SF and Gaming Blog

Thoughts, reviews and opinion on the overlapping worlds of science fiction and gaming.

Jumping the Shark?

No longer the preserve of the hardcore geek, comics are moving away from superheroes and into a new golden age of creativity and diversity. We talk to the indie writers and artists inking the changes

The way this article has been framed epitomises everything I have come to loathe about the recent direction of The Guardian’s cultural coverage.

Canadian video game journalist Liana Kerzner has called it out for benevolent sexism, rightly stating that women are people, not benevolent pink aliens. What’s infuriating to me is the implied zero-sum game. It could have praised radical new creators taking comics in exciting new directions in their own right. But no, they had to take a swipe at the things many other people love along with their audiences. And aren’t women allowed to be geeks too?

That’s before we note that the whole thing is probably a generation out of date.

It gives all the appearance of bottom-feeding clickbait, cynically calculated to push people’s buttons. I sometimes wonder how much of the “angry male nerd” subculture that seems to see any media that’s not for them as a threat is really a backlash against nonsense like this.

The irony is there may be a chance that the article itself is a fine and insightful piece. But the way it’s been framed puts you off reading.

The same sort of thing has been spreading like pondweed across the music section of late too, much of it ludicrously ill-informed and under-researched. Last summer we had thinkpiece after thinkpiece demanding that rock and metal festivals add more dance-pop to their bills in the name of gender equality, all written by people who had clearly never heard of Nightwish or Within Temptation or Arch Enemy or Myrkur. They even tried to call out rapper MIA for appropriation of Indian culture despite the fact she’s of south Asian descent herself! It got to the point where one of their own staff writers had to point out on Twitter how embarrassingly stupid that was.

There are still some good writers like Dom Lawson and Alexis Petridis contributing to the music section who clearly demonstrate a deep knowledge and love of music. But it seems their writing in increasingly drowned out by clickbait drivel.

Much as I hate to say it, I think the proverbial shark has been jumped.

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Television and Film Crossovers We’d Like to See

Some silliness that started on Twitter. Twitter is good for things like this, especially late at night. What crossovers between different television and film properties would we like to see. Forget Dr Who meets Star Trek when The Doctor joines forces with Starfleet to defeat an alliance of Daleks and Klingons. We can surely be far more creative than that.

Eastenders and The Blob

Because who doesn’t want to see the entire cast of the world’s most annoying soap opera eaten by a giant alien blob from outer space?

Later with Jools Holland and Night of the Lepus

Mediocre indie bands attacked by giant carnivorous rabbits. With a soundtrack of boogie-woogie piano. What’s not to like about that?

BBC Question Time and The Teletubbies

Because Tinky Winky, La-La, Dipsy and Po will always make more sense than Nigel Farage.

The Clangers and H.G.Well’s War of the Worlds

With the aid of the Iron Chicken, the comet-dwelling pink rats build a fleet of tripod war machines and lay waste to Woking. Did you know each tripod has a Clanger sitting in the cockpit and aiming the heat-ray?

Crossroads (the legendary 70s soap opera) and Crossroads (the Robert Johnson blues standard)

Starring Stevie Vai as The Devil’s guitarist, scaring the life out of Benny.

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Braaaap!

No caps! No batteries! Does that mean it’s powered by Brussels sprouts?

When I were a lad, we didn’t have first person shooters. We played Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians in the garden! Or sometimes British & Germans, since World War Two was still fresh in the collective memory back then. “Hände Hoch, Schweinehund!”

How the world has changed.

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15 Years of FATE

A tweet from Rob Donoghue was a reminder that it’s been almost fifteen years since he and Fred Hicks published the first edition of FATE as a free download.

Around that time there was a lot of discussion in the Fudge community on how to take the system forward, as more people tried pushing the envelope and starting hitting the limitations of Steffan O’Sullvan’s original design. At one point there was an attempt to create a next-generation Fudge by committee on the official mailing list. But it very rapidly got bogged down in fruitless arguments about what the standard attributes should be, and went nowhere.

It became obvious that what was needed needed was for one or two people with a clear and coherent vision to make their version of Fudge without interference from anyone else’s competing hobby-horses and sacred cows. Rob Donoghue and Fred Hicks went ahead and did this.

FATE addressed what for me had been one of Fudge’s biggest weaknesses, the ambiguous relationship between attributes and skills, something that was nevertheless a sacred cow for many in the community. But the very clever and elegant Aspects mechanic ended up more as a superior replacement for Fudge’s Gifts and Faults, and attributes were instead folded into skills. Skills became broad areas of competency, limited in number, thus avoiding the skills-bloat that bedevilled systems like GURPS. It really is a clean and elegant design, devoid of obvious cruft.

FATE has itself now gone through several iterations, but it has effectively become the next generation of Fudge we wanted fifteen years ago. It hasn’t entirely replaced Fudge, which is still out there and still has its adherents, but FATE, with its high profile licences has broken through to the gaming mainstream in a way Fudge never quite managed.

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Star Wars Monopoly: The Thing That Should Not Be

Star Wars Monopoly.There’s a Star Wars edition of Monopoly, and there is controversy of the absence of the new film’s female lead, Rey

It’s a legitimate complaint, of course. But there’s a another issue too. Star Wars is all about lightsabre duels and space dogfights. What does it have to do with a board game about property speculation? Especially such a dreadful one?

