“Post-plot cinema” and comic book movies as picaresques

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Kastors-Korner-26

Steven Zeitchik at the LA Times titled his Guardians review, “Guardians of the Galaxy‘ and the rise of post-plot cinema“. In the review he basically makes two claims: first, that the plot of GotG is complex, and second, that therefore the plot doesn’t matter. I found myself agreeing with parts of that analysis and strenuously disagreeing with others, and I’m writing this post to try and sort out why.

So, first claim, in Steve’s words:

I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t discernible narrative developments in the film. Yes, there’s an important orb whose owner controls the fate of the universe. And there are various factions trying to get their hands on it, each with varying degrees of financial, psychological and megalomaniacal motivation. Characters even have, in a few cases, a semi-coherent or moving back story. But it is not easy to explain, crisply and without descending into a certain kind of obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo, what is actually happening.

This is a species of complaint that I have seen a lot in the last few years as narratively complex genre films have increasingly dominated the multiplexes. Not from fans or geeks or even normal folks, but from film critics specifically. They complain that there were a lot of characters to identify and follow, and that during the kinetic sequences they weren’t sure what they were supposed to be looking at, and so on. Part of me thinks, “Dude, seriously, keep up or find another line of work”. But part of me agrees. The first time this really intruded into my consciousness was after I saw Thor: The Dark World. It was cool, and I had enjoyed it immensely, but after having only seen it once, I would have had a hard time summarizing it succinctly. The same is true of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And, yes, of Guardians of the Galaxy. So far, I think Steven Zeitchik is onto something: he has made an observation that is consonant with my own experience.

Where I disagree with him is in the hypothesis he conjures to explain the observation. The next paragraph of his review:

More important, I’m not sure we’re supposed to be able to explain it. The way the film is structured, coherence of any kind — why people are literally doing what they’re doing, or what the plausible psychological explanations are for what they’re doing — seem beside the point. This all seems to be less a question of whether “Guardians” makes sense as it is that it doesn’t much matter in the first place. The movie was built to be consumed without any holistic understanding of what’s happening or why—without any sense that one should want a clear understanding of what’s happening or why. (There is a strange, perhaps super-meta irony in the film making frequent reference to cinematic classics like “The Maltese Falcon,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Star Wars,” all movies in which storytelling matters very much.)

Then he goes on a long semi-rant about how movies these days have traded spectacle and quips for traditional storytelling. I may be projecting here, but it all seems fairly condescending, and I may be projecting even harder when I say that it seems historically ignorant and lazy.

Maltese Falcon poster

For starters, lots of genre movies have complex plots and they always have. It really steams me that he used The Maltese Falcon and Raiders of the Lost Ark as counterexamples of what GotG represents. The Maltese Falcon is an awesome movie, but it is so packed with double-crosses and red herrings that I probably could not correctly outline the plot the day after I’ve seen it. Ditto for The Big Sleep and a lot of classic, noir-ish mysteries. And don’t get me started on Raiders–there is so much global to-ing and fro-ing in that movie that Lucas and Spielberg invented the red-line-traveling-across-a-map transition to shuttle viewers from one breathless encounter to the next. You can describe the plot of Raiders over-simply as a quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, or you can try to actually recall all of the places that Indy and crew visit and in what order, but there’s not much space for a concise description in between. And if you attempt a full description, it will probably come out as something that a Steven Zeitchik would describe as, “not easy to explain, crisply and without descending into a certain kind of obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo”. Here’s a note, Steve: it’s only ‘obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo’ if you’ve decided in advance that you don’t care. (It is an especially rich irony that when Raiders came out, the critics of the time accused it of the same substitution-of-spectacle-for-story that Zeitchik would pin on Guardians. I expect that in 35 years, Guardians will be hailed as an example of a tightly-written story by the history-less film critics of the future.)

Raiders of the Lost Ark poster

Further, TV writing has gotten much more complex in recent years and it is only natural that movies should follow. When people write complex episodes or multi-episode story arcs for television, everyone–viewers and critics alike–hails that as good television. And if the creators sustain that complexity over a multi-year run, as on Battlestar Galactica or Breaking Bad or whatever show TV critics are frothing over by the time you read this, we practically worship them. But if you write a complex movie, critics throw up their hands because it’s allegedly too hard to follow. And heaven forfend that you try to develop a metaplot that arches across a series of movies–like Thanos’s quest to obtain the six Infinity Stones, to pick an example completely at random. That will get your work labelled as “hermetic”, “inbred”, and “plot-agnostic” (all terms drawn from Zeitchik’s review). Anyway, movie creators don’t have the luxury of letting each story spin out over 6 or 13 or 22 hours. They get us for 2 hours at a time, and I don’t blame them for trying to get in as much good stuff as possible, even if that sometimes makes the results hard to summarize concisely.

