Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Lacuna: Winners Advance to Thought Eater Round Three

The winners of the second round of the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Contest are in...

Melville, Freud, Lovecraft beat the average

If any of the authors (winner or loser) would like to out themselves in the comments, feel free to do so now.

Ok, rules for the third round:

-This round is inspired by a line at the beginning of Houllebecq's essay on Lovecraft:

"If one defines a writer not by reference to the themes that they treat, but by reference to those
they repudiate, then one agrees that Lovecraft occupies a place totally apart."

...this is the essay where Houllebecq goes on to point out that Lovecraft studiously avoids sex and money in his fiction.

The crucial point here is: this is a lacuna that Houllebecq had to discover, it was not explicitly on top. Lovecraft's stories are not advertised as "Tales of cosmic horror that don't have typical human relationships or class in them".

So for this round I'd like the winners to take some subject and tell us what is avoided in it--and what this tells us and why it's interesting. It should preferably be something the authors may not even have been conscious of avoiding, and should definitely be something the rest of us are not yet conscious that they avoid.

So, for example, writing about how some iteration of D&D lacks noncombat task resolution is immediately out. Whereas if you discover that nobody laughs during the entire Morte D'Arthur or that no-one ever ever eats in a Clark Ashton Smith story or that agriculture never appears in any RIFTS module or that nothing from Green Ronin publishing ever has the word "pig" in it, that's fair.

As this is a fairly difficult and demanding remit probably requiring a little research, the range of topics is relatively unrestricted other than "it should be an RPG or obviously RPG-adjacent" and that it can't be Lovecraft or Tolkien as we've beat those two to death recently. I would definitely be interested in thoughts on RPGs outside the OSR usual.

-This is different than the previous rounds because I will exercise a veto/editorial power over these. If I get one that has a lazy line like "I don't know why this is, but I think it it's true, or at least interesting" about its central premise, I will be like "This needs to be better, try harder, rewrite". 

-If you are one of the winners named above, then email me your new essay by July 1st--zakzsmith AT hawtmayle with the all-caps subject THOUGHT EATER 3.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Kill A Church

"the only Christianity they defeated was the last piece of Christianity within themselves. Which is a very good beginning, of course"
--Erik Danielsson in Black Metal Satanica, 2008

Short Preamble

Today's controversy. Remarkable for 3 reasons:

1-Most self-defeating moral outrage in human history.
2-RPG people are still signing onto it. Morally outraged that a comic book has a cliffhanger.
3-Some of the people reading this still pay attention to those RPG people when they talk about games and will keep doing it even after today.

I've long since accepted that 3 will always be true--there is no level of insane that an Indie game designer can be that people won't be like "Maybe I will give Crazy some attention and money?".

So let's not dwell. These conservatives are crazy, Some of you are still reading them, funding them, inviting them into the larger conversation about RPGs. You will never stop. It makes the world worse for fans online and creators, you don't care. Ok.
But when the world is dumb: let's at least learn something...

Now fucktheory, who not only is very smart but comes at this--helpfully--from a wider philosophical and radical queer background (non-gaming, non-geek) is addressing the issue of cultural appropriation, but this pretty much applies to all the controversies of online psychoculture. Let's Read:

But this...

RPG examples abound. You must consult ninjas, the dumbest thing ever said about RPGs, etc.

This is an important point. The Drama Club never has a concrete checklist of what "doing the thing right" requires--whether that's use of violence, sexuality, cultural appropriation or diversity. At most they point to examples--which devolves to unbelievable vagueness ("be respectful") or, "Well I know it when I see it". In other words: they the critic get to decide what's morally suspect on a case-by-case basis rather than outlining a set of principles that their own work can be judged by.

Also: outlining principles or definitions (of, say "respectful") would invite discussion and Discussion Is Bad.

