Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Random Thoughts: Blue Collar Gaming, Better than Harry Potter, Andre Norton’s Rpg Legacy, and Genre’s Ossification

Role-playing games are all blue collar games for de facto trailer trash. War games are, in contrast, a pastime for well off baby boomers. The reason for this is simple. Rpg’s require only one person to buy a book and you can play for basically forever without buying any maps or miniatures or anything else. War games pretty well require you to own a mansion with space that can be dedicated to leaving a game up for months at a time. The typical redneck might dabble in a lesser war game on occasion, but his destiny is to sooner or later be consumed by role-playing just on the basis of what his actual peers are going to end up getting into. You can’t escape your destiny!

So I asked my twelve-year-old son what was good about Conan compared to what was good about Harry Potter. (He read all the Potter books in a couple of weeks earlier this year.) I said it was okay if they were both good for different reasons. He just said he liked Conan better– because it’s more exciting and faster paced. I think I know what he’s talking about…!

I got to give a short talk to a small group of older people (older than John C. Wright) that are readers but which aren’t necessarily hard core sff fans themselves. While I’ve been answering objections that have been laid against my various assertions this past year I was prepared to head some of it off from the outset, but I heard some new ones from them as well. They seem to me to be completely unconscious of what I call the Appendix N generation gap. They can’t imagine that there are things that people under thirty largely can’t even imagine anymore.

The repudiation of the sff canon by fandom and the lack of ideological diversity in sff literature today bothers them not one whit, though. (They’re all reading “real” classics and haven’t noticed anything really go down.) They have complete faith in the silent majority to quietly route around the insanity. Assuming any insanity exists, that is. While I am interested in the fact that I’m at a loss to really answer these objections… I am nevertheless not particularly surprised by them. This is the generation of people that largely refused to raise my generation with any strong values or convictions, and which congratulated themselves for being so broad minded as to allow us to “find our own way.” I expect to be dealing with the consequences of their abdication well after they pass on, so I’m not surprised they aren’t really able to admit the significance of the very problems that they helped to unleash.

Traveller, D&D, Gamma World, and Tunnels & Trolls all owe Andre Norton a tremendous debt. And yet in spite of all the noise about “women in this” and “women accomplishing that”, she is still lapsing into obscurity. The reason for this is that rather than writing politicized “by women for women” type works, she merely wanted to provide solid entertainment value to an audience comprised (largely) of adolescent boys.

The problem with your “brilliant GM can hack any game to perfectly suit his particular players” shtick is that the awesomeness is not particularly reproducible. And of course, a game that could more or less work well out of the box can still be hacked by the genius types out there. (They don’t lose anything to actual game design being done unless they only intended to look at the pictures in the first place.) Repudiating that approach to rpg design on principle is unnecessary unless your aim is to out-hipster the hipster crowd.

Culture matters. If you immerse yourself in pulp fiction of the early twentieth century, you will pick up on the assertiveness, aggressiveness, and the confidence that they took for granted as normal then. Modern media, far from being the bastion of toxic masculinity that Anita Sarkeesian makes it out to be is positively neutered in comparison. The Barry Allen on TV now doesn’t even have the courage to bust a move on the girl he likes. All he can do he lamely reveal his “feelings” after agonizing over it for months. This cultural shift does affect people. But the media also works in tandem with education, academia, journalism, and even Sunday sermons. Reading old books won’t necessarily change you, but it does make it harder to accept the reigning narrative uncritically.

You can tell how much peoples’ definitions of genre have changed due to the canon gap: a lot of people are remarking in the wake of the World Fantasy Award’s Lovecraft bust being retired that they see Lovecraft as writing horror, not fantasy. You know, I thought his stories were more science fiction! But that’s the thing. The genres were not nearly as separated then as they are now and genre conventions of today are just plain worn out. Ossified even. That’s the reason why when you go back and read the old stuff (assuming you haven’t already) it will blow your mind. The old masters do not play by “our” rules. And it’s awesome!

