Review: Midnight Chronicles

It isn’t often that a movie is made based on a roleplaying game. There are a few, of course, and they’re all best enjoyed with a bunch of friends and possibly alcohol. We all remember the execrable Dungeons & Dragons. There’s also a sequel, rumours of another, and the Dragonlance cartoon, and that sci-fi flick from last year I ripped into last winter, Mutant Chronicles.

Now, then, we have Midnight Chronicles. It’s based on Fantasy Flight Games’ D20 setting, Midnight, which is your average D&D fantasy, with the exception that back when the free peoples of the West fought Mordor, Sauron kicked their asses and now rules the world. I don’t own any Midnight products apart from the DVD, nor have I read any.

The movie was done with a shoestring budget, apparently produced by the game company itself. The European distributor, incidentally, is one Boll Kino Beteiligungs GmbH & Co. KG, and that “Boll” there stands for exactly who you’d fear it does. The DVD even has a trailer for In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. This does a good job of setting expectations.

From here onwards, there be SPOILERS.

The film’s plot is pretty simple. There’s a town, Blackweir, way out in the frontier. A legate – a cleric of the Dark Lord Izrador, I think – was sent there some time ago to consecrate a temple to Izrador, and now he’s gone missing. Another legate, our dashing hero Mag Kiln, is sent to find out what’s up. “Dashing hero” in this case actually means a textbook Lawful Evil dude with black robes, a bald head, and a disturbingly skeletal visage. Charles Hubbell, of whom you have probably never heard but may have seen in the short film “Fear of Girls”, plays the part rather well. He looks the part and has the appropriate intensity and gravitas. He is accompanied by a sidekick whose name I’m not entirely certain about but think might be Kruce. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles on the DVD, and the actors can’t seem to agree on how certain names are pronounced. This sidekick guy is funny. He reminds me of Malak, the thief in Conan the Destroyer, but in the sense that this is how the character should’ve been done.

They are joined at Blackweir by the female sidekick Chuzara, and quickly become embroiled in a sordid mess of intrigue with the mayor’s petty thievery, ancient curse stuff, and the freedom fighters out in the forests, who are led by this Morrec guy, who turns out to be the legate gone missing, turned good guy. There’s also an elf, who tries to channel Hugo Weaving and fails, and a farmboy who becomes a hero, and other minor characters.

The acting is pretty decent, for the most part. None of them are Laurence Olivier, but there was remarkably little grimacing in pain in the audience. Chuzara, though, appears to have only one expression, the freedom fighter Morrec is bland, and the elf is just plain bad.

The movie also has certain plot issues. The pacing is off, and very little actually happens for most of the film, and when it does eventually happen, it all sort of stops before the climax. I have nothing against setting up for a sequel, but Midnight Chronicles is nothing but setup for a sequel, or perhaps a TV show. Most of the plotlines aren’t really resolved, and there are a few characters whose only function in the story seems to be to get introduced. The farmboy-cum-hero is one of these, as well as being a horrendously overused cliché.

The CGI is cheap, but used judiciously and so that it doesn’t call attention to itself, except in a few spell effects.

Apart from the plotline, there’s one thing that bothered me. The gear and clothes of the characters look too new. They don’t look like the equipment of people who have been travelling for weeks, or living in the forest, or in the filthy town. It’s one of those things that you don’t notice when it’s done well (Conan the Barbarian, Lord of the Rings), but immediately looks off when it’s not. It should be pretty cheap to get some credible wear and tear on that gear, and it would’ve gone a long way to making the movie look good.

I want to like Midnight Chronicles, but I just can’t. It is simply not a good movie. Unfortunately, it’s also not a bad movie, and I can’t really laugh at it. It’s just somehow less than the sum of its parts. I am disappointed.

It’s still the best of the lot when it comes to movies based on roleplaying games, though. Tells you something.

