Hugo Neepery, the 2015 Edition

These past couple of posts I’ve been warning that I’ll be writing up a separate post discussing the Hugos this year. It’s a somewhat controversial topic this year. You may remember how last year we had some trouble with a few authors having an entitlement problem. Well, they’re back, and this time the lunatic fringe also showed up to the party.

The way the Hugo nomination process works is that if you have at least a supporting membership of an appropriate Worldcon, costing around $40, you get to nominate works for the Hugo ballot. Since the English-speaking world sees some 1,000 works published for the novel category alone each year and the field is very broad, ranging from fantasy of manners to hard military science fiction, the votes tend to spread out quite a bit. Because of this, were someone to write up a slate of nominations, which Brad Torgersen did and then Theodore Beale imitated and expanded upon, and tell all their friends and family and fans to vote on it, it would only take a couple of hundred warm bodies to have an effect. This is entirely legal by the rules, but tremendously unsportsmanlike.

So, we’re left with the end result that the majority of nominees on the ballot did not make it there on literary merit alone. Indeed, there are a number of works there entirely lacking in merit literary and otherwise. The short fiction categories and Best Related Work are a lost cause this year, and though there are a couple of works there that I thought were pretty decent, like Kary English’s “Totaled”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” (though last year’s “Ink Readers of Doi Saket” was much better) and one or two others, they’re still not quite what I’d think of as Hugo quality and the rest of the nominees are too weak for me to call it a contest. This is one of the more insidious things about slate voting. Even if there was something that would normally have a fighting chance on the ballot, the contest isn’t going to be fair if it’s accompanied there by stuff that’s merely okay or worse, and an award won in a category where the rest of the nominees are present only because Little Teddy wants to promote his vanity press is hollow. It’s a spectacularly shitty thing to do to writers who neither asked nor were asked to be on the slate.

Best Novella is particularly dire and contained nothing that I did not detest outright. I shall also single out John C. Wright’s Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and the Awful Truth as the worst book I have ever read, a nearly perfect intellectual, artistic, and moral failure.

That said, Best Novel has a lot of good stuff, and I think Best Graphic Story was the strongest it’s been in years.

My vote for Best Novel goes to Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, a novel about a fish out of water in a setting of courtly intrigue. It’s very much “Jane Austen’s The Lord of the Rings“. The prose is beautiful and the main character, Maia, is relatable to a degree that’s starting to feel manipulative. It’s sentimental and cozy, and somehow makes it work. It was also light in tone, which is a refreshing break from all the George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie I’ve been reading lately.

I also liked Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword and Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. Actually, Addison only edged out Leckie for first spot on my ballot because Leckie already won pretty much everything except the Pulitzer last year. Liu’s novel was interesting and a worthy successor to its models in the grand tradition of idea sci-fi, but the prose and characters felt flat to me. So sue me. I’m not a big fan of Clarke, Dick or Asimov either.

Jim Butcher’s Skin Game I can take or leave. I loved Cold Days, but this one just left me cold. I’ve been a fan of the series, and Butcher still writes eminently readable stuff. However, the focus on Dresden’s sexual frustration in this one was tremendously awkward to read, and the end resolution felt anticlimactic for all the stakes they had piled up. Also, the pop culture references went far over the top. Especially at the end.

Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars I found merely dull. It’s very long, has aliens with katanas, and is simultaneously the sequel to a long series that it assumes you’ve read and the start of a new series, so it sort of assumes that you know all this stuff already and the actual payoff is going to be delivered a few books down the line.

For Graphic Story, I’m giving it to Rat Queens, Vol. 1: Sass & Sorcery. I have been reading a lot of Order of the Stick and Nodwick lately, and Rat Queens draws from the same well, the genre of D&D fantasy, where adventurers are a profession unto itself and mysterious strangers hand out quests in taverns. All three comics play with the tropes of the game and the genre, but whereas Nodwick is just a loose collection of jokes and Order of the Stick is an epic fantasy tale layered with the trappings of a role-playing game, Rat Queens captures the actual play experience like nothing I have seen before. It deftly weaves together the absurdity of a casual gaming group with the ostensible seriousness of the adventures they have. It’s also too funny to be read in public while trying to maintain decorum. And the art is pretty.

