Recently Read: Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

January 16, 2013

Girlchild, by the improbably-named Tupelo Hassman, is in spite of itself fast becoming my favorite recent novel. I know, how very middlebrow of me. Actually, the technical title is Girlchild: A Novel, but one of the few things I hate more than genocide is when a book feels the need to condescendingly point out that it’s A Novel, as opposed to garden hose or a life insurance policy or a cabbage or something, so I will just ignore that. Today, I will explicate three reasons you should read this book (or four, if “Miranda really liked it” counts as a reason). As a brief summary, Girlchild is the story not only of Rory Hendrix, who grows up in a trailer park community in Reno, Nevada in the 1970s and 1980s, but of the women in her family. It is fundamentally a character study.

1) Girlchild doesn’t shy away from class issues. In America, in literature, we seem to only acknowledge poverty if it’s within the context of someone’s ascent out of it, and yeah, I’m sure there are exceptions that commenters can helpfully list, but Girlchild depicts the underclass in a sensitive, nuanced way that resists simplification or fetishization. A significant part of the novel shows Rory’s early awareness of the divide between her neighborhood and the rest of the world. The life depicted in the Calle (the trailer park where Rory and her mother live) is the reality for the majority of Americans, and this voice is needed in a society that is irrevocably divided between the tiny group of haves and the masses of have-nots. While this depiction is imperfect, delivered as it is through a medium of privilege and made possible by more privilege, I think it’s the kind of story we need more of in order to work for a more empathetic society. Oh, sorry, my Marxist is showing. tl;dr! Let’s go on to –

2) Girlchild utilizes pastiche in one of the most effective ways I’ve seen so far, and this makes for one of the most memorable narrative voices I’ve encountered in recent fiction. One major trope in the novel is Rory’s desire to be a Girl Scout, and this is used to emphasize the tasks and trials she undergoes (as well as to highlight the absurdity of the traditional Girl Scouting program in the face of poverty and semi-neglect). Girlchild incorporates a rich variety of voices and texts, yet the story is Rory’s own, and everything is filtered through her perspective. Too often, pastiche tropes just work like collages or overstuffed casseroles, throwing in a bit of everything until it’s nothing, but Girlchild manages to incorporate a wide variety of styles while still integrating them into one coherent and cohesive voice.

3) Girlchild resists easy answers and simple narratives. I know, what a cop-out, right? That’s the ultimate easy answer in a book review. but hear me out. In some heteroglossic move, Girlchild isn’t just Rory’s story, nor even that of her mother and grandmother. The book has been criticized for a slow-moving plot, when I don’t think that’s as important as the development of the voice and the depiction of a place and time. It isn’t just about Rory’s in/ability to get out of the Calle and follow what the audience would have her do (college! scholarships! rewarding career!). It isn’t just a coming-of-age story. Like other works I greatly admire that incorporate other narratives and voices into a deeper whole, Girlchild is actually the story of many different people, which sets the title at odds with its content. Many of the more critical reviews on Amazon and Goodreads seem to come from those who expected an easy, “Oprah-style” narrative of someone overcoming their past. Instead, Girlchild is terribly human – not novelistic – and while some may hate it for that, I respect it even more. That being said, the book is not without flaws. For example, early in the book, I think that Hassman resorted to what I could cynically call a cliche in coming-of-age / adolescent novels, but what I respect is  that the book is not about discovering that this event occurred and rendering justice (cf. the far-overrated Perks of Being a Wallflower) but instead, its repercussions and incorporation into the larger context of a life.

It’s hard to find any actual information about Hassman, other than the fact that she lives in Oakland, CA (a fact that the Amazon biography mentions no fewer than three times) and has an MFA from Columbia (mentioned twice in the aforementioned Amazon blurb). While the “MFA-ification” of American fiction has been criticized, and rightfully so, I am excited to see what Hassman writes next. In the meantime, I command you to read this book.

(For a full list of everything I read this year or at least until I forget to update, this is my Goodreads 2013 challenge.)