**½/*****

The RPG Course – A Session of Praedor

This is, yet again, a post on the roleplaying studies course I took at the University. By the way, I received my grade a couple of days ago. On the scale of 1-5, it ranked a full five. I am currently very satisfied with myself, which probably has to change since my ego is currently so bloated I have to buy it a separate ticket on the bus.

Aaaaanyway. As I’ve mentioned, the requirements of the course decreed that I had to study two games from a preset list, and play or run one of these. I’d never played any of them, but Praedor was the one closest to my usual style. Access wasn’t an issue with any of the games, since most of them were included with the course materials download and the rest I just happened to own. Even Tähti. I’ll probably cover the rest of the games in a future post.

What’s This “Praedor” Thing, Then?

Praedor, for the foreign devils reading this, is a Finnish fantasy roleplaying game. It’s based on the comics of the same name by Petri Hiltunen, which ran back in the old days in Magus, an RPG magazine, since deceased. The style of the game is rather gritty, kind of a medieval Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play in tone. Movie suggestions would include Flesh + Blood, The 13th Warrior and Kingdom of Heaven (director’s cut – the theatrical is useful only as a coaster). It is inspired also by the Strugatsky novel Roadside Picnic. Ville Vuorela, the designer of the game, later went on to write a game based on the novel. Both Praedor and Stalker are pretty good reasons to learn Finnish, in addition to knowing the language of the ruling class after our inevitable world conquest.

Were one inclined to be pretentious (and as an English major, I certainly am), one could describe Praedor as deconstructing the fantasy adventurer, the Unforgiven to D&D’s Fistful of Dollars. This adventuring thing, it’s glamorous. It’s not, generally, for people who have a choice. The life of the average praedor (the in-setting name for adventurers) is nasty, brutish, and short. There’s one short story, where Ferron (the protagonist for most of the stories) is taking a young would-be praedor to the cursed ruins of Borvaria to seek treasure. Despite Ferron’s warnings, the kid strays into one of the buildings. We see him plucking a large jewel from the grip of a skeleton, one of a pair that has seemingly fallen in battle with another over the treasure, both slaying the other. There’s a shadow with burning eyes rising behind him, and we cut to Ferron on the outside, when he hears the blood-curdling scream of his protégé.

Ferron’s reaction: “Shit. I wonder how much his horse is worth.”

The Praedor stories are full of this stuff. Life is cheap, death is meaningless, and while you can find treasure to make you rich beyond your wildest dreams, you’re far more likely to be crippled for life or die an ignominous death in the jaws of some nameless creature somewhere in the cursed, haunted wizard-ruins of Borvaria. Violence has ugly consequences and is best avoided, but leading the life of a praedor means that this is not an option nearly as often as you’d like. There’s another story, where young Ferron meets a legendary retired praedor, now a blind and crippled man, disfigured by horrible burns. Did he receive them while exploring Borvaria or the wizard city of Warth? Why, no, he received them when the party was out carousing in a tavern, someone tipped a candle and he was too drunk to get out from under his whore in time. It doesn’t really get much more pathetic.

That said, praedors really are tough customers, a notch above the common man. They’ve got a dangerous attitude and the steel in their balls and sheaths to back it up. When you prick them, they bleed, but they’ll do their damnedest to prick you back.

The system is pretty light, and has a certain elegance. It uses dice pools of six-siders, roll under, with degrees of success. I could learn it well enough to run by studying it for a few hours and ignoring subsystems I deemed unimportant for a one-off game, such as alchemy.

The Session

I generated the characters myself since I ended up with five players. With one book and five players, none of whom had any experience with the system, characters generation could’ve taken hours. So, no. I asked what kind of characters they’d like to play and ended up with a bunch of fighter and ranger types and one roguish sort. The system is classless, but the rulebook does present four broad character archetypes, which could be translated as warrior, ranger, rogue and sage, the last one being the guy who knows stuff and mixes healing potions. The game is pretty low-magic and the true wizards aren’t really PC material. They’re immortal recluses, subtle and quick to anger.

