Friday, 29 May 2009

Of Testosterone, GURPS, and Liverpool

Two posts in one day! Blame the hot weather and being at a university campus where lots of attractive 18-21 year old women are out and about not wearing very much. Testosterone is a brain stimulant too, you know.

I just wanted to talk a little bit about GURPS. Last night I finally cracked open the 99p 3rd edition Basic Set I got last week, and a friend and I brainstormed for a campaign idea and came up with a character for him. We ended up with a pseudo-1920s Liverpool where WWI never happened, lots of people claim aristocratic heritage, technology is still kind of steam-age, and it's fairly usual to carry round a sabre. Cheesy, but good at the same time. We briefly flirted with the idea of zombies and Cthuloid entities, but settled on a "getting into scrapes and either solving or committing crimes" sort of game. We then did a little test of the combat system, in which an opium-addled hoodlum, bearing a strong resemblance to Jimmy McGovern, was thoroughly trounced.

I've already talked about setting a campaign in Liverpool, so it looks like it might finally happen. There are so many hooks for a Liverpool campaign, especially once you get into its history, it's ridiculous. It's like an embarrassment of riches of adventure ideas. Unfortunately I can't talk about any of them here because the friend in question will likely be reading this.

This is our first experience of GURPS and I have to say, I like it. There's something intoxicating about the fact that you can use it for literally anything, and it has a pretty intuitive and easy-to-grasp core mechanic. There are clear organisational issues, but listen - I cut my teeth on D&D and Cyberpunk 2020. I take your organisational issues and raise you organisational horrors.

No Revolutionary Socialism, please. I'm an Escapist.

An old interview with China Mieville gets a mention in Brian Murphy's latest Cimmerian entry. Ah, China Mieville. Was there ever a more frustrating fantasy writer? A man with oodles of talent but only a hit-and-miss ability to craft a story, plagued with political idiocies which prevent him from achieving true greatness. He reminds me a little of David Ginola; a technical wizard who allowed a carefully cultivated maverick persona and an inability to deliver in the big games to prevent himself becoming an all-time great.

Mieville's whole authorial world-view has a number of problems, which you can spot in this interview:

1. Falling for non-fantasy-readers' definitions of fantasy.
If you look at stereotypical 'epic' or 'high' fantasy, you're talking about a genre set in magical worlds with some pretty vile ideas. They tend to be based on feudalism lite: the idea, for example, that if there's a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it's because he's a bad king, as opposed to a king. If the peasants are visible, they're likely to be good simple folk rather than downtrodden wretches (except if it's a bad kingdom...). Strong men protect curvaceous women. Superheroic protagonists stamp their will on history like characters in Nietzschean wet dreams, but at the same time things are determined by fate rather than social agency. Social threats are pathological, invading from outside rather than being born from within. Morality is absolute, with characters--and often whole races--lining up to fall into pigeonholes with 'good' and 'evil' written on them.
This sounds more like a description of a typical D&D campaign, or a literary snob's idea of what fantasy is like, that what the genre actually is. In fact, almost no mainstream high-fantasy is like this. Even 'high fantasy' writers who I consider to be utterly dire, like David Eddings, Trudi Canavan, Robert Jordan and Weis & Hickman, write novels where female characters are just as strong as men, where peasants are often main characters, where threats are as much from within as from without, and where the idea of kingship itself is challenged. I'll grant him that morality is not generally subtly dealt with in most high fantasy, but all that does is make this paragraph a kind of proof by verbosity - a huge scattershot of cliches levelled at trad fantasy, hoping one of them will hit.

2. A whole load of misconceptions about Tolkien.
Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious - you can't ignore it, so don't even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there's a lot to dislike - his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien's cliches - elves 'n' dwarfs 'n' magic rings - have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was 'consolation', thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.
Young fantasy writers often like to talk down Tolkien - they think it makes them look cool and rebellious. Even Michael Moorcock fell into the trap of thinking that muckslinging at Tolkien somehow made his own work look better. Mieville has stuck at it longer than most. But he's profoundly wrongheaded. First, the obvious point is that he clearly hasn't read Tolkien, or at least hasn't without his Revolutionary Socialist hat on. Tolkien didn't glorify in war, and it should be obvious to anybody who's read any of his work. The opposite is true. And nor did he write that "the function of fantasy was 'consolation'" as if it was an "article of policy" for fantasy writers - he only ever wrote about himself and his own point of view, and made no sweeping statements about what the fantasy 'genre' (there wasn't such a thing back then) should be.

Secondly and more annoyingly, Mieville takes the position that all political idealogues do - namely that all rightminded people must surely agree with his position wholeheartedly and can't possibly think that anything the target believed might be worthwhile. This arrogant assumption that everybody else, if they are rational adults, must surely be a Revolutionary Socialist and against Tolkien too, frankly pisses me off. I'm not a Revolutionary Socialist. I think those people lost their argument, oh, around 100 years ago. And I do happen to believe in absolute morality. I don't happen to see anything wrong with 'consolation' sometimes; I don't think that 'comforting' fiction is a bad thing in and of itself. And I am a rational adult. Mieville has to explain why people like me are wrong, not behave as if any fule know it to be the case.

3. Thinking that escapism is a bad thing.
The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you. You can't escape your history or your culture. So the idea that because fantasy books aren't about the real world they therefore 'escape' is ridiculous. Fantasy is still written and read through the filters of social reality. That's why some fantasies (like Swift's Gulliver's Travels) are so directly allegorical--but even the most surreal and bizarre fantasy can't help but reverberate around the reader's awareness of their own reality, even if in a confusing and unclear way.

