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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Uneasy Endings of Alien: Covenant (Spoilers)

I really wanted to like Prometheus. After the unambitious and disposable AVP films, here was the director of Gladiator returning to develop his original vision. Unfortunately no amount of depth can excuse the fact that the surface layer is a largely nonsensical plot centred around an improbably stupid cast of characters. There are tons of articles and videos online dedicated to 'explaining Prometheus' not just because there is so much to examine, but also because the film does such a poor job of explaining itself. Prometheus claims to be a prequel without actually setting up the original film and flirts with being an Alien movie without actually spending much time on a proper Xenomorph.

Alien: Covenant does a solid job of addressing the worst of these failings. Although it is a direct sequel that requires Prometheus in order to make sense, it promptly clears the decks in order to focus on the subject of civilian spacefarers getting hunted by horrifying monsters. Although competence levels vary, the crew as a whole acquit themselves about as well as you'd expect under the extreme circumstances.
Covenant also finally gives the original Alien the respect that it deserves. Of all the factors that turned a basic monster movie into one of Western cinema's revered classics, the genius design of Giger's creature is definitely one of the most potent. Since horror monsters are less scary once you've seen them, the sequels have often looked for a way to improve on the design – but only the original Queen has really added to the creature. In Covenant Scott uses the prequel conceit to cast the original design as the perfect organism, a final form that the protean horrors of the earlier scenes evolve into.
I enjoyed Covenant a lot and feel that it is easily the best Alien film since Resurrection – and a worthy equal to all but the first two. Despite this, I left the theatre with a sense of dissatisfaction that took that took me a few hours to properly understand. I will be exploring that element in this article, since it is the subject on which I have the most interesting things to say. However I do still recommend that you see the film, without spoiling what should be a tense ride with detailed foreknowledge. For those of you who have, let's look closer at that ending and what it means for the series.

The ending of Covenant is not one that has any ability to take the viewer by surprise. Anyone with any experience of the medium will be alert to the possibility and Scott does nothing to prevent us from being certain of the twist before its 'reveal'. But unlike Oram's lemming-like encounter with the Facehugger (which actually drew laughter in my screening) knowing what is coming does not prevent the scene from being truly chilling.
It isn't that Daniels dies (or at least seems certain to do so) but rather the fact that she loses absolutely all agency. This isn't Ripley diving into a vat of molten lead to take her nemesis with her. This is Ripley being cocooned into an Alien hive with no-one but Ash left to hear her screams. When you consider that Daniels has seen detailed drawings of what is intended for her – and that she knows she cannot escape from the tube because she recently watched her husband die inside one – this is about as dark an ending as you can possibly get.
It isn't surprising that such an ending would cause me to leave the cinema with more unease than satisfaction. Such a sensation is pretty much the point. But I concluded that my niggling feelings ultimately stemmed from the fact that I was dealing with the conclusion of two protagonists' tales – because Covenant also provides a final ending to the tale of Elizabeth Shaw.

One requirement of moving on to new things in this follow-up to Prometheus was the infliction of Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome upon Dr Shaw. This was always going to feel like a let-down – after spending an entire film watching her fight for survival against the gravest odds, being informed that she had died off-screen was disappointing and arguably cheapening. Even so, these feelings have to be weighed against the widespread disinterest in spending another film chasing after the motivations of the moronic and unlikeable Engineers. Unlike Hicks and Newt, Shaw was not sacrificed in the service of a story inferior to the one in which she had starred. Daniels' status as part of the crew makes her a better fit for the protagonist of Covenant – and frankly putting both her and Shaw up against the same Alien would have left me feeling that it was outgunned.
Before her death, Shaw evidently rebuilt the other 'survivor' of the last film – the synthetic David. Despite the poor outcome of this choice I don't actually mind it. Whether you read her actions as the pragmatism of the Prometheus' greatest survivor or the lived commitment to forgiveness of a dedicated Christian, it feels more like a reasonable in-character move than the result of throwing out the Idiot Ball.
We are initially told that Shaw died in a crash-landing upon her destination planet. David has built a monument to her memory and speaks of her with great fondness. However we later learn that she was actually killed by David, who experimented on her body in order to improve the Xenomorph species. In the absence of an Alien Queen it is strongly implied that her reproductive systems were critical to creating the first generation of eggs (despite the huge size of the eggs we've seen, the regurgitated Facehugger embryos at the end suggest they are viable from a very small size). It is unknown how much Shaw suffered before her death, but she certainly perished helpless and against her will thanks to his actions.

This is a deeply uncomfortable set of revelations due to the harm Shaw had already received from David in the previous film. His deliberate actions caused the death of her husband and impregnated her with an Alien. It was only through her own acts of resistance against David's attempts to have her carry the 'pregnancy' that she was able to remove the creature before it killed her. There is a lot to unpack there, but it is hard to escape a sense of sexual violence from the whole thing.

The theme of sexual violence has always been deliberately emphasised in this series. At a biological level, the Xenomorph survives exclusively by raping other species. All the stages of the original creature exhibit threatening phallic imagery, which is reinforced by the penetrating double jaw attack that serves as their deadliest weapon.
This sexual threat was originally intended to be targeted at the male members of the audience via the default all-male crew. The momentous decision to change the gender of Ripley (and Lambert) meant that some of this subtext ended up aimed at the female characters instead. One example comes from the synthetic Ash, who attempts to choke Ripley using the end of a rolled magazine in a cubby hole decorated with girly pictures. That scene is presumably the inspiration of the forced kiss against Daniels that David performs in Covenant. Although not as severe as the attack on Ripley in Alien3, it is highly uncomfortable to watch despite being surrounded by far graver horrors.

This, really, is what made me uneasy about the ending. In addition to all of the other factors that make Daniels' fate so awful, she is ultimately helpless in the hands of a man who has sexually assaulted her in the past. But this isn't unique to Daniels – David even states that what he is going to do to her is exactly what he did to Shaw. By adding an epilogue to Prometheus, this one film gives the series a recurring theme of 'male-coded predator murders the heroine he violated and gets away with it'.
This is... extremely different to the over-arching narratives of the Ripley saga. Given Scott's skill as a director and obsession with layered meaning in these new films, it is hard to imagine he did not notice that his creative decisions would stack up that way. Given the immense importance of the female domination of this series to a huge number of people, it is even harder to imagine why he thought it was a good idea.

I cannot say how much this thematic issue actually troubled the majority of those who saw this film. But with Scott intent on creating two more prequels, it would be a shame if he became sci-fi's next George Lucas by diverging from the sensibilities of his audience. So far he has shown less interest in absolute inter-film consistency than geek culture is accustomed to, but it is still unlikely that anyone other than a Wayland-Yutani conspirator will end either upcoming movie with the ability to share their story. If that is so, I hope that the next female lead will at least be able to seize meaningful control over the manner of her own death.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Role-playing - Thinking Points for GMs

The art of the Games Master is a tricky one to learn. By design, much of what the GM does is kept hidden from their party of players. It is also a solitary activity – unless you are joining the crew of a LARP, you will be performing the task on your own from the moment you throw your hat into the ring and start a campaign.
Basically every published role-playing system includes a section on how the GM's role functions. Combined with what can be learned as a player, most people should be able to perform the task to some degree of ability by the time they pluck up the courage to try. The hard part is improving your skills as you go on, since this is often down to trial and error.
My local society toyed with the idea of running a GM master-class a couple of years ago. It didn't happen, but it got me thinking. I have been GMing role-playing games for over 16 years now and have run games for the Student Role-playing Nationals on several occasions. Over the years I've accumulated a fair number of observations on good technique. Many will probably be obvious to experienced GMs, but hopefully there will be something of use for everyone here.

The GM's role is different!
Because of the effort and knowledge that GMing entails, most role-players start out in the player party. By the time they try being the GM they have developed their own interpretation of the setting and their own preferences as to how the game should be run. Taking the reins yourself means getting the chance to craft your own vision of the perfect campaign. Sadly, the very process of creating the campaign means that you don't get to play in it.

