Sunday 24 February 2013

Missed Appointment

I am terrible at keeping track of my appointments. Thank God for e-mail and the internet; no matter what I need to do, I regularly have to check / double-check the place, time and details of whatever meeting I am scheduled to attend. I rarely miss an appointment; I just exist in a state of perpetual uncertainty.

That said, THE SILVER CRUSADER did miss his Appointment with F.E.A.R. I knew when, and roughly where I was meant to meet Vladimir Utoshski, the Titanium Cyborg. But roughly where was not good enough…

SKILL 18? This geek is the most dangerous man on the planet!

I rolled up a super super-hero for this book, and with SKILL 12 I figured that as THE SILVER CRUSADER was the Goddam Batman I would not need ‘real’ superpowers, so I selected the ‘whizz with gadgets’ (Enhanced Technological Skill) power. Appointment with F.E.A.R. is an interesting Fighting Fantasy book as it has multiple start points; with four different superpower packages and a range of different starting clues, there is definitely the feeling that this is no ‘one true path’ gamebook.

It is not all superpowering about Titan City, though. Pity the Goddam Batman - no matter your superpowers, YOU have a front identity as an office drone working for J. Jonah Jameson. No, Perry White. Actually, Jonah Whyte. The book is full of little references to comic books and popular culture, no doubt many of which I missed reading it a quarter century after publication. I did not miss the worst; pop star, Michael Blaxson. Groan…

I have never been a big fan of the non-fantasy Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and I had remembered this book as being one of the worst (before playing I was prepared to call this post ‘Dis-Appointment with F.E.A.R.), but I enjoyed this read. The adventure is a mix of following the main mission – foiling a world domination plot by the super-terrorist group F.E.A.R. and responding to the everyday supervillainy of Titan City. I was surprised at just how much a sense of agency I had when reading this book – always being presented with several ‘adventuresome’ options, and always feeling that if I chose to defeat the monster in the park my adventure would turn out in a different way than if I had chosen to arrest a group of bank robbers. The actual villains are often quite gonzo – more Adam West than Christian Bale Batman – but the book is all the better for it; a gritty Titan City filled with enough supervillainy to avoid feeling like a railroad would be ridiculous, for all it might be ‘dark and gritty’, while a lighter, more gonzo setting can be populated with the likes of THE SCARLET PRANKSTER, STREAK GORDON, and THE CREATURE OF CARNAGE and yet maintain its (zany) coherence. Light and gonzo does not mean that YOUR adventure will not end pathetically.

And my Goddam Batman had a particularly pathetic end; destroyed by space laser while riding in a taxi. Okay, he had tracked down the time of the meeting of F.E.A.R., he knew which street the villains were meeting on. Hell, he had even discovered that the bad guys were having their pow-wow in a Chinese laundry. But he did not know the street number – and so did not know which page to turn to – and rather than trying *a* Chinese laundry, my Goddam Batman decided to take a taxi home. While he was engaging in idle chit chat with the driver, F.E.A.R. had presumably agreed their fiendish plan AND got their delegates out of Titan City, because before he got home F.E.A.R. took over the airwaves to announce their demands for world domination, before demonstrating the power of their space weapon by blowing up the very city in which they had been meeting just minutes earlier!

The Goddam Batman. Vaporised in a yellow cab.   

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Player Character Suffering ≠ Player Suffering

Or, a few more thought on the ‘pathetic aesthetic’.

The pathetic aesthetic is not about making players suffer. It is not about the machismo of endurance. Players are not player characters, obviously. A game that evokes the pathetic aesthetic will involve player characters enduring – if they are lucky – possibly catastrophic negative consequences. The players do not endure these consequences, they are playing the game whether their characters are ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’. A player does not ‘lose’ when his or her character fails, it is simply more play.

Playing a gaming is not work. But some games can make play feel like work. And while play leaves behind nothing but the experience of play, work should leave behind something more tangible. If gaming feels like work, it would only be natural to feel cheated if your character suffers a catastrophic negative consequence that would undo hours of work, and would require hours of work to rectify, if it is even possible. Hours of play cannot be undone, those hours are their own reward.

Computer games can often feel like work. Consider Grand Theft Auto IV. A great computer game; terrific environments to explore, full of humour, and some pretty sharp social commentary too. When I started playing GTA:IV I drove cautiously, careful not to attract the attention of the police, and I tried to play smart to keep my character alive. But the consequence of being caught, or killed, was not that your character suffered any permanent negative effects (death, prison, disability etc.) but simply that you needed to play though parts of the same game again – whether the recover the money and equipment that you had lost, or to replay the same mission. Again and again. Player character failure is not meaningful to the/in the world of the player character; it demands that the player endure.

