Monday, 30 March 2015

The Problem of Horror

Horror and urban fantasy are probably my favourite genres for roleplaying, I cut my teeth on the hobby with Vampire the Masquerade back in 1994 and it was White Wolf’s games and Call of Cthulhu, that got me hooked. With the exception of a long running Warhammer Fantasy campaign I was involved in, my favourite games are almost invariably modern, set in the real world, or something like it, and fairly dark; with only a few diversions into history and different tones. I like the fact that they feel familiar, that they use the modern world as a template, which makes so many character options viable without punishing the players. Admittedly in White Wolf/Onyx Path games this often means clinging to some sort of outsider chic, but I don’t see that as a bug, so much as a feature.

This isn’t to say that this type of game and the settings that are common to them don’t have their own problems, though. Nothing’s perfect and the nature of gaming can be restrictive in places; plots can boil down a few basic phases that lead, ultimately, to a combat based denouement. Sometimes that isn’t desirable, especially in horror where player characters may fall into ‘crunchy and taste good with ketchup’ category even when they’ve been through a lot of adventures and should be old hands. As with my article on Fantasy worlds, I’m not sure there’ll be anything new here, so be warned: this may be a load of old hat.

Let’s begin at the beginning with a biggie; population and the issue of keeping a secret. The old riddle has it that three people may keep a secret, but only if two are dead, and whilst it doesn’t scan directly into the realms of roleplaying, it has some traction. If we look at the global picture for the World of Darkness, or the various incarnations of Cthulhu based gaming, or even at worlds like Kult or Conspiracy X, it does start to look as if there’s no way that the monsters could remain hidden. Within the World of Darkness the populations needed to reflect the overcrowding of vampires or the guerrilla warfare between the Werewolves and the destructive forces they battle, suggests humanity would know the monsters were out there and would have adapted to deal with them. That’s before you add in mages, mummies, wraiths, changelings, the various other forms of shape changers, Asian vampires and mortals who know about what’s going on. Add the internet, smart phones, citizen journalism and all the other trends and paraphernalia that allow us to communicate across the world with relative ease and the whole thing starts to resemble a boiling pot with its lid perched precariously on the top, ready to slide off as things bubble out of control. In Call of Cthulhu there are so many different types of monster that if they’re all assumed to be at work at the same time, again the question becomes not ‘how did the investigators discover them’ and more ‘how were they not discovered earlier, and why didn’t someone bring sticks of dynamite?’ I know that just seeing the monsters in Cthulhu games is tantamount to signing into an asylum in a many cases but the way humans work, that would be as much of a signal flare as lots of eyewitness reports. What is it up at the old Cooper estate that’s meant the last five people to go up there have either gone mad or died? The pattern would lead anyone to assume something was amiss and that there was more to the world than was normally advertised.

To their credit most gaming companies have taken that into account and included the ‘net, Youtube and so on, as problems the monsters and hunters, who often don’t want to publicise their activities either, have to work around. Tellingly, the current World of Darkness includes the basic idea that normal humans know that there are things out there in the dark; responding by keeping their heads down and hoping that some other huckleberry will be attract the attention of the monsters. The only real solution though is to throttle back and let there be gaps, cut down on the size of your conspiracies and have room for cock up, not cover up.

This brings us to the issue of conspiracy. Most games have some sort of hidden, sub rosa, organisation buried within them, often behind fronts and sometimes with fronts hidden in fronts. They may be things to fight, or they might be places that offer the characters a sort of home in terms of ideology, identity or employment. Again there are issues here, can we really believe that an organisation like Aegis from Conspiracy X or the Delta Green conspiracy could remain hidden? The US government can’t even keep the NSA’s spying on email accounts hidden for long; whilst we might like to think that they’re staffed by slick, assured men in black, whereas in fact you’re going to be hard pressed to stop them playing video games or chatting on Facebook. To grab an example, Charles Stross, the author of the Laundry Files novels, has said that the most unbelievable part of his universe is how efficient the Laundry actually is, in the light of how many bungles the intelligence community has made in the past few years.

Tempting as it is to believe that hidden groups extend all the way through our society, pulling our strings, Illuminati style, the fact is that they can’t stay below the surface very effectively. We know about the Mafia, we know about, ironically, the Illuminati; things like Bohemian Grove and Bilderberg are documented, acknowledged and noted… It’s the nature of the business that goes on there that makes us suspicious, not the fact these events happen.

Where this can fall down, is when conspiracies are meant to have been entrenched in history, ruling from the shadows over centuries. For one this doesn’t explain why change happens, or why we have the society we do. I appreciate that these are meant to be subtle monsters but if we assume a guiding hand then much of what we take for granted ceases to make sense. Unless some sort of very delicate hegemony is at hand would we have seen the development of our political or social systems? It becomes tricky and a wise GM keeps the conspiracy from having a totality of control; players need spaces to breathe and places of refuge.

In other areas the nature of these bodies seems right on the nose, Pentex in Werewolf the Apocalypse seems pretty close to the likes of the conglomerates who are carving up our world at the moment, only with a demon worshipping edge. If nothing else, they feel relevant, covering a niche that seems to be missed by a lot of RPGs, it seems odd that more focus isn’t swung onto corporate affairs in the hobby but this might reflect the ‘government bad, public enterprise good’, biases of American life (bearing in mind that the SF horror game SLA Industries makes no bones about the culpability of the big corporation in pretty much everything that’s wrong in the setting). Even then there’s a question over why there isn’t more of an Erin Brockovitch vibe going with secrets leaked and questions raised; something that applies equally to Cyberpunk, one of Horror’s kissing cousins. So again, the question of exposure and secrecy are writ large as things to work around. Why hasn’t the firm whose leaders are part of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign suffered a fatal leak based on their dubious practices, okay business might keep their cards closer to their chests than government, partially because they’re less monolithic, but there are any number of examples of whistle blowing and so on to choose from. The obvious answer, I suppose is the huge dearth of belief in whatever it is that the game is centred on.