Many first-time GMs create a Player Character of their own, joining the party in the same way that they always have whilst running the NPCs and plot in addition. Unfortunately, this doesn't really work. One of the major sources of player enjoyment lies in unravelling the mysteries and solving the problems that the GM places before them. However deftly you mix wisdom and folly into your portrayal of the GMPC, you are fundamentally isolated from these shared experiences by virtue of having created the mysteries and obstacles in the first place. The need to portray the other NPCs dilutes your portrayal of the character in a way that prevents them from fully meshing with the party – and when the GMPC interacts with other NPCs, the players are reduced to watching you talk to yourself.
More experienced GMs tend to ditch this idea, but can still fall prey to the same mindset. They create pet NPCs to give themselves a chance to engage in satisfying role-play and dream up imaginative 'set pieces' to show off their descriptive skills. These practices allow the GM to enjoy the game in the same way that a player would.
Unfortunately the pet NPCs are vulnerable to becoming Mary Sues that are more beloved by the story-teller than the audience. A better technique is to wait and see which NPCs your players love (or love to hate) and develop these characters into recurring features of your campaign. Set pieces are a perfectly good part of pre-planning, but you should avoid rail-roading the players in order to make one happen. It is far better to let the planned scene drop than to make the players resent seeing it.

Ultimately, the GM takes pleasure from different things to the rest of the group. Although all players should strive to provide an entertaining experience for the group as a whole, most rate their enjoyment of a session on the basis of what they got to do in it. The GM is there to skilfully orchestrate a good session for everyone else – and to truly enjoy the role you need to be able to take more pleasure from succeeding in this than you do from acting out an NPC character. Players do appreciate an entertaining and evocative GM, but the effect you are having on them needs to be at the heart of your own enjoyment in the campaign.

Be aware of the effects of group size.
It is technically possible to run an RPG with only one player, but such a game would be very different to the standard experience. The PC would only have interactions with your NPCs and you would both be intensively called upon to play them for the entire length of the session. Adding a second player to the mix produces one of the vital pillars of a successful campaign – relationships between different PCs.
Because each player plays only one character, the dynamic between two PCs is likely to be much more developed than the relationship between a PC and an NPC. It will be more complex in terms of motivation and their ability to cooperate with or scheme against each other will be a central part of the action. The fact that the players are talking to each other also takes pressure off you – when the party are talking amongst themselves, you can sit back and take a moment.
Adding a third player triples the number of relationships in play to three, whilst adding a fourth PC gives us six. Three players is typically the minimum needed for a good session, providing enough interactions to make the game feel lively and reducing the pressure on each player to constantly contribute. Four is therefore a good minimum number of people to recruit, so you can still play on weeks that one person can't make it. Adding a fifth player gives you ten relationships and a sixth person raises it to fifteen.

By the time you have six players, however, certain downsides start to emerge. The greater the number of interesting character relationships you have bubbling away, the more likely it is that two of the characters will wish to talk to each other. Although the players need you in order to interact with the rest of the world or to resolve a skill-based conflict, there is nothing to stop the players concerned from just playing out these conversations while you do something with someone else. Unfortunately this tends to raise the noise level in the room as the different conversations being held try to be heard over one another. This is bad enough with ideal seating arrangements, but if you are talking across each other the whole thing can swiftly become untenable. The conversing players are also guaranteed to miss any declarations you make, bringing drama to a screeching halt while you update them.
You can put a stop to this by simply requiring everyone to wait their turn and limiting talk to the person who has your attention. Unfortunately, that attention is getting spread increasingly thin. With six players each one is only getting 10 minutes of play per hour on average, or 30-40 minutes in a typical session. If you push the number of players in your party much higher, you are forced to choose between having random unlucky players being basically ignored each session or having every player bored and frustrated due to a lack of play.
I'm not saying that you absolutely need to refuse the seventh candidate for a spot at your table. But if you're lucky enough to have plenty of prospective players, don't be afraid to fill a set number of slots before declaring yourself 'full'. If the campaign is short, those left out can always get first shot at the next one. If the campaign is long, you can invite them in if an existing player has to drop out.

Don't forget that PC actions go through you.
In simple terms each player controls their own character. At a more technical level, however, your control of the world they inhabit means that players only declare what they want their character to do. The action in question is not technically completed until you accept it and describe the outcome.

This allows you to veto any PC action by simply refusing to accept the declaration. On the face of it this is a total violation of the player's freedom to play their own creation, but there are circumstances in which it is justified. Players often know things that their characters would not – if a counter-intuitive action is obviously advantageous based on OOC knowledge, you can refuse it unless the player can supply a credible IC rationale.
This veto also allows you to prevent the players from bringing themes and content that are outside the scope of the normal game and which may cause discomfort into the story. No player has an absolute right to bring violent sexual assault into your Lord of the Rings game, even though such things would logically happen in Middle Earth and their character has the means and opportunity to succeed. The content of the game should be limited to what the participants are comfortable with – and make sure to include yourself in that assessment. You can even purge unwanted elements of the published setting in this way, though in such cases you should tell the players you are doing so when they create their characters.

Give everyone an equal share of the limelight.
As the GM, you should strive to ensure that everyone gets an equal amount of time as the 'active' player and that every PC is useful with equal frequency. This parity of 'turns' is natural from a gaming perspective. However, role-playing is also about crafting a story together – and stories usually have a main character. Creating a story with two truly equal protagonists is hard from an authorial perspective. Creating one with six is virtually impossible. If you adhere to normal story-telling practice you will inevitably develop an overall focus on some PCs over others.
The only way to fight this is to deliberately turn the focus on each character in turn – using your knowledge of their stats and backgrounds to alternate who will be most concerned or useful. The most simple division is to ensure the correct mix of combat and social scenes. I was once in a summer-long campaign that didn't include any proper combat scenes after the second session – my extrovert mercenary captain simply never got to use most of her stats, but the taciturn warrior monk had a real problem getting involved. On the other hand, most of us have probably had the experience of making an emotionally complex socialite Vampire for a game that turned out to be 90% Discipline use and machine-gun fire.

A game that truly involves each player equally may feel like a sprawling, poorly focused mess from the GM's chair. The curious thing is that you are the only person who will feel that way. Everyone else experiences the story through the eyes of a single persistent main character – their own PC.
Players are encouraged to think of events from their PC's perspective. They are constantly aware of what that character is thinking (even if they never share that information). In effect, you are telling up to six different versions of the same story at once. Good thing you have help from the players! This is why RPGs are a poor spectator sport, even for fans of the hobby. An audience member cannot properly attach themselves to any of the single threads and is not privy to all of the information a participant has.

You will also need to push the more reticent players for input when speaking to the whole group – potentially delaying your response to the more verbose. If you simply toss out a situation and go with whoever speaks first, you will end up responding to the same couple of players most of the time. If you are a male GM, keep in mind studies have shown men frequently over-estimate the percentage of the talking that women do in group situations.

Role-playing games are not morality tales.
The basic process of a tabletop RPG is that the player declares an attempted action and the GM describes the result. In many cases there are multiple plausible outcomes, which can be good or bad for the PC. In these circumstances dice rolls are usually used to determine which outcome occurs. The probability of the good outcome is modified by the basic challenge rating of the task, the skill level of the character attempting it and the environmental factors in play.
One thing that is not normally used as a modifier is the morality of the deed being attempted. This means that PCs can commit immoral acts as easily as virtuous ones, escaping any kind of immediate punishment for their actions by passing the necessary rolls to beat the hazards involved.
Some sections of the Christian community have complained about this almost as much as they have about the occult content to be found in some games. They argue that allowing successful evil play (or the morally complex play represented by characters like a good-aligned thief) makes RPGs fundamentally harmful to the upbringing of our children. Even if you don't subscribe to such a limiting perspective (or do your role-playing with adults) you might still find this difficult due to your role as a story-teller. When the heroes do bad things, all the laws of dramatic convention demand that they should suffer for it.

The thing to understand here is that avoiding the tropes of dramatic convention is one of the big attractions of being a player. We've all seen a hundred heroes act in the same conventionally heroic way – an RPG is the chance to explore what would happen if the people charged with saving the world were more pragmatic, ruthless or just plain selfish. If you block the players from advancing along these lines, you force them to start playing an over-used stereotype instead of playing their own concept.

Immediate karmic punishment is also unfair from a gaming perspective. Why bother to let the thief make all those skill rolls if the universe contorts to deprive them of their earned advantage five minutes later? If you don't veto the action itself, make any negative consequences plausible and sensibly paced in their approach. Above all, remember that the players are here to explore their own ideas – not to receive yours in fable form. Role-playing allows people to explore a wide variety of character mindsets, a task best accomplished if the consequences of their actions are causally realistic rather than arbitrary.
Don't let the eventual success or failure of a PC hinge upon whether their actions are just. If your overall vision for the campaign requires that characters who cross certain lines are eventually punished, discuss this with the player concerned and come to an accord on the matter. Many players don't actually mind if a given character comes to a bad end, as long as the journey is satisfying.

