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?

Breaking news from Libya

February 11, 2011

As part of this blog’s continuing effort to document American civilization from the perspective of the career of Jennifer 8. Lee (that is the project, right, Dana?), I would like to note that Lee has not only a desktop-optimized website, jennifer8lee.com, but a mobile-optimized website (jenny8lee.com) and a personal URL shortener (j8.ly).

Clever people and their clever people parties.

– posted by Mike

everything i need to know about life, I learned from Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise.

December 24, 2010

Hi! I’m Miranda. I’m new around here (Geek Buffet, I mean, not the Internet). I’m excited to be part of this blog, since I like buffets, and I also like some geeky stuff. That’s all you need to know about me for now. Today I’m going to talk about what I know.

But, like the title of the post says, everything *I* need to know about life, I learned from Sid Meier’s Civilization. I don’t mean any individual title, I mean the entire franchise. My life can be neatly chaptered according to its installments; it has formed my understanding of, you know, Civilization Itself. My involvement with it goes back to the fall of 1991, when I was 8 years old and in the third grade.

*flashback noises* Or, wait, scratch the flashback noises, let’s start how Civ starts: “In the beginning, the earth was without form, and void…” Pretend Leonard Nimoy spoke that. OK!

During recess one day, my friend Brendan pulled a computer game out of his backpack. Remember how they used to come in gigantic, quality cardboard boxes? It was one of THOSE. And everything he brought was really good.

“This game is so great! You should copy it!” he said.

I thumbed through the instruction manual (dude, you guys, do you remember when those were like, analog?). This sentence struck me: “And if you use a pirated version of this, may your citizens flay you in the electronic streets.”* I thought, “Cool! Pirates!” (My father and I would find Sid Meier’s Pirates! in a bargain bin two summers later). Then I asked Brendan what “flay” meant, and he didn’t know, so we went back to the classroom to look it up. I was pretty sure at that point that this was actually the coolest game ever. I could not WAIT to get home and find the pirates!

(Dear Sid Meier: a) I was 8 years old and b) I have bought so much other stuff I probably paid for at least 2 tiles in your guest bathroom, or,  like, the equivalent of 2 board squares in the board of your house. At this late date, I make no apologies.)

I don’t remember actually learning a whole lot in elementary school, but I do remember learning systems in the games I played. I spent that fall sitting in my parents’ garage using my dad’s computer to play Civilization and wage wars and build spaceships, though like I said, it took a couple years to really find the PIRATES!.

How did the world work? You built little cities on squares, and you hit enter, and time passed, and the cities made little shields, that you used to build stuff so eventually you could take over the world. It was also good to have little wheat plants. And beakers. Beakers meant you could get technology so you could build spaceships, and also better weapons with which to thwomp your enemies.

A more serious reflection on this game convinces me that it is a product of its time: Civilization I tells us more about culture and politics in 1990 than it tells us about military or science history or anything else.

In 1990, another media object central to my childhood premiered (50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth). In 1991, Civ debuted, complete with what was later referred to as “whack-a-mole” pollution. You build too many tanks? Uh oh, send your settlers to clean it up, fast! A few months after Gulf War I and just a few years after the end of the Cold War, two victories are imagined: one, a peaceful-enough path of rational technology and colonization of Alpha Centauri (another later title). the other, conquest of every other civilization on your planet. At the dusk of Bush I, Civilization I used limited computing resources to circulate an environmental, relatively Eurocentric ethos, and presented two types of success: one militaristic and one technologically imperialistic. You get extra points for turns without wars (3 for world peace), but you lose 10 points for each square of pollution. When I was 8 years old, I thought pollution was about 3.333333 times as bad as war.

