Of friends and jaguars: a movie review

I have not posted any movie reviews yet, even though I have long thought to do so. Ironically, my first one is pretty relevant for this blog’s nature. I have watched Zero Charisma (2013). I did not know much about it, except that it was presented by many as a satire “from within” the gaming world. Is it such a thing? Well, in Italy there is an idiom which literally translates as “a friend of the jaguar’s” (un amico del giaguaro). It must have been invented by a stand up comedian in the Fifties. A guy wants to go hunting a certain jaguar, but his friend overwhelms him with objections and skepticism. “Are you a friend of the jaguar’s?” means “Whose side are you on?”. While watching the movie, I could not help thinking that to gamers, this is going to be the jaguar’s BFF.

I must premise something: my fellow players and I were always comparatively isolated in the larger RPG community, and I had left RPGs almost entirely by the last year in high school. So I cannot reasonably be assumed to be personally offended by this movie. So, nothing very personal, but yeah, this movie is problematic. It is problematic first, because it is unfair, and second, because it reinforces the age-old stereotypes about RPGs.

The unfairness lies in at least two aspects. First, the depiction of Scott is grotesque beyond any justification. Even the closest real world models for this character should rightfully feel wronged by this movie. In my personal experience, I can think of only one guy who very remotely could be likened to Scott: a huge guy, a passionate DM who had a fairly bullying attitude (at the table and elsewhere) and dealt with some personal frustrations not in the most fruitful way. Still, he was fairly liked by his players and friends, who by the way were not the sort of submissive slaves shown in the movie. Most of what Scott does is well beyond what any RPG fanatic would do. I could not think of anybody who besides painting miniatures also played with them like a 6 year old, especially if not under the influence of some heavy shit. Second, and most important, this movie never shows, or even suggest, the fun and pleasure of RPGs: the only time we see the players having a good time, it is because the ‘cool’ new player cracks a good joke. So in what way is this movie sympathetic to the hobby? Compare it the hundreds of movies about sport: they may show scenes of personal sacrifice, mental cruelty and whatnot, but on the background there is always the magic of the game itself. Not here.

Even the entirely sensible message (which I earnestly espouse) that a hobby should not be taken too far, be pursued obsessively or be overly time consuming, in my real life experience seems to be applied consistently only to RPGs or similar nerdy hobbies. In Europe, most males from the early childhood to their oldest age are interested in football with a degree of enthusiasm that at times borders on the psychosis. Is this ever laughed at, ridiculed or stigmatized? Occasionally perhaps, but hey: boys will be boys, right? Again, take music. People who play in a band are often absorbed to an incredible degree in their hobby, and are prone to personality clashes not unlike those seen in the movie. Would anybody judge their tribulations as “pathetic” as Scott’s? Not really. Yes, people in amateur indie bands might be labeled as “losers” (stupid word I only ever hear in American movies), but they are still cooler than you. Do you see the pattern? There must be something sad and morbid specifically about RPGs! In fact, [SPOILER warning, for those who care] the ending was supremely irritating. Scott is shown to be employed (in some capacity) as an entertainer at a nursing home, and to play RPGs with the elderly patients. It was meant to show that Scott has learned something, and still he does not give up on the game entirely, but in the context of the movie it is all the more insulting: we had already been reinforced in the prejudice that RPGs are for maladjusted eternal children, now we find out that they also befit quite nicely semi-demented old folks. Good publicity, indeed.

To conclude, this movie really is the Thinking Man’s Dark Dangeons or Mazes and Monsters. Be serious for a second: intelligent, well read people would never really think that D&D can bring people to go insane and get lost in a cave, or to learn black magic to kill their own father. But everybody is ready to accept RPGs as an embarrassing, grotesque pastime for people who have lost at life, and this movie is exactly what they need to be convinced.

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“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”

Last weekend I have been beaten to the punch for the greatest bargain ever: the whole Basic D&D GAZ series at 150 euros. Yeah, the conditions were not specified, but it was still one chance in a lifetime. I have always wanted those damn booklets. I will not lie about it: among the good number of gaming books that I got rid of in the late Nineties, the Gazetteers were the only ones I really miss.  They were not well translated, and it was a pretty random selection (only six of them were translated before the whole line was abandoned). But the average quality was very high, and they would have deserved more love.

