Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Kitchen Sink Gaming is “The Best Gaming Evar!” Gaming

A reader writes in:

One of the best games I ever ran was deliberately crazy; I literally made up most of the setting itself on the fly, and I did whatever sounded fun and ridiculous and crazy. There were airships flying over seas of mist that were inhabited by daemons to get to cities on plateaus and tepuis that poked up out the mist. There were wars between sentient gorillas and Amazon warriors from Opar (La even made a brief appearance.) There was a gun that could kill almost anything (ripped straight from the first season of Supernatural.) There was an extended riff on Freaky Friday where two characters got their bodies swapped with nearby dead NPCs—the groups misogynistic Don Juan was stuck in the body of Fast Times era Phoebe Cates and the slimy used car salesman slash pirate hobgoblin was stuck in the body of a gorilla with a hook for one hand. There was a caper involving a noblewoman that was not terribly unlike the issue the Three Musketeers had to resolve between Queen Anne and the Duke of Buckingham. Later, I borrowed the basic plot of The Hangover and had them realize that they’d somehow “lost” a few days from their memory, during which all kinds of crazy things happened, including the hobgoblin getting married to a half fiend spy.

You know… this guy is making the point that the stuff that makes for great gaming is not what you’d want for great fiction. But I think a whole lot of people would actually want to read something this awesome.

Culture is Downstream of Criticism

As far as I can tell, critics are pretty well anathema to the average author.

That’s not my experience, though:

Seriously, Jeffro just opened my eyes to a core theme of the Soul Cycle that I’d missed for years. To paraphrase Adrian Veidt, only the very best reviewers can accomplish that! — Brian Neimeier

Rarely, very rarely, in the life of a writer, does he come across a book review by a critic who actually “gets” the point of the book he wrote. — John C. Wright

Keep in mind, I am a complete amateur. I have no formal training in what I do. I just read books and then write about what ever struck me about them.

And I get feed back like that. When practically everywhere else, literary critics are reviled.

Why?

Well I think it’s pretty obvious what’s happened. Even a modest survey of they past hundred years of science fiction and fantasy will flush it out. Literary criticism was corrupted. It was then used as a weapon to fairly well destroy an entire field. I’m not exaggerating. The two most influential authors of the twentieth century after J. R. R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs…? That would be H. P. Lovecraft and Joanna Russ. The former used literary criticism to push the state of the art of science fiction and fantasy forward. The latter used literary criticism to decimate it.

I think people sense this even if they can’t quite articulate it. Certainly, people that love classic science fiction and fantasy hold critics in contempt. I don’t blame them. But I think badmouthing critics wholesale is short-sighted– and not just because I am one. See, not only is politics downstream of culture, but culture is downstream of criticism. The fact the authors routinely denounce critics is a sign not only that literary criticism has been perverted to the point where it no longer serves its intended purpose; it is a sign that we have ceded valuable ground to an enemy that is very efficient in using it against us.

I think it’s time to take it back.

Our Panels Are Better

Alex was on Geek Gab yesterday talking about game blogging, Sad Puppies, Cirsova magazine, and Pulp Revolution. The most striking thing about it…? The energy and enthusiasm are off the charts. Compared to that WorldCon panel everybody’s been talking about, there really is no comparison.

So give it a listen. And if you haven’t already, be sure to support Cirsova #3 and #4 on Kickstarter today…!

A Real Big Mess

Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds reports a surprising detail about this year’s Hugo Awards:

It turns out that there were a few conservative artists who would have been nominated without being on the Rabid Puppies slate. Jerry Pournelle still would have been a finalist for Best Editor (Short Form). Toni Weisskopf would have topped the nomination list for Best Editor (Long Form). Jeffro Johnson’s Appendix N still would have been a finalist for Best Related Work. These are all people whose work appeals to enough people to be nominated without any slate.

While my status as a “conservative artist” is being exaggerated here to make a point, I have to say… being singled along out with Jerry Pournelle and Toni Weisskopf for any reason is nevertheless quite an honor. And the fact that Stephanie even gets the title of my work correct only makes it sweeter!

Of course, not everybody would agree that being recognized by WorldCon voters is all that it’s cracked up to be these days. I’ve heard quite a few people make the case that it is actually a negative indicator for quality. Fortunately, I’m covered there as well: as editor of the Castalia House blog, I placed six of five in the fanzine category– not just below No Award, but also below all five of the other nominees. This is another distinction which I share with Jerry Pournelle. (!!!)

You know, it’s just plain awesome having something in common with a true giant of the science fiction field who not only penned some classic works of fiction, but who also created some of the works the would directly inspire the Traveller role-playing game. Given the subject matter of my researches from the past couple years here, I am especially pleased with this turn of events.