For the adventure, I adapted an old Living Greyhawk module, Stuart Kerrigan’s COR5-18 Kusnir. I debated between that and Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ Death Frost Doom. While the latter is by far the better module, I felt it wasn’t really right for what I was doing, since it relies a lot on playing off assumptions the players have about how a D&D dungeon crawl runs, and I was gamemastering for five newbies. So, Kusnir it was. The module also had the advantage that I’d both played and run it before and knew how it worked in play.

Kusnir is a pretty straightforward module. The PCs are hired to rescue an old man from a village ruled by a madman with a powerful magic item. I just felt the atmosphere of the module was right for Praedor. I rewrote parts of it to fit the setting and the system better. I lifted the NPC stats sheet from one of the free online adventures for the game to use with the barbarians and berserkers the party would encounter in the village. Kusnir isn’t the best of modules, but it does its thing well.

The game started with the party, who already knew one another, heading to the warehouse/brothel of a local criminal underworld figure, to ask about a job offer his cronies had posted to the tavern. It was in a seedy part of town, and on the way there, they encountered things such as a father trying to sell his daughter to slavery, and a beggar who was selling his own cut-off hand as a good-luck charm. One of the praedors (with the Superstitious drawback) even bought it.

The prince of thieves here turned out to be a morbidly obese lecher, transported around on a palanquin carried by some very unhappy slaves. He wanted someone to go down south, a week’s journey, to the town of Kusnir, where a mad cult leader had taken over with the help of a strange magical item. They were to rescue an elder of the town, should any still be alive, and bring him back to be pumped for information on the madman and his rule.

The party accepted the terms offered after a bit of haggling and hit the road. They travelled for a week without incident, and noted that the severed hand purchased as a good-luck charm was beginning to smell. They’d encountered no trouble, so the character who’d bought it deemed it to have served its purpose well, and buried it at the side of the road.

Nearing the village, now only hours away, they encountered a camp of soldiers. After some scouting and finally being spotted and captured by them, the PCs learned that they were former soldiers of Kusnir, who now sought to reclaim their village from the madman leading it. However, their leader was a raging egomaniac and the party was unable to recruit any great help from him, though he did hand over a prisoner who’d bitten off his own tongue in case he’d be more useful to them.

He really wasn’t. The party ran into an ambush by some savages, presumably Kusnir’s berserkers. They managed to spot the hiding warriors before the ambush was sprung, and a vicious melee ensued. The berserkers were all dispatched, and the tongueless prisoner was likewise slain. However, the lethality of the system reared its head on the players’ side as well – one of the characters lost his left hand to a barbarian’s axe. Ironically, this was the guy who’d bought the beggar’s hand. Other than that, it was just scratches for the PCs. They bandaged their wounds, and the one-handed man insisted on going ahead with the mission.

They scoped out Kusnir from the cover of the forest and waited for nightfall. The plan was to head to a small, dead orchard adjacent to the palisade and go over the wall from there. However, when they got to the orchard in the night and snooped around, they actually found a trapdoor covering an underground tunnel that led under the walls.

The party opted for the tunnel. It took them to the lower levels of a temple of some description, where they found torture implements, manacles, and someone’s dismembered corpse. They headed to the upper level, surprised a priest of some description, beat him up, tied him down, and pumped him for information. After sufficient applied violence, the priest told them that there indeed was a surviving elder in a wooden stockade next to the temple.

One of the characters grabbed the priest’s robe with its face-concealing hood, and left the temple to check out the stockade. He called out the elder’s name, but the prisoners quickly figured out this wasn’t the usual priest and pulled the Spartacus stunt. In order to get the elder, they had to set free the entire stockade, which they then did, but not surprisingly, attracted the notice of the local warriors, who came in hot pursuit. The party picked out the elder from among the prisoners and hoofed it, after barring the temple doors. They ran back to the underground tunnel, up to the orchard, and across the exposed ground between Kusnir and the forest. Fortunately, it was night, and visibility was low. The party’s ranger lagged behind since he stayed back to close all doors, and had to hide in the grass when the berserkers came up from the orchard with their torches. They passed him by and ran after the rest of the party, who were slowed down by wounds and the weak elder. They caught the party in the forest after some cat-and-mouse, and there was another fight, which the ranger-type joined soon after. The berserkers fought hard, but in the end, all the PCs survived and the barbarians were slain.

