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Monday, March 1, 2010

Scope: More than a mouthwash, it's the underlying premise of an RPG

In Dungeons and Dragons, Book One: Men & Magic by Gygax and Arneson, on page 5, SCOPE:

"...DUNGEONS and DRAGONS will provide a basically complete, nearly endless campaign of all levels of fantastic-medieval wargame play.  Actually, the scope need not be restricted to the medieval; it can stretch from the prehistoric to the imagined future, but such expansion is recommended only at such time as the possibilities in the medieval aspect have been thoroughly explored."

NOTE: Need Not Be Restricted To The Medieval.

The above section was penned by Gygax in 1973.  More than three decades have passed and the overwhelming majority of paper-and-pencil RPGs are still modeled upon a 'fantastic' Medieval Western Europe.  Yawn.  Haven't we pretty-much mined-out the medieval end of things?  Didn't Chivalry & Sorcery drive a period-correct / SCA-approved black iron nail through that particular coffin back in the day?  Or what about Ars Magica

Now don't get me wrong; I am still a fan of those two systems, at least in terms of the first edition of both.  I've never bothered to upgrade to the newer versions because the old versions worked fine as far as I was concerned.  But the world really doesn't need yet another 'fantastic medieval' setting/rules-set.  Not really.  I mean, it certainly could be done and done very well...say if the fine folks over at Expeditious Retreat Press were to suddenly take leave of their collective senses and publish a Fantastic Medieval RPG that was anchored, based and evolved from their incredible and amazingly well-researched Magical Society line of sourcebooks...well...I'd probably buy it.  But that's an exception that pretty much proves the rule.  We're drowning, or at least we're up to our knees in 'fantasy medieval' stuff.  Aside from several other failings, the tendency of the so-called Old School Renaissance to crank out more and more generic/uninspired  'fantasy medieval' crap isn't so much getting old, as it was reaching the point of extreme fatigue a long time ago before there even was an OSR movement.  Now it just seems futile and silly, as though people can't stretch their imaginations any farther or maybe it just feels more comfortable to recapitulate, revise and regurgitate the same old stuff that Gygax and Arneson peddled to kids in the Seventies like literary dope. 

Honestly, we have dozens of Gygax-wannabees, Arneson-impersonators and numerous Close Personal Friends of the Great Guy Himself (whichever one you prefer)...but where are the new Barkers, that's what I want to know.  Is Prof. M. A. R. Barker forever doomed to be all on his own out there sipping his tea and watching over the slaves waving the richly embroidered banner of an imaginary realm that transcends the half-digested stereotypes, entrenched complacency and stale ennui of mindlessly repetitive trotting out of the tropes of colonialism and quasi-Victorian complacency?  Whither Arduin?  Sky Realms of Jorune languishes in obscurity, Talislanta may yet rejoin the marketplace of competing ideas, but even so, each of these examples are old settings, old games, mostly defunct, derelict and derailed from various causes both mundane and often unfortunate, despite the incredible work of their respective creators and the conservators who have nursed them through their dark and dismal period off along the margins.  Where are the new exotic, unusual, challenging and exciting settings, games and just plain weird ideas that are fun to explore?

Gabor Lux's Fomalhaut is much lauded and highly praised, however I cannot read Hungarian and Google only translates some of the stuff on the website, and not the booklets, etc.  His recent work that I was able to read was fun, heavily influenced by Barker's Tekumel, but still quite original and his City of Vultures in Knockspell #3 was simply a joy to read for its own weird sake.  I would definitely like to see more of this authors' highly intriguing work getting translated into English.

James Raggi is hard at work on his Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy RPG, but despite having a more ferocious and idisyncratic horror-informed edge to it, his system will still be Elves, Dwarves, (Halflings...) etc.  Not that that is a bad thing, but not that it's terribly new, either.  But it should prove to be fun and who knows where it will go once he gets past the obligatory stuff required in order to keep the game backwards-compatible with his previously published adventures.  The guy is a fellow curmudgeon and since he derives some serious inspiration from Clive Barker's earlier works...I am very interested in seeing how this system turns out.

Carcosa stirred up a right frightful storm of controversy when it appeared, and has since settled into being the touchstone for anyone wishing to provide some semblance of decadence, or to evoke some vestige of gnarly-weird-creepy pseudo-avant garde credibility.  Interesting, depraved, somewhat bent and definitely far more Lovecraftian than most of HPL's own tales...it was a fabulous start and a very real catalyst for several lesser spin-offs and homages and pastiches.  But aside from riffing off of A Voyage to Arcturus, and re-mixing Gamma World apocalyptic fantasy back into the OD&D genepool, and now that the hue and cry has died down over the unexpurgated version...where has this groundbreaking work taken us?  What comes next?

