Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A primer on D&D, and the game I’m going to run.

Dungeons and Dragons arose in the 1970s, when gamers in Wisconsin decided to take the rules for a medieval war-game and modify them to govern not a unit of soldiers, but a single soldier. To this they added the idea of one player who served as the referee (the “dungeon master” in D&D lingo).

D&D is a role-playing game, which means that you create a character that you control in an imagined setting. I find the “role-playing” part of the label misleading, since most players spend little time doing anything that could be mistaken for playing a role in the thespian sense. Instead, “role-narrating” might be a better description for what most players do.

Players talk to the referee about the scene they find their characters in, and then they decide what they want their characters to do. Then—often, but not always—we use rules and dice rolls to determine the outcomes of those actions. Players tend to refer to their characters in the first-person (“I’m going to examine the door jamb to see if there’s any way to pry up that stone.”). Players with theatrical inclinations often talk “in character,” but few groups require this.

One difference between RPGs and other kinds of games is that there is no “winning” in most RPGs. A given problem or scenario might have victory conditions, determined either by non-player characters (e.g. capture the bandit alive to collect the Guild’s bounty) or by a hostile environment (e.g. loot a cursed mausoleum without getting eaten by its inhabitants) or some combination of the two. Player characters usually have to cooperate to succeed, but they can have independent or conflicting goals. Most RPGs have some kind of experience-point mechanic to track a character’s advancement.

Characters can get hurt, maimed, or killed. Some players regard death as a form of “losing,” but the beauty of RPGs is that you can then make up a new character and re-join the game. One character’s retirement or death is another’s narrative hook. (“We should hire some more muscle for our next trip to the ruins. And this time, let’s get a bigger boat and someone who knows how to steer it. And maybe a guide who knows the swamp.”)

Fantasy RPGs usually take place in a pre-modern or pseudo-medieval setting with supernatural elements. Most settings are “high fantasy” (set in a wholly fictional world) rather than “low fantasy” (set in our world, plus magic). Game companies sell books detailing licensed settings (J. R. R. Tolkein’s Middle-Earth, Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age), or proprietary settings (Greyhawk, Empire of the Petal Throne), but many referees make up their own.

My aim is to run (1) a high-fantasy (2) sword-and-sorcery (3) “sandbox” game.

To unpack that:

(1) The referee and players will develop an original setting. I tend to favor anthropological verisimilitude coupled with “weird” supernatural elements, where magic is arcane, spooky, and hazardous, rather than twee.

(2) Adventures will be human-scaled affairs. I’m opposing the pulp genre of “sword-and-sorcery,” where the short story and novella are the dominant forms, to “epic fantasy,” where the multi-novel series is the dominant form. Players in a sword-and-sorcery game should not expect continent-shaking battles between caricatures of Good (Ye Reluctant Chosen Ones) and caricatures of Evil (The Hordes of Häxän GorrDrinkur, Warwolf of Necroptomantic Tyranny).

(3) Finally, a referee running a “sandbox” game contrives opportunities for the characters to have adventures, but also encourages players set their own characters’ goals (i.e. their own victory conditions). Other player and non-player characters have their own goals, too, so not everybody in the sandbox wants to help you build your castle. Negotiating who accomplishes what, and how, becomes part of the game, not part of a script.
Note that a sandbox game is not “balanced” to make the world safe for new adventurers, so you have to be cautious. Since there is no “thwart the Dark Lord” plot that the referee is trying to herd the characters through, I won’t protect them for the sake of getting them to some Big Scene at the end. I will roll enemies’ hit and damage rolls where you can see them.

I plan to use the game Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. LotFP is an indie game that combines the simplicity and emphasis on player inventiveness of the early editions of D&D with the streamlined rules of later games. Its approach to fantasy gaming fits well enough with my own, though I have a number of “house rules” I’d like to try out.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Book Review: DIALECTIC OF ENLIGHTENMENT, Horkheimer and Adorno, Stanford University Press Edition, 2007.

Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, the editor of the Stanford edition of Dialectic of Enlightenment, took a dense, difficult book and made it more work to read. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno's "philosophical fragments" reward the reader with sustained analyses of capitalist culture and with pithy one-liners worthy of the authors' role as the philosophical Statler and Waldorf heckling modernity. However, Noerr's pedantry constantly gets in their way and yours. This edition has two problems: insufficient translation and bad endnotes.