When I was in 7th grade, I lived in a new house and went to a different school. Sid Meier very nicely came out with Civilization II. All the good features of Civ I but better, with that fancy CD-ROM technology and video clips. Leonardo Da Vinci would obligingly upgrade your military and it was really important to build both Women’s Suffrage AND Cure for Cancer. Instead of creating settlers to wander in and irrigate your desert for the whole of human history, you had ENGINEERS! I was getting to the age when kids have to hear a whole bunch of suggestions about what they should do when they grow up. Gifted kids all got told to be engineers and oh god, can’t you please at least pretend to care about algebra? I was a gifted kid. I took great pride in outsourcing menial tasks to MY engineers, but that’s just me. Anyway, during those Information Superhighway Days, when the onramp was metaphorically, I don’t know, that one shot out of Godard’s Week-End or something, Civilization II deployed some pretty sophisticated multimedia with its wonder movies and advisory council. In the post-Republican Revolution and pre-9/11 world, you could establish your government as “Fundamentalism” and recruit “Fanatics” to fight for you. The game, like Civ I, still circulated a strong faith in technology, particularly the development of technology that fought wars or enabled colonization of other worlds.

Civilization III came out at the end of my first semester of college, right after 9/11. Shockingly enough, this edition of the game had neither Fundamentalism nor Fanatics, though you could win with Culture. For the first time, the civilization you played as meant more than the city names and colors. Suddenly, it was possible to dazzle people at cocktail parties by being able to name two adjectives about many historical leaders and cultures. I am sure there were parties I attended in college where I said, approximately, “America is, like, totally expansionist and industrious. I read somewhere that the Persian culture is very…scientific. And industrious! We’re so similar, guys.” As the Bush II era dawned, Civilization III tweaked the system by adding corruption and oil: corruption as a way to shut down city’s production, and oil as a scarce resource that was needed to build plum units. As SUV’s became increasingly common, the game concept of “pollution” was eliminated. As America sought to shock and awe Iraq, suddenly three new paths to Ultimate Civ Victory were presented: Dominance, Diplomacy, and Culture. You can read this in two ways: As a reification of Bush-era politics (you win by being the biggest! And having the most McDonald’s / Mickey Mouses! [Mickey Mice?] And using a Western institution, the UN, to unite the world! Or as a critique, perhaps, of these same politics: Spread the good word of your civilization and its virtues and get everyone on your side. The beauty of Civilization, one supposes, is it can be both and neither to any player.

The year after I finished college, the year I was in Germany, was the year of Civilization IV. Perhaps because I know this installation the best, I feel that it is the best *game* of the franchise. Civilization IV introduces two new sub-systems: religion and corporations, both of which are spread the same way. In the years of the zenith of American consumerist excess, and the “declining years of the long war,” Civilization IV equated religion with corporatism. Oil was still a precious, scarce resource. So was kitsch: Leonard Nimoy was the voice of the game. So were animals: Suddenly, big scary mammals could attack you; the game always helpfully tells you that a “barbarian” wolf attacked and killed your settler, just in case you thought it was French or something. Just like real life, your civilization sometimes had unpredictable Events: natural disasters like hurricanes or scandals like intra-faith marriages. Only months after the rise of Perez Hilton and what I consider the total takeover of celebrity / pop culture, the game introduced the individualistic concept of Great People, units named after Real Historical Individuals who could greatly advance civilization by building special buildings, discovering technology, conducting missions, “creating great works,” etc. Oil is again a scarce resource, and sometimes your “corporate advisors” request that you take it by force. At the zenith of the housing bubble (the final expansion for Civ IV, Beyond the Sword, came out in 2007), the array of things you could build in a city was simply dizzying, and the wonder movies focused on process, depicting the wonder from a blueprint to construction site to final product. This is a game that reflects excess.

This year, the year I finished my PhD coursework (!), Civilization V came out. I’ll be honest: I haven’t had much time to spend with it, and I haven’t been that impressed. Suddenly, in the last gasps of the PC game market, it’s important that the game be all different and like, marketable, and fairly stupid. Gone is the ability to garrison more than one unit in your city; gone is the ability, it seems, to really build up a city. Luxuries aren’t serendipitously found but rather held by city-states, which, according to the Civ chronology, must have existed before the big bang (“the earth was without form, and void” – yet you get notifications about them immediately). I haven’t spent enough time on it yet to really have a full opinion as to How It Tells Us Everything We Need to Know About Year of Our Lord 2010, but I have some ideas that I will expound upon at a later date.

