Author Archives: Andy

Won’t you think of the (fictional) children?!

A lot of things in your life and attitude change when you become a parent. That is, of course, not exactly a brilliant insight for the ages. But I was unprepared for one minor but very definite change in myself that took place almost immediately upon the birth of our daughter three years ago: I became utterly unable to handle the sight, or even the thought, of a child’s suffering in books, movies, or the newspaper.

Before our daughter’s birth, my tastes in entertainment were pretty “mainstream American”—that is, jaded. While I didn’t enjoy the extreme end of cinematic violence, I could watch a Tarantino movie without flinching (much). I played ultra-violent video games. I approached fictional violence and death involving children the same way I approached violence and death involving adults: sometimes unpleasant, sometimes tear-jerking, but nothing that merited emotional investment beyond what the film’s (or book’s) narrative called for.

Then our wonderful, beautiful daughter was born.

I noticed the change a few months after that. My wife and I were watching an episode of The X-Files during one of those rare breaks in between infant care. In the episode, two young children—a toddler and a slightly older boy—are murdered by the villain. Nothing graphic; the deaths take place offscreen.

I can confidently say that before parenthood, this wouldn’t have bothered me in the slightest, beyond establishing that the bad guy was really bad. But I was physically shaken. I wanted to turn off the episode. Afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How impossibly cruel, to kill these fictional children! How impossibly painful for this fictional family!

Beyond being upset—something I could easily explain as anxiety about my own daughter’s safety—I felt something stronger: real anger and resentment toward the episode and its creators. On one level I was angry that the writers had successfully exploited my new emotional weakness. But I was actively angry just at the thought of somebody using the suffering and death of a child in something so tawdry as a TV show. I tried to imagine the sort of empty-souled shell of a human being that would use a child’s death (even a fictional one) as a mere plot device.

Since then, this emotional hot-button of mine has shown no signs of going away. I can’t watch or read even the mildest instance of cruelty or violence inflicted on a child without wanting to physically get up and leave… and punch the screenwriter/author. Just seeing a kid threatened with violence—say, by a villain trying to blackmail a movie’s protagonist—is enough to freak me out. The other day I actually threw a book down in anger, something I don’t think I’ve ever done before, when a character in the story cruelly hurt a child. When I read or watch such a thing, I wonder about how the fictional child’s fictional parents will ever cope; and now even when an adult is hurt or killed, I wonder if the fictional adult has fictional kids whose lives have just been ruined.

I had never really thought about how common it is to use threats against children to drive plots and increase suspense. Intellectually I don’t have a problem with that storytelling device, but these days I demand that there be a really good narrative reason for it.

I imagine this will fade a bit with time. But right now, I find myself avoiding movies, books, or video games where I even suspect a child may suffer.

I can understand why my mind has reached this point, but the suddenness and completeness of the change caught me off guard. And I should note that I don’t especially miss being jaded about this topic—it’d be nice to feel less emotional wimpy while watching movies and TV, but I’m not really interested in going back to being a person who didn’t bat an eyelash at the fictional portrayal of violence against kids.

It makes me wonder at all the other commonplace narrative setups—rape, domestic violence, murder, grief, loss of a loved one, etc.—that go right past me without registering but prey on the emotional vulnerabilities of people who’ve experienced them in real life.

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You know who else liked instinct?

What a surprise—Michael Moorcock didn’t like Star Wars either when it came out:

This sort of implicit paternalism is seen in high relief in the currently popular Star Wars series which also presents a somewhat disturbing anti-rationalism in its quasi-religious ‘Force’ which unites the Jedi Knights (are we back to Wellsian ‘samurai’ again?) and upon whose power they can draw, like some holy brotherhood, some band of Knights Templar. Star Wars is a pure example of the genre (in that it is a compendium of other people’s ideas) in its implicit structure — quasi-children, fighting for a paternalistic authority, win through in the end and stand bashfully before the princess while medals are placed around their necks.

Star Wars carries the paternalistic messages of almost all generic adventure fiction (may the Force never arrive on your doorstep at three o’clock in the morning) and has all the right characters. it raises ‘instinct’ above reason (a fundamental to Nazi doctrine) and promotes a kind of sentimental romanticism attractive to the young and idealistic while protective of existing institutions.

Look, buddy, if you’re going to bag on Star Wars, you have to be doing it for the right reason.

Star Wars, alongside Lord of the Rings, makes two genre-defining things that Moorcock hates (that is, considers “crypto-Stalinist”) which are are orders of magnitude more popular than Moorcock’s own writing. Oh, also “C. S. Lewis, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov and the rest.” I’m starting to detect a pattern.

Update: Moorcock (or the article transcriber) spells “Tolkien” incorrectly throughout his essay. So maybe he’s talking about a totally different Tolkien. Er, “Tolkein.”

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XP for death and failure; and other interesting uses for Experience Points

I recently came across an interesting post at Gothridge Manor about one of AD&D’s weirder rules: experience for death. The 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide rules that a character who dies and is subsequently brought back to life earns 1000 experience points (XP).

