Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

First They Came for the Heroes…

This Father’s Day post at Didact’s Reach highlights a crucial cultural shift that dates back at least to the seventies:

A real father has to show his son what it means to be a man – and the best kind of father has to make the distinction between being a good man, and being good at being a man. The two are not the same thing and far too many modern Churchian fathers have led their sons astray, to their own everlasting shame, by pretending that the two things are the same.
Being a good man means showing up on time, being polite, being honest to a fault, carrying out one’s responsibilities, and shouldering life’s burdens with minimal fuss and complaint.
But one can be a good man, and still be weak. There are plenty of Churchian Beta males out there today who are good men, yet are still weak and pliable and easily led by others, who do not stand up for themselves, who do not put their wives in their places when it is needed, who do not discipline their sons and daughters, and who simply cannot be relied upon to uphold the truth of the Word of God.
Being good at being a man means being strong, courageous, honourable, and masterful. Such a man knows how to take command and lead, to get things done, to protect his tribe and his people, and to make hard choices when necessary in order that his people might survive.
But one can be good at being a man, and still be an utterly immoral piece of human trash. There are plenty of young men in prison today who embody all of the highest masculine virtues of strength, courage, mastery, and honour – or at least, honour as defined within the code of conduct by which their gang or tribe lives – who are nonetheless brutal murderers, thieves, rapists, and thugs.

You can see the cultural programming for this present disaster hit hard just by looking at the movies of the sixties and seventies. Marathon Man (1976) features a “nice guy” protagonist. Dustin Hoffman plays a nebbish that blunders into a bit of a thriller. “Realism” in this case means that he is such a loser that the only woman willing to take up with him is one which is willing to do so under the orders of a mysterious figure from the underworld. (Note how this character type would undergo some modifications in the eighties: loser protagonists in both Gremlins and The Karate Kid fall into completely arbitrary female favor without establishing any of the sort of qualities that could motivate it while characters that could command that sort of attention are painted in the worst light possible. The “realism” of the seventies gives way to the unvarnished narrative of the eighties, where dominant, successful men are are treated as if they are necessarily toxic.)

The flip side of this is not much better. In The Mechanic (1972), Charles Bronson is the archetypal man’s man of the seventies, exemplifying all the pagan virtues while being utterly devoid of goodness. In yet another nod to seventies “realism”, he cannot hold down a woman’s interest without paying a premium. The guy has a lot of admirable qualities, his line of work as a professional hit-man notwithstanding. But the net result combined with “honor among thieves” plot points makes for a dreary ordeal of a film.

The people that sneered at the pulp era starting some time around 1940? The thing that they hated most were male characters that exemplified both goodness and masculinity. That’s how you end up with a Frank Frink in The Man in High Castle (1962), a completely unattractive loser that ridiculously holds out hope for a rekindled romance with his ex-wife that had moved on long ago. It’s how you get Poul Anderson’s Flandry and Robert A. Heinliein’s Lazarus Long, masterful men that can reel in the ladies, but which are short on genuine goodness. It’s how you get a the elaborate plot of Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker’s Planet (1975) in which everything is set in order to allow an out and out coward to slip into the role of “hero” if only for a moment.

It’s no surprise that a generation that was trained to scoff at the very idea of good, masculine men very quickly ceased to be able to even imagine such a thing in the context of this cultural milieu. It’s also no accident that the generation that succeeded it had precious few of either sort.

And the people that did this go us could abide neither heroism nor romance.

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1940: It’s Not Just a Running Gag!

Author JD Cowan confirms a long-running culture critic meme:

While looking up the big magazines back in the day I came to the conclusion that 1940 is a really HARD cutoff to where the best material ended. There were some good stories, but it stopped becoming common after that very specific year.

Argosy eventually dropped pulp after running less and less of it, Weird Tales changed editors and aimed away from novels and sword and sorcery, Campbell had finally shaken off the last of the red-blooded action adventure writers from Astounding, Amazing and Fantastic shrunk and ran smaller and smaller stories, and most every other magazine followed suit. This correlates with the change in content as well as the less imaginative titles and covers the magazines sported. Oh, and the same small pool of writers began showing up everywhere while others just vanished around the same time. The field only shrunk in the 40s so it was no mystery why magazines had completely died by the 50s.