After Rat Queens, there’s the third installment of Saga, the first trade paperback collection of Ms. Marvel, and the first volume of Sex Criminals, all of which I liked. There was also a zombie comic of some sort, but it was not included in the voter package, was off the Sad Puppy slate and is a zombie story, which together killed my interest and I could not even be bothered to dig it up.

Also, it is a crying shame that Sing No Evil was not on the ballot. Or The Causal Angel, or Memory of Water, or “The Truth About Owls”, or the Southern Reach Trilogy, or The Blood of Angels, or Only Lovers Left Alive, or What Makes This Book So Great, or Sibilant Fricative, or The World of Ice and Fire or the second part of Heinlein’s biography, or nearly anything else than what we in so many categories received.

The Hugo voting is open until July 31st, and there’s still plenty of time to get your Sasquan membership and Hugo Voter Pack and see for yourself if I’m right or wrong.

Foul Relics of the Past and D&D 5E

I haven’t been following the 5E development much. I figure that if something interesting comes up, it will intrude upon my consciousness in one way or another, via IRC, forums, an instant message one minute after I’ve gone to bed, or the like. I’m also waiting for the damn thing to come out before passing judgment on it, unlike the online army of prophets and oracles that has looked into the future or received a divine message and thus know for a certain fact that 5E will either be a terrible flop or usher in a new Golden Age of roleplaying games.

However, my fears of the former were grown today when I had to witness a flamewar on Monte Cook’s newest 5E poll, Uniting the Editions, Part 3. There’s one thing among the poll options that gave me pause, as it was not like the others. There’s an option there that does not belong in the 21st century, was a poor idea when it was first conceived over 30 years ago and wholly deserves the quiet grave it has lain these past three editions. The option has no place in a serious discussion on game design except as a warning example and should not be brought to light except to reflect on how far we have come as a hobby and as a society. The option conjures images of the worst stereotypes of roleplayers and will, if actually included in a finished product, bring deserved scorn upon the game and the brand.

No, not THAC0. I’m talking about gender-based ability score maximums. Though the term is pretty self-explanatory, I’ll explain it anyway. It’s a relic of AD&D 1E, where the Player’s Handbook contained this little chart:

It’s a bit small, but the only difference between the sexes is that female characters cannot have as high a Strength score as males. The chart lacks humans, but the earlier Strength Table I notes that a female human’s Strength caps at 18/50, while a male’s goes all the way up to 18/00. Basically, it makes women second-class citizens.

The only purpose these rules serve is to take up space on a page and, well, to be sexist. It’s worse than the Random Prostitute Table (from the Dungeon Master Guide), because that’s at least amusing in its pointlessness. This is just odious. Seriously, it brings nothing positive to the game, and this shit right here and shit like this elsewhere are a major reason the gender makeup of the hobby looks like it does. It is indefensible, useless, and offensive, and the only reason I can figure out for it to be trotted out every now and then like it was a good idea is because some people have this masochistic desire to be thought of as troglodytes.

Now, I’m not numbering Monte Cook among them. From what I’ve seen, he’s one of the good guys, but still, including the option in this poll even as a joke was a bad call. They’ve now made the results secret, but when I cast my votes, it had Feats leading with around 2000 votes, Skills coming up behind with over 1000, and Gender-Based Ability Score Maximums in the bottom end with 324, or about half again as many as THAC0. I think it was also leading over System Shock. The poll is also just begging for goons or Anonymous or a particularly vile strain of Redditor to dump it full of votes for chauvinism. This particular old hat has resurfaced a couple of times online during the last year, and we’ve had some lovely flamewars indeed (and I’m mostly writing this because of those other flamewars – it feels like something of a current topic and this poll isn’t just a single, strange anomaly).

The usual argument is for “realism”, which I suppose would hold water if the game were committed to absolute realism and Phoenix Command level of simulation. However, it isn’t. The hit points and ability scores and armour class are all abstractions, and the player characters are supposed to be exceptional individuals unrestrained by how much the “average” human can bench press. No “average” person decides to go down that hole in the ground and hunt some orc. 3.0 had rules for swimming up waterfalls and balancing atop clouds as feats theoretically attainable without the use of magic. This is not a level of realism the game has ever been particularly interested in replicating. Hell, as things are, most D&D settings even have gender equality, certain trends in armour fashion notwithstanding. We have a game where characters going to the sauna would spontaneously combust, and this is where you choose to make a stand on “realism”? (Besides, enshrining the gender binary in the rules like that also excludes people who do not fit in it, which is unrealistic. Somehow, that notion tends to make people advocating this crap rather uncomfortable.) And no, giving female characters a bonus on Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma in the name of “balance” would not fix things, it’d just turn this into a different load of bollocks, since then it’d also discriminate against men.