However, the superstitious guy sustained a serious injury. Yeah, he lost his other hand. I’d be superstitious, too…

After this, they got out of the woods, camped, healed their wounds, and travelled back north to claim their reward. We’d already been playing for four hours at this point, so I decided not to have them doublecrossed.

Analysis

Praedor is a good game. It does its thing well, doesn’t get bogged down even in combat, and is easy to learn. I learned it after just a few hours of perusing and the players picked it up very quickly. We spent almost no time flipping through the rulebook, since even the combat charts stuck to memory and were pretty intuitive to begin with. After reading the rules again, I couldn’t even find any rule we’d misinterpreted.

There wasn’t much of what is traditionally considered “roleplaying” in the session. It was light fun, no great immersion. That said, some players did get in character on occasion, especially when provoked by me playing as an NPC. To put this in the terms of Gary Alan Fine’s frames, very little of the dialogue around the game occurred in the diegetic frame. I didn’t really even try to push the game into the diegetic frame and just went with the flow.

I converted the module to Praedor on the fly, adjusting numbers and types of enemies and required skill checks as needed. I think I managed to estimate the lethality of adversaries fairly well, since while no PC croaked, they were certainly challenged.

So. Good game. Fun session. The system is light and seems ideal as a gateway game and for one-shots at conventions. I have some convention game ideas that Praedor might work with very well, with some bending and adaptation.

Castle Caldwell and Yog-Sothoth

Today, I played a session of old-school D&D. The Red Box, to be precise, or Labyrinth Lord, its retroclone. We had both the Red Box books and the Labyrinth Lord hardcover at the game table and used them more or less interchangeably. The adventure was the famous B9 Castle Caldwell and Beyond, the iconic Christmas calendar dungeon (you open a door and something completely random pops out). The module holds a special place in the Finnish gaming culture, because it was one of the few modules that got translated into Finnish and some elements of it are completely ridiculous. A few years ago, some people associated with the Roolipelaaja magazine got together and played several sessions of Castle Caldwell and Beyond in different rulesets and game styles. They posted game reports on the forum, which is unfortunately gone now.

The game was advertised as a one-shot, but seems to have already spawned a loose campaign-like structure. It’s connected by the Mekanismi wiki to a fairly large player pool. The name of the campaign is “In the Shadow of Hatheg-Kla”. As may be determined from the name, there’s a strong Lovecraftian influence to the game world, Celaeno. However, in a surprise move, it’s not so much the Cthulhu Mythos as it is the Dream Cycle. Other inspirations are R.E. Howard’s Almuric, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars and Venus novels, Leigh Brackett’s Skaith Trilogy, and Supplement V: Carcosa. It’s sword and planet and sorcery type stuff, weird fantasy that gives a context where even the reason-defying inhabitants of Castle Caldwell make sense.

I hadn’t actually played Red Box D&D before. It was an interesting experience. The game has a lot fewer rules than the D&D I’m used to, and is a great deal faster, especially in combat. That said, it’s also a bit inelegant, with the downward-counting Armour Class and to-hit chart, and the lack of a unifying core mechanic. Then, it is also a system that doesn’t really get in the way, and even the Armour Class thing just needs getting used to.

I played Alidan, a brave 1st-level elf, fresh from the Elflands, taken by wanderlust, searching for adventure. The other members of the group were Jado the Robin, a thick-skulled halfling and former slave, and Esteban, a noble fighter from a place he called “Spain” that nobody else had ever heard of. He kept going on about bad opium in a den in Macao. The DM was Navdi, who writes the blog Blowing smoke. He and another one of the players have also been playtesting Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ Insect Shrine of the Goblin King, which probably has something to do with the idea of running Labyrinth Lord.