The only magazines that seemed to hold on were Planet Stories and Startling Stories, somehow living in a decade where the bigger magazines disowned their style of adventure stories. And they were looked down on as trash.

So, yeah: don’t read anything after 1940!

Now, if this is the first time you’ve heard of this, you are going to have a powerful desire to dismiss this is being merely a product of evolution, changes in technology, progress, and/or utterly predictable changes in fashion and style. You’d take for granted that the publishing industry merely adapted however it could in order to maximize their bottom lines. And you’d also be wrong. Because the same thing that you are witnessing happening to both Marvel Comics and Star Wars right now happened to short science fiction and fantasy back then.

Author Brian Neimier explains it this way:

The short story’s demise is by design. The Campbellians and Futurians took over the big anthologies and magazines decades ago. Find me an SF fan who religiously read AnalogThe Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or Asimov’s since the 70s (or before in the first two cases), and I’ll show you a fan who’s since cancelled his subscription.

The SF short story market collapsed because the gatekeepers deliberately banished escapism, heroism, and action from the format. They tried to murder novels, too, and they almost got away with it. Amazon has been the science fiction genre’s saving grace. The tradpub gatekeepers didn’t see it coming, which tells you how little they know their own industry.

Since at least the 1940s, the sciffy literati have been working to purge any trace of masculinity from the genre. They purposefully strove to replace the Shadow, Doc Savage, and Conan with Kickass Strong Female Characters™ , Scalzified soyboy snarkitrons, and androgyne sideshow attractions. Men responded by abandoning print sci-fi in droves at the reader, author, and editor levels. They were supposed to have nowhere to run.

Now, you might object that the old style of story wasn’t actively suppressed. You might point out that several of the best authors from the bad old days are still in print. If you’d like a look at the sort of person that holds sway over the print industry for the past few decades, just look at the sort of nudniks they tap to write the introductions to these works.

Author Jim Fear has a typical example:

I’m reading this biography of Robert E. Howard called Blood and Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard (which I highly recommend, by the way, if you’re interested in the man’s life), and in the introduction Joe R. Lansdale has the absolute unmitigated gall to say, and I quote, “The twelve year old male was perhaps his most obvious mark, being open to all the repressed desires that Howard displays, but readers of all ages have fallen under his spell.”

This might seem innocuous to you, but it lights a fire under the [bottom] of someone like me. This belies an attitude of unvarnished, feigned superiority. An air of “I’m better than you because I don’t enjoy what twelve year old boys enjoy.” And in the interest of poking into the very base of these suppositions that people like Lansdale obviously hold so close as to throw around in such a cavalier manner, what in the absolute hell, precisely, is wrong with what twelve year old boys enjoy?

Hey I get it, not everyone likes the same sort of thing. That’s fair. If you’re on the same page as Joe R. Lansdale and really want to have some wide open, totally realistic, grown-up oriented fantasy, then E. Reagan Wright has just the thing for you: Modern Fantasy from Dark Horse Comics!

I’m not even going to provide the link. It’s just another stale-ass relationship webcomic dressed up in D&D garb and slapped with a Dark Horse logo and felated by a fawning press to make it seem legit. From what I hear at the D5D tables down to the local friendly nerdery, it’s a pretty good approximation of the latest version of D&D. Most of what I see these days are people LARPing as tabletop RPG gamers – it’s like the Inception-pocalypse out there, people.

#NotAtMyTable!

Now, some of you are going to read these posts and… I really get it, your spirit is going to be vexed. You’re going to recall your favorite hard science fiction classics. You’re going to think of all the cases where realism contributed to the story. You’re going to tune up whatever smart remark about John Carter getting with a big breasted Martian woman that lays an egg for him and all that. Truly, you are the spiritual heir to the weenies that wrote in very angry letters to Planet Stories back in the forties. You are a truly discerning person and I’m sure you have a point!

Nevertheless, you need to chill. There is a particularly noxious attitude that justifies itself by making appeals to realism but which has an almost Gollum-like hatred for a great many things that are real.

