News Post: An Intermission

I’d otherwise be writing up a summary of the sixth lecture of the RPG course, but the slides aren’t online yet. It’ll probably happen sometime during next week. I’ll still be doing the two remaining lecture summaries, a post about the Praedor session, a summary of the games for the course, and I’m also thinking of writing up a review of the course. Since I can’t do it for Roolipelaaja, I’ll have to do it here. I may also put my study diary up for download once it’s finished, if there is interest. For now, I will take a look at some recent events outside the classroom.

Regarding the comments that I’m no longer as funny as I used to be now that I’m no longer reviewing 4E… well, gimme a 4E book to review and I’ll rip it apart for you. They aren’t giving me freebies, I don’t know anyone who buys the stuff and could loan me something to review and I’m sure as hell not going to pay for it myself. That said, I may soon be trashing something else.

D&D Brand Manager Scott Rouse announced on EN World a couple of days ago that he’s leaving the company. It is unclear if he got the boot or resigned, but I don’t think the annual round of Christmas layoffs is due for another month, and it’s not explicitly stated that he was laid off, so I’m inclined to think the latter. It is also unclear what, if anything, this portends. Some see it as an impending sign of the Fifth Edition, but really, neither the D&D Brand Manager changing or someone leaving from WotC is an exactly uncommon occurrence. According to Charles Ryan, Rouse’s four-year tenure is among the longest, if not the longest, in the position. I am curious to see who will be filling his boots. Rouse is known for being the only guy at WotC with the barest inkling of public relations and damage control. Those are some largish boots to fill.

Last week, Clark Peterson of Necromancer Games told us that “we were right, he was wrong”, pertaining to his decision to hold back a bunch of adventure modules so they might be released as 4E products under the GSL. The modules are now out in D&D 3.5, available as PDF. They are the mini-campaigns Eamonvale Incursion and Demonheart and the first part of the semi-mega campaign Slumbering Tsar. It’s “semi-mega”, because apparently the whole trilogy will clock in at half a million words. Slumbering Tsar is written by Greg A. Vaughan, who’s also written a bunch of Pathfinder adventures for Paizo.

Speaking of Pathfinder, the second Pathfinder Society Open Call for the PFRPG rules is up. Submissions due on the 30th, which, incidentally, is the same day as my study diary and two days from another writing deadline I’ve got. I’ll see if I have time to participate this time.

In other news (news, my foot, it’s two weeks old), Dennis Detwiller is working on Godlike 2E. You may recall me gushing unabashedly about the game last year. Detwiller is asking for corrections on spelling and geographical errors, but also does well in noting that the historical context of the game does not need updating. The 1940’s were a racist and sexist age, and to try and whitewash that would be all kinds of moronic in a game like Godlike where the whole damn point is gritty and realistic take on superheroes.

On the Ropecon front, the dates for Ropecon 2010 are July 23rd-25th (two weeks before Gen Con Indy), and the main organisers have been chosen. I have applied to to return as the RPG admin.

The RPG Course – Lecture Five

I’m catching up! Lectures six and seven are tomorrow and the day after, though, and then it’s a wrap. I expect to post about the Praedor session I ran sometime next week, and will be wrapping up with a post about the games of the course.

This lecture was about the history of RPGs, and probably held the least new material for me. I’ve written one myself, and know the legends in greater detail than they had time to present us. They also gave us a history of Dungeons & Dragons as a case study. I’ve written one of those as well (Neither one of these was listed as a source, likely for many reasons including that they are not very well sourced. I would have laughed for a week.). It’s the old yarn, Arneson, Gygax, Chainmail, Dungeons & Dragons, woodgrain box, and so forth. Look it up on Wikipedia, they’ve got a decent article (indeed, apparently that one was used as a source).

Of course, it is not an entirely accurate one. I don’t think anyone has conducted a rigorous historical study of the topic, and then there’s all that stuff that came before Dungeons & Dragons. The lecturers gave us examples such as Pharaoh Senusret III’s games at Abydos, and the naumachiae of Ancient Rome. I could add certain religious rituals in some tribal cultures, where members of standing in the tribe took on the roles of the tribe’s gods. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart depicts several such rituals among the Ibo people.

