SF and Gaming Blog

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

There are critics that help you improve, and critics that don’t

LOFPThere is a very valuable quote at the end of an interview with James Raggi, designer of Lamentations of the Flame Princess for ConTessa.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a horror-themed fantasy RPG which has garnered both strong praise and severe criticism in equal measure. Here’s what James Raggi has to say about how to respond, especially to the negative criticism that questions his work’s right to exist.

Do exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it. Spare no expense, cut no corners you do not absolutely have to. Make it reflect what you want, not what you think a customer might want. Be proud of it.

And when you get criticism, remember there are two kinds. There is the criticism that helps you improve what you want to do, and there is criticism that does not help you do what you want to do.

That second group of critics, you want to run at them naked, middle fingers extended screaming [EXPLETED DELETED] because their rage will behave as beacons that are better than any marketing for letting people know that you even exist in the first place.

Remember, hugely successful musical acts like Justin Bieber and Nickelback have their own hordes of professional haters, so worrying about it or trying to avoid it is not only foolish, but impossible.

The quote is about games, where the “perpetually outraged” are exceptionally loud critics of anything they don’t like. But it applies across any genre of art. Some people just aren’t your audience.

I wonder what category of critic I fall into when it comes to the likes of Eschaton or Black Peaks?

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RPG theory is a load of cobblers.

PolyhedralsSome recent attempts by one or two outspoken and polarising game designers to rewrite history has brought up an old post from 2009 chronicling the rise and fall of RPG Theory.

In short, RPG theory is a load of cobblers.

It started out with a handful of uncontroversial truths. It’s true that specific game mechanics encouraging certain styles of play. And having setting and rule elements that reinforce one another tends to result in a better game; we can all name plenty of games that failed due to a mismatch between the game mechanics and the setting. And baroque cruft-ridden complexity in either rules or setting is not a good thing.

But Ron Edwards and The Forge took it way beyond that, building a massive pseudo-intellectual house of cards out of incomprehensible jargon and undisguised contempt both for the vast majority of successful games and the people who actually enjoyed playing them. They styled themselves as the RPG equivalent of the punk movement in music, overthrowing what they considered as the pompous and overblown games of the generation before. But it was a punk movement without the equivalent of any three minute bursts of stripped-down primal rock’n'roll, which was ultimately the only good thing about Punk. Imagine no “Anarchy in the UK”, but keeping Sounds’ infamous one-star review of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and the iconoclastic bloviating of Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. That was The Forge.

Saying that, I own and have played a few of the small-press games that came out of The Forge, and there were some enjoyable one-shot games of Inspectres and Primetime Adventures at Stabcons. But when you look at what actually happened in the game sessions the play experience wasn’t radically different from many a more traditional game. But none of these games really gave the impression they had the depth needed to sustain a satisfying long-term campaign, and more importantly none of them ever seemed to be much more that fifteen-minute wonders. Are there still people playing “Dogs in the Vineyard” in 2015?

A decade on it’s an open question as to the lasting influence of The Forge. Did Ron Edwards’ notoriety obscure more subtle influences on following generations of games? Or was The Forge largely irrelevant to people who make and play games rather than just talk about them on the internet? Certainly many have suggested the success of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was down to their purging of Forgeist taint that had allegedly ruined the fourth edition. I’m not entirely convinced of that one myself. But do other successful games like FATE or Cortex Plus rely some of the “narrativist” ideas, or did they just develop independently?

And who was responsible for killing off GURPS?

Posted in Games | Tagged , | 9 Comments

To Boldly Go Where No Locomotive Has Gone Before

Announced today by Rapido Trains.

Rapido is excited to announce that a limited run of just 40 HO scale “LRC Shuttlecraft” DC/DCC-ready locomotives are being offered for bid in our on line silent auction in support of the Canadian Lung Association’s efforts to eliminate COPD.

Now you can bid on one of 40 exclusive, never-to-be-offered-again LRC shuttlecraft. Only one shuttlecraft allowed per person.