In old-school D&D, you generally got XP for defeating monsters and gaining treasure, with a few interesting exceptions like the above. These days, many games use a fairly abstract system of awarding XP wherein characters are awarded a set amount of XP for a combination of in-game success and good roleplaying.

The cover of the 1989 Rolemaster boxed set.

That’s a fine way to do it. But the “experience for death” rule reminds me of the quirkier and much more ambitious method of awarding XP found in the pages of the Rolemaster RPG. Rolemaster, itself pitched as a more “realistic” take on fantasy adventuring than its contemporary AD&D, awards XP for extremely specific individual in-game actions.

For instance, in classic Rolemaster (2nd edition, and perhaps in other editions too), your character gains experience not just for defeating an enemy, but for each point of damage dealt to an enemy. And going beyond that, you gain experience for each critical hit (i.e., severe wound) you inflict. In fact, you get XP for each wound inflicted on you. (And yes, you get experience for dying and then coming back to life.) Outside of combat, you get XP for every mile your character travels and for every impressive physical maneuver your character pulls off. There are specific XP awards for casting spells and even for coming up with good ideas.

The paperwork is oppressive; even my nerdy junior-high gaming group, always eager to squeeze as much XP out of a gaming session as possible, usually failed to diligently record every single blow landed in combat for later XP calculation. These days I’m lucky if I remember approximately how many orcs the characters beat down in the course of an evening’s game; I can’t imagine filling out Rolemaster’s intimidating experience tracking chart, faithfully marking down the severity of each critical wound delivered in the course of a routine fight.

But this hyper-detailed system has its charms, and there are some neat ideas to be extracted from it even if you recoil from the detail:

  • Experience for failure. It might seem odd at first that your character would earn experience for being struck or seriously wounded in combat. If your character is getting slapped around in a fight, isn’t he “losing”? Perhaps, but consider the educational power of failure in life. In a combat situation, you might fall for a feint or sneaky manuver once, but assuming you survive said failure, you’re highly unlikely to fall for it again. You’ve learned a lesson you’ll carry with you into future combat situations.
  • Decreased experience for familiar accomplishments. Another neat little twist in Rolemaster is that your XP earned for accomplishing something—say, defeating a goblin—is multiplied by a different value depending on how many times you’ve accomplished the task in the past. If this is your first goblin kill, you get five times the normal XP for pulling it off. After you’ve taken out a few of the green nuisances, that multiplier value goes down; you’ve done this enough that you’re not learning as much from it. And when you reach the point where you can singlehandedly plow through an ocean of the luckless beasts, you’ve probably got the goblin-whomping down to a science and are getting 1/2 of its normal XP value.

All in all, I’m fine with the more abstracted system of awarding XP. D&D 4e’s method of assigning experience points to the entire group based on the difficulty of a particular challenge is probably close to my ideal. But I do sometimes miss the very detailed method, and the slightly unconventional uses of XP it allows.

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Guided tours of Bond, Holmes, and Lovecraft

I don’t know if it qualifies as a meme (or if the cool people are even still using that word), but Ken Hite started something nifty with his “Tour de Lovecraft” project. Hite read his way through H.P. Lovecraft’s stories and wrote up a short essay about each one—a combination of critical analysis and personal reflection. Although it started as a project on his blog, those essays have been published as a book (which I heartily recommend, should you ever decide to delve into Lovecraft yourself).

Now others have picked up that idea, following the same format with different authors:

  • Tour de Bond: Gareth-Michael Skarka reads through Ian Fleming’s 007 novels. Very interesting if, like me, you’ve seen many of the Bond films but never read the stories upon which they were (often very loosely, it seems) based.
  • Tour de Holmes: Eddy Webb gives the Sherlock Holmes tales a similar treatment.

Both are well worth following. There’s something very appealing about reading a fan’s overview of their favorite series—it’s not “Everything Ian Fleming wrote ROCKS!!!!” fanboy gushing, but something more like “Here are the points at which Fleming really shines; here’s where he tripped up; and here are the elements that made me fall in love with his work.”

I really enjoy this “tour” format. It works well with short and/or serial literature of the Lovecraft, Holmes, and Bond variety. I’ve considered undertaking a project like this myself, but am unsure if I’d be able to stick with it.

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Stormbringer is mine!

Elric poses with his soul-draining sword Stormbringer.

I had the chance to catch lunch with Ed earlier this week, and he was kind enough to pass an item from his game library to me: Stormbringer, the roleplaying game based on Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibon√© novels. I’m really glad to get my hands on it; Stormbringer is one of those classic RPGs of which everyone speaks highly, but which I’ve never seen actually played. (But somebody must be playing it, as it’s in its sixth edition or thereabouts.)

In that sense, the RPG is not unlike Moorcock’s Elric novels: influential, well regarded, and yet strangely obscure. Although you might find a few Elric short story collections at the bookstore, the main Elric series that established the titular character as a pulp fantasy archetype seems to be weirdly out of print. If there’s any series screaming to be reprinted as an anthology, it’s the original Elric tales.

