Thursday, 17 August 2017

What Might Have Been

From a very recent biography of Tolkien by Raymond Edwards:

"In the late 1960s, the Beatles were keen to make a version of The Lord of the Rings, with the four of them playing Gollum, Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf. Tolkien, who detested the group as a whole, and the bumptious John Lennon in particular, was furiously opposed; they did not secure the rights."

I am guessing:

Gandalf - George
Frodo - Paul
Ringo - Sam
John - Gollum

Paul I am sure would have insisted on being Frodo, and really George has to be Gandalf. The other two are tough ones.

Yoko could have been Wormtongue.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Behind Gently Smiling Jaws - Draft World Map

I took a few minutes to do this earlier today, using Hex Kit. What can be done in the time it takes to drink a cup of tea is pretty impressive. This is by no means final or illustrative of the flavour of the art, but it's certainly more evocative than what I could draw or come up with using other hex mapping software.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Practice Makes Perfect(ly Nice)

How to think about practising and role playing?

Well, what does it mean to be good at an RPG?  Basically, it means that, by your presence at the table, other people have a good time. As the DM you create a setup and run it so that the players have a good time. And as a player, by your actions, being proactive and thoughtful, you make it so that the DM and other players enjoy themselves.

Creating a detailed and intricate campaign setting means nothing if the players don't enjoy interacting with it. Getting your PC to level 20 doesn't matter if you're an arsehole and stop being invited to play.

So practice in the context of RPGs isn't really about getting good at the skills involved - doing voices, lateral thinking, puzzle solving, drawing maps, whatever - although those things all help. Instead, it's about being a better person. More engaged, more considerate, more amiable, more interesting and interested.

That's a good recommendation to take part in a hobby if ever there was one.

Friday, 11 August 2017

The Thrown Object

As we speak I am sitting here watching the javelin competition at this year's athletics World Championships. The distances the guys get are, it goes without saying, impressive - over 90 metres at their furthest. To achieve this they take a huge run-up and practically launch themselves along with the javelin, sometimes literally diving forward through the air after the throw. The result isn't particularly accurate in any sense. The javelin lands somewhere broadly in front of the thrower in a 30 degree or so arc, pinioning itself into the turf with what you imagine is a satisfying 'pock' sound several seconds after it's left his hand.

Put it this way - javelin throwers would have a really hard time hitting individual targets if they were using their skills in anger.

Compare this with a cricket fielder going for a run out. Usually he's moving at pace, has to reach to the ground and pick up the ball which is also moving at pace, and then take a shot at a few slivers of wood at an acute angle under severe time pressure. They don't always hit the target but they can be extremely accurate.

(Cue gratuitous 1990s cricket clips featuring Jonty Rhodes below.)

What I'm trying to get at is: accurate throwing is a matter of chucking small dense items at stationary targets. A cricketer has a reasonable chance of hitting the stumps because they're not moving.

Does it make sense to say that thrown objects in D&D only hit if the target is stationary, i.e. surprised? Perhaps not - we've all been in the situation as a kid where your friend is about to throw something at you from a few paces away and you know that you're likely to be hit however much you might duck and dive. But it might make sense to come up with a thrown object house rule:

Thrown Objects House Rule

Standard ranges for thrown objects/weapons only apply where the target is stationary. Otherwise, the effective range of all thrown objects is 5 yards.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Being Creative While Being Busy

A while ago in the comments somebody asked me to write a post about how I manage to juggle work and family commitments while also making RPG material. The pat answer is "with great difficulty" but the long answer deserves more than that. While not wanting to hold myself out as being an expert or guru of any kind - I can barely tie my own shoelaces - here are my tips for staying creative while being busy.

  • Quit social media except for what's necessary for work or you have some special overriding good reason (I use G+ to keep up to date with the RPG world, for example), leave your phone in your pocket or bag unless it's ringing, and don't surf the internet unless you have a specific reason for it. I am not perfect at following this advice, but I am working on it and gradually improving; I haven't been on Facebook for six months and am close to deleting my account, and I deleted my Twitter account ages ago. I don't know anything about Instagram or Snapchat and I have no intention of ever doing so. I am also planning to switch to a dumb phone soon. Cutting down on internet use frees up huge wide vistas of time stretching out before you as far as the eye can see. You might think you miss it when it's gone. Trust me, you don't. 
  • By a similar token, control your email use. The best way to do this is not to check emails until noon. This gives you a productive distraction-free morning, but you can do something similar in the evening, giving yourself free time to do creative things when you get home from work.
  • Get disciplined about leisure time. On your death bed you're not going to regret the fact you didn't watch enough TV. I don't live the lifestyle of a monk but I don't touch boxed sets with a barge pole. I watch a lot of sport but that's the kind of thing you can have on in the background while you do something else.
  • Do a little bit of something every day. It doesn't matter what it is or even if it's just writing a sentence or two - force yourself. You can find time. If you take a break for a day or two you lose momentum surprisingly easily.
  • Take time to think. This is related to the first bullet point, but freeing yourself from your phone is great for this. I spend quite a lot of time on the train while commuting, or sitting in a cafe, or waiting for my wife to do something or other, just sort of gazing about myself. I get lots of ideas for things that way. 
  • If you have a baby, you basically have to tough things out at times. If I'm at home I can work on something while my wife and the kid have a nap, for example. It means I don't get to take a nap myself but it's worth the sacrifice. 