I was very, very excited about putting my hands on all of them at once, no matter if a bit old and battered. Alas, I shall have to content myself with the newly released official PDFs, which at least are good quality scans, unlike the last time. I guess that I will try to get them all and have them printed, maybe in three or four bound volumes. It would not be cheap, but still affordable.

As for buying originals, I think I got my chance, and blew it. Fortunately, I had already bought (not cheap, mind you, but at a reasonable price) GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, which in many ways I regard as the best of the lot. If I managed to find a decent offer, I could not resist buying a copy of GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri, which was my favourite back in the day. I will post about it someday. Suffice it to say that GAZ1 was a very sensible concept very well executed, and with a few subtle twists. GAZ3, on the other hand, was a pretty goofy concept, which is nonetheless executed so well that it works, in spite of its (too) many (some pretty silly) twists. I will come back to this as soon as I find the time to look at the PDFs more seriously.

“Kids These Days”

One of my very first posts here was about arbitrary class restrictions in the history of D&D. I later discovered that a bunch of my claims were pretty inaccurate. When I wrote it, I must confess, I was pretty rusty on my knowledge of the TSR-era editions, and rudimentary in my knowledge of the WotC-era evolution.  These days I am, to some extent, catching up with the game, under the excuse of getting to know the new 5e.

I have never had personally to do with edition 3.X, and I have barely peaked into Pathfinder in the last year or so, so to me the choice between those and 5e is not particularly dramatic.  I have read the Basic Rules PDF for 5e, and browsed the physical books. All in all, I like the way the flood of class options from those earlier editions has been streamlined, and the main innovation in terms of mechanics (the advantage-disadvantage thing) seems reasonable enough, in spite of being (as far as I know!) entirely unprecedented in D&D. I had fun creating a bunch of characters, even though I found out that when it comes to arms and armour, 5e is as arbitrary as ever, only, this time it is a matter of race rather than class: an elf wizard can use swords and bows without having to multiclass, a human wizard cannot. Funny, but not really a deal breaker for me.

The fact that the magic system moved away from Vancian casting does not bother me in itself. In fact, disconnecting spell slots from spell memorization basically changes slots into something like Power Points (see below), a repository of daily magic fuel that you can spend as you see fit. An increase of flexibility, and it is also easier to rationalize in setting.

One aspect of the magic system, though, strikes me as entirely undesirable. Can’t you guess? At-will cantrips. The very idea of magic use being free from any resource constraint is, I think, hazardous and hardly ever adopted in RPGs. D&D had Vancian casting, Rolemaster and Basic Role-Playing had Power Points, GURPS had fatigue. Even the powerful and free-form Magick of WW’s Mage series was in fact limited post factum by Paradox Points and other mechanics (basically, if you used Magick too nonchalantly, bad things would happen). It is not merely a matter of game balance among classes/character types. It is also a matter of the role of magic users in the world and in gaming sessions: if any spell of the slightest utility could be used all the time without repercussions, you must expect a PC to use it repeatedly in every single session, perhaps multiple times in a given scene. Many supporters of 5e on the Internet frankly admit that such is the case with cantrips.

If we were only talking utility spells, the thing would not be terribly serious. Yes, a spell like Mage Hand, if usable at will, can in fact trivialize a good number of classic lower level D&D situations: think taking keys from a guard, or pushing a lever without touching it. But things get worse when you look at the great number of attack cantrips, some of them dealing an incredible 1d10 or even 1d12 damage! Defenders say “Man, it is still less than a good crossbow…”. Of course it is, but it is still a pretty decent approximation! This means that first level wizards are now going to be employed in any given combat as (second rate) archers/crossbowmen and to shoot stuff from their hands all the time.

I can see two problems with this fact. First, mechanically, it radically changes the most fundamental reason for having classes in D&D: not every character type should be capable at doing the same as their companions in any given situation. Wizards are not supposed to engage in combat and kick asses every single time: they already can do many things that no other class can do, so empowering them further in combat is unfair. Second, a narrative problem, if you like. A wizard who shoots acid/ice/fire from his hands at will, and (as a consequence!) does it dozens of times each session, does not resemble any fantasy character I can think of. It resembles, if anything, a pretty boring superhero. So, I know that kids these days call you names when you say what I am about to say, but I will say it anyway: this is not D&D any longer.