Take a book like Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle. It's set in a fantasy world, and it involves discussions of racism, industrial conflict, sexual passion and so on. Does it really make any sense to say that the book is inherently, because of its genre form more escapist than what Iain Banks calls 'Hampstead novels', about the internal bickerings of middle class families who seem hermetically sealed off from wider social conflicts? Just because those books pretend to be about 'the real world' doesn't mean they reverberate in it with more integrity.

Precisely because you read and write books with society in your head, the 'escape' that Tolkien and others aspire to is doomed to fail. In fact, it's precisely those kind of escapist books that take the real world for granted which are most shackled to thinly veiled and highly ideological versions of that world.
First off, the idea of Mieville calling anybody else's work "shackled to thinly veiled and highly ideological versions of [the real] world" is like Jabba the Hutt calling me a big fat slug that eats frogs and likes looking at women in gold bikinis. I can't think of a single other writer who better fits that description. (Being shackled to thinly veiled and highly ideological versions of the real world, I mean. Not the Jabba the Hutt thing.)

Second off, in my experience, books that try to discuss things like racism, industrial conflict and sexual passion in explicit terms (well, maybe not the sexual passion part) generally tend to be, as novels, shit. Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles is no exception - it's probably the most boring thing I've read (well, attempted to read) in the past decade. The moment a writer starts trying to "reverberate in [the real world] with more integrity", rather than, you know, trying to write a good story, you know he's lost it. He might as well give up on the thing as a novel right there and then. Fiction should always, always be about story and that's all that a fiction writer should care about when he's writing.

Thirdly, escapism is a worthwhile thing in itself, and not something to be sniffed at. As somebody who isn't a card-carrying member of the Pretentious Socialist Worker Party Elite, I like to sometimes jack my brain out of the Capitalist hellhole in which I find myself and in which my "every human impulse is repressed" and just, you know, think about something mindblowing and weird and get away from the world. Am I supposed to feel bad about that because China Mieville thinks I should constantly be engaging with "the real world" and if not I'm being "mollycoddled" and "comforted"? Fuck that.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Cute, in a stupid-assed way

I took the Which Fantasy Author Are You? quiz that everybody else is doing, and it came up with David Eddings. David Eddings! Make sure your kiddies don't read this next clause, but Fuck That Shit.

If I was going to be a fantasy author I'd much rather be somebody like Lord Dunsany. Not only was he a filthy rich Irish nobleman who lived in a castle, he was a pistol-shooting champion, fought in the Second Boer War, played lots of cricket, was the best chess player in Ireland, and was Professor of English at a Greek university. Give me that lifestyle over David Eddings, any day. Also, his books are vastly different from Eddings', in that they aren't unimaginative tripe of the most boring kind.

Dunsany didn't have the best looking of wives, though. And she was called Beatrice Child Villiers, which is just weird.

Beatrice Child Villiers, Wife of Lord Dunsany

Monday, 25 May 2009

Objective Schmobjective

Madness reigns at Grognardia; sanity prevails at Wondrous Imaginings.

I respect James Malisewski a lot, but posts like this leave me scratching my head. You don't get anywhere trying to explain objectively why Monopoly, cricket, chess, barbeques or grapefruits are good. People like them or don't like them based on entirely subjective reasons. Why should a particular style of role playing game be any different?

The idea of a "clear and rational" argument in favour of a game is about on a par with somebody sitting me down and trying to explain why Metallica are good through reference to their sheet music and an analysis of chord changes; or maybe a girl I'm not attracted to trying to explain "clearly and rationally" why sex with her would be a good idea. Ain't going to happen.

EDIT: Or, for example, somebody trying to explain why Star Trek XI is better than Star Trek II by appeal to logic.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Star Trek Film (Some Spoilers)

I saw Star Trek last night. I won't say I was disappointed exactly; some of my worst fears were confirmed, but in other ways it exceeded expectations. A strange mix. Let's go through the good and the bad with traditional point-blob things.

The Good
  • Most of the acting and casting. The core crew have a lot of charisma in the best tradition of Trek. The main exception was Simon Pegg, who I have a lot of time for, but in this film was a scenery-chewing ham of the worst kind. It wasn't just the accent. (Although, why didn't they get an actual Scottish actor to play Scottie? Tradition?) He was an obnoxious twit throughout. Everybody else was pretty much spot-on.
  • The special effects were never going to be bad, but there were some fantastic moments. The fight on the drill-bit, for one.
  • There was a rollicking, barnstorming atmosphere to the whole thing that reminded me of the best moments of the good original series films. Despite its many flaws it absolutely did not fail to be entertaining.
  • The actress playing Uhura is gorgeous.
  • It was nice to see Captain Pike being given a role; a nod-and-a-wink thing maybe, but it's good to have some sort of continuity for the poor bastard.
  • They didn't try to "do a Daniel Craig James Bond" on Kirk. He's a lothario and a bighead and that's what we like about him. Similarly, I was glad they didn't try to turn Uhura into one of those ninja-badass heroines that are ten-a-penny these days.
  • The score was great. Not as memorable as, for example, Treks II and III, but did the job in an unintrusive and atmospheric way.