A Cordoba Spaniard in the Yellow King’s Court

A common concept in the sword and planet genre is that of the adventurer transported from our world to another planet or world – John Carter and Gullivar Jones to Mars, Randolph Carter to the Dreamlands, and so forth. Thus, Esteban and his henchman, Burt, were a nobleman and a sailor from 17th-century Earth. This kept coming up during the session. Clifton Caldwell was an Englishman, and one of the traders in the castle talked about Edinburgh.

This trick allowed the DM to do something interesting in the narration. Usually, at least in my experience, it’s a good idea to avoid cultural references reaching outside the game world, because they are damaging to the atmosphere. In narrating the events of a game set in the Forgotten Realms, you don’t say that the architecture looks like Ancient Egypt or that the bar is like the Mos Eisley Cantina. In my opinion, the narration and description of the game should be delivered to the cultural context of the PCs. I even criticised one of the papers (Hendricks) on the RPG course on this very topic. However, since it was established that one of the PCs was a Spaniard, with an Englishman as his henchman, Navdi could describe the architecture as “roughly Turkish or Ottoman” to Esteban, and all the players would understand it.

Making Making No Sense Make Sense

The other nifty trick in the game was that since the world is derived from Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and the sword and planet genre, where weird things happen, the sky has a strange tint and the Mona Lisa was painted by Erol Otus, it doesn’t have to make sense, as such. The weirdness brought by some oddities of the ruleset or idiotic module design is not unusual and doesn’t even need to be remarked upon. “This is the blackest kind of magic!” was actually Alidan’s explanation for a lot of things in the castle, and I feel it worked a lot better in the pulp setting than it would have in, say, Greyhawk, or in 3E.

That said, Navdi did cut out the dire shrew, because there’s weird and then there’s just plain dumb.

Another, bigger change that he wrought dealt with the three traders in Rooms 3, 4 and 5. In the original module, they’re three traders with no names who have identical stock for sale and are just resting. Now, they turned out to be identical triplets, who had no memory of coming to the place and who were overtaken by frothing rage when they laid eyes on one another. The first we recruited as a henchman, the second we tied up after he attacked the first one, and when we met the third one, our henchman charged him, while the other guy shook off his bonds and came to join in the fray. Then we had three identical traders, all named Charles, wrestling on the floor, and they started melding into one another, turning into some sort of monster straight out of a David Cronenberg film that attacked us. Overcome with revulsion, Alidan, Esteban, Jado and Burt hacked it to pieces and burned the foul goop that it melted into.

Also, the cleric in the last tower room worshiped Yog-Sothoth, which I clued into when Navdi described her holy symbol as looking like a key. The shrine itself was originally dedicated to Nodens.

He’s Dead, Jim

Another aspect of the Red Box, compared to newer versions of D&D, is that it’s a lot more lethal. Esteban, at full hit points, failed a save vs. poison and died immediately, to be replaced by the thief Jevgeni, a henchman he’d hired from the village in the shadow of Hatheg-Kla. Jado was chewed up by a fire beetle, and replaced by Dimitri, a cleric of Nodens who had heard of the evil plaguing Castle Caldwell and showed up just as we were done burying Esteban.

Alidan mostly survived because of luck. His AC was low, but monsters, when their attacks were randomised, rarely chose to strike at him and when they did, still missed. He took a total of three points of damage during the whole scenario, while fighting at the front line with his scimitar. And one of those points was when Jevgeni accidentally shot him.

Since I spend most of my time in a different town from the rest of the gang, it’s not likely I’ll get to play Alidan again, but it was great fun.

The RPG Course – Lecture Seven

I should be getting my grade for the course soon. I already received feedback on my study journal, the tone of which suggests that I probably have not failed the course.