Nota Bene: I am aware that at will “0 level” spells are present in Pathfinder, and I would extend my perplexity to that game as well, if it was not for the non-secondary detail that those spells are fewer and inflict negligible damage. I can then see them used in play as mere last resort measures, rather than the default actions every single round. So, if anything, Pathfinder appeals me more than 5e under this respect.

Ubi Maior

[I am not posting very often lately, but now I hope to make up with a series of short and (hopefully?) to the point posts on stuff I have had in mind for a while.]

One of the nerdiest and most intriguing ideas I had for a post series was to take each time one descriptive aspect of traditional RPGs, e.g., ranged combat, learning spells, buying equipment, and compare its treatment in a bunch of big games, trying to figure out what the differences (if any) might amount to in actual play. The only problem I had with that was that it is a lot of work. Now I have a second problem: as far as combat is concerned I could never do better than Douglas Cole. His recent Violent Resolution series compares five disparate games (D&D 5e, Savage Worlds, Gumshoe, Fate Core, GURPS) under many different aspects of character generation, action resolution and playability. I am happy to leave it to him. On the other hand, I might still consider to attempt something like this for other (non-combat related) fields. Stay tuned.

On playing time travel

Last week I watched the Director’s Cut of Donnie Darko for the first time, ten years after watching the theatrical release. For those interested in my opinion, the latter had a problem: the plot was a little too convoluted to be left at that. The DC, on the other hand, tries to remedy in a distinctly uncinematographic way: by adding long text excerpts that the audience is expected to read and put together. So, neither is entirely satisfactory, but I still like the mystery and the conciseness of the older cut above the expository excesses of the DC. Anyway, the film induced some disordered thoughts about time travel in fiction and RPGs.

There are basically three “cool things” about time travel that just about define its place in fiction. First, I will call the Theme Park Effect. Imagine yourself fighting in a Roman legion, serving at the court of a Chinese emperor, or meeting dinosaurs: how cool is that? This appeal is pretty self evident, but also quite superficial (hence the name). This happens to be pretty much included in all time travel RPG settings.

Second, the “What If” Effect. This involves the notion of (alternative) presents, rather than times in the past. The relevant scenario is when some time traveler changes something in the past which either changes their own present or, in some conceptions, creates a brand new timeline which differs from their original one. This is much more sophisticated than the first aspect, and presupposes more complex problems. In fact, it might even involve one or more of the following…

Third, the Paradoxes. I will not go into the devilish subtleties of time travel. By Paradoxes, I refer generically to all the sort of counterintuitive causality related problems involved in time travel to past times. Even occasional fans of SF know those: What does it happen if you meet your older self? What if you kill your grandfather? etc. In fact, SF literature (and, nicely enough, the academic philosophical literature) has a range of formulations of this strand of problems and a good number of different solutions (never mind the fact that, by the most rigorous definition, if something can be solved it was no paradox to begin with).

The problem, simply put, must be that paradoxes are a mess, and more specifically, a GM’s nightmare. Imagine having to detail how a given PC’s actions in the past are going to modify their original timeline. What happens? Does it affect their original timeline, when he or she comes back to the present? Or is it a Multiverse reality, so that one change just create a parallel timeline alongside the original one? Even if the latter is the case, how can the PCs manage to get back to their own universe, as opposed to find themselves in a new “future”? So it is not that strange that RPGs, mostly, discourage the inclusion of Paradoxes in your game.

These days I have browsed through two (absolutely likable and intriguing) settings, one for Fate Core (Timeworks, in Fate Worlds 2: Worlds in Shadows), another one for GURPS (first as a suggested campaign for GURPS Time Travel, then as an assumed background to GURPS Alternate Earths 1 & 2, then as the 4e standalone volume Infinite Worlds). They are remarkable in that they manage to incorporate all of the superficial glamour of the Theme Park Effect, and even to give you some of the mind blowing appeal of the “What If” Effect, but without allowing for real Paradoxes. Let us see how.