Quick aside: since when is “amenable to being summarized concisely” the only hallmark of good storytelling? Do character development, worldbuilding, aesthetic vision, and emotional impact count for nothing? The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Steven Zeitchik ignored everything praiseworthy in Guardians, erected the straw man of “plot simplicity” as his golden idol, and then damned the movie (with faint praise) by definition.

Thor and Loki on Svartalfheim

As I mentioned above, after seeing Thor: The Dark World I spent some time thinking about its complexity. And it is complex, at least narratively or logistically, in that the characters go lots of places and do lots of stuff. So many places and so much stuff that I had a hard time holding it in my head all at once. (Quick, off the top of your head, post a comment listing the planets Thor visits in the movie in order.) And yet I had really enjoyed the movie, much more than the first Thor, which seemed a little too simple even at the time and definitely suffers by comparison to its sequel.

After pondering this for a few days, I realized that Thor 2 was a comic book movie that actually felt like a comic book. The density of incident, the way the story was always on the move and always changing which characters were together at any given point–that’s exactly what comic books do. Take almost any decent 4- to 6-issue story arc from comics and try to explain it concisely, and you’ll probably have just as much difficulty as if you were tracing Thor’s steps through the movie (or, indeed, Indy’s steps through Raiders)

The last idea I want to advance is that this narrative complexity is not a bad thing. Comic books and comic book movies are picaresques–the specific stakes in any one issue or ‘act’ or even film actually are less important than watching the protagonists do what they do. As with a lot of things on this blog, I am indebted to Zak Smith for this insight:

In a sense, nothing ever happens to James Bond or James Kirk–they just go on forever demonstrating a way in which heroism can work. The serial or picaresque hero is not designed in tandem with the plot (as he or she is in a one-shot work like, say, “Hamlet” or “Pride and Prejudice” or “Napoleon Dynamite”):–rather the plots of serial or picaresque adventures are designed to test and stretch and display and probe the many posibilities of the already invented hero. Just like in an rpg.

Avengers Thor Iron Man and Cap

So Tony Stark is a tech-adept wiseass, Black Widow is either sneaking through the shadows or kicking people in the face, and Captain America is actively looking to put himself in harm’s way to shield everyone else, figuratively and sometimes also literally. And a lot of the fun of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is watching these people do their things, especially together when these contradictory approaches strike sparks off each other. Stark and Cap have this very argument in Avengers, when Cap says that Stark would not be the guy to lie down on a wire and let someone crawl over him, and Stark says that he would just cut the wire. Winter Soldier would be about 75% less interesting without the back-and-forth between Steve Rogers, the most upstanding character in the MCU, and Natasha Romanov, who inhabits dishonesty (sometimes literally cloaks herself in it, even in this movie) to about the same extent that Cap embodies honesty. Ditto with Thor and Loki playing Responsibility and Ambition, respectively, in The Dark World (and everything else they’ve been in, other than the first half of Thor when he hadn’t yet assumed that mantle).

Black-Widow-and-Captain-America

And ditto, bigtime, in Guardians of the Galaxy, except that, as in Avengers, there are not two contrasting approaches to reconcile but five. In fact, most of the narrative drive of the movie comes from the protagonists’ varying motives and means bouncing off each other–take away or change any of the characters, and the narrative pinball would end up somewhere else. Presumably it’s this sort of thing that Zeitchik has in mind when he says that the story doesn’t matter.

Okay, that was a bit snarky but also a bit serious. Because it makes me wonder to what extent characterization is in conflict with storytelling, or to be more precise, with plot. And my thinking here is as heavily influenced by RPGs as it is by novels, comics, and movies. In RPGs, there is definitely a tension between characterization and plot: if the GM has a story to tell that is going to unfold regardless of what the players do, that’s derided as railroading, and if the GM has no story at all you’ve got a complete sandbox. I get the sense that most GMs and most groups aim for something in between, where by pulling the levers of the gameworld the GM introduces a problem (plot), and the players attempt to defeat, escape from, or otherwise solve that problem by acting out their characters’ decisions (characterization).