The arguments against it are far more compelling. It discriminates against women and punishes a female player for wanting to play a character of her own sex. It enforces outdated and offensive sterotypes. It’s sexist and drives women away from the game, and its inclusion would be pandering to the pig-ignorant mouthbreathers and social also-rans that this hobby is trying to rise above. Indeed, one player I know has mentioned that she doesn’t want to play D&D because the game’s portrayal of women makes her feel like her character would be dead weight to the party – and this two decades after the chart above was consigned to the wastebasket of history.

Approaching from another point of view, even a less socially enlightened mind would perhaps wish to consider the notion that effectively excluding 50% of humanity from your game might not be the soundest financial decision, either in terms of directly lost sales or the public relations issues it would cause. This could actually be damaging to D&D, since it’s notable enough that mainstream media outlets like Forbes ran stories on the 5th edition announcement. If a generic fantasy heartbreaker someone released out of their garage has a 1920’s attitude about women, the most flak it can expect to catch is three pages on RPG.net and maybe an irate blog post somewhere. However, if D&D pulls a stunt like that, it’ll be all over the place, and not necessarily limited to the geeksphere.

Seriously, now. That chart has no place in this game or any other game, even as an optional rule. Put a picture of a dragon or a random sock colour table in there if you can’t figure anything else to fill the page. If I need to throw a player from my table, I don’t need the rulebook to help me.

Afterword: And then they figured it out, fixed things, and posted a follow-up, all before I got this blog post up. Good job, guys. However, I spent a couple of hours on this rant and I’m not about to let it go to waste.

Heartbreak & Heroines: Game Called on Account of Drama

Okay, now I am annoyed. The funding for Heartbreak & Heroines has been cancelled by the creator because of some rather disgusting drama brewing in the blogs out there.

No, I’m not going to go into specifics. You can google it if you really want to know. I think the place for this kind of thing is not on the blogs but in a court of law, and I’ve already squashed one comment about it. Suffice it to be said that whoever is in the wrong in this particular case is a failure as a human being, but it is not my place to decide the truth of it. For now, I refuse to touch this with a ten-foot pole.

Dammit. I wanted that game.

Delicious Flamewars, Heartbreak, and Heroines

A roleplaying game project came up on Kickstarter the other day.

For those of you who don’t know, Kickstarter is a site where an aspiring publisher of whatever product can put up their idea, pitch it to the public, and set a goal for how much money they need to produce it and release it. Members of the public may then pledge money to the project in exchange for future copies or whatever. It’s a pretty nifty system.

Anyway, this particular roleplaying game is called Heartbreak & Heroines. It’s “a fantasy roleplaying game about adventurous women who go and have awesome adventures — saving the world, falling in love, building community, defeating evil. It’s a game about relationships and romance, about fairy tales and feminism.”

That last word, there, “feminism”… that’s a bit flammable on the internet. Predictably, it soon caught fire on RPG.net. Here’s the first thread. It’s a bit of a trainwreck and you may not want to actually read it, though it does contain the immortal lines “WFRPG is one of the few RPGS to acknowledge the historical reality that everyone in the medieval Arab world was a reanimated skeleton” and “For me, the weird experience has been the vast number of men who are so ardently supportive of women in gaming that they find a feminist RPG to be offensive”. There’s also a Q&A thread where the author herself comes to answer questions, and does so in a manner far more polite than I probably would have managed.

So, she pissed off a bunch of people without trying or intending to. With feminism and inclusiveness. I think there might be something wrong here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it…

As a general thing, I keep a healthy distance from arguments and flamewars like these. I mean, I’m a white, heterosexual, college-educated male from Finland. I’ve got privilege coming out of my ass. The issues do not personally touch me and the discourse around them is mostly unfamiliar to me in a way that makes me feel like I might inadvertently offend someone I don’t want to. I always feel like I’m moving on thin ice when I go there, so I generally don’t. It’s easier to stay in my comfort zone where I am always right. It’s a pretty large playing field for me.

