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Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set – A Much Needed Fresh Start?

August 8, 2014
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Seeing as a number of people have asked me for my first impressions of the new D&D Starter Set, I thought it might be fun to write up my thoughts in a little more detail than Twitter allows. In short, the Starter Set is both a brilliant introduction to a new set of rules and a fantastic opportunity to re-launch Dungeons & Dragons both as a brand and a hobby. However, while the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is a breath of fresh air, it is nowhere near enough to fill the lungs of someone who is already half-drowned.

 

The Weight of History

I first started playing tabletop RPGs not long after the release of the Second Edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. AD&D2 was really nothing more than the original 1977 D&D rules with a load of extra sub-systems bolted onto them. An excellent example of the design philosophy underpinning D&D at the time was the way that different editions handled skills:

  • D&D featured no skills beyond fighting, spellcasting and a few abilities with their own discrete sets of mechanics like picking locks or noticing the gradient of a slope.
  • AD&D1 kept all of these discrete mechanics and introduced the concept of secondary skills but provided little in the way of mechanical support for those additional skills.
  • AD&D2 kept the discrete mechanics and introduced new rules that served to flesh out the secondary skill system. Despite presenting the rule changes as a more integrated system that encompassed languages, weapons and non-combat skills, the proficiencies were really nothing more than a tidy way of allowing players to choose and then keep track of their areas of expertise and the ever-expanding network of sub-systems that governed them.

If the name and design principles underpinning AD&D2 make it sound cluttered to the point of complete inaccessibility, then you would be completely right. It was nearly 25 years before someone thought to take D&D back to first principles and one can only assume that this reluctance to mess with the rules was derived from an unspoken assumption that the audience for D&D was the same as it had always been. If you assume that the only people buying AD&D2 are the people who already own AD&D1 then it doesn’t really matter that rules changes mean additional sub-systems… it’s not as though anyone has to learn all the rules from scratch! Similarly, if you assume that the only people interested in playing D&D are the people already playing it then every rule change runs the risk of alienating the people who have been playing the same campaign for 20 years. Do these designers not realise how difficult it is to port a 75th level Paladin Demigod from one edition to another?

The collapse of TSR and purchase of D&D by Wizards of the Coast inspired a long-overdue re-examination of the rules but while the game’s third edition replaced AD&D2’s warren of sub-systems with the integrated d20-based mechanics, the iteration of the d20 rules that became 3E was still an incredibly insular piece of game design. The reason for this creative introversion is that 3E was developed during a time when D&D was under intense pressure from games that tried to put RPGs on a slightly different footing.

The original D&D rules are a model of simplicity; After presenting its readers with the revolutionary notion that they could play a game entirely in their own heads, the box set provided just enough mechanical support to make those imaginary worlds seem concrete. However, because the rules were originally drawn up as the basis for a war game that focused upon individual characters rather than units and because the game wound up being marketed at boys, D&D came to be seen as a game primarily concerned with tactical combat, a myth that the publishers of D&D were only too happy to support through an endless barrage of publications pandering to the tactician’s need for more monsters, more traps, more encounters and more magical bling. As this ‘canonical’ vision of how to play D&D slowly emerged, gamers interested in other aspects of roleplaying such as playing roles and solving mysteries began to drift away towards games that emphasised their vision of what gaming was all about. As is so often the case in small sub-cultures, the desire for legitimacy and visibility inspired hyperbole that in turn provoked social schisms.

The more some gamers sought to distance themselves from traditional D&D, the more people interested in tactical play came to revel in a form of tactical fundamentalism in which non-tactical aspects of play received little or no support in published materials. It was during the years spanning the move from ADD2 to 3E that White Wolf Games reached out to fresh audiences with the promise that their games would not be about killing things. Despite this injection of new blood into the hobby and the manifest truth that hundreds of gamers had moved away from D&D, the game’s publishers listened to the tactical fundamentalists and turned their back on people less interested in tactical play.