First, the translation. Edmund Jephcott does what I can only assume is a solid job translating (nearly) all of the original German into English. However, he does not translate the French, the Latin, or the Greek. (Jephcott renders the Greek quotations in the Roman alphabet. So we can… what, sound them out?) The translation would be fine if I read French, Latin, Greek, English, just not German, but that’s not the case for me or most other Anglophone readers of this book. (Classicists aren't the major audience for Frankfurt School culture criticism.) You might think that Noerr would have done us a favor and found somebody to translate the dead languages with the living. Nein. When Horkheimer and Adorno quote Seneca, you're on your own.

Not this Seneca. The other one.

Second, the endnotes. Never have so many endnotes been of so little use. Noerr preserves Horkheimer and Adorno’s original endnotes, but puts them at the end of the book, rather than at the end of each fragment. However, interlarded among these, we find Noerr's much more numerous endnotes about the book’s publication history, which have their own, independent numbering system. What percentage of readers wants this information? Ten? Five? Anybody doing scholarship on this book is probably reading it in German anyway, and has the different editions ready to hand. To most of the book’s readers, these notes are clutter. Putting them in a different location within the book would at least have spared readers the labor of sorting through them to find the few endnotes that actually help you understand the book.

And Noerr does provide such explanatory notes. For example, one defines the the idiom "white trash" as a "derogatory expression for white workers" (267). So all that Latin, all that Greek, and all that French, you got to puzzle out on your own, but when a familiar American English idiom appears, in a book published by an American university press, Noerr opens the lantern shutter and dazzles us.

A second example should convey the football-bat uselessness of Noerr's endnotes. On page 102 of Dialectic of Enlightenment appears this sentence: "Even before Zanuck acquired her, Saint Bernadette gleamed in the eye of her writer as an advert aimed at all the relevant consortia." This is the first time either name, Bernadette or Zanuck, appears in the book.

Who could this be? In the spirit of Noerr, I'm not going to tell you.

Now, a great many readers of Dialectic of Enlightenment are students of mass culture who will at least recognize producer Darryl F. Zanuck's last name as connected to Hollywood, if not to 20th Century Fox. Just in case we don't recognize it, Noerr supplies an endnote saying as much. But Saint Bernadette? No endnote. Noerr does not tell us that she was 1) a 19th century Frenchwoman canonized for her visions of the Virgin Mary, or that she was 2) the subject of a now-forgotten 1942 bestseller, or that 3) 20th Century Fox produced a film adaptation of the novel in 1943, a film that netted four academy awards, despite being forgotten in subsequent decades.

Who is so steeped in Hollywood lore that he or she can follow Horkheimer and Adorno's oblique, dated reference here--to a 1940s hagiography, exploited by a big-five studio into a successful but forgotten biopic--yet at the same time needs a footnote to decrypt the name of Zanuck? Nobody. Endnote both names, endnote neither, or endnote the more obscure of the two, but don't endnote only the less obscure.

The only way an editor could provide worse endnotes than this is simply to make them up. Example: “Zanuck: Emperor Horth Zanuck IV, Martian conqueror of the thirty-ninth century, CE. Author of History and Class Consciousness and The Catcher in the Rye.”

Emperor Horth Zanuck IV (Yellow, Pink, and Lavender on Rose). Mark Rothko, 1950.
So be warned: this edition is labor-intensive. You'll have to look up a lot of dead words, and internet-search a lot of names, because Noerr's unfinished-vanity-project endnotes are worse than useless. Let's hope Stanford puts out a better edition as an apology.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Map-Maker

Two recent posts at Grognardia have me wondering : why do so many role-playing gamers love to make maps?

Do we just need our characters to be able to find their way back out of a dungeon? Or do we want a basis for (re)constructing a mental image of a place that doesn't exist, but which we want to pretend exists? Do we enjoy seeing our map worm across the white-and-blue grid of the graph paper, or across the full-color of a program like Hexographer? Does the convention of drawing D&D maps on graph paper turn the map into a cousin of the chess-board, a game world rather than an abstraction of one? In tabletop wargames, the map is the territory; in role-playing games, is it somehow still part of the territory?

Maps were one of the things that hooked me on D&D. As a kid, I would draw maps of dungeons I never intended to populate with monsters, for the sheer joy of placing a dais here and a pit there, a crevasse bisecting this cavern and a reef of stalagmites bisecting that. 

I remember seeing TSR’s books of dungeon geomorphs, templates for rooms and corridors that a DM could use for quickly generating a setting for a dungeon crawl. I also remember thinking, “Where’s the fun in that?” I disliked the notion of anyone compromising my authority as demiurgic Placer of Walls. If I wasn’t drawing it from scratch, I preferred using a published scenario with its pre-drawn map instead.

