Review: Watch Dogs: Legion – Good Timing?

I picked up Watch Dogs: Legion on something of a whim, if I’m to be honest. I played the first one but passed on the second. What piqued my interest and put me over the edge was the fact that there is no “chosen one” central character and that you recruit your resistance against the forces that have overtaken near-future London from the general populace.

I probably spent as much time recruiting characters to DedSec as I did actually playing through the story. Certainly, I devoted much more time to recruitment than I did to side missions–about halfway through the game I decided I just wasn’t interested enough to spend that much time playing.

The situation in London is bleak at the beginning of the game; a terrorist group calling itself Zero-Day (or maybe lead by someone calling themself Zero-Day, this wasn’t quite clear to me) uses a spate of synchronized bombings across London to allow the city to largely turn over authority to a private military company, ironically named Albion. At least it’s leader isn’t named “Arthur.”

This puts London in a condition that represents some of my worst fears for the direction the U.S. is headed. I should mention that my father lived outside of London for about two years while I was in high school, so I spent a good deal of time in the city and, being too young to drive in the States, I learned to navigate the Tube long before I learned how to navigate Houston’s congested highways. So, in my mind, there’s a personal link between London and my own experience that perhaps made its familiar places (I always knew I’d gotten myself lost in the West End when I found myself walking between the adult-themed shops of Soho) feel like a strong link to my present concerns.

If you’d like it laid out for you, here are some of the aspects of the collapse of London’s (the country as a whole is rarely mentioned) democracy in the game: Albion patrols the streets in armored personnel carriers, armed with the kit expected of a warfighter, not a peace officer (blurred as that line is in the U.S. right now). Normal people are stopped and harassed as the already-prevalent camera system and the personal data captured by our smart devices turn London into a surveillance state. The vestiges of British democracy–the Home Office, the Parliament, etc., still exist, but only to provide cover for the authoritarian leanings of those really pulling the strings (the game explains that Parliament has been suspended and that the Queen–no indication of which Queen that is, mind you–has not been seen for some time since the bombings). Albion is disappearing its detractors left and right, the news stories that come up in your feed are often manipulated propaganda rather than reporting with integrity, and the current administration has formed unofficial alliances with the city’s largest criminal organization to facilitate its ends.

This is the situation in which your resistance hacker collective is formed. In today’s day and age–not just in the U.S. but in Europe and Britain as well, where the specter of conservatism dangerously flirting with fascism and/or populism raises its frightening head as well–there is a definite catharsis to be had for players needing to sublimate the angst they feel at the current political climate into imaginary action. I count myself among those players.

That’s why the recruitment missions feel so powerful–the need to bring in allies of similar mindset, who confirm and justify your beliefs that there’s something wrong with the current situation that calls for action, even of the direct and aggressive variety–is something many of us feel right now, whether or not that’s a reasonable mindset.

There are plenty of reviews talking about how cool it is to search out the various abilities (or weapons) different characters have as you build your team; I’ll acknowledge that aspect of the system but not dwell on it.

I will mention that the game has an option for permadeath for your operatives, and I can’t imagine playing the game without this option. The consequences, the drama of recruitment and selection of a particular character, make the whole system of having no single protagonist worth it; if you can’t lose the characters you recruit, that system loses much of its narrative weight. I lost about a half-dozen characters in my playthrough, most of them being “specialist” operatives with better skills and equipment than the average recruit: I lost an anarchist (one of the best character “classes” if you’re focusing on less-lethal tactics), a spy (my particular favorite character), a professional hitman (I thought that an amateur hitman was just a murderer, but, lo and behold, I did later recruit an “amateur hitman”), a deputy director of the Met, and a few others. Their losses–especially in otherwise successful story missions–were keenly felt, and that was the point, wasn’t it?

Otherwise, the gameplay was nothing unexpected for a GTA/Assassin’s Creed/Watch Dogs/Etc.-style of game. Less free-running and more hacking, but otherwise in line with expectations. Admittedly, I played the game on “normal” difficulty which, despite my losses, seemed easier than I should have selected for optimal enjoyment. If you liked the previous Watch Dog games, you’ll like the way this one plays.