 

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Despite being built around a core mechanic that could support almost any form of tabletop play, 3E featured a set of combat and movement rules that encouraged the use of miniatures as part of a highly tactical playing style. The tactical nature of in-game combat exerted a pressure on every aspect of the game as the need to make the right tactical decisions in combat encouraged players to think more strategically about their character design, which in turn created a huge market for gaming materials aimed more at players than at the Dungeon Masters who had traditionally been responsible for buying most of the books.

Nowadays, people frequently refer to the d20/3E years as something of a gold rush in which the market for RPG books expanded massively and unpredictably heralding the rise of new companies and the collapse of older ones. However, as many books as 3E managed to shift, the gold rush was not fuelled by the arrival of new players but by the more effective exploitation of existing markets. 3E saw existing players spending more and lapsed players returning to the fold either by ‘getting the band back together’ or by engaging in a weird kind of vicarious RPG experience in which they would hang out on RPG forums and buy lots of RPG materials without ever actually sitting down to play. 3E made a lot of companies a lot of money but it did almost nothing to grow a hobby that was already showing serious signs of institutional neglect.

Unlike most geeky hobbies, tabletop gaming expects you to spend time in the same room as other people. In fact, in order to get the most out of an RPG campaign, you regularly need to spend long periods of time in the same room as the same group of people who are all doing exactly the same thing as you… and who has time for that in this day and age? Nowhere is the toxic nature of capitalism more evident than in the changing face of work: A generation ago, a family could support itself with only one person working a regular 9-5 job but the waves of economic collapse that have swept around the world since the 1970s mean that everyone now works increasingly long hours with increasingly unpredictable schedules. Ever happy to exploit, the companies that helped to shatter the traditional work/life balance now peddle their wares as rewards and escapes from the demands of the unreasonable workplace that they themselves created. The upshot of this capitalist push-me-pull-you is that people now regularly return home in a state of physical and spiritual exhaustion that lends itself more readily to medicinal applications of booze and shit TV than to arguing with your friends and doing maths. Some of the main beneficiaries of our increasingly horrid work/life balances are massively multiplayer online RPGs such as Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, a game inspired by tabletop RPGs that removes the need to prepare adventures, do maths or meet up with people in real life. Given how successful MMORPGs have become, it is hardly surprising that the next iteration of D&D would use MMORPGs as a point of aesthetic departure.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition remains the most radical reworking of the rules to date. While the designers drew inspiration from the 3E rules and retained a lot of the iconography of previous editions, the game is best understood as an attempt to create a board game based upon principles of MMORPG design. Unlike 3E, which provided a flexible skill system that wound up focussing on tactical engagements, 4E was built with nothing but tactical engagements in mind resulting in characters almost entirely defined by lists of powers. Despite making some gratifying inroads into the MMORPG market thanks to the widely publicised (and presumably expensive) support of Penny Arcade, interest in D&D4 plateaued when people suddenly realised that it was nothing more than a regular MMORPG with added maths and travel times.

Dungeons & Dragons has long been paralysed by the weight of its own history. Early editions simply assumed that anyone wishing to play was already playing and when that toxic attitude finally receded it was replaced by the equally problematic assumption that anyone wanting to play D&D would want to play it in the exact same manner as the brand’s core audience. This weird cultural ego-centrism will be instantly familiar to anyone who expressed an interest in science fiction only to have Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocketship Galileo thrust into their disappointed paws. Sure… the Heinlein juveniles served as a gateway drug for a lot of young readers but should we really assume that young readers today will respond to the same things as young readers in the 1940s? This is not the 1970s and not everyone is a socially inept teenaged boy, why do the owners of D&D continue to ignore thousands of potential customers? Simple: Cowardice and short sightedness.

 

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Future Interrupted – Five (Profound and Beautiful Lies)

August 7, 2014
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Interzone #253 is now a thing in the world. I would have recognised this fact a trifle sooner but for the presence of Men with Tools and Serrated Gadgets giving the innards of my woodland habitat a damn good seeing to. I know that this is the 21st Century and we’re all supposed to interact with the internet via smart watches and digital nipple clamps but I still find it difficult to do anything of substance without a proper screen and a decent keyboard.

