Friend of the New

I’m a critic, and I’m proud of being one, because I agree with Oscar Wilde that art and criticism is a symbiotic relationship, each informing and improving the other. And I’m a game critic because I think gaming as an art form has far too few critics (although plenty of good reviewers), especially in the realm of table top games. Being a critic has its price, but also a great appeal, and that was never said better than by Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) in the climax of Pixar’s film Ratatouille:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

Of course, even being a friend of the new is rarely a risk for the critic, but it is one way we can have a great effect on things. To quote Wilde: “the artist’s job is to educate the critic, the critic’s job is to educate the public”. Pointing out greatness that might otherwise have been missed is a pleasure and a privilege, a way to shine light on things in shadow and illuminate the world a little. You can link the artist to the audience like a matchmaker, resulting in a relationship just as intimate and pleasurable for both.

One does not, of course, expect honours and laurels for this. It is par for the course, and not anything special. But not everyone is content to leave the critic uncelebrated, it seems.

Back in February I sung the praises of an incredible new game called Night of the Crusades, a game which applies a few elements of fantasy (and an evocative, elegant system) to bring forth the tales of the Arabian Nights into its own setting, with all the narrative power of Pendragon and all the historical richness of Warhammer. It rightly ended up being nominated for both Ennie and Origin awards in this year’s season, and has also produced some excellent supplements to follow up. It’s latest work is The City of 10 Rings, a city guide unlike most others. Not only is it the perfect balance of the unearthly and the logical (a city built in a fallen meteor with dreamlike, concentric architecture, yet divided into sensible districts with a natural evolution) and full of the same kind of haunting imagery as the core game, it is built primarily on random encounters. Ten rings in the city, ten locations in each ring, ten events in each ring, for 200 entries in total, or 1000 if you combine them. Some of them are a bit empty, but all are evocative and clever, elaborating on the specific district and the flavour of the city as a whole.

Too many products in the RPG world are encyclopaedias to read, assuming that somehow, the information will enter the reader and be magically turned into an evocative game. As always, Nights believes in providing tools to create their setting, and that’s the approach of this book – random tables not only useful to throw in to buff out a stroy, but to form the basis of the entire story, filling the city with tales that in the end create the tale of the city.

My review might  be a little biased however, because as I mentioned, not everyone believes the critic should go uncelebrated. This book is dedicated to me in the frontspiece, which is an honour as a critic and a thanks unrivaled in my experience. So I’m making sure I earned it by once again recommending you take a look at Night of the Crusades, an extremely polished and rare gem in the RPG world. Also, the core book is still 100% free, and Pathfinder conversion rules are now available, too.

We Need to Talk About Gygax

I’m currently perusing 13th Age, a new D&D rehash by Jonathon Tweet and Rob Heinsoo . It’s very good, with D&D veterans Tweet and Heinsoo taking all the really excellent ideas in 3rd and 4th ed and clearing out almost all the clutter – and adding some lovely new ideas to keep it fresh, many of which I’m just going to steal wholecloth for my own designs. On the other hand, it’s still D&D. Indeed, Tweet called it a “love-letter to D&D” and that’s totally accurate: the book drips with adoration for not just the ideas of D&D but the way those ideas have built our hobby. It’s also a phrase I mocked pretty viciously when I first heard it. Not because there’s anything wrong with writing a love letter to D&D, it’s just not exactly the first time it’s been done. D&D is the RPG equivalent of the vapid blonde with the big tits; finding another love letter to her is dispiriting not just because of jealousy but because of the sheer tedium.

But the tedium is de rigeur. Inescapably. And Tweet and Heinsoo make this point themselves. The game does not include the D&D alignment system, or anything like it, but the writers see fit to place their key NPCs and faction groups on that axis, because it is the lingua franca. They say that you should feel free to use those mechanics because they are “part of our culture”. Which brings me to the question: am I the only one even slightly horrified by that fact?