I do get a bit bothered by that, after all when you have stuff that demonstrably works, even if it may send you mad, why cling to the unproven faiths of childhood. I suppose it’s linked to our lack of acceptance of Global Warming; it’s too big, too unwieldy for us to perceive, and besides there’s no Mythos televangelists banging their signed copies of the Necronomicon on pulpits and telling us we’re going to be eaten.

The conspiracy can bring another challenge too, if the player characters are placed inside it (cunningly tapping into players’ self-identification with subcultures in order to shift copies), much of the horror diminishes. The scares and shock value of discovering what’s out in the dark is diluted, of course you know what’s out there; you’re a vampire/werewolf/part of the Delta Green and so on. The focus is meant to shift to reflecting on what you have to do in order to keep the secrets, or maintain the illusion of normalcy, and how you climb the ladder within your tiny sliver of society. You may have to lie to your loved ones, brainwash your friends; treachery is meant to become your watchword, as you lie and cheat your way through the world, either for the greater good or for personal gain. Like it or not, you’ve been drafted and there’s no room for civilians or nice guys in the armies of the damned.

This is where things often break down in play, it can be hard to maintain a balance between the unseen world and the visible one. Human affairs are easy to neglect in favour of more monsters and strife. The drain of coping with a failing marriage because you’re out on stakeouts for aliens or whatever, isn’t much fun for many people. They would prefer, perhaps understandably, that their characters have no weaknesses, nothing for a GM to latch onto. The legend of the GM taking innocents and using them as targets, in game I hasten to add, is well enough established to make player shy of adding background. In a genre that strives for realism in many respects, this undercuts that, diminishing the fear factor because players end up with characters who don’t really have anything to fight for. Again, and this might say something about the way companies work, this seems to be something that horror and dark fantasy RPGs are addressing. Whilst Fantasy gaming clings stubbornly to its old form, the games we’re addressing today mutate happily to become more relevant, and escape the shadows of the past.

Like a downward spiral though, this brings me to another issue, that of maintaining the fear factor. Horror is dependent on a number of things, shocks, scares and a sense of things growing suddenly bigger as pieces fall into place; something it shares with espionage fiction. Over an extended period of time, these tactics begin to fail, and players become used to what’s going on. Fear can plateau, lose its sting, or become just dull or sickening. Simply based on that there might be an argument for using horror games for short term engagements rather than something that lasts forever and a day.

This does highlight one reason for the broad vista of monsters, factions and other things: to keep things fresh, even if the knock on effect is an increasingly porous Masquerade. Familiarity breeds contempt, things that were scary three weeks ago cease to be so because after a few adventures they become ‘known knowns’ or ‘known unknowns’ in the words of Donald Rumsfeld. You can’t scare people with something they’ve seen and defeated, but if you rely on an ever broadening cast of threats you’ll eventually tip over the apple cart. Depth not width is the ally here. Give the PCs a mystery to dig for and you can touch on the impossibility of the ancient conspiracy and temper it with the knowledge that it never got beyond a group of families, who have done incredibly well and one of whom may be running for President, or a society that has colonised Oxford University and are bending it to their will at the behest of unseen masters (who may be, in the style of David Icke’s lizards, in the reality next door).

Further issues arise when you take into account that most games start the player characters from a position of innocence, or failing that, ignorance at odds with the usual player experience. Whilst some books take care to shield the player from the nature of the game, often tucking away monster stats and meta-plots and vital facts away in the GM’s section of the book. This can be a stretch, acting as a way to further diminish the impact of horror. In Vampire, for example, you can play ‘guess the clan’ from powers, looks and so on, robbing the game of a lot of its mystery. It is one of the many challenges the genre offers players to keep from allowing player knowledge from influencing the game too much; arguably more than in Fantasy or Science Fiction gaming, where the maintenance of mystery can be less important.

It seems to be a reverse situation to the one you find in vampire or zombies films where none of the protagonists has ever, ever seen a vampire or zombie film and consequently, have no idea on how to deal with the threat they discover. Weirdly, that’s a conceit that could hold water in the 1980s when horror was still very much under the carpet, something ‘nice’ people didn’t talk about. Today though, oh come on… are you telling me you haven’t seen Buffy or Dracula, or Night of the Living Dead? Our mainstream culture has become so colonised by tall, pretty and dead things that you can barely move for them. And again, familiarity breeds contempt.

Horror gaming offers different challenges to the player, essentially it isn’t so great if you want to bury your head in the sand and beat up orcs, because the world outside your window doesn’t cater to that sort of behaviour. Horror offers a different sort of release valve, one that might be seen as more ‘feminine’ than the macho flexing of muscles and punching of bad guys found in fantasy or superheroes. Where it challenges players is that very often the urge to simply smite things is only a short term means to an end, one that may offer drawbacks, rather than advantages. Killing that vampire may only alert the rest of them that they’ve been discovered; wiping out a nest of cultists only gets the FBI involved. So finding ways to work around things, and having a knowledge of how the world works can be advantageous, one thing that, quite apart from the supposedly scary nature of the games, marks these games as probably being better served for adults rather than teenagers (I’m sure there are people out there who started out playing horror games, but the stereotype is that most horror gamers are a bit older). That being said there’s no doubting that the nature of investigation has changed over the years, a game set in the 1920s might allow PCs access to newspaper’s morgue, assuming the back issues aren’t all online now, would such a thing happen in today’s security conscious world?