Ultimately, the game’s narrative was less satisfying than I’d initially expected. I called the nature of Zero-Day a mile away, and the plot points of the missions hit a little too hard on the tropes and cliches of the genre: the THEMIS idea essentially rehashed Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, the Skye Larson plot played out the typical mad scientist trope (while sidestepping all of the actually-interesting philosophical and practical issues of mind-uploading by making her a monster), and Mary Kelley played an unnuanced criminal mastermind the likes of which have starred in many a poor detective story. The most emotional point of the story’s ending is immediately undone after the credits roll. Part of me liked that, but it was a cheap happiness to be sure.

Fortunately, the nature of the game itself, rather than the plot, brought some nuance with it. As with Watch Dogs 2 (so I’m told), the game pushes you toward a less-lethal approach to combat. You can only unlock less-lethal weapons for your characters (some recruits come with lethal weapons, but that’s the only way to get them) and even the “takedown” animations that show a neck being broken or the hitman garroting a victim to death are revealed to be less lethal attacks in the game’s treatment of them.

As a brief digression, I found the distribution of lethal weapons on recruitable characters–especially in London–to be ridiculous. It’s at least plausible that the Spy has a silenced pistol, or that the Professional Hitman comes with a pistol and assault rifle, but that’s not the half of it.

One of the first people I passed in the game was a “Tourist” with an M249 light machine gun. I chalked it up to satire of Americans, but then I also added to my potential recruits list a Chef with the same weapon. And then a University Researcher with a silenced pistol. As it turned out the number of people casually packing in dystopian London–heavy weapons no less–mystified.

But that aside, the game’s push toward less-lethal weapons made me continually ask myself about the morality of using lethal weapons in the fight. And this is particularly where I’d wished I’d set the difficulty to a higher level. As it stood, there where many missions where I could send in a Professional Hitman and run-and-gun my way through Albion personnel, stopping shooting to hack only when necessary. I wished that the difficulty had been higher so that the hero fantasy of blasting one’s way through faceless neo-fascist bad guys without a care in the world might have been less accessible, along with all of its accompanying problems. But, ignoring the moral question within the game, I continued to ponder the point at which armed resistance becomes an acceptable approach–it is never a “good” approach. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think violence can ever truly overcome evil–only delay it–and that thought reverberated for me as I confronted my programmed “enemies.”

It was certainly the fact that the setting of the game resonated with current fears and concerns about the future of the U.S. that led me to all of these thoughts, and it was morality and politics that traveled through my brain while playing the game far more than any consideration of privacy or technology issues. Even now, as I write this review, I’m continually refreshing the AP’s report on 2020 election results, full of some hope for the presidential results but mostly dread at the stark divide in my nation, the number of people who seem to value their own economic prosperity (manufactured as that may be) over ideas of democracy, justice, equality, or any of the other things I see as the ideals that justify the messiness and difficulty of our political system.

I’d better quit while I’m ahead. Or at least before I’m too far behind. I’ll conclude with this: I enjoyed playing through Watch Dogs: Legion, but it was far from an amazing experience. More important, I came away from this game wondering (in all sense of the word) how the cyberpunk stories and games of my youth seemed to be more prophetic year after year. As much as I enjoy playing games like Shadowrun, or Deus Ex, or Watch Dogs, that’s not a direction I would consciously chose. Which, in turn, made me a little embarrassed to play this game after all, feeling like I was turning my angst to video games rather than getting “out there” and doing something that might help incite meaningful change in the world. Do I feel like that’s even possible, or have I turned to a game like this because I’m beginning to feel powerless? Or is the coincidence of this game’s release with the 2020 election simply a serendipitous synchronicity of memes and fears as to put me in existential angst?

I don’t think any of that was what Watch Dogs’ creators intended it to be. But for me, that was my Watch Dogs: Legion: a self-inflicted reverie about my place in and responsibilities to the world. As I look back at this article, weird as it turned out to be, I think it reflects the course of my experience with the game–a journey from light-hearted escapism into contemplating much tougher questions and concepts. Was that worth my sixty bucks? Maybe.

Review: The Sparrow

I know; I’m a little late to the game if I’m reviewing a book that’s twenty-five years old. But I’m excited about it enough that I really don’t care about that.

