SF and Gaming Blog

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

The Literary Origins of RPGs

Interesting post on Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog on how the first generation of roleplaying games from the late 1970s weren’t influenced by the ackowleged greats of the golden age of science fiction such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke, but by a host of less well-know authors, many of which are long out of print.

If you take some time to read what the early rpg designers had read, you will see that they almost compulsively lifted material from pulp and new wave writers. The most surprising thing about this is the extent to which they passed over the grand masters of Campbellian science fiction. The authors that are synonymous with the field seemed to hold not one iota of attraction or influence to them. Mike Mearls thinks almost entirely in terms of television and movies. These things had a negligible impact on the first wave of rpg designers. For them it was short stories and novellas and short novels from dozens of authors that were primary. There was no “big three” for them: they read everything they could get their hands on.

He makes the valid point that Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke wrote serious stories about big ideas, which don’t translate well into roleplaying settings or scenarios. Meanwhile it was the lowbrow pulpy action-adventures that inspired Gary Gygaz and Marc Miller to create D&D and Traveller. In particular he cites Jack Vance as a huge influence on both.

Where, I wonder, does H. P. Lovecraft fit in? He was surely a pulp writer, and his work inspired what has to be the most successful licenced RPG of all time. How much has the Call of Cthulhu game contributed towards Lovecraft’s status as a cult author? I can’t be the only person who came to his fiction through the game.

Today’s generation of RPG designers get their ideas more from film and television than from books, with some games designed around the tropes and beats of a typical television episode, and combat systems designed to reproduce the fight scenes from action movies. As D&D line editor Mike Mearls says to Polygon.

“If you look at science fiction follows, I think an arc that fantasy is following now. In the 50’s, science fiction was very iconic, and at least in movies, very much templated. You had the flying saucer, or the rocket ship, you had either the aliens who were clearly monsters — like the guy in the deep sea diving helmet wearing the gorilla coming to eat people or whatever. Or they were people in funny outfits who were very inscrutable and so much more advanced that we were, and that was your pantheon.”

Later, as science fiction entered the ‘60s and the ‘70s, it began to be entrusted with more serious themes and dealt with issues of change in modern culture as a whole.

“So you have this new wave of science fiction coming through and science fiction grows up,” Mearls said. “It became Alien — a horror movie in outer space. It becomes Soylent Green, which is kind of like this social commentary on science fiction. It’s Rollerball, right? This entire thing about what’s it really mean to have free will, and can there really be freedom in a technological society? But it’s still science fiction.”

Barely a mention of books at all. Is this because the current generation of gamers read fewer books and watch more telly? Or is it because literary SF and fantasy have moved away from the sort of pulpy action-adventure that makes a good RPG in favour of more weighty topics, and the action-adventure genre in turn has switched to other media?

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Fantasy Elves and their True Nature

Zak Smith has written an interesting blog post on elves in fantasy gaming and literature. Elves in fiction draw from two conflicting archetypes. There are the elves of Tolkein’s Middle Earth, noble and wise, and if they ever seem otherworldly or callous it’s because they take a long term view of things that shorter-lived races cannot fully understand. Then there are the elves of Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld, callous and cruel because that is their very nature, seeing lesser races as mere playthings. Both, of course, draw from northern European folklore in which things are far more complicated and morally ambiguous.

In the gaming world, D&D squares this dichotomy by having two distinct subspecies of elf, the “good” elves modelled on Tolkien, and the Drow, who represent the bad guys.

Zak Smith comes up with an alternative take. In his cosmology, elves believe that everything, from trees to food animals to tools and buildings has a soul and an inner life, and that’s reflected in the elven attitude towards everything, including “lesser” races.

Metaphysical faith–like all ideas requiring morality and power to work in concert–implies both profound contradiction and a willingness to ignore it. Your average elf will totally stick his or her foot in a shoe while totally believing the shoe has thoughts and desires the same way most of us have decided we simply couldn’t function if we continuously contemplated the totality of the plight of the chicken we eat or the homeless human we walk past on our way to get it.