Pagan Publishing, as long ago as the 1990s, updated the idea of the Investigator in Delta Green, working to eliminate the issues that most people would have in the mundane investigation process; bureaucratic sleeping policemen that would render the civilian unable to gain access to official records or allow them to investigate witnesses. I think this is in part why the idea of PCs belonging some sort of group has become so prominent in the past few decades, where you don’t dwell in the shadows, using supernatural powers to get what you need, then some sort of backing or access to extra, covertly obtained, resources actually become sort of necessary. Of course modern media hasn’t hurt that either, Twin Peaks and X-Files opened up a new vista for gaming in the popular imagination, making aliens cool again; RPGs usually follow the trend rather than setting it. This isn’t to say that there are no games which cast the characters as independents, only that they may well find the deck stacked against them.

Where then do we take horror gaming. Unlike the issues I have with Fantasy gaming I don’t believe these are baked into the way games are put together, and many of them are probably necessary to keep the games going. Variety is needed, as is innovation and horror games provide both. Rather than seeking to reinvent the games completely, possibly a set of guidelines regarding campaign creation would work best, with a simple ‘don’t use everything in the toy chest’ as one of the first principles, followed up with ‘and keep the arcs short, snappy and frightening’. Beyond that we’re into familiar territory, with characters dedicated to roles in the game rather than attempting to rounded individuals… again something that can be talked out at session zero or at least in character creation. The key, rather than starting again, is to fine tune and get the best out of it for everyone.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Abandon Realism All Ye Who Enter Here

A group of adventurers emerged from the dungeon under Heartstone Peak, hauling a dragon's head in their wake. They staggered up the stone steps that led into the complex, groaning at the weight. "Crom, whose stupid idea was it to drag this back," Griselda Dark-Mane growled, "Am I pulling this thing on my own."

"Peace, Orc, we're doin' oor best." Malzack Morrdanson grunted, "M'bloody beard's trapped on a horn."

"Keep pushing," Nyarli said, sweat pouring off her face. "Can we just get out of here, please? We can squabble on the way to get the reward." 

The others grunted and kept pushing, periodically cursing the ill luck that had led them to have present the dragon's head as proof of their kill in order to receive the bounty King Julius had placed up on Sirrathil the Wyrm. Griselda's boot burst the doors open and with a cry, and a heave she hurled herself through the doors and the head half way through behind her.

A cry went up as the Red Fist Guard emerged and they blinked, staring down at an impromptu camp that spread across the valley leading to the mountain. 

"Look, the townspeople have come to thank us," Herman cried. "Hello, hello. You can rest easy in your bed, dread Sirrathil is no more!"

"Oh thanks a bunch," one of the crowd shouted back. "There goes my tour business." 

"And my painted stein and novelty hat shop." A woman chimed in, a strange dragon shaped hat sat upon her head. She wore an apron with ''Ye Olde Dragonne Shoppe' on it.

A group of humans dressed in sandals and long robes produced placards emblazoned with slogans like 'Save Our Drakes' and 'Protect the Elder Kin'. They started to chant, waving the signs over their heads as they pushed their way forward.

"Eco vandals!" Their leader shouted, "Do you have any idea what a valuable niche the dragon holds in the natural world."

"Oh bog off, hippy," Griselda muttered. "Get out of the way, the lot of you. We have an appointment with the King." She began to push forward, jaw set and one hand on her mace. "I don't care how many heads I have to break but you're all going to get out of our way."

The others followed, forging a path through the milling crowd, regardless of if they were disgruntled locals or members of the League for the Protection of Monstrous Lifeforms. The Commoners parted, jostling and shoving against the Guard. More than a few of the League tried to snatch pieces of the head as it passed and it was only the efforts of Nyarli and Malzack that kept the trophy intact. A volley of rotten fruit and vegetables rained down on them, splattering on their armour and in their hair.

A regular camp had set up behind them, with tents and vendors hawking wares, including 'dragon sausages' which approximated the colour of a dragon's skin. Someone had put together a stage, a group of Orc bards sat dejectedly on the edge, waiting for their audience to return.

"Any change," they called as the adventurers passed.

"Get a job," Malzack growled back, casting them a dour glance.

At the back of the camp, right at the edge, was a large tent bearing the king's standard/ A man emerged, holding out his hands in welcome. "My friends, come and sit down. We can have tea." He beckoned them inside.

"Who are you?" Herman asked, crossing his arms; looking him up and down.

The man smiled, "Allow me to introduce myself, I am Stendar Marchant, his Majesty's Special Envoy to Freelance Acquisition Agents. Please sit." He clicked his fingers, "Bring us tea; lackey."

"I don't like this," Nyarli said, as she sat. "What's this about? Julius made it pretty clear we had to do this on our own. He said nothing about sending an envoy."

Stendar smiled, “It is part of his Majesty's policy on major quest." He took a seat, "We offer a number of services, including treasure validation, gem appraisal and weapons care... all for a reasonable price." He smiled widely. 

"Uh huh." Griselda said, fingering her knife.

The Guard did not look impressed.

Fantasy Role Playing Games are often based on a set of basic assumptions. They are usually built on a supposed Medieval Europe, on the idea that good and evil take tangible forms and on the idea that going into dungeons to kill things and take their treasure is a good way to make a living. At face value it seems fine but, for me, there's often a niggling feeling that something is wrong with the way the settings are written and that often they don't make much sense.

Let's take a few elements and examine them. I'm going to focus on race, economics, technology, history and culture, with a focus here on the idea of the adventurer itself.

I'm not sure that there will be anything new here, actually I'm pretty sure I’m repeating old ideas: but still.