The New Wave was a revolt. The best thing about it were the things that they didn’t have the capacity to even imagine subverting, yet. It’s almost quaint, really. But there is an honesty to it that more recent fiction lacks. Also, the fact that it is all over the place belies just how drearily conventional fiction has become in the decades since. If the authors of the New Wave era really intended to assault the foundations of Western Civilization somehow, they were delightfully bad at it at times. In any case, they were just as much a victim of the subsequent revolution in publishing as the old style “traditionalist” fantasy writers. Being the scrappy underdogs that they were, there’s something very attractive about them that I’d never want to do without.

I don’t know what to do with myself since finishing the Appendix N series. For over a year almost every spare moment I could scrounge was dedicated to reading the books, writing about them, editing my posts on them, and reading other peoples’ reviews of them. If I didn’t feel inspired, there was plenty of editing and reading to do. If a post got hardly any response, it didn’t matter because I was already working on the next one the moment it was scheduled. There was never any doubt on my part as to what I needed to be working on. And now…? Man, I really don’t have any idea what I could be doing. It’s kind of strange.

When the boys came back from their game night, they were flat out giddy with excitement when the tried to explain all the exploding spaceships. Boarding actions, downed shield, Tholian webs… they just go all out and care not one whit for historicity or game balance or anything else. They don’t even care if they’re doing it wrong. (Though my son did look up a few rules after the fact.) I wonder why they are getting better results than I did at there age and I think… it has to do with me running them through a dozen different styles of games first. They not only know which game was their destiny (hint: it’s not G.E.V.), but the barrier of rules opacity was removed enough for them that they could tackle the finer points on their own. The fact that they have weekly game sessions means they work through the learning games and now get to the sweet stuff. But they don’t need me to babysit them anymore…! Seriously though, I think they love Federation Commander more than I loved Car Wars when I was their age.

The First Draft of My Appendix N Book

A long time ago, I saw that Sarah Hoyt was blogging out a book one chapter a week. My first thought was, I can do that!

Well, it wasn’t as easy as it looked, I can tell you. People talk about how changes in publishing mean that practically everyone is writing books these days. Well in my opinion, there’s still way more people toying with the idea than that actually buckle down and do it. Frankly, it takes so much work, I really don’t blame the people that wash out. Seriously, given that most people’s first books are more than likely going kind to be kind of so-so, is it really worth losing two years of free time for something that’s just not going to wow that many people…?

My project had the benefit of being (as far as I know) the only book-length work in existence on the topic. I really wouldn’t have started had I known that one already existed. Certainly, the large number of answers to longstanding gaming problems, the applicability of the material to common issues in game mastering, and the scope of the sorts of things that can only be summarized nowadays as being Things Man Was Not Meant to Know meant that each book I picked up would blow my mind in ways I never expected. That made it hard to stop, really. But I still think it’s odd that I ended up being the first person to do this.

One problem with doing this is that this quantity of reading and writing I was doing in such a short period of time ended up really ended changing me. People tell me, “I really like the subject matter you cover, but you don’t do it the way that I would.” I know what they mean because many of these posts aren’t the way I would do them now, either!

So while I do intend to go over this material and clean it up a little, as far as I can I expect that I’ll leave the overall thrust of these pieces more or less as they are– to be one more bit of evidence about how these books can affect you. (I know Ron Edwards suggested that there was a point where my style and my voice really changed. I don’t know when it happened or what all played into it exactly. Maybe someone else will figure it out and explain it to me sometime…!)

At any rate, this is my book. Draft though it may be, it is still a book-length work. I’ve always wanted to do something like this. And now I have!

(Oh, I expect Chapter 51 to go live sometime in December.)


The Appendix N Survey



On the Cutting Room Floor (These posts will most likely remain online only. Sigh.)

It’s Not Just Planetary Romance

I was explaining to a group of people the other day the implications of the Appendix N Generation Gap, and they just  flat out didn’t believe it was even a thing. “So what if a few crazy people can’t bring themselves to read even Ray Bradbury anymore? Who cares if some science fiction author can’t recommend C. L. Moore to people, right?”