The Bad
  • At times the whole thing threatened to slip from pastiche to parody. Did Kirk really need to get into so many fights and get beaten up so many times? Wasn't there one too many "oh look, Kirk has to run away from something really quickly" scene? (The snow-beast bit is the one I'm thinking of.) How many times did Kirk end up hanging off the edge of something? I mean, I know Shatner did a heck of a lot of getting beaten up/being chased/hanging off the edge of stuff, but it was never THIS much.
  • The product placement was about the most hamfisted there's ever been. In fact, the entire bit with the young Kirk seemed to have been included mainly to have something good to put in the trailer and a place for a Nokia ad.
  • Eric Bana is a fine actor but he was completely wasted on probably the most bland villain ever (after Star Trek V, maybe). He didn't even get to quote any Shakespeare. And what the hell were this guy's motivations? Romulus was going to get destroyed through an act of God, Spock tried to help but failed, so now I'm going to destroy Vulcan and every planet in the federation for revenge? Rather than use the fact that I was transported backwards in time to, er, try to avert the original disaster?
  • There was very little sense of danger throughout, which was probably the film's worst failing. It reminded me very much of the 'new' Star Wars films in that respect; there simply wasn't an iota of a suggestion that any of the cast were going to fail or be killed.
  • There were lots of moments that, as a long term Trek fan, I found a bit weird. For example: it really only takes 3 minutes to get from Vulcan to Earth at Warp 4 (or whatever it was)? Where was the entirety of Star Fleet when Earth was threatened at the end?
  • I feel like the first 'baddies' should have been Klingons. I think Romulans are actually more interesting, but Klingons are too iconic to only have a passing mention in what's supposed to be the first in a successful reboot of the franchise.
  • There were quite a few clumsy bits of exposition. The Spock mind-meld bit, for one. "Hey audience, here's where we try to explain the plot..."
  • Are people in the 23rd century really still going to be listening to the Beastie Boys?

Overall, 6.5/10. In the fair-to-good range, but by no means great.

Friday, 22 May 2009

I want to walk in the snow, and not leave a footprint; I want to walk in the snow, and not soil its purity.

In the highest peaks of the Mountains of the Moon, at altitudes where human beings can barely breathe, there live tribes of goblins known as Bhuta in the local tongues. It is said that these creatures are so fleet of foot that they can walk on the snow without leaving a mark, so well camouflaged that they are invisible, and so quiet that they can move through the clouds without a sound. The yak-herders of the mountain passes believe that the bhuta come down to steal babies in the night and carry off pregnant women; it is said that the cries of their abductees can be heard carried on the wind from the mountain peaks in the dusk and early morning.

Bhuta will attack anything travelling through the mountains, always at night, and usually under cover of fog. They are cowardly beings who prefer to overwhelm their victims; children and smaller beings like halflings are carried away if possible - to what fate, nobody knows. In appearance they are naked, pale blue (so pale to be almost white), with large, splayed feet. They generally arm themselves with javelins and kukris.


Armour Class: 6
Hit Dice: 1-1 (S)
Move: 90' (30')
Attacks: 1 weapon
Damage: By weapon
No. Appearing: 2d20 (2-40)
Save As: Normal Man
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: R (C)
Intelligence: 10
Alignment: Chaotic
XP Value: 5
Terrain: Mountain

Bhuta always surprise their opponents when encountered at night. They never attack during daylight and will attempt to avoid contact until darkness falls. They have infravision to 120'.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Blog posts? We don't need no stinkin' blog posts!

I'm going to carry on crying off on proper entries for another week or so; this is conference season, which means lots of preparation for presentations and also lots of "networking" (read: drinking lots of complimentary wine) - which cuts down on blog time. I normally hate reading other people's blog entries when they're just excuses for light content ("I have a cold and can't blog properly today..."), but feel strangely compelled to do the same thing myself. I suppose that should make me more charitably inclined towards the excuse-makers in future, but I suspect it won't. I don't do charity.

View from the Front Line

I picked up the GURPS 3e Basic Set last weekend for 99p in the Forbidden Planet sale. There was a pretty big selection of RPG books for sale at that price. I can't work out if this is a sign of End Times or not - this was obviously a clear-out of a large amount of unsellable stock, which indicates a plummeting market for RPGs, but on the other hand most of the books on sale were of the godawful tripe variety (a shitload of supplements for the Babylon 5 game, for example).

Anyway, I got the one thing that was worth buying, so either way I shouldn't complain.

I also took a gander at the proper RPG shelf, and was surprised to see some relative unknowns well represented on there - Mongoose Traveller, Mouse Guard, a few other darlings. D&D 4e has also made its way into Waterstones, which makes it (I think) the first edition of any role playing game to ever be sold in a 'proper' British book shop chain. So perhaps things aren't all bad.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

One Year of Monsters and Manuals

It was this blog's first anniversary the other day. Completely passed me by, but my first post (entitled Shakespearian Aspects), came out on Saturday May 17th 2008.

I feel a retrospective coming over me. I've seen other people rank their posts by number of comments, but I suspect that would result in a list purely composed of various vitriolic rants I've posted and which attracted the ire of large numbers of people. Instead, here's something a bit more positive - the 10 posts I'm proudest of. Just off the top of my head.

1. Old Johnny in the Lake - the Crayfish Demigod, which was the first 'monster' post I made, and still my favourite idea (though it was originally inspired by various people on my mammoth thread).

2. What the Public wants is the Image of Passion, not Passion Itself, in which I basically "went off on one" about Roland Barthes and what he had to say about D&D. Possibly.

3. I am the Law, in which I expound on, basically, the laws of demihumans.

4. Random Encounters with Military Units in a Feudal Japanese Setting, which I was probably insane to have written and which you would probably have to be insane to want to read through.

5. Chaos Patrons! (Blatant Plagiarism Alert), which I've yet to use in a game but will some day, I swear.

6. Fat Tail Venom (Goblins 2.0, Part I), in which I detail a tribe of goblins who use scorpion venom to boost their fighting abilities.

7. 3d6 - What True Heroes Are Made of, where the consequences of rolling 3d6 in order are explored, and I reminisce about characters named after unimposing animals.