Monopoly is an awful stupid game that has almost certainly done more than any other game to put generations of people off boardgames for life. It needs to die. It persists because people who themselves do not themselves play boardgames keep buying it as Christmas or birthday presents for their grandchildren or great nieces and nephews out of misplaced nostalgia for their own childhoods.

With the notable exception of Scrabble, that’s probably true of a lot of older household-name family boardgames. Boardgames have evolved tremendously in recent year, and games like Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne are superior in just about every possible way. But out of all those supposedly ‘classic’ games, Monopoly is still by far the worst of the lot.

The world does not need a totally cynical Star Wars tie-in edition.

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“A fight between the childish politics of the 1970s and the equally childish politics of the 1950s” – The best description of the culture wars in science fiction fandom I’ve yet seen.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Leave a comment

Traditional RPGs vs. Story Games

I do not understand the holy war between “Traditional RPGs” and “Story Games”.

I’ve played many great immersive traditional games over the years, using systems from AD&D to RuneQuest to GURPS to Traveller to Call of Cthulhu. There was one game of In Nomine that was so intense it ended up filling my dreams that night.

I’ve also played some highly enjoyable Forge-school narrative-style games such as Primetime Adventures and InSpectres. Indeed, of my favourite new games of recent years has to be Umlaut: The Game of Metal, which screamed “Play Me!” the first time I read it, and every session has turned out to be huge fun. That’s a pure story game; there’s no GM, the mechanics are boardgame-like and revolve around narrative control. Every session have been memorable for all the right reasons.

But here’s the thing; they are really two different kinds of game. They both do what they do well. There is really no point in fighting a holy war over which one of the two is best.

It seems to me that this holy war is driven by personal feuds between rival cliques of game designers and their supporters. So we get that risible claim that the players of traditional RPGs were “brain damaged”, and the depiction of story game advocates as “swine”. All of which leaves the most actual players bemused and wondering quite what all the fuss is about.

It all reminds me of the messy Protofour vs. Scalefour battles in the world of model railways back in the late 1970s. And I still have absolutely no clue what that one was all about.

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When a Fandom Turns Toxic

Steven UniverseThis is really depressing read about the dark side of an online fandom, and the way social media all too often brings out the worst in people.

There has got to be something fundamentally wrong with a subculture that believes bullying to the point of suicide attempts is justified in the name of some ill-defined greater good.

Steven Universe is a beloved animated children’s show known for its smart and progressive depictions of its diverse and lovable cast of characters.

But these positive qualities in the show itself have led to a very ugly turn of events in the Steven Universe fandom, after a beleaguered fanartist said she attempted suicide after being bullied by members of the fandom who felt her art was problematic. In a bizarre turn of events prompted by the ensuing debate over what kinds of fanart are acceptable, some fans have now turned even against the show’s creative team, including show creator Rebecca Sugar.

I’ve blogged before about the way the design of some social media sites affect the ways in which their users behave, for good or for ill.

Internet harassment is a subject of major concern at the moment. Social media sites including Twitter, Reddit and 4chan have come in for much well-deserved criticism for the way they can spawn toxic communities.  You hear far less about Tumblr, despite the site having developed a terrible reputation for this sort of thing.

It does leave the impression that much of the media debate on harassment is viewed through a lens of an increasingly ugly turf war between libertarianism and feminism, and some parts of the media are reluctant to cover stories that don’t support their chosen narrative. Is the lack of coverage of this story part of that pattern?

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Mainstream vs Popular?

Over on Twitter, Serdar Yegulalp made the observation that “Mainstream” and “Popular” art, while they often overlap, are not the same thing. The former is that which gets widespread attention in the media, while the latter is what actually sells. This is a split that’s been apparent in rock music for years to anyone’s who’s paying attention. “Mainstream” nowadays tends to equate to “Indie”, despite that being one aesthetic of many, largely because that’s what has the greatest appeal to those who write about music in the media. So a mid-level indie act who sell modest numbers of albums and concert tickets get to play on “Later with Jools Holland” and are considered mainstream in a way the far bigger-selling Iron Maiden are not. It’s something most rock and metal fans have learned to live with, though it’s still galling to see the media gatekeepers give so much space to things like Metallica’s appallingly dreadful collaboration with Lou Reed just because Reed is fashionable with the elite tastemakers in a way no metal band can ever be. Metallica themselves never got a look in when they were in their prime.

Even more true in the book publishing world, of course, where “Literary Fiction”, that etiolated genre that pretends it’s not a genre punches way above it’s weight when it comes to critical attention. It’s also why I suspect the fight over the Hugo Awards within science fiction isn’t just a turf war between political tribes. Is there something of a Mainstream/Popular split going on too, with a disconnect between the books and stories that get media attention (and win all the awards), and the books that sell in large numbers? Do the major SF awards disproportionately reward the literary equivalent of “indie music” at the expense of other aesthetics?

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What has the Kepler Space Telescope found around the mysterious star between Cygnus and Lyra? Are the objects orbiting the star some previously unknown natural phenomenon, or are they really, as some have suggested, massive structures built by an alien civilisation?

Posted on by Tim Hall | Comments Off