All players are liberal individualists.
Since RPGs are primarily a non-conformist hobby for young intellectuals, there is a definite political bias in this direction among the community. That being said, there are some role-players who vote Conservative. Even so there are certain near-universal rules for how players will treat the world of the game.
The difference between being a player and simply listening to a story is that you get to make choices. In the game – as in the real world – those choices may be constrained by authority figures and social norms. As the GM you both offer the choices and control all the authority figures and societies. The more that these factors force the players' hands, the more you are offering choices only to take them away again.

This is not to say that such forces should not exist within your game world. Indeed, some players will act out until they are effectively stopped just to test your limits. Many RPGs are set in positively dystopian regimes and the PCs do not always have any hope of staging a successful revolution. The important thing is that the constraining forces are obstacles that the PCs must overcome if they wish to act in a contrarian way. In order to create an interesting story in which the PCs are uniquely placed to be important, such defiance is nearly always necessary. Despite the prevalence of armed combat in RPGs, it is rare for the PCs to be soldiers in the regular army because of the ways in which this limits their chances for agency. When they are all soldiers, they will usually get dropped off without support to fulfil a simple objective by any means they choose. However technologically advanced the setting, good communications with your superiors are virtually unknown.

The reason you need to be aware of this fact is that many games come with a ready-made faction of 'good guys'. One easy way to get the PCs together and fighting the good fight is to require that they are all members of this faction. But the moment the commanders of this group start pushing the party around, they become obstacles in the minds of the players. Be too dictatorial and the players are likely to throw you a devastating curve ball late in the campaign – either by staging a meticulously planned coup, or by simply resigning from the faction after being humiliated one too many times. If you can roll with it, this can still be awesome. If you can't, it will suck. Either way these actions are ultimately the result of player frustration with your game rather than character motives.

Most PCs must survive most stories.
As a story-telling medium, role-playing games come in a variety of styles and genres. The best systems are designed to reflect the stylistic conventions of the setting they pertain to, allowing the game to naturally turn out the way that it is 'supposed to'. This is why Wizards' fad for buying popular titles and releasing new editions with the D&D rules imposed upon them has so many fierce critics.
One effect of this variation is that the fragility of PCs is massively variable between different systems. Some favour heroic legends full of super-human valour, whilst others bring home the deadly consequences of violence as a mirror of the real world. The setting information will play this up, with some games driving home the idea that no-one in the PCs' line of work should expect to live very long. GMs often feel pressured to represent the game world faithfully (it is one of their basic tasks after all). In this case, however, there is a very important rule worth spelling out:

The desired length of the campaign is the ONLY factor that determines maximum desirable levels of PC mortality.

Any ongoing story requires continuity. Even if the events of the world form a single narrative, the players will need a persistent main character to follow them with. You can't expect replacement characters to keep getting involved in the same business that the dead ones cared about. The character development that PCs can display also makes a persistent cast more interesting than an ever-changing one, with the relationships I've already mentioned growing and evolving as a result.
If Buffy had killed off a Slayer, Watcher or Scooby every 3 or 4 episodes, it would have been unwatchable by the end of season 2. Audiences would have ceased to invest in the new characters, knowing that they had no prospect of staying around long enough to get interesting. To make matters worse, the replacement characters in an RPG are played by the same people as the preceding ones. However good the writing and acting, by the time Sarah was on her fifth Slayer or third Watcher they would all have blurred together in our minds.

Some game systems make prolonged survival functionally impossible. These games are only suitable for short campaigns and there is nothing wrong with that. In other cases you simply have to tailor the amount of peril the PCs face to the type of game you are playing. If the party can handle two combat encounters at a push, don't keep creating adventures with five in a row. The bottom line is that if you expect every player to lose more than 2 different PCs over the course of your main campaign, it probably isn't going to work out.

Fear makes it hurt more.
Despite what I have said above, players desire a challenge. The real possibility of failure and character death are a vital source of tension that you cannot do without. The logical conclusion would seem to be that you should hit the party with everything they can actually handle, before allowing them to stagger over the finish line with all of their resources spent.
The problem with this approach is that the randomness of the dice can interfere with these calculations. A string of bad rolls can cause you to accidentally wipe out the party with an encounter that they could normally have handled. You can mitigate this by fudging the results of your own rolls since you can make them in secret. (Incidentally, making the odd important roll publicly in the middle of the snack table is a great way to raise the mental stakes for your group). But if the players become consciously aware that you are altering your rolls to prevent them from losing, all the tension evaporates and combat becomes nothing but a slog.

The solution lies in the building of tension and threat before the pay-off of the actual fight. Get your players focused on the narrative aspect of the confrontation, rather than the game systems. Most rules drastically underestimate the dangers of battle and you can use this in your favour. A sufficiently levelled party can certainly kill a hill giant, but it is still intimidating to track something by its knee-deep footprints only to find it wielding a carelessly uprooted tree.
Once the fight begins, keep the players in 'story mode' as much as possible. Take time to describe the results of each attack rather than simply reeling off numbers. Narrate hits by the effect they have on the target – a blow from said giant that takes 20% of the target's HP is a glancing hit, even if it was close to maximum on the dice. After all, narrative logic says that a direct hit would have killed them. This keeps the fear of a fatal direct hit alive in the player's mind.
The more the players are afraid of the encounter, the less you actually have to beat them up before they feel like they've survived something tough. This means you can have shorter combats, which helps to balance the combat and non-combat scenes better. It also means that the players are less likely to get a read on the average damage output of the thing they are facing – at which point they will calculate how many blows they can take and become less scared of the next one.
If you still need to wear them down, a succession of short fights can accomplish the same attrition with less error. And on the rare occasions you throw everything at them at once, they will be certain they are all about to die and feel like epic heroes when they don't.

Bait your hooks correctly.
At the beginning of a campaign you get away with a lot of rail-roading. Most player parties are a diverse collection of people who wouldn't normally hang out together, often with no desire to get involved in an epic quest to save the world. Unless they are all already recruits for the good faction, you will have to force them into mutual peril through circumstances beyond their control until they have formed enough of a relationship to tackle the revealed over-arching plot together.
Of course, you can't keep this up forever. At some point the characters will be able to make their own choices about what happens next. When this happens you will usually offer them a 'plot hook' – an interesting thing that they can choose to investigate if they like. Since you only have so much prep time, doing so is probably the only course of action that will fit with your plans.
Players are notorious for ignoring the intended plot hook to poke at an incidental detail of the setting instead. You can't help that, but you can avoid presenting a hook that the characters will deliberately choose to pass up. Tailor your adventures to the interests and motives of your party – one group might love the chance to rob a bank, another would never consider such a selfish crime.

The worst outcome is when some characters take up the quest and others refuse it. Not only do you have to keep switching between two separated groups, but you have to invent something for the others to do back at home. You can just leave them out as a consequence of their own choices, but this punishes the player for faithful character play.
This problem will mostly solve itself once the group becomes friends (another reason to keep a persistent cast). The paladin might not be sympathetic that the rogue is in trouble with the mob, but he won't just stand by and let the woman who saved his life five times get murdered. Just be aware that the GM cannot rush this process. I once played in a Vampire game where everyone started calling the PCs a 'coterie' after they'd only met for five minutes. Several of our politically diverse characters were so offended by this that they denounced the rumour and deliberately tried to distance themselves from each other...

Plan one ending, allow many.
The player party do not have to be capable of solving all of the world's problems – sometimes it is fine to show them something they can do nothing about. A plot hook, on the other hand, is an invitation to get involved. Think ahead and ask yourself how the party you've got will be able to deal with the issue. An unsolvable plot will simply get your party stymied or killed. Even something of the correct 'challenge rating' might require abilities that no party member possesses or presume a greater combat focus than they have.
On the other hand, you shouldn't see the quest in terms of working toward that one solution. If the PCs try something different, play it out however it falls. Don't be afraid to let the players succeed more easily if they do something clever you didn't think of. Most of the time they will make things far harder for themselves by doing the unpredictable, so it's only fair.
If the players are consistently out-thinking you, you can apply the 'super-genius rule' to a major villain. Rather than providing the NPC with their defences in advance, simply decide that they foresaw whatever the PCs try first and grant them the appropriate counter-measures on the fly.