Let's start with the idea of monsters and evil races. At a game level, the existence of races like orcs makes sense because you need a way for the Player Characters to earn experience points, painting them as a race without merit, often without a real reason for it. This is where I catch on it as a problem, because frankly it often seems, well, racist. I know they're fictional, and so it shouldn't matter that, say, Hobgoblins in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay are quite plainly stand ins for the Mongols, whilst Orcs often have cultures, or artistic stylings that are reminiscent of African tribes. The fact that these races are usually obliquely portrayed as nothing but evil, is troubling, given that most other races at least present the option of individuals as having free choice, even if they are normally good or neutral (to use Dungeons and Dragons' ideas of alignment). Can you imagine if you applied this to the real world? It would be a disaster, not to mention vastly offensive to entire communities (and there are gaming companies who have managed to make this kind of blunder, White Wolf's book on Gypsies for example)

A good back story, such as Tolkien's Orcs or Warhammer's Skaven can provide an identity beyond generic evil guys and may mollify things. Many settings don't oblige here however, in favour of ticking the same old boxes; adding the crime of being dull to the charge sheet.

Even ‘goodies’ are not immune, the spectre of monoculture that lingers over the entire hobby, surpassing Fantasy. Elves and Dwarves hundreds of miles apart, for example, live the same lives and have the same cultural references (usually riffing off a tiresome element of Tolkien's Shadow, labouring under lore or grudges from thousands of years ago). Where differences do exist it usually means that a fresh niche is created, by putting an adjective in front of the race name (oh these are Elves they're Frost Elves and quite different, even though they um, aren't). This, incidentally, is why the setting I’m building over at the Sharoban blog uses humans as the baseline, and everything else is a deviation from that rather than a race that's older and cooler than humanity.

Moving on there's a problem in fantasy economics too. The dungeon crawl, where the group descends into the bowels of the earth to slay baddies and gather vast amounts of treasure is a cliché with a long history and to the outsider it is what roleplaying is all about. Again, in game terms there's a sense to it but let's be honest, it’s no way to run an economy and the result of injecting that much money into the cycle would be akin to Germany at the end of the Second World War, where people were paying for loaves of bread with wheelbarrows of money because the Reichsmark had been devalued by overprinting. Fantasy economies would crash and burn based on the antics of a few groups of people. I guess this is one of the sources of Order of the Stick's joke, early on in the series, where the people who live outside the initial dungeon vastly inflate their prices as soon as they hear that a group of adventurers are coming.

Add to this the idea that, miraculously, all the coins characters find are automatically legal tender; in worlds where the authors have lovingly laid down centuries of history. Somehow the coinage never gets updated, no new coins are minted to mark a new king's ascension to the throne. Money minted centuries ago remains legal tender, in defiance of the odds. Come to that currency is often simply hand waived away as 'gold crowns' or something similar. This plays fast and loose with the purpose of a currency, forgetting that whilst there were places and periods in European history where money was a chaotic mess, nobody has ever aspired to that situation. One reason England was such a coveted gem for both the Norse and the Normans was that it had a good stable economy, a controlled money supply and a centralised system of banking, even in 1066. Compare that with the multiple currencies and anarchic situation in France at the time where the monarchy ruled directly over Paris but little else. We have evidence that the Saxon kings kept their currency under control and didn’t let it slip out of control. I’m pretty sure that coins made in Alfred’s reign would have been out of circulation by the time Cnut took the throne.

This bleeds into how culture and history are treated in the hobby too; all too often the settings show no signs of development or progress, they've been stuck in their time period forever, show no signs of actually evolving no matter what events occur. History seldom matters, there are no long grudges or disputed stretches of land, no persecuted minorities or fringe sects (unless they're EVIL - differences of opinion are not really encouraged). Often there aren't even class clashes, only happy peasants tugging their forelocks to benevolent nobles whilst adventurers set up in petit bourgeois bliss as independent traders when they retire from a career of professional meddling. This isn't even fairy tale levels of how culture works, but something that feels more in line with American culture from the Cold War and the Wild West, black hats and white hats with a certainty that says that might is right and gold is the chief measure of success.

Even when they have a golden age in their pasts, a Rome alike, fantasy settings seldom bear signs of different ages or of sudden advances in technology or architecture. There's no influx of ideas from outside, as in the case with the 12th century Renaissance, because the way these games are set up don't allow for the movement of ideas. Which wouldn't be so bad but a lot of the trappings these worlds use don't make much sense as a consequence and often don’t fit the other elements their creators have used. Would a castle be the best fortification in a world where people can summon elementals or melt stone or would something more like a bunker be better? Technology dictates the form of society, and as magic is really a form of technology here, in that it’s predictable and repeatable, it seems odd that it’s so rarely taken into account in the way the background world is built. That's before we consider the monsters; even a strongly built castle does a lousy job as defence from aerial attacks and, as the first Hobbit film pointed out, dragons are pretty much fantasy WMDs. Throw in monsters that burrow or walk through walls and the castle starts to look like it’s there for the sake of familiarity, rather than because it belongs.

You get the impression that the weapons and armour don’t change either but are produced in the same plodding fashion as they always have been. It crosses into other media too: my Skyrim character has a suit of Roman armour sitting next to what looks like 14th century plate. I'm still working out how that one works.

Even in Warhammer (where you can arguably trace a stronger, more meaningful history, if only because of Sigmar uniting the tribes of men to fight off goblins and the composite nature of the Empire) there isn't quite a feeling of 'and then the people discovered this type of building, or this chemical process'. This might in part be because of Tolkien's influence, even if a lot of RPG settings don't have the same fallen world atmosphere of Middle Earth, and it might be because humans are saddled with the 'versatility' label whilst other races, especially Dwarves, get to be the builders and engineers. So to mimic history and show science changing the world might not be on.