The July-August of IZ boasts, as ever, a plurality of wonders including short fiction by James Van Pelt, E. Catherine Tobler, Andrew Hook, Neil Williamson and Caren Gussoff as well as the James White Award-winning story by D.J. Cockburn entitled “Beside The Damned River”. Non-fiction includes an interview with the editor John Joseph Adams, film columns by Nick Lowe and Tony Lee as well as reviews by Maureen Kincaid Speller, Jack Deighton, Stephen Theaker, Ian Sales, Paul Graham Raven, Ian Hunter, Andrew J. Wilson, Duncan Lunan, Simon Marshall-Jones and Jim Steel.

There’s a lot of nice stuff in this magazine but I was particularly charmed by Nick Lowe’s opening homage to the much-overlooked medium that is science fiction theatre:

There’s an old misperception that theatre is a medium in competition with film, and doomed to try to mimic its art of illusion. But theatre is above all a space of suggestion and implication, where embodied physicality can conjure worlds with a gesture or line. In that respect, it’s far closer to what sf does with the written word, only kissed with the spell of live mimesis and response. The moment that wrote the grammar of western theatre was the young Aeschylus’ staging of the Iliad with two actors, no set, and a single location. It’s a moment that theatre re-enacts nightly.

Last and almost certainly least is my column about Robert A. Heinlein, or rather the (to my mind deeply problematic) campaign to see him restored to his one-time position of prominence thanks to a sudden and unexpected flurry of biographies and (overwhelmingly positive) critical re-appraisals. Personally, I think there are far more attractive and deserving bodies to uncover. I will be republishing that column here in a few months but if you need to get your Heinlein Hatin’ fix right this minute, you can either visit the TTA Press shop or Amazon, which seems to sell electronic copies.

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REVIEW – We Are The Best! (2013)

August 4, 2014
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FilmJuice have my review of Lukas Moodysson’s thoroughly wonderful We Are The Best! Set in 1980s Sweden, the film is a densely-written and realised drama about a group of diffident teenaged girls who spin their feelings of alienation and abandonment into friendship and punk rock. Based on a graphic novel by Coco Moodysson, We Are The Best! is one of those films that renews your trust in the fundamental precepts of world cinema:

The most striking thing about this film is its astonishing density. Not content with providing his audience with a whistle-stop tour of the 1980s punk scene and producing three exquisitely drawn characters, Moodysson unpacks his characters’ motivations and uses them to critique a society that sees little of value in teenaged girls. The film is littered with beautifully quiet scenes in which the girls come up against sexist attitudes and it is in these moments that we are reminded of the central aesthetic principle underlying world cinema: The depth and breadth of human experience is not exhausted by stories about heroic tough guys and mildly depressed middle-class people, so why should cinema limit itself to those types of stories?

Re-watching the film and considering my reaction to it, I was struck by the difference between the vision of Scandinavia presented in this film and the vision of Scandinavia that is presented in the so-called Nordic Noir TV series that are currently proving popular with the British chattering classes. One of the reasons why these TV series are proving so popular is that austerity has pushed British political culture further and further towards the nightmarish individualism of American political culture and the social democracies of Northern Europe are increasingly becoming totemic symbols of what can be achieved when social institutions remain under popular control. Who wouldn’t want to live in a place filled with beautiful people, minimalist interior design and supremely competent police that drive vintage Porsches and wear cooky jumpers? In fact, going by the TV series, Scandinavia is a place entirely devoid of fat or brown people! Despite believing that the state is a more effective and humane means of government than the market, I welcome any film and TV series that critiques the creation of a racially-problematic dreamworld.

We Are The Best! is set in a sports-obsessed Swedish suburb similar to that of Tomas Alfredson’s peerless gothic romance Let The Right One In. In both films, the parents are supremely liberal and the state provides housing and schooling that ensures that no child need ever feel the sting of hunger or the lash of want. 1980s Sweden should have been a paradise on Earth but society’s largesse came an inevitable price tag: Silence. The children in these films are showered with well-meaning attention but a refusal to follow the script and enjoy society’s riches means that they are forced to the margins and denied a vocabulary with which to express their discontent. This is neither Africa nor America… this is socialist Sweden and what could a bunch of middle-class kids possibly have to complain about? While the protagonist of Let The Right One wound up expressing his alienation through an unusual relationship with an intersexual vampire, the protagonists of We Are The Best! reach for a lexicon that is at once more mundane and more universally accessible: Punk rock.