Take note of what doesn't work.
Most beginning GMs are already familiar with a wide range of story-telling and gameplay techniques from their exposure to other mediums. Many of these can be profitably applied to RPGs. Some, however, fall foul of the specific qualities of the hobby. If you are lucky you will learn these lessons from playing in other people's campaigns. If you are less lucky you will learn from the missteps of your own.
Here are a few things I've picked up that don't work out well:

- Background music. A well-timed burst of appropriate music can lend a great deal of power to any kind of scene. It is natural to want to enlist this benefit when creating experiences for your players. Unfortunately role-playing is almost entirely enacted in the form of verbal communication. If the players have to strain to hear you, all of the effect of your GMing is lost. The most dramatic events also do not happen in real time – set the 'combat music' on loop and it will drive you mad before the fight is over. Play it once and it will die away before the pace of events has lessened.
A single piece of music can profitably be played at the beginning of the session to set the tone. Otherwise it is best to compose a lengthy playlist and have it on very low volume throughout the session. Eventually random chance will create an appropriately timed musical link – which your players will actually appreciate more than a deliberate one.

- Dream sequences and vision quests. These wild pieces of symbolism offer a great chance to flex your creative muscles and in theory provide great character pieces for your players. The problem is that these sequences are intended to end with an epiphany that guides the character going forward. This basically means that you end up holding the character hostage until they give the 'right' answer, unless you are good enough to roll with whatever they come up with. It is also possible that the player simply won't be able to figure out the intended message, however obvious your symbolism is to you and everyone else.
Dreams are also solitary events – even if the players get one each they are going to be sitting out for a prolonged period. The one time I've seen this work was when the GM had the PCs use magic to collectively enter the dream of a comatose party member. The dreamscape was provided in advance by the player of that character, with the GM running it like a pre-written adventure.

- Cliffhangers. RPG campaigns are effectively episodic ongoing stories. If you want the players to be excited about coming back, what better way to do it than to leave the cast in mortal peril? This is particularly effective in our age of binge-watching, since they really do have to wait until next week.
The downside is that you are forcing yourself to resume the narrative exactly where you left it. This means that the absence or late arrival of one player will cost you play. Even if everyone can make it, you are demanding that they instantly return to the head-space they were in after 3-4 hours of continuous gaming a week ago.
It is actually better to plan sessions so that they end at some kind of satisfying conclusion. You will still get cliffhangers when your planned story overruns, so save the benefits for then.

- Crowd control abilities. Many games provide the ability to immobilise a target for a short period of time. These have great tactical utility for PCs which explains their popularity. But unless you plan to use them to take the party alive or enable a villainous escape, don't fire them at party members. Being forced to sit out of an entire scene doesn't add anything to a player's night. If you want your villains to divide and conquer, a Charm effect is much more fun...

- Memory wipes. Characters get more interesting and complex as they develop through play. The primary source of this development is the experiences their adventures provide. When you take those experiences back, you are effectively asking the player to 'roll back' their character. If you think level drains suck, they've got nothing on laser guided amnesia.
The same could be said of artificial Alignment changes. The Alignment of a well-made character is nothing but a crude label for their complex collection of beliefs and goals. When a PC's motivation abruptly changes to 'Hail Hydra', the player will have a hard time equating that with the thoughts the character should be having. To play as instructed they will pretty much have to suppress the real character and play a crude stereotype. On the other hand, these effects at least motivate the player to take actions. A memory wipe does nothing but take motivation away.

You will fail.
However much you have already learned from watching other GMs, you will make your own mistakes. Sometimes your plans will go wrong or your awesome idea will fall flat. Sometimes you will misread what your players want or the players will just be in a poor mood. Whatever the reason, not every session can be awesome.

As the focus of the group's attention and the person who is bringing your prepared work to the table, it is natural for even an experienced GM to feel a touch of stage fright now and again. A bad session can really knock your confidence and make this worse. There is nothing to be done about this except to get back on the horse and run a better one next week. Learn from your mistakes, but don't beat yourself up over them.
During my time in the hobby I have twice witnessed a 'player revolution' – when the GM was so consistently bad that the players collectively asked him to step down in favour of another member of the group. If this doesn't happen to you, you're doing OK. (If it does, learn all you can from their complaints and apply it to whatever you do next).

Own your ending.
Some campaigns are pre-planned to terminate at the conclusion of a particular plot arc. These build to a focused finale and come to an epic conclusion. Others are open-ended, consisting of a sequences of smaller plots connected by a shared world and persistent characters. These last until the GM wants to do something else, at which point they wrap up at the conclusion of the current quest.
Some games terminate earlier than expected. The GM or players may decide that they are not having fun with a new campaign. Scheduling changes may make the group non-viable. Or the PCs might get wiped out by accident or their own stupidity.

Unfortunately most RPGs do not end in any of these ways. Perhaps the most common way for a game to die is for multiple sessions to be missed in a row due to unusual circumstances. Eventually people stop trying to reschedule and the game is never mentioned again.
As the GM it is your responsibility to organise sessions. Because of the amount of work the GM has to put in, most players will not presume to schedule a session for someone else to run. (My wife has occasionally dropped me in it this way, but that's a special case).
There is nothing wrong with saying that you don't want to run any more, or that attempting to organise the game is clearly not working out. If you are conflicted about whether you want to continue, it is entirely OK to place a game 'on hiatus' (even though virtually no game frozen in this way is ever thawed out again).

The problem is when you say nothing. In this case each player unofficially leaves the game separately when their patience runs out, This is a poor last impression for your campaign to leave – and is most painful and protracted for your keenest fans. Always take the time to declare your game dead – maybe someone else in the group will start a new game in the time slot and you'll actually get to play...  

Monday, 19 September 2016

Representation in Fiction - Why it Matters

In the modern West, we are privileged to live in a world that is saturated with stories. Cheap print media, a massive film industry and ubiquitous TV sets overstuffed with channels have been joined by the omnipresent communications of the internet and the rising art of interactive video-game story-telling. As a child of the aptly-named information age it would be difficult for me to recall all of the fictional narratives I have absorbed in the past month, impossible for me to list all the tales that I have been at least partially exposed to in the past year.
In order for us to truly experience a story, it is usually necessary for each event involved to be described from the perspective of one of the characters present. These fictional individuals are normally intended to be direct analogues for the humans of our real world. Given the vast army of characters we have met and the innumerable adventures they have had, one might assume that we have vicariously lived as every type of person there is and seen visions of our world from almost every angle that can be lived in.
Sadly, this is simply not as true as should be. It is not so very far back in our history that men were considered naturally superior to women in almost every respect - and held almost every position of direct power that could easily provide the agency for a stirring story. Many Westerners also considered white people to be superior to other ethnicities and whites held great power in many regions where they numbered only a tiny minority. Heterosexuality was the only publicly acceptable orientation and commanded complete domination of the social order. Under these circumstances it became a nearly universal convention for the protagonist of a Western story to be a straight white male.
More importantly, this social order was considered to be ideal by those who held great power within it. Presenting a different type of person as equally powerful and able – and asking the audience to applaud their exploits – was a direct challenge to that status quo. Since the powerful were aware of the ability of even fictional works to sway the minds of those who heeded them, a great degree of social pressure was exerted to ensure that authors delivered the 'right' message and did not 'corrupt public morals'. Positive characters of other types still existed, but in absurdly small numbers compared to their actual demographics.

In the real world, we have seen great strides toward correcting these problems. Hard-fought campaigns have brought many previously marginalised groups of people substantially closer to equality. Most people now consider sexism, racism and homophobia to be very bad things, even if this also causes them to angrily reject any suggestion they might be unintentionally guilty of these charges.
Unfortunately it is the nature of fiction to retell tales that have already been told. New heroes are inspired by old ones, even when the story itself is not a conscious reworking of a proven classic. The combined population of all our other worlds still holds a severely disproportionate number of straight white men compared to our real one, meaning that everyone else is correspondingly under-represented. The capitalist aspect of the story-telling world (which ultimately pays for all of the distribution methods I mentioned above) is happy to encourage this trend because it means adhering to a proven business model.

The empowerment of differing people and a decline in willingness to censure and censor subversive material has naturally lead to to an increasing number of diverse protagonists. However, some campaigners have begun to actively seek the acceleration of this trend. They push for a conscious effort to be made to include more diverse characters by authors of all backgrounds, deliberately changing the universe of fictional art into a more complete and accurate reflection of the human race.
Although this seems like a noble goal, many have been left puzzled and alienated by the language of these campaigners. Applying real-world political arguments to the contents of fiction seems to them like a fundamental failure to separate fantasy from reality, a self-righteous attempt to win a completely meaningless victory in a world filled with important causes. If an author can create or destroy entire fictional universes without any real-world consequences, how can calling the minority status of a fictional character 'important' be anything other than delusional?

Having both heard the accounts of others and experienced the effects of representation myself, I am very much of the opinion that representation in fiction does matter. I intend to illustrate this with my own story, chosen simply because it is a tale that no-one else can tell.