8. A Slug is as Evolved as You, in which my terrible art recieves its first airing.

9. The Two Towers of Fantasy, wherein I talk about the classicist/romanticist split which divides the two halves of the fantasy genre. A bit like the Montagues and Capulets, except not.

10. Beware the Were Stuff, where I introduce a random therianthrope generator (including were-cassowaries and were-secretary-birds) and detail three NPCs - a were-komodo-dragon, a were-orang-utan, and a were-baboon.

This list is based on a cursory glance through the calendar of the blog, so if you think I'm forgetting anything or want to dispute that any of these posts are any good at all, have at it.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Towards a Theory of Demihumans

The anthropologist Donald Brown came up with a list of human universals some years ago in an attempt to disprove cultural relativism; the list contains dozens of entries, all of which are considered present in every single human society. (For political reasons I know some people are reluctant to believe in an innate 'human nature'; if you are one of those people, bear with me.) There are too many to reproduce here, but they range from "affection expressed and felt" to "males engage in more coalitional violence" to "childhood fear of loud noises" to "incest, prevention and avoidance".

My idea is this: people often complain that demihumans are, like Star Trek aliens, usually just human beings but with rubber heads. There are often vague notions like "dwarves don't like the sea" and "elves are good with magic" but nothing much more interesting or detailed than that. So why not use the list of human universals? Pick a universal, change it to its exact opposite, and try to extrapolate from there to create something markedly different from us.

Here's an example: dwarves have no concept of 'hope'. Their assessments are always brutally honest. If there is a good chance of succeeding at a given task, they'll attempt it, but otherwise, they won't - and cannot be persuaded. This obviously makes their societies extremely conservative and risk-averse, and the speed of change glacial; when a dwarven society sets itself a goal it is only ever one that can be realised through tiny, incremental steps that are relatively sure to be achieved.

Elves do not trade and have great difficulty understanding the concept. If an elf has something that you want, the only hope of getting it is to take it by force, or to try to persuade him that you need it more. If you can, he will likely give it up and expect nothing in return - the idea that goods should be exchanged being completely alien to him. This likewise extends into the more abstract realm of exchange of services. Diplomacy between humans and elves is fraught with difficulty because so many of the crutches of human diplomacy - trade agreements, tit for tat, quid pro quo - are incomprehensible to elves. Persuasion and cajoling are the only viable negotiation techniques.

Halflings have no abstraction of speech or thought - everything relates to the physical world or emotional states. Halflings can't be asked to imagine situations that they haven't encountered before, and find 'if/what' propositions impossible to comprehend. Conversely, they are highly sensitive to physical reality and almost empathic in their ability to understand the emotions of others.

For gnomes, the biological mother and social mother are different people. When a gnome woman gives birth, her child is given to a trusted friend to raise, who will likely reciprocate when she in turn has a baby. The giving and recieving of children is an important bonding mechanism in gnomish society.

And so on. It works for 'evil' races too: perhaps orc societies don't proscribe murder, or goblins have no sense of what a promise is.

Of course, changing some universals is pretty difficult to envisage. I challenge anyone to explain how a society would function in which there was no such thing as 'choice'.

Friday, 15 May 2009

No Class

I've never understood games having an 'assassin' class. An assassin is just somebody who deliberately targets and kills other people for political or financial reasons. (Or a member of a militant Persian Ismaili sect.) Why have a separate class with separate abilities?

Similarly, barbarians. 'Barbarian' is just a pejorative term for somebody from a technologically-backwards society. (Or a member of a certain invitation-only rugby union team.) Again, why have a separate class with separate abilities?

People who want to play barbarians or assassins should just pick a class and then give them a barbaric background or a prediliction for murder through background and flavour. For example, a mage who kills people for money: an assassin. A cleric from an isolated hill tribe: a barbarian.

These things have always bothered me. I think similar criticisms can be levelled at rangers, paladins and thieves, and I suppose by extension all classes. What is a fighter but somebody who concentrates on fighting? Or a wizard but somebody who concentrates on magic?

I propose that a line should be drawn in the sand: Is the class based around a special focus on a certain skill which it does better than all the other classes? For example, a fighter, mage or cleric? If so, it's on the right side of the line. If however it's just a flavour thing which is entirely based on background and/or personality (for example, assassin, barbarian, warlord), it is Bad and Stupid and Wrong and Not A Proper Class and should be cast into the abyss FOREVER!

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Story Games Style Smarty Pants Idea

Look At Me is a project started in 1998 by Frederic Bonn and Zoe Deleu when they found a few discarded photos in a Paris street. Ever since then, they've invited people to send them photographs they've found, which they then put up on the website. From the introduction:

LOOK AT ME is a collection of found photos.

These photos were either lost, forgotten, or thrown away. The images now are nameless, without connection to the people they show, or the photographer who took them. Maybe someone died and a relative threw away their photographs; maybe someone thought they were trash.

Some of the photos were found on the street. Some were stacked in a box, bought cheap at a flea market. Showing off or embarrassed, smug, sometimes happy, the people in these photos are strangers to us. They can't help but be interesting, as stories with only an introduction.
A story with only an introduction. Sounds like an RPG, doesn't it?

Here's my idea: You start off the game and randomly assign each player a photograph from Look At Me. They then have to play that character, after deciding with the DM on a background and a set of stats which seem suitable. Then, let them loose on a modern-day campaign - preferably Call of Cthulu, of course.

