Monday, September 25, 2006


As ever, no prizes to regular readers who know where I've been the past couple of weeks. Bitter and twisted as I am upon emerging from yet another slough of despond- and this one without any gaming at all to raise my spirits- I feel the need to vent my spleen in a pointless rant or two at some hapless non-moving targets. So I'll start with...

The turning of the season...
Autumn's definitely upon us here in Glasgow: the nights are drawing in (as we say), with darkness now descending by 7pm. The clocks will go back to gorram GMT before we know it and we'll have to endure those long months of mid-afternoon dusks. Gah, but I hate those long dark nights! Seasonal Affective tendencies aside, it's a bit of an age thing I think: when I was a youngster I used to find delights in autumn and winter; then, about 10 years ago, I realised I just hated the long months with too little daylight. I realised I was getting old.

Spires of Altdorf? Gah!
Since the diversion that was The Madness of Father Ranulf, and after the Serenity interlude, I've been thinking about how to get my PC's back onto the Paths of the Damned. Spires of Altdorf looks like a worthy sequel to Ashes of Middenheim, and I'm looking forward to getting it rolling.

But SoA is a very different adventure from AoM. In particular, it features a large cast of NPC's with whom the PC's must interact. These are fully detailed as you'd expect from BI's WFRP scenarios, with the key NPC's including lots of information that should prove very useful to the would-be GM. All well and good then. So what's my beef?

It's simply that those key NPC's are so well detailed that the information as presented in the book strikes me as being too cumbersome for easy use during play. What a GM (this one at least!) really needs with NPC's like these is to have each one available on handy reference sheets; large postcards would be ideal, but A5 at a pinch. Unfortunately, not content with the NPC's as laid out in the book requiring irritating page-flipping to get at; with the information often split across different pages, the layout is also such that you couldn't even photocopy the relevant pages to construct your NPC reference sheets.

In this ICT day-and-age, it would've been the easiest thing in the world for BI to have produced PDF's alongside their print books. With a bit of copying and pasting to a handy WP package it would then've been the easiest thing in the world to compile the much-needed references. But BI, in their infinite wisdom, have so far declined to join the rest of the rpg industry in producing PDF's of their line.

So there's nothing for it to resort to a serious session at the scanner before I can get to work on compiling those references without which I won't feel comfortable trying to deal with the complexities of SoA's interesting looking plot. Gah! And again- gah!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

General gamism

Roleplaying as art? Not for me

John Kim recently posted a reply to an old post in which I wrote about my first encounters with the idea that roleplaying is art. Answering John's comments I said he'd spurred me to return to the subject. Before pursuing that though, I'll comment in more detail on some of John's remarks.

Replying to my thoughts, John asked me if I could "suggest... any other case of an imaginative, creative endeavor which is categorically never art?" Yes: science. Although a lot of scientific spadework is technical and repetitive, developing new scientific theories is pretty much as creative and imaginative an activity as writing a novel or painting a picture. This is pretty much a truism of scientific literature these days AFAIK.

That question aside, John also noted that "by saying that RPGs can never be art, you are judging them by inappropriate standards. Playing RPGs... is an imaginative, creative endeavor, and I think it should be looked at the same way that other imaginative, creative endeavors are." To which my reply is: my point exactly!

The concept of 'art'
My fundamental objection to the idea that roleplaying is art is that I believe roleplaying games to be part of a cultural development that has undermined the very concept of 'art'.

What I mean here is this: it is pretty difficult to avoid the conclusion that the concept of 'art' has always existed in contrast to its other- ie. 'high' culture versus 'low' culture, and that this contrast has always served a priori to elevate the so-called 'art' above whatever it was being contrasted against. That is to say: the very idea of 'art' is that there is a realm of creative expression which- by its very nature- is more sublime and somehow more insightful than anything from outside that realm. The inherent elitism of this is something that I feel I need not belabour here.

A historical example of this is the difference between what we now call 'classical music' and 'folk music'. The cultural wall between these 2 kinds of music was so strong that, unless my memory utterly fails me, a composer like Smetana created controversy by including native folk tunes in his orchestral compositions. Readers with greater knowledge of cultural history could enumerate further examples I am sure.

