Talking Heads and Ivory Enclaves: A Gaming Forum Community Explored

I’ve been doing some on-and-off research into the nature of the gaming community, pulling my thoughts on various issues together, occasionally posting some of the results on this blog. I had a discussion last year with The Geek Anthropologist about some formal ethnography of gamer webspace, and drafted a research note on the behaviours evidenced in a particular online forum. The folks at TGA have been busy lately, having had a conference on all matters geek, so I thought I’d post my thoughts here. Please let me know if this is something you’d be interested in hearing more about in future – it takes a fair bit of time, but can be quite rewarding.

So, without further ado: the post!

Online forums have been a huge part of the tools available to the geek community for a while now, and are a place where many go to express their opinions and discuss topics on all things geek. So what precisely happens on them?

I’ve spent the last few months looking reasonably intently at the posting habits of a particular computer game forum* and have correlated this with my experiences of several others, dealing with both online and offline topics that could be labeled “geeky”. And the traits seem remarkably similar, only really changing over time rather than in relation to each other, or even the precise subject matter of the forums.

The first thing to note is that these forums are mainly not, despite the topic post-and-reply set-up of these forums, places to discuss these topics. Rather, they are used by the forum community as places to volunteer their opinions. This is the explicit intent behind some of these threads (polling threads being the most obvious example of this), but to me at least the spirit of “turn up and volunteer your opinion on topic X” is often present even where the polls are not. There is rarely the back-and-forth discussion present in formal or informal debate; those replying to threads merely state their opinions on the topic with little regard for the initial post. The opinions of the rest of the posters do not appear to matter overmuch to those replying (unless they are controversial), more that their own opinion on the matter is expressed. These kinds of posts are also quite sporadic; apart from a core of posters, quite often someone will have only one post in any given thread, and then leave.

One place where this is less the case is the more technically-minded forums, where people go to ask questions on how a particular mod works, or how to solve a particular hardware or software-related issue. Threads in these kind of forums are reasonably to the point and direct in a question-and-answer format, where the content and specifics of the posts matter in order to get the problem solved. There is also a difference in the composition of the posters, too. The opinion-volunteering mass drops away, leaving only a few (quite often only one per thread) of the core of posters answering the question at hand.

There is a middle-ground between these two extremes present, and that appears to consistently be the areas of the games where knowledge of the setting of the game is discussed. In these areas, threads are often started by someone other than the core posters, who then drop out of the discussion altogether, leaving the core posters to discuss the issue of the post. This does take the form of discussion, replying directly to previous points made by other posters, although rarely the original poster, who merely provides the discussion topic. The discussion happens between a relatively tight-knit group of regulars alone, and attempts to join in are frequently either ignored or dismissed within a post or two.

The attitude of these posters to the original point of the thread varies from dismissive (if they consider the answer obvious or the question repetitive) to informative. Both types of attitude often include links being posted to external sources to provide the actual answer, interlaced with commentary based on the answerer’s opinion. Quite often the links are not taken up by the thread starters, who frequently continue to ask questions until they are answered within the forum itself. Out of necessity, the posting of links to external sources only appears to happen in forums where substantial information about the game is found online (such as reproduction of in-game text or comments by the game developers). Where this information is not online, other sources (such as print media) get referenced and occasionally quoted directly for answers, and the referral process is absent.

When posting in this kind of environment, the attitude of the original posters also shifts; instead of complaining about an issue or asking opinions, they are often phrased as clarifications (“why is X the case?” rather than “what do you think about X?”) and the posters are more deferential in attitude, aware that their own opinions may be wrong and apparently welcome to having them changed. In the wider forum, there is rarely this kind of opinion-change apparent, presumably because of a perceived parity in knowledge-levels between posters, where this is not the case between the “visitor” original poster and the regular respondents.

Within all these types of forums (the opinions, the technical questions and the setting questions) there are various pinned threads at the head of each forum, which contain subforum rules and common questions and answers. These are not frequently referred to by members; where rules are in breach, a moderator will comment directly, and often the information contained within them will be paraphrased by the more regular members (no referral process) unless their contents have an obvious bearing on the question of the original poster. Outside of the context of the original question, they are rarely if ever referred to at all.

From this point of view, it seems clear that while online forums ostensibly facilitate wider communication, they do not in practice help. To the infrequent users, they merely offer a platform for questions to be asked and answered. The degree to which questions and opinions are discussed is dependent not on the amount of people present, but on the makeup of those people, with an observable “regular” vs “visitor” difference present, with in-group and out-group behaviours. The in-group will make jokes with each other but not the out-group of less regular posters (although occasionally this may be at their expense), and any communication beyond expression of opinions is dependent on being part of the in-group. What makes up membership of this group is unclear at present, but it goes beyond mere post count or time on the forums (as I observe with my own experience; despite being a member since 2007 and posting relatively frequently, I am still treated as a visitor in most areas).

This dichotomy may explain certain behaviours observed within the wider geek community; the tendency to hold up certain opinions as sacred, as they are not regularly challenged but merely voiced, and holding up knowledge in certain areas as an indicator of status. These are defining characteristics of behaviour in online forums that appear to be replicated offline frequently. Online forums appear less communities and more soapboxes with knowledgeable enclaves where newcomers may enter but only have limited participation. The gates into online communities are quite narrow, it seems.