I hope that's helpful and that the person who asked sees this (I can't remember which post the comment was on and Blogger doesn't provide a way to search comments).

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

A Phenomenology of Playing a Character

When playing a character in a role playing game, my consciousness tends to operate across a number of different phases of association with the character and the events that are taking place in our shared imaginings:

The Dissociated Phase. Here, my consciousness is more or less entirely abstract from what my PC is notionally 'doing', and I am hardly thinking about him at all - I am in the game, but just listening to what else is going on as an interested observer. It's as though my consciousness is standing outside the 'body' of the PC and is ready to re-inhabit it when required (it seems strange to speak in those terms, because of course the PC doesn't have a body at all, but that's the most intuitive way of describing it). Typically, this is the phase my consciousness is operating on when my PC isn't actually involved in doing anything and the spotlight is elsewhere. It's fairly uncommon, because even in those moments my consciousness is usually in the Mind's-Eye Phase (see below).

The Mind's-Eye Phase. Here, I am picturing what is going on, the scene that is being described, and my PC's place in it, in my mind's eye as though it is play or film taking place there and I am watching it as a third party. This can take place whether my PC is directly involved in what's happening or not. The association between my consciousness and the PC doesn't really have any emotional content except the kind of emotional content I get watching sport or TV. It is quite common - perhaps the most time is spent in this phase.

The Immersed Phase. Here, my consciousness is immersed in what is happening in the game. It would be wrong to suggest that this is like my consciousness merging with that of the PC, or changing in any way. It is still my consciousness and I am feeling what I probably would feel if I was in the position the PC is in. So, for example, the maybe the DM is describing the appearance of a beholder in a particularly evocative way and it is so immersive that I can actually feel a sense of impending doom. This usually happens at least once a session when something exciting is happening or during a heated in-character conversation or something like that.

The Identification Phase. This is the extremely rare occurrence that I actually feel as though my consciousness has - at least to a degree - merged with that of the PC and experiencing events not as myself but as the character and in way that is qualitatively different to how I would experience it myself. This phase is very rarely entered (much less than once per session).

The Mountain Dew Phase. Here, I am completely disengaged and fiddling with the dice, looking for something to eat, eyeing up the waitress, and not really paying attention to what is going on.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Where's Wally? (or "Waldo") and the Shadow Fantasy Genre

Readers of this blog are familiar with the fantasy genre and all of its thoroughfares and highways, as well as its dark alleyways and nooks and crannies. You know your way, like everybody, to Tolkien and Martin, Brooks and Goodkind, Donaldson and Jordan. You also know how to get off the beaten track and find Bellairs, Bunch and Dunsany. But are you familiar with what goes on outside the city gates, in the places which don't appear on the maps at all?

I'm not talking about the kind of fantasy literature that exists outside of the fantasy section of the book shop because it isn't marketed that way (Attwood, Calvino, Borges). I'm talking about fantasy works that truly live in the shadows, away from the gaze of the experts, in old children's books, board games, card games and boys' own comics, all of which can be far richer sources of inspiration than what you might find recommended to you on Goodreads. This tends to be because this style of fantasy - what I am going to call the shadow fantasy genre - is not created for fantasy fans or people who are knowledgeable about the genre, meaning the creators have considerable license to let their imaginations run riot. 

I know of no better example than Where's Wally? The Fantastic Journey. In the first couple of Where's Wally? books Wally is just wandering around like a tourist in real-world locations or else appearing at various historical events. But as the series go on things get strange as the creator, Martin Handford, starts to go off piste. In "The Great Ball Game Players" four teams seem locked in an endless competition to throw each other's balls down a bottomless hole. In "The Ferocious Red Dwarfs" a pseudo-Chinese army battles against, well, a load of ferocious red dwarfs. In "The Battling Monks" two orders of holy men representing fire and water wage eternal war against each other. And in "The Knights of the Magic Flag", well, this happens:

These creations do seem to owe something to established fantasy fiction and also to fairy tales (there is an Arabian Nights style scene in this book, as well as one that seems to pastiche D&D, complete with fire-breathing dragons lurking in tunnels being pursued by incompetent "hunters"). But the freedom of creating a picture book for kids, and the lack of any sort of requirement to appeal to hard-bitten fantasy fans, means that Handford can just throw different elements around and see what sticks. "So there is this pseudo-Chinese empire. And it is under attack from red dwarfs," is not interesting enough to be the plot of a fantasy novel, but it doesn't need to be - it's practically just free association, but quite productive as a result. You could make a D&D campaign out of that easily.

Video games can have this quality too, of course - in fact they may be the most obvious location of shadow fantasy works. Just look at Zelda, Mario, or the Final Fantasy series. But more traditional games shouldn't be overlooked. When I was a kid I remember spending a lot of time playing fantasy top trumps with this set - check out the "orc", the "elemental", the "vampire", the "golem" and the "fool"; what's the implied setting, there? It isn't D&D, is it? Those pictures seem self-evidently to have been painted by somebody who knew a little bit about the fantasy genre, but not much, and comes up with something that is in my view not just charming but also really quite intriguing and unique. 

The shadow fantasy genre - keep your eye out for it. It can be found in the strangest of places.

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