Here's an example:

Ludovic Charbonnier

Ludovic is a good tempered but slightly dim witted scion of an old aristocratic French family. His life is a long string of cocktail parties, picnics, lounging by the pool, and the occasional game of tennis or pheasant shoot. He cares nothing for education, travel or work, though he does have an interest in the supernatural, and maintains a decent library of occult texts. Aside from collecting such tomes, his only pastimes are drinking, shooting, sex and eating gourmet food.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Forgotten Fantasy Masterpieces: Legends of Lone Wolf

Between the ages of around 12 and 14, I was a huge fan of The Legends of Lone Wolf - a series of novels based on the Lone Wolf gamebooks, written by John Grant (real name: Paul Barnett). In fact, one of my clearest memories from that time was trading a bunsen burner from an old chemistry set to a friend in my class for his copy of The Dark Door Opens, book 2 in the series.

The books are now largely forgotten, which is utterly amazing to me, because they are, as the author himself (modestly) admits about book 4, "beyond quite good". This is an epic understatement. The Legends of Lone Wolf was fantastically, shockingly, amazingly, heartbreakingly good - so high in quality for a line of such humble status that it beggars belief. Though the first is by-the-numbers fantasy and the second only a mild improvement, by the third and fourth books the quality had been ratcheted far above any concievable rival in the young adult section of the bookshop.

Of course, the novels always had to contend with the fact that they were based on a series of adventure gamebooks, which would never endear them to the adult market in the same way other 'children's books' (like Harry Potter) could. And they were also very poorly dealt with by a publisher that apparently knew nothing about the genre; Grant talks about his editor slashing the word count of one book because as it stood it was over 400 pages and "nobody would read a fantasy book that long" (!). But nevertheless, we're not talking here about cheap crap written to cash in on a successful franchise. We're talking about genuinely well-written, exciting fantasy novels for young adults, dealing with death, sex, mystery, adulthood and love in a mature and interesting way (far more so than plenty of so-called serious fantasy books). Harry Potter, Twilight... there is simply no comparison. Why are they no longer noticed?

I believe this is because they were published at a time when fantasy was still ghettoised in the literary world. (Proper fantasy still is, but these days you get some crossover success with fantasy-lite, as people like Neil Gaiman evidence.) This was in the dark days of the early 90s, long before J. K. Rowling and the Jackson Lord of the Rings films. Books involving magic and swords were, for the establishment, untouchable at that time. They were seen as nothing more than cheap escapist entertainment for cretins, and the idea of a fantasy writer being lauded for their skill was anathema. Publishers thought that way too, deep down inside, and you can see this by looking at the covers of the Lone Wolf novels. These weren't books written in the expectation of mainstream success.

Perhaps if they had come along 10 years after they did, they would still be in print and recieving the credit they deserve. Either way, you owe it to yourself to try to track them down. Grant has talked about a reprinting and 'reconstituting' of the texts to be more in line with his original image, without meddling from the publisher. I'm not sure how far this has progressed, but here's hoping.

I'll finish this entry with a quote from John Grant, which I think sums up the spirit in which the books were written:
I was a bit startled when I was asked to write this series of novels -- initially four of them, in the end twelve -- because this type of high, fighting fantasy wasn't the sort of fantasy I'd hitherto been much interested in. Indeed, I'll go further than that: at the time I wasn't much interested in fantasy at all, because too much of what I'd read was the kind of generic crap that still, sadly, constitutes most of what's published in the field. It seemed to me that fantasy, as a literary form, was a dead end; all the good stuff had already been done by people like C.S. Lewis and George Macdonald and Alan Garner and Lewis Carroll and Mervyn Peake and Diana Wynne Jones and ... In short, I was a bit ignorant, and hadn't realized the possibilities within fantasy. I've since become a complete convert, to the point that I will argue at great length to anyone prepared to listen that fantasy is the single most important form of literature the human species has ever invented, and, as such, is one of the most important means of expression available to us.
The later Legend of Lone Wolf books especially seem to have been written with this in mind.

The Monsters and Manuals Interview [#3 - David Larkins]

An occasional series of interviews with other RPG bloggers.

David is a reknowned expert on Lone Wolf Adventure Gamebooks. After studying his B. A. at Harvard, he took his M. A. in Magnamund Studies at the Sorbonne and then finished his Ph.D (in two years) under Eli Rochemback, the reknowned Lone Wolf scholar. His thesis was a psycoanalytic reading of The Fall of Blood Mountain; he now teaches Rifts Studies at the University of Cambridge, where he is also Dean of the School of Gamebooks and Miniatures Painting.

1 - Let's begin at the beginning. Can you remember your first gaming session? What happened, and why did it suck you into the hobby?

I barely remember my first session. I was about 8 or 9, and I was hanging out with this kid who was a son of my mom's friend, so we had sort of been forced to spend some afternoons together in the manner of parents thinking that just because they're friends, their kids will be friends too. One afternoon he offered to run D&D for me. I had been a huge fan of the cartoon series, and had heard some cool playground stories about friends' older brothers' games (things involving statues coming to life and flaying characters alive, that sort of thing), so I readily agreed. The adventure consisted of the kid reading the solo adventure from the Mentzer Red Box out loud and letting me make the decisions. As for what happened, I have a dim memory of the rust monster, but that's about all I remember. The thing that intrigued me the most at the time was actually the accoutrements like the polyhedral dice. The d4 in particular. "A pyramid-shaped dice? No way!" The character sheet too, with its weird shield-shaped box for AC. It all seemed so arcane, occult even! Big draw for a kid back in the 80s, you know.

2 - Tell us about your first ever character.

First character...gosh. I mean, apart from the "Generic Fighter" character sheet I was handed for my first game, I honestly don't know. The problem was that a couple years later, when I bought a Red Box of my own, I found I had no one to play with. So I made a lot of characters to "test the system" but they never saw the light of day. When I finally did start gaming properly a couple years after that, I was always running things. So I have plenty of stories of other people's first characters, but nothing really substantive for myself. The earliest character I remember playing is probably an elf mage-thief in the Forgotten Realms who turned into a moderately successful pirate.