REVIEW – Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

June 23, 2014
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FilmJuice have my review of Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.

No director has enjoyed a more artfully ballistic rise and fall than Michael Cimino. A film school graduate who cut his teeth on Madison Avenue before working as a screenwriter, Cimino’s first directorial pitch meeting was for an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a bloated and self-righteous fantasia in which a ruggedly individualistic architect struggles against the ignorance of lesser humans in the pursuit of his vision. Knocked back amidst fears that the production would result in the construction of a real-life skyscraper, Cimino demurred and assumed the role of the company man… an auteur but one who could give the studios what they wanted. His first film was Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, an amiable Clint Eastwood caper picture that borrows extensively from the New Hollywood bag of tricks without ever really understanding why those tricks were used in the first place.

Hugely successful, the film earned Cimino just enough rope to produce a film as bloated and self-righteous as The Deer Hunter. The Deer Hunter is a complex film that does a number of things very well and a number of things incredibly poorly but while the film’s ability to voice then-prevalent American attitudes to the Vietnam War was enough to win it a lorry load of Oscars at the time, its connection to a now abandoned cultural moment no longer inspires forgiveness in the face of its racism, fascism and self-indulgent running time.

The money and awards garnered by The Deer Hunter convinced the suits to give Michael Cimino a free-reign on his next film and Cimino responded to this increased responsibility by producing a film so expensive and so relentlessly terrible that it destroyed a Hollywood studio that had been founded by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and D.W. Griffith. This failure not only ensured that Cimino would spend the rest of his career as a third-string director, it also inspired the studios to re-assert themselves and put an end to the creating freedoms that had brought about the last Golden Age of American film.

Watching Thunderbolt and Lightfoot I was struck by how easy it is to blame Heaven’s Gate and Cimino for a problem with much deeper roots:

An approach to filmmaking that began by capturing the ambiguities of the public mind and encouraging people to think for themselves had ossified into a set of tropes and techniques that could be applied to even the slightest of traditional films. The sad truth about New Hollywood is that once the initial creative energy was spent, the movement struggled to renew itself and so grew decadent. Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is what happens when decadent self-indulgence and pastiche get mistaken for art.

Out this week and as forgettable as any film produced by mid-70s Hollywood.

The Act of Killing (2013) – The Things We Choose To Live With

June 11, 2014
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The colonial period of Indonesian history ended with Japanese occupation. Aside from a reported 4 Million deaths, Japan’s wartime occupation of the Indonesian archipelago also saw the growth of a national independence movement that was only too happy to take leadership of the country when Japan surrendered to allied forces in August 1945.

Two days after Japan’s surrender, a nationalist leader and one-time Japanese collaborator by the name of Sukarno declared Indonesian independence only to be made president the following day. However, this independence turned out to be short-lived as the Dutch were quick to reassert their colonial rights and to press them with the aid of the British military. Sukarno would go on to steer Indonesia in and out of independence as European colonial influence collapsed and various administrative structures were unsuccessfully tried. By the 1960s, Sukarno was seen as something of a puppet master, a politician who clung to power by playing the army and political Islam off against each other with the help of his allies in the air force and his true powerbase, a vast democratic communist party known as the PKI.

In 1965, Sukarno’s grip on power was beginning to fade. The country’s economy was in free fall and while the president’s anti-Western rhetoric had made him friends in Russia and China, an unnecessary military confrontation with Malaysia along with almost complete domination of the government by PKI members meant that those out of power had increasingly little to gain by remaining loyal. In fact, the CIA was fully aware of this fact and was happily providing support and encouragement to what would eventually emerge as the opposition to the so called 30 September Movement.