This isn’t to say that there are no worlds out there where some sort of development has happened, even if it isn’t scientific. The D&D setting Eberron, for example, uses mass produced magic items and has magic street lighting, harnessing the arcane for the good of society. Iron Kingdoms has magical technology too, but its focus is on weaponry, not domestic use. Most settings though, are content to leave magic as a special thing that only certain people get to wield and science as something that can be ignored except for the purposes of drama.

So we're left with defences that are useless in many situations, history that is either too long or too vanilla (and which often doesn't matter anyway). You might as well strip all that out and leave the setting as a bubble of fantasy, untouched by time or change. For that matter you might as well strip out attempts at mirroring real world nationality, as the various ‘fake France’ or ‘replica Russia’ often feel forced and one dimensional. The American nature of the hobby means that, frequently the author is an outsider looking across the ocean, writing about places that they only know from textbooks.

This leads me to the role of the adventurer, who doesn't really make much sense. Adventurers are an anachronistic element in a game peppered with anachronisms. Nowhere in the world are people who drift from place to place accepted, nowhere are they feted or viewed as anything but a nuisance. Even pedlars and travelling salesmen are viewed with suspicion, we’re a species that values stability over freedom, unless it’s the freedom to buy what we want. The most likely response to a band of sell swords turning up on your doorstep would be to drive them off or imprison, if you had the power, or to bribe them to go away quickly and quietly if you don't. That's before you get to the way that adventurers are usually constructed as loners and orphans; people without social attachments who seem to hate or fear the world around them. Again, in the real world these people don’t prosper, you need to be a good troupe member to succeed.

Related to the vagrancy issue, can you think of any rulers who would be sanguine with the groups of highly armed adventurers tramping through the countryside? Highly powered groups of independent operatives wandering the world fighting whatever they please, would not sit well with the security forces, to say the least. Take into account the ‘die with your boots on’ attitude of most Player Characters and you don’t have a happy situation, either your characters will crush the kingdoms and set themselves up as petty monarchs or they’ll inevitably get killed in the melee as they grow in power. Failing everything they’re likely to find themselves under surveillance or controlled as they grow in power (oddly the best way to do this might be in endowments of land and power, which tie down the adventurers and force them to engage with the humdrum mechanics of everyday life).

So why does this state of affairs exist? In part this is because gaming is all about escapism and familiarity; there's a large amount of nostalgia invested in the games we play. Most players reach back to the games we grew up with, whether in subject matter or style, how many groups cling to playing Dungeons and Dragons or Call of Cthulhu because they are familiar? They're a chance to recapture youth, to go back to being teenagers for being older players, whilst for the younger generation they represent a chance to go out and do something, without actually needing to do anything or suffering consequences in real life. You may kill a man in game but you may also get away with it, and I know gamers who use the game as a way to vent the frustrations of their lives. There are any number of articles about the benefits of RPGs, especially for young men and they're rightly lauded for their role in teaching communication and teamwork (and for GMs they're a pretty good proving ground for telling tales; a lot of fantasy authors started out running RPGs).

There's also the fun factor, getting bogged down in minutiae isn't too much fun, even if you're trying to simulate a particular society (okay, I like to have a 'we're not in Kansas anymore Toto' feeling in my games but then I like the social aspect of gaming more than I do the hack and slash and I emphasise the world aspect, especially in games like Legends of the Five Rings, but I accept most people crave familiarity; its why Star Trek and Star Wars still survive, even if they’re an older generation’s SF). Who cares about economics, as long as you can afford your beer, some persons of negotiable virtue, and buy new kit? Conan didn't, and he ended up a king.

I'm also conscious that for most of us, the thrill isn't in recreating anything, women don't want to deal with the mess of navigating olden times gender politics in order to feel useful as they do in Qin the Warring States. And realistic history isn’t very sexy, being told that your character smells, has no teeth and will be dead by the age of thirty is similarly off-putting. Most people want the roleplaying aspect, the fighting aspect, the game aspect or just to hang out with friends. They don't want to feel bogged down by obligations, and the illusion of freedom is a strong one. The freedom to walk away is seductive, so many of us want to just get out of our current circumstances and follow our heart's desire; something gaming encourages. You don't have to take that job to clean out the sewers, unless your GM is railroading you can even waive away the main plot, whatever it may be in favour of doing whatever you want. My favourite GM always used to make it clear that we could do anything, even spend the game sitting in the pub; it’s just that the world wasn’t going to stop because we did.

So perhaps the ahistorical nature of these worlds isn’t important, unless you’re a specific type of player. They’re largely beside the point when you view the world from the point of view of an individual, only vexing if you look at them from above. For the rest of us, well we must work on stronger settings with a better sense of history, make greater sense and still play like something fun. And somehow we must work out how to reflect change and progress in our gaming. 

Saturday, 21 March 2015

John Wyndham: an Accidental Feminist?

John Wyndham, author of many of the UK’s finest Science Fiction novels does not conjure up the image of a feminist in the popular imagination. His work is generally male orientated, his protagonists are usually professional, middle class men and he seldom addresses what we might consider female themes. Much of his work was created in the 1950s, often viewed as the decade that progress forgot, as the UK found its feet after World War Two and was forced to realise that its ambitions and horizons had shrunk. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, of nuclear power and the advance of technology, his work largely deals with these themes at a domestic, suburban level.

