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

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.

 

DD1

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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REVIEW – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

TDoSFilmJuice have my review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a film that rivals Iron Man 2 and Man of Steel for the title of Worst Film Ever Made.

Peter Jackson is a terrible loss to the special effects profession and a terrible addition to that of professional film direction. Right from the start, his films have been filled with technical excellence and entirely devoid of artistic merit. The flaw in Jackson’s approach to direction is most evident when you consider his adaptations of existing works:Regardless of whether we are talking about Lord of the Rings, King Kong or The Lovely Bones, the involvement of Peter Jackson means that the resulting film will invariably be worse than the source material.

  • King Kong took a very simple and elegant story and expanded it into a 187 minute-long monstrosity in which the elegance and drama of the original were entirely lost.
  • Lord of the Rings bent over backwards to put as much of the books on screen as possible but whenever Jackson was called upon to make an interpretative leap, his interpretations were invariably less interesting and more prosaic than those of conventional understanding.
  • The Lovely Bones made the most of Jackson’s mastery of visual effects to create an impressive vision of the afterlife but Jackson’s interpretation of the book mislaid the original horror and settled instead for a jarring combination of brutal violence and horrific sentimentality.

Jackson’s interpretation of The Hobbit is plagued by these exact same mistakes:

  • A short children’s book has been expanded into three over-long films thanks to tedious CGI action sequences that unbalance the plot and submerge the original drama.
  • Every time that Jackson is called upon to make an interpretative leap, his interpretations tend to be less interesting, more prosaic and prone to moving the film into the realm of fantasy cliche.
  • Having decided to transform a whimsical children’s story into a portentous epic, Jackson struggles with tone and so veers between horrific violence, grinding sentimentality and childish comedy.

My review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug focuses on two particular areas: The paucity of the writing and the intense ugliness of the visuals.

Of the writing I say:

Given that The Desolation of Smaug contains much less of The Hobbit than its predecessor, the joins between source and additional materials are far less noticeable. However, while this frees us from the first film’s bizarre tone changes, it does mean that the film comes to be dominated by an array of characters and sub-plots who owe a good deal less to Tolkien’s brilliance than they do to Peter Jackson’s fondness for fantasy clichés. The additional plotlines are not only thin and crippled with incredibly cheesy dialogue, they also feature a grand total of three lank-haired white dudes with soulful eyes, tragic backgrounds and a need for redemption when even one would have been too many. With so many unconnected characters and plotlines to follow, the film haemorrhages thematic focus and dramatic energy and so keeps relying on orc attacks to jump-start the plot and keep things moving.

Of the look of the film I say:

The root of the problem lies in the first film’s revelation that traditional sets, effects and make-up tend to look absolutely terrible when shot at 48 frames-per-second. In an effort to stop his film from looking like something shot between takes with an old-fashioned camcorder, Jackson has taken to replacing sets and actors with CGI backgrounds and figures. When a scene cannot be done entirely in CGI, Jackson limits himself to superimposing CGI over the sets and actors in an effort to make them look less real and so provide a more even distribution of unreality. What this means in practice is that all the actors wind up with enormous bulbous noses but at least it doesn’t look like they’re being interviewed on the set. The real problem occurs when Jackson switches entirely to CGI and creates the kinds of figures and landscapes that only exist in videogames. Lacking the weight and reality of actors and practical effects, the CGI character bounce around the screen in a manner all to reminiscent of the Legolas sequences in the original trilogy and the monster fights in Jackson’s laughable remake of King Kong. Taken on their own and in small doses, these digital inserts are technically impressive and reasonably well choreographed but, taken in the context of an extremely long film where they are allowed to continue for upwards of twenty minutes, their cartoonish lack of realism rapidly devolves from unintentionally funny to downright excruciating.

The reason why I consider The Desolation of Smaug to be one of the worst films ever made is that I believe in grading on a curve: Whenever people talking about the WORST. FILM. EVAH. their minds turn to Ed Wood and Uwe Boll despite the fact that both men were operating with comparatively small budgets and incredibly tiny pools of talent. How many great technicians and actors would answer the call if Uwe Boll approached them about working on his latest adaptation of a shitty video game? Now how many actors and technicians would answer the call if Peter Jackson asked them to fly to New Zealand and work on an incredibly expensive production of much-beloved and hugely successful books? Works like The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 2 and The Man of Steel operate with virtually unlimited budgets, unlimited good will and immediate access to the best writers, actors and technicians operating in contemporary cinema. To take all of those resources and turn them into a tedious mess like Desolation of Smaug is not only an obscene waste of money, it is also a sign of true directorial incompetence.