Up a Creek and Against All Odds – Blowback Role-Playing Game

February 16, 2011

Blowback Cover

As Giorgio Agamben establishes in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, human history can be summarized in terms of sovereign states separating citizens (with rights, privileges, protections) from “bare life” – mere human bodies excepted from the law and fully subject to the forces of the world arrayed against them.

Blowback by Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat is a role-playing game that explores what happens when citizens with exemptions (i.e., government-backed operatives) suddenly become bare lives, which then threaten the mere citizens (i.e., the civilians) about whom they still care.  This “caring” transforms from a passive activity into an active, perilous dance.  As Sampat beautifully puts it:

All you have, all you are, is you. So you make nice with the few people who’ll have you, and rely on them more than you should – but if you’re too cold or uncaring, they’ll turn on you. And if you care too much, the people who are after you will exploit them to hurt you. And if you cared about them at all, you wouldn’t care about them even a little.

Sampat has framed the game as “heavily inspired by the American teleivision show Burn Notice and movies like the Bourne trilogy.”  Some reviews have mentioned the game overstates this influence a bit, but I appreciate that the game knows where it is coming from and proudly wears this badge on its shoulder.  The media that inspire the game are just a springboard, however, for a whole host of questions concerning our ability to function under stress – specifically the stressful conditions imposed by our would-be action movie – and what that does to our relationship to our environment, ourselves and, well, our relationships.

In Blowback, you play a mixture of Professionals and Civilians who have suddenly become interconnected by a botched mission.  While this premise appears incredibly specific, it appears to be to the spy genre what the dame-walks-into-the-private-eye’s-office trick is to film noir: Salt (2010),  Eye of the Needle (1981), The American (2010), The Replacement Killers (1998) — they’ve all got traces of the “botched job” trope.  The GM plays The Agency opposite them, whose role is to turn up the heat under the characters at strategic moments, all the while teasing us with details about the botched job.  The player-characters often find themselves caught between their past and present, with the future virtually unforeseeable (except as a repository for further anxiety).

The game system itself puts you into a fairly rigorous but easy-to-follow flowchart of action, with a lot riding on the tense web of relationships generated in the early part of play (this is an indie game, after all).  The dramaturgy of every session is structured by an individual Job — a man wants to be extracted from his company, a little girl hires you to track down the man who killed her father, whatever — that is further subdivided into the Analysis, Operation and Blowback phases.  Each offer you a chance to indulge in all the cliches of the spy genre while inventing your own:  Analysis is where you trick cameras and bribe informants, Operation is when your plan goes awry but generally alright, and Blowback is where you find out that it’s not okay for you to kidnap visiting state dignitaries and put them in your brother’s garage.  You get a certain number of overall actions, and legible flowcharts within each phase let you figure out the consequences of your decision-making/dice-rolling.  Game echoes of Cyberpunk or Shadowrun, where you assemble crack teams for jobs, mix with the television-relationship dynamics of games like Smallville or Primetime Adventure.  As Sampat was on the playtesting crew for Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, her careful delineation of The Agency’s responsibilities in making the player-characters’ lives “not boring” remains in dialog with Baker’s game on many levels.  Unlike Apocalypse World, however, “opportunities should always seem like the result of what’s happening in the game, not a result of the roll.”  The game’s architecture insists that story remain queen of the realm.

The system and the book itself (printed in glossy full-color) aside, Blowback has some philosophical subtlety built into its design.  The bare life principle, for example, foregrounds the notion of human expendability in the face of modern systems of control and governance.  You as the player-character suddenly begin to take a good, hard look at your surroundings and ask yourself: what are my resources here in Great Falls, MT?  Who here can I trust?  Where does this podunk town fit into the great game?  Then you open your eyes and see it:  at least in the United States, the military-industrial complex surrounds us. It has hardened into a kind of invisible carapace that nevertheless locks us into untenable courses of action:  wars we cannot win in distant countries, mass-scale corruption, families dependent and vulnerable on the few industries that remain, guns sold over the counter to dubious people, and so forth.  And the beginning of heroic action against/within this complex comes from our interpersonal relations, that we ourselves might personally experience the consequences of violence and intrigue and try to spare others from the same.  Blowback thus co-opts the often corporate-fantasy-dominated spy genre for the purposes of exploring what happens when the insulation that keep our professional and personal lives apart is removed, when the ugly foundation of world power is exposed through a seemingly inconsequential “gray op.”