He has been described as ‘H.G. Wells with net curtains’ something that it is hard to dispute. His image is one of tweed jackets and pipes, a sort of benevolent paternalism; a common image to the 1950s in fact, even if Counter Culture started in 1956. He is also a conservative figure, who whilst he doesn’t really root for the British and American side of the Cold War overtly holds up Communism as something to be distrusted. This contrasts directly with Wells, whose Socialism is matter of public record, spawning both The Shape of Things to Come and The Open Conspiracy.

Wyndham is less overtly political, he seems unwilling to rock the boat. Where Wells warns of oncoming uprisings of the poor, The Time Machine providing a literal interpretation of ‘eat the rich’, Wyndham’s revolutions and catastrophes are more nuanced, and he proves less willing to put tie the plot up into a palatable bow. He may have lived in Birmingham and London for much of his life, but he does not feel like an urban writer. His work feels invested in what we now refer to as Middle England, or possibly Suburbia. His England is the Shires and county towns, of Dorridge where he was born. Those net curtains hang heavily over his body of work.

Despite this he was not wholly conservative. If we look at what he actually wrote, it is hard to miss recurring themes that must be viewed as progressive. Amongst them is a distrust of religion, which is depicted as an oppressive force in The Day of the Triffids, The Trouble with Lichen and, of course, in The Chrysalids. Another is the need for women to throw off their socialisation and be able to cope, and thrive in science; something we are grappling with today as governments push science, computing, engineering and maths (referred to as STEM in the UK) as a cure all for economic doldrums. The two often go hand in hand; events in novels highlight the need for women to grasp science and have lives outside being wives and mothers, whilst at the same time religion forms the focus of oppression against social and scientific developments that will lead to the betterment, or in Triffids the re-establishment, of humankind. In particular Wyndham focuses on the reluctance of women to move outside the domestic sphere, which again highlights the fact he was writing Bourgeois narratives for the middle class, but also underlines real life experiences. Whilst this is anecdotal, it puts me in mind of something a friend of mine recounted at a gaming convention regarding female workers at IBM during the Second World War. When they were given the title ‘technician’ many of them quit, feeling that it was a male title, for male workers; it was not that they could not do the job, but that they had never performed the mental trick that allowed them to reconcile the title with what they did day in and day out.

Similarly, religion is depicted as a cruel force that sets out to prevent people from achieving their full potential, or with an agenda explicitly targeted at making them ashamed. So the anti gerone treatment in Lichen is opposed by groups writing that “God allotted man three score years and ten”. In Triffids the plans for what might be seen as a polygamous society, where sighted men will not only procreate with sighted women but also with a group of blind women, in order to ensure there are enough people to reverse the number of deaths resulting from both the onset of blindness and the Triffid attacks are opposed on faith grounds. In both cases religion’s design is to curb progress and crush what Wyndham paints as necessary changes to society, though it is unfortunate that the solution in he provides in Triffids plays into male sexual fantasies a little too readily.

At the most extreme edge, religion becomes a cruel force investing in misery. In The Chrysalids a sort of neo Puritanism has seized control with a focus on bodily purity that is founded upon the idea that man is made in God’s image, and deviation from the bipedal image is a sin. Set after a nuclear war, the novel uses this devotion to the ideal of God as a bipedal male to explore mutation and blame. Women are second class citizens, and frequently held up as the source of sin, and mutations. The society that grows out of this is extremely masculine; even muscular. Women are shown as weak and complicit in various little subterfuges, one mother hides her daughter's trifling mutation (the child has extra toes) in an effort to keep her safe. This clearly links religious and gender oppression in Wyndham's work and in the mind of the reader.

He makes much of the natures of the sexes, though he largely casts humans as conservative with a small 'c', happy to drift along until forced to change. This conservatism effects everything, women cling to their roles within the domestic sphere, men to the world of work and commerce; seldom do these worlds crossover.

Only his protagonists differ, having the vision and intellect to view the bigger picture; either through experience or sheer luck. But even here we find differences. Men may possess vision but they are seldom practical, except in an ordinary way. In contrast the overriding quality of his female protagonists is their pragmatism, something that his male characters often lack. Bill, our narrator in Triffids, is a practical man with rare vision, to the extent that his early acquisition of anti Triffid gear, is greeted with a comment of, “That’s a damn queer thing to make your first priority” when he and Josella report to the group in the University building (a building Wyndham knew well from his time in the Ministry of Information). He does balk, however, at the polygamy plan trotted out at the group’s meeting, in part because he believes it to be unfair to the women. It is Josella, who convinces him that she has no issue with it, and that it makes sense as a course of action.

A similar situation occurs in The Trouble with Lichen, where the miraculous life extending properties
of the lichen in question pose an issue for both the protagonists; Diana and Saxeover. However, whilst the latter simply inoculates himself and his children because he cannot see a way to use the lichen’s properties, Diana takes a circular, even underhand route, establishing a beauty salon and offering it as a beauty product to her clients without disclosing what they are actually receiving. Her intention is to create a group of powerful women, who are intent on having all the years they can and who will fight for the treatment to be available once it becomes common knowledge, as it inevitably must. Again, pragmatism wins the day and though Diana’s tactics are arguably far from admirable, they make sense in a world that is openly patriarchal. This dovetails with the book’s overall theme, which addresses the way women are sidelined both by male expectation and by an internal culture that steers them towards the domestic sphere. Diana’s strategy is set upon creating a world where this cannot happen, simply because her patients will live so long that boredom will force them into public life. Her actions, over the course of the novel propel a series of events that establish the core differences between the two sexes, and at once undermine one idea of what women are whilst at the same time supporting another; that of the insidious nature of feminine wiles.