The final lecture of the course discussed roleplaying games in society and culture. It’s been a few weeks since then, and my memory is not perfect, so there may be inaccuracies and rambling.

Examples of roleplaying games used outside of pure entertainment context include educational uses, product development, crisis therapy, and, interestingly, product development. Apparently Nokia’s got a patent pending for something that was thought up during a Shadowrun game. There are also roleplay elements in product development when they try to figure out how a given gadget would actually be used by the consumers.

For educational RPGs, we’ve got loads of examples. Especially the Danes have done well in this area. There’s a three-person LARP they use to train social workers, and then there’s “the RPG school”, Østerskov Efterskole, whose headmaster, Malik Hyltoft, was a GoH at Ropecon this year. Nice guy, very good English, ran an RPG session I was later told was seven sorts of awesome. The system at Østerskov Efterskole is very interesting, and apparently works very well for students who underperform in a conventional school setting. There’s an article by Hyltoft himself, describing it in some detail, in Playground Worlds, a book published in conjunction with Knutepunkt 2008. Ransomware, unfortunately, not available for free download. Yet. I’m considering buying a copy myself. There’s an in-depth review on RPG.net.

The slides also describe shortly an American military exercise/LARP in Baghdad, Louisiana, that costs $3,000,000/week and employs 1,200 professional larpers who speak Arabic. The purpose of this is to train American soldiers for counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, I can find no online information and the entire sources slide for the lecture is conspicuously blank. A military cover-up? The Wired article on it is here.

Then there’s reading roleplaying games as cultural products and how they explore their themes. Trinity was their parade example (future optimism, narcotics optimism, criticism towards government surveillance, the rise of Africa and China to replace USA as the dominant world power), but games such as Shadowrun (the implications of everyone having Augmented Reality systems on all the time, body modification), Transhuman Space (well, transhumanism), Paranoia (government surveillance, McCarthyism), Blue Rose (“probably impossible to play, but a fascinating read”), and Mage: the Ascension (the negotiable nature of reality) were also discussed. Then there were the LARPs, like Europa, which was set in a refugee centre somewhere in Eastern Europe, after the Nordic countries kicked the shit out of each other. The players were larpers from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and (I think) Russia, with the Russians as the camp guards and staff, and the rest refugees from their homelands. That had just kicked the shit out of each other. Ethnic tensions and hijinks ensued.

There was also a very amusing exploration of the political overtones of World of Warcraft. It’s a profoundly capitalistic utopia, where everyone starts at the same square and with hard work can make it to the top. The success of one person does not require that another one fails, so everyone can succeed. Resources are infinite, and there’s practically no cap to one’s personal development. Of course, the result of this is that begging is condemned.

After that followed the discussion of gender and sexuality in roleplaying games.

Gary Alan Fine, in his study of roleplaying games way back in the 1970’s, noted that in many (most?) gaming groups, members of the all-male party killed and raped female NPCs. Games with female players present were “cleaner”, but also, according to some of the interviewed, “not as fun.”

Here, I would like to note how happy I am that we, as a society and as a hobby, have come far since the 1970’s.

For a long time, RPGs were nearly exclusively a masculine hobby. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that the balance shifted, with Vampire: the Masquerade and larping bringing in women in significant numbers.

Apparently, around this time, there was serious debate in Sweden about whether women need handicaps to make the game fair. There was even a LARP where they’d taped hints to the wall of the girls’ bathroom.

It was probably necessary that it happened, so that the hobby could just get over it.