Maps in our culture are largely utilitarian. Cartographers and map designers create models of the world using a greater or lesser degree of symbolic abstraction, chosen on the basis of the map’s purpose and audience. A topological map renders the twists and turns of actual subway tracks as smooth, primary-color lines connecting stations, and ignores elevations or surface boundaries. A topographical map by a government geological survey might model in detail roads or wells that later construction obliterates. The makers of both maps strive to create images of maximum utility for their audience.

How do we define utility when we map imaginary places?

I should disclose that I am increasingly biased against using the rhetoric of modern cartography—especially uniform distances—in non-modern game settings. Part of the function of a non-modern setting is to narrow the channels of information available to characters, such that even the best-educated citizens of a pseudo-medieval or post-apocalyptic metropolis would have a fragmentary, distorted, and ethnocentric picture of their world (that is, if the game master simulationist enough to value verisimilitude over utility, which isn't necessarily a good thing).  In such a setting, no satellite eyes render the world in false-color grids, and the only maps are drawn, or painted, or engraved by hand.

Pre-modern maps offer more productive models for our fantasy-game mapping. They abstract the world on the basis of different standards of utility or symbolic importance. The ancient Babylonian Imago Mundi and the medieval European “T and O” maps are more useful for imagining  cosmological relationships than for navigating between places. Olaus Magnus’s illustrated map of Scandinavia gives approximately accurate outlines for landmasses, but populates their surface with cartoon figures that range from the ethnographic to the cryptozoological and beyond. Might the most evocative and imaginatively-useful campaign maps be the ones that make no pretense to representing an imagined world as it actually might look to a spy-satellite? Such maps would be less useful to a group of players estimating how many days of provisions to buy for a voyage, but the maps that Columbus and Raleigh used were little better. 

Are maps that seem like credible products of a pre-modern culture (i.e. hand-drawn, incomplete, spatially inaccurate) more trouble than they’re worth, in a role-playing game? Does the map, in a fantasy game, become the closest thing we have to a “territory” that two players can actually point to and say, “This much is real”?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Movie Review: SHOCK WAVES (Wiederhorn, 1978)

For years, Shock Waves bided in the depths of the "saved" section of my DVD queue, dreaming of murder. I assumed that this 1978 zombie-Nazisploitation film would deliver the things one wants from 1970s zombie and exploitation films: gore, nudity, drugs, and caricatures of real-world politics. The patient Shock Waves had other ideas.

Four tourists are not quite enjoying a cruise on what looks like a freighter, when the ship nearly collides with a drifting hulk. Their engine then breaks down while some filter effects make the sunlight change colors, and the captain (John Carradine) goes missing, leaving the six remaining crew and passengers to disembark for the jungly island nearby. There they meet a reclusive old Nazi (Peter Cushing), who warns them that his squad of amphibious zombie SS, the Totenkorps, are rising from the sea to kill them all. This happens, but one character escapes to tell the tale. (Spoiler: it isn’t the old Nazi.)

The first character to run afoul of the Totenkorps is the ship's cook, caught after he suffers a fall on some sea urchins. The movie is careful to set this up: the sequence alternates between shots of the frightened cook splashing through the mangrove swamp, shots of the revenant pursuing him, and underwater shots of the urchins, which have spines as long as knitting needles, and lurk mere inches from the cook’s unseeing bare feet. We know where this is going, and since it will be the first on-screen kill of the movie, we have high hopes.

If your cinematic imagination resembles mine, you are thinking, “I bet he gets a bunch of spines through his foot, and then falls and gets a bunch more in his face, like in his eye, and the zombie's going to eat his eye right off the spine, then stab it into his other eye, like ‘Let’s have some more of that’.”

You might want to adjust your expectations downward. Yes, the cook does take spines in the forearm, and in the face, but the wounds are superficial. Furthermore, the revenant doesn’t eat any part of the cook. It turns out that the Totenkorps do not even bite.

“But the zombie,” you say, hopeful. “The Nazi zombie is going to langen Messer that cook into a bloody… ribcage-and-skin lampshade or something!” (You then shake your head in disgust at yourself, and at your species.)

No. This killer, who combines that most infamous perversion of modernity, Naziism, with the eschatological horror of undeath, merely drowns the cook. The Totenkorps dispatch their victims by holding them underwater. The method has an economy of movement that an actual death-camp administrator could admire. (“You must kill ze undesirables kvietly,” says the commandant, “vile I listen to Tristan und Isolde on ze phonograph in mein office, ja? ”). However, I submit that such economy has no place in a zombie-SS movie with shock in the title.