So, we’re gonna talk about Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, an exposition of theodicy wrapped in a sci-fi tale that’s secretly a bildungsroman of sorts. If you’re not a theology nerd, “theodicy” is the word for the study of the problems of evil and suffering. In Christianity, in particular, this problem might be more specifically phrased as “If God is all-powerful and entirely good and loving, why does God allow evil and suffering in the world? Why do these things happen to seemingly good people?”

Job is my favorite book of the Old Testament, in part because it addresses this very question and gives us the best answer I think can be had for it. When God appears to Job at the end of the poem, God’s answer to Job’s questioning is to tell Job that he cannot understand the answer. It’s too complex, it’s too nuanced, for the human brain to comprehend in all its depths. The ultimate answer God gives that humans can understand is “Trust me.” Faith, faith that God is sovereign over all things, that God is love and intends ultimate good for God’s creation, hope that everything will one day be clear and suffering and evil will be conquered fully after having served their purposes–as inscrutable to us as those purposes may be–is the answer. It is, admittedly, an answer that I find at once entirely frustrating and comforting. It’s not my job to solve the problem of evil and suffering; it’s my job to respond to evil in suffering in the way that God has instructed me.

Part of the brilliance and beauty of Russell’s book–and only part, mind you–is that she takes the same approach. There is no attempt to answer the question of suffering, only an attempt to hold it in her hands and turn it at all angles for the reader to view, to experience in part, all of its manifest complexity and difficulty. There are no apologies here, no arguments, only an investigation of the issue that is by turns beautiful and terrifying, humbling and infuriating.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but I’ve got to at least tell you what the book is about, right? All of that investigation into theodicy is not exposition or diatribe, it is examined through the experiences and humanity of the characters.

The Sparrow tells of the aftermath of a first-contact mission put together in secret by the Society of Jesus to the planet of Rakhat, discovered by the Arecibo facility in Puerto Rico in 2019, when the astronomy equipment there picks up radio signals that turn out to be the singing of the indigenous peoples of Rakhat.

Only priest and linguist Emilio Sandoz survives the mission; the handful of clergy and layperson companions that accompany him to Rakhat do not. The time dilation of space travel, the reports of the second, secular mission to Rakhat, and reports from the first missionaries themselves seem to tell the tale of a horrific fall from grace and into depravity on the part of Sandoz. The story jumps back and forth between the Jesuit interviews with the recovered Sandoz (in an attempt to discover the truth of the reports and, hopefully, salvage something of the Jesuit reputation after the reports of the missionary journey have decimated it), the first discovery of Rakhat and the synchronicity that brought Sandoz and his companions into the mission in the first place, and the events that actually unfolded on Rakhat. These separate narratives meet, as it were, at the climax of Sandoz’s telling of his story.

That main thread, and its analysis of theodicy, contrasted with the modern missionaries’ own thoughts about their relationship to the 16th century missions of the Jesuits to the “New World”, form the core of the text, but Russell’s writing of the missionary characters, their backgrounds, their feelings, their developing relationships to one another, their thoughts about their places in Creation as they confront their missionary (or priestly) status, provides just as much literary joy and human insight as the “mystery” that frames all of these subplots.

This is, after all, a sci-fi story (one for which Russell won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1996, the year the book was published), and great detail is paid to the physiology and culture of the peoples of Rakhat, to the methods of space travel (the missionaries convert a mined-out asteroid into their spaceship) and the believable physics of story. At the same time, those elements never get in the way of the narrative; no time is lost on long exposition about the nature of technologies or theories of culture and alien psychology. These run seamlessly throughout the text, woven in with the unfolding plot instead of interrupting it.

The writing itself is beautiful, jealousy-inducing for an aspiring writer such as myself. The blend of familiar, practical tone with clever description and amusing turn-of-phrase reveals the intelligence and imagination of the mind behind this tale in an ever-delightful manner. The pacing and plotting of the story are an example of mastercraft in that aspect of the art, something especially apparent to me as I struggle with revising the plotting and pacing of my own fledgling work.