Once it was established that there are actually quite a few of these strange new people who were different inside their pants, and that they wanted to game and it wasn’t okay to treat them like they were dense, they could start treating the topic maturely. This resulted in things like Hamlet, where the PCs were written as gender neutral, to avoid the problem of people playing characters of the opposite sex (turns out that if you have 15 mat and 15 female characters, the first 30 players to sign up will probably not have an equal gender split). Since the relationships of the characters were written in, this inevitably led to homosexual relationships. Then there was Mellan himmel och hav, a Swedish LARP inspired by the novels of Ursula K. LeGuin. I missed which ones, specifically, but I’d assume The Left Hand of Darkness is in there (If you’re not familiar with the work, get it and read it. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, which is a reliable indicator of quality.). They’ve also developed different methods for roleplaying sex in a LARP. There is also a LARP called Gang Rape. It’s not as bad as it soun- well, actually it is, but it’s a mature work, and not in the sense that Jenna Jameson’s filmography is mature. The game was written as a criticism of the Swedish system where it’s practically impossible to get convicted of rape or gang rape. Takes some balls to tackle a subject like that. I haven’t read the entire game nor played it (nor do I actually want to), but trying to provoke thoughtful discussion of taboo topics without resorting to outright trolling is a commendable goal.

Nordic LARP, or some elements of it, have occasionally been described as sex-obsessed. I don’t consider myself to be in a position to really comment on whether it is or isn’t, but I would describe humanity in general as sex-obsessed. At least the larpers seem to be putting a degree of thought into it.

Moving on, we come to the topic of world-building. A core aspect of roleplaying  games is the development and exploration of new worlds. What kinds of worlds are possible? What the world should be? What the world should be? What the world actually is? In some of the bigger LARPs and certain online RPGs, you get entire (dys)functional societies. An interesting example here was Hiljaisuuden vangit (“Prisoners of Silence”), a mid-90’s Finnish RPG set in a fascist Finland after the Nazis won WW2. Finland was an ally of Germany back then, so it’s not as bad as it could have been, but it’s still a dystopia. The game is next to impossible to acquire nowadays, unfortunately. The makers thought there was no longer any demand and dumped their remaining stock into paper recycling. There used to be a Finnish website that lavishly described a setting that may have been inspired by the game, but seems to have followed it into oblivion.

There was discussion of games as escapism, games as propaganda or counterpropaganda, games as a method of exploring themes and concepts, and so forth. More discussion of studying and researching roleplaying games, also outside of the actual game – historical research, for instance. Discussion of the impact of roleplaying games on culture in general. While D&D isn’t the only reason for the current “fantasy boom” in media, as BBC claimed (there’s a certain Oxford English professor who has a lot to answer for, and Harry Potter is not entirely blameless either), things would certainly be different without it. Electronic gaming in general would be very different, and World of Warcraft (11.5 million subscribers, at the moment) could not exist as it currently does. Trying to track the influences of D&D (and other roleplaying games, but let’s face it, to the outside world, it’s mostly D&D) in popular media is very interesting. There are a number of authors, such as China Miéville and Charles Stross, whose work has been influenced by roleplaying games quite a bit. I think  Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu isn’t also entirely blameless for the popularisation of Lovecraft. Vampire and modern depictions of vampires are an interesting topic as well, although most of it can be just traced to the source, Anne Rice. Other things… not so much.

Well, I think that just about wraps things up. I’ll still be writing a post or two on the course, but I’ll be discussing something else before that, in case I still have a readership after this.

The RPG Course – Lecture Six

Well, it’s been a while. Soon after writing the last post, I found myself with all sorts of deadlines and duties and even parties, which, among other things, led to me finishing the study journal for this course two days late, writing the last pages in a hurry with a second-degree burn on my left hand. I managed to steam-cook my hand in the afterparty sauna of the Helsinki University RPG club’s anniversary celebrations. While alcohol was involved, I hold that it was mostly my own stupidity.

The study journal required for the completion of the course is now finished, though I haven’t yet received a grade. I will probably not post it here, because in the end, I opted to write it in Finnish, and because even those who can read it are unlikely to glean anything interesting out of it. Also, there’s a good chance that it’s crap, since parts of it were written in a hurry and I had to fit in a great deal of material, not all of which I found entirely fascinating. After a while, even the interesting schoolwork starts feeling like schoolwork, which is destructive to my motivation.