On the one hand, Blowback is all good guys, bad guys and explosions.  And on the other, it’s all instant pain, hope and social critique.  Honestly, what else are you looking for in a role-playing game?

And beyond that, can any of us – Pro or Civilian – survive being cut off?


Hopi Hopes and Navajo Nightmares: How We Came to Live Here

August 6, 2010

In honor of the currently-in-progress GenCon Indy 2010, where this game is in the running for an ENnie Award for Best Writing, I give you a review of Brennan Taylor’s How We Came to Live Here: Stories of the Fifth World.

As the somewhat alliterative title of the blog post suggests, this tabletop role-playing game has you playing tribes from the American Southwest in the era before white colonial forces came mucking about with pox-infested blankets, massacres and exploitative casino contracts.  It is a game set in a time of legend, when the myth-tellers walk with myths, and where mythemes can achieve expression with a minimal level of modern cultural baggage.  Yet it is also a game that tells the story of a village, and by no means a simple one.  By the time you are done creating your characters and the relationships between them, these Native Americans might as well join the cast of Dallas, with all their interrelated bits of familial business.

One Game, Two Gamemasters

How We Came to Live Here’s certifiable “schtick” is the fact that it’s a small group game (for 3-5 players maximum) with two “gamemasters” whose main role is to provide conflict and adversity to the remaining 1-3 Hero Players.  The Outside Player pulls the strings of the external threats to the village, whilst the Inside Player controls the festering internal conflicts that may rot it from the center. Now most seasoned role-players would be skeptical about the entertainment value in having two different scheming folks plotting adversity against their poor, defenseless heroes.  Believe me: it’s entertaining.  The village itself comes alive through two souls tasked with playing a lot of NPCs, the scenes more readily push toward conflict – which is itself stripped down to its essence on account of the setting (i.e., the People’s crops are on fire, one of the People committed incest and is becoming Corrupted whilst covering it up, etc.) – and the Heroes seem, well, frankly more heroic by the virtue of there being fewer of them and driven to address conflict with alarming frequency.

To Build a Village

The creation of the characters and village is, however, the most charming aspect of this game by far.  In our playtest, we came up with the village Water Horse Crossing, which was set in a previously inhabited, crumbling cliff overlooking a raging river and tucked below a broad plateau where the horses grazed.  Our two protagonists, She-Who-Conquers-the-Horse (the horse-tamer) and He-Who-Ties-Us-Together (the rope-maker) were our Hero characters and good childhood friends whose mothers had conspired for an arranged marriage against their will.  She-Who-Conquers-the-Horse was also the object of affection for at least two other men in the village (He-Dives-Off-Cliffs and He-Laughs-at-Danger), whilst the rope master struggled with obligations owed to the maligned village outsider He-Who-Hides-in-Shadows.  To top it off, the Shadow Dwellers within the abandoned, unused part of the village have begun to stir up trouble and the witch She-Sings-Horses-Away began to pick off the tribe’s precious herd.  After two hours of coming up with family lineage, communities, ambitions and threats as a group, it is a pleasure to finally breathe life into it all.  It also offers you little opportunity to rely on crass stereotypes and ideal images to provide convenient shorthand for your characters: they are so well-developed, there is no reason to rely on such easy shortcuts.

Conflicts Abound

Taylor’s conflict resolution mechanism uses FUDGE dice and presents a hybrid between the pacing mechanisms of Primetime Adventures, where an actual character arc is established before the game is established, and the “hand” system of Dogs in the Vineyard, in which you deploy individual dice as part of a way to map out the “beats” of a scene.  The Heroes can more or less sell their soul to get what they want out of a conflict, but then bad things begin to happen to them.  The system encourages the Hero Players to push their characters’ capabilities and test their limits without abandoning conventional RPG stand-bys like dice pools and deployable traits.