The obsession with whether a Cap storyline hurts me as a Jew and descendant of Holocaust survivors and all similar controversies where the Drama Club share a Concern on behalf of numb, objectified marginalized people whom they aren't which is inextricably linked to unacknowledged Contempt for the voices of equally marginalized artists they aren't isn't a condition arrived at through thought. It's just their own anxiety and desire for universal concession to concessions they themselves have made long ago made (there's a reason so many are religious or parents--conservatism is the fear someone else is having fun somewhere), writ large and pointed at anyone who points that out.


So, ok. Maybe you aren't invested enough in the world being good to click the Unfollow button when faced with The Bad. But at least know how it got that way. At least learn something while you're here at D&D With Porn Stars, even if you never ever ever ever ever do anything with what you learned.


Monday, May 16, 2016

David Foster Wallace Correlating The Mind's Contents

David Foster Wallace talking about an early bout of suicidal depression--as quoted in David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself...

...it may be what in the old days was called a spiritual crisis or whatever. It’s just the feeling as though the entire, every axiom of your life turned out to be false, and there was actually nothing, and you were nothing, and it was all a delusion. And that you were better than everyone else because you saw that it was a delusion, and yet you were worse because you couldn’t function.

 What's interesting for RPG fans here is: that is exactly how the Cthulhu Mythos stat in Call of Cthulhu works. The more useful things you know about the Cthulhu stuff--the real engine of the universe--the lower your max Sanity.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Melville, Freud & Lovecraft (Thought Eater)

Here is an entry for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new to the contest, it's like this: this essay is not by me--got that Metafilter?--it's by an anonymous DIY RPG writer who was assigned to write something interesting and original about hoary old RPG topics.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the second round Thought Eater essays are up...

The rules for the second round are here.

The difficulty is I am an idiot and accidentally left this one out when I was rolling out the entries, meaning this one's orphaned. This is how it'll work--if you like it,  send an email with the Subject "NUD" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it. If you don't, do nothing. At the end I'll look to see if it has more votes than the average entry. If so: it goes to the next round.

I reread Moby-Dick recently (you have to hyphenate it, it’s like Spider-Man) and I couldn’t stop thinking about how much it had in common with The Call of Cthulhu.

There’s a scholarly young man in New England who lets restlessness and curiosity drag him into a quest for a terrible sea monster rumoured to lurk in the Antipodes. He has a series of adventures, each more spooky than the last, involving half-mad sailors, derelict ships, strangely-shaped animals, the threat of cannibalism and the deep existential terror of having to interact with people from the Pacific Islands. By the time he realizes what a bad decision he’s made it’s too late and he’s pulled inexorably into a confrontation with the monster, which kills everyone aboard the ship except for one man who’s left alive to tell the tale. There’s a bunch of structural differences - Thurston is just reading about the voyage, Ishmael is actually on board - but the narrative progression is the same.

There are a couple of explanations for this. One is Freudian. Cthulhu’s a vagina, Moby Dick’s a dick, sex is a nightmarish leviathan that can never be looked at directly and the Pacific Ocean is the Victorian unconsciousness in which it lurks. As tedious as this kind of thing always is, I can’t help but feel like there’s something to it. More importantly, however, both Melville and Lovecraft had read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which is by Edgar Allen Poe and about all the same shit. We don’t have to invent some kind of weird laborious psychosexual code language when we can just say that they liked a book. I like that book and I’m not terrified of women. Melville didn’t write eighteen billion pages about whale biology because he was wrestling with his homosexuality. He probably was wrestling with his homosexuality, but he wrote those pages because he liked whale biology. We don’t have to assume that just because sex is super important, nothing else we do is important unless it can be made to relate to sex.

Now Melville is a much better writer than Lovecraft. This is because he is more specific. Lovecraft will tell you that the monster is spooky and you should be spooked by it. Melville will tell you how a whale’s dick works. There is a scene in Moby-Dick where a guy wears a whale’s foreskin as a poncho. And despite this, Melville’s whales continue to be spooky. Advantage: Melville.