Aaanyway, the penultimate lecture of the course discussed pervasive games. The lecturers recently published a book on the topic with one Annika Waern. After finishing the book, they also started a blog about it, since they couldn’t fit everything in, and new stuff keeps coming up.

In short, pervasive games are games that break the “magic circle” of the game. The “magic circle” is the contractual area within which the rules of the game preside, and sometimes override the general laws of the land. To use their example, when you step inside a boxing ring, it suddenly becomes permissible to hit another man in the face, but you are not allowed to remove your gloves. In Monopoly, it’s the board; in tabletop RPGs, a bit fuzzier but generally around the space the players occupy. The game is played in an area more or less clearly marked, it has a clear beginning and end, and the players generally know they’re playing.

A pervasive game, then, erases one or more of these things (or at least expands it to such a size that it might just as well be gone). Instead of a LARP taking place within three rooms in a schoolhouse, the playing area is the entire city. A pervasive game does have beginning and an end, but the game might be continuous for several months (also, at least one of the Prosopopeia games had a false ending before the game really kicked off). Finally, it’s possible that people unaware of the game get interacted with in the context of the game.

Examples of pervasive games include the live Pacman games played in Manhattan, assassin games such as Steve Jackson’s Killer, alternate reality games like I Love Bees, and pervasive LARPs.

As an interesting example of pervasiveness in a LARP, they presented the Finnish trollpunk LARP campaign Neonhämärä (“Neon Twilight”) where some of the PCs belong to a troll rock band Sysikuu (“Darkmoon”). Some weeks ago, actually during the RPG course, a session of the LARP was played at Cultural Arena Gloria in Helsinki, at the band’s gig. As I recall, there were actually two bands playing, the first of them not even associated with the game in any way. Anybody could buy a ticket. Players had white armbands to mark them. For the players, it was a LARP session, but it also doubled as a gig (and a rather good one, I’m told). Hell, I think this is the first I’ve heard of an RPG session of any stripe that had meaningful content for an audience.

Other examples included Sanningen om Marika, the Swedish TV production that had interactive elements and went on to win an Emmy last year, and street LARPs that have been popular in Finland for a long time. This has spawned a number of anecdotes about things going pear-shaped when innocent bystanders or police officers have taken the game for real. For instance, there’s one tale the lecturers related, of a criminal LARP of some description, where members of two rival gangs encountered at the Helsinki Central Railway Station. Everybody was packing, so they pulled their reasonably realistic-looking prop guns on one another – and caused everyone else to hit the floor or take cover. At this point, the players went “oops”, and made themselves scarce before the police showed up.

In another case I’ve heard of, a few players were doing an arms deal in front of the Helsinki Cathedral, at night, and the authorities took an interest. Things were easy to explain, though, since their guns were toys and the money in the briefcase wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

This, of course, brings up the ethics of pervasive gaming. There’s a chapter on ethics in Pervasive Games: Theory and Design, and we had to read it for the course. Taking your game out into the streets does bring up all sorts of interesting and important things to consider, such as how responsible it is to wave a realistic-looking replica gun in a crowded place. I’d imagine the questions are even more important in places like USA, UK or Israel (yeah, they do larp over there), where you’d likely stand a good chance of getting shot or prosecuted for it. In Finland, you’d probably get told off by the police and might even avoid a fine if you didn’t do anything spectacularly stupid.

Pervasive games aren’t my area of expertise (and it occurs to me that there are exceptionally few people in the world who can claim they are), but they are interesting. Somewhat annoyingly, my university seems to lack a Killer guild to run assassination games, and setting one up would be an awful lot of trouble. It seems like an interesting game with a low threshold of participation. Also, contrived plots to assassinate people? Excellent.

Next up is the seventh and final lecture of the course, RPGs and society. I’m also gonna be posting about the Praedor session at some point, though that’s gonna be more relevant to how I found the game and what happened in the session than to the course.

asive Games: Theory and Design