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Thinking about it that way, the “story” of Guardians of the Galaxy is basically the GM tossing the PCs something horrifying and watching this feckless group of eccentrics and deviates become a group and try to handle it. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so naturally they became heroes”–Alan Dean Foster’s epigraph for the novelization of Star Wars pretty much sums up the movie. According to Steven Zeitchik, that’s “post-plot cinema” and apparently a Bad Thing. According to me, it’s a comic book movie successfully emulating the genre it’s based on, and a Good Thing. Zeitchik says that the plot doesn’t matter, and uses that argue that therefore the movie doesn’t matter, or was at least poorly constructed. I agree that the plot doesn’t matter, at least not nearly as much as the characters, and that’s actually satisfying.

What do you think?

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James Gunn on his vision for Guardians of the Galaxy (spoiler-free)

From James Gunn’s Forward to The Art of Guardians of the Galaxy (images added by me, mostly not from the book):

Milano concept painting

I have loved science fiction my whole life. To be more specific, I have loved space epics, or space operas, or space adventures, for as long as I can remember. And this was the chance to make one for today’s audience, a relevant film that cherished the films I loved from the past, while not repeating them.

Knowhere

Alien and Blade Runner are groundbreaking films, but so many science fiction films have been entombed by them, relying on darkness and grittiness to make them “real.” The look of science fiction films has mostly been hitting the same piano key over and over since that time. And if they aren’t Blade Runner, they’re the descendants of Logan’s Run, where the future and alternate realities are composed of almost all white buildings, and entire planets seem to have all of their buildings designed by a single architect.

Galaxina_onesheet

Guardians of the Galaxy would be about color, and life. In-your-face, over-the-top, unrepentant COLOR. We would rescue the aesthetics of pulpy science fiction films from the fifties and sixties–films like Forbidden Planet, Fantastic Voyage, Barbarella–while simultaneously retaining the grittiness and workaday reality of later films. 

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Ships-Wallpaper

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Gamemastering, improvisation, and fairness

The last post got me thinking about two roles of the gamemaster: deliverer-of-unpredictable-wonders, and adjudicator-of-contests. In Old School D&D, there was an understanding, explicitly stated in the rulebooks, that the rules could not cover every eventuality and that therefore one of the primary jobs of the GM was to make fair decisions in situations that the rules didn’t cover (‘rulings not rules’). Ever since then, there has been a long thread in RPG development to try to make a ruleset so tight that the GM doesn’t have to do that, or at least has to do less of it (possibly to make the game playable even if you have an incompetent GM, for which see the very end of this post–but possibly also to reduce the social cost of gaming). Of the RPG rules that I have any familiarity with, D&D 4th ed. is the furthest development along that line. It is probably not a coincidence that it is also the ruleset that most favors combat-as-sport rather than combat-as-war. You can certainly play 4E in the old school, combat-as-war mode–I know because I do, on the infrequent occasions when I play 4E–but it’s a bit like going for a scenic drive in a farm tractor: it’s possible, but it’s not what the machine was designed for.

And I find that the GM has to constantly being making outside-the-rules rulings all the time anyway, for the reason explained in the last post: you can get more done if you scheme than if you “play fair” (with the enemy, not with your fellow players). So a complicated ruleset that tries to do to much is like a governor on an automobile that holds the speed down: if the players improvise a lot, and they always do, then the GM has to be improvising a lot anyway, and small amount of additional improvisation on the GM’s side can replace a lot of rules that would otherwise tend to bog the game down (“let me look up the modifier for striking with a short-sword at a prone opponent–I know there’s a table for that in here somewhere” flip-flip-flip zzzzzzz). Admittedly, this means that the GM has to be both comfortable with improvisational rulings and good at them. Comfort comes through practice–here I think of Zak Smith’s irreverent advice:

“The casting time rules are confusing!” Well change them, waterhead, glue-sniffing 8th graders have been figuring out how to do it since 1979.