3 - Have you been playing regularly ever since, or have their been long gaps in your gaming?

Aside from that initial two year period, when I was beginning to despair of ever finding people to game with, there was another gap, nearly three years, that began shortly after I finished college. It was due to a bunch of small reasons combining into one big block, but I never really "gave up" on gaming or thought that I'd truly left it behind. But it was weird to go from weekly game sessions to essentially nothing, and for such a long period. I started gaming regularly again back in 2003, and I haven't let up since.

4 - What do you think attracts you to the hobby? Why this and not, say, cross-stitch or ice hockey?

I think it's the creativity aspect. The sheer open nature of the hobby, and the collaborative nature of it. Other hobbies--computer gaming, fiction writing, comic books--share certain of the elements in their own ways, but for me gaming collates it all into one big heaping pile of goodness.

5 - Is there anything about the hobby you strongly dislike?

What I dislike about gaming is also what attracts me to it: the fact that it's so collaborative and so individualized. There's very little that's objective about gaming. You could argue that there are certain books, movies, graphic novels, even video games that are as close to being objectively "good" as it's possible to get with mass entertainment. At the very least, they present a consistent message, regardless of who interacts with them. Board games are similar; house rules aside, if I play a single game of Monopoly and loathe it, chances are I'll loathe all future games of Monopoly I might play. But with RPGs, there is no consistent, objective element. I mean, it's sort of common wisdom that with an awesome GM and players you could take nearly any set of rules, nearly any campaign concept and make it awesome. And, crucially, vice versa: the most amazing module/campaign in the world won't survive a terrible GM or disinterested players. I can't tell you the number of people I've met who've written off RPGs because they at one time wanted to play badly, but then had one or more really awful experiences. And you can't just hand someone a copy of a game and say, "You want to see RPGs at their best? Check this out!" in the same way you could with, say, Watchmen or what have you. You sort of have to grandfather people in. The fact that all gamers, no matter how creepy, smelly, or socially inept, are effectively ambassadors for the hobby kind of irks me.

6 - How would you introduce a newcomer to rpgs? Have you ever done so?

I've practically done nothing but introduce new players to the hobby! As I said, I had a hard time finding existing groups when I was first starting out, so I built my own group one person at a time over a period of a few years. That pattern's persisted ever since, for one reason or another. I just recently sat down with a former co-worker and his friend and introduced them to RPGs, actually. And that was the first time I had two newcomers sitting at the table simultaneously. My approach is usually to start macro and zero in. So first you do the whole song and dance explanation of what the hell an RPG is and is not, how it's played, why dice are rolled, etc. I usually pepper my mini-lecture with examples from my own past experiences, and I continue to interject old war stories when appropriate during the course of game. I've found that that's really helpful, actually, to provide specific examples from past games. I've tried both approaches of handing out pre-gens or letting players make their own characters. I think with simpler systems, the latter approach works fine, although even then it's a good idea to keep options simple. The main thing is just to try and remember how bewildering RPGs can seem to the outsider, but to balance that with allowing the new player(s) to do what they want, make their own mistakes, and so forth.

7 - Do you hide the fact that you game, or do you live an "I am who I am" geek dream?

It sort of depends. If I do hide it, it's not because of shame, but simply because I might not want to get into an explanation of gaming with the people in question. For something that's been around for 35 years, RPGs are still seriously misunderstood. I guess that just gets back to what I was talking about earlier. Anyway, I don't wear my hobby on my sleeve, but I browse gaming-related websites at work and such, and there have been times in the past when a co-worker has seen what I'm looking at and asked me about it or shown an interest. Then I'm happy to discuss things. Strangely enough, the most guff I've gotten in the past is from other uber-geeks who think their interest of choice (::cough::comic books::cough::) is somehow inherently superior to mine.

8 - What would your 'desert island game' be? (That is, if you were marooned on a desert island with four other rpg players and you only had one set of rulebooks, which books would you choose?)

Hmm. Well, if it was just one book, I'd probably take Basic Roleplaying, since that's sort of my universal system of choice these days and it has the necessary tools for pretty much any genre I'd care to dip into. If it was a set of books...I'd still make it BRP, but I'd bring Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon along with me!

9 - Have you ever toyed with the idea of writing rpg material for money? Ever tried to get anything published? Ever self-published?

When I started doing freelance writing a few years back, I sent out some query letters to various publishers. I received a couple responses, and even talked about doing an adventure for HARP, but the most that came of it was some bits I wrote for a book on adventuring in deserts that, as far as I know, never got published. Or if it did, I never got a check! At any rate, my disastrous experience with painting miniatures for hire has taught me to keep my hobby and my career separate. Now, self-publishing for fun via my blog (and maybe future submissions to mags like Fight On! and Knockspell) is something that I'm quite interested in. As far as I know, my Carcosa character sheet is going to be included in an upcoming collection of setting-related fan material, and I'm pretty happy about that. Getting hooked into the world of gaming blogs has really kindled my DIY spirits; I used to be pretty pedantic when it came to settings and rules, but I've very quickly morphed into this inveterate tinkerer, although not nearly to the degree of some of the blogs I read.

10 - What would be your ideal soundtrack to a session of your favourite game? Pick three songs.

Yikes, just three? I've developed a habit over the last few years of making a mix/playlist for each campaign I run, but I don't really make those for use during play. An ideal gaming soundtrack to be used during an actual session is, for me, instrumental music. Vocals just tend to get in the way and call attention to the music. Soundtracks are an old favorite, so I'll name my top three favorite soundtracks that I've either used or seen used in the past: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Conan the Barbarian, and North by Northwest.