Though the character sheet design was a little cramped, the added fiction a bit too plentiful, and a few typos were found (“villiage”), the game by all means should walk away with its Best Writing award. Clear instructions make a complex narrative generator into a breezy, pleasurable affair.  How We Came to Live Here relishes in the pleasures of sandbox creation without abandoning the sweet delights of the creative destruction wrought by plots afoot and disasters aplenty.  Like Mortal Coil, we are asked to play in a dream world where the nightmares are encroaching in on us from the periphery.

If Neil Gaiman wrote fiction about the ancient Native Americans, you’d likely get a session of this game. Try it – your brain will like you for it.


Annalise: The Vampire RPG You’ve Been Dying to Meet

July 28, 2010

Now that the public thirst for vampires has been gorged in the popular media with works like True Blood, Twilight, and Let the Right One In (all book-to-visual adaptations, I might add), it’s time for tabletop role-playing games to join the proverbial party.

Oh sure, there’s Mark Rein-Hagen’s ol’ workhorse Vampire: The Masquerade (and its not-quite-ambitious-enough sequel).  But playing White Wolf’s mediocre munchkinizer system for decades has left me yearning for a role-playing game that – rather than enabling the play of angst-ridden, pseudo-mysterious, bloodthirsty super-beings – addresses the core issues of vampire fiction, namely the poetically rendered psychology of the vampire’s victims:  what makes one attractive to the vampire? how does the vampire manifest and seduce someone? what does the vampire represent?

The system that addresses these issues and more exists and has a name: Annalise.

The Hard Facts

Before I get analytical and philosophical here, let me summarize the game for your benefit.  Annalise is an independently published role-playing game designed for 2-4 players, in which all involved grapple with the turmoil and discovery of a threatening vampire in the manner of Gothic horror fiction.  It’s a little like a board game (with cards and dice), a little like improv theater (acting out characters in scenes) and a lot like a writer’s workshop on melodramatic overdrive.  As the author himself describes it, Annalise is:

… a noprep, short- to medium-form, setting-less, GM-less
game. It could be considered a “story game” in the
sense that the product of play is intended to resemble
the kind of Gothic horror fiction described above.

“Noprep” means none of the players need to come prepared with any pre-developed story materials (i.e., character sheets, plotlines, etc.) and “short- to medium-form” means it’ll run between one and six sessions of play, each four hours in length.  “Setting-less” means it can take place in any location at any time, and the threat need not even be a vampire.  “GM-less” means all involved are players, and no one possesses any arbitrary authority over any other.  As a “story game,” it suggests Narrativist leanings, or at least the inclusion of conscious, articulated metaplot rules (i.e., how to reiterate a story’s themes) along with ordinary task-resolution rules (i.e., whether or not my character succeeds at something).

It’s a parlor role-playing game you play in a candlelit room with your three closest friends, or (more likely) in a brightly lit convention center with three near-total strangers, as seen below:

Jonathon Walton and Shreyas Sampat play an early version of Annalise in 2008.

As you can see, a lot of tokens and paper are needed to pull introspectively into your character’s relationship with the vampire.  All bargains have a price…

How to Role-play a Novel

It is curious that Nathan D. Paoletta chose to name his game Annalise, an Anglo-European girl’s name with connotations of grace and/or favor.  Yet the odd name of the game is somehow tantamount to the game itself.  Viewed as an analogy to the game’s content, the name conjures up the image of a vulnerable white female (see cover above) who not so much acts as reacts, whose power lies in the granting of permissions, and who is beset with internal conflict.  It works, however, as an analogy to the game system as well: players assume the roles of protagonists somehow affected by the vampire rather than the vampire itself, with key mechanics determining how much sway the vampire has over your character’s emotions and/or how far you permit the vampire to take things.  In effect, Annalise is a game about finding a response to the external demons who threaten you by coming to terms with the internal demons who haunt you.  It is (in this respect) the closest gaming equivalent to the experience of reading proper literature I have ever experienced.

