SF and Gaming Blog

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

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.

Posted in Games, Science Fiction | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Booky McBookface, by Noah Ward

So Vox Day has managed to crap all over the Hugo Awards for the second year running, flooding some categories completely and getting stories with titles “If You Were An Award, My Love” and “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” on the ballot.

What muddies the waters is that Day has also taken some reputable authors who deserved to get nominated anyway and covered them with his stink, I feel for Alastair Reynolds, who’s novella “Slow Bullets” has made the nominations and now risks becoming a political football.

This year it’s important to note that The Sad Puppies, run this year by Kate Paulk and Amanda Green, did not run slates as such, with recommendation lists that ranged from two or three entries in some categories to as many as ten in each of the fiction categories. At no point did they recommend five and only five nominations for any category.

The heavy overlap between Vox Day’s and Brad Torgersen’s Rabid and Sad Puppies slates last year obscured the fact that it was Vox Day who really did the damage. Wherever the two slates differed, it was Vox Day’s choices that made the ballot. This year there is no room for any doubt who the villain is, and I’m going to assume anyone who continues to blur the difference between the Sad Puppies and the Rabid ones is either ignorant or has an agenda.

I’m not a Worldcon member, but that’s not going to stop me giving unsolicited advice. So here’s my off-the-top-of-my-head recommendations.

First, ratify E Pluribus Hugo. This is ought to be such a no-brainer than anyone that attempts to argue otherwise is not to be trusted. It won’t fix everything, but it will make it harder for any well-organised minority to swamp the ballot.

Second, think very hard about the wisdom of repeating last year’s block no-awarding everything tainted, throwing good people under the bus in an attempt to preserve the purity of the awards. That stank when they did it to people like Toni Weisskopf last year. The garbage from VD’s cronies you can no award to oblivion if it’s as awful as it sounds from the titles. But remember that burning down The Hugos is VD’s goal, and no-awarding deserving nominees like Toni Weisskopf or Alastair Reynolds gives him what he wants.

Third, recognise that the Sad Puppies and the Rabid ones are very different things, and try to build bridges with the some of the first of those groups, or at least avoid rhetoric or behaviour that further deepens the divide with anyone who’s not an actual acolyte of Vox Day. The mass no-awarding of last year did not help in that regard.

One problem with the Hugo Awards in recent years seems to be the lack of any consensus about what they’re supposed to represent. Do they represent the very best of science fiction and fantasy as a whole, or do they represent the favourites of a far narrower subset of fandom? Are they really publicly-voted awards, or closer to juried awards with an unusually large jury? And above all how much are they American rather than international?

At the moment they’ve neither quite one thing or the other, and that’s one root of the problem.

You could argue that the world of SF/F is now too broad and too diverse for a single set of awards to serve as a Gold Standard, there need to be alternative awards created for different crowds, and new awards like The Dragons are a step in that direction. So complaining that “Heroic Engineer” stories never get Hugo nominations is like complaining about the lack of rock and metal in the Mercury Music Prize when the Kerrang awards exist.

Only once Worldcon decide exactly what the Hugos are and who they are supposed to be for can they treat Vox Day as damage and route around him. At the moment he is still outmanoeuvring them, rendering last years Hugo Ceremony a pyrrhic victory.

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The Dragon Awards

The Dragon Awards

The long-established SF convention DragonCon has announced a new set of science fiction & fantasy awards, The Dragons.

Welcome to the first annual Dragon Awards! As a part of our 30th Anniversary as the nation’s largest fan-run convention, we are introducing a new way to recognize excellence in all things Science Fiction and Fantasy. These awards will be by the fans, for the fans, and are your chance to reward those who have made real contributions to SF, books, games, comics, and shows. Not only can you nominate and vote, the Dragon Awards lets you share your support with others!

As well as awards for comics, games, TV and Films, there are seven different “Best Novel” categories covering different sub-genres; Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, Military, Alternate World, Post-Apocalyptic and Horror. There are notably no awards for less than novel length fiction.

Votes both for the nominations and the final ballot are open to anyone without the need to register for the convention itself or pay to be a supporting member, and you get one and only one nomination vote in each category.

It’s early days yet, and I’m sure there are plenty of bugs that will need to be worked out over the first couple of years. Certainly the focus on sub-genres could end up rewarding work that’s faithful to genre tropes at the expense of perhaps more imaginative works that defy easy pigeon-holing. There’s nothing I’ve seen that implies you can’t nominate something the crosses genre boundaries more than once in different categories, but genre-straddling works still risk getting their votes split.

Given the increasingly bitter wars over the Hugo Awards a rival high-profile award organised in a radically-different way does seem like the best way do go. In recent years the Hugos have come to represent one subset of science fiction & fantasy at the expense of others, which has left some readers feeling disenfranchised, one cause of the bitter fighting over the nominations last year. Far better to give the Hugos some serious competition in the shape of a rival high-profile award, and for those disenfranchised fans to put their energies into that.

Seen in the light it’s even possible that some of The Dragons’ apparent flaws are deliberate design features, in that the awards are intended to showcase the sorts of novels that have been passed over by The Hugos in recent years.

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