or circumstance, to 'fear freedom', there is no reason why this should fate us to some kind of totalitarian impulse. And, in any case, the truth is that we probably all have our moments in which freedom appears to us as a burden that we would rather not carry: think, for example, of the last time you agonised over having to make a decision (say, whether or not to buy a house, or change jobs). In your heart of hearts, did you at that time never have the feeling of longing for a benevolent dictator to come along and make the decision for you? Would that not have struck you as a blessed release from the torment of being unable to decide? Ultimately, you would probably have recognised that there is something more authentic, more valuable, in making such decisions for yourself and living with the consequences, and there would have been something dehumanising about having the choice made for you. But one can recognise the impulse in oneself to seek to avoid the tyranny of options - what Kundera was meant by 'the unbearable lightness of being'.

So what does this have to do with role playing games? The superiority of sandbox-type play to the railroaded adventure path is, I think, found in its recognition that there is something more authentic about both DM and players exercising freedom - to arrange things as desired, and to pursue options within a broad scope of possibility, respectively. It is often more attractive to rely on pre-written, pre-plotted, published 'adventures', particularly when the alternative is the wearisome task of having to sit there with a blank piece of paper and pencil and think for oneself. At such times, the benevolent dictator of Paizo or WotC can have his appeal. But going down that road also somehow diminishes us. 

This also suggests, I think, that the most worthwhile RPG products are the ones that educate - that provide the reader with the tools to run a sandbox game. It is the Kevin Crawfords of this world who are giving us what we truly need, and which will encourage in us the embrace, rather than the fear, of gaming freedom. 

Thursday 16 December 2021

On Monasteries of the Mind

It increasingly feels as though "the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and has overturned the order of the soul" - no? Set the substantive arguments about the state of the world to one side. Can we at least agree that it doesn't seem foreseeable that we will ever see a time when politics is stable and sublimely irrelevant in the way that it was in, say, 1998, again? Watch an episode of Friends, Frasier, or Seinfeld. That is a world strongly characterised by an absence of fraughtness. That is a world that looks to the future with optimism. That is no longer the world we inhabit. 

At such times, we must all become Marcus Aurelius, Baruch Spinoza, Matsuo Basho: we must recognise that we cannot bend the material world with our reasons or our wills, but we can detach our emotions from external causes. We can retreat to monasteries of the mind, and pursue whatever interests elevate us, nourish us, and sustain us. 

We can, in short, escape. We can think about elf-games. Outside, all is chaos: "I've seen the future, brother, it is murder." But here I sit by my fire, drinking whisky and making notes for next week's D&D session. It involves swanmays. Some may call this childish escapism. To which I can only respond: it's better than getting angry about what's in the news or on Twitter. That would be like opening the windows of my mental monastery in a storm. And I'd probably give myself ulcers, or an aneurysm, or something. 

Anyway, in summary: I continue to write things, quite a lot of things, just not for the blog. There will be big announcements in the new year. In the mean time, spend some time in your own respective monasteries, and send me a carrier pigeon or two if the mood strikes you:

Thursday 2 December 2021

Towards an Aquatic-Aerial Combat System

My usual MO when running combat in D&D is to draw rough sketches to show where the combatants are in relation to one another. Some people use minis. Both of these methods can be easily replicated if running a game online.

Problems arise, however, the instant things get properly three-dimensional. The thing about fighting on land is that everybody is on the same (horizontal) plane. Underwater, or in the air, people can come at each other from above or underneath; indeed, manoeuvring to try to take advantage of altitude (or depth) would be a significant element of combat in such environments, and a large part of what would make it interesting.

The issue is that keeping track of objects in a three-dimensional space is really hard, and not something human beings, used to walking around on horizontal surfaces, readily intuit. This is probably why even in SF films and TV series set in space, we tend to find vessels interacting with one another on the same plane, as though they are resting on top of some sort of invisible intergalactic field rather than objects in an infinite void able to approach one another from any angle. Hence:

Trying to run combat underwater or in the air (or in space, for that matter) and doing a plausible job of it therefore would, I think, involve abandoning diagrams and instead reconceptualising combat as a true 'melee', with a totally fluid mass of combatants. The basic idea would be:

  • Within the melee itself, anybody can attack anybody else each round; there is no need to keep track of position
  • A more manoeuvrable combatant can elect to attack a less manoeuvrable one from above or below, gaining a bonus
  • A combatant can attack an equally manoeuvrable combatant from above or below through a contested roll, or by leaving itself open to some kind of flanking or opportunity attack
  • Slower or less manoeuvrable combatants get fewer attacks