Timeworks circumvents Paradoxes in two ways. First, the opposite of the Butterfly Effect is claimed to be true: minor changes in the past do not propagate or snowball. The effect of a change in the past is always minimal (the timestream is “inertial”, so to speak). This is still fine, because the assumed task of the PCs is always to induce local, limited changes on behalf of private clients (say, make so that a certain work of art is inherited by my family, or that I win that academic prize etc.). Second, Paradoxes involving the PCs themselves (say, if they kill their grandparents) are avoided because they undergo a process called “dealignment”, by which (preemptively) they are causally disconnected from the current timeline: they are ontologically zeroed, their existence is written off. This, in itself, is only a drastic measure to make Paradoxes literally impossible, but it lends itself to bringing an existential angst component in the game that might be appealing to many players.

The older setting, Infinite Worlds, is a more complex affair to begin with. It is not, strictly speaking, a time travel setting, but it is built in such a way that it shares much of the appeal of time travel, minus the Paradoxes. The Theme Park Effect is offered by worlds called Echoes: worlds which are like our own at a given point in the past. Since these are not our past, changing them has no effect on our future (even though it is discouraged anyway, for setting specific reasons). The “What If” Effect is served by another type of worlds, Parallels: these are worlds which resemble how our world would have been, had certain things been different at a given point in the past (divergence point). Interestingly, it does not seem to be the case that Parallels result from changes occurred to Echoes: all in all, this ontology feels a bit contrived, because it was pretty clearly invented by the authors in order to mimic the best time travel fiction pretty closely, while at the same time preventing Paradoxes. Interestingly, the latest iteration of the Infinite Worlds campaign (the 4e volume) retains a (now) pretty unjustified chapter on real time travel, which goes at length about why it is a bad a idea for a GM.

How shall I conclude? First, that even Paradox-free time travel (or analogous notions) makes for an attractive premise for an RPG adventure or campaign. Second, that I would be curious to read an RPG that takes time travel more literally and makes Paradoxes the core of the setting: does anything like that exist? Let me know.

The Risks of Acceleration

I have bought Fate Accelerated (FAE). I think the idea is laudable and the booklet is very nice. I dislike the art, but that is just me. As I wrote before, many people might actually like FAE better than Core, on the account of its being more streamlined and “pure”. Still, I think that there is at least one objective problem that is bound to complicate things in play. Now, mind you: I am not roleplaying these days, let alone playing FAE, so obviously I have not experienced such problems personally. So, if you are one of those self-righteous forum animals who like to say “actual play examples, or I won’t listen”, stop reading now.

The problem lies in Approaches, which substitutes Skills in FAE. FAE Approaches do not represent what characters can do and how well they are at doing it (unlike Core‘s Skills), bur rather how good they are at doing anything in a certain style: Forceful, Sneaky, Flashy, etc. This abstracts away entirely from the competences of a character: a guy who is especially good at doing thing Forcefully is going to be able to put in practice this approach in all sorts of tasks, regardless of his training.

If you are a hardcore enemy of simulationism (whatever this is supposed to mean), I guess that the idea must be very appealing to you: “Screw GURPS! Who cares whether my mad scientist is a virologist or a geophysicist? She’s Clever!”. The problem is that since most actions can be described as performed in many different styles, players are able to frame any even marginally important action as performed with their strongest approach. There are going to be clear cases (you cannot “forcefully” befriend somebody, because that is intimidation and is a different action), but mostly, they will try and manage to do so. What you get, then, is first of all a game which is mechanically very monotonous: whenever it matters, you roll with your best value. Most importantly, it is also going to be a narratively cliched play in which the “brick” character always hits hard, the “sneaky” guy always sneaks around and so on. I hear you: worse things happen. Yeah, but still.

EDIT (10 June 2015): I have now in my hands a physical copy of FAE. The quality of the paper and the cover is very pleasant, like in everything by Evil Hat I have seen so far. But the choice of paperback binding (instead of staple binding) for meager 60 pages is ill advised: the booklet is guaranteed to fall apart after a few hours of game use. A pity.