I must also express a debt of gratitude to my wife for bringing me to read this book. It’s one she first read–and told me about–almost a decade ago. It sounded interesting, but I must not have been paying close enough attention to her explanations, because this a book that fits with my own interests so uncannily perfectly. Only when she announced that she was going to read it again, now that her experiences in ministry and seminary had sharpened her abilities to appreciate the tale, did I agree to read it alongside her. As I must often admit, she was right all along. I should’ve read it the first time she told me to. So should you.

Darwinism Doesn’t Exist in Star Wars (A comment on the Mandalorian)

Warning: (Minor) spoilers ahead.

As I’ve said, holidays are for faith, for family–and for Star Wars. I indulged in two of the three yesterday, binging the first four episodes of The Mandalorian (which I’d held back from watching for just this occasion) with my dad.

Part of me still expects to see Clint Eastwood’s face when the Mandalorian finally removes his mask given the laconic gunslinging of the titular character and the show’s rigid–maybe too rigid–adherence to the tropes of the western genre.

It’s a fun show, if a little simplistic. The fights have plenty of eye-candy (though also a lot of flaws for those of us with some knowledge of the way of the gun) and the plot paces along quick enough to leave the gaps in logic behind before you think too much about them. In that way, it’s classic Star Wars, though part of me also feels that this story could take place in any space opera setting and has Star Wars grafted on as fan-service more than being a story deeply embedded within the Star Wars universe–though this is perhaps my watching with a too-critical eye rather than a reasonably critical one. Did I say that the show is fun? I can’t say that enough–if you want something fun to watch and/or need a Star Wars fix, The Mandalorian will fit the bill nicely.

But I’ve mainly put this post here to rain on the parade of “Baby Yoda” memes and paraphernalia. Yes, the kid is super-cute. Yes, he’s very endearing. Yes, his antics are highly amusing. And yes, the Star Wars nerd in me is very excited to learn more about Yoda’s species (even if our reference to the character has been relegated to “Baby Yoda” because neither the character nor the species has yet been given a name). The problem, though, is that I don’t believe in Baby Yoda beyond his (her?) status as McGuffin and marketing ploy by Disney (one that is sure to be extremely successful, I’m sure).

Here’s why this post is placed in both the “Fiction” and the “Fatherhood” portions of the blog: I’m now six months into fathering Hawkwood and Marshal. It’s been tough, which was not unexpected but which doesn’t change the fact that it’s tough. I haven’t written too much about it on the blog lately as I’m still struggling through and sorting out feelings myself, and while I’m usually willing to parse through my thoughts and feelings publicly (at least insofar as the blog’s readership qualifies this a truly “public”), these I feel it’s more appropriate to play closely to the chest for the time being.

Suffice to say, though, as I know all parents do, I have times when I ask myself, “how much longer is it going to be like this? How much more can I take?” There are redeeming moments that take the edge off of that frustration, but managing it sometimes feels like a full-time job. On top of an actual full-time job, the task of raising and caring for the children, staying closely-connected with K, writing on my novel and the blog, and making some time for some other hobbies, it’s a lot.

And that’s why I find Baby Yoda such an unbelievable character. I can accept a species that lives for 900+ years. But one that remains a toddler for at least fifty years? Nope. A species cannot survive such a catastrophic development–though perhaps it explains why there are so few of Yoda’s kind in the galaxy and why those there are seem to be possessed of boundless patience and Zen-like stoicism.

Yes, Baby Yoda is extremely well-behaved for a toddler (at least so far as I’ve seen), though also possessed of a stubborn streak characteristic of the age. I don’t expect to see a scene where, furious, the Mandalorian throws his helmet on the ground (forgetting his oath, of course), utters a string of profanities and wonders why he ever made the decision to become Baby Yoda’s protector in the first place. It would be in keeping with the tropes of the category of story that’s being told here, it might be the deepest characterization of the Mandalorian we get, and it might be the most verisimilitude we could expect to see in a Star Wars story. But we won’t get it.