In many respects I am not a person who has ever been under-represented in the media I have consumed. I am, in fact, a straight white male. I have seen so many characters that looked just like me (except for the muscle tone) that I actually find it boring these days – the traits they display are so much the presumed default that characters exhibiting them feel like they don't have any traits at all.
Of course, every person has many different aspects to their identity. As regular readers will know, my identity includes both being a Christian and being a member of the BDSM community. Although the former is infinitely more important to me, both of these things have an effect upon my sense of self.
Christians are perhaps under-represented in stories these days. Negative Christian characters are often cartoonish - and positive ones are frequently undercut by the implication that they are objectively deluded but benefit from their personal passion. Even so, Christian representation is quite frequent and often displays some understanding of how being a Christian actually works.
BDSM representation, on the other hand, is very infrequent indeed. Positive kinky characters are almost unknown next to those for whom it serves as an indicator for villainy. As I grew up I only occasionally saw this part of myself anywhere in fiction and never saw anything that I could actually identify with on an advanced level. Indeed, I rarely even saw much that exhibited an acceptable standard of consent.

I remember Jabba the Hutt taking clear pleasure in controlling women on leashes, despite the biological irrationality of his attraction. I remember the Baroness from GI Joe and I definitely remember the time she got tied to the front of Serpentor's tank. I remember Onatopp from Goldeneye, vampire Willow from Buffy and Lucy Liu's omni-sadistic call girl from Payback. Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman was... revelatory, but even she was a mentally unstable villain. I remember watching The Matrix Revolutions whilst curled up with an equally kinky fiend, who sighed and asked why it was always the bad guys who got the fetish clubs.
The first genuinely positive BDSM character I can recall seeing was the protagonist of Secretary, which I plucked up the courage to go and buy a ticket for at my local cinema. It was remarkable for me to see these desires from the perspective of the character who was actually experiencing them, let alone for her to end up in a happy marriage that satisfied them. On the other hand, the film strongly implied that her sexuality was a direct result of her mental illness and self harm. This bothered me because I knew that it was untrue in my case. I also remember a previously chatty Facebook acquaintance who never contacted me again after I said that I liked the film and did not personally consider the spanking and bondage to be 'way controversial lol'.

Aside from the Secretary-related gripes, this poor representation never actually bothered me at the time. As a straight male I took it for granted that most female characters would be presented in manner that happened to titillate me. I lapped up these sexualised characters in the same casual way that I consumed all the rest, simply taking an extra interest because they met my personal taste. Since the stereotypical dominatrix fantasy involves the woman acting mean and cruel, making them villains kinda worked for me. My friend's question stayed in my mind, but the only result was that I came up with a concept for a good-aligned club owning RPG character as a thought exercise. (He was a Warhammer Fantasy character who hunted Slaanesh cultists amongst his patrons, whilst fending off Sigmarite witch-hunters who would prefer to just burn the lot of them). It probably says something that I considered it an exercise in creativity to come up with a kinky character who got to be seen in a positive light, but I didn't really understand this at the time.
I did go through a year or so of acute mental distress, when I started worrying that my kinky desires meant that there was something wrong with me and that I would eventually become an abusive partner. I attempted to repress the kinky elements of the sexual thoughts that arose in me every seven minutes or so, fighting an invisible and unwinnable battle that followed me everywhere I went. However, I think this had more to do with getting lost inside my own head than with internalising the sexual politics of Goldeneye. Perhaps I would have come through this wilderness into a proper understanding more swiftly if I had been presented with even one piece of positive mainstream representation, but ultimately I feel it was a journey that I had to take.

The event that began to change things for me was the passage of the Extreme Pornography laws in 2008 – an ill-conceived and reactionary piece of legislation that criminalised some BDSM porn. I had first encountered BDSM porn at about the age of 19 in what I can only describe as an strongly positive experience. I have already described the lack of representation in the mainstream media and even the internet was a far less accessible source of information in those days (Wikipedia wasn't actually invented until the same year). The moment when I saw the contents of my own head re-enacted in large photo galleries for popular consumption was the definitive moment that I knew I was not alone. It bothered me that the enthusiastic downloading which followed this discovery could have theoretically got me arrested if I had been born later – not because society was striking out against the evils of pornography, but because it was afraid that people like me might prove dangerous.
Further reading around the topic taught me about R v Brown (aka the Spanner Case) and the lasting effect that it had upon the British BDSM community. I learned about the fact that people with BDSM proclivities were not legally protected from discrimination in the same way as most sexual minorities (and that public sector employers were the worst culprits where discrimination was concerned). It became clear to me that many people kept their preferences secret not due to conformity or because they were conflicted about their needs, but because they were genuinely afraid of suffering material harm if the wrong people found out.
Under these circumstances, the negative and inaccurate picture painted by poor representation started to matter to me. Without an insider perspective, it was clearly the only information that most people would ever have on the subject. It was also clear that popular ignorance was objectively harmful since it led to support for discrimination. I began to advocate online in various ways, presenting the subject positively in my own artwork and arguing against negative stances in comment sections and discussions.
This practice put me into conflict with a particularly unpleasant individual on DeviantArt. He had written a series of essays in which he argued that all dominant or sadistic men were abusers and that all submissive or masochistic women were the victims of brainwashing. He expressed the belief that one day society would become enlightened enough to execute all of these men – and the hope that his work would act as a small stepping stone on the road to that outcome.
Although some extremist Atheists have gone there regarding religious people, discovering a Western intellectual calmly arguing for the literal mass murder of my demographic was a pretty new experience for me. I don't consider him to represent many people and have little fear that his predictions will ever come to pass – but I have never since doubted that the fight for public opinion is one that is worth winning.

When Fifty Shades of Grey erupted out of nowhere, it didn't take very long for me to notice. I was utterly thrilled to hear the rumour that not only was a BDSM romance novel selling tons of copies to mainstream audiences, but that many people were recommending it to one another as inspiration for spicing up their sex lives. Seeing the usually hateful and negative tabloid press actively encouraging people to get kinky ideas felt like I had slipped into a different world. I went to my local WHSmiths and boldly plucked a copy off the shelves, eager to be a part of this great moment.
Fortunately I read the blurb on the back cover before I actually got as far as the checkouts. Although many excellent works have stunningly bad blurbs for some reason, the text raised enough red flags for me to put the book down and decide that I would read a few online reviews before buying a copy. It didn't take long to confirm my worst fears – Fifty Shades portrayed BDSM interests as a direct result of mental trauma and BDSM relationships as horribly abusive.
I've since come to the conclusion that Fifty Shades is effectively the same as some of the lesbian erotica books that were written a good few decades ago. They both portray an relatively innocent person being drawn into a relationship with a more experienced individual who is defined by their sexual deviance. They both portray that individual as being the way they are because they are damaged, which in turn makes them possibly dangerous. They both portray the eventual destruction of the relationship as an inevitable culmination of that factor. One might think that the erotic fantasies presented would be undermined by this negative stereotyping, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of people who actually like those things. But neither book is actually aimed at the group it presents – the lesbian books were aimed at the larger market of straight men and Fifty Shades is aimed primarily at vanilla women who have never tried anything like it. Thus the books sell well whilst throwing the people they are hawking under a bus.
I watched as the press coverage gradually changed from encouraging vanilla couples to spice things up to running cautionary tales about women who had suffered bad relationships with 'real' kinky people. Previously we had lived in a world where the BDSM community had very little representation, but now we had moved into one where a derogatory hatchet job was the fastest-selling piece of literature in human history. When I eventually read the book, it was to provide material for an article breaking down some of the many things that it did wrong.

It was when I was bemoaning this state of affairs that an online friend referred me to a webcomic by the name of Sunstone. Upon taking a look, I was so blown away that I read the entire body of work so far in a single mesmerised session.
Sunstone is a romantic comedy about a couple in a BDSM relationship. It is therefore seen from the perspective of kinky characters – and does a vastly better job of it than anything else I've seen. The detail and depth of understanding wildly surpasses other works and gives the characters a real sense of veracity despite their slightly cliqued concepts. More importantly it was an extremely positive story that foreshadows a happy ending – and takes the time to actively debunk the misconceptions and stereotypes that plague so many other treatments of the subject.
Although the comic is still an ongoing work, the second chapter is firmly my favourite of the five created so far. The first section is a pretty idyllic tale and the later instalments begin to enter romantic drama territory that is broadly familiar from works about other types of romance. This is actually a huge deal given everything I've already said. The second chapter, however, tackles some of the specific problems that the BDSM community can face and the scars that they can leave. Yet it manages to do so without ever framing the very existence of BDSM as the source of all the problems, or as something that inevitably gives rise to these kind of injuries. It is in truth a universal story about addiction and self-destructive choices, which happens to be told from the perspective of a social group who never normally get used as a cast of characters.
Perhaps the most potent moment for me in the whole chapter comes when one of the characters talks about all the time she spent trying to figure out what was wrong with herself. Her girlfriend (who acts as the book's narrator) replies “why would anything be wrong?” Whatever level of acceptance a kinky character might receive in the course of a story, the idea that the protagonist – and by extension the author – might ask that question was entirely new information. 