11. Interesting what you say about RPGs lacking objectivity. I think that's very perceptive. In fact it makes them almost like a sport in some respects - nothing beats a good game of football, but a terrible one is....terrible. I remember introducing an American friend to cricket a few years ago, and being incredibly nervous that the game would be a bad one and he'd get a bad impression of it. So have you ever had an awful experience with bad players/terrible GMs?

Good call on the sports analogy. Of course, what hampers RPGs in this regard is that they really don't make for very compelling spectator events. Even moreso than sports, they're really something that has to be experienced first-hand to really "get".

As for myself, thankfully I haven't had any personally awful experiences. My gaming history has by and large been confined to people who I was friends with first, then gamed with. So that helped. But even then, I had to learn that with certain folks, trying to run Game X was a recipe for disaster. Not all games/campaigns are created equal, and trying to run a taut, modern day mystery-suspense-espionage game with a bunch of dedicated DnDers is like trying to climb up a down escalator. You get there eventually, but...

12. Regarding superiority-complex comic book geeks and RPGs, I absolutely agree and it's a trend I've noticed too. What's also noticeable is "nerdish" activities like comic book reading and computer-game playing becoming more mainstream. Do you think we'll ever see a day in which RPGs follow suit? Do you even want to see that day?

I'm fascinated by the increasing acceptance of comics and computer games--particularly the latter, since, as all those Gary Gygax obits pointed out, computer gaming owes much of its existence to tabletop RPGs. I suppose it's conceivable that RPGs might some day achieve similar acceptance, but really don't see how. Again, it goes back to the fact that one could argue that certain comics and video games are very close to being objectivally good in and of themselves. Or at the very least more immediately engaging than RPGs. These days I'm more apt to agree with Jeff Rients's assessment that RPGs are destined for the same niche occupied by barbershop quartets and model railroads.

13. Painting miniatures for hire? It reminds me of some people on who were discussing GMing for hire. I'm amazed that such activities exist. How did you get involved in that?

Oh, it exists all right. And unlike GMing for hire, it's actually its own little fully-realized industry. There are companies like Blue Table Painting that actually employ full-time painters. There's even been outsourcing, with companies in Sri Lanka and Thailand undercutting the American/European market! I guess there are enough folks who don't want to fiddle about with taking the time to paint the things to justify the market. (My experience is that a lot of people who do this are older, and simply don't have the eyesight or steady hands necessary to do justice to their figures.)

I got involved in it from selling some figures I'd painted "on spec" via eBay. I made a decent profit, and thought I might try doing some actual commissioned work. Big mistake, as I ended up getting saddled with hundreds of figures at a time!

Thanks for the interview, David.

Anyone interested in being interviewed should contact me at jean.delumeau AT gmail.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Appendix N

This week has been ridiculously busy and I've been drinking all day, so in lieu of purposeful content, a meme - namely Zach's "What's Your Appendix N?" idea.
  • Yer Man Tolkien - Everything.
  • Gene Wolfe - Mostly The Wizard Knight, and of course The Book of the New Sun.
  • M. John Harrison - The Viriconium series.
  • China Mieville - The Scar and Iron Council.
  • Steve Jackson (UK) and Ian Livingstone - All of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, especially The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, The Citadel of Chaos and The Crypt of the Sorcerer.
  • Steve Jackson (UK) - The Sorcery! series.
  • Tony Diterlizzi - His art.
  • John Howe - His art too. (Not literary influences, you say? Shut up.)
  • Brother's Grimm - Grimms' Fairy Tales.
  • Egil's Saga.
  • Kenneth Grahame - The Wind in the Willows.
  • Rudyard Kipling - The Man Who Would Be King (and the film).
  • Kim Stanley Robinson - The Years of Rice and Salt.
  • Bernard Cornwell - Everything.
  • John Grant (and Joe Dever) - The Legends of Lone Wolf novels.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Swords & Wizardry Sighted in Tokyo: Millions Flee

I just noticed that somebody is going to be running a Swords & Wizardry game at the monthly Japan International Gamer's Guild meet up in Yoyogi-Uehara in May. Just my luck that I'll be out of the country for the entirety of that month.

Anyway, this is the first evidence I've had that the retro-clones are actually making their presence felt outside of the blogs and forums. (Unless the game is going to be run by a blogger...although I don't know of anybody else living in and around Tokyo.) An encouraging sign for sure.

I've fallen by the wayside a little when it comes to the 'old school renaissance'. I think my initial enthusiasm for the thing was based on the fact that I didn't like the look of D&D 4e or any of the self-styled 'indie' games. I've come to the realisation that, no, I actually just like old games and want to play them, and haven't actually stopped - which is an altogether different thing from a renaissance. Adding to that, it has to be said that my favourite old games (AD&D 2e, Cyberpunk 2020, MERP, Advanced Fighting Fantasy) probably aren't old school enough to be proper Old Skool anyway. And as a natural dyed-in-the-wool contrarian I was never comfortable with the idea of any sort of movement.

But I do really like Swords & Wizardry. The toolbox approach, and the fact that it allows people to come up with things like Ruins & Ronin, is a huge boon. It's nice to see that it's making at least a vague splash in the Far East; perhaps there's hope for us S&Wers after all.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Take a Lyric, Make an Adventure

Sometimes when I'm about town listening to my iPod a line leaps out at me and I think, "I wonder what a game based on that lyric would be like?"

Here's a few that ocurred to me recently:

Fountains of Wayne, Survival Car - "Don't you wanna ride in my survival car?": A group of adventurers in a post-apocalyptic scenario kit out a knight rider-esque radiation-proof vehicle and travel the lenghts and breadths of the continents, picking up other survivors and fighting crime.