Now my aim here is not to write up a capsule social history of culture. Rather it is to highlight how the very term 'art' contradicts the nature of roleplaying so that the term is worse than meaningless when applied to rpg's. To this end I want to bring the issue of 'art' bang up to date, to modern art. I have to confess that I'm one of those people who really doesn't 'get' most of modern art. All the same, I would like to suggest that, if there is one thing that has been proved by the trajectory of modern art, then it is that the concept of 'art' to which I have pointed is completely and utterly bankrupt, because the world has quite simply passed it by.

I mean to say: whatever you might think about Damien Hirst's pickled animal carcasses (or a personal favourite of mine from the early 70's: a 1 mile-long brass rod buried in a hole in an American desert somewhere... really!), the very terms in which works of this kind are explained strip the term 'art' of any real meaning. What else can we say when artists eschew content, preferring instead to let the viewer project their own meanings onto whatever passes before their eyes?

My point here is more than just a rant against flatulent subjectivism. What I believe this development represents is the exhaustion of the classic- high bourgeois- concept of 'art' in the face of a culture predicated on industrial mass production whose immeasurable richness simply cannot be embraced via the cultural concepts of an fundamentally elitist intellectual apparatus of essentially pre-industrial origins. This point about the richness of contemporary culture cannot be over-emphasised IMO, because it is the basis of what I believe to be one thing that the postmodernists got right and that everyone else barely noticed- namely that 'art' is dead because it's all largely a matter of personal taste now.

Stripping away the old conceptions of high culture enjoying a special pre-eminence over low culture we find ourselves in the situation of living in a mass culture consisting of a range of more-or-less widespread particular popular cultures. Roleplaying, it seems to me, expresses the dynamics of this rather nicely, with its distillation of themes enjoying a mass audience (eg. movies) into what is, let's face it, a minority interest- a particularly particular culture, if you will.

Wordplay aside, what I'm getting at then is the idea that roleplaying is a quintessential product of the developments of late 20th century consumerist capitalism which have rendered the concept of 'art' obsolete. Hence my opinion that the artistic conception of roleplaying is an attempt to judge rpg's by inappropriate standards.

What is it about roleplaying that is really novel?
Discussions about the nature of roleplaying abound, and theories about how they work are ten-a-penny. Speaking for myself, one thing which is pretty damn inescapably important is the shift from audience to participant as you enter into a world of adventure or drama. Regardless of which faction(s) of roleplaying you might situate yourself in, no matter which kind of game you are playing, it seems to me that at the end of the day you are motivated by the desire to stop 'watching' the action that thrills you, and to get stuck in.

The flip side of this- and something which I believe to be profoundly tied-in to the games in roleplaying games- is that roleplaying is about mutual entertainment pure and simple. This is not just the obvious point that rpg's typically don't have winners and losers as do competitive games. More than just that, I would say that at its best roleplaying is not just about having fun for yourself, it is also about being fun for your fellow players.

This is no longer a particularly novel point I'll happily admit, even in terms of the way that the shift from audience to participant parallels, highlights and carries forward the democratisation of culture implicit in my perspective on the decline of the concept of 'art'. Perhaps just a bit more novel is the idea that the advance that this movement represents is simultaneously a return, albeit one which recreates its point of departure in a more complex and sophisticated form.

What I'm talking about here is the feeling that roleplaying often gives me of having 'returned' to the venerable tradition of fireside storytelling. Or, in even more grandiose terms, I sometimes find myself wondering if those legendary PC's whose adventures live on in the 'fish-stories' you and your gaming buddies share down the years don't represent the revival- in an appropriate modern form- of the epic narratives of the ancient cultures of man.

Over the top completely? I'd like to think not. But if there is even a nugget of rationality in these speculations, then they pose another serious problem for the idea that roleplaying is art. Why? Because unless my basic understanding of history is profoundly mistaken, the narrative traditions to which I refer predate the very existence of 'art' as a distinct feature of culture which existed in reference to some external, inferior mere culture. Whatever the precise details of this history, people would have been sitting around fires telling each other stories for a very long time before storytelling could have become a speciality which could take on airs and graces.

John Kim's remarks quoted above were in response to my own comment that "[f]ar from highlighting roleplaying's distinct virtues, the artistic conception submerges those virtues by choosing to evaluate rpg's according to standards that are quite simply inappropriate to what rpg's are."

In taking up John's challenge I put forward a sketch of a concept of art arguing that the term is intrinsically elitist and a historical relic of no real value in understanding the modern culture without which rpg's simply wouldn't even exist. I continued by putting forward some thoughts about the nature of roleplaying suggesting that it enjoys novel features profoundly at odds with structure and history of 'art' as an aspect of human society.