But note the similarity between this:

Readers want to able to put themselves in a book, and they want to relate to the characters (hence why we need diverse books). And if they can’t relate to the books, they’re just not going to read them.

And this:

It’s traumatizing to sit in Core classes. We are looking at history through the lens of these powerful, white men. I have no power or agency as a black woman, so where do I fit in?

Maybe the trends in science fiction really aren’t that big a deal. After all, my son’s reading Robert E. Howard– and I can read all the Edgar Rice Burroughs I want right off of Project Gutenberg for free. There’s no Fireman on my doorstep looking to burn my decaying paperbacks.

But the fact is… right now, even conservatives are paying big bucks to have their children steeped in an environment where the idea that “people want to read books about characters they can relate to” is applied not just to things like replacing H. P. Lovecraft’s bust with (perhaps) one of Octavia Butler. No, people are suggesting that Ovid be replaced with Toni Morrison.

The culture wars going on within science fiction are merely an echo of a battle that’s been going on within higher education for decades now. And the issues are not just coming from a few crazy people on the sidelines. They are in fact mainstream.

And when college administrators are faced with these things, their instinct is to apologize and make concessions to the campus crybullies. This may not be the end of Western Civilization. But it is the end of the prestige colleges and universities have enjoyed for generations.

Blog Watch: Dune’s Jews, Can-Do Optimism, Sesquipedalian Style, and Civilization’s Suicide Pact

Traveller (Tales to Astound!) TRAVELLER: Out of the Box – How the Text of LBBs 1-3 Teaches How to Make Awesome Part I — “I’m not saying that one could not do this with other games, or that other games did not encourage this. I am saying that this philosophy was sewn into almost every aspect of LBBs, from the subsector and world generation system, to the animal creation system. I’m saying this was valuable and worth considering closely. I’m saying all this because it is my thesis that this point of view was lost in later materials published in line with GDW’s House Setting.”

OSR (die hart) A quick peek at White Star! — “In contrast to Stars Without Number (SWN) by Kevin Crawford there is no exhaustive system for building your sci-fi sandbox. That means you need to come up with your planets, alien cultures and societies yourself. Also, there are no random tables or other generators for different encounters (starship encounters, hooks for adventures or similar). So while White Box is a sandbox it isn’t the swiss army knife of old school space opera. If you’re looking for a more ‘complete’ toolkit, SWN is the way to go. However, White Box stays in the spirit of its parent WhiteBox: Matt Finch’s rules-lite game is also quite bare-bones but still sufficient. There just isn’t much support when it comes to adventure/sandbox-building.”

Science Fiction (Jewish Review of Books) Jews of Dune —  “Only one religious group from our own time has defied this garbling of dogma and practice. In Chapterhouse: Dune, the sixth book in the series and the last Herbert wrote before his death in 1986, the Jews show up. And, unlike other faiths, the Judaism of the far future has changed not a whit. ‘It is probable that a rabbi from ancient times,’ explains a Bene Gesserit leader to her disciple, ‘would not find himself out of place behind the Sabbath menorah of a Jewish household in your age.’ Against a backdrop of transformed humanity, mutated space navigators, and shapeshifting ‘face dancers,’ Herbert’s Jews are as they have always been.”

Appendix N (The Federalist) ‘The Martian’ Was Our World Just 50 Years Ago — “‘The Martian’ is superficially about space travel, but it is really about time travel. The plot may focus on characters leaving Earth to explore the red planet, but the strange world the movie depicts is really our own world just over 50 years ago. The can-do, optimistic liberalism it depicts is utterly alien to today’s sobby, whiny, excuse-laden version.”

History (National Catholic Register) A Saint’s Bones Recovered, An Anti-Catholic Plot Remembered — “The hysteria continued for several years and spread throughout the country, resulting in numerous executions of Catholics and priests. The last to be swept up in the madness was St. Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, the ancestor and namesake of the fantasy writer Lord Dunsany.”