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Tripping Up Over Too Much Narrative: Battlestar Galactica vs Deep Space Nine

Having spent a fairly sleepless night last night, realised I have a case in point for what happens when there is too much plot in a piece of media, and things get too wrapped up in their own narrative rather than let it emerge organically, a problem which can drive authors to very predictable plotlines, but isn’t just limited to plots, and a case where I think it was done just right in terms of amount of overarching narrative. These shows are the rebooted Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Maybe it’s something to do with how they were originally broadcast (DS9 was written for syndication originally whereas BSG had a very definite home in the Sci-Fi Channel), but the shows had very different in the way they approached their overall stories.

DS9 had an occasional “storyline” episode, amid a sea of more incidental (I might say “episodic”, but that would be cheap) episodes, which allowed the status quo of the story to be expressed without being driven forward onto something different. This allowed for the various plot-related elements (such as Bajor’s Prophets, the various station romances, the nature of the Dominion or who Garak really was) to be stated and elaborated again and again without necessarily being advanced. As said, this may be due to the syndication model needing slow advancement as there was no way of knowing which episode an audience would be watching, and in an age before DVD box sets and catch-up TV it would be rare for an audience to catch episodes they’d missed. Whatever the cause, the effect was a plot that moved gradually, without the viewer needing to see every episode to join the dots, but the additional character enrichment for those who did were still valuable, just not plot-critical.

Contrast with Galactica, where there’s plot advancement in every episode, so if you miss one you have to go back and catch up, despite the several minutes of “previously on Battlestar Galactica…” every time. Ideas that merited long-term effects, like President Roslin’s “playing the religious card” or Chief Tyrell’s appointment as the union rep for the fleet, were brought up as the resolution or key part of one particular episode and then dropped and never really mentioned again.Their long-term effects on the characters were never explored because the plot didn’t allow them to be, because there was always something else happening that needed to be explained or they wouldn’t reach the right point of narrative development before the plot demanded they be ignored to fit in the next crucial point. The sad thing is that the next point may well be character-related, due to the studio’s manta that “it’s the characters, stupid” driving things (which it wasn’t, but we’ll get to that in a bit). This led to inconsistent characters, acting one way to express their relation to the other characters, and another way to drive the episode’s plot forward. While this is a good thing for the portrayal of some characters (like Baltar), in others it seems that they’re so flexible that their personal interests and inclination have no bearing on their actions (like Lee Adama).

I think that the second half of season 4 of BSG needs a special mention here, as it seems to cut off a lot of the show’s established behaviours and start its own merry trail that it then needs to wrap up far too quickly. Having reached the previous “Earth” to discover an irradiated wasteland, they then decide to up sticks and leave again, culminating in a messy struggle for Hera and a panic jump that just so happens to lead to actual Earth. This while sorting out the “truth of the opera house” (magnificently executed, it must be said), what on earth happened to the earth they’re on, how human-cylon relations (in both diplomatic and personal senses) will work, the purpose of the Final Five, killing off Laura Roslin and working out what the hell Kara Thrace is/was. All this in the last ten episodes. This would have been plenty of fodder for a whole series worth of slow-burn character and setting development in someting like DS9, but they also introduce a mutiny, a ton of unnecessary flashbacks, and the kidnapping of the metaphysical linchpin of both races to squeeze into the last BSG episodes as well. Watching them and trying to keep up with all the narrative threads was pretty exhausting.

While it can be argued that the more incidental elements of DS9 weren’t too possible in BSG without having a “planet of the week”-esque feature, which the show was applauded for leaving behind, I think it could quite easily have gone into the political events and daily lives of the fleet, and how these impacted the day-to-day running of the fleet when the cylons weren’t around breathing down their necks. It would have allowed breathing space to get a feel for the characters outside of the plots, without feeling the need to drive “character” as such. The show suffered, I feel, from too much narrative, which meant that the stories were rushed through, and characters given too little chance to develop.

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George RR Martin obviously plays Dwarf Fortress

After spending the last entry gushing about expanding Vampire: the Masquerade‘s various archetypes,this time I’m going to be talking about narrative. Specifically the consequences of its lack and the impact that lack has on those who interact with it.

Take A Song of Ice and Fire. The series can be quite easily described as a fantasy epic, but it follows precisely none of the standard fantasy narrative conventions; characters that can be (loosely) labelled as “protagonists” are as frequently brutalised and killed as other characters, jolting you out of the comfortable feeling of knowing exactly who will be standing at the end of it, which I found a refreshing change of pace.

It also doesn’t have much of an overarching narrative. Compared to, say The Lord of the Rings, which also has an ensemble cast, there’s very little hints at where the story is going, or how it will resolve for various characters. The other obvious comparison here is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but I can’t make an accurate one because I haven’t read that particular saga yet. Either way, this makes the whole structure of ASoIaF compelling – it draws you in because you have no real idea what will happen next. You can get your hopes up for various characters to either do well or get their comeuppance, but there’s no guarantee that this will happen, at all.