As for being good at improvisation, it never hurts to figure out something approximate and let the players roll dice. This is why even when I play first edition, d6 Star Wars, I like to have a full set of polyhedral dice on hand. If you have a d20 to hand, you can divide the probability spectrum into 5% bins (which is probably enough for anything) and let them go. “Hmm, I’d say you have a 35% chance of success here. Roll that d20–on a 14 or higher, you win.” This has two benefits–first, the players have a chance to quibble about the fairness before the dice roll (“Wait, the effects of the booster serum haven’t worn off yet, shouldn’t I get a 10% bump?”), and second, you’re basically off-loading the responsibility onto them. They know the odds before they roll, they know there’s a chance of success (however slim), so it’s basically like any other roll in an RPG.

But I’m getting off-track (and preachy). Last time I wrote:

It’s not so fun to lose because your opponent blindsided you by thinking up something not covered by the rules.

GMs can totally do that to players, but it’s usually not anyone’s idea of fun (other than maybe the GM, who is basically just masturbating at that point and may not have a group to GM for much longer).

Now, that’s not to say that GMs can’t or shouldn’t occasionally blindside the players with something unexpected and horrible. But this points up an important difference between wargames and RPGs: in a wargame, if your small band of soldiers gets surrounded by a more powerful enemy, that’s it, you lose, the game is over. In an RPG, your character probably surrenders and gets hauled off to prison, but the game is not over, it has merely changed mode. Whatever the PCs’ goals were before, now their proximate goal is to break out of prison–and maybe get away with some valuable information or loot as they do so (Star Wars), or at least new allies (Guardians of the Galaxy). So “losing” has different valences in wargames and RPGs: in a wargame, it’s a game-ender, whereas in an RPG it is fuel for further adventures. The PCs may bitch and moan about losing some gear and having to suffer durance vile, but soon they’ll be crowing and high-fiving each other as they ride off into the sunset.

Or if you’re really old-school and hardcore, you have them roll up new characters, and maybe the new gang can try to bust the old gang out of prison. But if imprisonment really is a game-ender or at least game-suspender like that, it should probably be in response for something the PCs did that was careless or dumb (robbed the local magistrate and then flaunted the stolen goods around the same town, used their starship in the convoy raid but didn’t disguise it or change the transponder code before they put in at the next Imperial port).

Dammit, I keep getting sidetracked and preachy. Where I’m trying to go with all of this is the idea, which just occurred to me a couple of days ago, that players want (or games or gamemasters allow players) to cheat when they’re gearing up to screw NPCs but be treated fairly when they’re about to be beaten by NPCs. What I mean by that is that there is usually an expectation that the players can use rules loopholes and scheming and so on to get the NPCs into a turkey-shoot, but that the NPCs won’t be maneuvering the PCs into a similar turkey-shoot–or that if a clever NPC is doing something underhanded like that, it’s something the PCs have a chance to discover and derail. And RPGs tend to have lots of rules for combat even if they’re not about combat because the consequences of combat are sufficiently dire that there need to be fair and transparent ways to adjudicate them (that’s Oddyssey’s idea, not my own, but I think it’s absolutely true). So it’s almost like the game switches modes depending on who has the upper hand, the PCs or the NPCs. If the PCs have the upper hand, often in pre-combat mode, they are scheming and plotting and exploiting loopholes and trying to engineer either a turkey-shoot or a clean getaway. A lot of this will not be covered by rules. But once combat starts, and especially if the NPCs have the upper hand and the PCs are facing imminent destruction, rules kick in to a greater degree. So if the PCs lose and their characters die or get captured, they know why and believe the process of adjudication was fair. That’s still an inexact way to put it, since there is a lot of scope for improvisation during combat, but it’s at least closer to what I’m trying to get at.

When this first occurred to me, it seemed like a bad thing, like players get to have their cake and eat it, too, in terms of screwing the bad guys more than they themselves get screwed. One way to level the playing field somewhat would be to make sure that the PCs’ scheming is just as discoverable by the NPCs as the NPCs’ plotting is by the PCs. And the corollary of that, or maybe the prior condition, is that the main NPCs are always plotting. They’re not just sitting passively offstage waiting for the PCs to walk in and kick their butts, they’re actively seeking the PCs in ways that will have consequences if the PCs don’t detect those machinations and react (Zak’s Hunter/Hunted mechanism).