My wife and I own enough books that one of the rooms of our house is effectively a small library. I am a big fan of the cinema and our DVD collection is large enough to fill multiple bookcases. Despite all of this, Sunstone was a story that I had been waiting for over half my life to be told. It is difficult to express how much reading it for the first time meant to me, or how grateful I was that someone had written it. (I'm not saying that no such works previously existed, but they sure weren't easy to just stumble upon). Despite the massive amount of representation I receive in other ways, seeing this much-maligned side of myself decently reflected for the first time was a profoundly happy and valuable moment.

The moral of this story is that representation matters for two reasons. The first of these is simply that it matters to the people who receive it for the first time. Everyone encounters stories that meet them where they are in a particularly profound way and acquire lasting personal value as a result. This is most common when we are young children, to whom every cliché is unknown and every lesson is a new revelation. Some of us grow up to think that the very act of emotionally investing in a story is childish, but the rest of us continue to find more milestone works throughout the course of our lives.
Representation of this type nearly always provides a strong response because it throws a new light on everything that we have previously read. Whether we get something that we never knew we needed or finally find something that we always wanted, the absence of the same representation elsewhere is thrown into sharp relief when we finally find it. It is often interesting to hear the reasons why a particular story means so much to a particular person, but in these cases we can come to an understanding of society's blind spots that is invaluable when going forward.

Representation is a young Whoopi Goldberg seeing the Original Series of Star Trek and being thrilled to see a black woman on TV who 'ain't no maid'. It is the little autistic boy sitting up in excitement because Drax doesn't get metaphors either. It is the fetal amputee crying in the cinema after Fury Road, because she had never imagined that a badass action hero could share her disability. It is the female critic going to see the Ghostbusters remake and realising what her 7 year old self was never given.

The second reason that representation matters is simply that the people being represented have enemies. If ignorance, prejudice and legal discrimination were not a part of the collective experience of the BDSM community, I would simply have laughed at the inadequacies of Fifty Shades and moved on. But as long as these social issues exist, the future will be genuinely affected by the direction in which popular opinion shifts. This is very much also the case with many other groups, who are still fighting to change a society with a history of deliberately denigrating and excluding them. As long as these battles continue, active attempts to improve representation will be both political and correct.
Presenting fictional worlds in which certain social inequalities and divisions are not present actively challenges their existence in our own. Giving storylines usually reserved for one type of person to another quietly denies the idea that they are justified. Accurately showing the world from the perspective of people who are normally used as side characters can reveal challenges and injustices we never knew they faced. As long as some people actually remain opposed to the idea of social equality, the role of stories in shaping public opinion can and will change lives.

It is extremely obvious that individual works often carry a message for their intended audience. But the sum total of all the stories carries a message too. It is unhealthy to teach children that particular demographics are the natural 'main characters' of life – whether they are part of those demographics or not. It is reprehensible to teach privileged adult consumers that the depth of their collective wallets excuses them from the unwelcome labour of seeing the world from perspectives other than their own. It is absurd to claim that artists or critics are acting in bad faith toward their audiences when they try to present social ideas in their work – even if they are commissioned by public funds such as the BBC.

Obviously not everyone who opposes the pro-representation crowd is hostile toward progressive politics – many simply do not want political agendas to hijack the creation of their entertainment. Unfortunately, most arguments along these lines fail to recognise the way in which the refinement of pure art is already mutilated by the status quo.
It is acceptable to argue that you want to judge a film or game by the quality of the story and technical achievements, not the gender split of the characters. But if if you do, you should care about the fact that the gender split of a script has a massive impact on whether a studio chooses to fund a promising pitch in the first place. However equitable your own consumption is, your menu has already been subjected to sexist discrimination before it ever reaches you. As long as industries are claiming that this is simply a matter of giving the consumers what they will buy, it is up to those consumers to actively refute that claim.
It is acceptable to argue that writers should determine the ethnicity of a character organically rather than specifically setting out to tick boxes. But you cannot then argue that Matt Damon was the only logical choice for a film set in ancient China, because how else do you sell a movie about dinosaurs attacking the Great Wall? If you don't care about the ethnicity of the lead characters, you definitely can't ask why audiences would care about the exact same story if it were happening to an unfamiliar foreign person.

Conversely, it is not acceptable to roll your eyes and ask why almost every protagonist's story needs to have a gay character in it somewhere these days. The answer to that should be self-evident – the simple fact that almost every real human life has a gay person in it somewhere. It is a profound abuse of Chekhov's Gun to claim that characters should only differ from the presumed default if it is necessary for the progression of the plot.
Representation in this case – and perhaps in all cases – is a rejection of the convention that certain types of people are supposed to be invisible in fiction. It breaks new ground in storytelling by saying new things within the mainstream forum. It carries the message that just because someone has existed upon the margins it doesn't mean that they inherently belong there. And there is no reason why turning out the ten millionth white action dude and his damsel is artistically superior to that.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Evil All Along?

With just two months to go until the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, everyone is aware that we are in for an eighth instalment of the phenomenally successful franchise. To sharpen our appetites, a sequence from the first part of the book (set 19 years after the battle of Hogwarts) has recently been released to the public. To put it mildly, it features a plot twist that no one saw coming.

The excerpt opens with Harry leading a team of Aurors on an operation to apprehend a dark wizard who is believed to be a former Death Eater. (We learn that Harry has recently been de-aged by a magical brick, restoring him to the version we are familiar with instead of the aged-up one we briefly met in the epilogue to Deathly Hallows). The target wizard is apparently intent upon causing a massacre of 'mud-bloods' upon the anniversary of the defeat of Gellert Grindelwald (a figure from Potter lore with strong implied ties to the Nazis). The group track him down to a train station, where the target flees on a broomstick at the sight of Harry's legendary scar.
The chase sequence that follows is interspersed with flashbacks to Harry's pre-Hogwarts schooling (a subject that we have seen little of). It features Harry receiving much needed attention from a kindly primary school teacher named Elisa. She tells him that he is destined for greatness and sparks his interest with what may be minor displays of magic. She also teaches him that heritage is the most important factor in determining a person's destiny, inviting him to watch the parents picking up the other kids and try to figure out where his schoolmates will fit into the world from what he sees.

The chase ends with Potter and one other Auror managing to run the dark wizard to ground in a patch of forest. Then Harry turns to his muggle-born colleague and cuts him down with the Killing Curse, before uttering the most unlikely words ever to come out of his mouth - “I am Lord Voldemort”. 

Exactly what this twist means cannot be known until the rest of the story is revealed. However, the structure of the narrative and the nature of the flashbacks both seem designed to lead the reader to the conclusion that Harry has in fact been a Death Eater since before the series began.

Unsurprisingly, fans have reacted very strongly to this turn of events. Even so, the main feeling being expressed is one of simple bewilderment. Logic must take somewhat of a back seat in a high magic series, but even so the storyline has always held up fairly well in terms of consistency and internal sense. Given that Harry has personally taken a massive role in both defeating the Death Eaters and in repeatedly killing their founding leader until he stayed dead, what kind of deep cover operation could possibly be worth letting him do that much damage? It's no exaggeration to say that the Death Eaters would have ruled Britain if he'd tried even a little less hard to stop them. What could possibly be important enough about this situation to 'break cover' for?
Other fans protest that this development contradicts the events of The Chamber of Secrets, specifically the point at which Harry draws the Sword of Gryffindor from the sorting hat. According to Dumbledore, only a true Gryffindor could have performed this feat. Surely being one of the few judged worthy to take up Godric's sword precludes him being a murderous spy?

Then again, being a worthy Gryffindor isn't necessarily the same as being 'good'. The primary virtues of Gryffindor house are bravery, nerve, courage and daring – all qualities that Harry possesses in abundance. Certainly being a double agent is not considered inherently cowardly in the Potterverse – Severus Snape is described by Harry as probably the bravest men he ever knew. An argument could be made about the quality of chivalry – but sneaking around and using trickery have always been prominent amongst Harry's tactics.
Ultimately, being 'just' and 'true' are actually Hufflepuff virtues – as demonstrated by canon Hufflepuff characters like Cedric Diggory, Nymphadora Lupin and Wade Wilson. Hufflepuff has also produced the fewest dark wizards of any house, implying that being sorted into Gryffindor does not preclude one from taking that path.