Clerics, Demi-humans, and the Humanocentric Campaign

Complaints about the cleric class are par for the course with recent editions of D&D. Nobody wants to play them, presumably since changes in the game implemented as the game shifted away from the TSR editions. (Cleric trouble is not entirely a new thing, though: some people go so far as the remove the class from OD&D entirely.) Meanwhile demi-human level limits, race as class, and the mechanics of multi-classing have been hashed out endlessly over the years. There’s not really a consensus on these points beyond the fact that people can’t stop tinkering with them.

I think the underlying problem here are that the issues with Clerics and Demi-humans are linked– but they are generally considered in isolation of each other. This is another one of those instances where consulting Gary Gygax’s Dungeon Masters Guide is a good idea, so lets look at the section on “The Monster As Player Character” which I think speaks directly to this:

The game features humankind for a reason. It is the most logical basis in an illogical game. From a design aspect it provides the sound groundwork. From a standpoint of creating the campaign milieu it provides the most readily usable assumptions. From a participation approach it is the only method, for all players are, after all is said and done, human, and it allows them the role with which most are most desirous and capable of identifying with. From all views then it is enough fantasy to assume a swords & sorcery cosmos, with impossible professions and make-believe magic. To adventure amongst the weird is fantasy enough without becoming that too!

This stuff about people wanting to play outlandish character types…? Gygax is saying that they think they want that sort of thing. But they really don’t. I mean you can want to get into that sort of thing. But there are consequences. It might sound good… but you don’t actually want it. The essence of adventure is thrilling encounters with the weird. If your starting point is a ragtag group of weirdos… where exactly do you take that? There’s nowhere to go.

Consider also that each and every Dungeon Master worthy of that title is continually at work expanding his or her campaign milieu. The game is not merely a meaningless dungeon and an urban base around which is plopped the dreaded wilderness. Each of you must design a world, piece by piece, as if a jigsaw puzzle were being hand crafted, and each new section must fit perfectly the pattern of the other pieces. Faced with such a task all of us need all of the aid and assistance we can get. Without such help the sheer magnitude of the task would force most of us to throw up our hands in despair.

Gygaxian humanocentrism is, just as with “kitchen sink” fantasy, a premise that makes it that much easier for the novice Dungeon Master to develop their own game setting from scratch. And again, making your own is– just as with Traveller– something Gygax expects you to do if you’re at all serious about the game. Granted, TSR did not have any campaign settings to sell at the time. The slam here against the “meaningless dungeon” is telling, here. He’s shaming the people that have spent countless hours playing this game without doing all that much to develop a “serious” setting!

By having a basis to work from, and a well-developed body of work to draw upon, at least part of this task is handled for us. When history, folklore, myth, fable and fiction can be incorporated or used as reference for the campaign, the magnitude of the effort required is reduced by several degrees. Even actual sciences can be used – geography, chemistry, physics, and so forth. Alien viewpoints can be found, of course, but not in quantity (and often not in much quality either). Those works which do not feature mankind in a central role are uncommon. Those which do not deal with men at all are scarce indeed. To attempt to utilize any such bases as the central, let alone sole, theme for a campaign milieu is destined to be shallow, incomplete, and totally unsatisfying for all parties concerned unless the creator is a Renaissance Man and all-around universal genius with a decade or two to prepare the game and milieu. Even then, how can such an effort rival one which borrows from the talents of genius and imaginative thinking which come to us from literature?

Here’s another passage for the “Appendix N is just a list of Gygax’s personal favorites” crowd. The books really were central to his vision of the game. In fact, because he was so steeped in those books– and “history, folklore, myth, fable and fiction” as well– he had trouble imagining anything other than a humanocentric fantasy setting for the game. I mean after all, why would anyone repudiate all of those resources for building a game…?

Well… what if there were a generation that was (largely) unfamiliar with that stuff– a generation that had so much new fantasy available they had no need to read anything from before 1980 or anything much that was in direct conversation with the myth and folklore that pulp fantasy was built on…? That generation is going to look back at Gygax’s forcefulness with regard to humanocentrism and think the guy is just plain weird. I mean, if you were a fan of a dual-blade wielding drow elf fantasy superstar, that’d just be sense.

But what if– as Cirsova points out here— what if clerics could turn elves? And what about those dragon-born demon looking characters that are so popular nowadays…? What if clerics could turn them, too? Heck, what if all the other demi-human types were a little more of faerie and a little less Tolkienish? What if clerics could turn them, too…? And what if even low level clerics had protection spells that were proof against all demonic and spiritual forces…?

The problem with D&D is not that a generation of “not fantasy enough” gamers took it over during the eighties and later on. The problem is that it does not embrace a cosmology that supports the designer’s goals for the default milieu.