But Lovecraft has a much greater influence over our culture than Melville. Nobody has ever tried to make a roleplaying game about Melville. And I think this is because Melville is more specific. You can take Lovecraft and put him in space or the Himalayas or the grimdark future where there is only war. You can’t do that with Melville. I mean, you can, but there’s like one or two space Moby-Dicks. There’s a million space Lovecrafts. Lovecraft gets in everything, like sand the day after the beach. Melville is less flexible. If Lovecraft is sand then Melville marble. Beautiful on his own, but denser and harder to cut and you need to be much smarter about it if you’re going to make anything out of him.

Lovecraft, because he is not very good, dares you to improve him. The first thing you do when you’re writing a Lovecraft adventure is to make it more interesting than anything Lovecraft ever wrote. Well, the first thing you do is cut out all the racism, but you get the picture. Lovecraft’s work is full of such clever phrases as “the Thing cannot be described”, and when you read one of these you immediately try to describe the Thing. You have to do all the work of making it horrifying yourself. Lovecraft’s not going to help you - he’s just going to tell you it’s horrifying and ask you to figure out the details. And whatever weirdness you come up with is almost always going to be better than whatever Lovecraft is thinking of.

But it’s also not Lovecraft. Because Lovecraft is that shit writing. The implicit challenge of Lovecraft is “can you do what I did, but not shitly?”. And you can’t. So people are constantly Doing Stuff with Lovecraft, trying to Use Lovecraft, trying to make things Lovecraftian, and Lovecraft is constantly in the public eye but never actually supplanted. He can’t be. It always seems like there’s something Lovecraft never quite pulls off, some great achievement that’s persistently evading him, but if you actually achieve that - as Melville pretty much does - you don’t solve Lovecraft’s problem. He wants to pull it off while still remaining Lovecraft, and he can’t do that, because the inability to pull it off is what makes Lovecraft Lovecraft.

This is also D&D. D&D is pretty shit in most ways, and there’s a million spinoffs which are technically better, but you will never get rid of original flavour D&D because what makes D&D D&D is the big hole at the heart of it where something awesome should go. In order to radiate potential you need to not fill that potential. Patrick Stuart says here (http://falsemachine.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/art-in-games.html) that it’s actually easier to notice that a thing has psychic energy when it’s bad. I think this is maybe why. A good thing, like Moby-Dick, has a great idea and then lives up to it. The guy who wrote it did his fucking job. He did all the work and there is no room left for you to do any. But you want to do the work, you feel compelled to do the work, which is why you are drawn towards shit things that have ideas and fuck up the execution. There is something left in them for you to work with.

And I think this also accounts for the persistence of Freud. Freud has psychic energy. Freud actually talks about psychic energy, a little. He has a whole theory of cathexis, which is the process by which the erotic charge that’s supposed to accrue around people you want to bone gets redirected to something else, like a whale or a child’s hat or a piece of wallpaper or whatever. This is clearly stupid. People don’t become obsessed with weird shit because they’re not allowed to fuck their dads. But Freud is all about the unconscious and the inexpressible and terrible forbidden things lurking just beyond sight - the same shit Lovecraft talks about - and his stupid theories about it demand that we try to explain it better. We think we can outdo him, and so we keep coming back to him, and so he’s a constant presence in academia and literature to this very day. We don’t want to explain away Moby-Dick by saying it’s about sex but there’s something in that idea that prevents us from ignoring it. I still felt the urge to talk about Freud at the beginning of this essay. I don’t think Moby-Dick is about sex, I think it’s about whales, but I can’t just fuck the idea off altogether.

You might be more comfortable ignoring Freud then me, of course. That’s fine. The point is, the kind of infuriating vagueness that both Freud and Lovecraft possess can wield a huge influence over us and our creative process, even as we consciously acknowledge that it’s dumb. And also that Patrick Stuart should read Moby-Dick. Have you read Moby-Dick Patrick? I think you’d really like it.