Starting bids are $199.95 for these once-in-a-lifetime units. Bid as high as you can because only the top 40 bidders will get their HO scale LRC shuttlecraft!

Bidding ends midnight June 1st – all winning bids will be contacted by email and will have seven (7) days to arrange payment. We accept bids worldwide. Shipping costs will be charged separately.

100% of all successful bids received will be donated to the Canadian Lung Association in memory of Leonard Nimoy.*

Full details on the Rapido Shuttlecraft oage.

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When writing about controversial subjects you have two choices. You can write balanced pieces that stick to the facts, and watch them sink without trace. Or you can write button-pushing clickbait and partisan hit pieces. But surely it’s better to keep your integrity and self-respect than to be Arthur Chu

Posted on by Tim Hall | Leave a comment

The Hugo Fight Gets Ugly

(If you’re new here, read my earlier post on the subject for some context)

The Hugo Awards fight just gets uglier and uglier. It’s true that in the eyes of many Worldcon veterans, putting forward a slate is against the whole spirit of the rules even if it falls within the letter of them, but this level of ugliness is about far more than that.

Last year the stated goal of Larry Correia’s Sad Puppies slate was to shake things up, and he made the highly questionably decision to include a novella by the infamous Vox Day purely “to make heads explode”. It got on the ballot, but eventually came last, below “No Award”, partly because Vox Day is widely hated, and partly because the work was, to be put it diplomatically, decidedly sub-standard.

This year Brad Torgersen had a different stated agenda, which was to showcase quality work of the sort that Correia and Torgersen claimed gets overlooked. While the list predictably skewed towards rightwing authors, it also included left-leaning writers such as Annie Bellet, and wasn’t exclusively white or male.

Then Vox Day considerably muddied the waters by putting up his own Rabid Puppies slate. Most of it simply copied Brad Torgersen’s Sad Puppies slate despite some authors having agreed to take part on the condition that Vox Day had nothing to do with it. The only differences were some of the short fiction categories, where he added a number of works from his own small press, and the two editor categories, where he entered himself.

Now Vox Day is an outspoken far-right extremist who isn’t even subtle about his white-supremacist views, and his action has made it far easier to paint Brad Torgersen’s slate as part of a racist plot, despite the lack of evidence for Torgersen himself being a racist.

So it’s hardly surprising that the atmosphere has been getting increasingly ugly, up to the point where people wanted out.

Annie Bellet withdrew her short story “Goodnight Stars” from the nominations

I want to make it clear I am not doing this lightly. I am not doing it because I am ashamed. I am not doing it because I was pressured by anyone either way or on any “side”, though many friends have made cogent arguments for both keeping my nomination and sticking it out, as well as for retracting it and letting things proceed without me in the middle.

I am withdrawing because this has become about something very different than great science fiction. I find my story, and by extension myself, stuck in a game of political dodge ball, where I’m both a conscripted player and also a ball. (Wrap your head around that analogy, if you can, ha!) All joy that might have come from this nomination has been co-opted, ruined, or sapped away. This is not about celebrating good writing anymore, and I don’t want to be a part of what it has become.

And Marko Kloos withdrew his novel “Lines of Departure”, with this statement from Facebook quoted from Larry Correia’s blog.

My withdrawal has nothing to do with Larry Correia or Brad Torgersen. I don’t know Brad personally, but Larry is a long-time online acquaintance and friend. We’ve known each other since before our writing days. I have no issue with Larry or the Sad Puppies. I’m pulling out of the Hugo process solely because Vox Day also included me on his “Rabid Puppies” slate, and his RP crowd provided the necessary weight to the ballot to put me on the shortlist. I think Vox Day is a shitbag of the first order, and I don’t want any association with him, especially not a Hugo nomination made possible by his followers being the deciding factor. That stench don’t wash off.