If a tabletop RPG treats failure in this way, as something that can simply be erased through more gaming, then failure is something that the players endure and gaming can start to become work. Failure, and the real risk of failure in the pathetic aesthetic is about the consequences of such failures having real, lasting effects on the player character. Their failures, and the consequences of their failure, should be meaningful – in the sense that they have a real effect on the character and his or her world – and while some failure will be dramatically meaningful, by the fact that the player characters are protagonists (not heroes), the fact that the game involves random elements and valorises player agency demands that many of these failures will be 'pathetic'.
It is that it is the very fact that failure in games that embrace the pathetic aesthetic always has the potential for catastrophic permanent consequences is part of what makes failure a fun part of play, not a speedbump to be overcome through work.      

Sunday 10 February 2013

Back at the Brushes

I thought it past time that I dug the paints out again. Child #2 is now one year old, and as the prospect of being involuntarily transformed into one of Cameron's 'skivers' looms, I thought it best to engage myself productively. Oh, and I'll need to brush-up on my ability to colour things in before I set to work producing my Oldhammer Chaos warband.

So I dug out one of my favourite unpainted models, a pre-slotta Citadel Joseph Bugman. I've also got a very similar slotta version of this character, and a much later, much bigger, and very different version of the vengeful brewer. So, skills still up to the task?

He needs a bit of static grass before he can stagger drunkenly into battle, but that's one down for 2013.

[I'll try to answer some of the misconceptions about my last post soon - if anyone is bothered - but I will say that when I write "A rant, in which I play the pseud, before growing tired and irritable" would tell people in a pretty direct way that the style of the post was taking the piss out of myself and of my prejudices. Of course the content has pissed people off too - with people mistaking what I have called the 'pathetic aesthetic' with simply being a synonym for low level play, simple grittiness or low fantasy, or even with being a plain old 'dick GM'.]  

Friday 8 February 2013

The Old School is Pathetic – A Rant

A rant, in which I play the pseud, before growing tired and irritable.

Pathetic [pəˈθɛtɪk] 
- arousing pity, sympathy or compassion,
- arousing scornful pity or contempt,
- miserably inadequate,
- affecting of moving the feelings.
From the Greek pathos: suffering.

Now that I have your attention, are you ready? Ok? Ok.

What I am arguing is this; old-school D&D, WFRP1e, early WFB, W40K1e, and other old school fantasy games, hell even Fighting Fantasy, all have a healthy dose of the ‘pathetic aesthetic’ running through their design. Not only their art, but also the setting and the game design itself. This is in contrast to many contemporary games, which have abandoned the pathetic aesthetic in favour of a concentration on designs - art, setting, and the game itself - which evoke awe (or at least, are meant to). Hereafter, this juvenile aesthetic will be referred to as TEH AWESUM. A lot of people have written lately about what the OSR means (or means to them). I could have posted some photos of the lovely products of the OSR that are in use at my gaming table. Ho hum; you can buy those books from Lulu too, you'll learn nothing from me there. Instead I will introduce the pathetic aesthetic, which I think binds the best elements of a diverse Old School of gaming together, and suggest some reasons the gradual elimination of this aesthetic from contemporary gaming. 

None of this is to say that Old School games did not contain plenty of  things designed to make the gamer go 'wow!', but these were (almost always) tempered with elements that aroused pity over awe. And do not confuse the pathetic aesthetic with being 'dark' or 'gritty' of with the laughable labelling of material designed to titillate teenagers as 'mature'.

Consider Fighting Fantasy. Juvenile reading, yet possessing a far more genuinely mature aesthetic than many  contemporary games. Titan, the world of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, is one in which there are umpteen master wizards (mostly bad or mad), in which YOU might fight animated statues, ride on griffons, fight a topiaric monster etc. A world of high magic. And YOU will have a minimum SKILL of 7 and STAMINA of 12, making YOU far more powerful than any normal man. But the design of the books as a game produces the pathetic aesthetic; there are plenty of death traps, and choices that lead to the lines 'Your adventure end here'. And even if these are avoided, YOU are more likely than not to die in a way that isn't dramatically satisfying, whether through slow attrition or the lack of a magic gee-gaw. And look closer at the setting; are there are more pitiable bunch of monsters than the inhabitants of Firetop Mountain or the Citadel of Chaos?  Much of the world is pitiable, the ever-present prospect of failure renders YOU pitiable. And that is before we consider the YOU that is the Creature of Havoc.