Now, I don’t want to bring up the shame of midichlorians again, but I can’t help but compare the idea of a creature that stays an infant for more than five decades to that level of storytelling gaffe. I know, I know, we’re talking about a setting that includes easy faster-than-light travel, stories following relatively unnuanced workings of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, the Force and many other elements that openly defy credulity and beg the kind of willing suspension of disbelief that is part and parcel of the enjoyment and success of the setting. Even so, it’s often (for me, at least) the attention to verisimilitude in the details that paves the way for the greater fantastical elements of a setting. For example, this is, I think, what makes Max Brooks’ World War Z so wonderful–if you can accept zombies, the rest of the stories within play out thoughtfully and believably, making the acceptance of zombies a low price of admission.

To see that Darwinian evolutionary forces sometimes simply don’t exist in Star Wars undermines that willing suspension of disbelief–I enjoyed watching the show in spite of this, but I spent an inordinate time while viewing wondering how a toddler could survive fifty years of being a toddler, what kind of saintly parents would be necessary to make such a system work, what benefit there might be to having a creature mature so slowly, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Just me?

Post-Run Thoughts on Shadowrun 6th Edition

A ways back, when I did my set of posts on Shadowrun characters, I promised that I’d be doing a system review in the near future. I’m not sure that this qualifies, formally speaking, as a review, but I am going to share what I think about the system after having run a few sessions now.

As you might have gathered, I was excited about the 6th Edition system when it first appeared. I like the idea of Edge as something more like Fate points and, in theory, that it supplants the need for the endless lists of modifiers in previous editions of Shadowrun. I was much more forgiving than most about other complaints about the system–and particularly the problems with the first printing of the rulebook. A lot of that, really, is likely due to the fact that I got my copy in PDF, which had already been updated with errata by the time I read it, coupled with the fact that my familiarity with Shadowrun lead me to naturally assume things that were not originally included in the rulebook–things like how much Essence you start with.

Character creation is more or less what you remember being from 3rd, 4th or 5th editions with the Priority System and some amount of Karma to round things out (IIRC, more Karma than was standard in previous editions. I have developed some gripes with character creation and advancement, though.

First, I’ve noticed what I think are some balance issues in the Priority Table. Because spells cheap in Karma cost and the Adjustment Points granted by the Metatype selection on the Priority can be used to increase your Magic reason, there’s actually very little reason to choose the higher-tier selections for Magic use compared to selecting a lower tier, using your adjustment points to increase Magic, your Karma to buy some extra spells, and having more Skill and Attribute Points.

Second, I personally think that there’s too much of a gap between the tiers for Skills and Attributes–I’m not sure that you can really create a viable character if you chose Priority E for skills or Attributes.

With the amount of Karma available at chargen, it also strikes me that Physical Adepts may be more powerful than characters augged for a similar role. As an Adept, you can take three levels of Initiation, take extra Power Points at each level, and start with nine Power Points.

These balance issues would likely be resolved by using an entirely Karma-based character creation system with some limits on how much Karma can be spent where and how.

But that leads to another issue–Attributes and Skills cost the same amount of Karma to increase, and the value of some Attributes over others doesn’t necessarily give parity. Agility, for instance, applies to a lot more skills than most of the other Attributes. And, given that raising an Attribute–any Attribute, I think–increases your effective rating in more than one skill, this is problematic.

Character generation is one thing, and the more I look at it, the more the shiny new facade falls away, revealing cracks in the plaster underneath. The more damning issue, though, is that while the new use of Edge is a great idea in theory, it doesn’t really simplify things in play very well.

Now, instead of tracking lots of little modifiers, I have to track different pools of Edge, make sure I’m distributing Edge (as appropriate, without sufficient guidance from the rulebook), make sure my players are tracking and spending Edge, and keep in mind all of the different basic Edge spends and special Edge actions available. The worst part though, is how unnatural the system feels in play. With Fate or Cortex Plus/Prime, the economy and use of points is relatively straightforward and intuitive after a short time playing. Here, though, I’m supposed to hand out Edge points when using a dice pool modifier feels more appropriate and then use those Edge points at a later time–when it may not really feel appropriate or connected. Worse, I’m not sure it really simplifies much. Sure, I don’t need to track how many rounds were fired in the last turn to calculate a recoil modifier for this turn, but a simplification of the amount and types of modifiers or the use of an advantage/disadvantage system would do much more with less.