Not all fans are up in arms about this radical plot twist. Some are genuinely curious to see where Rowling is going with this storyline. Others more cynically point out that such shake-ups are necessary to keep the franchise going over such a long period, expressing surprise that such a headline-grabbing twist has been so long in coming. Others blame the expressions of outrage upon the fans of the film series, claiming that those who have not read the books simply don't understand the nuances of Rowling's story-telling. This is of course rather unfair and a disservice to the vast number of people who have become fans of the characters through that medium. Daniel Radcliffe (who plays Harry in the film series) has avoided making a substantial comment on the change, simply Tweeting enough to feed the publicity machine:

“Voldemort?!?!? #sayitaintso”

One thing common to every fan is the assumption that this will not actually be a permanent change. Elisa is described as wearing 'an hourglass shaped piece of jewellery' which many are already suspecting is a Time-Turner. Did the Death Eaters send someone back in time after their defeat to indoctrinate Harry at his most vulnerable? Almost everyone is certain that some kind of second twist will restore the character to his proper self, although Rowling has taken the time to debunk a couple of the more obvious possibilities:

“This is not a Boggart, not Polyjuice potion, not the Imperius Curse. It really is Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived himself.”

Unfortunately, many fans feel that no second twist can really make up for the upset of doing this in the first place. Many aspects of Rowling's world clearly represent real-world social battles and problems – problems that have not entirely gone away. Harry has been embraced by a generation as the champion of the right side of these battles, so declaring that he was always insincere has been described as 'a slap in the face'. For some enthusiasts the very suggestion that Potter was secretly in sympathy with the woman who cut racial abuse into his friend's arm is enough to make them put down the books for good, however the plot shakes out. The Potter fandom will quite possibly never be the same again.

(P.S. If you are a Potter fan who has been screaming at the page for the whole article, don't worry! It's not real, I'm just making comment on something that is something that is. Unfortunately the metaphor can't fully satirise the most serious aspect of the real story, which can be found here.)

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Age Of Sigmar - R.I.P. Warhammer Fantasy

When I was a child, I loved playing board games with my family (still do as a matter of fact). As a result of this, board games were not uncommon as a Christmas present in our household. Although most of them were fairly normal, at the age of 8 I got a rather different one – Space Crusade by MB games.
Space Crusade was one of several MB games that were licensed to use Games Workshop IP. The game was essentially a simplified version of Space Hulk, using Tactical/Devastator squads in place of Terminators and providing the Aliens players with a horde of 'Chaos' characters that also included Orks, Tyranids and 'androids'.
The very concept of this game was rather outside of anything I'd played before and I couldn't make heads or tails of the actual rules. In a touching display of fatherly affection, my Dad stayed up all night figuring out how to play it. Over the following years we played many campaigns, with him always serving as the 'bad guys'. I loved it enough to get myself both HeroQuest and Battle Masters in subsequent years, but Space Crusade remained special.

The next big shift came in about 1993, when I chanced across an 'Imperial Space Marine Squad' (known to some veterans as the RT01 'Womble Marines') in a model shop. I bought two 10 man squads in quick succession for use as additional models in Space Crusade (the term 'game balance' was as yet foreign to me). More importantly, I was given a product catalogue for Games Workshop and became aware of their main lines for the first time.
Despite my fondness for Space Crusade, it was the Warhammer Fantasy boxed set that captured my imagination. As luck would have it, I actually had enough money to make the huge box mine. I'd been doggedly saving up my pocket money for a long time with the intention of buying an original Star Wars AT-AT toy that I'd found in a shop – after some consideration, I changed my target and got myself a copy of Warhammer instead.
My Dad drew the line at the huge tomes of rules that came in the box (it had taken him all night to learn Space Crusade after all). Thankfully, several of my friends were interested enough to start collecting armies and playing Warhammer against me. I decided that financial constraints made it most sensible to build on one of the two armies provided, so after reading the background material for both I settled on the humorous Orcs and Goblins.
My army grew and grew and our dining room table was occupied for days at a time by huge battles. Unfortunately the interests of my friends eventually declined, whilst mine remained strong. This is pretty much typical for me – once I get keen on something I very rarely go off it. 

The box that started me off.

My lack of opponents prompted me to attend the games held at my local Games Workshop store. Frankly, these games usually sucked – I was only able to field one or two units as part of a large team battle and the prohibition on characters meant that my leaderless Greenskins typically routed as soon as battle was joined. The staff also barred the models I brought on some occasions because they were 'old models' or in one case because the sides of the bases weren't painted. However, it was at this store that I found an advert for the Worksop Wargames Society.
I loved the Society when I tried it out and it rapidly became my most important weekly leisure activity. The club introduced me to the wide array of games that existed beyond GW – such as Magic: the Gathering. I'd already been briefly introduced to D&D by a Warhammer opponent and the club offered a degree of role-playing opportunities too. In hindsight the place was far from perfect – there were no regular female members, the role-playing standards were about what you'd expect from a group of teenage boys and the keenest Warhammer player was a neo-Nazi and a bad loser. But it was perhaps the first time I'd had a large group of friends, especially one based on shared interests. The weekly schedule also did a lot to structure my gaming into a real hobby activity, backed up by the geek culture that the society provided.
Although the club did a lot to broaden my gaming horizons, Warhammer remained my most commonly played game with the possible exception of Necromunda. I was loyal to the Greenskins until 1999, when a new-found adolescent fascination with vampires happened to coincide with the emergence of the Vampire Counts army. I immediately decided that I wanted to collect a Lahmian force. Thankfully a combination of second hand models from club members and customised spares allowed me to raise the army quite cheaply. I was never very good with them – most battles consisted of Lahmians reaping enemies worth a fraction of their own value while the rest of their army got destroyed – but the implacable dead and the mighty Vampiresses made a welcome change from the fractious Greenskins and relatively puny Goblin lords. 

A Lahmian Thrall and a Necromancer flanked by Grave Guard. Honest. 

The thing that eventually caused my Warhammer gaming to decline was my move to University after 2000. This was in no way because I abandoned my interests in order to pursue 'grown up' or fashionable activities exclusively. The Clubs and Societies Fair in the first week was pretty much a welcome to paradise and the Wargames and Roleplaying Society (WARPSoc) was the best one that I joined.
WARPSoc has a focus toward role-playing and the gender-diverse society offered a massively higher standard than I'd experienced before. After a little hesitation I joined the weekly LARP and found my love of role-playing being combined with my lifelong appreciation of Medieval Re-enactment and sword-fighting (the only competitive physical activity I excel at). This caused me to focus more on RPGs, but I still loved the cerebral competitive element of wargames too much to just give them up.
The real problem was that I didn't have access to my parent's dining table any more. Unless the society booked a location, it was almost impossible to secure an ideal playing surface for a game of Warhammer. Even then, WARPSoc sessions were usually a bit of a tight fit for an entire battle. By comparison the swift and portable Magic: the Gathering was great for social play around the campus, leading to Magic taking over. I attended the Worksop club during the holidays for a while, but then moved to Wales full time.
The final nail in the coffin was provided by GW themselves. Their regular habit of publishing new backward-incompatible editions of Warhammer meant that eventually my rulebooks became obsolete. I couldn't prepare an army without re-buying the army books and I couldn't fully understand the army book without re-buying the core rules – creating an unappealing level of investment for an occasional game and thus barring me from play altogether.

WARPSoc is a wonderful group of people and most of my close friends have come from the ranks of the society. It provided me with a place where I could be different and still belong and a gateway into the rest of the Alternative community. I loved the society so much that on the day I handed in my Masters Dissertation I went straight over to the Clubs and Societies Fair and helped their stall get more new recruits. One of my signings was a wonderful Christian girl who had been trying to weigh her genuine desire to try out role-playing against the last echoes of the 1980s D&D moral panic. We've just celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary and we both game with members of WARPSoc every week.

Without Warhammer, I'd never have joined the Worksop club or WARPSoc after it. I like to believe that God's plan for me would have led certain things to happen in different ways, so I can't say with certainty that my life would be completely different if I'd bought that AT-AT instead. But it is fair to say that my marriage, my social circle and my hobbies today all owe a great deal to the day that I came home with a big red box full of Elves and Goblins. I may not have played very often in the last decade, but Warhammer Fantasy Battle has had a surprisingly important place in my life.