But even if the scales of screwage don’t quite balance, is that necessarily a bad thing? In the real world, the rich and powerful have a lot more tools at their disposal to mess with the underdogs than vice versa. Since the PCs are usually the underdogs, a strictly “realistic” game would probably end in defeat, whether swift and decisive or a long slow grind into poverty and hit-point-loss. RPGs are games, games are supposed to be fun, and if some of the fun comes from screwing over the bad guys harder than they’re screwing you over, it’s hard to see why that’s a bad thing. Of course things can drift too far, to the point that the PCs are effectively invulnerable and get away with almost anything, but I think a lot of players would not find that very rewarding. And if some do, well, who cares? However they roll dice around their table doesn’t impinge on the way anyone does it. May a thousand gardens grow.

Hmm. Now that I’ve finally gotten all that out, painfully and still inexactly, I don’t know what to do with it. I am tempted to say that it probably requires some degree of social skill and ‘feel’ for the game and the group to make the gamemastering gears mesh, and that for whatever reason a decent chunk of people who are drawn to RPGs seem to lack those skills or at least pick them up slowly, and maybe that’s why you read so much bitching online about bad GMs. But in fact I only got that impression from reading around on the net. My own experience covers decades of no-more-than-normally-socially-adept nerds GMing for each other, and the only bad sessions I remember are ones where I was the GM and I had nothing interesting prepared for the players to tilt at. Maybe it’s because I’ve only gamed with friends. But maybe, contrary to the common wisdom that I just regurgitated, gamemastering is just not that hard–as long as you make some efforts toward being creative and fair and having a good time, everyone else will, too.

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Thoughts on combat-as-sport vs combat-as-war

I’m using the classic EnWorld forum post, “Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War: a Key Difference in D&D Play Styles…” as my springboard here, so if you haven’t read that, you may want to do so before you proceed. But here’s the TL;DR, as expressed in that post, with illustrative examples added by me:

Princess Bride swordfight

People who want Combat as Sport want fun fights between two (at least roughly) evenly matched sides. They hate “ganking” in which one side has such an enormous advantage (because of superior numbers, levels, strategic surprise, etc.) that the fight itself is a fait accompli. They value combat tactics that could be used to overcome the enemy and fair rules adhered to by both sides rather than looking for loopholes in the rules. Terrain and the specific situation should provide spice to the combat but never turn it into a turkey shoot. They tend to prefer arena combat in which there would be a pre-set fight with (roughly) equal sides and in which no greater strategic issues impinge on the fight or unbalance it.

ROTK Legolas vs oliphaunt

The other side of the debate is the Combat as War side. They like Eve-style combat in which in a lot of fights, you know who was going to win before the fight even starts and a lot of the fun comes in from using strategy and logistics to ensure that the playing field is heavily unbalanced in your favor. The greatest coup for these players isn’t to win a fair fight but to make sure that the fight never happens (the classic example would be inserting a spy or turning a traitor within the enemy’s administration and crippling their infrastructure so they can’t field a fleet) or is a complete turkey shoot. The Combat as Sport side hates this sort of thing with a passion since the actual fights are often one-sided massacres or stand-offs that take hours.

I have been thinking about this a lot in terms of the kinds of play that different game systems tend to support or perhaps even evoke. A lot of it comes down to the question, “How much out-of-the-box thinking and improvisation does this game allow or favor?”

At one end of the spectrum are tabletop wargames like BattleTech, where usually both sides start with roughly even forces and no clear advantage in terms of terrain, with a clear “may the best player win” ethos. You may come up with clever tactics in a game like that, but there are no rules for dirty tricks like sending an agent to poison the opposing commander, or burying a tac nuke on your front lines and then retreating to draw the enemy forces right over it. Of course enterprising gamers can and do make up house rules to cover stuff like that, but this is a post about what the written rules of games natively support. And on that basis, BattleTech is pretty squarely combat-as-sport.

Now, I love BattleTech and always have, so clearly I have no deep objection to combat-as-sport as a thing in itself. But combat-as-sport, and rulesets that support or evoke it, drive me crazy when applied to roleplaying games. I’m writing this essay to try to figure out why.

Certainly some of it has to do with the inherent reward for people playing the game–in short, what they find fun. On the combat-as-sport side, much of the appeal of wargames like BattleTech is the opportunity to play tactician. Sure, you could rewrite the game so that you could poison the enemy commander or blow up the entire opposing force, but if you want that style of play, it’s not clear why you’d pick BattleTech as your vehicle. If you want to win a pitched battle by outmaneuvering your opponent, an outside-the-battlefield “win” is probably going to feel hollow, like winning a game of chess by flipping over the board.