The official history of the 30 September Movement (or G30S) is that it was an abortive coup launched by members of the PKI in an effort to topple the Sukarno regime. While declassified documents suggest that this might well have been an invention of Western intelligence, the abortive coup provided the army with an opportunity and an excuse to seize power. In the years that followed the abortive coup, the Indonesian army along with allied paramilitary and Islamic groups undertook what can only be described as a wholesale purge of the Indonesian body-politic. While records from this period are understandably patchy, experts suggest that over 1.5 Million people wound up in prison as a result of their supposed communist sympathies. Even though countless thousands would wind up being held in prison for decades without trial, these political prisoners can almost count themselves lucky as experts suggest that the purges also included somewhere between 500,000 and 3 Million extra-judicial killings. Though history records these killings as being part of an anti-PKI purge, the reality is that the army and their allies also went after intellectuals, trade unionists, women’s rights advocates and the ethnic Chinese: Anyone who posed a potential threat, anyone who saw the world in a different way. By the time the killings ended, Sukarno’s leftist regime had been replaced by a pro-Western government headed by Suharto and backed by paramilitary organisations that continue to play an important role in Indonesian public life.

Most documentaries are content to remain small films that tackle small issues in small ways. The larger the issue, the smaller the film generally becomes as documentarians abandon the complexities of the real world in favour of simple moral fables that are easily packaged and easily sold to an audience trained to confuse complexity with confusion and ambiguity with dissemblance. Joshua Oppenheimer’s twelfth film The Act of Killing is something different… it is a big film that takes on a huge issue and provides answers so big and so complex that watching it means forcing oneself to see the world in an entirely new way.

Read more…

REVIEW – If… (1968)

June 9, 2014
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FilmJuice have my review of Lindsay Anderson’s story of public school rebellion If…

One of the things I most remember from my time attending press screenings is the extent to which a clever PR might ensure the good will of the critical community. At the lower end of the scale, a PR might turn up early and lay on the booze, thereby ensuring that critics went into the screening feeling appropriately jolly. Further up the scale, a PR with a bit of a budget might book a more upscale screening room and lay on proper food and drink. Once you get into the bigger budget films it is not unheard of for PRs to lay on entire meals and special events, particularly if they are trying to ensure that a film is well-reviewed by non-specialised but widely-read press such as women’s magazines. When the last James Bond film Skyfall was released to rapturous applause, I couldn’t help but imagine film critics being dosed up with vodka martinis and champagne. This type of shit shouldn’t impact on how well a film is received but it really, really does.

Another way of ensuring a warm reception by critics is to speak directly to the concerns and lived experience of the kind of people who tend to become critics. Why else would so many critically-praised novels involve middle-age intellectuals feeling a bit sad and having affairs with sexually generous young women? At its worst, this phenomenon can even lead to critics suggesting that the only books worth reading and films worth watching are the ones that speak directly to them; Isn’t it funny how inward looking films about middle-aged men tend to be seen as more serious and worthwhile than romantic comedies? Isn’t it funny that romantic comedies began to lose prestige and standing the instant they began to be marketed at women rather than men? Anderson’s If… is an undoubted beneficiary of this phenomenon as it is a film about intellectuals rebelling against their public school that was released at a time when practically every film critic in the country would have been a public school-educated intellectual.

I have a good deal of affection for If… and I can totally see why it proved so influential but, as someone who didn’t go to public school, I must say that this film simply does not speak to me. In fact, I think this is less a film about revolution than it is about the upper class finally getting fed up of pretending not to be selfish pricks:

It is easy to imagine Travis growing up to be a Richard Branson-type figure, a ruthless businessman who considers himself a rebel and an individualist because he wears his hair long and doesn’t even pretend to take an interest in the welfare of the poor. Far from being a politically progressive film, If… is a reminder that Capital has always been far more revolutionary than the left-wingers and trade unionists who sought to oppose it.

Maybe if Travis had shown some self-awareness about his position and privilege… Maybe if his rejection of the system had been on moral grounds… Maybe if Travis had wanted something more out of life than the ability to get drunk, wear his hair long and seduce women. Maybe then I might have been sympathetic to his rebellion. Maybe then I might have seen him as a revolutionary rather than a spoiled brat.