There are other places where the attempt at a more narrative approach to Shadowrun feels less than fully-realized. Spells are a huge example here. SR6 attempts to simplify spells somewhat by adding some variables that can be applied to spells rather than required the choice of a Force Level (such as expanding AoE or adding additional damage). But that system could be used to require so many fewer spells and give sorcerers so much more flexibility and the opportunity is lost. A few examples: (1) allow the caster to modify the base spell to touch or area of effect and eliminate the need for different spells with the same general effect but different minor parameters; (2) allow the caster to modify Illusion spells to affect technology rather than having two separate spells; (3) Allow the caster to add on the additional Heal spell effects rather than making her use spell selections for six different minor variations.

This is the second time recently I’ve come across a system that I think I like on reading but don’t in practice–the previous being the new edition of 7th Sea, where I find the core mechanic more limiting and cumbersome than freeing. I guess that that means that designers are taking more risks to push mechanics in new directions than has perhaps been the case in the past, but with mixed results for major titles. I see some influence from Dogs in the Vineyard in 7th Sea, the former being a game I love from a design perspective but would probably never run. But, as a smaller title, the price of admission easily covers exposure to the innovative mechanic, whereas the greatly heightened production value of 7th Sea means a much higher buy-in. That’s a discussion for a different time.

In running the past few sessions of Shadowrun, I’ve admittedly been ignoring much of the RAW, using dice pool modifiers when it seems more appropriate, simplifying hacking rolls, etc. I don’t think that, as a GM and within the art of running a game, that there’s anything wrong with that so long as what’s being done is consistent and allows the character stats to have comparable effect on results as they would using RAW. But that’s not a good sign in terms of game design, and I’m finding myself sorely tempted to go back to Fate or Cortex to run the game. Alas, I can foresee the groans from my players at the lost time in learning and going through SR6 chargen only to change to a simpler system a few games in, so I’m not sure I’ll try to make that sale.

Without getting overly technical or formal in reviewing the system, what I’m finding is (for me personally, your style of running games may achieve a completely different result) that the system is encumbering my running of the game more than facilitating it, giving me too many mechanics when I want fewer, and not enough when I could use a little more. As much as I’d like to continue liking the SR6 system, at the end of the day, I’m not sure that there’s a worse conclusion I can come to.

As I’ve hinted at in other posts, I’m really not a fan of D&D, because it doesn’t lend itself to the types and styles of games I like to play. But it’s well-loved because, despite its relative complexity (and I think it’s fair to say it’s really middle of the road as far as that goes), it supports a certain type of gameplay and approach. I’d argue that the OSR has so much support for exactly the same reason, though that approach is somewhat different from D&D 5e and at least partially stoked by nostalgia.

Shadowrun remains one of my favorite RPG settings, so I’ll probably continue to buy the books to keep up with setting material, but that doesn’t mean I’ll feel great about doing so.

Can I make SR6 work for a long campaign? Yes; yes I can. Will I feel like I’m fighting with the system all the way through? Probably.

 

 

Learning from Game of Thrones

[SPOILER ALERT: This post presupposes familiarity the sweep of the Game of Thrones TV series, with a focus on the final season. If you’re sensitive to having narrative spoiled for you and haven’t watched everything yet, don’t read.]

It would be hardly original of me to spend a post simply lamenting this last season of Game of Thrones, despite my desire to do so. Instead, I’m going to spend some time pointing out what I think are some lessons to be learnt by aspiring writers (in any medium) from the recent failures of the show.

To preface that though, I need to exhibit some due humility. The greatest lesson to be taken from the recent episodes is that good writing is difficult, no matter who you are. It is, as with so many things, far easier to criticize than to create. D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, and the other writers who contributed throughout the show’s run, have managed to create for widespread public consumption. At this point, I have not. I feel it’s only appropriate to bear that in mind and take what I have to say with a pinch of salt as we continue (though ultimately, I hope that the weight of my arguments, rather than the status of the people involved, carries the day in this discussion).

Show Don’t Tell

It’s one of the commonly-touted pieces of advice given to writers. Don’t use boring exposition when you can just as easily let the audience get the necessary information from context or from being immersed in the setting and story. Don’t explain the inner thoughts of the characters when we can understand them just as well by how the characters act and speak.