I had previously stated on this blog that Requires Hate was orders of magnitude worse than Vox Day. I was wrong. In terms of the destruction and havoc he’s been able to wreak to the community, he’s every bit as bad. Just like Requires Hate ultimately ended up eating her own, he’s stabbed the relative moderates of his own side in the back by using his ideological opponents as a weapon, in the full knowledge that he’s considered radioactive and they’re heavily into guilt-by-association. Quite what his ultimate agenda might be is hard to guess, but his short-term goal appears to be destroy the Hugos entirely rather than win any awards. And people are playing into his hands.

At this point, the Hugo Awards of 2015 are as good as dead, and everyone is now fighting over a corpse. Whether The Hugos can be salvaged in future years is another matter, and it does need a consensus on what the awards actually represent, and who they belong to. At the moment it’s degenerated into a fight to the death which will only destroy the object being fought over. Science Fiction itself is the loser.

Maybe cooler heads will prevail in 2016. A few people have tried to build bridges and find some common ground, but they’re still being drowned out by the louder and angrier voices.

There do need to be changes, and there is still the chance that some long-term good can come out of this mess.

Slate voting has demonstrated how a tiny minority voting the same way can sweep entire categories. But it didn’t start with the Sad and Rabid Puppies. It was broken before, and it didn’t need an organised conspiracy to do it. With a small voting pool all it took was a critical mass of people with heavily-overlapping tastes to crowd everything else off the ballot. That fuelled the perceptions, true or not, that second-rate work was ending up on the ballot simply because the author was friends with the right people, and even that the whole thing was being fixed behind the scenes by an imaginary cabal.

The organisers of the Hugos need to do two things. First, they need to massively expand the pool of voters in the nomination round, and there are signs of this already happening. Second, they need to overhaul the voting system so that voting blocs, whether formal, informal or accidental, cannot dominate the nominations in the way they have been doing. If The Hugos are genuinely meant to represent the best of the year in SF&F, the finalists do need to be the choices of a representative cross section across all of fandom. At the moment, there is little evidence that they are.

I’m still glad my chosen fandom is music. I don’t remember even the Punk Wars ever getting this bad.

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First Past The Post – Is this the villain?

Yes, I know full well that there’s far more about the current Hugos fight than just voting systems. There are all sorts of issues about who the awards belong to and what they’re supposed to represent.

But this blog post is not about those issues. I’ve covered that elsewhere.

There’s a fascinating discussion on Making Light below a guest post by Bruce Schneier how to change the voting system to defeat the emergence of organised slate voting that’s so disrupted the Hugo Awards nominations this year. As a lifelong election anorak it’s an interesting subject. An emerging consensus seems to be some version of Single Transferable Vote is a good way to go.

As I see it, the problem isn’t slate voting, even though that’s widely considered to be against the spirit of the thing. The problem is the First Past The Post system that’s used for the nominations ballot. That’s what’s enabled a group comprising a small percentage of the voters to completely dominate the results. The Sad Puppies haven’t broken the system, all they’ve done is proved that it’s broken.

But FPTP has been causing problems long before that.

All it takes is a critical mass of voters with heavily-overlapping tastes to have the effects of completely shutting out those whose tastes don’t overlap. I believe it’s this, rather than behind-the-scenes slates organised through back channels, that’s led to the appearance of award nominations being dominated by a clique. It doesn’t need the conspiracy alleged by the Sad Puppies to produce the Hugo nominations ballots of the past few years. It’s just an unintended consequences of a voting system designed for a different age when SF wasn’t so fragmented into sub-tribes.

While I don’t doubt that some puppies have motivations that aren’t concerned with the health of the SF scene, they do gain energy from the ranks of those who feel disenfranchised from the present system.

STV will fix both the problems of slate voting and the problems that gave rise to slate voting. In that respect, it’s a win-win.

Next month the United Kingdom goes to the polls in a real election. We’re still using the archaic FPTP system in an election where the two-party system it was supposed to serve has completely broken down. We will almost certainly end up with a Parliament that bears little or no resemblance to the way the electorate voted, and may well result in a government which has no popular mandate. We’re in for some very bumpy times, for stakes far higher than deciding who’s supposed to have written the best book or fanzine of the year.

We need to be using STV for real elections too.