I think this is the case because characters and their fates aren’t especially pertinent to the overall sweep of ASoIaF – Martin is telling the story of families, wars and continents, with characters only really incidental to this grand scheme. Yes, they have goals and hopes and dreams, but whether they achieve them or not is not actually important to the overall story. What is important to the story is the movements of large numbers of armed men (and occasionally women), the shifting political plays of a few major players, and the armies of impending frozen doom likely to descend from the North at some point. The books seem to make a point of playing up this stupidity at various points, yet you realise that the necessities of the world are brushed aside by selfish human nature. And because no-one is the protagonist-darling of the setting, the story is dependent on no-one to either stand against this or show that it is definitely the case (although I have my suspicions about Jon in this regard).

Another series of novels that has this sort of structure is the Gormenghast trilogy, because for  at least the first two books it’s not out to tell the stories of the individual characters, but of the whole castle. The closest thing to a protagonist is Titus, and the stories of the sisters, Prunesquallor, Flay and Swelter, the Professors and to a large extent Steerpike only really intersect with his on the most basic of levels. And yet the castle rumbles on, the books creating an impression of an ecosystem as much as they do anything else. As far as a centralised plot goes, you’re left scrambling around for details, but in terms of vivid characters and the feel of a place, the series is fantastic. It sucks you in in a way that a plot that you’ve already known for ages (Joseph Campbell, I’m looking at you) and are largely just going through the motions with never really does.

The extreme of this sort of thing is visible in games – roleplaying games as a whole tell the story of a group of characters, and while there are likely to be individual narrative arcs going on and questlines and so on, they don’t have to have any overarching structure. Games can be “sandbox” or plot-driven, and the ones I’ve tended to find most fulfilling are the ones that can go anywhere, because you’ve got to be ready for anything, and think on your feet. The ones where I kind of know where they’re going early on because I can follow the narrative structure lines can be fun and exploratory in seeing how the variations can go, but they’ll rarely be the big stories that I’ll remember.

There is also a potential for the idea that I’m finding these types of thing satisfying because they’re things that I can build without fear of being railroaded down a particular pathway by the narrative, and I think that’s kind of the point. Even where I can’t build stuff of my own because I’m reading a book I can still have theories that could go either way because the lack of a central narrative means there’s that bit more uncertainty, and everyone is free to die because there’s no protagonist as such.

And then there’s things like Dwarf Fortress. Dwarf Fortress as a game takes this sort of thing to its extreme, as explained really eloquently by The Foldable Human. Dwarf Fortress is a mind-bogglingly complex sandbox game, and one where there’s razors mixed in with the sand. Dwarfs will die, things will go wrong, and your fortress will eventually burn. But it’s incredible fun watching it go down, and teasing little stories out of the mandala of events is one of the main joys of it. In fact, it’s spawned its own library of Let’s Play narratives, the most famous of which being a thing called Boatmurdered, “an epic tale, incorporating hordes of belligerent dwarf-eating elephants, floods of biblical proportions, flaming puppies, and more hilarious pranks. After many goblin raiders and elven traders were fried with floods of lava, there was a brief period of tranquillity. Then one of the last few dwarves, unhappy from the recent defacement of a masterwork engraving, caught fire and started a fist fight with another dwarf (setting it on fire too), causing a tantrum and insanity spiral that eventually destroyed the whole fortress. To be fair, she’d given plenty of warnings that she was becoming unhinged, such as attempting to drink from the magma river and making numerous engravings depicting dwarves on fire, elephants killing dwarves, and a carving of a carving of cheese.” Because there’s no central narrative, you can become invested in particular events of your fortress to a huge degree, because you’re given the freedom to do so. It’s spawned die-hard fans who write books and wikis on the thing, and all without the need for any sort of plot. It’s similar to the appeal of The Sims; make your own world and stories, because no-one does it for you.

And I feel that fantasy as a genre has shown the odd sign of learning from this, but as a whole really doesn’t. There are lots of character arcs frequently intersecting, but I find I can often tell how a book is going to go purely on the narrative signposting. I remember Dan Brown is a particular offender in this regard; having Digital Fortress I then read into Deception Point and, on meeting a particular character, knew straight away what his role would be in the narrative. With things that don’t have a central story, that sort of prediction and ensuing lack of investment (because a feeling of fatalism sets in) won’t happen, and you start hoping things will happen rather than knowing they will. That sort of thing needs to happen more often in writing, I feel. Writers need to play more Dwarf Fortress.


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Vampires Should Take Up Knitting! Or Maybe Baking. Or Ballet. But Only If They’re E-e-e-evil…

Apologies for the extended hiatus, I’ve been very distracted by both real life and Vampire: the Masquerade of late. So much so that I’ve now got another section of this website devoted to various rules expansions and interpretations of the game, which I’ll be expanding in the coming months, hopefully. And it also got me thinking about archetypes in fantasy fiction.

Then this and this (warning: immediate shouting and screaming on the second video) impinged on my consciousness, and I’ve now got quite a soup of thoughts about stereotypes, archetypes and what they tend to do in both fantasy and science fiction.