 

REVIEW – The Armstrong Lie (2013)

June 5, 2014
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FilmJuice have my review of Alex Gibney’s sports documentary The Armstrong Lie.

I went into this film with quite a good impression of Gibney as a filmmaker. I loved his award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side about the use of torture in the Iraq war and his Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room about the myriad ways in which elements of American government, business and media made the collapse of Enron possible. I love those films because Gibney takes a couple of big, explosive news stories and proceeds to do precisely the kind of stuff that the media reporting the stories refused to do: Explain events by embedding them in a broader cultural and sociopolitical context. When The Armstrong Lie applies this methodology to the world of professional cycling, the film is fascinating… the problem is that Gibney keeps allowing Armstrong himself to get in the way:

The problem with this film is that Armstrong’s story is not interesting enough to sustain an entire film. At the end of the day, Armstrong was an ambitious and aggressive man who did everything in his power to win, including cheat. His history of testicular cancer along with his deprived childhood may well account for his will to victory but anyone who looks at the amount of money he made and the level of fame he reached should be able to work out why he cheated and why he continued lying about it until he was eventually caught. Like most sportsmen, Armstrong does not appear to be imbued with a profound inner life and so any attempt to tell his personal story will inevitably come across as being rather dull and predictable

Lance Armstrong’s story should by now be familiar to anyone who is not living in a cave on Mars with their fingers crammed in their ears. Gibney originally set out to make a film about Armstrong’s return to the sport in 2009 and his claims to be running the race ‘clean’ for the first time since his return after testicular cancer. Mercifully, this film collapsed when it became obvious that Armstrong was still cheating and planning on using Gibney to help repair his reputation. The collapse of this earlier project forced Gibney to make a more interesting film as his desire to understand Armstrong’s motivations forced him to look into the culture of a sport that had effectively been sanctioning secret doping for decades. At its best, The Armstrong Lie really connects with the idea that Armstrong succeeded simply because he was a more talented and organised cheat than anyone else in cycling at the time. The problem is that, rather than focusing upon what made Armstrong such an effective cheat, Gibney keeps getting distracted by questions about Armstrong’s motivations and mental state. This proves incredibly frustrating as the whole point of the film is that Armstrong was always a wheel in a much bigger machine who managed to protect the machine by attracting all the attention to a single cog.

The film is filled with footage of journalists and sporting officials trying to hold Armstrong to account but they never get close to him. Every time someone asks about doping, Armstrong puts on a sad face, mentions his cancer as well as the work he did for cancer charities and moves the debate away from whether or not he cheated to the more tricky question of whether or not a journalist or a sporting official have the right to persecute a cancer survivor who raises millions of dollars for other cancer survivors. Indeed, Gibney completely misses the fact that Armstrong’s 2009 Tour de France saw him refusing to answer questions from anyone other than a  disgrace former team-mate who had reinvented himself as a sports presenter. Even if such a man did manage to hold Armstrong to account with an awkward question, Armstrong could simply paint the journalist as a bitter hypocrite and thereby shift the discussion away from whether or not he cheated and towards the far more comfortable question of whether or not it was appropriate to even discuss that possibility.

Armstrong was a brilliant cheat because he managed to protect not only himself but his entire sport from serious scrutiny. He did this by magically transforming all questions about drugs in cycling into questions about whether or not it was appropriate to question the honesty of a cancer survivor and charity worker.

The question of how Armstrong managed this trick is actually very similar to the question of how a vicious paedophile like Jimmy Saville could not only escape prosecution but also enjoy a successful career in show-business. The trick that both Saville and Armstrong pulled is that they managed to position themselves so close to a series of institutions that it effectively became impossible to challenge the individual without also challenging the institutions they stood next to. If this wasn’t bad enough, the relationship between the criminals and the institutions was so close that the institutions wound up with a vested interest in defending the criminal who was using them as cover. How could the BBC, the Royal Family or the various charities he supported distance themselves from Jimmy Saville without admitting their close ties to a paedophile? How could the Tour de France distance itself from Lance Armstrong without admitting that it was their culture of rules-bending that allowed him to rise to prominence in the first place?

 

 

 

 

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