SO WHAT? Did you read all of that? I like to think this is more than a tl;dr nostalgia trip (since I have been mentally composing this essay or whatever for, like, months). I feel that using Civilization, we can see a historiography of the past 20 years and how changed cultural thinking is reflected in a game. Moreover, I think the Civilization franchise is inherently American: essentially, the game is a growth strategy. That’s the most yeah-duh genre thing ever, but let’s think about that for a second: in Civilization, you start with almost nothing, and you leverage your resources to build an empire (as defined, one imagines, in the West). You follow a good old-fashioned bootstrap narrative of building something huge out of nothing. You raise your people from barbarism (loosely defined) to a specific type of victory: a corporatist, Western-rationalist, military-industrial complex type. Ultimately, to win the game, every action or choice you make should help you get one step closer to dominating, destroying, or gaining the technology necessary to dominate or destroy other planets. So in that sense, is Civilization not really AMERICA? Is this game introducing people to the idea of other civilizations but within the rubric of Americanist aims and values? What would a non scientific-rationalist or Western-centric version of Civilization look like? How does Civ V reflect changes in the world since Civ IV came out?

I say this not to be critical. I have spent untold thousands of hours of my life with this game; I’m obviously not going to give it up. However, nobody I can think of has ever thought about it from a critical / cultural standpoint before, and it’s obviously long overdue.

What do you think? About the game franchise, I mean, not how overdue an examination of it is, or how long winded I am.

*Many, many years later, I would pay 50 cents for a copy of the same instruction manual in a thrift store in Sarasota, Florida. That is how I know my memory is correct enough for this quote (Despite the fact that 2 seconds of Googling revealed it online in HTML). And yes, I footnoted a blog. It’s just how I roll.

Cool Cats and Dirtchambers

December 22, 2010

Since the 1990s, the boundary between electronic musician, producer and DJ has been a question of pure market distinction:  (supposedly) electronic musicians finely craft soundscapes in their cobbled-together studios, producers provide electronic backing and mixing to “live” artists, and DJs assemble impromptu mixes for parties outside of the studio.  But anyone in the industry could cut these distinctions down as bullshittery in an instant — most people who do one are fully capable of doing all three roles well (or four, if you count the dubious term “remixer”).  In fact, I’d even wager everybody’s an electronic musician of some kind.  Have you ever made a mixtape?  An iTunes music list?  If yes, you’ve engaged in a similar curatorial effort to those employed as DJs or electronic musicians, meticulously selecting/arranging samples.  But doubtlessly some people do have a leg up over the rest of us in terms of quality.

Anyhow, the issue at hand is really the electronic artist-curated mix CD.  Halfway between a DJ set and a personal home playlist, these CDs have more than anything else clued me into the musical origins/influences of my favorite artists.  Every selection becomes a statement, and every mash-up or beat-matched song combo a revelation about musical possibilities.  This is musical education incarnate, live and direct from an artist whom you like and who, like you, was once a kid listening to other artists and so on.  But the rights for an ideal music education are a prized commodity.  Some of those can get expensive, which is why only celebrity DJs/electronic musicians/producers/remixers (okay, awkward neologism time: depremixers!) with deep-pocketed labels can afford to put out their definitive mixes to enlighten and rock out their listening public.  The tension between two mixes in particular intrigues me to no end.

Case 1 – The Dirtchamber Sessions by The Prodigy (1999)

I’m a giant Prodigy fan, from Liam Howlett’s teenage keyboard noodling on the What Evils Lurks EP and The Experience (1991) to the wry samples on Music for the Jilted Generation (1995), from  the aggro-breaks of “Smack My Bitch Up” and “Breathe” on The Fat of the Land (1997) to the laptop mania of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (2004).  Their songs combine rock samples, no-nonsense drum loops and acid synths with MC work by vocalist-dancers Keith Flint and Maxim to form an entirely idiosyncratic and immediately recognizable sound.  There is essentially a “Prodigy style” that they have to live up to on each album, and they continue to do so even with their recent Invaders Must Die (2009). Howlett’s 1999 mixtape The Dirtchamber Sessions thankfully gives us a little insight into the progenitors of his band’s sound.