How does a role-playing game accomplish all this?  Well, since the game is built on the premise that system does matter, Annalise deploys solid design with an eye for the necessary functions of literary narrative.  Now it would take me all day to unpack what a “literary narrative” is for all to see, so I’ll limit the definition to: a narrative that gives equal weight to poetic imagery, character interiority and conflict-motivated, chapter-like scenes.

A long digression: most gamers still actually think their role-playing games generate all of the above, such that a game with the right chemistry among the players suddenly produces all the trappings of satisfying fiction. The game “feels” like a book (Amber), movie (Feng Shui), play (most jeepform games), video game (Street Fighter), TV show (Primetime Adventures), comic book (With Great Power), etc.  Yet I associate certain role-playing titles with certain media (like those above) because, in my mind, they somehow capture the distinct internal rhythms of that particular medium better than others.  Feng Shui gets that movie feel from the introduction of metacinematic game mechanisms like “One Bullet Left” (i.e., no matter how many shots you have fired in an action sequence, you always seem to have one bullet still left in your gun… when you really need it… like in a movie). Primetime Adventures does it through metatelevisual mechanisms, like the producers’ limited budget determining actual game length.  Street Fighter even steps it up with its video-game-like combat system, in which you deploy special moves during combat scenes as if you were pounding buttons in an arcade.  To these ends, Feng Shui mechanically organizes itself around the opening fight / plot complications / midway showdown / total disaster / final showdown dramaturgy, Primetime Adventures around the inevitable character twists that drive TV viewer interest, and Street Fighter around a mixture of structured and unstructured martial arts dueling.  That means no extra dangly bits to get in the way.  Most games, however, run into trouble striking a suitable balance with the media of their inspiration: pre-4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons was a hybrid with two leaden feet in war simulation and mid-20th Century fantasy literature whose patent absurdity to outsiders and insiders alike led it to becoming easily parodied medium of its own; Rein-Hagen’s Vampire was busy forming a vampire mythology to parallel Ann Rice without bothering to fix its own debilitating fascination with war simulation (i.e., the game rules still care whether you’re shooting a vampire with a revolver or an Uzi); Steve Jackson’s GURPS deems itself suitable for telling any story in any setting, so long as your story is an adventure story that tests competence.  Not that games not intending to simulate certain specific media are always incoherent, but they tend to consistently whisper to the player: “You are trying to tell a simple story by playing a silly little game.” A whisper that undermines all kinds of creativity and interest.

Back to Annalise, a game which drowns out that silly whisper inside you with the seductive whispers of Faustian bargains carelessly struck and the anguished whimpers of tormented dreamers clinging desperately to their last shreds of humanity.  The game mechanically articulates the finer points of literature without losing sight of the cheap tropes (i.e., blood-red roses, curtains blowing against a closed window, etc.) that continue to raise goosebumps.  Let’s see how it does this:

* Dramaturgical Structure – The structure of a good literary story is practically written into the four phases of the game: Discovering Characters, Laying the Foundations, The Confrontation, and The Aftermath.  Players create and introduce their vulnerable characters in the first, build their relationship to the vampire in the second, confront it in the third and determine the fallout in the fourth.

* Scene Guides – Instead of having a game-master, players take turns as “scene guides,” setting up compromising scenarios for their fellow players’ characters as the vampire’s grip on them tightens.  Authorship is passed around easily and sans power struggle.

* Claims Players can “claim” non-player characters, props, locations, visual motifs, relationships and events introduced by other players as bits of fiction they control.  Shadowy dogs, bodiless limbs, Frank’s uncle, the oncoming storm, tapping fingernails; the cheap tropes list is nigh inexhaustible. This is the players’ way of telling the others: “That thing you came up with was so awesome, it’s got to come up again!”  These Claims then help you out later in the game, ensuring their recurrence in the story as well as a useful game boost.