Richard Curtis put it this way:

“If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it’s called searingly realistic, even though it’s never happened in the history of mankind. Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you’re accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental.”

I want to tell you to do yourself a favor and get these godawful killjoys off your shelf and out of your to-read pile… but the fact is… you walked away from these losers decades ago without even realizing it. And Marvel and Disney are watching entire of legions of people do the same thing right now now that they’ve made it clear that they can’t create stories with unvarnished depictions of the heroic.

It’s 1940 all over again.

The Default Setting of Twenties Weird

Each decade has it’s own default setting. It’s sort of a groove that people fall into. The more original and daring the authors think they are, the closer they hew to it. “The Monster-God of Mamurth” by Edmond Hamilton is a prime example of this.

Note how it follows the same overall thrust as Lovecraft’s “Dagon” (1917) without achieving anywhere like the same concision or menace. Neither does it contain either the depths of A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” (1918) or the heights of his Through the Dragon Glass (1917).

I’m not sure what precisely was going on in Hamilton’s case. Maybe authors have a certain number of conventional tales that they just have to get out of their system. Maybe the editor of Weird Tales couldn’t see what was so clear to Lovecraft.

One thing is clear, though: a critical mass was quickly reached with a lot of superlative examples and discussion culminating into a wave of first rate work that would cause fantasy and science fiction to attain a depth and breadth of quality in the thirties that would never again be equaled. Judging by the selections in The Best of Edmond Hamilton, one of those authors responsible for that is Edmond Hamilton. Half of the stories in the collection hail from the thirties.

That’s not an accident.

Barsoom and Pulp Revolution on Inappropriate Characters

Inappropriate Characters is a new youtube series on tabletop games featuring some of the guys from the scene that are most likely to take flack from the culture police. Appendix N and the Pulp Revolution get mentioned in the inaugural segment during the Barsoom discussion– it’s at the 20 minute mark and runs for about ten minutes if you want to catch that. But hey… why not live large, put on a pot of coffee, and kick back with the whole thing? It’s a good show!

One of the points that come up is that Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom stories are the gold standard for science fantasy adventure within the PulpRev™. That’s not quite how I’d put it.

Coming at this from a historical angle, if you do a survey of fantasy and science fiction from over the course of the 20th century, what you’re going to see just how tremendously influential Edgar Rice Burroughs was. It’s astonishing. There is a sixty year period where Edgar Rice Burroughs set the tone to such an extent, that he was basically the model for how fantasy and science fiction should be done. Look even at the second wave authors like Jack Vance, Leigh Brackett, Michael Moorcock, and many others– they all going their careers off the ground by emulating Burroughs.

In 1973 when Gary Gygax sat down to write the introduction to the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons, this is what he said:

These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers.

It’s no accident that Burroughs is the first fantasy author to be mentioned there. It’s also no accident that you see Burrough’s mark on each of the most enduring comic book, tabletop gaming, and Hollywood blockbuster franchises.

The idea of the Pulp Revolution isn’t so much to– as the RPGPundit puts it– set up Burroughs as some kind of sacred cow. The point is to embrace the reality of what people genuinely find to be the most inspiring and thrilling from across science fiction and fantasy history. (Hint: it isn’t “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”.) And the point is to extend the range of your creative palette by taking a look back at what actually worked back in those dark ages before 1980. There’s so much social and political pressure against doing just that, this has become a bizarrely subversive act.

But it’s also a lot of fun.

If you’d like an example of how this is all playing out, I would point you to Cirsova Magazine issue number five, which has a story by Schuyler Hernstrom that just picked up a Planetary Award. Check it out!

Capellan Confederation Reconnaissance in Force

This is the third game of a continuing campaign with the same “green” Capellan Confederation Lance. With a salvaged Archer replacing the old Javelin, they actually has some significant firepower now. They can actually handle a raid scenario– putting some “teeth” into their recon.

The situation I had in mind is that command needs to get to turn this unit into veterans quickly, they need them to accomplish an objective that is within their reach– but they can’t afford to risk losing their mechs. Strategically, this is part of an overload action– many feints and probes happening concurrently in order to push the defense to their limits.