The issue over women's role in the world appears to have vexed Wyndham from early in his career writing speculative fiction and in particular he seems to have been troubled by how little connection they had with the day to day practicalities of the world, as he saw them. In Day of the Triffids this is illustrated where Coker, a character who prides himself on his ability to communicate at all levels of humanity tries to explain that in the new world women will have to let go of their old ideas about what they are allowed to do. The tirade follows the discovery that the women have been sitting in the dark next to a perfectly serviceable generator, which they haven’t thought to check because ‘it's man’s work’, a fictional link back to the IBM anecdote. The irony is that Coker fails to express his point in a way that the woman he rails against understands, sending her back into defensive protestations and, if anything, reinforcing her social conditioning.

Ultimately the treatment of the protagonists in Day of the Triffids creates more diverse paths for women to follow than Wyndham’s other work, rejecting the religion bound life that the colony at Tynsham tries to create and never quite approving the polygamous lifestyle suggested in the grand meeting. Josella, for all her pragmatism slips into the domestic role easily enough and the most notable thing about her is, despite everything, her novel; which remains of interest because it suggests a growing focus on female sexual desire and fulfilment, fully a decade before the Swinging Sixties and the Sexual Revolution (the novel was published in 1951). In contrast to this, Susan is presented as a ‘new woman’; practical and tough. Her hatred for the Triffids gives her an extra dimension, marking her out as a child of the new epoch. It is hard to see Susan settling down into the life of a wife and mother, and if she does the reader senses she will not be content with a world that stops at the garden gate, or at the local shops.

The reader is left with a strange situation, where Wyndham is at once chipping away at gender roles whilst reinforcing them on the other side. His women are both supine and strong, but seldom have the breadth of character to be both. In contrast his male characters all draw from the same well of practical, envisioned but ultimately beset by scruples; possibly reflecting his own life and nature.

Admittedly none of this is exactly Betty Friedan and it only scratches the surface of the issues women faced in the 1950s, that decade where barbiturates and other drugs became ‘Mother’s little helpers’ for women who were forced out of the workplace back into the false paradise of the home. It is far more likely that Wyndham was commenting on this reversal of fortune in women’s lives than setting out a roadmap for the future. What’s telling is that he was writing in the decade before the first wave of Feminism got going and, whilst the majority of Golden Age Science Fiction is composed of bold white men doing bold, manly things, he wasn’t afraid to focus on the domestic. Today we would compare his much of his work to the horror genre, to writers like Daphne du Maurier, whose novel the Birds was so chillingly converted to film by Hitchcock. His work’s reliance on the ordinary is part of what gives it strength, and arguably respectability. Unlike many of his successors though Wyndham made no claim on ground beyond the telling of stories, of a disturbance of ordinary life with the extraordinary, the tragic and the horrific. Nonetheless it is remarkable that female characters find such traction and ability within his work, given the time and genre in which he wrote.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Election Time

It is election time in the UK, we limp like a rough beast towards polling day; at least half of us knuckling along in bewilderment as to what we are actually voting for, and how this General Election will affect us.

Warning, this is neither fair, nor balanced and I'm feeling vitriolic.

It may get a bit ranty.

With good reason, it looks very much as if the political culture here has sort of gone to pot and, even as lines are drawn, activists martialled and the wording of policies nailed down it is hard not to feel as if the whole thing is a bit of a show; and one with little substance. There is not even a nice musical number to finish things off.

Part of the problem is that, with fixed termed Parliaments now the norm, campaigning season has started early; arguably it started back last Summer, with the Scottish Independence referendum, sure it was a local affair but at the same time there was bound to be a knock on to May. It feels as if we have had over six months of politicians doing their best to prove that their trade really is show business for the ugly. And those of who aren't hooked on the process or activists are probably feeling fatigued by the whole thing, enlivened only by gaffes like Labour's pink bus for lady voters; this year's equivalent of the Mum who did not know which way to vote last September. You might think that women could be treated the same as men, not like a group of insouciant children who need coaxing to the ballot box through kitchen meetings and a pink bus with what looks like tampons on the side, but apparently not. And its not such a bad idea, perhaps it just rankles that no effort is made to actually get men to vote, as if the idiots in charge speak to all of us equally.

At the same time our leaders prove themselves not to be statesmen, nor even salesmen. The Prime Minister has done his level best to weasel his way out of any live debates and at this stage he looks like he is running scared. Miliband may look like Mr Punch's younger, less charismatic brother, but at least he has the guts to stand up and debate. Pluck, as it used to be called, does not mean much when balanced against his history of making public appearances, however. Losing to a bacon sandwich and his poor performance at the Labour Party conference, forgetting the most important part of his speech, stack the deck against him, and have nothing to shift his 'geek' image. Neither is an orator, they lack the gravitas and simplicity to sway their own parties, let alone a cynical, sceptical public.

In the meantime the Lib Dems, and Clegg in particular comes across as a tainted brand, one that has tried to inch away from the fire, but I fear to little avail. They are now associated with broken promises, with the high price of University fees and the way that they have effectively been the Conservative's batman, carrying their coats and hats as they put a kicking into the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Early signs of independence proved to be a mirage and they have largely nodded along, with a pained expression on their faces. It is too early to tell if they will suffer for it at the polls, but the received wisdom, if it has any weight at all, suggests they will lose most of the marginal seats they hold.

Frankly though, none of the major parties are that attractive, they all seem to have bought into the philosophy driving our times, austerity, authority and apathy. All are committed to shrinking the state, cutting services and expecting us to be grateful for our penury. None of them seems to know what the state is for, and perhaps that is one of the underlying questions of our time. Personally, a state that does nothing but spin in circles, providing nothing and taking as much tax as the state that pays for pensions and schools and so on, is worth nothing at all; it is odd that we are meant to use cold logic to form our choices in every area but the political one where we are meant to vote on a wish, a wing and a prayer.