In summary, the Moviebob video linked above points out that even though The Hunger Games is held up as a feminist text, Katniss is basically a “scruffy, taciturn John Rambo in a sports bra” while the enemies of the Capital are “preening… mincing… they gorge on wine and chocolate, they wear makeup and spray tans and frilly costumes”. Basically, Katniss is clearly good in part because she expresses masculine traits, while the folks in the Capital are clearly bad in part because they express feminine traits. And people do seem to react badly when protagonists use female traits positively. Which isn’t particularly pleasant, because it means that gender stereotypes aren’t going away. But I digress, if only slightly.

What could make all this more interesting is if you come up for reasons for characters to take up particular aspects and signifiers which are then explored, but it needs to be a conscious choice, rather than something which people or characters are railroaded into, or something which defines their entire character, which leads me on to the next, rather more ranty, video.

This makes the point that in Vampire: the Masquerade as written, there’s only one reason for playing a vampire of a particular clan is to be a contract killer or a power gamer. That the clan as written has such a narrow (and racially insensitive) remit that it shouldn’t exist. They aren’t generally alone in this, as there are other vampire clans with a similar problem which material on this website (provided mostly by the fantastic Telgar of Onyx Path Forums and myself) – they get defined and classified by a fairly narrow set of options which are generally forced on the player by the game setting. What these clans generally need is a reason to be the stereotypes as presented, rather than a reason why they’re not. When it comes to roleplaying games there are other considerations inherent in such considerations too, such as how such changes fit into the existing system and so on, but that shouldn’t be the focus here. The focus should be on the in-character reasons  for something to be the case.

Archetypes in themselves, particularly in films, are a handy visual/textual shorthand for things, but we should really be wary of what the shorthand we’re using actually means, as well as possibly where it comes from, before it gets used. Thinking about why particular characters or types of character are the way they are before you follow the crowd and create yet another cardboard cut-out character who follows the conventions will inevitably flesh them out, and/or increase your understanding of why they do what they do. The instant the answer to “why does a character do X?” becomes just “because that’s what type Y characters do” without any reasons behind that we start to get shallow characters who reinforce potentially negative messages about certain kinds of action and/or way of being. Even thinking “it’s because character Z thinks it’s the way things should be” is enough of an answer to get gears turning about how that character thinks and why they do what they do. Do they feel obliged to follow the social rules because they are afraid to do otherwise? Do they do it because they think it’s the easiest way to power/success? OR any number of reasons. Making sure there is a reason is what matters, rather than unconsciously promoting boring and possibly damaging conventions.

Watch this space for more VtM information, including an attempt to make some of the more cardboard-cut-out boogeymen of the setting more interesting.

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Plot and Pathos, and Ever the Twain Shall Meet

This blog post is written off the back of the Day of the Doctor, so first thing’s first, a warning to all of you…


The 50th anniversary episode was, in its way, a good one. There were so many nods to the old series that Steven Moffat’s head must be loose, bizarre action and time-twisting going on, and the redemption of the Doctor from the Great Time War. And it’s the last bit that’s got me thinking. To any fans who may read this, it’s not over-flattering so please don’t lynch me.

While it was also mildly annoying that the Time War was still (mostly) left to happen off-screen, the biggest thing that infuriated me about it was the attempt to of the episode to play both the tragic and happy ending game at the same time. While the initial build-up of the War Doctor making the decision to exterminate both the Time Lords and the Daleks together was quite well-handled, the Doctors’ reactions to it and particularly the resolution wasn’t handled well at all. It might be just me, but freezing everyone at their moment of torment and death seems little better than the genocide option. If you’re stuck in one moment forever, isn’t that pretty much the same as dying? Even worse, if you’re still “in the moment”, so to speak, doesn’t that make the pain and terror you’re feeling go on forever? Can you really live with that? But all these questions are brushed aside in the episode, the poignancy of the moment (hah!) forgotten because the Doctor doesn’t have to commit genocide. Which, by the by, cheapens all the heaviness of the decision that goes before. It felt somewhat like a conjuring trick: Now you see all this unbearable weight of responsibility, and voilà, now you don’t!

Compare if you will, the dilemma facing Tom Baker’s Doctor when blowing up the Daleks’ breeding lab – with the charges set, he has a crisis of conscience about whether he can bring himself to destroy  an entire race, and it’s only when he sees what the Daleks are capable of even at the start that he actually blows the charges (never mind that this doesn’t actually exterminate them, but oh well). He knows the consequences, and is entirely aware of them as he does it. The act is no less horrific than that which is committed in Day of the Doctor, but it’s handled with full knowledge of what it is, wooden acting aside, and the characters take the consequences. There were none in Day of the Doctor, conveniently hand-waved aside as the pretty much risk-free alternative is presented.

This makes all the previous agonising over the decision seem worthless; if there was an easy solution, there is no hard choice, and therefore no heartache. The pathos dissipates in a cloud of deus ex machina, with no consequences for anyone involved. This is rather a problem for the series, which does rather seem to have a habit of both blowing all the potental plot hooks really quickly to make a hyper-tense episode and doing anything to ensure that it all ends happily. Neither is good for creating an ongoing sense of drama, and now the Doctor’s previous self-loathing at having killed his own race (retconned through a throwaway “you’ll not remember this” remark) is gone.