Appendix N (Flavorwire) The Horror Genre Is Older Than You Think: A New History, From Homer to Lovecraft — “Lovecraft intentionally used a sesquipedalian style of writing with antiquated spellings, to invoke a tone of seriousness and verisimilitude. His work was influenced heavily by Dunsany’s ancient gods and Machen’s tales of elder evils. In turn, his writings have been acknowledged as influences by a number of major science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers of the late 20th century and have been extensively parodied and copied in many media, including dozens of films.”

Appendix N (L. Jagi Lamplighter) Superversive Blog: Life, Carbon, and the Tao — Part Two! — “Epic fantasy, a century ago, began with cautionary tales, dealing with the negative parts of the Tao. The grandfathers of the genre were authors like Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, and Robert E. Howard, whose heroes were often ambivalent and never spotless; there are no Sir Galahads in their work. But they were never mistaken about their villains. Conan’s morals were pretty loose, but the wicked kings and sorcerers that he slew generally needed slaying. This has sometimes been called ‘Grey vs. Black’ morality. The feeling – it is no more than that – is that the White Hats, if there are any, are too clean to beat the Black Hats in a straight fight. You need to bring in a specialist, a Conan, or four Lords of Witchland, or Seven Samurai, who are on the ragged edge of the Tao themselves, and have often been in trouble, and are experts at getting out of it. The ‘rules of engagement’ for a Conan are very simple: No holds barred, and Crom favours the strongest.”

Traveller (Tales to Astound!) TRAVELLER: Out of the Box – Interlude: How People Played Traveller in 1977 — “There are also implied setting details that are much more evocative and primed for adventure than what the Third Imperium became.”

Comics (Star Wars) Vader Down Sketchbook, Part 2 — “I want to show the grandeur of the Star Wars universe without losing the human touch, which I learned through the years is what makes the film series so great: the characterization, the human side…not the machines that impressed so much as a kid.”

D&D (Rumors of War) October: 3surgence Update — “Yesterday I started hacking 3surgence from the rules I collected from the 3e SRD. I have some ideas about how I want to organize the book, and what all’s going into it when it’s done.”

Combat as War (John C. Wright) A Time for Peace, a Time for War — “Civilization is not a suicide pact, nor is sportsmanship is way to throw a game to a team that cheats, nor is the normal courtesy of apology meant to be a weapon in the hand of an enemy. The benefits of such rules extend to to others who abide by them, and no further. One apologizes to a gentleman whom one has wronged. One does not apologize to a mad dog, one clubs it to death with a shovel.”

D&D (Tales to Astound!) Thoughts on OSR and DIY and Dumping the Dwarves and Elves — “Ever since the 1970s, people have typically failed to distinguish between A) the D&D game and B) the sample playing pieces included with the game. Just about every D&D product is full of monsters from the standard lists, magic items from the standard lists, spells from the standard lists, and etc. I think that shows a reticence to really unleash the imagination.”

Comics (Dr. Xaos Comics Blog) But they’ll be valuable — “You were supposed to cut them out, landing you a square of cheap-ass newsprint with recycled art, backed by whatever was on the reverse, which was not always ad space but sometimes part of the actual story. Which is a way to make you cry because about age 10, I ruined about 30 classic comics by cutting these little boogers out.”

Seventies Culture (Vampirella) The Models — “Heidi Saha is a rather ‘contentious’ Vampirella model – by today’s standards, anyway. Perhaps the early 1970s were more innocent times. At 14 years of age she is undoubtedly the youngest Vampirella model to wear the costume in public. There would certainly be some raised eyebrows if a girl of her tender years wore such a skimpy outfit in public today!”

On the Accidental Paraphrasing of More Cogent Writers

The other day I was pointing out why it was important to read things from other time periods. Within a few hours of publishing the post, I stumbled upon this section of an essay by C. S. Lewis on that exact point:

Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

This is from On the Reading of Old Books. Read the whole thing!™


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