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.

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

  1. Nathan November 24, 2015 at 10:07 am

    Is there an “Appendix N” for science fiction?

    What do you think of the Appendix E additions in recent D&D editions? I was pleasantly surprised to see Hodgson’s The Night Land added alongside the more current additions of Pratchet, Rothfuss, Sanderson, Martin, and Jordan.

    • jeffro November 24, 2015 at 10:14 am

      Brian Aldiss is huge because of Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World.

      H. Beam Piper, E. C. Tubb, Poul Anderson, and Andre Norton are all major influences on Traveller.

      Appendix E added way too much pink slime. It’s just plain tacky. Adding Clarke Ashton Smith is quite justified. My personal opinion is that Earthsea Trilogy does not belong. Not including C. L. Moore is kind of outrageous under the circumstances. Finally, the Appended D Dungeon Master inspiration is just plain asinine. The diverse range of fiction is the inspiration, so it’s redundant. Including all the books about narrative, plot, and story just shows how little they even understand role playing in general.

      • Nathan November 24, 2015 at 10:57 am

        ::reads Appendix D:: Why wouldn’t Le Morte d’Arthur be in Appendix E? Anyway, some decent historical reference materials in there, but the choices of writing are too fashionable, (On Writing, Save the Cat). I fear they’ve confused being a DM with being a modern fantasy writer.

    • Cirsova November 25, 2015 at 9:21 am

      Appendix E is a joke, largely due to Wizards putting their own lines of branded fiction down as inspirational reading. D&D being ‘inspired’ by books based on D&D is a problem.

  2. jlv61560 November 24, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Jeffro, if you’re looking for a new inspiration, how about reviewing all the RPGs produced prior to say, 3rd Edition (which gives a nice cut-off date for the “old school” style of game). You could discuss not only the games themselves (what made them great or terrible, etc.) but also talk about the companies that produced them, the modules they created and so on. Not only would that guide many of us in our purchasing decisions, but it would probably keep you pretty busy for the next 20 or so years! ;-)

    Seriously, you are kind of my “go-to guy” for reviews these days, and I am working my way back through your “book,” which has already brought me many hours of pleasure, both for its insights into the authors and their works, but also out of pure nostalgia for some books I haven’t read in 40 years. So thank you for that, and whatever you take on next will be fascinating to see.

    P.S. Have you noticed that Barnes & Noble have a “classic” book out on E.R. Burroughs’ tales of Barsoom? It includes the first six novels in the series (ends with “Chessmen of Mars”)! Might just be on my Christmas list this year!

  3. BobtheRegisterredFool November 24, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    Did you ever read Black’s ‘A Ranger Born’?

  4. mikemonaco November 25, 2015 at 9:13 am

    I dunno about Andre Norton. I really wanted to like her work more, since she was a librarian at my place of work, and I like old sci-fi/fantasy, and so on, but I’ve just been really underwhelmed by her stuff. Nothing to do with politics or anything like that. The YA fantasy/sci-fi market has exploded in the last 10 years and maybe there’s just too much competition, too many other “new” books for Norton to catch the kids’ attention.
    It’s hard for me to tell how much of the decline of genre literature is really there and how much is old fogeyism. My instinct is to think the invisible hand is at work — the dumbest buy the mostest, and people like the familiar, and so on. Who is to blame when an author loses their audience? But Lovecraft is doing just fine without being on some stature most people have never heard of. I see Cthulhu bumper stickers and plushies and if they can’t destroy HPL’s reputation, a few people pointing out how awful his racism was are not going to.
    Personally I like older stuff more for the most part, but it’s not a political thing at all.
    I do think this canon gap is worth exploring, if you are looking for a new topic. I’d just caution against putting all the blame for what you find on “kids these days.” Maybe it is the publishers, the big box stores, Amazon, and other market forces too. And maybe it is just that tastes change over time?

    • jeffro November 25, 2015 at 10:14 am

      If Andre Norton invented the post-apocalyptic mutant adventure genre, then she deserves some credit for that. Given how many hours I spent playing Gamma World and not knowing her name, I just think she deserves better. Also: she is the “Jack Vance” of Tunnels & Trolls. That’s awesome.

      Also, “kids these days” are precisely what we made them. They were educated in an ideologically homogeneous environment. Their entertainment is largely in the service of the same of indoctrination. They can’t really help what they are at this point.

    • jlv61560 November 25, 2015 at 2:47 pm

      While this isn’t precisely responsive to your comment, I thought I’d share something called “American Book Exchange” or “ABE” for those readers who are looking for good, cheap copies of the old classics. Simply google ABE and you’ll be directed to their web page where you can search for just about anything you can imagine. Basically ABE is a place where thousands of bookstores all over the world can offer their wares for sale on one web page. Often you’ll get free postage as well. I just ordered a complete set of Vance’s Lyonesse series, “Three Hearts and Three Lions,” and “Fire Time” for about $15.00, no shipping, and they’ll be here in a week or two. I’ve used ABE books on and off for the past ten years or so and always been very happy with the outcome.

      ABE is the primary way your local book store orders old books that they can’t get from the publishers for you, so if you go into the book store (and if we had a local bookstore in my little town here, I’d do it this way) you get the same service, but probably have to pay a few bucks more for the service. To my mind, that’s okay, because I really like local bookstores (as opposed to the big chains) and try to support them whenever I can. Naturally, YMMV.

      While many of you have probably already heard of (and use) ABE, for those of you who haven’t and “can’t find a copy anywhere,” well, now, thanks to the miracle of the internet, your “anywhere” just got a lot bigger! Happy reading!

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