Compare the angst over one set of bad actions evidenced by Snow White in the series Once Upon a Time. In a particular episode, she tricks the evil queen into killing her own mother, and feels a huge amount of remorse for it, her heart visibly darkening because of the act that she committed. Her guilt about this is played out quite heavily over multiple episodes, the consequences clear to everyone. While the actual darkening of the heart may have been a step too far (possibly because of its unresolved meaning in the show’s metaphysics), the suffering of the character who does a vile act is not sidestepped in any way, which justifies the emotional weight behind it. With the quick fix out of nowhere, the Doctor just can’t match this.

Why is this? Possibly because Doctor Who is still thought of (somehow) as a kids’ show, whereas Once Upon a Time doesn’t have quite the same restrictions, which allows it to deal with thorny issues like estranged parents, divorce, and magic addiction (a good proxy for alcoholism). But genre restrictions aside, the shows seem to have a very different attitude to pathos and suffering as a thing; Doctor Who seems to view it as something that must relate to the plot, and once the plot moves on the suffering goes. This is perhaps countermanded by the “under the hood” remorse that the Doctor has about killing his own race, but I can only really remember this getting wheeled out in the new series when it serviced the plot in any given episode, not as a particular restriction on the character outside of it. And therein lies the problem.

Pathos is not a plot device, it should be emergent from it. Perhaps more commonly, it should never be backstory, which is part of my problem with the Time War happening off-screen; characters in media often try to evoke sympathy through their past without much of an effort to show that past. We just know that they come from a broken home, or have lost their parents, or have some other terrible secret that makes them “special” without much in the way of consequences or explanation.

Character’s present and past needs to mean something to the character to have an impact, and modern pathos only seems to mean something to the story. Which I find a mite depressing.

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Your Friendly Neighbourhood Undead, and Other Metaphors

Apologies for the lack of posting lately, in addition to musings on Mists of Albion and failures in playtesting Magic: the Multiverse, the I’ve been caught up with vampires, zombies and undead in general. Fortunately not an infestation of my own, but how they’re presented in media. And it got me thinking about why the supernatural genre is so popular now relative to science fiction or fantasy. And I think it’s grounded in the modern world, and how we respond to it. Zombies, first off. Interestingly, there’s only one kind of zombie that has prevailed in the popular mind, the “epidemic” zombie. This is the idea that the condition of zombiehood is caught or imposed by a force completely beyond the characters’ control. The first notion of a zombie, created by a voodoo priest or other spellcaster, remains the domain of less-than-popular fantasy. This is because you end up telling vastly different stories about the each kind of zombie.

Fido zombie pet film theme

Doesn’t he make such an adorable addition to the family?

When they’re created by an identifiable outside force, zombie stories become immediately more classically adversarial and task-oriented – take out the evil necromancer, and everything will go back to normal. It becomes your basic questing storyline. But make zombies much more permanent, with an unfightable origin (like a radiation leak, or a virus), and they become less an adversary and more a fact of life. The focus of the narrative can then shift to the interactions between the main characters, or making points with the setting, as zombie film granddaddy George A. Romero did in the various Night/Dawn/Day of the Dead films, right up to the satire of Fido, where zombies are kept as conditioned pets/servants by well-to-do families. This almost never happens in fantasy, and is a rarity in sci-fi, where the shiny magic/technology/metaphysics is frequently given centre stage. Science fiction can break away from this to an extent by just not exploring the social and technological consequences of the new gadgets, which might also explain why science fiction is a more popular genre than fantasy; it’s less self-obsessed, and so can explore far more about the human concerns of the film, from family dynamics to society’s attitudes towards the “Other”.

The other big undead thing at the moment is vampires. From Underworld to Angel to Twilight, these things have also sprung up like weeds in recent media releases. The thing that opened the floodgates here was Interview with the Vampire, making vampires appear much more human than previously imagined. Until that point, apart from Vampire: the Masquerade we had very little media to help us empathise with vampires, they were just bloodsucking tyrants that stood alone and oppressed everyone. But once Interview happened, the way was clear for every kind of vampire empathy, right up to Twilight. And, as much as there’s all sort of different abilities of vampires, their core remains the same and, for the most part, the moral quandry does as well. Their humanity makes them intriguing, as much as the zombies’ lack of it does the same thing.

And then there’s the sex. Lots and lots of sex, and sexual metaphors are often claimed for vampires whole reason for being. It’s even been claimed that vampires express a society’s current attitudes towards sex – for the Victorians who read Dracula and Carmilla, sex and women’s sexuality in particular was threatening, and so vampires were bad. For Twilight readers and Angel viewers, vampires are dangerous and to be handled with care, but not necessarily bad, and can be very good or even  a desirable state for the protagonist. Yes, Bella does want to become a vampire – she wants to have sex. And so the themes continue to get expressed.