The usual fantasy trope is that the evil elves are a distortion–that elfness is natural and noble, and that some drop of venom must have found its way into the formula to create the cruel ones. But in actuality the elf is already poisoned: it isn’t faerie. The elf is organized, technologized, militarized, civilized, and it draws psychological comfort from imaginary lines between its consciousness and that of things that don’t move on their own.

His conclusion is that “evil” elves as exemplified by D&Ds’s Drow, rather than representing noble elves who have fallen, represent the elves in their natural state. Noble Tolkien-style elves are those who have managed to rise above their own nature. It’s an interesting twist on the D&D default.

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The RPG Social Skills Monster rises from the grave

The RPG Pundit issues forth a pronouncement from his lofty citadel.

Some people have criticized my past blog entries where I argued that the best RPGs (like old-school D&D) are superior at handling actual roleplay because they DON’T have any ‘social mechanics’ and just make you actually play it out.

The common complaint is “RPGs should be fair to players though; it isn’t a competition; and if a player has a PC who should be able to do well at diplomacy or something like that, but the player himself is not very good at speaking or putting together arguments, isn’t it only fair that the GM give him a bonus??”

This isn’t really about being in “competition”, but it sounds like they’re saying that if you’re a really good roleplayer and come up with good ideas, you should roll with just your normal bonuses; but if the guy next to you is a moron who always thinks up dumb ideas or can’t roleplay worth a damn, he should get a Special Snowflake bonus so his feelings aren’t hurt.

Is that not going to create a sense of ‘unfair competition’ from the people who do not get that bonus?

Doesn’t that look like favoritism?

As far as your character failing to do things he should be able to do: the question would be WHY do you feel your character “should be able” to do those things? In an OSR game you don’t have 30 points to dump in Diplomacy so you can wave it around like a Mind-Control Superpower to avoid having to actually come up with ideas or roleplay, so that’s out.

You are in a ten foot by ten foot room. Ahead of you stands a very obvious straw man argument. Roll for initiative….

I know the role-play vs. roll-play argument about social skills is as old as the hobby itself, and it’s a distinction between what are really two distinct but equally valid methods of play. But in all the RPG sessions I’ve played, including those with plenty of social skills on the character sheet, I have never, ever seen a GM treat social abilities as if they were superpowers.

When you think about it, what is the difference between:

Player: I hit it with my axe.

GM: Roll to hit

and this:

Player: I tell the palace guard I’m on official business and have got to see the king right now

GM: Roll against your Deceit skill to see if the guard believes you.

That doesn’t look much like a superpower to me. That’s how I have always handled social skills when running a game, and how most GMs I’ve encountered handled things as well.

Why, exactly, are well still having this argument?

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The Dragon Awards

Dragon Award So the inaugural Dragon Awards have seen wins for Larry Correia, John C Wright and Sir Terry Pratchett, amongst others.

Even though “The Shepherd’s Crown” wasn’t quite up to the standard of the works that made his reputation, it’s hard to begrudge that win. Since Sir Terry is no longer with us, his posthumous final book was the one and only time he’s ever going to be eligible for a Dragon. He’s one of the true giants of fantasy, perhaps second only to J R R Tolkien in public name recognition, and an award that’s as much for lifetime achievement is still deserved.

The awards as a whole do celebrate the populist commercial end of SFF at the expense of the literary, and is skewed heavily towards American authors whose work isn’t easy to get hold of on this side of the Atlantic. So I’m not convinced the Dragon Awards represent the state of the art in science-fiction any more than the Hugo Awards do. If anything, the two awards are almost mirror images of each other, each seemingly over representing the favourites of one tribe at the expense of rival tribes.

There is a very big overlap between Vox Day’s stated personal choices and the eventual winners, so much so that accusations of ballot-stuffing have surfaced. And that has to be a bit of a red flag. But it’s also true that the Sad Puppy leaders past and present have been promoting the Dragons very heavily, and their fans and supporters may have participated in disproportionate numbers. We shall have to see how the award develops over the coming years.

Anyway, congratulations to all the winners, even those who don’t share my political world-view. And to those who dismiss the award’s legitimacy because the wrong people won, remember that some people said exactly the same about The Hugos.