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More thoughts on The Hugos

A couple of analogies:

Every year, around February time, the Classic Rock Society holds an awards ceremony in Wath-upon-Dearne in Yorkshire. Despite the name, the emphasis is on progressive rock, and the winners are almost entirely drawn from a relatively small and incestuous scene of grassroots bands either signed to small labels or who release independently. Bands such IQ, Magenta, Mostly Autumn and a handful of others at the same level dominate the awards. Indeed the award for Best Bass Player used to be known as the “Best John Jowitt Award” because he used to win it year after year, until finally he ruled himself out of contention so that someone else could win for a change. Nobody from major-league prog bands like Dream Theater or Rush ever win, nor prog-influenced mainstream acts like Elbow or Muse.

Were a large influx of people join the CRS specifically to vote for something like Noel Gallagher’s album about points failures at Stockport as album of the year, a lot of people would be highly unimpressed. But the CRS Awards has never held itself up as representing the best of all music, progressive or otherwise. It doesn’t have a generations-long history in which “In The Court of the Crimson King” and “Close to the Edge” were illustrious past winners.

Every year The Guardian does a readers’ poll for best album. Many years it’s dominated by the same corporate-indie mainstream as the end-of-year list complied by their own writers. But in 2012 the winner was “Invicta” by progressive rock stalwarts The Enid. A few people cried foul, claiming it was out of order that a band playing the sort of music that to them was the epitome of uncool could be allowed to gatecrash indie-rock’s party. But the consensus was “good on them”. The Enid’s fanbase broke no rules, and any other cult band with a devoted following could have done the same thing, but didn’t. Two years later the veteran punk satirists Half Man Half Biscuit repeated that success for their album “The Urge for Offal”.

If a dozen different bands with dedicated but non-overlapping fanbases were to do the same in 2015, it would make the readers’ end-of-year list an awful lot more interesting.

Not that either of these are exactly the same, but there are parallels with the hugely controversial results of the Hugo Awards nominations that are currently melting the internet.

My “fandom” is music. Being a reader of science fiction rather than a convention-goer I’m nowhere near as emotionally invested in the Hugos as many others clearly are, either as treasure to be protected or a prize to be fought over. Even so, the levels of triumphalism and of sour grapes I’m seeing from the two ‘sides’ are both predictably depressing. At the end of the day, it’s just an fan award, and the stakes are hardly a matter of life and death. But the Hugo Awards still ought to be bigger than any two warring cliques, neither of which is prepared to acknowledge that the other might have at least some valid points, however badly expressed.

The broader SF world needs to find a constructive way forward which doesn’t involve excluding significant sections of SF’s readership.

I’m leaving this post open for comments, but I’m going to be fairly strict on what I allow through. Keep it civil and be constructive if you want your words of wisdom to avoid the digital slushpile.

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Sad Puppies vs The Hugo Awards

Yet again the Hugo Awards are causing the internets to explode. This time there are rumours that Brad Torgersen’s “Sad Puppies” slate has managed to get three out of the five nominations for Best Novel, and there are even rumours of complete sweeps of some of the short fiction categories.

The war of words is getting increasingly bitter even before the announcement of the actual nominations. The Sad Puppies face accusations of dedication to white male dominance of the genre and ruining The Hugos for everyone else, while the Sad Puppies themselves accuse their opponents of being a clique of elitist gatekeepers. Too many people are cherry-picking the worst statements by the “other side” in order to prove the righteousness of their cause. Neither side is exactly covering themselves in glory.

They certainly champion different styles of SF; socially-aware works with literary ambitions versus commercial action-adventure stories. The extremely polarised reactions to last years winner of Best Novel, Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice” shows where the faultlines lie. But shouldn’t SF be a big enough tent to accommodate many different kinds of fiction?

The whole thing leaves me conflicted. I’ve never had much time for the right-libertarian world-view of much American hard-SF, and have always preferred the more socially-aware works from the likes of Charlie Stross or the late, great Iain Banks. But the left-wing sub-tribe of SF has lost a lot of moral high ground in the past twelve months, first with the Jonathan Ross fiasco, and then with ugly Requires Hate affair. There are people I once respected I now regard with suspicion.