Then they pointed out that the act of taking on a role, pretending to be someone else, is universal among human beings and children learn it at an early age.

We also went over the 1980’s moral panic about Dungeons & Dragons, with Pat Pulling and Mazes & Monsters, of which clips were shown. Yeah, Mazes & Monsters as lecture material. I ordered the DVD from Play.com the very next day, and expect it to be magnificently hideous. Interestingly, my fellow RPG blogger Sami Koponen over at Mythopoeia recently started dissecting Pulling’s book, making surprising finds and casting doubt on the generally accepted view that she was a fanatic. Unfortunately, he posts in Finnish, and is apparently using a Finnish translation that is not entirely faithful to the original, The Devil’s Web. The Finnish version also includes a chapter on Satan-worship in Finland, which is less than objective. Might be an interesting read, that. Especially when compared with The Pulling Report, by Michael Stackpole. I’d also be interested in comparing the translation with the original.

Following these was the brief history of virtual roleplaying games, from MUDs to Second Life.

We were also given a brief glimpse of the Czechoslovakian LARP scene, which had evolved behind the Iron Curtain with little to no influence from the west. The government considered larping subversive, and the games were more or less secret, out of the way, and little documented. What documentation there is is in Czech, which makes the researcher’s job a bit difficult.

We also got a history of roleplaying games in Finland. I’ve written one of these as well, though it’s admittedly not very good.

Possibly the most interesting part of the lecture was the development of gamers’ self-understanding. The development of terminology and slang, the switch from mere dungeon crawling to playing the role, and so forth. Here they also trotted out the gamer typologies such as the GNS, though neglecting to mention Real Men, Real Roleplayers, Loonies and Munchkins.

Finally, there is the problem of studying and documenting RPGs. A roleplaying game session can’t be studied after the fact because you cannot possibly have all the data. An audio tape and even a detailed transcript cannot reveal where people are looking and how they are acting. A video would, but even in the best-case scenario, you can’t get inside the minds of the players, to determine the invisible content of the game. You can’t record the game, merely the act of playing.

From that and the economic insignificance of RPGs it follows that not much research has been done. They could fit the full list of all academic RPG critique, designer reports and studies on a single slide. Additionally, new theoretical tools need to be created since the player is not the audience and the traditional theories from theatre, movie or even digital gaming studies cannot be directly applied.

Additionally, following an RPG session as audience isn’t very fruitful, and in the case of any LARP taking place in a space bigger than a few rooms, impossible. To properly study an RPG, the researcher must participate in it, and that explosion you just heard was the concept of academic detachment imploding. Also, much like in quantum mechanics, it is not possible to observe the system without changing the system.

Every time you observe a roleplaying game, Schrödinger kills a kitten?

Next lecture, pervasive larping.

The RPG Course – Lecture Four

The fourth lecture of the RPG studies course was about virtual roleplaying games. That is, RPGs online. However, it started by differentiating virtual RPGs from other types of RPGs that are played online or that have online components, such as RPGs that are played on IRC or an instant messenger program or a forum or by e-mail or what have you, or LARPs where the characters have Facebook profiles. Me, I use a Finnish campaign wiki called Mekanismi for managing my Pathfinder campaigns and try to run the downtime stuff like selling loot and crunching numbers online to save time at the table, but this does not make it virtual roleplaying.

The concept of virtual roleplaying was also differentiated from the concept of artificial personalities, fictional characters passing off as real people online, either covertly (lonelygirl15 before she was figured out) or not (Heroes characters’ MySpace pages). I find these, especially lonelygirl15, interesting. I like a well-crafted lie or plot. I think the ultimate example of this kind of creation is the Brits’ Operation Mincemeat during World War II, where a carefully equipped body planted in the right place at the right time led to the German forces being moved to Greece and Sardinia to guard against an impending invasion while the Allies took Sicily, and in the future led to them repeatedly disregarding actual Allied battle plans that had fallen into their hands. Operation Mincemeat is such a skilful deception that I can only weep when faced with its sublime beauty.

But I digress. The virtual roleplaying games meant here were roleplaying games in an artificially created world – that is, in a programmed game. Roleplaying in a MUD, World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Second Life. There was also some talk of text, hypertext and cybertext, but the terms “texton” and “scripton” made my little philological heart blot out most of it.

