Sunday, July 30, 2006

"If you ever wanted to go and live on Babylon 5, you will have your chance."

So there’s talk now about a Babylon 5 massively multiplayer game. It’s all rumor right now, so of course I’m going to jump into the feeding frenzy, such as it is, with both feet.

I love B5. It may be the best TV I’ve ever watched. It certainly ranks up there in the top three for fiction. But I’ve rarely felt compelled to roleplay in the B5 universe. What would I do? Oh, I suppose finishing out the “Crusade” storyline could be fun, and there are lots of neat avenues to explore, places to go, that sort of thing. But there are also some pretty strict limits on what you can do in that universe, and they chafe a bit when I think about building a campaign. So my opinion here might be biased. That being said:

What the hell do you do in a Babylon 5 MMORPG?

Seriously. I mean, most MMORPGs are the worst parts of computer RPGs, yielding an endless sequence of killing things and taking their stuff. Story and consequence (beyond your own advancement) are non-existent. It’s like computer RPG makers can’t even conceive of anything that isn’t firmly railroaded, so if you can’t railroad, there’s no point in creating anything that looks like a story. If you’re coming at these games from a table top perspective, it’s enough to make you cry.

But story is the heart of B5. It’s always been about making the tough choices, having your convictions and beliefs challenged, about growing as a person. Who are you? And what do your answers to that question mean? What do you want? And how much are you willing to give up for it?

That last is very important. Mr. Straczynski was enamored of the lone man in the narrow place, holding it against the endless horde of enemies. Horatius at the bridge, the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Alamo, where a handful stood against far greater numbers and withheld the charge. That’s what all the ramming was about. It wasn’t that crashing ships together was a great tactic, but rather it showed just what the captain and crew of the ramming ship were willing to lose in order to achieve their desire. It demonstrated in unequivocal terms exactly what was at stake, and how dearly the combatants held to what they believed in.

But what does that mean in your average MMORPG, where everyone is effectively immortal? Will ships ram together, only for their crews to rez and then rush into each other again? How do you ‘level up’ in the universe of Babylon 5? What will you kill? What will you take from dead? I can’t see where B5 offers any sort of easy, recursive entertainment which to date has been the hallmark of MMORPGs. I don’t see how you can create B5 entertainment without addressing the issues of loss and sacrifice. I don’t see how you can create a MMORPG that will touch either loss or sacrifice in any meaningful way with a ten foot pole. I love B5, but with the current state of the computer game industry, B5 feels like an even worse theme for a MMORPG than Star Trek.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

DMing for Dummies

Steve S. has posted a review of another “…for Dummies” book aimed at the RPG market, Dungeon Master for Dummies. He gives it a fairly glowing review:

I am a little surprised at my reaction to this book. Considering the size of the book and the quality of the contents, Dungeon Master for Dummies may be the best "how to run a role playing game" book published to date.

I haven’t read it myself, but I’m a fan of some of Mr. Baker’s other work. There are only two reviews so far at Amazon, and they’re split. I’ve had good experience with other Dummies books in the past, so I’m curious about this one. Steve’s review certainly makes it seem a lot meatier than I would have expected.

Speaking of Amazon, while I was convalescing, I reread Fritz Leiber’s Swords of Lankhmar. Amazon, amazingly enough, seemed to be lacking a review of that book, so I rectified the situation.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

New Blog on the Block

There's a new voice in the blogosphere. J. Vogel has just created "Kill the Wizard First", his new blog, which is a bit more focused on actually playing RPGs than Trollsmyth. The first post gives us a clear indication of Vogel's point of view:


That magical time when you take the brilliant, original, and interesting concept in your head, then grab a sledgehammer and crowbar and try to wedge it into a system that was clearly written for emotionally immature powergamers, then run it by your GM who promptly starts thinking up all the horrible ways it can be killed, then introduce it to the rest of the party and realize that your dark, amoral pragmatist is in a group with a paladin and a cleric of holy light.

Anyway, the point is, I have a new blog. And here it is.

Clearly, this is someone who actually games. And I love the url:

Behold the Lego Carnage!

This has got to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. If you think Vincent “Lumpley” Baker is too submerged in his world of cant and theory to actually recall that games are supposed to be, you know, fun, this should change your mind. A table-top fighting mecha Lego game. I haven’t played it yet, but I am in awe of the rules. Elegant, simple, and slick. You can see how these hang together, how choosing each option is an exercise in weighing costs and benefits. It’s a work of art. But better than some old stuffy panting of red square meets blue circle hanging in the Guggenheim, this work of art encourages you to buy Legos and taunt your friends as you deliver unto them your unholy plastic brick smackdown!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Weis Approves of Dragonlance Movie Script, quickly becoming the best alternative source for news on the Dragonlance movies, has posted a few comments from Margaret Weis. Her words almost seem to be in response to some fan consternation about Dragonlance being turned into “a cartoon”. Weis, however, remains unpeturbed:

Author Margaret Weis told SCI FI Wire that the upcoming film version of her book Dragons of Autumn Twilight necessarily cuts a lot of the book's plot to make it fit into 90 minutes, but, she added: "I read the script, and I like it. It's very faithful to the book."