My own introduction to Moorcock and his angsty antihero came a few years ago when Elric of Melnibon√© turned up on my reading group’s list. I have since wondered how my youthful appreciation of the fantasy genre might have been different if I had gotten hooked on Moorcock instead of Tolkien 25 years ago. It’s too late now, of course; I was a Tolkien fanatic before I made it out of sixth grade.

And anyway, given my Tolkien partisanship, it’s probably just as well that I was blissfully unaware of Moorcock’s famous whinefest about Tolkien. (I like The Cimmerian’s rebuttal myself.)

But that aside, the first Elric novel is certainly worth tracking down and reading if you enjoy dark, morally edgy fantasy filled with strange and intriguing people, places, and gods. It’s sharply written and evocative, although angst-ridden Elric himself is probably one of those protagonists you either wholeheartedly love or hate from the moment you first meet him.

I hope to dig through the RPG in detail in the near future; but my initial take is that it’s an impressive piece of work.

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Yet with strange aeons…

For the last several years, I’ve blogged off-and-on at my dedicated game blog, The Lost Level. That’s been fun; but now I’ve also become interested in reviving this, my personal blog, again after several years of dormancy. To keep things nicely consolidated, I’ve merged the contents of my game blog with this one, and plan to continue posting here instead of there.

I have a sinking feeling that you can expect mostly game-related posts here for the foreseeable future, but you may once again get the occasional glimpse into the horror of my personal life as well.

So that’s why a hundred-odd new posts about games have appeared here all of a sudden. And why this blog has lurched abruptly out of its long-dormant state. Hope to see you around here!

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Making Man vs. Nature work in RPGs; or, nobody ever dies of scurvy in Dungeons and Dragons

Percy Fawcett went into the Amazon one last time, but he didn't come back.

In the last few months, I’ve read two riveting books about humanity’s drive to survive (and thus “conquer”) the most inhospitable environments on the planet. First up was The Lost City of Z, a historical account of the explorer Percy Fawcett‘s expeditions into the Amazon. The second was Dan Simmon’s The Terror, a fictionalized (complete with supernatural elements) account of the doomed Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage.

I thoroughly enjoyed both books, different as they are, and found myself utterly engrossed in the almost impossibly difficult struggles to survive in environments where man was clearly not meant to tread. In both cases, the natural environment is so inimical to human life that it is perceived by the survivors/victims as possessing an active, malevolent desire to destroy them.

It makes for gripping reading. But being a gamer, it also made me wonder why Man vs. Nature struggles, so compelling to read as narratives, are so rare in roleplaying games.

My instinctive reaction to a typical Man vs. Nature conflict as a roleplaying episode is that it would be rather boring, although I’m not immediately sure why that is. There is nothing about game rules that would stop you from putting together a survival scenario like the ones described in the two books above. Consider the roleplaying actions a sea-based arctic survival scenario would involve:

  • Successfully navigate your ship through icy waters and avoid getting lost or trapped in the ice.
  • Send expeditions out to hunt for food, often hunting dangerous animals (think polar bears).
  • Avoid scurvy and disease.
  • Keep party morale up and put down mutinees as needed.
  • Jury-rig shelter and equipment to stay alive.
  • Repair continual damage inflicted on your ship by the environment.
  • Avoid going mad yourself.

Trust me, getting eaten by a troll is a much better fate than scurvy.

Each of those could be broken down into discrete, accomplishable roleplaying activities; most games have skills and rule systems that would accomodate these activities. So why don’t more games feature environmental survival as the core challenge? Why doesn’t that sound more fun?

In most RPGs I’ve played, weather, environmental danger, and survival are abstracted into a few modifiers or die rolls done on the side—and usually just to find out if you’ll suffer any combat penalties from starvation or snowy terrain. Or else the challenge of survival is represented by a handful of “environmental challenges” that you overcome once and then get on with the scenario’s other, more interesting challenges. The handful of games I’ve played that featured straight environmental challenges (like the iceberg-scaling in “The Trail of Tsathoggua” for Call of Cthulhu) were actually kind of boring. The players rolled dice, occasionally took damage or suffered a penalty when they failed a roll, and then we got on with more interesting stuff. There was neither much tension in the challenge nor a meaningful sense of accomplishment upon overcoming it.

Have you ever run a game that featured explicit environmental challenges that really worked? Have you ever made the challenge of simply surviving something that was as tense and entertaining as an epic battle or other more traditional roleplaying challenge? How did you do it?

Note: for a related discussion, see Justin Achilli’s thoughts on the concept of exploration in games. I think a big part of a successful exploration-based game would be getting the “survival” part down solid, since part of the historical allure of exploration is the challenge of surviving in the strange new environment you’re exploring. And I think it’s telling that genuine exploration and environmental survival aren’t prominent in most published RPGs.

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Behind the scenes of Planescape: Torment

Via Gnome’s Lair, a great interview with Chris Avellone on Planescape: Torment. Lots of interesting tidbits here, although if you haven’t yet played through the game, there are some spoilers:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWEl0IQm670&fs=1&hl=en_US]

Well worth reading in conjunction with this interview is Avellone’s original vision document for PS:T (massive spoiler warning this time). It’s interesting to compare the vision document to the finished game.

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