The smaller parties are better, but they present their own challenges. UKIP, despite their complaints do come across as a bunch of rightwing racists who have no real idea what they are talking about. The Greens present their own issues, a parcel of change that will be hard to sell to Parliament and the public, even if  a lot of it seems broadly necessary in the long run. It does not really chime with the economics of the time either, and it may be that it would require too much change, something I am not sure our governmental structures or our national character is set up to cope with. Change will come, but only when it is absolutely necessary, or when it stops being a choice because something has to be done.

The issues that we have to face, in the long run at least, are bigger than what flavour of asset strippers we elect into office. We stand on the brink of a multipolar world, one that is increasingly connected, one where capitalism has run riot and set itself up as an alternative to the nation state. It increasingly looks hostile to democracy or accountability, and has grown so large that it is not beyond the whit of reason that every advance that environmentalists and workers rights groups win is Pyrrhic, a case of shifting the buck onto somewhere else. Greenwashing is hardly new news, after all; its something that has been going on forever and as TTIP thunders through the debating process and the pesticide maker Syngenta sues the EU because their product is banned after being linked to the dramatic drop in bee numbers, it makes me wonder if we are actually moving backwards on green politics, or at least seeing it obfuscated behind the scenes. It would be a bit better if the politicians did not, still, seem to be in awe of them. Economic policy feels as if it is set, not with national interests in mind, but to placate financial 'wunderkind' who threaten to throw their toys out of the pram if they are held accountable for their messes. Never mind that it was their gambling that got us into this mess, or that the world they shape is not defined by borders but by bonuses and costs; they will always slip down hill to where labour is cheapest (something that we may not need to be concerned about if robotics becomes as prevalent as predicted). The lessons of 1929 were not learned; the world's shape is decided Davos and Bilderburg and in the offices of groups like News International, as much if not more than at the ballot box.

Politically things look pretty grim too, our system seems to be set up to favour delegates, not the Burkean ideal of representatives, despite the rhetoric. The central offices have grown stronger and stronger, to the extent that local parties often have no say in who stands in their constituency. Whilst individual MPs are decent people, the culture of the House has slipped to 'do as I say' rather than allowing MPs to vote with their conscience; hardly news I know, but it seems more pronounced of late, as younger and younger MPs, who have little experience outside of politics and law enter the ranks of the House of Commons. In an earlier piece I talked about the democratic deficit with regards to women, but it is fair to say that there is an equal one for people who are not middle class, white and from the professions. Essentially we have turned the clock back to Victorian times, without even realising it. Forgive me if I think that having half a House of middle class women is scarcely better than the situation we are in now (assuming a 50/50 split between the sexes).

A similar pattern has been observed within the Houses of Parliament themselves, Tony Blair's government slipped bills through Parliament that allowed them to alter laws without debate, and despite the libertarian cant that both Tories and Lib Dems brandished in opposition, how many of the authoritarian measures passed under New Labour have been repealed? Admittedly we have not heard much about ID cards or databases recently, instead attacks on liberties have been more circular; Cameron's Great British Firewall, for instance. Root and branch reform is needed, we need to admit that the big three brands are a) just that, and b) that they don't speak to most people, let alone everyone. No matter how much I roll my eyes at the Labour Ladies Bus, it is at least a decent marketing exercise; or would be if it didn't fall into the trap of pinkification.  But we have passed up the chance to reform, at least for the foreseeable future; the referendum on electoral reform and the initial moves towards giving cities New York style Mayors were flatly dismissed at the ballot box. British people are too busy looking at cats online or spreading memes to pay attention, and the media has overstuffed us with bad news that apathy is the order of the day. No wonder we seek our solace elsewhere.

What's worse is that the future looks like it holds more of the same, like we will sleepwalk into the sale of the NHS, the privatisation of everything that is not nailed down and the increasing 'professionalisation' of politics. The day of the amateur does appear to be dead and, as management buzz words and policy wonks continue to be the order of the day, the drawbridge gets higher and higher, cutting off entry for anyone outside that background.

So what do we do? I am no Russell Brand, I will not say 'Do not vote', even if part of me thinks a grand swell of disinterest is what's needed.

I would rather see a huge turn out that votes for lots of smaller parties and sends the big three into a panic. As long as only the old vote in any great numbers, they're the group people will listen to, the people they'll court and the rest of us will be dismissed. The same is true of all those 'hard working families' you hear so much about; the reason they're courted is because they get to the ballot box, and politicians are actually afraid they'll lose their vote. I would rather a wave of letters and emails to MPs demanding information, demanding answers, about everything and anything; to make them sit up and take notice. I would rather a change in tone on Europe; readers and viewers saying to the media, 'give us the facts, not your bendy banana claptrap'. Perhaps we should go punk and set up our own parties too, a British Steampunk Party standing for Nation, Excellence, Social justice, (Sandwiches), Idealism and Eccentricity* anyone? Or perhaps if Lindi St Claire stands for office again we should vote for her; a dominatrix could scarcely do worse than the current bunch of smug boys.  We could encourage groups like UK Uncut to step forth and put candidates up for election.

What's certain is that we need to see more engagement with the processes of power, just as we need to see the architecture of the state so we can decide what to shore up and what to demolish. Sites like They Work For You are a good place to start, but I'm not sure they go far enough; ultimately it does need to be driven by the voter, the constituent and that means we need to believe that what we say matters and is listened to.

In the meantime, let's encourage good journalism, let's encourage openness in government and more participation; let's give a fuck. Turn off the internet, stop looking at pictures of cats and pay attention so your vote counts.

*I admit it, I ran out of things to put in the acronym and really, really wanted it to be NESSIE.