However, this time I am willing to make an exception, and I’m pretty sure that I’m right.

See, to me there’s something fundamentally wrong about the attitude Heartbreak & Heroines encountered there. “Hubris”, they said. The author was compared to that of F.A.T.A.L. Further down the line we are presented ideas that having racial and gender equality in a medieval fantasy setting is “silly”. We also get the classic “not tolerating bigotry makes you a bigot yourself” line.

Seriously, people. I’m not saying I’m above writing extravagantly lengthy posts describing the exact depth of my hatred for this game or that, but I at least had played the game first (except in the case of F.A.T.A.L., but I think I can be forgiven for that). This one hasn’t even been entirely written yet.

So, given that the people being pissed off seem to have been in desperate need of pissing off anyway and probably secretly wanted it (see what I did there?), I can only give my wholehearted approval to Heartbreak & Heroines and Caoimhe Ora Snow. I can also give $15. Would pledge more, except it’s the con season and I’m not exactly rolling in cash right now.

I’m not saying you should do the same, mind you. I hate it when people use the “buy this or you are a chauvinist/antisemite/racist/True Finn” argument. For all I know, the game might end up being crap (though the author’s previous work seems solid enough). Just… you might do worse than pledge a few coins. Also, if they don’t reach the goal, I won’t get my copy, and then I’ll be annoyed.

Rulesets Have No Expiration Dates

There’s a strange notion I’ve run into a couple of times during the latest bout of Old School Renaissance arguments – namely, that the rules of old D&D editions are somehow “obsolete”.

Let’s get this straight: no roleplaying game that I have ever seen has come with a “best before” date stamped on it. There is no exact science behind game rule development that has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last thirty-odd years, like computer or mobile phone technology has. Beyond the physical properties of the product, there is nothing, nothing, objectively better about a game that has been released in 2010 as opposed to a game that was released in 1978.

Some ideas are, of course, newer than others. There has, certainly, been innovation, with people coming up with new ways to do things and new things to do. Separate race and class, classless systems, logarithm-based systems, point-based systems, percentile systems, diceless systems, dice pool systems, storytelling mechanics. However, most of it is just applied mathematics (with the exception of the stuff that isn’t, like the fortune cookies in Tähti), and that crap has been around for some millennia now. Whether the execution of a ruleset is actually mathematically valid, whether you get the probability spreads you intended, is just a matter of numbers and if the numbers are wrong, they’ll be just as wrong if they were crunched today as they’d be if they were crunched thirty years ago. That is the only objective thing, and the rest is preferences, taste and fashion.

Then, there are some aspects of games that really do become obsolete, such as when the technological development passes a sci-fi game by (I’m looking at you, Cyberpunk 2020. It’s been ten years since I’ve even seen an NMT phone outside of a rerun on TV.). I am also told that a number of early Palladium games list homosexuality as a mental illness, and there’s probably any number of fantasy and semi-historical roleplaying games that have content loosely based on interpretations of history that have since been discovered to be inaccurate. I couldn’t cite any examples, but it’s my understanding that some of the armours in certain editions of Dungeons & Dragons fall into this category (though, if we’re entirely honest, a historical analysis of the equipment chapter of any edition of D&D would make anyone who seriously cares about such matters weep).

Rules, though… Rules keep. The OSR games are an obvious example, but they’re the ones that provoked this neophiliac brainfart in the first place, so let’s look at some others. Call of Cthulhu was first released in 1981. Now, six editions and 29 years later, it’s still the same game, it’s still good, and people are still playing it. Pendragon is another. 25 years and five discrete editions, and the brilliance was already there in 1985. The Traveller character generation system from 1977 still rocks, especially once they tweaked it to fix the death-at-chargen issue. Dungeons & Dragons looks actually anomalous in the extent of the changes between editions, especially between the second, third and fourth editions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. They’re less separate editions of the same game than they are separate games.