In regard to virtual roleplaying games, they expressed in more detail and academically what I said over a year ago in this blog about the limits imposed by the interface and graphics of the game, what’s coded in, and how this affects roleplaying in the world. Here, there are two broad varieties of MMO, the amusement park and the sandbox. The amusement park is a game where all the attractions are open to the player and he can go and have a ride in the carousel or whatever, and come back tomorrow and do the same, while the world remains unchanging. Examples of this are World of Warcraft and EverQuest. You can’t change anything, you can’t create anything of your own.

In a sandbox world, you can change things, and players can sometimes even provide content. Roleplaying is easier in a sandbox environment, I think. The ultimate example of a sandbox is Second Life, while EVE Online also has strong elements of it.

There were many interesting cases presented. I won’t go into the Gor roleplayers of Second Life, mostly because I do not know much about them and I feel I will be happier the less I know about anything associated with John Norman’s writings in general.

Another case presented was that of the Guiding Hand Social Club, the famous and awesome event in EVE Online when a mercenary corporation infiltrated another corporation over the course of ten months, real time, with numerous agents, including the so-called “Valentine Operative” whose purpose was to get in very close with the corporation’s leader. Then, at the go-code “Nicole”, they stole everything the corporation had, shot up the corp leader’s ship and vacuumed her frozen corpse into a cargo hangar. They stole about $16,500 worth of assets and really ruined someone’s day. I can only stand in awe. While it was also a horrible thing to do to someone, it’s also EVE, and that’s the name of the game. According to the article linked, both corporations are also roleplaying corporations, so it can be said that the entire thing happened in-character, but in an online RPG the line between the character and the player can be thin, especially over such a long period of time.

The second really interesting case presented is another classic – Twixt, a social experiment in City of Heroes, where the player, in playing the game as it was designed to be played instead of how it actually was played, became the most hated person in the game. It’s an interesting case, but I get this nagging feeling there’s more to it than presented. I doubt a man could arouse such animosity just by how he plays. I suspect, but cannot confirm, that he also acted like a dick on the discussion channels. The article only presents Myers’ version of the story. Apparently, there’s also been a complaint to the ethics committee about his research methods.

The fifth lecture was last Thursday. Its topic was the history of roleplaying games.

A Grievous Loss

Riimuahjo Oy, the company behind the Roolipelaaja magazine, announced yesterday that the magazine is ceasing publication. The current, 23rd issue of the magazine, is its last, and Finland is, once again, bereft of a roleplaying game magazine.

It did come as a bit of a surprise, though not a great one. It was always known that the magazine was not making profit. It was the original reason H-Town ceased its publication and sold it to Riimuahjo. I do not know if it did any better under its new management, but if it did, it evidently did not do well enough.

I will not engage in speculation as to what could have been done differently, or point fingers. Roolipelaaja was certainly a bit of an oddball in being billed as a lifestyle magazine for gamers. However, it was well made, most of the articles – even the LARP stuff – was interesting, and I, at least, enjoyed it.

Of course, I am strongly biased. I started writing for Roolipelaaja in late 2007 and wrote a total of twelve articles, reviews or other pieces for the magazine. In the most recent issue, “Luolaston perukoilta” (From the Back of the Dungeon) started. It was to be a regular feature where I talk about recent events in the D20 and OSR scenes. So much for that, then. It does sting a bit.

Writing for Roolipelaaja was a very rewarding experience. I learned a lot about writing and editing – especially about editing. I learned to condense to the relevant. I learned about conducting interviews. I am also grateful for being given a chance to write for the magazine at all, given the crushing review my book received. I suspect my writings also played a part in me being asked to apply for a position in Ropecon’s committee.

And, well, I gotta admit, I did get a certain ego boost from seeing my name in print.

The loss of Roolipelaaja is a heavy one for the Finnish scene. It developed the community and served as a communications channel. It endeavoured to have something for everyone, from art larpers to D&D grognards. This, perhaps, was its failing – it is hard to appeal to everyone.

In any case, second guessing is useless in at this point. For my part, I would like to express my gratitude to Juhana Pettersson, Mikko Rautalahti, Petteri Moisio, and all the others who made Roolipelaaja happen. During its four years of life, it enriched and vivified our hobby, and played its part in ushering in the new renaissance of Finnish roleplaying.