On the combat-as-war side, it is a lot of fun to think up ways to screw over the enemy and to put those desperate, improvised plans into action. It’s not so fun to lose because your opponent blindsided you by thinking up something not covered by the rules–best of offload that hurt onto NPCs. It is probably telling that wargames tend not to have gamemasters or referees (at least in their modern guises, although they often did have referees decades ago). So the rules have be limited enough for unambiguous outcomes. There may be rules for hidden units and other forms of limited information, but that’s sorta the point–anything outside of a stand-up fight will have rules to cover it. That’s in contrast to most roleplaying games, where the scope of action is pretty much anything you can think up, so the rules cannot possibly cover every eventuality and a referee of some kind is practically required (even on a temporary or rotating basis–I know there are “GM-less” RPG systems out there, but they all seem to sneak the GM back in through the side door). Knowing how much damage a heavy laser cannon will do to a hovertank may be useful in either a wargame or an RPG, but if you only want to know that, you’re probably playing a wargame (combat-as-sport). Whereas if you’re trying to figure out the results of a livestock stampede through the enemy camp, you’re probably playing an RPG, and explicitly in the combat-as-war mode.

And–at least for some of us–it’s not so fun to prevail in an RPG because you merely ground through the enemy in a pitched battle. That usually represents a failure of imagination: you were forced into a pitched battle because you weren’t clever enough to either gank your enemy or get away before the fighting started. A “grind” victory feels Pyrrhic because RPGs offer something better: the chance to trounce a logistically or numerically superior foe by being clever. If your starfighter pilot could take out a corvette by playing fair, you could probably take out a Star Destroyer if you are an underhanded sneaky bastard. Or maybe even a Death Star if you are especially sneaky–I’m pretty sure the Imperial Starfleet Operations Manual (combat-as-sport) doesn’t say anything about defending against proton torpedoes guided by the Force (combat-as-war). Wouldn’t you rather do that? And wouldn’t your character rather do that?

I think this is why dungeon-crawl boardgames tend to leave me cold. As I wrote about the D&D Wrath of Ashardalon game in my “All the games” post,

I was frustrated at having some of the RPG feeling but without the freedom to do the crazy stuff that actual RPG players come up with in desperate situations.

What I hadn’t realized at the time is that I go to dungeon crawls for combat-as-war, and the game (being a GM-less light wargame) delivered me combat-as-sport.

I realize now that this all has a lot to do with expectations. I first encountered mecha through BattleTech so I tend to think of them in a combat-as-sport idiom, but there are mecha-based RPGs (heck, I’ve even played one). And although I and many other people first encountered dungeon crawls in the combat-as-war mode of RPG play, numerous boardgames treat the same theme as combat-as-sport and they appear to be perennially popular. But at least now I understand why Wrath of Ashardalon and the Robotech RPG left me cold: I was trying to extract combat-as-X fun from an inherently combat-as-Y game.

In the first draft of this post, I started the last paragraph with:

There is no inherent reason why giant mecha flinging missiles and particle beams at each other, on one hand, and fighters, thieves, and magic-users fighting monsters in tunnels, on the other, should “belong” to either the combat-as-sport or combat-as-war sides of the spectrum.

But after thinking some more, three things occured to me:

  1. The best dungeon-delves from literature–basically the two in The Hobbit, under the Misty Mountains and the Lonely Mountain, and the passage through Moria in LOTR–involve small bands prevailing against or at least surviving encounters with numerically or logistically superior enemies.
  2. To the extent that dungeon crawling is about exploration and a sense of wonder, it needs to involve unexpected discoveries, dangerous secrets, and powerful foes, all of which are probably easier to deliver in GM-arbitrated combat-as-war than in GM-less combat-as-sport.
  3. When you’re in a vehicle like a tank or a fighter the scope for cleverness is basically limited to maneuvering and exploiting the terrain (in a dogfight, altitude and proximity to other fighters), which can be handled to most peoples’ satisfaction by wargame rules that don’t require a GM.

All of these factors make me think that vehicle combat doesn’t lose anything by being compressed into the arena of combat-as-sport, whereas dungeon crawling does actually sit more comfortably on the combat-as-war side. And that to make dungeon crawling work as combat-as-sport, you have to remove a lot of the unpredictability–in terms of both what the dungeon delivers, and what the players come up with to survive it–that makes it rewarding in the first place.

I have more to say about the role(s) of the GM, but this post is already long enough. I’ll be grateful for your thoughts: the comment thread is open.