The Sight of the Hunted: German Expressionism and Night of the Hunter

night of the hunter poster

FilmJuice have published a lengthy piece written in celebration of the recent re-release of Charles Laughton’s legendary Night of the Hunter.

This piece was a real joy as it gave me an excuse to not only rewatch the film for the first time in a while, but also to do some research into Laughton’s life and refamiliarise myself with some of the better works of German Expressionist cinema. I wrote quite a lengthy piece about German Expressionism for Videovista a few years but my understanding of that particular cinematic milieu has solidified somewhat and hooked up with some much larger thoughts I’ve been having about the relationship between psychological realism and fantasy in the psychological thriller genre. In my original Videovista article, I spoke about Expressionism in terms of:

Expressionism emerged as a reaction to impressionism. Impressionism, as practised by the artists Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir attempted to break down the boundaries between subject and background in order to produce paintings that were almost like snapshots: images that were exacting reflections of the world itself. Expressionism reacted against impressionism by rejecting the call to represent the world ‘as it is’. Instead, expressionists favoured representations of the world that ‘expressed’ the artists’ attitudes towards the subject matter. They did not reflect the world, they abstracted from it. A key work in the development of expressionism is Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893), in which the insane flowing colours of the background, the pale featureless visage of the screamer and the dark figures in the background express not merely a person screaming but rather a state of inner turmoil, paranoia, alienation and insanity.

Now I say far more straightforwardly:

The most influential work of German Expressionist cinema is undoubtedly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Told entirely in flashback by a man who turns out to be an inmate in an insane asylum, Robert Wiene’s film is a hypnotic mess of light, shadow and unsettling angles. Too fantastical to be real and yet too raw to be fictitious, Caligari’s story of love, murder and sinister sleepwalkers is best understood as an emotional landscape, a realistic portrayal of what the real world feels like to the person telling the story. The light and darkness of Caligari’s world are absolute because they are absolute in the mind of the madman just as they might be in the mind of a child. This is the exact same idea that lurks behind the myriad eccentricities of Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.

Rather than seeing the film through the gauze of southern gothic, I view it as a quite explicitly psychological piece: The fantastical nature of many sequences and effects are not reflections of a world that is in itself fantastical but rather a reflection of how that world feels to the children and how children (and everyone else for that matter) use the culture they have consumed in order to make sense of the world around them. It is only natural that the world should resemble a fairy tale when the only time you have heard of evil priests and murderous ogres is in the pages of just such a children’s story. Far from being limited to the children’s worldview, Night of the Hunter occasionally switches to other worldviews such as those of the mother, a friendly drunk and a horny teenaged girl. This is a film that not only reaches back to a cinematic vocabulary that was largely unknown to 1950s American audiences, it also takes those Expressionistic techniques and takes them to the next level. Night of the Hunter is a film that is literally decades ahead of its time.

Mother

BG47 – Hang All The Critics

Futurismic have just published my forty-seventh Blasphemous Geometries column entitled ‘Hang all the Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing’.

I originally wrote the column about ten days ago but last weekend I became aware of two significant blogospheric shit-storms that seem to provide an interesting context for the column.  The first shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by an article about yoga and the second shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by a review of an epic fantasy novel. Though ostensibly very different in their origins and subject matters, both shit-storms involve a community reacting very angrily to negative coverage from a perceived outsider. In the case of the ‘yoga community’, the outsider is the New York Times senior science writer William Broad and, in the case of the ‘epic fantasy community’, the outsider is the Strange Horizons reviewer and post-graduate student Liz Bourke.

The link between these blogstorms and my most recent video games column is that ‘Hang All the Critics’ is an attempt to confront the fact that the age of the critic has now passed. Criticism and its less well-heeled cousin reviewing rely upon the assumption that a person of reasonable insight and creative flair can consume a cultural product and issue an opinion or reaction to that will be of use to other people despite the fact that these other people might have very different tastes and interests.