* Core/Satellite Traits – Characters are built from the very traits that make them interesting as literature would make them: their Vulnerabilities and Secrets.  The former come from the character’s player, the latter from a group-generated pool of Secrets, guaranteeing that someone likely suspects a character of having “their” Secret and adding a metaplot element of dramatic irony to the game.  My Core Traits could be “I am vulnerable because my parents never denied me my wishes” and “I can never reveal that I only care about myself,” from which my Satellite Traits “Wealthy,” “Ambitious,” “Manipulative,” and “Irresistibly Cute” may develop over the course of play.  Signifiers already point to Signified, with the players knowing what to expect from a character while still in suspense (via the Secreet) about their true motives.

* Moments – To drive each conflicted scene to resolution, Moments determine what Achievement a character gets from a conflict, if any, and what the Consequences are for their actions.  This is, again, an elegant means of depicting the basic flow of literary conflict: how characters get what they want, and how much they need to pay.  In Annalise, winning every fight with your parents and refusing the vampire’s every advance may make you more than ripe for the vampire to take possession of your body later on…

* Confrontation – Do you Give In, or do you Resist?  The game makes your choice about the vampire absolutely explicit.

The New Edition

Though Annalise has been available online as a PDF and in varying print forms since 2008, the Final edition will be made available at GenCon 2010 in Indianapolis next week.  What else can I say, other than this edition reads easily, references itself quickly and looks beautiful?  Annalise exemplifies how RPGs should present themselves and how they should organize the information contained within their highly sculpted pages.  The twenty-four pages of angsty teenage fiction (complete with 30 Days of Night-worthy artwork by Jennifer Rodgers) and six Guided Play scenarios (for fast convention action) feel like added value rather than game publisher’s fluff.  Play examples, summaries and a step-by-step guide to each game phase make the game immediately understandable to the lay and experienced reader alike, as well as recognize the game’s inherent complexity without insulting the intelligence of the reader.

A unified vision of coherent game rules, integrated visual design and clear technical writing may make this vampire game the bridge we’ve all been waiting for between the smallish coterie of story gamers and the vast, geeky gaming world that surrounds them.

Now if only the “Twihards” knew about this…


Ahoy There! An Excellent Swashbuckling RPG!

August 8, 2009
A fanciful new RPG from the people who brought us Spirit of the Century

A fanciful new RPG from the people who brought us Spirit of the Century

Opening Salvo

“Air pirates? AIR PIRATES!” I shouted with glee as I seized the Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies from the “Indie Press Role-Playing Games” section of my local comics/gaming store. Completely un-phased by the $30 I was about ready to fork over for a softcover, I ran to the cashier and exclaimed with elation: “You know you’ve finally got a tabletop RPG about air pirates?” He shot me a look back.
“Well, there was always Skyrealms of Jorune, Castle Falkenstein,” he said, tallying them on his fingers. “And we just got a new steampunk book in: Victoriana.” The wind still billowing my sails, I laid it down on the counter and said in my most gallant voice: “Avast! my good sir, for this one appears to be good.” And he took my money.

Preface

A few words of explanation are warranted before I dive into a thorough review of said book purchase.  First of all, why the heck was I looking for a book in the “Indie Press Role-Playing Games” section of the store anyway?  Well, it just so happens that I A) live in western Massachusetts, a kind of mini-Mecca for the budding independent role-playing game designer (give the proximity of New York and Boston and number of nerdly college grads in the area), and B) regularly run these people’s RPGs at local and national gaming conventions.  Having been a convention gamemaster (GM) for 16 years and counting, I’ve discovered that this is where all the action is happening these days. These games (by which I mean my Top 11: Primetime Adventures, InSpectres, Mist-Robed Gate, 1,001 Nights, Dread, Dogs in the Vineyard, Shock, Annalise, Misspent Youth, Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife, Shooting the Moon) are the best in system design, the most conscious of social exigencies involved in the role-playing hobby, and the most academically cross-referenced and critiqued.  Many are designed by women, and most by graduates of small liberal arts colleges.  All I have to say is: check them out.  They are the future.

Furthermore, I’d like to say for the record that I’m not really a pirates fan per se (otherwise I’d be reviewing 7th Sea here), but for some reason I really dig the idea of air pirates.  I attribute it to an unhealthy amount of Skies of Arcadia played and Last Exile viewed while I was in college, as well as a desperate urge to see a kind of Star Wars-style epic played out in skyships – as opposed to space in a galaxy far, far away controlled by an indifferent, bearded Lucas-man.