Davion’s city defenders fields 4 foot/rifle infantry, 4 MG/mechanized, 4 Vedette tanks, and one Battlemaster. House Liao has a Vindicator, a Blackjack, a Clint, and an Archer. (I’ve got no Battletech counters, so I’m raiding Ogre again in order to make do.) Command wouldn’t know the exact strength of these forces when they send the lance out. The objective is to take out a couple of hardened reactors if possible. If they get both without losing any mechs, that is a phenominal victory. If they take out just one, that is a decisive victory. If they get none, draw out the enemy, and retain their mecha… even that is a marginal victory under the circumstances.

Now… this scenario was just made up out of thin air based on what the continuing characters had and what would fit in what what we’d done so far. I wanted to continue experimenting with what I consider to be the criminally underplayed conventional units of the BattleTech franchise. I have to say… when you combine these units with some reasonable morale/withdrawal rules based on the need for Mecha to not get arbitrarily expended, everything clicks. Infantry can be easily shot up, but they have to be dealt with before they can get close. Tanks can carry comparable firepower as a mech, but given the ease with which they can be disabled, people are going to tend to neutralize them before they target opposing mechs. Finally… if you irreplacable units are controlled by continuing characters… well, there’s all kinds of interesting situations you can throw at them and you won’t have to have half of them die in each game. The conventional forces produce decisive and dramatic action that is resolved quickly while the mecha jet around the board behaving like de facto chess queens. It’s orders of magnitudes more fun than the sort of straight up “company on company” battle royales that are the norm in the scenario booklets for the line.

In our game, the mecha crept to the forest edge and started unloading on a reactor at medium range. At the rate they were damaging it, the could expect to drop it within a few turns. The attackers didn’t bother targeting the defenders due to the extra protection they had from being able to take cover in buildings. On turn two the defenders opted to rush. The Capellan Clint got hit by two AC/5’s from the Vedettes and the PPC from the Battlemaster. It was enough to take out the Clint’s leg. He managed to stand up on turn two despite the need to roll 11+ to do it. (FASA BattleTech Master Rules has it as a +5 piloting roll that requires two MP’s; the guy got it on the third try.)

The Vedettes are not terribly fierce units. The lance commander panicked when they bore down on his newly acquired Archer. He pulled back with it instead of risking it, but regretted it when he realized just how well armored the thing was. The Clint started backing away one hex at a time. (He was limited to 1 MP a turn with the disabled leg, but I ruled he could still hobble along through the terrain.)

The Blackjack ended up doing quite a bit of damage to the encroaching motorized MG infantry. (Double damage in clear terrain is a nice, reasonable, and bloody rule.) A total of 35 points of damage was done to the one reactor. If the Archer had actually hit with his LRMs, it may well have been worth sticking around to burn it to the ground, but being only about 1/3rd of the way there, it was time to get out of Dodge.

The Clint had to jump in order to evade the Battlemaster and the infantry that were closing in on him. He fell a couple times making his way off the board, but was not in any real danger. The Vindicator and the Blackjack could easily jump through the woods, demonstrating the true utility of the light mechs. I believe the Davion defenders will be forced to reinforce this position if they want to keep these assets. If this light lance returns, it could easily finish the job they started here.

In Mechwarrior first edition, the characters get xp for each point of damage they do with more for criticals. The enemy forces also have an XP value equal to the tonnage of the mechs, half the tonnage of the vehicles, and ten tons for each infantry group. I split 25% of this between the continuing characters due to the marginal victory. (I would have given 100% if they had taken out the reactor and not lost any mechs… and 200% if they had managed to take out both reactors.)

The player characters all went up a level in gunnery. Finally! We can now play some more sensible scenarios where the they will have a much better chance of actually hitting stuff. (Although they could have spent XP to convert one the Archer’s attacks into a hit if they had spent some of his XP to do it now that I think of it… not that it would have made a difference)

Here’s the XP tallies:

Vindicator (6/4): 75 + 63 + 111 – 175 = 74

Clint (6/4): 92 + 93 – 175 = 10

Archer (6/4): 106 + 88 – 175 = 19

Blackjack (7/5): 61 + 112 – 125 = 48