"They're coming to get you, Barbara."

(“I’m shocked,” you blurt, “to find myself watching a zombie movie that could play unedited on broadcast TV.” Reader, you are not alone.)

"Drugs, at least?” you say, hope struggling against the SS-hands of disappointment. “Somebody’s got to be getting high in this picture--it’s from nineteen seventy-eight!” Surely this island is a haven for Rastafarians, or moustached narcotraficantes whose machine-pistols fail to save them, or a clean-cut US tourist lugging a suitcase full of heroin, one last score so he can start a legitimate business and maybe get his ex-wife to come back, a suitcase in which the ravening deceased show no interest. (A shot might track the zombie-ignored suitcase drifting out to sea on a tide of irony.) Shock Waves denies us the comfort, and the moral instruction, of these scènes à faire.

“Oh, but the scenery-chewing Strangelovian speeches by Peter Cushing,” cries your hope, rallying. Thus you wait for his Big Scene. Cushing will start slowly, addressing the shipwrecked American tourists in measured, professorial tones about his plans for a Fourth Reich. At this point, Cushing looks like he’s not even trying, just enjoying the elegance of his own voice, but he warms to the rhetoric, a sheen of sweat now glistening on his forehead, as he tells of his ambition to conquer first South America, with its warrens of race-adulteration and bikini-waxing, then the United States, republic of junkies and historically-black universities. By now Cushing is talking to nobody in particular, and altogether too loud for anything other than Nazi zpeechmaking, as he raves zat he shall train a sexless, deathless, remorseless army of carrion, adaptable to all climates, and chosen from only ze most sadistic of criminals and pychopaths, and finally, hiss voice cracking vith mania, spittle flies as he shrieks zat he, Sturmbannführer Klaus von Somesing, he shall rule a new sousand-year Reich, a ten-sousand year Reich of ze marching dead! Sieg HEIL!

None of that happens. Cushing plays one of the quietest Nazi villains in screen history. He even drowns quietly.

On the bright side, Brooke Adams, who goes full-frontal in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (also 1978), spends her first few scenes in Shock Waves wearing a bikini.

“I saw Zombi 2,” you say, “so I’m betting part of that bikini is coming off by the third reel, probably for some T&A scuba diving. Odds are good that either she or that tourist lady with the big ass is going to be showering, or still naked, whatever, when the zombies--”

Let me stop you there. If you are watching Shock Waves, you might also want to pause the video at this point and reconcile yourself to the idea that Brooke Adams in a bikini is as close as Shock Waves is going to take you to Brooke Adams (or anyone else) in the nude. Consider reviewing Adams’s nude scene from Invasion, because in Shock Waves, she will put on progressively more clothes as the story develops. You can find stills of the nude Adams on the Internet. (A warning to the curious: there is apparently a pornographic actor who also uses the name "Brooke Adams," so expect to find many pictures of her, in addition to our Ms. Adams.) Shock Waves can wait while you search, as the Totenkorps waited, to drown your expectations with a half-heard sploosh.

"They're still coming to get you, Barbara."

I must give this picture credit for its surprising attempt at being a "serious" weird tale in the manner of a William Hope Hodgson story, complete with unreliable framing narration, implacable monsters from the sea, and oscillations between unsatisfying explanations of the weirdness (i.e. are these science zombies or occult zombies?). Many scenes achieve the eerie, a rare tone for horror movies, which too often opt for the gruesome, or the autonomic scares of cats jumping out of closets.

Thus the problem with Shock Waves is twofold. First, the movie appears to be “a zombie movie,” which by 1978 had already become a genre with imitable conventions, conventions that Shock Waves ignores. Its zombies do not eat the living, their undeath is not contagious, and they are not part of some geographically widespread (or potentially so) corpse-uprising, so the viewer who expects these tropes will be left wanting. Second, in the context of low-budget 1970s genre movies, the brooding, Hodgsonian menace of Shock Waves comes off not as a tone deliberately achieved, but as the absence of the thrills we expect from exploitation cinema, a failure to deliver. We feel cheated.

If this movie’s poster or DVD cover had shown William Hope Hodgson seated at a writing desk overlooking the sea, I might have gone into it in the right frame of mind, but the poster shows a King-Kong-sized, waterlogged SS corpse lifting a yacht out of the water, as if he were considering either gnawing it in half or throwing it at you.

May I please see that movie?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Things have learnt to blog that ought to crawl...