A Brief Summary

Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (S7S), written by Chad Underkoffler (whom I think I met at Dreamation 2008, and who wrote some great Unknown Armies supplements), is a game of fast-paced, swashbuckling action set in a world where islands float in a vast sky over a mysterious substance called the Blue.  Players create characters intended to accomplish great feats of derring-do and, without much ado, dive headlong into dangerous situations for a chance at eternal glory.  The system is designed on the Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ) model, which is synonymous with quick task resolution and immediate character empowerment (as opposed to waiting sessions and sessions to become effective against the big, bad mega-villain, characters in S7S tend to be ready to take him on right out the gate).

It’s a Big Sky Out There

A full four chapters of this book are devoted to the dense setting of the 7 Skies, which ironically serves the primary purpose of catapulting characters into the action without bogging them down with too much back-story.  A kind of fantastical pseudo-18th Century world order is established among 6 primary sky islands and a plethora of secondary islands.  There are the intrigue-obsessed Barathi (more like 16th Century Italy under the Borges — noble houses and poison, etc.), the resolute Viridese (Nordic/Scandinavian-type folks), the passionate Colronan Royalty (France), their neighbors the aloof Colronan Zultanistas (Ottoman Turks), the cosmopolitan Crailese (think 19th Century New York with some religious nutjobs outside the city limits), the ascetic Sha Ka Ruq (a cross between the Congo and Japan — Orientalism meets Token Fetishism, but I digress), the rebellious Ilwuzi (a pirate isle in the Caribbean) and the lost island of Kroy (Atlantis… or Laputa).  Each nationality is basically an excuse to have a different flavor of sword-wielding badass, from a weapon-snapping, fur-wearing Viridese to a tough-talking, cutlass-bearing Ilwuzi and so forth.  Magic and skyships are smoothly integrated into a world system that is believable as a fantasy setting – Underkoffler did a great job of creating a world that’s basically one giant opportunity for adventure where one nevertheless knows what to expect in each port, so to speak.  Read enough of his Bibliography – with entries from Wu Ch’eng-en to Alexandre Dumas, from Neil Gaiman (Stardust, of course!) to Rafael Sabatini – and you will understand that the world exists to put crazily passionate people with swords at odds with each other in dangerous, exotic, and breathtakingly beautiful locales.

System, Shmystem

The PDQ system is also particularly well-executed in this book.  I played Spirit of the Century – another Evil Hat production and an RPG-geneaological predecessor to S7S that has you generate pulp characters who are starring in a number of cross-overs – and found it to be surprisingly difficult to master at first.  S7S, however, seems to have struck an enviably perfect balance between – using the terms of Ron Edwards’ Big Model theory – Setting Simulationism, Style Simulationism, and Narrativism.  “Whoa!” you say, reaching for your musket.  “Where’d all these landlubber ‘-isms’ blow into port from?”  In simpler terms, the game does a good job of A) giving players a deep and enriching established world to explore, B) allowing stylistic tropes from swashbuckling books/movies to become game mechanics (i.e., you can have your cape flapping in the wind give you game benefits), and C) encouraging creativity in the storytelling realm, as opposed to that of maximizing personal player power.  In S7S, if you succeed with your dice roll, you may narrate how you succeed.  If you fail, you get points toward giving your character an extra oomph in the future and can choose to narrate how they botched this job.  It allows for and encourages Princess Bride-style antics in the way that games like 7th Sea only vaguely dreamed about.

One of the nicer bits of the system is a comprehensive ship combat system that revolves around teamwork – a captain giving orders to a crew in the heat of battle – while preserving a dueling system that emphasizes the primacy of individual coolness.  Another is the Style Dice mechanic:  players get handed dice to use in their favor if the GM decides to screw them over rather nastily.  There is an economy established that notably resembles the narrative economy one witnesses in swashbuckling fiction.  All suffering becomes more pleasurable when the hero can take the sweeter reward in the end.