The reason I recount this tale now is that Warhammer Fantasy has come to an end as of this year. Technically this demise took place across a series of 8th Edition supplements called The End Times which started in 2014, but I've only become aware of it now due to the highly public way in which GW has chosen to mutilate the corpse.

In a large fanfare of publicity, GW has unveiled a new Fantasy Battle game called Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. This has been accompanied by a radical shift in their business model – the game's core rules and all of the army lists for the existing races have been placed online for free download.
Needless to say, I was very excited. Just a few mouse clicks and I would possess up to date core rules, a new army list for my Vampire Counts and even a list for my old Greenskins! Being now in possession of a dining table of our very own, Warhammer would become a thing that I could do again.

Then I read the rules.

In retrospect, my first comment after doing this – that it was as if E. L. James had rewritten Star Wars from the perspective of Jar Jar Binks – was slightly harsh. But only slightly so. The game discards victory points in favour of a 'fight to the death' system which is nostalgic to me but clearly favours killer models over clever tactical play. It discards points values in favour of 'field whatever you like' – a system that me and my friends tried exactly once and found too uneven to be worth bothering with. It discards unit formations and manoeuvring rules in favour of loose mobs moving in a fashion stolen from Warhammer 40,000. It ditches psychology and routing units in favour of testosterone-fuelled brawls to the last man. The practice of rolling a die to decide who moves first has been extended to every turn of the game, meaning that whoever moves second must make tactical decisions without knowing who will move next. I'm not sure that Age of Sigmar is a bad game in itself, but it is so obviously inferior to the preceding editions of Warhammer in every measurable way that it makes no sense as a sequel from the same company.

Having read up on the subject, the sad truth is that Age of Sigmar was never intended to be a true sequel to 8th edition. Games Workshop have always sold more Space Marines than anything else, but reports suggest that the overall sales of Warhammer 40,000 items had made Fantasy into a tiny portion of their profits. With the large range of Fantasy models taking up as much shelf space as their more profitable sci-fi rivals, GW decided to scrap it and bring out a new second string that they hope will be more popular.
This is why so many of the distinctive and vaguely authentic-feeling rules of medieval battle have been switched out for something that plainly resembles 40K. It is also the reason that a new faction of obvious Space Marine knock-offs have been prominently introduced in the first wave of new releases. More subtly, it is why the game rules give these warriors a massive play advantage over everyone else. There is no restriction on the number of models you can deploy in Age of Sigmar, but a severely outnumbered force is given a special potentially game-winning advantage. Unfortunately the loss of the points value system means that one powerful model is no longer considered equal to three or four weak ones when it comes to counting heads. It is a fair bet that the Stormcast Eternals will be the strongest troop type in play, meaning that a player with a big enough box of them should be able to defeat anyone by deploying the correct number of men. Presumably GW hopes that Space Marine fans who try out the Eternals will love the instant mastery of the game that this brings them.

Space Marine Commander Dante and an original new character from Age of Sigmar.

GW also seem to be basing their new strategy on the knowledge that any fan-base is a pyramid. A small group of really keen fans sit loftily above a far wider base of people with a more casual interest. As a result they have decided to lower the level of interest required to play the game in the first place. On the one hand, the new rules make any form of serious and rewarding competitive play impossible. On the other, they allow anyone who buys (and assembles) a box of models to play a 'proper' game anywhere without further preparation. Such tactics might knock the tip off the pyramid, but if the base expands as planned GW will make far more money.

The setting of Sigmar is also almost entirely unrelated to Fantasy Battle. This is due to the story arc of The End Times, which I have now read a synopsis of (apparently the real thing would have set me back a lot of money). Basically every conflict suddenly became decisive, with established characters, population centres and even entire factions being wiped out with with ridiculous rapidity. This is mostly just destructive, but new and interesting things started to emerge from the havoc – like the Dark Elf Malekith becoming king of the High Elves and the Vampire Counts being recognised as legitimate Imperial nobility. The High Elf Mage Teclis came up with a plan to stop Chaos - he would bind each of the eight winds of magic into a person, creating divine beings that could stand against Chaos on equal terms. Most of the non-Chaos races got an Incarnate with several becoming embodiments of their own gods along the way. The Incarnates rallied all of the good and evil races into the most awesome alliance that the Warhammer World had ever seen and went to challenge Archaon, who was trying to open the mother of all Chaos gates in the ruins of Middenheim. They all lost, the new Chaos rift destroyed the Old World and everyone in it died. The End.

Many players seem to have been hoping that GW would backtrack when 9th edition came out, declaring it to be just one vision of the end of the world. Until the last book, many hoped that the interesting new alliances and factions were actually going somewhere besides oblivion.
 Unfortunately the new Age of Sigmar proceeds onwards from these events. Sigmar makes new planets with the help of a giant space dragon. The Incarnates become the gods of these worlds and spend an Age collecting Old World souls and sticking them in new bodies. The resurrected populations live in peace and harmony together for many generations until Chaos invades and conquers most of the planets. Sigmar invents magic Space Marines and leads the reconquest, which is the setting for the game. This means that the game takes place in a setting where everything the existing player base cared about has been destroyed, rather than being a simple reboot. It's also a bit weird for a new player compared to the pseudo-medieval setting we've seen in Fantasy.

Given all of this, you have to ask why GW wrote Age of Sigmar versions of the old army lists in the first place. Officially they wanted to 'give the old models a send off' but I don't really buy that. If GW really wanted to leave players with the ability to keep using the old models, they could simply have made the 8th edition literature available as free downloads instead. The only reason to provide the converted rules is to lure their owners into trying Age of Sigmar, although I can't imagine that actively inviting the direct comparison with Fantasy Battle will win many fans. If I sound like I'm looking a gift horse in the mouth, bear in mind that some of the new rules require the player to engage in physical comedy while using the model. A GW rep has assured everyone that this unprecedented move won't be something we seem more of in the future, but was simply intended to make veteran players too embarrassed to use the old models in public (no really). The old game and the traditional armies haven't been given a decent send off, they've been zombified as billboards in a manner so disrespectful that my Lahmians would wrinkle their noses.

As a role-player, the apocalyptic ending of the Old World ought to put me in mind of the World of Darkness lines produced by White Wolf. After spending many years producing an expanding range of modern horror games set against the backdrop of impeding doom, White Wolf eventually brought their products to a close with a slew of books that detailed the final destruction of the World of Darkness. As soon as the dust settled, however, White Wolf brought out a 'rebooted' range of WOD books that essentially set about remaking the old games. 

Who would DO that?

There are few things that say 'commercialism over art' more plainly than remaking your own successful series the moment you've finished the first version. Many WOD players saw no reason why they would ever want to involve themselves in a line that was simply the same thing without the built up setting elements that they had become invested in.
The reason that the new series managed to thrive in this hostile environment is that it is really good. White Wolf had patiently learned lessons from their previous round of experiences and dedicated themselves to producing the highest quality of product that they could using this knowledge. Most role-players have their preferred incarnation of the World of Darkness, but relatively few would deny that both versions are excellent products within the wider marketplace.

Unfortunately, Games Workshop has not taken the same high road. Age of Sigmar is not an evolved form of Warhammer Fantasy Battle – it's an aggressively diminished parody designed exclusively to appeal to the lowest common denominator, a target identified by a vague perception of current popular gaming choices.
As such, the role-playing event that Age of Sigmar really reminds me of is Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. Once the unquestioned leader of the fantasy RPG field, the makers of D&D went wild with greed when they read about the number of players that World of Warcraft had managed to hook. Seized by the mad delusion that a huge slice of the Western population were now keen fantasy role-players, Wizards engaged in a drastic re-write of D&D that was intended almost exclusively to create a tabletop simulation of playing WOW.
Unfortunately, the results of this effort were far less fit for the purpose of running a D&D game than version 3.5 had been. After a cursory investigation, many D&D fans decided to stick with version that they already owned. Meanwhile the vast armies of WOW fans proved less than interested in leaving their gaming PCs to perform a substantially different activity with whatever WOW-playing friends lived close enough to physically visit their house. Wizards have since released the 5th Edition of D&D, a tuned-up version of 3.5 that some have described as the 'we're sorry' version of the game.

There will never be a 'we're sorry' version of Warhammer Fantasy Battle. GW ended the game line because it wasn't making enough money – even if the new game fails they have no reason to go back to the last struggling property. The time has come to raise a mug of Bugman's XXXXXX and toast its passing. It was a good game while it lasted and 31 years is an incredible run for any 'living' game. So farewell, Warhammer Fantasy - you will be missed.

Of course, the lack of an acceptable current version of the rules might prompt more people to play with the outdated versions that I still own. I may yet take the field again...