Of course, different rulesets are good for different things. Pendragon has a laser-like focus on emulating the very specific tone of a very specific telling of the King Arthur stories. Some of the modern storygames are written for playing one single specific story. Deathwatch is probably completely pants for playing anything that doesn’t have Space Marines in it. The fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons is very good for annoying me. The interesting thing is that the different editions of D&D have very different focuses and support very different playstyles. Characters in the older editions tend to be fragile things, which gears the game towards a more careful, exploratory and cerebral approach to exploring a dungeon – and while they’re not exclusively dungeon crawling games, the environment does default to the dungeon. I don’t think this really changed until AD&D 2E, which seems to be geared to run any kind of fantasy game, as we can see from the myriad of innovative settings developed for the edition. 3E and D20 took this even further, redesigning the entire ruleset from the ground up to be a flexible, universal system. From this point of view, 4E is sort of a return to the roots in its tighter focus (namely, annoying me and tactical combat), except that they found some completely different roots to return to.

In short: just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s bad. Just because you don’t understand or like the playstyle doesn’t mean it’s bad. However, if the math doesn’t actually go the way they thought it did… then it can be bad.

In the interests of fairness and balance, I will soon be tackling an irritating rhetorical tactic often used by the other side of the debate.

Would You Like Some Cheese with Your Whine, Mr Kask?

It would appear that there’s yet another tempest of fecal matter in the offing around the phenomenon of the Old School Renaissance. This time the poop-flinger is none other than Tim Kask, the first editor of The Dragon, an ancient and slightly obscure figure from the early days of gaming. A guest editorial of his was posted at Lord of the Green Dragons, and it… looks like a really bad troll, actually. Seriously, I get better stuff from the incoming SomethingAwful links.

Now, I rarely jump in on these blogosphere tiffs. Usually, nothing is resolved and the end result can only be something really ugly. However, in this case, I do not think it can get a lot uglier than what Mr Kask wrote there, and he has managed to personally rouse my ire.

Also, when someone drops their pants, paints a huge bullseye on their buttocks and moons, what am I supposed to do?

Mr Kask’s post is a collection of personal attacks against people he doesn’t feel a particular need to name for claims he does not feel a particular need to source. This is slightly frustrating, since though I can identify some of the people, the more outlandish assertions made in the post cannot be verified. Who, for instance, are the “[t]wo particularly obnoxious individuals [who] have set themselves up as some sort of Star Chamber in which they pass judgments that others are actually supposed to care about and heed”? While the scene clearly has no shortage of obnoxious individuals, I cannot quite place these descriptions. Keeping your targets anonymous, of course, allows you to invent whatever villainy you’re accusing them of.

Most of his shots seem to be aimed at James Edward Raggi IV, presumably due to this post, who, despite being around half Mr Kask’s age, acts rather more mature in his response. Then, I’ve seen more mature displays than this diva show from my nine-year-old cousin. There’s also a swipe at Eero Tuovinen of Arkenstone Publishing, who’s “an obscure self-styled publisher from a small European country”. The man has a company that publishes (and imports) games. What, pray tell, is he then supposed to style himself? As for “small European country,” it’s called Finland, and I’m debating whether this additional descriptor is his way of trying to make Eero recognizable without naming him or just some strange jingoistic anachronism or what. There’s also the line “We built a market in five short years that virtually dwarfed the hobby of five years previous. In addition, we did not do it with a government subsidy or grant,” which has this lovely unstated suggestion of “unlike those godless Communists.” In fact, the whole diatribe becomes even more hilarious than it already is if you imagine it read in the voice of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Then there’s this gem: “OSR (whichever phrase you prefer), is, on its surface, an oxymoron. For something to be “reborn” or revived, it must first be dead. The original spirit of D&D never died; it just was buried under all the crap that came out with editions after the second.”

If you take an extremely myopic view of things, that is largely true. However, from the viewpoint of the gaming community at large, it was dead. AD&D 2E was dropped the minute the Third Edition came out. The older editions were ten years or more out of print and difficult to find on the secondary market. Awareness of them waned. New stuff wasn’t available at the game stores, and the majority of the gaming community had turned to other games. On account of no games being actually available, there was no influx of new players to the old systems. Sure, there was always Dragonsfoot, but that forum quickly garnered an apparently well-deserved reputation for irrational hostility towards new things, and if that’s your idea of keeping a game alive, it’s time to call in Dr Kevorkian. Now, the Old School Renaissance has reinvigorated old-school Dungeons & Dragons, brought it back to the limelight and to store shelves. What, in this, is such a horrid thing that it needs to be attacked and denigrated? What about it is so complicated that it cannot be understood? It’s not defined by anyone in particular, and if it has leaders, they are such by the power of the vox populi. The internet is quite democratic in this. It is also democratic in that even if you were the first editor of The Dragon and were there when they figured out how to use fire, you will get called on your fabrications.