It is no accident that the role of the critic has its roots in the cafe culture of the 17th Century as the coffee shops frequented by the likes of Samuel Johnson tended to be cramped places where all kinds of bourgeois intellectuals were forced to rub shoulders. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the Internet’s infinite potential for space is that people from a particular class and with a particular set of interests are no longer forced to rub shoulders with people with ever-so-slightly different sets of tastes. These days, if you are interested in steam locomotives but not other forms of train then you are in no way obliged to encounter the opinions of people who consider steam trains to be a quaint but outmoded form of technology. The more the Internet matures, the more interest groups fragment and the more interest groups fragment, the more isolated and tribal these communities become. There is no place for criticism in a world dominated by tribal conflicts and persecution complexes, this is why Liz Bourke and William Broad got it in the neck and this is why Rotten Tomatoes is filled with people reacting angrily to the idea that a film they haven’t seen might not be as good as they expect. The age of the critic is at an end and it is time to change the way we do business.

Needless to say, I am not the first person to notice the collapse of our culture’s public spaces. Indeed, many reviewers and critics have attempted to respond to the increasingly commercial and tribal nature of the public sphere either by retreating into the walled-garden of academia or by creating a tribal space of their own. While I can entirely understand this desire for retrenchment, I think that it is ultimately an act of cowardice:

As someone who has never once tried to review a game for a major site, I am not in the least bit opposed to the fracturing of public space in order to create environments in which inaccessible forms of writing are protected from the vagaries of commerce and popular tastes. A recent comment on one of my pieces described my style as “masturbatory” and I find myself absolutely powerless to disagree. There is something decidedly self-indulgent about sharing one’s opinions online — particularly when one makes little or no effort to reach out to the majority of people interested in a particular topic — and this kind of self-indulgence is not about subjecting games to serious intellectual scrutiny or ‘consolidating a continuous counterbalance’; is a cowardly retreat from the public sphere, driven by the recognition that my opinions are of use to nobody but myself. There is absolutely nothing brave or revolutionary about taking your ball and going home.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad is not that they are wrong to feel the way they feel. Life in the 21st Century is frequently lonely and it is easy to begin thinking of one’s sub-culture as a kind of family that provides us with both an identity and a set of values. When you invest yourself that heavily in a particular sub-culture then it makes perfect sense that you should bristle when that elements of that sub-culture come under fire from outsiders. Even if you don’t like a particular novel or have your own concerns about the way that yoga is taught, it is one thing to hear those feelings from someone you trust and quite another to hear them from someone you don’t know. Ever bitched about a sibling to a member of your family? ever defended that same sibling when they came under fire from someone else? Some truths can only be spoken inside the family.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad (or the people who complained about Uncharted 3 only getting 8 out of 10) is not that they are wrong, it is that they are being insular. As I said elsewhere, the most wonderful thing in the world is to have someone care enough to listen to you and tell you that you are completely full of shit. By wanting to protect epic fantasy from outsiders like Bourke, the defenders of epic fantasy (and those of yoga) are closing themselves off to a potential source of cultural renewal.

I would like to believe that there is a place for people like Bourke and Broad because I would like to believe that there is a place for cultural generalists and for people who take the ideas and values of one culture and carry them into those of another.  This blog is very much devoted to the idea that a single person can look at radically different forms and subject matters and say something of value about them. Unfortunately, while I would like to believe that there is a place for that form of cultural generalism, I think that the Internet is growing increasingly hostile to it. After all, why listen to random strangers when you can only listen to fellow academics, fantasy fans, yoga enthusiasts, republicans or furries? Why listen to anyone other than yourself?

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) – The Tragic Decay of Language into Mere Words

Much has been written, not least by me, about the best way to approach the films of the Thai New Wave director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.  Most responses seem to fall into one of three categories :

 

The first is made up of rejectionist accusations of wilful obscurantism.  The second is composed of equally ill-judged, but somewhat more charitable, suggestions that his films contain a profound political and/or spiritual message that we are unable to decode because we lack a sufficient knowledge of Thai culture.  Both of these views are attempts to articulate a sense of frustration with the fact that, despite his obvious technical and artistic skill, Weerasethakul is somehow failing to communicate his ideas in a way that makes them accessible to anyone who is not him.  This sense of frustration has also resulted in the emergence of a rather more drastic category of reaction.