I expect that many readers cleaving to the artistic concept of roleplaying won't be convinced by the barely fleshed-out bones of the case I have put forward. In particular, I wouldn't be at all surprised if some were to protest that they have no truck with artistic elitism, that they were instead concerned more deeply to understand how their experience of roleplaying meshes with their enjoyment of reading, movies, and so on- with "other imaginative, creative endeavors" in other words. Some might even agree with my opinion of what 'art' has meant in the past, but argue that the very development to which I refer means that the term has a new, more inclusive meaning.

Presumptious enough to answer imagined counter-arguments in advance, to the former I would say: fair enough, but the viewpoint I have put forward suggests that it is quixotic at best to attempt to achieve these perfectly reasonable goals by accomodating to aesthetic conceptions which bear no proven relationship to the specific features of rpg's. I mean to say: what are you trying to achieve by asserting the artistic conception of roleplaying? Are you trying to improve your gaming experience? To achieve for your gaming some dignity you feel it lacks? Or to explore purposes other than simple entertainment that rpg's might be adapted to? What exactly? And how exactly does the artistic conception of roleplaying assist you?

And to the latter I would suggest that such a line of argument would inevitably end up as mere semantic wranglings. If my basic historical case for the elitism of 'art' as a concept holds water, then attempting to argue that 'everything is art now' is hardly a step forward. Instead of grasping the novel features of the present situation in their own terms it is an effort which can only spread intellectual confusion by maintaining the old cultural jargon in a persistent vegetative state.

The emperor's new clothes? The state of roleplaying theory
- #1: General gamism
- #2: A funny thing happened on my way to this article
- It's art Jim, but not as we know it!

Monday, September 11, 2006


Battlelore buzz!
Days of Wonder games recently confirmed rumours that Battlelore would be their next release of a game using Richard Borg's renowned Command and Colours game system.

The images on the blog linked above show the quality of the contents of the new game as well as the mechanics' kinship with those of C&C:A. The details noted in the very informative interview with DoW's Eric Hautemont and Mark Kaufmann posted at Boardgame News give a good idea of just how much of those components there will be in the new big box; eg. Battlelore will have 210 miniatures and a total of 168 cards, compared to 148 and 69 respectively in M44.

Box-stuffing goodies aside, what intrigues me most so far are the hints at how the game will handle 2 of the most important features of the fantasy setting, namely heroes and magic: "Lore Masters, such as Wizards, Clerics, Warriors and Rogues gathered in customizable War Councils". Hmm. So it seems that heroes will be handled by a special unit type which will have special abilities dependent on how many of the classic archetypes the unit contains? Sounds interesting.

Anyhoo the game is due for release in November, and DoW will be maintaining a flow of teasers to maximise the buzz, so no doubt there'll be more anticipatory slavering here at RD/KA! before I finally prise open the box and go ballistic!

Commands and Colours: Ancients- GMT update online material
As noted in my last post, GMT Games were planning on making available living rules and new scenarios as downloads for fans of C&C:A. This material is now available here.

The 2nd edition rules were announced in advance as due to contain only minor clarifications. It turns out that there are actually some rules changes which are significant even if their effect on games won't actually be overpowering. These changes effect close combat and missile fire of units occupying terrain- which is significant; but which only apply to 4 of the 10 scenarios in the 1st edition of the game- which is hardly a sweeping change to gameplay as players will already know it.

The extra scenarios give C&C:A players 10 new battles in which to test their skills and nerve. More important though are 9 more chances to get out those elephants and hope for some serious rampaging!

TheRPGsite's looking lively
The late unlamented Nutkinland messageboard's new incarnation looks to have generated sufficient momentum to get off the ground and have a viable future, with a healthy posting rate on topics that have provided some interesting reading.

Winner in the realm of sheer simple curiosity for this reader was the thread about Things game companies do that piss you off?. Apart from bringing up the first serious test of the pundit's moderation-lite, I was intrigued when another thread-drift- on the topic of Freemasonry- brought out the source of the term 'Landmarks' the pundit uses to denote his list of fundamentals of anti-Swine roleplaying theory: according to the Wikipedia entry (an infallible source, I know!) the Landmarks are "the ancient and unchangeable precepts of Masonry". Not trying to make any particular point here; it's just that the idea of the Freemason's theory of roleplaying tickled my funny bone somewhat! ;)