Bob Dylan, Thunder on the Mountain - "Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches, I'll recruit my army from the orphanages": A gang of orphans escape from their cruel matroness's clutches and then go on the rampage as a group of mercenaries.

Rival Schools, The Switch - "We'll move to a foreign town, in Argentina, if you're down": A group of hardened criminals flees from a botched bank job to Buenos Aires. Hijinks ensue.

Queens of the Stone Age, A Song for the Dead - "That's the study of dying - how to do it right": Some adventurers try, rather like Gotrek and Felix, to find a glorious death, but keep somehow failing.

Morrissey, Every Day is Like Sunday - "In the seaside town that they forgot to bomb... Come, come, come, nuclear bomb!": The adventurers trek across a nuclear wasteland to find the semi-mythical and last remaining seaside settlement of an enemy race, so they can nuke it and finish them off for good.

And that's enough adventures based on song lyrics.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Dance of the Hours

I'm not a huge Clive Barker fan - actually the only book of his I've read and thoroughly enjoyed was Galilee. But I do love his ideas. In this respect he's rather like China Mieville: the sheer creative brilliance of the concepts presented is hard to deny, and yet in the final analysis the books are merely okay, not great. Along with Mieville and perhaps John Courtenay Grimwood, you could put him into the category of authors who should really be designing RPG settings rather than writing novels... if only there was enough of a market and enough money to support that.

My favourite Barker idea is Abarat - a fantasy archipelago in which each island corresponds to a different hour of the day, where time never changes. The first island, corresponding to 1am, is the "Pyramids of Xuxux", where six pyramids rise up out of the sea; at 9am is "Qualm Hah", which is divided into two halves, one densely populated and the other empty; at 3pm is "The Nonce", an island of rainforests which induces immediately sleep in visitors. As you can probably already tell, Barker demonstrates in it a genius for names - other islands are entitled Yzil, Hobarookus, Yebba Dim Day and Ninnyhammer.

At the back of the first book is an appendix containing Klepp's Almanack, in which Samuel Klepp, a famous traveller, details his journeys through the archipelago. For Yoon-suin I'd already planned on having a similar device in the form of Laxmi Ghuptra Dahl, but flicking through Klepp's almanack has confirmed it in my mind. All fantasy campaign settings should have travelogues, I feel, if for no other reason than to give the DM and players an idea of what the world is like at the level of an individual adventurer. Thinking back over the D&D campaign settings I don't think any of them used such a device, which could be one of the reasons why I always felt them to be in the most part flat and lifeless.

Monday, 4 May 2009

The Haven of Moriondë

I've just unearthed a book of Tolkien-related art that I had as a kid. It's great - about three dozen pictures by a variety of artists, of work ranging from The Hobbit to The Book of Lost Tales and The Return of the Shadow. Obviously John Howe is well represented. But I have to say that these days I'm more and more seeing the value of Roger Garland.

This piece is easily my favourite, though I couldn't find a representation on the web that would do it justice. In the flesh it is much longer, with a vista of stars stretching far above the scenery. Called The Haven of Moriondë, it depicts the moment when Sauron first arrived at Númenor, in The Lost Road:

Guards were set at the haven of Moriondë in the east of the land, where the rocks are dark, watching at the king's command without ceasing for the ships' return. It was night, but there was a bright Moon. They descried ships far off, and they seemed to be sailing west at a speed greater than the storm, though there was little wind. Suddenly the sea became unquiet; it rose until it became like a mountain, and it rolled in upon the land. The ships were lifted up, and cast far inland, and lay in the fields. Upon that ship which was cast highest and stood dry upon a hill there was a man, or one in man's shape, but greater than any even of the race of Númenor in stature.

He stood upon the rock and said: "This is done as a sign of power. For I am Sauron the mighty, servant of the Strong" (wherein he spoke darkly). "I have come. Be glad, men of Númenor, for I will take thy king to be my king, and the world shall be given into his hand."

Some people say Tolkien was a poor writer. Those people are idiots.

What I like most about the picture is how understated it is. I've said it before and I'll say it again, but fantasy art - at least D&D-inspired fantasy art - seems to have lost all comprehension of the power of understatement, and this is to its great loss.

I'm now harbouring an urge to crack out my MERP rulebook and start thinking about the Second Age of Middle Earth...

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Of T'internet and Stuff

Things will be slow on the blog for a bit. I have a heck of a lot to do, and am procrastinating far too much. As my rpg-related online activities are part of the procrastination process, I have to curtail them a little bit. The advantage of this is that I won't waste nearly as much time reading what utter nitwits say on, and becoming annoyed. This in turn will be good for my blood pressure.

It's a source of great frustration to me that (probably) the biggest rpg-related site on the internet can be such a hostile, snide and arrogant place. I'm sure it serves as a barrier to entry to the hobby, in some respects - how many newcomers have looked around the internet for information, stumbled across that hive of scum and villainy, and decided gaming is not for them? In any case all the backbiting certainly drowns out the genuine interesting discussion that does go on.

Anyway, there's a guy who I see every morning on the train, on the way to the office. He's fat, bearded, bespectacled, and always walks around with a rucksack slung over one shoulder. I don't think he has a job, because he only ever wears t-shirts with superhero type characters on the front, and slovenly-looking jeans. He looks rather like the comic shop owner bloke from The Simpsons. For ages I've had him pegged as a gamer, and I was gratified yesterday that when he reached into his rucksack to get out a bottle of water I was able to catch a glimpse of rulebooks hidden inside - like a stash of heroin or something.

Slightly unexpectedly, the one on top was Amber Diceless.