The third category is best summed up by the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s assertion that we suffer from “a lack of analytical context in which to place this material”.  Indeed, my own reaction to Weerasethakul’s work is that his films are both so obviously brilliant and so utterly incomprehensible that we need to develop an entirely new critical language in which to discuss his work.  A language focused not upon ‘narrative’ and ‘character’ but upon mood and atmosphere, the careful layering of images, colours and sounds to evoke emotional responses.  Under this view, Weerasethakul is effectively bypassing our traditional analytical tools and the tricks of cognition we use to make sense of cinema (and the world) in order to plug directly into our brains.

 

Weerasethakul’s latest film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (a.k.a. Loong Boonmee Raleuk Chat) constitutes a serious challenge to this third approach to the director’s work.  It is a film that revisits many of the director’s favoured themes and images but places them into a much more traditionally cinematic framework.  Far from operating on the level of pure sensation, unadorned by critical analysis, Uncle Boonmee is a film littered with genre tropes and familiar ideas.  Ideas that not only make the work much easier to understand, but actually prompt us to revisit many of the director’s earlier works and ask whether — despite this year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes — something has not been lost along the way.  Something beautiful and mysterious.

 

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Tropical Malady (2004) – The Hunter Hunted

One of the joys of discovering other cultures is realising, in a somewhat Whiggish manner, where they stand on the public debates that fill the public sphere of one’s own country.  What are their attitudes towards gay marriage?  Do they still assume that everyone will get married and have kids?  Do they have a similar intolerance for racism?  More often than not, particularly in the West, this is simply a matter of chronology : Some places are ahead of ‘the times’ while others are ‘behind’ them.  However, leave the gilded circle of what was once Christendom and you find cultures with attitudes so different to ours that they actually shed some light on the buried assumptions of our own debates.

One such culture is that of Thailand.  Thailand’s attitude towards gay rights is genuinely fascinating.  Since the military coup of 2006, Thai government has been edging closer to using a third gender for administrative purposes.  A third gender designed to accommodate the Kathoey, a caste of Thai society that we tend to refer to either simplistically as transwomen or, with the teeth grinding that accompanies potential political incorrectness, ladyboys.  In truth, “Kathoey” is a much broader category than male-to-female transsexual.  Originally, it was coined to describe intersexuals but since the mid 20th Century onwards, it has come to designate everything from post-operative transsexuals to effeminate gay men.  This category of person has existed for a long time in Thailand and, thanks to Buddha’s teaching of tolerance, they are not mocked or physically attacked in the way that TG people can be in the West.  However, they are also victims of terrible discrimination and frequently find themselves working in the ‘entertainment’ industry because people refuse to hire them for other jobs.  Even if they are university graduates.  I mention the Kathoeys as, for a long time, the Kathoeys served to mask the existence of Thai homosexuality.  In Thai culture, sexuality is defined largely in terms of gender and the idea of two masculine men having sex or a relationship simply did not figure.  It was not a common mode of identity.  Indeed, in the late 70s there were only ten gay entertainment venues in the Patpong area of Bangkok.  A decade later, there were over a hundred such places spread out across the country.  In a sense, homosexuality – as we in the west understand the word – only really appeared in Thailand in the 1970s and since then it has attracted more than its fair share of ill-treatment from officials who are more than happy to crack down on a new mode of being.

It is against this rather alien and seemingly conflicting set of cultural attitudes that Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes films such as Tropical Malady (a.k.a. Sud Pralad), a lusciously atmospheric film comprising a a beautifully chaste love story and a fable in which one of the young men turns into a tiger.

 

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BG 18 – The Iron Cage of Fantasy : World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Fable II

Futurismic have the 18th edition of my Blasphemous Geometries video game column.

It was an interesting column to write as it marks the first piece of sustained thinking I have done on the Fantasy genre in a little while.  I was pleased to note that while my politics seem to be drifting leftwards, my attitude towards escapism has mellowed hugely.  There was a time when I considered escapism to be a cowardly and childish retreat from the real world, but my views on it have changed markedly.