SF and Gaming Blog

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

Noah Ward sweeps The Hugos

Mushroom Cloud

So the Hugo Award voters have decided to block-vote “No Award” for everything nominated by the Puppies campaigns, which means no Hugo was awarded in those categories where Puppy nominees swept the nomination ballot.

Many figures in the SF establishment are celebrating sending the Puppies packing. But I do think this may well prove to be a hollow victory, and risks diminishing the standing of the Hugo Awards amongst the wider SF community.

The full results (including the nomination numbers) can be found here:

Back in April, I wrote this

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.

Have the Hugo voters decided they want to be the SF equivalent of the CRS awards? Because that’s the signal they’re sending out.  The most telling is the rejection of Toni Weisskopf as Best Editor (Long Form) in favour of No Award; it’s very difficult to spin this as anything other than pure partisan politics that pays no regard to Ms Weisskopf’s record as an editor.

Brad Torgersen ignited a firestorm with a comment about the SJWs wanting to load his kind into boxcars and ship them off to the icy wastes to die. It was a clumsy, insensitive metaphor, but the “icy wastes” reference ought to have been a clue that he was referring to the Soviet gulags rather than the Holocaust. But the way WorldCon made a strong statement that a subset of writers and fans are not welcome in their space because at least in part they belong to the wrong political tribe does suggest he had a point. The attitude of some people in SF’s progressive wing does have more than a whiff of Stalin about it.

If the business committee now rejects E Pluribus Hugo because block-voting No Award is seen as an acceptable method of dealing with slates, then the Hugo Awards are finished.

Don’t get me wrong, slate voting, even if it wasn’t in technical breach of the rules, was against the spirit, and I have no problem with people voting No Award for sub-standard work that didn’t deserve a place on the ballot. But what we’ve seen happen goes well beyond that.

Science fiction fandom ought to be about celebrating the best in imaginative speculative fiction. If that takes second place to turf wars between warring tribes, we all lose.

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D&D is Cultural Appropriation?

A British gamer travels to America for the first time, and speaks of the way finally “gets” the tropes behind Dungeons and Dragons.

Yes, yes. I have long been aware of the ‘borderlands’ theme of American history. A history of explorers, of pioneers, of the ‘civilizing’ mission (winning the West) which was conducted peicemeal as much as imperial. And, of course, the American West provides us with some archetypal examples of murder-hobos. So, yes, a ripe historical analogue for D&D PCs, if we can get past the racism and genocide. But hey, just chuck in Orcs and we can all sleep easily, no?

But I didn’t fly over Arizona and find myself struck by the history. No. At least not directly. No, I flew over the desert and found myself struck by the quite awe-inspiring scale that pervades the USA. The USA – and the Americas in general – has a scale about it that is quite unlike that of Europe, and Britain especially. I don’t just mean its continental vastness, nor the buildings, people, or even the military-industrial-prison complex. As I flew into Phoenix I passed over canyon-laced desert that resembled, to European eyes, the landscape of an alien planet. I didn’t need to know much history to immediately wonder what the first Europeans had thought as they crossed this landscape with their pack-mules laden with equipment, accompanied by their hirelings. And the heat! The heat! It was so hot that I remarked that if it is ever that hot in Wales then your house is on fire.

In Florida there was a different kind of heat. A wet, swampy, (once) malarial heat, in a flat marshy landscape prowled by man-eating alligators. To get some breeze you get to the coast, and escape down a chain of islands a hundred miles long tipped by a wrecker ‘city’ – the richest per capita in the USA at one point – precariously clinging to an island made up of the skeletons of weird sea creatures, just waiting to be swept away by hurricanes (or pirates).

It’s not medieval Europe, even a middle ages seen through a distorted American lens. Anything European is really little more than very superficial window-dressing. Dungeons and Dragons is the Wild West with swords instead of six-shooters. The complete absence of anything resembling social class, and the whole zero-to-hero character arc thing is a dead giveaway. It really does owe far more to Ayn Rand than to J.R.R.Tolkien.

This does put the social justice arguments about the game into context. The argument that D&D characters should be overwhelmingly white because historical accuracy is racist bollocks because D&D isn’t set in anything resembling medieval Europe. And to argue that a game that is based on medieval Europe and written by Europeans must reflect the demographics of 21st century North America because diversity is also bollocks, because such a game isn’t default D&D.

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For those who can’t get their hear around the maths behind E Pluribus Hugo, think of it like this. You have one vote, and it goes to whichever of your nominations turns out to be the most popular with other voters.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 4 Comments

Vote for E Pluribus Hugo

I’m not going to try and predict what’s going to happen in the Hugo Awards voting this weekend. I’d like to hope voters judge the nomnations on the quality of the work rather than treating the whole thing as a trial of strength between ideological factions. The only thing we can be sure of is vast numbers of electrons will be spent in discussing the eventual outcome.

But one thing I do hope to see is the E Pluribus Hugo voting system adopted for the nominations at the business meeting. Even then it will in turn need to be ratified at the next WorldCon, which means it won’t come into force until 2017.

Yes, I’ve seen lots of people arguing that the voting system shouldn’t be changed. But most of those arguments boil down to “It’s too complicated and I’m too lazy to try and understand how it works” or “It was proposed on That Site where all those awful people hang out, and therefore must be bad”. Neither of those arguments really hold water.

Whatever its real or imagined flaws, E Pluribus Hugo is better than the alternative. Leaving the voting system unchanged will mean it will devolve into battles between competing slates, meaning a handful of high profile figures with significantly sized internet bully pulpits will act as gatekeepers. Any work that doesn’t have the backing of a Scalzi or a Correia will have a hard time getting nominated.