Posted in Big Ideas, roleplaying, wargames | 3 Comments

Good and cheap: H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction

HP Lovecraft Complete Fiction 1

I had been circling around this since learning of its existence a few months ago, and last week I broke down and bought it.

There are innumerable Lovecraft anthologies out there. I have owned many of them, not from any systematic search but from having grabbed them off the shelf at a bookstore, or through a book club back when I was young and dumb. The vast majority of these popular anthologies fall down in three ways. First, they only have a selection of Lovecraft’s stories. Second, the same two dozen or so of the most popular stories turn up again and again in different anthologies. Third, the stories are sometimes reprints of reprints and not the definitive versions. So if you are a completist, you have to actually do some work to try to get all of Lovecraft’s work, and avoid a lot of duplication. Or at least you did for many years.

Long-time Lovecraft critic, biographer, and anthologist S.T. Joshi fixed those problems in his three-volume Lovecraft set from Penguin Classics. Finally there was a complete set of the definitive, corrected texts of all of Lovecraft’s fiction. But you still had to buy three books.

That final problem was fixed in 2008 when Barnes & Noble published Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction – Complete and Unabridged. Finally all of the definitive texts were available in one volume. But apparently that first run was plagued by vast numbers of typos. The corrected version, now trading under the title H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, has apparently been available since 2011 or so. I only started seeing copies a few months ago, when they started showing up among the “bargain classics” at the local Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store. Like almost all of the Barnes & Noble bargain classics, this is a hefty hardback with foil-edged pages and a cloth ribbon bookmark. You can get it for 20 bucks, which is a steal. My copy is from the eighth printing, if anyone is keeping score.

Of course, you can get the whole Lovecraft canon for free online, but I’m with Matt Baldwin on this: Lovecraft cries out to be read in print. Preferably at night after everyone else has gone to bed, by the light of a single lamp in an otherwise dark house.

HP Lovecraft Complete Fiction 3

What you get for your 20 bucks: a brief introduction by Joshi, followed by 68 stories, novellas, and novels (or maybe ‘novel’ singular, since The Curious Case of Charles Dexter Ward seems to be the only entry), followed by an appendix with some (all?) of Lovecraft’s juvenalia, followed by the discarded draft of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, followed finally by Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. Each story, draft, or essay is preceded by a short introduction by Joshi. The whole thing runs to 1098 pages.

I’m extremely happy with my copy. If you happen to pick one up, I suspect that you will likewise be pleased. Highly recommended.

Posted in Lovecraft, Summer of Lovecraft | Leave a comment

My first Trail of Cthulhu adventure

Trail of Cthulhu core rulebook cover

Given my strong interests in RPGs and Lovecraft, it was probably inevitable that I’d end up playing one or more of the X of Cthulhu games. I actually bought the core rulebooks for both Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu during my Lovecraftian sojourn last summer (there is also–and seemingly unnecessarily–an Age of Cthulhu that I haven’t yet checked out. EDIT: Whoops, my bad, Age is not a different game, it is a series of officially-licensed adventures for Call, which many people seem to really dig). But I never quite got a game together. My first time playing either game was last October at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in LA (I know, that’s like a stack overflow of geekery). John “of the Freezers” Hutchinson ran a pretty epic CoC session on Oct. 30 as an early Halloween celebration. Everyone in the adventure ended up dead, insane, or translated to an alternate universe, so it was of course a rousing success. But I hadn’t tried to run either game myself until today.

So why’d I pick Trail over Call for my first run as a Keeper? The story-gamey aspects of Trail weren’t off-putting so much as unfamiliar, given my more old-school background, and I approached that system with a fair degree of trepidation. But three things tilted the scales in favor of Trail: (1) I’d read that making up characters was a lot faster than in Call–and I believed it, after having played Call; (2) the Trail book has many fewer tables than the Call book, and I hate having to look stuff up mid-game; and (3) I liked Zak Smith’s description of gameplay in Night’s Black Agents, another Pelgrane Press title that runs on the same system as Trail:

Using GUMSHOE’s nondiegetic-thinking-style spendy mechanic, you, in effect buy ease and choice at the beginning of the session and pay for it with desperation at the end of the game. [emphasis in the original]

I like fast chargen, light rules, and desperation, so I decided to give it a shot.