Why You Should Get This Game in Great Haste

Actually, you should be checking out all the RPGs I mentioned in my Preface:  they’re the games so many of us were waiting for as we hunkered down in our mediocre games of D&D and Shadowrun, waiting for some narrative control to be handed back to us.  Why you should go pick up a copy of S7S is simple:  few games are as accessible, intuitive and richly devoted to players’ creative well-being as this one.  Now I’m off to liberate a Crailese freighter of its most burdensome cargo!


No. 1 Ladies Detective to be No. 1 TV Star?

May 20, 2009

When Mma Ramotswe hit the literary scene as the No. 1 Ladies Detective, she made quite a splash and it wasn’t just her “traditional build”. Alexander McCall Smith, a native of what is now Zimbabwe, has managed to create a credible African female character – not an easy task. McCall Smith clearly knows his subject matter well and takes great care to create an Africa that most of his readers don’t know exists: peaceful, charming, modern, traditional and most of all personal.

As someone who lives in the part of the world that McCall Smith writes about, it’s the balance of the modern and the traditional that is so hard to get right in contemporary Africa. Where else in the world could you drive past a mud hut with a pickup in the driveway and a satellite tv dish on the roof?

It’s this delicate balance that McCall seems to hit so squarely on the head.

In a similarly subtle vein, the mysteries that arrive on the doorstep of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency are gentle and nonviolent, caught somewhere between where Africa has been and where she’s going, but also cutting to the heart of what makes us all human: love, jealously, lust, greed and compassion.

What the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency doesn’t have much of is action.

Not entirely unlike Africa herself, McCall Smith’s storyline are more talk than action, with characters focusing on reviewing their interactions with one another far more than solving the mysteries at hand. In fact, it is usually this pondering of life and humanity that leads our heroine, Mma Ramotswe, to her mystery’s solution. In turn, McCall Smith’s serial mysteries have a somewhat formulaic pattern, not entirely unlike the way most of us would think of everyday life.

As Mma Ramotswe moves from our imaginations to HBO, it will be a challenge to break away from McCall Smith’s redundant tendencies and continue to capture a viewer who wants to see something different each week.

If there’s one thing the series should keep coming back to, it’s the stunning visual of Botswana’s clear open sky and endless veld.

-posted by bodyinmotion


The Secret in the Old Attic–Another Nancy Drew Case of the Changing Editions

April 7, 2009

Hello and welcome to another chapter-by-chapter analysis of the dueling editions. In the past, I have done this with The Bungalow Mystery and The Clue of the Leaning Chimney.

Today we are examining the differences between the original 1944 edition of Nancy Drew: The Secret in the Old Attic and the 1970 rewrite. Excitingly, there are big differences between the two! Many differences occur because of the passage in time. In 1970, it’s a bit of stretch for an elderly, but still active, gentleman to be so old that he fought in WWI. Not so in 1944. Also, a soldier who recently died in 1944 probably died in WWII. You also see things like rayon getting switched to poly and more phones in the 1970 edition.

Another thing that changed is race. In 1944, the house with the old attic has “old slave quarters” and Bess utters a horrible line idealizing happy slaves. All this is cut in the new edition. Additionally, the maid, Effie, speaks in a poor, lower class dialect in 1944. In 1970, she speaks “normally.” Effie’s race is never mentioned though.

Overall, 1970 is just much tighter. 1944 tends to have a lot of cliff-hanger scary chapter endings that are explained away as really being nothing in the first few sentences of the next chapter. The 1970 version cuts most of this out. Thankfully.

The biggest change is that 1944 contains a mini-mystery of a romantic subplot with Nancy and Ned. (Ned didn’t ask her to the dance! And some icky guy is really putting the pressure on Nancy to go to the dance with him instead.) This entire subplot is cut from the current edition, which is sad. It was my favorite part of the story and it was rather refreshing to see Nancy have some doubts, even though you knew it would all work out in the end. For a deeper comparison, check out the chapter-by-chapter play-by-play below the jump!

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