Using some kind of social sanction to defeat slates would be even worse, and would devolve into bullying nominees into withdrawing their nomination if they had the misfortune to be publicly backed by a bad person. It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine how that would go wrong.

So Worldcon needs to adopt E Pluribus Hugo if the Hugo Awards are to remain relavant.

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Geeks, Mops and Sociopaths

Mop (Wikimedia Commons)There’s an interesting post by David Chapman about the life-cycle of subcultures. He identifies three types of people who enter a subculture at different stages. First there are the “Geeks”, the creators and hardcore supporters. The come “Mops”, the more casual supporters whose numbers are necessary for a scene to grow big enough to be economically viable. Finally there are the “Sociopaths”, who want to exploit everything for profit without caring about the subculture itself, taking a short-term slash-and-burn approach that destroys the thing in the process.

He sees the “mops” as something of double-edged sword:

Mops also dilute the culture. The New Thing, although attractive, is more intense and weird and complicated than mops would prefer. Their favorite songs are the ones that are least the New Thing, and more like other, popular things. Some creators oblige with less radical, friendlier, simpler creations.

Which makes me think of those who liked Mostly Autumn’s “Pocket Watch”.

Chapman doesn’t give any specific examples, but by implication references the underground music scenes of the 1980s and 1990s, many of which burned out relatively quickly. It nay be a generational thing, or it may be that he’s over-generalising, but I’m not seeing his theory playing out in every subculture I’ve been involved with over the years.

Let’s look at the underground progressive rock scene to start with. This has been stable for quite a few years, a few bands teetering on the edge of mainstream success, but many more merely satisfied to establish themselves a niche. Has the scene just been lucky enough to get just the right balance of Chapman’s Geeks and Mops for long term stability? Or is it that its roots in a genre much of the mainstream rejected as unfashionable a generation ago make it immune to Chapman’s Sociopaths? Or is it just that the age profile (much grey hair and many bald heads) means the Geeks and Mops and older and wiser, not interested in passing fads?

The tabletop RPG hobby has likewise been around for a long time. But fashions within the hobby rise and fall, and individual games with a long publishing history are the exception rather than the rule. Even then, though, the hobby itself is bigger than any one game. There do appear to be a few examples of Chapman’s theory playing out; the way the E Gary Gygax, the father of Dungeons & Dragons, ended up being forced out of his own company though political machinations does sound like an example of his Sociopaths in action. There are other examples I can think of too, but I’d rather not start naming individuals.

What about the railway enthusiast and model railway hobbies? That’s an odd case in that it started out as a fandom of a thing that was never an artistic or cultural movement but a mundane service industry that involved a lot of heavy engineering. It’s become three separate but frequently overlapping things. First there’s what amounts to the fandom of “real” railways based around travel and photography. Second there’s the whole railway preservation movement. Finally there’s the model railway hobby. But while there are many, many Geeks and Mops, it’s hard to identify obvious Sociopaths. Maybe they exist, but they just know a good long-term cash cow when they see one, so they’re actually relatively benign?

Ian Allen, the so-called “Father of Trainspotting” who died last week in his 90s was surely one of Chapman’s Geeks. Yet he founded not one but two successful businesses on the back of the hobby, a publishing house and a travel agency. On an even bigger scale, parts of the preservation movement have become significant elements of the tourist industry. Companies like the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway operate as commercial businesses, and their steam-operated railways are important parts of the local economies. But I don’t think you can accuse their management of being motivated by anything other than a love of trains.

So ultimately I’m not sure whether David Chapman’s theory holds or not. I certainly don’t agree with him on the necessity of gatekeepers to preserve the purity of a subculture; that smacks too much of elitism, and gatekeeping is one of those things that can so easily turn toxic. This is especially true when you have what amounts to a turf war between competing subcultures over a disputed space; the whole Sad Puppies/Hugo thing, and the ongoing Gamergate culture war are prime examples.

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E Pluribus Hugo

Out of Many, A Hugo, the proposal from Making Light for changing the Hugo Awards voting system in an attempt to fix the problems that came to a head this year.

It uses a Single Divisible Vote, which is a form of proportional system rather than the first-past-the-post system used up to now, and is designed to prevent any well-organised minority from dominating the nominations out of all proportion to their numbers.

I like the system a lot, although the complexity of the counting system means the count must be computerised. It has many of the same advantages as the widely-used Single Transferrable Vote system, though a notable difference is that you don’t need to rank your nominations in any kind of order.

It would be an interesting system to use in other contexts too; the complexity of the count probably rules it out for “real” elections, but I’ve love to see Guardian Music use it for their end-of-year lists, which might see the result containing minority-interest music (like rock and metal) that usually gets crowded out by the indie/alternative mainstream.

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Anyone else wondering if Philae coming back to life and the return of The Clangers is just a coincidence?

Posted on by Tim Hall | Comments Off

RIP Christopher Lee

The Wicker Man

Sad news today that Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93.

He was the definitive Count Dracula (accept no imitations), a classy Bond villain, Tolkien’s wizard Saruman, and of course his best role of all, Lord Summerisle in the 1973 classic “The Wicker Man”.

Perhaps because so many of the films he starred in were considered too lowbrow, it took a long time for the cultural establishment to give he the recognition he deserved. But he was eventually rewarded with a well-deserved knighthood as one of Britain’s finest actors.

He didn’t just do horror. Remember his starring role, as the villain of course, in the Australian-made comedy musical “The Return of Captain Invincible”?

His work in the world of Metal mustn’t be forgotten either. Here he is with Rhapsody of Fire; he contributed spoken-word narration on several of their albums, on this track he runs rings around Fabio Lione as a singer.

Farewell, Sir Christopher Lee. As was said on Twitter, 93 is a good innings, and cricket stumps make very good stakes.

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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?

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