Let’s get some background here: I’m a critic, and I take the job seriously. I’m also a pretty high-bar critic, in that I think the majority of RPGs are uninteresting pablum at best, derivative trash at worst, and a game has to do a lot more than be well designed to actually impress me. And here’s the other point: I’ve never liked D&D. I’ve had fun playing D&D, but never anything to write home about, and only very, very rarely because of D&D, rather than because of what we were doing with it – indeed sometimes because we were deliberately mocking it and working against it. More importantly, over and over again, for years and years, D&D, its mechanics and its central design principles have done more to harm and hamper my fun than anything else in gaming.

Partly this is just a story of experience. I’ve never been a big fan of post-Tolkein fantasy, or a big reader of it. I encountered D&D itself from a gaming position, without any background in the fiction, or love thereof. My genre interests have always been more towards pulp, action and espionage, and I really didn’t engage with roleplaying until I found the Palladium games which are centred on those concepts. There’s also the issue of timing: I picked up the redbook oD&D set just as it was being more and more phased out by AD&D, and thus had no-one to play with, and little access to the higher level books. So I was stuck with campaigns that had to end at 3rd level, which was enormously frustrating. But there still are plenty of things about D&D itself that I find distasteful, pointless, arcane and just plain dull, and other parts I just find bad design.

The combination of all this means my mind associates D&D and all its tropes with non-fun. Which would be fine except for one single fact: as a hobby, more and more, we’ve accreted into the position of combining fantasy with D&D as one and the same thing.

Case in point: Apocalypse World was recently rebooted into a fantasy version of its rules – or so I heard. I was really excited, curious to see the same focussed lens on genre that was applied to post-apocalyptic survival applied to fantasy. But the thing is, it wasn’t applied to fantasy, it was applied to D&D. We had Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma. We had something not unakin to mind-erasing spellcasters. We had hit points and hit dice. Levels. Wineskins and 10 foot poles. All the things that scream D&D. And which make me throw up in my mouth just to see them. They’re not the only one. When the Cortex system was turned to fantasy, it too was a D&D remake, from the DNA up, classes and races and all.

I raged that this wasn’t fantasy, but I think it’s just possible that ship has sailed long ago. Gygax has been – accurately, I believe – compared to Tolkien, Asimov and Roddenberry as someone whose works were so popular they actively shaped our expectations of genre so completely they defined them in stone. Tolkien never described orcs in his works, the green skin is pretty much down to Gygax and Arneson. Half orcs, half elves, the word halfling, dwarves with beards and axes and beer…if I knew my fantasy better, I’d probably be able to spot a lot more. I know someone wrote about trolls needing to be burnt by fire before it appeared in D&D, but I also know that D&D is why that is known as so hard a rule.

The question then becomes, is this a problem? If your definition of fantasy is D&D-esque, it doesn’t matter if all fantasy RPGs follow the D&D example. On the other hand, it seems to me that we murdered fantasy’s other options before we really got started. How many truly interesting, different, innovative fantasy games have there actually been, in thirty plus years of history? WFRP is drowning in D&Disms. There’s Ars Magica. Skyrealms of Jorune, maybe? Empire of the Petal Throne. Trollbabe and Polaris. A few Alice/nursery games. (Exalted might be a special case because it ties into other genres – although that leads us back to the question of what fantasy actually is) Generally, if you don’t embrace Tolkien/Gygax, you are forced to react to it, with reimaginings or reversals, like John Wick’s Orkworld, or rewire the tropes deep into the setting, like Earthdawn.

I mean, consider this: the RPG Talislanta’s most famous selling point is it has “no elves, ever”. How turgid a culture do we have that simply removing one single trope is dramatic enough to count as a selling point by itself? And how sad is it that even then, this claim is only a half-truth? Am I really the only person who doesn’t find that a little disheartening? That we’ve hung ourselves on the flag of elves like magic and dwarves don’t, forever and ever, amen? And that everything that came with that is so encoded we use it as a universal language, no matter how stupid, like the 3×3 alignment axes, or against source, like wizards sans swords, or damaging to fun, like XP for slaughter or coin? Are we really happy to carry all that baggage forward in our DNA – and celebrate it and enshrine it?

I never wanted to be Neutral Good, and I never want to again. And I’d love to play a fantasy game one day. Those two goals are becoming increasingly contradictory. And that makes me cranky. ON THE INTERNET, even.