Over to you. What do you think of the results? Do they represent a radical alternative to The Hugos, or do they represent too narrow a tribe?

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Some thoughts on The Hugos

The results of the Hugo Awards were entirely predictable.

As a fan of Alastair Reynolds it’s disappointing that his novella “Slow Bullets” didn’t win, but at least it didn’t get no-awarded for the crime of having been nominated by the wrong people, something I feared might happen. But much as I’m a huge fan of his writing, it’s difficult to imagine the sort of story he writes ever winning a Hugo; it’s like expecting The Guardian to name a prog-metal record as its critics’ album of the year.

It’s also disappointing that Noah Ward beat Chuck Tingle, his “clown car crashing a sombre chapel” is a good antidote too much po-faced seriousness. And it’s a real shame that they chose to vote for No Award over Larry Elmore as Best Professional Artist for what seemed like purely political reasons.

The reactions are exactly as expected too. The left-leaning media are hailing it as a victory in sending the puppies packing, while Sad Puppy organisers past and present complain that Worldcon are circling the wagons to shut out anyone not of their tribe, and predict the Hugos will now slowly decline into irrelevance, with the newer and more broadly-based Dragons taking their place.

The fact that there was a sharp decline in voting this year, down by almost half from last year and actually less than the number of votes in the nomination round is quite significant. After the mass no-awarding of last year many of the people who wanted wider participation seem to have concluded there was no point throwing good money after bad, and didn’t buy supporting memberships for this year.

I have concluded two things about the Sad Puppies this year. First, by running recommended reading lists rather than explicit slates, none of which had five and only five nominations, Amanda Green and Kate Paulk are not guilty of serious wrongdoing. Second, by combination of lack of numbers and not voting in lockstep they had relatively little influence. It was Vox Day and his Rabid Puppies whose blatantly political list swept entire categories. This was just as true last year, though it suited agendas on both sides to pretend otherwise. But this year anyone who still conflates the Sad and Rabid Puppies has an agenda, and isn’t to be trusted. Damien Walter, I’m looking at you…

The Worldcon business committee have rightly ratified EPH, but unfortunately have passed a second proposal for Three Stage Voting (3SV), which sends out all the wrong signals. EPH, while promoted as defence against slates, is a politically-neutral proportional voting system. 3SV is explicitly about preserving the purity of the awards by gatekeeping out Bad People. It institutionalises tyranny of the majority, and almost guaranteed to be misused in the next fandom war which will be about something completely different.

As I’ve said before, Worldcon needs to make up its mind what what the Hugos are supposed to represent. Vox Day’s campaigns have given them two choices; either they open up the nominations to a wider audience and dilute his influence, or they circle the wagons to shut out outsiders. They appear to have chosen the latter. Will the Hugos now become the SFF equivalent of the CRS awards?

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Invisible Sun

Invisible Sun

Everyone on the tabletop gaming interwebs is talking, or something subtweeting, about Invisible Sun by Monte Cook Games, whose Kickstarter has already raised more than a third of a million dollars.

There is heated discussion about the very high price. When you look at the fundamental structure of the game, designed around the needs of people with jobs, children and busy lives, you get the feeling this game is explicitly pitched at middle-aged players with a lot of disposable cash.

So, does this make Invisible Sun the tabletop gaming equivalent of the archetypal mid-life crisis motorcycle or Fender Stratocaster?

I’m probably being a little snarky here. Monte Cook has the game design chops to deliver which in all probability with be a very good game. I hope those who plunked down that amount of cash ends up getting their money’s worth.

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James Worrad on Chuck Tingle: SF’s Lord Of Misrule

James Worrad has a really good piece on Chuck Tingle and this year’s Hugo Awards. (I have left the Anglo-Saxon words in)

Within SFF, I see this Apollo/Dionysos spectrum as the vertical Y axis to the horizontal X of the political left/right. And what we have right now, in this godforsaken year of our lord 2016, is a left/right spectrum pulling at either end with the side effect of warping the vertical axis violently upward into the Apollonian (I hope you can picture that, I’m not sure WordPress comes with a chart making option). The result: lean times for Dionysos.