Consider the design of Old School D&D. These are games in which PCs typically have low hit points, are subject to Save or Die effects, and in which adventuring includes an emphasis on resource management (what could be more pitiable than being trapped in the Underdark with no food, dwindling light, and a Cleric who went dungeoneeing to kick ass and cast Cure Light Wounds, but is all out of Cure Light Wounds?). And these PCs are the product of random character generation - which is a feature of many games with the pathetic aesthetic - the opposite of point-build character design. One manifestation of the pathetic aesthetic is about playing with the hand that [cruel] fate has dealt you, not choosing flaws and drawbacks, whether for dramatic effect or as an exercise in character optimisation. D&D PCs can still do awesome stuff. They are far better than a 0 level human,  and a skillfully played adventuring party can put terrible monsters to the sword (and spell and burning oil, and henchman's spear and wardog's teeth). But if the players want their PCs to do this, or to experience other awesome elements, they have to find it through play, not in what is written on their character sheet before they even begin. And they might well die trying in a way that makes little dramatic sense. A D&D PC is not Aragorn, destined to return as the King, and they might not even die like Boromir. In both creation and death a D&D PC might well be pitiable.

WFRP1e. Do I actually need to say anything here?

Roleplaying games take place in the imagination, so it is the system (and setting) that produces the aesthetic  of the game as much as the visual art. At least, that is my excuse for having written so much without mentioning the art! Early D&D art shows brave men and women  (and Elves, Dwarfs and Halflings) engaged in dungeoneering, a high risk activity. And if something is risky, then there  must be a good chance of failure, of [permanent] negative consequences. These adventurers are frightened, likely doomed. The same is true of WFRP1e and Fighting Fantasy. Even when the adventurers are doing something awesome, they are not TEH AWESUM superheroes that dominate the aesthetic of contemporary games.

In miniature gaming the visual aesthetic is more central; you are shoving little men across a table. But look through the photos of the battles in early WFB – those Dwarfs look wide-eyed with fear as the Skeletons climb the hill towards them. And what are the Dwarfs defending? A farmhouse, perhaps. What does the equivalent picture for WFB8 look like? The Dwarfs are on steroids, huge hulks with snarling faces, and they are not defending a barn but the legendary Tower of SKULZ. Think of the early scenarios and the characters they contain. In the Magnificent Sven you might play a disgraced Dwarf inventor scrabbling for treasure and reputation in Lustria. In Terror of the Lichmaster you play a handful of Dwarf miners and a hamlet of ordinary humans as they defend their homes from the terrifying undead led by Mikeal Jacsen. These are pathetic battles, and all the more interesting for it.

Oh, and as for Rogue Trader; have you ever seen a universe so filled with the pitiable? And Realms of Chaos? Those were awesome books, but they were about playing once mighty heroes that were destined for ruin as a post human monster...

The loss of the pathetic aesthetic in fantasy gaming has to do with a number of things. When I were a lad, all this were fields, and computer games gave you three lives and then you started from the beginning again. Computer games now are amazing. They tell stories that critics compare favourably with contemporary books and films. But to ensure that you see these stories, these games are built on a playstyle of save, save, save; catastrophic failure, or even serious negative consequences, are never permanent. Unless you choose them to be (or have made a metagame mistake in your save strategy). Success is given, if you put in the time (and read the walk thrus). Computer games dominate our broader gaming culture, and the removal of a genuine risk of ignominious failure - an essential part of the pathetic aesthetic - has been largely removed from this culture.

Computer games have influenced table top RPGs in other ways too. When someone recommends that you use a computer programme to manage the bookkeeping required to create and run an RPG character, it should be a joke. But it is not. High levels of complexity make it difficult to provide for and accommodate player choice in play. How can a GM make stuff up on the fly with such complex 'natural laws'. This results in a front-loading of player choice, concentrated in character design. Naturally, many players optimise and go for TEH AWESUM. And, if a GM cannot accommodate player freedom in play, the 'railroad' that the players walk down has to be one at which they will succeed. The more the game is a railroad, the more any failure is the fault of the GM rather than a result of player choice. It is not pathetic if the GM kills the PCs, just weak.

And then there is 'balance'. Contemporary RPGs are seemingly designed so that all PCs, when  properly optimised, contribute equally to an encounter. 'Encounter' has been reduced to combat (that the PCs can win) or a skill check (‘social combat’? that’s wrong on so many levels), and 'contribute' to a mechanistic intervention. So all characters need to bring TEH AWESUM as if this was an MMORPG. Ugh. Smash the computers and sing the name of Ned Ludd. But not before I have finished writing my rant on this one.