The key in all this? Both vampires and zombies once were human, but have been twisted one way or another. The sense of empathy remains much more than it does for an elf, a dwarf or an orc, no matter how cuddly you make them. And so comparisons can be more readily drawn between the undead and modern-day humanity. While this does rather make them into chameleon archetypes, shifting and interpreted however they can be in the face of society’s current woes, the fact that they can be portrayed in such a way is fascinating contrast to other non-human races. And it’s not even the setting; urban fantasy, with fantasy tropes ported into semi-modern settings or the real world, are also nowhere near as universal as vampires and zombies. Because fantasy races are still one step removed from humanity, and the empathic link or reflexivity of the characters is missing, even if it’s not swamped by expository passages. We’ll always be closer to vampires and zombies than elves and dwarves, it seems.

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The Highly Confused Heroes of Magic the Gathering

After some shuffling of pages, the rules for combat, spellcasting and guidelines for converting spells from Magic: the Gathering to Magic: the Multiverse are now up. The system should be just about playable now, although it still feels very bare bones, and in particular needs an experience system. Let me know what you think of it, and if any changes are necessary!

And doing all this thinking about planeswalkers and what they do got me thinking; what is the planeswalker narrative saying to players and other consumers of Magic media?

For the most part, it’s the “you are special” message that gives people the ability to imagine themselves as something/someone else, a space where people can feel more than their everyday selves. I guess this is kind of the point of fantasy, to make the participants feel like they’re something different. But what kind of something different?

World-shaping power seems to be the overall impression, despite the attempt by Wizards of the Coast to put a face to planeswalkers in recent years, which has been only moderately successful at getting players and planeswalkers on the same page, as the planeswalkers in cards and  player-planeswalkers are still radically different in feel.

This is because while the planeswalker cards each have a set of 3 nicely themed abilities tied to their character, the player has a 60-card deck of spells to choose from, which probably aren’t going to be thematically linked, particularly if they’re effective decks, a point I’ve made before but I’m going to say it again anyway. This doesn’t lend itself to particularly coherent heroes, which is something the MtG developers have explicitly tried to counter in their development of Planeswalker characters:

As planeswalkers aren’t connected to any one world, they have less investment in what’s happening there. If we aren’t vigilant, that can make planeswalkers remote, uncaring, and unrelatable. That’s part of why Elspeth has such a fierce instinct to protect the peoples of Bant. That’s part of why Jace has an all-consuming curiosity. That’s part of why Liliana’s ambition levels are through the roof. These characters have an intrinsic ability to escape whatever problem they’re dropped into, so it’s crucial that their motivations connect them firmly to the conflict at hand. There probably are planeswalkers out there who skim the surface of planar plots, never forming deep attachments to any particular person or place, planeswalking away when things get hard, uncomfortable, or dangerous. Nothing’s really stopping that from happening; the whole point is that planeswalkers get to go where they will. But we don’t hear about those unmotivated, risk-averse guys, and the reason is that because they’re boring jerks.

But the player has no way to build such connection, and no incentive to do so within the framework of the game. In a way the planeswalker cards counter this narrative because they encourage a kind of collaborative outlook; the player isn’t standing alone against their adversary, but defeat them with the help of another. But that other is, unfortunately, still a tool to be used and discarded (literally!) when the time is right. The game does include a smörgåsbord of multiplayer formats that encourage collaboration between playes, but the most commonly played multiplayer games are still wars of all against all, complete with deal-breaking and backstabbing into the bargain.

This all encourages players to think in terms of instrumental success; nothing outside the deck necessarily matters, unless it helps the player win. It can of course be argued that it’s a competitive game and winning is all-important, but the heady mish-mash of media messages around the game that encourages deeper levels of thought makes me think that the game could try a little harder.

Magic isn’t alone in this; one of the trends I’ve noticed recently in the setting of Warhammer 40,000 is the encouragement from the rules to build ones own personalised army, and the rules for doing so. There are still rules for existing space marine chapters and other races, but the rules now give you a mechanical incentive for going your own way, and players are lapping it up, creating chapters filled with a sense of self-importance that was scorned a few years go. Of course, players can conscientiously try to fit into the existing background, but there’s nothing encouraging that apart from a few predefined paint schemes, which in my experience players will buck because they want something to be theirs and no one else’s. Here again we see the same problem as can happen with Magic: players can hide away in their own small worlds, not interacting with anything broader on a meaningful level. Which encourages people to not listen to anything outside their own heads.

There are some trends in various sci-fi/fantasy media that buck this – despite some very questionable gender portrayals, Avengers Assemble does encourage collective action despite large personal differences. A large part of the film is about characters overcoming those conflicts.

Within various roleplaying games, there are also hints of being collaborative; even outside of games that explicitly address co-operative themes, the idea of a group of people working together towards a common goal is a big theme in many games, and several players find player vs player confrontations problematic. These formats encourage working together and collective heroism in ways that Magic really doesn’t. I hope that Magic: the Multiverse has the potential to at least make people consider planeswalkers in a different light to the all-conquering Campbellian hero.

Thoughts? Comments? Scathing criticisms? Post a comment below!

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What Does Your World Do For a Living?

There’s quite a lot of fuss in fantasy fandoms about “high” and “low” fantasy, with a great deal of time and trouble going into working out exactly what high fantasy or low fantasy is, and their various characteristics.