In another Zak-Smith-inspired move, I hacked the character sheet to make it basically DIY even for people who had never played. Which meant rearranging things to get all of the useful options on the page, and ignoring any fiddly bits (seriously, Pelgrane: a character sheet with ten footnotes is horked). I also deep-sixed the Stability stat to run with just Sanity, as in Call. Here’s my version:

Trail of Cthulhu Character Sheet

This afternoon our friend Eric came over and I ran a game for him and London. It was pretty sublime. I brought the disorienting visions and midnight scuffles with invisible opponents, and they supplied the irresponsible use of firearms, dinner table catatonia, and theft of a valuable museum specimen (all in-game, of course). The boys had to deal with knife attacks, severed heads bouncing off windshields, and washing dishes when they couldn’t pay their way. At the climax of the adventure, Eric’s archaeologist was hanging upside down by one foot from the open door of a stolen propane truck, having gotten tangled in the seatbelt in his attempt to leap free, while London’s ex-military drifter was firing a stolen rifle from a treetop perch to hit and sever the seatbelt and thereby release Eric’s character before the propane truck collided with the reality-warping tentacle monster that had eaten an entire town.

cthulhoid entity

Like this, but worse.

Yeah, that’s the stuff.

Mechanically it was fine. The system really gets out of the way and lets everyone at the table get on with the story. It wasn’t a railroady adventure at all–I had about six possible trails of clues, and all roads led to Weird–but Eric and London didn’t roll much until near the end. Their characters were roaming around, having conversations, and having weird stuff happen to them, but mostly in ways that didn’t require skill checks or opposed rolls. Just growing realization that Things Are Not What They Seem, and the slow erosion of sanity. And at the very end, desperation, depleted ability pools–they go pretty fast when things get hot–mad improvisation, and madness full stop.

At the end of the adventure, both PCs were shell-shocked, suffering from temporary insanities, and supported by a friendly and not-entirely-stable hobo as they limped away from a mostly destroyed and burning town. London jumped up, shook his fists and said, “That. Was. Awesome!” Like I said, sublime.

damage

A lot of the people that I would normally roll with are out of town–most of them in the field, digging up fossils, or visiting relatives in other states or countries–but when they get back, I’m going to run some more of this. Stay tuned.

UPDATE on August 5: Since my descent into Lovecraftiana is apparently a seasonal thing, I’m gathering the current run of posts in the category ‘Summer of Lovecraft‘. Google informs me that I’m about the 50th person to have come up with that phrase, but what the heck, I didn’t know that when it occurred to me. Click the link to see what other insanity I extruded into our reality this summer. Last summer’s Lovecraftiana is mostly covered by the ‘Collect Call of Cthulhu‘ category.

Posted in actual play reports, Lovecraft, roleplaying, Summer of Lovecraft, Trail of Cthulhu | 4 Comments

Battletech actual play report: London victorious

I just realized that I hadn’t yet posted the end of the 200-ton fight from the last post.

endgame 1

Things started moving pretty fast. There are three ‘Mechs down in this photo. London’s Atlas went down from a head shot, as did my Dervish. My Awesome was down from a failed piloting roll from taking too much damage, but not out of the fight.

endgame 2

Not out of the fight yet, anyway. But a couple of turns later, my Awesome went down from a third head shot, and my Catapult annihilated London’s Spider by wiping out its internal structure.

endgame 3

That left just two ‘Mechs standing: London’s Grasshopper, and my Catapult. They were very evenly matched: about the same tonnage, same movement points and modes, and similar armament. So we just slugged it out.

endgame 4

When we were both getting low on armor, I got things lined up for a charge. Charging is the most devastating ‘Mech-on-‘Mech attack possible in Battletech, because the damage is multiplied by the number of hexes traveled. I got my Catapult in position for a 5-hex charge, delivering 35 points of damage to London’s Grasshopper.

Now, tragically, if a charging attack is successful, both ‘Mechs take damage. Tragically because London’s Grasshopper had a completely unobstructed shot at my Cat on its way in, and fairly flayed it of its last remaining armor. So when the two ‘Mechs collided, my Cat got destroyed.

In my defense, London’s Grasshopper was almost destroyed. It was down to 2 points of center torso internal structure, and it had taken two engine hits and one gyro hit. One more engine hit, one more gyro hit, or even a sparrow farting on the internal structure would have been enough to finish it. But none of those things happened, and London had the last ‘Mech standing. Good times.

London victorious

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