If you look at the track list, several facts become apparent:

1. No Kraftwerk to be seen.
2. Half the artists are African-American.
3. Nods to fellow big beat artists Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and Propellerheads. The Prodigy *gasp*, too.
4. Mash-ups of hip-hop, punk and funk in equal measure, with some added keyboard action as transitions.
5. Dramaturgy guides the endeavour, with musically scripted highs and lows.

Overall, Howlett appears guided by artists from fairly humble origins who were cutting together pop, jazz and funk tidbits to create an innovative, living sound.  Several successes include his mash-up of Propellerheads’ “Spybreak” with the Beastie Boys’ “Time to Get Ill” or LL Cool J’s “Get Down” with “Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground.  The album actually introduced me to the greatness of Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy in one fell swoop, and got me into the old skool hip-hop sound in general.

In any case, I know of few artists who would have assembled such a mix and put it forth with such confidence.  What’s more, there are definite stylistic breaks from what we would consider the Prodigy sound:  the B-Boys paired with Babe Ruth, for example, or Primal Scream. In any case, the Prodigy successfully conveyed the gems of its generation onto my generation, interesting me in artists leading in divergent directions — but whom I now loosely associate with The Prodigy.

Case 2 – Cool Cats by Justice (2009)

Enter our generation, represented by the French superstar group Justice (who actually only have one major album – † (2007) – to their credit).  The Prodigy actually cited Justice as a major influence on the formation of Invaders Must Die, particularly their glitchy, bass-driven form of French house.  The Ed Banger sound, exemplified by artists such as Busy P, DJ Mehdi, or SebastiAn, reached its apogee under Justice’s watch and is still a major player in the club scene for Europeans in their early-to-mid-20s.

Anyway, they apparently put together a tracklist for the Ed Banger “Cool Cat DJ” crew, which then somebody else mixed for them.  So I don’t actually know who has agency for this thing, but it certainly relates genealogically to the Dirtchamber sessions:  artists publicizing the music that influences them.

Looking at the tracklist, we can make the following observations:

1. Oh, there’s Kraftwerk.
2. Most of the artists are white European electronica artists.
3. Nods to Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, but goes out of its way to prove its edge-y cred: Aphex Twin, Basement Jaxx, and Audion. And Justice, of course.
4. Assorted electronic noise is added to tracks –  in the “Justice” style.
5. Endeavors are made to keep the energy level as high as possible — even older hits are sped up.

Most of the tracks I actually owned as a mainstream electronica fans, meaning that they are as well.  Rather than absolutely identifying with their taste, I am instead sensing a careerist tinge:  they are profiling themselves with their/our favorite artists, rather than paying homage to them.  In effect, I listen to the Cool Cats mix and learn nothing new about myself as an electronica listener, only an affirmation that A) big beat was/is cool and B) this should rub off on Justice and their Ed Banger friends.  This is disappointing in particular because the Ed Banger Rec. series is otherwise so well conceived.  And though Justice’s sound may have raised the bar with regard to hard-edged dancefloor party-mixes, their inspiration comes from a place that cannot inspire me.

Put another way:  Schoedsack and Cooper created the (horribly colonialist) masterpiece King Kong (1933) because they had been “adventurers” and “explorers” which qualified them to project fantasies about places they had, in fact, visited.  Peter Jackson created the 2005 King Kong on the basis of, well, the fact that he had seen and enjoyed King Kong.  I feel this one level of media remove affects the Prodigy / Justice split as well:  the Prodigy drew on the roots of funk and hip-hop, and communicate the enthusiasm about it; Justice drew on those who drew on those roots, and feel sufficiently divorced from the source material to self-aggrandize as artists-who-rock-the-party.

Listening to them back-to-back prompted this rant, and now that it is done, I’m going to put on The Dirtchamber Sessions again…

Some Glee Clubs Need to Learn the Meaning of “Team”

December 3, 2010

Another Glee competition, another missed opportunity to truly shine as a team.

After the every competition episode, I seem to blog about teamwork and vocal arrangements. (Here’s my post on last season’s sectionals, and last season’s regional competition.)

