Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Thoughts on Gaming: Things I Just Downright Dislike

As I'm on a break from gaming, I'm thinking a lot about what I want when I come back to it (I have at least determined there must be a 'come back to it', if only to see if it's still a hobby I want to be involved in). A thread over at RPG.net (here) made me think of what puts me off in terms of games, as things that are written or designed rather than things that are played. Of course there's behaviour at the gaming table that's off putting but here I'm focusing on things that designed into the games themselves rather than the annoying things players do.

1) Gear Porn

As I get older, the more I just want to play, or create. I find that I don't really care about equipment, and that nothing really annoys like an equipment list that runs to several pages because you have descriptions, tables and so on. This is especially egregious where the differences between pieces of equipment are so slight that, arguably, the choices could be boiled down to light, medium and heavy or small, medium and large weapons. I don't want to have to spend half an hour waiting for people to build their perfect character at the best of times, let alone wait for them to get the perfect gear. Gear porn takes this even further - it makes the gear you have one of the defining parts of the character. Never mind having a cybernetic arm, that appendage is part of who your character is, often in lieu of an actual personality.

I have a particular beef with cybernetics, because the game I know them from (Shadowrun) is set up in such a way that the more metal you have the more your 'essence', or 'soul', is nibbled away. Which sounds great, if wishy washy in theory.  Except that, in practice, if you're a big scary street samurai/cybered up killing machine then why do you give a damn about how much soul you have? Surely that's the least of your concerns. I may be wrong but I don't think there's any other penalty for turning yourself into a knockdown version of B&Q either - no social penalties or checks for wear and tear. It's essentially a free super power in a game where all the other super powers come with some sort of a problem attached. I can't help but contrast the situation with other games where your super powers have a cost - they drain something and make you less effective over the long run; for instance in White Wolf's  Vampire or Werewolf using your powers can push your character closer to frenzy and the dangers that you'll turn on your comrades. It has a price, in other words.

2) Heavy Combat Systems

Combat is probably my least favourite part of roleplaying, it's as if all the fun dribbles out of the game and suddenly nobody's saying anything apart from 'I shoot  him' or 'I stab him' unless its stuff to do with moving or looting bodies. And it always seems to take ages too, even with the best system it feels like you're looking at a twenty minute plus commitment that could be better spent building the story or interacting with the world. Worse still is when the combat is really just a speed bump, something to make the game longer rather than serve an actual function.

The other problem is that whilst every other action in gaming is sorted out by a single roll of the dice or the GM just saying 'yup you did it' and moving on, combat is dragged out to the Nth degree. I'm sure that there's a way to speed things up, I just don't know what it is.

3) Special Snowflake Character Types

Every game has at least one of these, a type of character that's either been over written or is a one note add on because a developer thought it was 'cool'. The thread I linked above talks about Dragon Lance's Kender  or Runequest's Ducks, two types of character I can't really comment on because I haven't played either game. For me, and I don't think I've ever seen one of these in play, it's the Daughters of Cacophony from Vampire the Masquerade. They just seem so pointless and unnecessary; a bloodline of singing vampires...

To balance this of course, it must be admitted that, particularly, with White Wolf's games there were always groups you could be part of that were open to abuse. I sometimes wonder how many Malkavians were ever played seriously, and how many as 'fish Malks', who had colourful derangements rather than serious ones, and how many Ragabash spent more time pissing off their packmates than actually 'questioning the ways' as the designers intended. But these are ideas that ring true to their games and don't feel tacked on the way some of the stranger ideas out there do.

4) The Work for Hire Structure

Ah the plucky adventurer, out on the road taking jobs for people and working for money and treasure. It's an idyllic situation isn't it? Except... nearly every game uses it. It doesn't matter if you're playing fantasy, space opera or even horror; the default assumption is that you're actually a sell sword, in it only for the cash/credits/gold.

And it's just dull.

It robs player characters of agency, because all they do is other people's dirty work, sets the game up to be reactive as players respond to what the GM doles out and, as I said, it's all over the place to the extent that it's considered the norm.