The Full Fantasy Genre Menu. Would you like some additional Character Peril with that, or maybe some Tired Stereotypes on the side?

One of the bigger themes in this debate this that high fantasy is world-changing, while low fantasy is not. But I’d disagree  with this; while the perfect good guys (and guys it does tend to be) may stop the bad guys/prop up the status quo and  get their reward, the world seems to kind of trundle on in the background, without much to say either way. There are perfectly valid complaints that much high fantasy is elitist, but that isn’t my main bugbear with it at present. I sometimes read and think “so what would happen if they were to fail?”, and don’t get much of an idea. The plots of many stories, even the highest of high fantasy, are somewhat immaterial to the world that gets created. Sure, some nations will change, and maybe some powerful magic will be unleashed, but why is that particularly interesting? Fantasy isn’t known for its unique political structures and magic and bad guys isn’t particularly new, so I’d much rather read about some well-written characters in a less earth-shattering novel. This is why, for example, I prefer A Song of Ice and Fire to the Belgariad. The latter has mythic figures walking with the main character trying to retrieve an object of earth-shattering potency, but the only outcome I could discern from this would be that the bad guy wins; the latter shows you the personal stakes of each of the characters in the political conflicts, which makes it much more interesting.

But what really gets me hooked is the whys of the world, the metaphysics and how that relates to the plot. I just fail to see the point in much fantasy where it’s just kings and politics, or even just kings and dragons. Tell me why dragons are possible and part of the ecosystem and things get mildly interesting. Tell me that dragons are manifestations of a god that is splintered in various ways and at war with itself, and you’ve got my attention in a whole manner of ways. I guess where I’m going with this is that fantasy worlds need to be more fantastical, much more different to the pseduo-medieval European setting which inspires most of it, and making the metaphysics of the world part of the plot of any given story is a fairly simple way to do that.

And in a related bit of shameless self-promotion, I’m going to upload a second story of creation and apocalypse for Mists of Albion. I envisioned it somewhat as the book of Genesis and Revelation for one of the major faiths of the world, as I’ve been doing a lot of reading into the various gnostic heresies of Christianity recently and I really like the alternative spins on the “standard” template we get these days about Mediæval Christianity. I’ll possibly delve into some serious discussion of these at a later date, simply because I find them really intriguing and a potential source of ideas for world creation that fall outside the usual realms of thought in this area.

In the meantime, please read my latest contribution to the Mists setting. Let me know what you think!

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What is Humanity, Anyway?

Following on from my last post about non-human fantasy races, I’ve been scratching my head lately thinking about how humanity gets presented in fantasy and science fiction. Most particularly what the differences are in the two genres, and what it tends to mean.

Firstly, a slight addendum to my last post; the thought that certain characteristics are inherent in certain racial types. This is bad beyond writing, as it teaches people to stereotype groups of people based on shared cultural or racial characteristics. Which leads to all sorts of nasty prejudices. It also stymies creativity, as people learn to think that things “must” be a certain way, because they’ve already been done that way, when just a little thought on the logical consequences of the race’s condition could lead to some fantastically original results.

Apart from, it seems, humanity in fantasy novels. This is most apparent in roleplaying settings rather than fantasy, where humans are often given bonuses for being “adaptable” or “innovative” in a way that other races aren’t. And this is just packaged up as some nice set of skill bonuses to compensate for their lack of “racial” bonuses, with no real questions asked as to what actually makes humans different, or what humanity actually is.

Contrast this with the way humanity gets treated in science fiction; it gets warped, changed, the boundaries pushed  and prodded fairly regularly. While this isn’t always done well, the questions get asked. What is the right response for a human in a given situation? When does a human stop being a human? Classics like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? pose these questions as central points of the plot.

When fantasy does this, it tends to talk in terms of going beyond human, rather than remaining human. Even one of the best examples of this (I think), the Vampire: the Masquerade roleplaying game, has a modern-day base setting, not necessarily fantasy as such (although there is a fantastic Dark Ages expansion).

Why is this? Partly I think it’s down to the nature of fantasy, most of which gets treated as “backwards looking”, so the assumption is that the characters in fantasy will be more “primitive” than present-day humanity, which goes hand-in-hand with fantasy’s tendency to ignore progress. Why look around at what humanity is, or where it can go, when the writer is half thinking that the characters aren’t there yet? But there’s no reason why thing can’t be different from our own history and development, apart from the constant argument of why fantasy societies don’t develop gunpowder. It’s fantasy, for crying out loud!

There’s also the centrality of the Hero’s Journey trope that I’ve commented on before, which tends to get pitched as an external journey, rather than an internal one, which can wind up as a cultural description rather than a reflective exploration of humanity. While I’ve heard it said that other races can point to different aspects of humanity, I’ve rarely seen it done. Middle-earth Elves are angels of stasis, dwarves are industrious and grumpy, and orcs are barbaric and evil. This implies nothing about humanity, at least until you get to the Silmarillion, where Tolkien gets moralistic about humanity’s behaviour via the rather crude measure of how close humans are to the Elven ideal, which is never questioned (at least, not obviously). Other settings rarely go this far, pointing out the differences between the races and leaving it at that. The reader is often left thinking “so what?”