A good Glee club showcases all of its talent. It can’t just be a star with a bunch of back up singers. That’s not a Glee club. That’s a music video.

This past episode was actually about teamwork and why New Directions needs to work on it! YAY! Mr. Schue finally called Rachel on her massive ego and finally told her that it wasn’t all about her. And he gave the solos to people we don’t hear from much.

But… in the end, concept never met execution.

The soloists were new, but it was still soloist + backup singers. As much as this episode focused on teamwork, when push came to shove, there was a lot more teamwork in their singing in last season’s regional competition.

That competition featured several singers in most of the songs. Solos were only a line or two long and pretty much everyone got one. This week they said they were doing teamwork, but all the did was elevate people who we usually don’t hear from. The only teamwork we actually saw was spoken, when Rachel helped Kurt prep for his audition and when the team cheered for Kurt’s new team.

So close, yet so far.

The Warblers, Kurt’s new Glee club they tied with are just as bad, if not worse. Kurt’s told not to try so hard, to not stand out, that they wear a uniform because it’s about the team, not the individual. But… that’s perfectly fine for Blaine to say because every song we’ve heard the Warblers sing has been all-Blaine-all-the-time, with his backup singers. Now, as a Darren Criss fan, I don’t mind too much, BUT don’t make him say a bunch of lies about teamwork.

The dialogue’s not matching the vocals. Part of me wonders if the writers need to learn what teamwork is, because as much as the characters talk on and on and on and on and on about it, they’re not actually doing it.

They need to stop talking the talk if they’re never going to walk the walk.

No Redeeming Social Value

December 1, 2010

First, some background for those of you who have never lived in North Carolina: We have centralized state control over alcoholic beverage sales. Most “strong spirits” here are sold through official ABC stores. Apparently, all licensed liquor stores in NC get their supply from the state-controlled warehouse. All of which makes for the right conditions for this news story I heard on the radio yesterday afternoon. I have highlighted my favorite line.

North Carolina’s ABC Commission has decided that liquor stores in the state will no longer sell 95% grain alcohol. The state warehouse currently stocks two 190-proof brands, Everclear and Diesel. A recent study by the Mecklenburg ABC board found that most of its grain liquor is sold at stores near college campuses, where the potent spirits are especially popular. State ABC spokeswoman Agnes Stevens says the Commission decided the high-alcohol drinks had no redeeming social value.

Does anyone else get a feeling of time-warp from these sentiments? I mean, I do kind of agree, I have no personal use for high-proof alcohol, (or any alcohol, for that matter,) but do we really need this level of centralized regulation of it? But as the spokesperson went on to say:

Agnes Stevens: It’s really – it’s a decision that the Commission has made with regard to concern for public health, and with an eye toward being protective.

I feel very protected now.

Actually, what I most feel like doing now is making up a longer list of things I think have no redeeming social value. What do you think we should try to get banned next?

-posted by Dana

My hobby

September 25, 2010

Source data.

Authorial usage of personal nouns and pronouns, such as “I have never read…” were not included. Months with blank data contained no direct references to the personal life of Mr. Hitchens. Months marked “0” contained zero words prior to the first verb, noun or pronoun referring to the personal life of Mr. Hitchens.

– posted by Mike

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…

Why You Should See an Uwe Boll Movie

June 20, 2010

Photo by Michael Heilemann courtesy of http://www.bollfans.de

My recent research on the infamous genre/video-game film director Uwe Boll has raised some eyebrows, both professionally and personally.  After all, am I not just a lowly East German film scholar, fighting “nobly” for a “lost” cinema?  What the hell am I doing flirting with the worst director in the world, let alone evaluating his work on its own terms?  Several people have asked me directly how I can be interested in a director whose slapdash aesthetic is modeled off the made-for-TV movie.  The wheels of concern about me as a sane individual have started to turn.  Boll has apparently become such a perfect “bad object” of cinema that one wonders why someone of intelligence would buy into his attention-getting schema.

Nevertheless, if you’re an intelligent person, you should see an Uwe Boll film.  Here’s why:

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