I find this extremely limiting; for one thing it allows player characters to simply be sketches, without hooks or ties to the outside world. It also limits what plots can be used and, as the characters are frequently nomadic, means the setting itself becomes disposable. Far from having people to rely on they become ever more closed off and non player characters become stooges, enemies or employers (who are invariably a mixture of the first two categories). In fact it creates a self perpetuating cycle, after all if NPCs are all stooges or enemies why would you befriend them? And why would they help you when you need it? Or stand up for you?

In short it creates a Libertarian stance where the only people you can depend on are your group and everyone else is either someone you can take on now or someone you have to be scared of because they are too tough to defeat. This is not limited to games like Dungeons and Dragons of course; much of Vampire is based on doing things for the Elders because they're older, tougher and more paranoid than you.

It also means that huge swathes of possibilities are lost, which in a hobby that's all about imagination, seems pretty stupid.

5) Treasure Tracking

I have not played much Dungeons and Dragons but treasure tracking is a chore in any game. Who wants to play Abacus the Accounting - there's enough belt tightening and worrying about money in real life and in an escapist hobby it's one of the last things I want to do.

I'm also not that keen on the idea that the sole motive for adventuring is money (see above), so the lure of dungeons is somewhat lost on me (and then there's the reality of the situation - wouldn't all that loot just crash the economy or be unusable - 'I'm sorry mate but that coin's not legal tender on account of being so corroded I can't even see the King's head'). 

6) The Kludge

This is somewhat related to the point about the work for hire problem - it feels as if there are too many games covering the same ground, with only the barest of differences between them. Take Shadowrun and Victoriana for instance. They're essentially the same game, only divided by time period and technology - player characters will still be running around taking on odd jobs and trouble shooting. The same could be said for the thick wodge of fantasy games out there - which of them don't work on the basis of killing monsteres and getting treasure? And then there's the dark science fiction games, which again all look suspiciously similar. The problem with this is that it means that when we talk about something being 'different' what the hell does it actually mean? A game can read differently, look differently, even have different ideas down at its core and play the same as a hack and slash murderfest (which makes me think that it's only with a lot of conversation between players and GMs that we can shift away from the same old, same old and into new areas).

Obviously this is a business decision, developers and publishers want players to be able to connect to their games quickly and easily. A game set in a 'high school of the damned' sounds great, but would we know what to do with it if it landed in our laps? Possibly not (or maybe we would - after all games like Candlewick Manor cover the children's mystery genre quite well), but it's something I suppose they have to keep in mind when publishing new games.

So I suppose my next challenge is to find new games that address these concerns. I can think of a few off the top of my head but I'd love to hear your thoughts too (basically the more fuel for the fire the better). 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Women in Politics

The Guardian has been waxing lyrical (and fraught) over the resignation of Maria Miller from the cabinet. They're not overly bothered by the fact she's gone; she's a Conservative after all and the circumstances of her resignation are such that only a fool would support her now. It has just brought out the paper's usual anxiety over whether Britain has enough women MPs, doing enough to promote women, in enough key positions and so on.

Plus la change, one might say. It feels as if the Guardian has been fretting about this sort of thing for most of my lifetime certainly. I started reading the paper about twenty years ago and if anything its coverage of women's issues has only become more strict over the years.

This is not to say that women in politics do not matter; quite the reverse. Women in the UK have not even had a century of being able to vote, and women MPs are a vanishingly rare breed. Labour has the bulk of them, mostly thanks to implementing all women short lists. All the parties can do this, but only Labour has chosen to. In an ideal world Westminster would be split equally between male and female Members of Parliament, broken down to fully represent the country, though most campaigners on this subject content themselves with simply arguing for more women in the House of Commons.