Thank you.

Other bloggers weighing in on the topic:

The RPG Course – Lecture Three

First off, I apologise for being late with this. The third lecture of the RPG course was sometime last week and a number of things (other games, drinking, schoolwork, flu and fever, more drinking, and most recently, my browser crashing and eating a draft of this post when I tried to open the PowerPoint presentation for the lecture from the course website) conspired to keep me from getting an update done. It’s now half past six on a Sunday morning. I got up an hour ago to finish writing up Praedor PCs and create an adventure for today. It’s game time in eight hours, and one of these days I’ll tell you all about it.

Aaanyway. The third lecture was about LARP. For this lecture, we’d read Professor Frans Mäyrä’s (whose name means “badger” and whose AD&D Forgotten Realms campaign stories in TYR’s archive are some of the earliest RPG material I ever read on the net, well over ten years ago) article “Muodonmuuttajien maat” (“The Lands of the Shapeshifters”), which is a very general overview of roleplaying games, their history and how they work in practice. There’s also a couple of paragraphs on the geek culture and fandom surrounding RPGs, which I think is a very interesting topic, especially in the Finnish context. The science fiction side of the fandom was pretty thoroughly dissected by Irma Hirsjärvi earlier this year in her PhD thesis Faniuden siirtymiä – suomalaisen science fiction -fandomin verkostot (“Transitions of Fandom – The Networks of Finnish Science Fiction Fans). It reminds me that Finland is a very small place and our fandoms are even smaller.

The second article we read pertained more closely to LARP. It was “Eye-Witness to the Illusion: An Essay on the Impossibility of 360° Role-Playing”, from the book Lifelike, an essay-collection on RPGs. They publish one every year around Knutepunkt, this annual LARP convention that keeps jumping around the Nordic countries.

360° role-playing is Koljonen’s term for the school of thought which seeks to provide a WYSIWYG game environment – what you see is what you get. Everything must be made as real as possible, right down to the characters’ medieval underpants. This has spawned some awesome things, like Carolus Rex, a pulpy space opera game set on a spaceship of the Swedish Imperial Fleet during a war with Denmark. The game itself was played on a submarine. At one point, they made contact with an escape pod, which then turned out to be filled with Danish space marines, played by Danish larpers smuggled to the scene by the GMs. Then there was Dragonbane, for which they built not only an actual medieval village but also a fucking dragon. And then there’s Luminescence, which I dig up every time someone asks me on IRC what art larpers are. Tell me, Americans, are your larpers as creatively insane as ours, or is this a uniquely Nordic (or European) phenomenon?

But I digress. Koljonen puts forth the theory that the 360° immersion actually damages suspension of disbelief because normally you must concentrate to maintain it and imagine that the northern barbarian’s sneakers are actually fur boots and that sheet hanging over there in front of the garage door is the castle wall, which helps in actively filtering everything through your character’s perception. When everything is real, there’s no longer any disbelief to suspend. As she says, “if no effort of self-estrangement goes into putting you in that fictional space, then it is indeed often you, not the carefully constructed character with its carefully filtered thoughts, that stands awed in the medieval village.” This ties in an interesting way to my experience with MUDs – I still maintain that the best roleplaying I’ve ever done was in a text-based environment. I think that ought to be good for a few hundred words in the study diary, if I can present it coherently…

Personally, I do not larp, for a variety of reasons, most of which I think stem from old preconceptions, but also because I’m lazy and the type of stuff that most interests me would, it seems to me, require a certain amount of work. There was one LARP once I’d signed up for, called Faerûn IV: Baron of the Stonelands, a fairly large affair as I understand, but it was cancelled after the head organiser got sick. Therefore, I have no personal experience of this topic as I do with tabletop RPGs or online RPGs.

A lot of the lecture dealt with applying Peirce’s semiotic theory to LARP and the formation of the diegesis. I will spare you the details, because it’s not even eight o’clock on a Sunday morning and it’s too early for semiotics. Fucking Peirce hounds me across academic disciplines. The damn theory has thus far popped up on both general and English linguistics courses, literary analysis, two journalism courses, and now here.

Next up, virtual RPGs. I’ll try to get it up before the next lecture.