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Mere Wrecca

Participants in- and gawkers at- the tabletop RPG scene will have noticed a theme in commentary on D&D and its ilk: Played in the default style, D&D doesn't come out like Tolkien, and this is the subject of much wroth and writhing. For instance, Burning Wheel--one of many attempts to remedy that and the world's accidentally funniest RPG--introduces itself like thiswise:

Like the old grand-daddy RPG, Dungeons and Dragons, Burning Wheel is nothing more than a template—a trellis for the vines of imagination to grow on. But unlike it’s [SIC] predecessors, this system is versatile and powerful; it can handle any fantastic situation with consistency and accuracy.... 
Without being hokey or gimmicky, the system attempts to create an accurate portrayal of the model that inspired all of these games, epic fiction. Initially my mission was only to build the proverbial “better system,” but my true motive emerged as the system took root. I wanted to construct a game that could create better stories—something closer to the thrilling narratives that we all grew up on and that still grip our imaginations.

One of the very many absolutely undyingly adorable things about this intro is the author's faith that everyone of literate age grew up on "epic fiction" and not, say, Conan or Fafhrd & Grey Mouser or Arzach or James and the Giant Peach thus justifying his game's desire to be "closer" to a model he presumes all stabgames aspire to.

JRR Tolkien himself addresses just this kind of confusion in his lecture on Beowulf...

Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on Beowulf has been due either to the belief that it was something that it wasn't, for example, primitive, pagan, Teutonic, an allegory (political or mythical), or most often, an epic; or to disappointment at the discovery that it was itself and not something that the scholar would have liked better--for example, a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic Summa Theologica.

At the heart of the concern that D&D isn't a Tolkien epic is the figure of the murderhobo--the greedy engine of unplotted terror that haunts the dreams of aspirationgamers everywhere. Urban Dictionary:

Murderhobo: The typical protagonist of a fantasy role-playing game, who is a homeless guy who goes around killing people and taking their stuff. The term originated in discussions of tabletop role playing games by authors seeking to create games aimed at styles of play not supported by traditional games like Dungeons & Dragons.

Typical forum post dredged up by random googling:

The murder hobo has been a problem for RPGs for years. These characters have no purpose or reason aside from killing people, taking their stuff, and then buying better tools to kill more people with. While we all admit these characters are a problem, we don't always have a suggestion for ways to fix them.

Typical blog dredged up by random googling:

If you feel you or players at your table are at risk of allowing a murder hobo (or worse a pack of them!) to flourish then follow these simple steps to inject genuine character and pathos into your game...

Heavens! A pack you say?

Notwithstanding the fact that even Robin Laws seems to not grasp the awesome storytelling possibilities of murderhoboes, intelligent gamers have long been aware of them. However, it's interesting to note Tolkien, the sore spot and source-point of all these dreams of morally-redemptive mythopoesis, himself creeps up to the edge of a similar complaint against Beowulf:

The plot was not the poet's; and though he has infused feeling and significance into its crude material, that plot was not a perfect vehicle of the theme or themes that came to hidden life in the poet's mind as he worked upon it. Not an unusual event in literature. For the contrast--youth and death--it would probably have been better, if we had no journeying. If the single nation of the Geats had been the scene, we should have felt the stage not narrower, but symbolically wider. More plainly should we have perceived in one people and their hero all mankind and its heroes. 

This at any rate I have always myself felt in reading Beowulf; but I have also felt that this defect is rectified by the bringing of the tale of Grendel to Geatland. As Beowulf stands in Hygelac's hall and tells his story, he sets his feet firm again in the land of his own people, and is no longer in danger of appearing a mere wrecca, an errant adventurer and slayer of bogies that do not concern him.

...and if you're fun you immediately go Who's this wrecca? Tell me all about this motherfucker. And if you're really fun you have access to Bosworth's Anglo Saxon Dictionary:

Wrecca, Wræcca: one driven from his own country, a wanderer in foreign lands, an exile, a stranger, pilgrim.

From wrecan--to drive (out) or to avenge--like the Swedish vrak--trash, the Icelandic rek--anything drifted ashore, related to wreck, of course, and wretch and wreak (as in vengeance or havoc).

Wrecca. Good name for a game.