On the issue of demographics, it makes sense to have more women involved in politics. It also makes sense in policy areas. Clare Short, a long serving MP for Birmingham, has said in the past that when she was elected in the 1970s it was not uncommon for the issue of cervical cancer to be greeted with laughter, when it was raised in the House. Clearly, more women MPs will help keep that kind of debate on a sensible level. This being said, I do not necessarily think that only a woman can represent other women; there is something dangerous in that idea, in that it confuses sex with gender and with ideology. It is the kind of argument that, if true, means that I should be perfectly happy with the current government simply because of my genitalia. In fact, the MP I feel is closest to my beliefs is... Dr Caroline Lucas of the Green Party.

Make of that, what you will.

There is also the small issue that, generally, women in politics have something of an image problem. The shadow of Margaret Thatcher looms long, and I think there is still some distrust of women who enter public life as a result. Never mind the fact that there have been male Prime Ministers who have been idiots, or bastards; you need only look at Blair or Cameron to see that, it is only Thatcher who is singled out because of her sex. I have yet to hear anyone say that a man should never be elected PM because Blair entered the Iraq war, or let the City run riot over common sense during his tenure of 10 Downing Street. The argument also ignores the many women who have made positive contributions to the UK through Parliament, whether that is Mo Mowlam, Estelle Morris or Barbara Castle from the Labour party. I struggle to think of any Conservatives who have done similar things, which I admit may be my own political bias coming out: or it may be that the Great Lady overshadows them all.

Of course the reverse is also true, we don't help things by denying that Thatcher was a woman, as many feminists have done, simply because she did not introduce 'cuddly' initiatives like Sure Start.  This too seems to be an issue with getting more women into the House of Commons; that somehow politics will become civilised and the nasty male excesses will evaporate. This argument rather ignores the confrontational nature of anglosphere politics, which is based on conviction and bluster rather than compromise and coalition building. Recent history has only shown how unprepared the British mindset is for this sort of politics.

Despite this I do think we need a more equal system, if only in the name of fairness. What I'm unsure of is how we get there. I would have more support for all female shortlists if the commitment to local MPs returned and the rule regarding living in the constituency was reinstated. I have a strong dislike for the way candidates are parachuted into safe seats by Central Office (of which ever party, all three of the big ones do it). This practice makes a mockery of the Burkean ideal of representatives, reducing all our politicians to delegates, something they already run the risk of under the Whip system. Lest we forget, it is not only women who have benefited from this practice, Harriet Harman's husband was parachuted into a safe seat for the 2010 election. This weakens local parties and severs the link between the electorate and their representatives. It has also aided in the rise of the career politician and the 'gentrification' of the role; letting more and more PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) graduates from Oxbridge enter the House, and generally contributing to the blanding out of political debate.

So what can we do? Perhaps a move towards locally sourced all women shortlists would be the place to start; with an agreement between the three mainstream parties over which seats will be represented by a woman MP. Even this is not ideal, but unless we move towards having much larger constituencies with one male or female MP each, which would involve some sort of electoral reform, I think it is probably the best we can hope for, for the foreseeable future.

I am not quite sure where the debate will go, though I am positive that the Guardian will keep a good track of it. Certainly I do not think we should content ourselves with the idea that it may be another near century before we achieve equal representation. Something has to be done.

Of course, more women in the House does not address all the issues of equal representation for the population; we need more MPs from minority and working class backgrounds as well.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Genre Labels: Are They Still Useful?

Genre is a relatively young creation, one spawned in the early 20th Century with the birth of the literary canon and the development of the business of publishing as a result of cheaper paper and ink. Before this, there was certainly high and low fiction but they were personified by the novel, the romance and either Gothic or the penny dreadful (which grew into the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s). Genre came later when there more people with the leisure time to read and likely dates to the 1920s. Terms like Science Fiction (a bastardisation of the term 'Scientifiction' which was deemed so awful that nobody took it seriously)  come to us from people like Hugo Gernsback, the Belgian magazine proprietor who specialised in that sort of story. I believe, despite its use, genre has become effectively useless as a term because there are so many strands within genres that a flat 'Fantasy' or 'Science Fiction' or even 'Horror' (which arguably has been the most scorned and bastardised, a vampire in a novel does not a horror novel make and a lot of the books out on the other shelves of your local bookstore probably have more scary stuff in them than a great deal of the volumes littering the Horror section).