Fantasy miniature gaming has seen the malign effect of tournament play and another intervention of 'balance'[1]. The drive to balance gradually eliminates the pathetic elements of the game leaving only TEH AWESUM. Of course, the designers could have kept these games as being about pathetic Dwarfs and pitiable monstrosities, but once one army had a unit that could bring TEH AWESUM to the table... (see the next paragraph). Curiously, a balanced battle should evoke pity. Want to see a real balanced battle?  Try the Somme; two armies lined up against another, with little manoeuvre, no subtlety, just endless bloody grind and big bombs. Yup, WFB8 with tournament-optimised army lists. But if we are all children who think the big bombs are TEH AWESUM...

You young folk just don't know how to have fun these days! Not proper fun anyhow, what with your Xstations and would Wiboxes. Games companies moved from catering to older hobbyists to targeting a younger, casual market. Well, a couple of the big beasts did, but these monsters dominate the tabletop gaming culture, and what they think gaming is, or should be, matters. Targeting a younger market is good business sense; there is more money in it, and the market refreshes constantly. Do I, as an adult gamer, need any more Dwarf miniatures? No. Will I ever? Well, I will never need more, but I might buy one or two, maybe even go on an eBay binge from time to time. Which makes me a bad customer, even if I am a good gamer. But this younger, casual market is not the kind that will enjoy a pathetic aesthetic, they are not going to wait for awesome things, they are not going to work for it, and if they do have to spend many sessions playing their snowflake PC into awesomeness, they are not going to accept that their Dragonborn Paladin has died a dramatically meaningless death. They deserve better, they have been told, as they have put in the work to get there. The notion of games as work is another malign influence of  computer games; grinding up levels rather than playing for the sake of playing. Who would have thought that it would be older people trying to teach younger people about the virtues of play for its own sake?

An unwillingness to accept the pathetic aesthetic stretches to adults too, who have mistaken fantasy gaming for a storytelling medium (or some dramatic art). They want plots and story, and they want it first. Old School play places the game first – the act of play – and if there is a story to be told it the story of play. A standard denigration of Old School games runs; "Why would I want to play someone who might die at level one? I want my PCs to have a story like the heroes of fiction." To which I say, "read a book, watch a film, idly daydream, or play a computer game (save early, save often)". Proper fantasy gaming embraces the pathetic aesthetic. It not only defines it, but the pathetic aesthetic is done better by fantasy gaming then any other medium. Any other form of fantasy gaming is badwrongfun![2]

[1] Did these game designers learn nothing from Appendix N? It is the conflict between Law and Chaos that is exciting, not Balance!

[2] I am smiling when I say that. But if you look in my eyes you will see that I really do think that you are playing it wrong.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Oldhammer's Alive!

Orlygg has organised an Oldhammer day at Wargames Foundry in Nottingham, most likely on 24th August. I may well be going; I know a couple of other people planning to make the long trip from the Celtic wilderlands, and so a lift up there should not be a problem. The problem, as always, is choosing (or rolling), collecting, and painting, my warband.

A very dark (and not in a good way) photo of some random (but not random-ised) Chaotics

I have decided to declare 'Oldhammer's Alive!' and collect all new miniatures for my warband. Naturally, I'm only going to choose those that capture something of the classic Warhammer aesthetic, but I'm not going to be bound by this. I am taking my lead from the OSR here; while the old models and books are cool, and are great if you can get them, making the movement about out of production models and books limits participation and makes it a hobby for collectors and old-timers. In the OSR, it is the retro-clones, and the second generation of OSR games that have taken their lead from older play styles (whether near-clones such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Crypts and Things, or new games such as my new love, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG), combined with the ease of publishing that .pdf and print on demand (PoD) offers, that have made Old School gaming accessible to anyone who wants to get involved. Flint-eyed eBay scouring, searching for that Rules Cyclopedia, is not required.

So I have set myself the task of building an perfectly [un]acceptable Realms of Chaos (now, if only Games Workshop would release that as a PoD product, or even as a .pdf - come on, look to warband using only in production miniatures. I could trawl eBay, I could rummage through the white metal that is hoarded here, there, and everwhere in our house. But I do not think that the OSR is/should be all about nostalgia, and I do not see why Oldhammer should be either. I will, of course, post pictures of my progress as I acquire the miniatures, and as I slowly and crudely paint them.