Since OSR is defined as the recent increased interest in old and out-of-print editions of D&D, playing them, rereleasing their rules, and writing new material for them, it’s a mite nonsensical to try opting out of it. It is what it is, the label is stuck, and complaining of things, especially in Mr Kask’s tone, will bring with it a number of other labels that are far less complimentary. Also, I question the marketing sense of declaring your contempt for the competition mere paragraphs before announcing that you, yourself, are going to soon release something that’s presumably going to be targeted at the same audience. If a part of that audience is, say, heavily invested in the hobby, like gamers tend to be, they might take it badly. I’m not going to claim there was much chance of me buying whatever it is Mr Kask is selling to begin with, but this little rant kinda sealed the deal. There’s a certain irony in thousand words of drivel fermented in bitterness that keeps proclaiming that the fun is what matters.

Overall, what we have here is a petty and small-minded attack completely untroubled by facts, common courtesy or reason. Note, if you will, how Mr Kask fails to actually counter any of the arguments or observations that he attacks, even noting that some of them are true, but still somehow “asinine” or “moronic”. Most rants are actually trying to make a point somewhere, while this one is just trying to convince the reader that some conveniently anonymous people are morons and that the Old School Renaissance is somehow bad, based on him saying so.

I am going to remain neutral on the topic of whether the OSR or TSR have produced better material, as I am unfamiliar with far too large parts of both corpuses to pass objective judgment. However, the latter just went on the lead for having produced more annoying spokespersons.

Award News – Bleargh

The results of both the ENnies and the Diana Jones Awards are now in.

The Diana Jones people haven’t yet updated their website, though. According to Robin D. Laws, it went to Dominion.

The ENnies, this year, featured a lesson on why the popular vote doesn’t work when one of the contestants is orders of magnitude larger than all the others combined. WotC sweeped nearly all categories it was nominated for just by being better known, including the Fan’s Choice for Best Publisher, which is beyond ridiculous. Their marketing has featured outright lies (At D&D Experience 2007, the official line was that 4E is not in the works. At Gen Con…), promised products have never materialised (The online game table is now over a year late and still not in sight.), their website is a travesty, the first draft of the GSL was a direct attack against the open gaming movement, and their policy on PDFs has less connection to the real world than the D&D economic system.

I would also contest the Product of the Year going to Player’s Handbook, which is only a third of a game and despite being laid out for eight-year-olds with lots of white space and a ridiculously huge typeface still doesn’t contain enough empty margins to write in all the errata.

Best Aid or Accessory to D&D Insider? A user-hostile collection of occasionally functional applications and features that never were? Are you kidding me?

Howl of the Carrion King, at least, won the Best Adventure it deserved – and it really is a splendid module. Still, WotC’s King of the Trollhaunt Warrens, which nobody seems to have even heard of, nabbed second place apparently just by being 4E. Seriously, I can’t even find reviews for it outside of Amazon.com, and even there the most positive one of the three states that “The module is similar to all WOTC and TSR adventures and has little to no role-playing. This adventure is basically fight after fight.”

Silver. Over Purge the Unclean or Barrow Grounds. My ass.

Then there’s Best Monster Book, with Monster Manual, a collection of stats and occasionally questionable art choices beating Creatures Anathema, a book chock-full of flavour, great ideas and adventure hooks. It also contains the following: “The most infamous of Attack Squigs is the Ravenous Face-Biter, appropriately named for the way in which it tries to bite the faces off of its enemies, ravenously. Other less well known, but no less vicious, varieties include the Drooling Snapjaw and the Pig-eyed Gouger.” It’s got orks! It’s got the eldar! It’s got ‘nids! And it got beaten by the adorable dire puppy!

Another serious issue is that the Best Free Product category pitted freebie quickstart rules – marketing materials, essentially – against genuinely free games, and then one of the damn things was actually allowed to win. The D&D retroclone game Swords & Wizardry got silver, at least, but in my view, and the view of quite a few others in the blogosphere, there were only two nominees there that should have been eligible in the first place. The other was Trial & Terror: Supernatural Victims Unit.