But whatever your own position, do read Abi Sutherland’s heartfelt post on why block voting and politicisation is against the spirit of the whole thing.

Much like the similar culture wars in the computer gaming world and elsewhere, the whole thing gains its energy from the uncompromisingly tribal nature of US politics. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon. I blame Karl Rove, who for the sake of winning a couple of elections was prepared to poison the body politic for a generation. Sadly it’s polluted a lot of UK internet discourse as well. It’s difficult to imagine how any of this can make much sense to the rest of the world.

But ultimately something like the Hugo Awards should not be the exclusive property of any one narrow tribe, which is why I find some of the comments I’ve read from Teresa Nielsen-Hayden and others so disappointing.

The Hugo Awards are supposed to represent the best the the world of science fiction has to offer. If it devolves into a highly politicised contest with semi-organised block voting it risks turning into the Eurovision Song Contest, which as any music fan will tell you is an entertaining circus in its own right but has absolutely no relevance to the wider music world.

Due to the contentious nature of the issue I’m temorarily disabling comments while feelings on the subject are still running high.

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RIP Terry Pratchett

Pratchett DeathSo we all knew it was coming; like Iain Banks we’d known he was seriously ill and it was only a matter of time, but it was still a shock to hear the news of Terry Pratchett’s death at the age of 66.

Terry Pratchett was the most significant fantasy author of the past thirty years, certainly from a British perspective. Nobody other than perhaps Tolkien has cast a longer shadow over the genre, and Pratchett has produced a huge body of work. He’s crossed over to the mainstream with a readership well beyond the confines of science fiction and fantasy’s usual audience, while remaining hugely revered within fandom. The blurb of his books used to say he was sometimes accused of writing literature. That’s because he did. Although the majority of his books were comedies, Pratchett fiercely rejected the idea that comic was the opposite of serious. He could and did tackle many weighty subjects, and brought them to an audience Serious Literature could not hope to reach.

The vast majority of his comic fantasies took place in the Discworld, a vast flat disc on the back of four elephants on the back a giant turtle. His fantasy world was a mirror held up to our own; like much classic SF this enabled him to explore real-world issues from a position slightly removed. He tackled politics, economics, organised religion, race and gender, and did it without the preachiness of many a lesser author. He populated his world with so many memorable characters; Sam Vimes, unique as a comic policeman who’s actually competent, the witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, Moist von Lipwig, the convicted conman turned nationalised industry boss, and Death, the ‘anthropomorphic personification’ Pratchett managed to make into a sympathetic three-dimensional character.

Pratchett’s insights into human nature make his work valuable to all sorts of professions. Of the tributes I’ve seen online, Mike Talks has suggested some of his books are a must read for any tester just to challenge them, and to expand their minds. And Rev. Rachel Mann has not only named Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg as inspirational characters, but suggests that “Equal Rites” and “Small Gods” should be required reading for anyone wanting to enter the priesthood.

If you haven’t read any Pratchett, you need to. If you’re not an avid fantasy fan I would recommend you avoid the first couple of Discworld novels starring the failed wizard Rincewind. “The Colour of Magic” and “The Light Fantastic” are picaresque journeys parodying corny fantasy clichés, and won’t work as well if you’re not familiar with the works being parodied. Start instead with something like “Guards! Guards!” or “Wyrd Sisters”, which introduce you to Sam Vimes and the witches.

And now he has met one of his best characters. I’ll let his Twitter feed have the last word.

(The image of Terry Pratchitt and Death came from Mike Talk’s blog, which does not identify the artist)

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Facing the crocodile that ate my wife

This BBC News story from Uganda reads like an archtypcal fantasy story.

The hero of the story commisioned a blacksmith to forge a special weapon with which to slay the beast. Then he and a large number of extras fought the monster for an hour and a half before finally killing it.

I’ve always assumed that the dragons of European legend were travellers’ tales of African crocodiles. Which would make Mubarak Batambuze a modern-day St. George.

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