Urutsk sounds very interesting and I have only recently downloaded the public beta manual(s), and from a cursory examination, this setting looks like a lot of fun.  It feels like Tekumel meets Gamma World meets OD&D in all the right ways and I am looking forward to how this setting and rules-set develop.  It is wonderful to see a NON-OGL / Non-Clone Fresh New RPG-system coming out from the Old School Renaissance and I wish the author all the best in making this happen.  I believe that there are novels already out there derived from this setting and hopefully I'll be able to track one down shortly.

Quantique feels odd in all the right ways, and may prove, in time to be a truly unique setting that goes beyond the all too pervasive tendency of lesser creators to cobble-together three obscure pulp references or simply ripping off someone elses' non-open source intellectual properties and calling it your own.  There is something special and unique in this setting, it reeks with originality in the most wonderfully noisome manner, and I hope that the author continues to let it evolve, grow and assume frightening proportions and potentially become another touchstone radiating a malevolent green radiance that exerts as malign and weird an influence upon others as Carcosa, Lovecraft or Borges all do.

Planet Algol is fun, free-wheeling and far more troubling in oh so very many ways.  The personal creativity of the author/creator/mix-master supreme is ferocious, eclectic and inspiring...but...and there is a huge reservation on my part in respect to this setting...there is a lot of derivative stuff caught-up in the giddy mix, bits and pieces that are just fine to throw into your home-brew game...stuff that it is fine to mess around with as long as it remains a personal, non-commercial project.  I have no idea where Planet Algol is headed, and I intend to keep an eye on its wild and preternatural progress...but it makes me uneasy for the same reason I tend to not care for most rap music: too much re-mixing of other peoples' stuff detracts from the creativity that I admire and tends to get in the way of my enjoyment of the work.  Planet Algol deftly avoids this particular pitfall, but it does skirt the edge just a little too close for comfort, from my perspective.

Generally, I dislike and discount re-mixers and patchwork hacks who lift from others and repackage it as though it were their own work.  Sure, it can be fun, and everyone does something like that when they are starting out...I've heard all the rationalizations about Gygax including Barsoominan Apes and other such things lifted from various authors...remember Dungeonland anyone?...but I still feel that it is a childish sort of thing and not true creativity.  Or at least it is not nearly equivalent to the sort of creativity that I admire.  Mixing the Dukes of Hazard with Gammaworld and basing your characters on old WWE superstars is not in the same league as Arduin, Talislanta or Tekumel.  And that is one more point where I diverge drastically from the majority, I think.  Gamers are notorious for their flaunting of copyright, thumbing their noses at trademark law, and generally another more piratically-inclined group of consumers you would be hard-pressed to point out.  But I'm not interested in piracy, and all that goes with it right now.  I'm focusing on creativity, imagination and bringing something unique and fresh and new to the table, not just re-hashing what has gone before.  There has been too much Cloning and not enough Retro-ing in the whole Retro-clone and simulacrum-gaming movement.

I could give a crap what Gygax did, or what Arneson said, or what all they put into their games, or who they ripped-off or imitated--aside from wanting to read the source materials from which they derived inspiration perhaps.  I'm not interested in hand-me-down / second-hand imagination, nor in being restricted to the well-worn paths of consciousness set down by those who came before.  I prefer to see what has gone before as preliminaries, rehearsals, and a body of expectations and context that is there to be played with, not thoughtlessly aped or imitated, but twisted back upon itself, modified, re-interpreted, much like how Moorcock spun Howard's base assumptions regarding Conan head over heels to come up with Elric.  But Elric has been done.  It is time for something new, some Fresh Fever to sieze upon, some new approach that reveals a hitherto unforeseen twist, or offers up a new perspective that manages to respect what has gone before but not rip it off. 

To me placing Barker's Hlyss (for example) in an OD&D dungeon level isn't all that interesting nor particularly clever in and of itself. Out of context, the Ssu, Hlyss, even the mighty and noble Shen become just another silly monster for the players to terrorize, maim, rob or kill--acts that could potentially be unthinkable or that would carry serious consequences (and opportunities) within their native setting. But by taking these critters out of their setting, they loose a lot of what makes them so special in the first place. If you like the critters enough to use them, consider the setting from which they came, or at least develop your own version that has the serial numbers filed-off, especially if you're going to use stuff that is not open-source. Or better yet invent your own monsters. But that's a whole other issue.

The distinction between what is okay in a homebrew campaign and what a project that might ultimately go commercial needs to be paid attention to, and respected by creators.  Plagiarism is not just a crime, it is a testament to the laziness, ignorance, disrespect and lack of imagination on the part of the person who is ripping off dead (or still-living) authors and passing it off as their own work.  Personally, I prefer music -- and fiction, games, settings ---  that are original, the actual work of the person involved, something new and exciting and unique that could only come into being by the agency of that specific creator or artist.  To me, that is at the very heart and soul of what it means to play in an Old School mode, and it is the path towards a Renaissance and not just a lot of mindlessly repetitive repackaging and regurgitation.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for the fist-bump on Quantique! Sorry for the recent hiatus. I have more ideas banging around my head and will update the blog soon. Interesting that you mention Borges. I don't recall name-dropping him, but he's definitely a favorite author and certainly exerts an influence on my creative endeavors.