Over the past decades we have, like it or not, seen genre fiction go from strength to strength, endlessly diversifying and changing to reflect the Zeitgeist of the wider world, picking up its own tics and language; it's own cliches and ways of doing things. In 2014 it has become mainstream, as the success of Game of Thrones attests. Despite this, it is folly to brush the many different kinds of story into one bushel; from the moment that the genres were 'born', as in they were booted out of general fiction and into their own specialised market/ghetto, differences have been apparent. There were already different voices and attitudes apparent in American and British approaches within fantasy fiction to what was suddenly a single genre. The British approach drew from Lord Dunsany and  the tradition established by the Pre-Raphaelite poets in their plundering of mythology. This would eventually lead to Tolkien's Middle Earth and the long shadow it casts over a lot of the genre. American writers were far more couched in the pulp tradition and drew as much from Westerns and the Penny Dreadfuls of their time as they did other work, creating Sword and Sorcery as a result. Whilst Tolkien mourned the dying of goodness, cast against the slow decline of the British Empire, writers like Howard were creating muscular heroes who were out for daring do and the spoils of adventure. So even at the start, for Fantasy at least there were divergent cultures.

This is in part because the world has changed, the culture of deference and the focus on brave white, middle class men*, involved in 'Important Things' has gone away for the most part. Our heroes today are often outsiders, often people in the gutter, who have lost almost everything. This is a part of the effect that so much fiction being published has had, over time the genres have become nuanced and now have many different voices within them. Much of this is a question of legacy and reaction of course, as new writers came along they wrote their visions, which often clashed with those of older generations. Ideas travelled too, Moorcock's work is largely nested in Sword and Sorcery but he was obviously influenced by Hippy culture and the moral relativism of the 1960s. Good and Evil vanish, replaced by Law and Chaos, taking a step away from the Christianised visions of previous generations. Within SF similar developments occurred, albeit more slowly. By the 1980s a dark edge of near future SF (in the form cyberpunk but also other dystopian visions) had largely replaced the Utopian edge of earlier writers. Science had fallen from grace as the fabled technocracies failed to emerge, again the outsider and the criminal became the focus as the genre began to ask the question 'what if the future is a busted flush?' Fantasy has followed, shedding the shadow of The Lord of the Rings more and more with time until today, whilst it remains to an extent it is probably the thinnest it has ever been.. The latest trend in the genre has been almost an epic Sword and Sorcery, using the simplicity of characters like Conan but setting them against problems that encompass the entire world. Elves and the like have been banished in favour of political intrigues and an emphasis on some kind of historical realism.

With all these changes the question, for me becomes,  is Tolkien's Lord of the Rings really comparable to Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles in anything other than a superficial way? They both take place in other worlds, born purely out of imagination, but at the same time they draw from different sources, build worlds that are starkly different. There is little to unite them. What really connects the Golden Age Foundation Asimov novels like  to something like Moxyland by Lauren Beukes? It is true you could not have one without the other and there is a definite legacy in the latter, not only to Aasimov but also to the work in the 1980s. This though is the only link, the societies and assumptions described in each work are fundamentally different. They are such different flavours that to group them under the single genre seems to be a disservice and surely only confuses people new to this kind of fiction.

In this context I can understand why things like Waterstones' lists of authors are so important, though they need to work on making them more inclusive. But I do feel that if you need a guide to a genre not just because of its size but because there are so many movements and tones within it then really the idea of genre has served its purpose and we need a new one. This is before we even consider crossover fiction, which usually blends two genres together, the most famous example probably being supernatural thrillers like the Harry Dresden novels, though we could also consider books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a form of crossover fiction. The trend seems to be kicking away from discrete genres and back to the state of affairs in the 19th Century, where there was only fiction.

And that's probably the best place to be.

* You can probably add straight, conservative and other unflattering adjectives to that list too.