This generally fits the vague statements coming from Hickman in his podcasts. Still no examples of character design or artwork. If any of you see something before we do, be sure to let us trolls know.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

American Superheroes - Happy Birthday to the USA

Over at Aint It Cool News the crew have each listed the ten movies that best represent America to them. The Superman movies, of course, made the list for many of them. In spite of the intentions of the makers of the current movie, Superman remains an American hero: an immigrant who has embraced the ideals, rituals, and mythology of his adopted home, while bringing the best of his original home with him. It has often been said the USA is a nation not of tribe, but of ideas. The only thing necessary to truly be an American is to adopt and hold dear the ideas upon which our country is founded, described best in the preamble to our Declaration of Independence. Actual citizenship is a legal technicality. I suspect there are undocumented Americans scattered across the globe.

I am shocked, shocked, that “Casablanca” wasn’t listed by any of them. Is there a more apt idealization of America? A little rough around the edges, not quite respectable, with a tortured past best not talked about. Looking for the good life, and doing what it takes to build a seedy little paradise of excess and good times upon a foundation of tight-fisted finances and an almost puritan work ethic. Being dragged into the messes of the wider world, knowing it’s the right thing to do, knowing old friendships require it and the future demands it, but dammit, just wanting to be left alone to pursue the dreams kept for decades, now a little worn around the edges and tarnished, but still there, beneath the pillow, kissed every night before settling in to sleep.

But that was then, and today, few Americans hold so fast to the ideals of seclusion and ignorance that seemed so seductive in the nineteen-thirties. Today, if you asked me to point to one movie that looked like America to me, I’d go back to the superheroes, and choose the second of the Spider-Man movies. Doing the right thing is a bitch, and Peter Parker’s tired of it. It’s making him ill, and even those amazing powers that at first imposed extra responsibility on him seem to have deserted him. Wouldn’t it be better to just leave it all behind and nurture those smaller, more pleasant dreams, and pretend that the waking nightmares of the world aren’t our problem?

But of course, that’s never really an option. With great power does come great responsibility. Spider-Man is motivated, like America, by a complex mingling of compassion, righteous indignation, hope, and self interest. He can’t save the world, and even when choosing the right thing, he sometimes has to do an evil thing, like kill his best friend’s father. And he knows he’ll have to pay for that, some day. Doing the right thing is never easy. But the world needs heroes.

And those heroes must live by a code. Both Spider-Man and Superman are bedeviled by foes who seek to use their compassion against them. Rescuing innocent bystanders strains Spider-Man to his limits. But that is no weakness. It is a strength. Today, we hear how our infatuation with rights leaves us weak and divided before our enemies. Well, back during the Cold War, we were told that our infatuation with freedom left us disorganized and weak-willed in the face of communism’s disciplined and efficient central planning. We all know how that turned out. The frothy chaos of free enterprise gave birth to the computer revolution, the internet, biochemistry, and other wonders that didn’t even exist twenty years ago, while in the Soviet Union, the people pretended to work and the government pretended to pay them. Central planning ground its victims into dust, and then choked in that stale, grey cloud.

So yeah, we’ll argue vigorously, even viciously, about what to do and how to do it. Which means we won’t move without forethought, and we won’t rest in our ruts. We will always be questioning, weighing, planning, thinking, and dreaming of new and better ways to achieve our goals. We’ll build smarter weapons, train smarter soldiers, worry about getting it wrong, and we will get it wrong. Many times. But we’ll try not to make the same mistakes again. Our enemies won’t care, and so they won’t improve. Conserving effort is only half the equation in efficiency. The other half is increasing effectiveness.

So we’ll muddle through the problems of having a free press and not wanting to harm the innocent. Like Spider-Man’s effort to save the train, it’s gonna hurt, and it won’t be easy. But we’ll be better for it, in the end. Freedom and compassion are not weaknesses. The fact that our enemies think they are is the primary reason they must be fought.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Potter Speculatin'

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Rowling’s intimations of the death of Harry Potter in the last book. Most of the conversation appears to be coming from a moral viewpoint; what sort of lesson does it teach if Harry dies?

I haven’t seen much tackling the literary aspects of it. Frankly, I’ve been pretty certain that either Harry or Ron was going to die before the end of the series. There have been some strong intimations of it since the first book. Remember the life-sized chess match, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione were trying to get to the philosopher’s stone? The one where Harry had to sacrifice Ron in order to make it through?


And how far would Harry go, do you think, to slay Voldemort? Or, heavens help us, poor Snape? (C’mon, surely everyone has figured out what was really going on between Snape and Dumbledore in the Headmaster’s final moments. One wonders if Draco will prove worthy of the sacrifice.) Harry’s had a very dark streak in him since day one, and it’s only gotten worse as he’s gotten older. How much of it is just himself, and how much is his link to Voldemort?

Would Voldemort be willing to die if by such an act he corrupted Harry enough to continue his work? Or, for that matter, can Voldemort be slain without killing Harry? I think this is an even more vital issue. The two are linked, by Voldemort’s attempt to slay Harry and the later ritual that used some of Harry’s blood to resurrect Voldemort. Over the course of the books, it’s almost seemed to me that you can’t kill one without killing the other. But can Voldemort be imprisoned? The baleful guards of Azkaban have already proven their allegiance to Voldemort, and so he clearly cannot be incarcerated there. Is there another way, a safe way, to seal him away where he can never escape again?

The triangle is the most unstable shape in literature. Even with the addition of Ginny to the Ron-Harry-Hermione matrix, the shape still feels untrustworthy. But then, misdirection of this sort has always been one of Rowling’s great strengths as an author. What sort of a fall have we been set up for this time? We all know how these sorts of stories are supposed to end. How is Rowling using our expectations to distract us from the important matters at hand? I, for one, can’t wait to find out.