    As for Carcosa, there have been some add-ons, such as the adventure produced by BHP, some articles in Fight On! and a PDF of encounters (not made by Geoffrey but very faithful to the Booklet) posted to the OD&D Boards. If you don't have these yet, I can point you in the right direction.

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  2. I'm still getting caught-up with all the amazing stuff that has been happening while I was off doing other stuff. I have the latest issues of both Fight On! and Knockspell and enjoy them a great deal--hopefully I can start contributing to them soon. I miss doing the old Remgarn articles for Silver Griffin from back in the day. As for Carcosa, I just stumbled into the OD&D Boards and have been reading-up on things. It is impressive and very cool how that one little booklet really stirred up such a reaction. It still boggles my mind that the author ahd to put out an expurgated version! Wow: that is so Eighties/PMRC nostalgic in all the wrong ways.

    That said, please do feel free to point the way to cool stuff anytime. I'm always interested in what people are up to in terms of Settings and alternative rules-ssupplements.

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  3. Hoho, I appreciate your criticism/reservations regarding Planet Algol!

    I feel compelled to point out a couple of factors that I find mitigating:

    1) My personal Planet Algol campaign and the forthcoming Planet Algol booklet are connected yet separate entities. You can be assured that there will be no Hlyss located in dungeons in the published version. Incidentally, the Hylss, Ssu and Shunned Ones were very effective in my game at freaking out my players with "the unknown."

    2) Geoffrey McKinney of Carcosa and I have been "corresponding" with each other for a while, and unofficially Carcosa and Algol exist in the same "universe," ergo the usage of Carcosan elements with Geoffrey's permission. Some elements from other settings have been incorporated into Planet Algol with their creator's blessing. There is a "meta logic" to this, as there are portals connecting some of these settings...

    3) Some of the more gonzo pop culture elements presented on the Planet Algol blog are more exercises in gonzo creativity than actual integral parts of the setting.

    4) The Catoids are definitely inspired by the Cacatae of Bas-Lag, but are also quite different. Both races are cactus men with names that start with "c," and that's where I find the similarities to end.

    5) HG Welles' Martian Tripods and Lovecraftian elements are parts of the setting that I feel no shame for appropriating.

    6) You forgot Athanor!

    I would love to hear more about your specific concerns/criticisms regarding Planet Algol as I can only benefit from such feedback. You can always contact me at planetalgol AT gmail DOT com if you'd like.

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  4. Hey There! Great to hear from you Blair--I really, really like what you are doing with Planet Algol. Thanks for dropping by!

    1. Cool. The Tekumel critters are awesome monsters, but tend to work better in-context, more often than not, or at least that has been my experience. Using them as a one-off, or to shake things up works too. Also, those races are aliens, most of which had star travel prior to the big bad event that tossed Tekumel into a pocket universe...so they could be out there...it's just not something that Barker has ever approved of, that I know, and I am loathe to mess with other people's IP without permission--getting sued sucks. But hey, in a homebrew game, who can touch you?

    2. Planet Algol and Carcosa in the same universe? how cool is that?! Wow. I am looking forward to what you two cook up together next...

    3. I kind of thought that some of the stuff at your blog was more artifacts of the process than final products. I'm doing a similar process over at Riskail. I have had a lot of fun reading your posts and thanks for sharing your process; I have found it very inspirational.

    4. Cactus-people were put forward back in the Fifties in Amazing Stories (or one of the other pulps--I used to have the zine), I forget the story. They were also given as an example of alien lifeforms in one of the older TimeLife kiddy-encyclopedia sets that we had back in the early Seventies, so Mieville certainly did not invent them, just his presentation of the concept. It's too good an idea not to use, and there are plenty of other approaches that can be taken...as I am hoping to demonstrate shortly myself.

    5. Lovecraft and Welles stuff are both Public Domain from what I have been told, so why the hell not appropriate them? It's fun, and why should Alan Moore have all of the fun?

    6. Oh Poop. You are right. Athanor is fun and I just downloaded the pdf. I will put together an amendment/appendix to the list and make sure to include Athanor. Thanks for pointing that out!

    I will be in touch. My only real concern is/was the potential liability that comes from unpleasant people who claim all sorts of infringement where there may not be any. I've worked in publishing and I've seen the damage disgruntled authors can do to other authors out of spite and professional envy. It gets ugly. Especially the moment so much as ten cents is involved. That said, keep up the great work!

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  5. RE: 4. Above--I meant that the cactus-people were in a pulp from the Thirties and in another magazine from the Fifties, both of which I used to own before moving down to the metropolis of Minneapolis. Also, I believe cactus-people were once mentioned in an old issue of Curtis Fuller's FATE way, way back. It's definitely an idea that is worth playing around with in a game setting.

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