One of the ways that fantasy could at least begin to ask these sorts of questions is to go transformative, which is the foundation of several science fiction and horror explorations of humanity; when something about a person changes, what remains the same? This should be a tool that’s readily open to fantasy, with its previous legacy of changelings in folktales, frogs turning into princes and so on. Or even Beauty and the Beast.

Note that to be effective this needs to be a personal change, not a racial one. If someone just gets a new set of abilities and a new automatically accepting social group, they just enjoy their new kewl powerz and carry on as before. To get into the guts of humanity, the lines need to be fuzzier. Why do we judge on appearance? What do we judge in this way? Are certain behaviours intrinsic and logical? If not, why? These are all questions that can be explored as a character changes identity in various ways, but this cannot be just a jump from one box into another, as the boxes tend to come with their own set of assumed answers, without exploring them.

There’s also the question of origins, which also doesn’t get raised often. The only fantasy series that I know of that openly question this is again Middle-earth (that radical, Tolkien!) and the Elder Scrolls games, where humanity and elves (or “mer”, more correctly) are explicitly descended from various fragments of divinity, and their differences shape and are shaped by their cultural outlooks. It doesn’t go a whole way in exploring humanity, partly because the games need to be geared to make any race playable, but it sets up the metaphysical pre-requisites for it far more than many books.

And as a shameless plug, the fantasy world I’m developing for Mists of Albion should be chock-full of these questions about what makes humanity. Because identity is so flexible in Albion due to environmental factors, what makes a person what they are or accepted in their communities will become a major part of how the societies there work. A person’s identity and nature can be easily manipulated and changed by their own actions and those of others, or the world around them. How do you maintain a sense of self or humanity in those circumstances? Who or what do you trust? These will be central questions the world will try to answer.

Watch this space for more on this soon! In the meantime, please leave any comments, criticisms, scathing denunciations etc in the comments.

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Where Are All The Fat Elves? The Need to Rethink Fantasy Races

Why do fantasy races exist? To provide something different, the fantastical element, maybe. Although plenty of fantasy, such as Robert E Howard’s Conan, manages a fair amount of fantasy without non-human characters (but still manages to get in some comments about race). To shine a spotlight on a particular aspect of the human condition, even if they don’t look human? This allows races to function as a shorthand for a particular set of characteristics, and show their consequences or likely actions in any given situation.

But these aren’t really enough for me. Fantasy races in general tend to be the typical elf, dwarf, orc, dragon, troll etc etc, with little variation in what these are. There is the occasional setting that breaks away from this and makes something new, but by and large these races are quite often the same.


But what if he just wants a hug?

This wouldn’t be a problem, if there was some variety in character. But it very often isn’t. Elves are proud, aloof and astonishingly competent (when’s the last time you saw or read about a short, clumsy  and personable elf?), dwarfs (or dwarves, depending on your linguistic bent) are bearded, stubborn, honourable and skilled craftsmen who have a peculiar dislike for swords. Orcs, although they have received a more varied treatment recently, are often senseless antagonists who love violence.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these presentations, but they seem to get trotted out for every single example of every race. Races become personalities, with very little variation apart from in the world of roleplaying, where players can and do come up with incredibly varied and convoluted backstories for their characters. But in the main body of fiction, racial characteristics come into play far too much.

This can be argued that there are national characteristics for human beings as well, but these aren’t determined by “race” but generally by culture. And most importantly, they aren’t universal. While we may have Brits that constantly talk about nothing but the weather and never grumble about anything, or Yanks who are loud and eat too much, neither of these define every UK or US citizen. So why should they define every member of the dwarven or elven races?

This way of thinking is damaging on more than one level in fantasy, as it creates expectations in the readers as well as the characters. It implies an essentialism that just doesn’t exist in the real world; people aren’t bad because they’re orcs, or good because they’re elves, they are good or bad because of what they do, the choices they make (despite the claims of authors like Howard and Lovecraft to the contrary). Ultimately, it’s because of the kind of person they are. Which is not down to an “essential nature” but a whole raft of factors from upbringing, to culture, to genetics, to life experiences etc etc. Getting out of thinking of race as a universal touchpoint for fantasy characters opens up many more avenues for thinking about heroes, villains (or not having villains at all), accomplices and back-up characters in original ways.

One springboard into doing this is thinking in terms of species rather than race. This means that certain physiological characteristics will hold true, but all personality traits are variable, depending on environment and upbringing. This set-up allows for a lot more variety in creating characters, and while cultures might be similar to those tropes we know already in fantasy, at least it allows some potential for characterisation beyond being the “stock” dwarf or elf.

I’ve been reworking the background for Mists of Albion with Hypersleeper recently; things had got rather staid and conflicting, so we’re trying to get some more unified themes into the setting and more solid basis to expand the world than the increasingly disparate setting we did have. One of the main things we want to do is reinvent perceptions of race so there are effectively no “races” as such within the world, just collections of particular characteristics that lean towards particular groups of behaviours or abilities. A given individual may have a certain number of these characteristics to a greater or lesser degree, but will never have a standard set. This will allow for a more fluid and varied conception of characters in the world, who will hopefully be better for it.

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