Dark Heresy received a well-deserved Best Production Values award. I mean, you can say what you will about recycling art, glorious though it be, but that book, as a physical object, is one of the finest items in my game collection. I accidentally dropped it a while back, and the pages tore away from the covers. I pushed them back in, and they stuck. In normal use, you wouldn’t know anything had happened. That’s quality. I can’t say how it stacks up with the competition (except that CthulhuTech is also a very pretty book, though I understand that an early print run was somehow faulty), but it is not a misplaced victory.

Also, Best Setting went to Paizo’s Pathfinder Campaign Setting, which really is one of my favourite fantasy settings, nowadays. It combines elements of classic pulp fantasy and horror literature with Dungeons & Dragons to great effect and manages to create a kitchen sink setting with a distinct feel of its own instead of just a mishmash.

In other news, WotC has announced that in 2010 they shall be revisiting Dark Sun for 4E. I shall politely refrain from posting my thoughts on this.

WotC’s Releases Fan Site Kit to Widespread Ridicule

I am trying to find something to say about WotC’s fan site kit and its terms of use, but I’m drawing a blank. Everything has already been said, by other bloggers such as mxyzplk at Geek Related or d7 at The Seven-Sided Die, or by me in one of the previous instances they did something like this.

Their kit is a small collection of images, mostly of the covers of their products, and some very confusing terms of service. There’s a lot of suspicious content that I am unable to decipher, but it does appear to forbid you from posting modules and web applications on your fan site.

Which sorta makes sense. They’re the two things WotC has repeatedly screwed up with in recent times, so they wouldn’t want a freebie someone knocked off on their lunch break to make them look bad. That’s what their marketing and legal departments are for.

My memory fails as to how long ago this thing was first announced, but I am tempted to say late 2007, and no later than when the GSL came out in June 2008. Over a year in the works and this is the result. Hooray.

The nice thing about it all is that you don’t need to use it. The kit doesn’t contain anything special and certainly nothing worth the fear, uncertainty and doubt of their legalese.

It all just rubs me the wrong way philosophically. A major part of roleplaying games is the creation of your own material. That’s a significant part of their attraction and the thing that really sets roleplaying games apart from board games and computer games. This runs counter to that, and at the worst is a direct attack against the very core of the hobby, at the least yet another illustration that the market leader Does Not Get It.

WotC Does it Again!

Well, just as you thought things might have quieted down and Wizards of the Coast didn’t have anything really left to royally screw up, they manage to find a new area to fail in.

In order to combat PDF piracy, they are pulling PDFs of their products from sale online, from websites such as RPG Now, DriveThruRPG and Paizo.com. No prior notice, effective immediately. I think you have until noon today, some American time zone, to download from Paizo, while the other two are gone already. (via RPGCentric, James Mishler, #rpg.net, and pretty much the entire RPG blogosphere)

Yes! You read that right! To prevent illegal downloads of their books, they are making it impossible to download them legally! Brilliant logic, there. Even if the intricacies of pirate economics eluded them, they should be able to grasp the incredible stupidity of that chain of thought.

Additionally, the ones that end up in circulation are usually not from the webstores. Those are watermarked. Stupid to distribute illegally something with your name and e-mail address on it. No, the illegal downloads are primarily either leaks from the printing house or some kook’s own scans.

Well, that’s true for the 3E and 4E stuff that I’ve seen, at least. The old edition stuff doesn’t have watermarks, because they’re the ones that were scanned back in the 3E days to be distributed by SVGames – and they’re already out there. I believe it was Rick Falkvinge of Piratpartiet who compared trying to prevent piracy after the fact to trying to stuff toothpaste back in the tube. Can’t be done and you’ll just end up making a mess of yourself.

So, this is pretty much the standard anti-piracy measure. Not only does it do jack to actually deter piracy, its effect will be the complete opposite, since there is no longer even the option of buying a legal PDF. It’s much easier to justify an illegal download when there is no alternative available. The only ones who get hosed by this are honest customers and webstores.

While it is possible that they really are too thick to understand basic concepts such as these, it’s also possible that this is just posturing for whoever is higher up in the food chain – that is, some Hasbro exec. I could speculate about the sales of 4E or the effects of the economic downturn on WotC finances, but while I could construct a lovely conspiracy theory, the evidence is circumstantial. Besides, as the Hanlon’s Razor goes: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity”.