Currently, what unites the gun-waving right wing SF pundit and his Tumblr-wielding lefty opposite is a half-conscious desire for the genre to be about something rather than just be. In that respect they are both the priests of Apollo, with an insatiable need to place laws and structure and context upon a genre that, at it’s core, is a wide hot mess of contradiction and nebulousness. It’s an understandable urge, this need to tame. We’re in an era that’s impossible to comprehend or predict. It’s frightening. And a sense–perhaps even illusion–of control can alleviate that fear.

But the Dionysian is what makes science fiction, fantasy and horror truly shine. It’s its ‘killer app’, if you will. And, beneath all the absurdity, sodomy and raptors, I think that’s what Chuck Tingle represents. That’s why everyone is talking about him (Well, that and the dino-fucking). He stirs the near-lost sense of senselessness in us fans, the primal chaos that’s the deadly serious part of fun.

Read the whole thing: I love the image of the clown car crashing into the sombre chapel.

The last couple of years have seen the Hugo Awards devolve into a bitter turf war between two rival cliques of writers and fans, neither of whom are as representative as SF as a whole as they like to think they are. And that turf war has ifself bogged down in a bitter stalemate in which SF as a whole is the loser.

So I hope Chuck Tingle takes home a rocket. And in future years the Hugos revert to celebrating SF’s sense of wonder instead of backward-looking turf wars.

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Gerry Anderson tech moves from Russia to China

There ought to be a prize for rediculously “out there” engineering ideas. This one’s described as as a ‘straddling bus’ design to beat traffic jams though since it runs on rails it’s technically a tram rather than a bus.

All it needs is for International Rescue to save the day when something goes horribly wrong.

Click in the link to watch the video on the Guardian site.

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Why do Fandoms go Toxic?

The fandoms of the internet keep throwing its toys out of the pram. I have no idea if it’s getting worse, or whether it’s always been this bad but we just hadn’t noticed.

Maybe it’s the constant background noise of arch sneering between supporters of different eras of bands that have gone through many changes of lineup and musical direction; Facebook groups like “2/5ths of Yes is not Yes”, I’m looking at you. Or maybe it’s the ugly wars over the trailer for a much-hyped reboot of a thirty-two year old film; why on earth have so many of the worst culture warriors on both sides chosen that particular hill to die on? Or the ongoing Sad Puppies Hugo Awards mess, where I’m sure I’m not the only person who has lost all patience with both sides; the world of science fiction ought to be bigger than one clique of authors and fans who are still living in the 1950s fighting another clique of authors and fans who are still living in the 1970s.

A lot the appeal of being part of a fandom rather than merely enjoying the music, films or books is the feeling of belonging to a tribe. And some tribes love to define themselves by those who aren’t part of that tribe. Do fandoms become toxic when in-group signalling becomes more important than the actual art? And is this just an inevitable part of human nature, or are there practical things we can do to stop fandoms going bad?

It’s nonsense. Liking or not liking a piece of mass-market entertainment should not be a litmus test for whether or not you are a good person. And “Those people over there I don’t like will love or hate it” is the worst possible form of criticism.

So don’t do that. Better to celebrate the things you love.

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Lovecraft and the Fear of Ick

Thought-provoking post by Zak Smith on Lovecraft, Nerds And The Uses of Ick. H. P. Lovecraft is one of the most controversial figures in SF and gaming cultures. His massive misogyny and racism cannot be denied, yet the visceral power of his horrors mean he’s still one of the most influential writers of the genre. But both his bigotry and the power of his writing stem from the same fear of the Other.

Lovecraftian disgust is visceral, the kind that goes ick. The feeling of having a gun to your head isn’t ick. Ick is a fear of life–someone else’s icky life. Fear of mollusks, for instance–which are totally harmless–is Lovecraftian.

He then turns to the RPG world’s rather messy culture wars,  drawing parallels between Lovecraft’s fears and hangups with those of the faction who wish to sanitise and bowdlerise the RPG hobby.

When there is ick, there is fear, where there’s fear there is ignorance, where there’s ignorance there’s disgust, and where there’s disgust, prejudice.

I’m not enirely convinced that calling out some game designers by name is productive, but the points he makes are still valid.

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