However, according to WotC’s Trevor Kidd, all is not lost. The PDFs might come back at some point, maybe:  “We are exploring other options for digitial distribution of our content and as soon as we have any more information I’ll get it to you.”

That’s a long and clunky sentence. Here, I’ll abbreviate it for you: “DRM“.

And we all know how well that works. I still have some old free PDF books from DriveThruRPG on my hard drive that I can’t open anymore because I switched computers. It is also heartwarming to know that it’s WotC, of all companies, working on an electronic solution for something. With e-Tools, the DDI screwups, and the general user hostility of their website, forums, and Cretaceous-Era webchat, their resume of failure in this area is nothing short of impressive. They’re the Ed Wood of electronic applications, except not as likeable.

I pretty much stopped buying WotC stuff a year ago, with the exception of Paul S. Kemp novels and secondhand books. They keep making me feel better and better about that decision.

Welcome to the Suck: D&D Movies

It appears that once again, the topic of a D&D film lifts its ugly face from the murk. I blame Scott Rouse’s posting of a staggeringly bad music video on EN World (though I first saw it on the Roolipelaaja blog).

There have thus far been three movies and an animated series based directly on D&D licences. The animated series divides opinion, but all three films – Dungeons & Dragons, Dungeons & Dragons 2: Wrath of the Dragon God, and Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight – suck. Indeed, the first D&D and the Dragonlance flick are so hideous as to make it on my personal Top Ten Worst Movies of All Time list, nestled snugly between Uwe Boll titles and third installments of Marvel film franchises.

Now, JimLotFP and noisms argue on their blogs that there cannot ever be a good D&D film because of various reasons of narrative structure, and because they’re trying to film a concept instead of a story.

While noisms is on to something there, I’m going to suggest that a) there can, in fact, be a good D&D film, and b) the only reason there hasn’t been one is that the ones thus far have been made by raging incompetents and/or on budgets that make the first season of Xena look extravagant. I mean, the first D&D film was made by Courtney Solomon, who couldn’t direct his way out of a wet paper bag. The second one was a Sci-Fi Channel production with a budget of $12,000,000, which, in  the moviemaking business, is practically nothing. Still not an entirely bad movie, though. The Dragonlance film, then, had its animation outsourced to India to a bunch of people who evidently had no idea what they were doing, and presumably for cost reasons. The only positive thing about the end result is that we’re unlikely to ever see Dragonlance: Dragons of Winter Night.

However, there have been good fantasy films. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is awesome, and went on to win Peter Jackson’s weight in Oscars. Conan the Barbarian is an exquisite piece of filmmaking and features one of the finest soundtracks ever. Willow is great. Excalibur is great. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is great. Sure, for every Pan’s Labyrinth, there are three Deathstalkers, but then, isn’t that the standard ratio for film industry in general? Most films suck.

The topic of game movies is a bit stranger, but there we have Uwe Boll skewing the statistics. Also, I like Mortal Kombat. Once upon a time, though, people were convinced that good comic book movies were an impossibility in modern Hollywood.

The long and short of it, though, is… it’s not that you can’t make a good D&D movie. It’s that the guys who tried couldn’t.

The how of it is a more complicated issue. I don’t think a Drizzt movie is a good idea. For a start, someone completely missing the point would accuse it of racism. It’s fully possible no studio would touch it. Indeed, it’s fully possible that no studio has already touched it.

I can’t say I know the answer to how a good D&D movie should be done. However, I know that you don’t get good movies when the people making them are talentless hacks. Personally, I’d probably approach the issue by giving Luc Besson a sufficient budget and a lot of Planescape supplements. Terry Gilliam’s Spelljammer would also be awesome, as would Christopher Nolan’s adaptations of Paul S. Kemp novels.

The problem with the “bunch of guys go to a dungeon” core story is that it’s not much of a plotline. In a game, it’s exciting because you don’t know how the dice will land. You’re in the action, not just a spectator. In a movie, fight + trap + fight + fight + trap + bossfight = bad. Unless it’s 300, pretty much the only movie I know that would’ve been better with even less plot and character development.

However, we have no shortage of people willing to give it a shot, and indeed, the D&D 4E movie is slated for 2011. We shall see.