This is especially true of visual media–which is why Industrial Lights & Magic and Weta Workshop have been able to do such wonderful things for defining setting in films and TV, why concept art is such an important aspect of designing for those media (and even for the written word)!

So, for me, Game of Thrones’ after-the-show talks with the showrunners pointed out a key problem. When you have to explain what you were trying to get at in an episode after the episode, you haven’t written the episode well enough to stand on its own. When you smugly assume that everyone got exactly what you’re talking about while watching, you’re adding insult to injury.

This is largely a result of rushing the storytelling. Without time enough to lay all of the necessary groundwork to explain events and occurrences within the show, you’re going to have to either let the audience create their own explanations or hand the explanations to them elsewhere. The lesson here: make sure you’re taking the right amount of time to show what you need to show so that you don’t have to tell later.

To be clear, this is a general rule, and general rules can always be broken in good writing–if done well and only when appropriate. It is possible to have key events happen “off stage” and describe them later or to play with the relation of key information in other ways, but these decisions must be made carefully and deliberately. My recommendation is to start with a “more is more” approach when writing and then employ a “less is more” approach when editing. It’s easier (I think) to lay it all out and refine by cutting out the dross than to realize your narrative isn’t complete and then struggle to fill in gaps–I’ve been there!

Here are some specific examples from Season 8 of this being an issue: the tactics employed at the Battle of Winterfell, Daenerys’ suddden change in the attack on King’s Landing. This lesson could just as easily be called “Timing is everything,” or “Don’t Rush” (the latter of which is probably the cause of most of Season 8’s mistakes).

Reversals of Expectations: There’s a right way and a wrong way.

The showrunners made a great deal out of “defying audience expectations” in Season 8. Defying audience expectations is a key technique in good narrative, but there’s more nuance to it than that. The technique, properly employed, has two parts: (1) give the audience a twist that they don’t see coming AND (2) set up the narrative so that, in retrospect, that twist feels somehow inevitable.

This is not a game of “gotcha!” Good writers do not play with twists and surprises simply because its something to do. Good writers use twists to increase tension, remind us that, like life itself, the unexpected (but often foreseeable) occurs in narrative, to create drama.

A good surprise must satisfy multiple demands in addition to the two basics mentioned above. The twist must follow the internal consistency of the setting–it should defy expectations of plot, but not of the personality and character of the actors or the rules (spoken or unspoken) of the setting itself. It must have sufficient groundwork laid in the story; without this the “twist” feels random and unmoored from the themes and scope of the rest of the narrative.

In “gritty” fiction, there will be times when bad fortune or ill luck interjects itself into the story, times when both readers and characters are left wondering “is there a meaning to all of this, or is everything that happens just random?” But those types of events only work when explained by coincidence and happenstance–they must truly be strokes of bad luck. When we’re talking about the choices made by characters, there must be believable motivation and a way for the character to justify the action–even if we don’t agree with the logic or morality of that justification.

The example that undoubtedly comes to mind here, as above, is Daenerys’ sudden decision to kill everyone in King’s Landing. There is some building-up of her story arc in the early narrative (following Martin) that Dany might not be the great savior everyone hopes that she will be. She is a harsh mistress to the Masters of the cities of Slaver’s Bay, willing to commit atrocities in the name of “justice.” But this moral ambiguity (strongly based in the character of historical figures in similar situations) is not the same as the desire for justice slipping into a desire for power and control to implement that justice. That story arc certainly works (it is the rationale behind Morgoth and especially Sauron in Tolkien’s world), but we need a solid background for such a morally-repugnant act as mass murder of innocents. We are given the groundwork for her eventual “fall” into a person willing to use harsh means to achieve her idealistic ends, but not for her to do what she did. This lack of laying the proper foundation for her sudden change leaves it feeling like, as some commenters put it, “a betrayal of her character.” This leads us to the next point.

Internal Consistency versus Authorial Fiat

For me, the greatest issue I took with Season 8, the thing that left such a bad taste in my mouth, was my belief that the showrunners decided what would happen and then shoehorned in all of the details to get them to those decisions. Euron’s sudden (and nonsensical) appearance before an undefended Targaryen fleet and ability to quickly slay a dragon compared with his powerlessness before one remaining dragon at King’s Landing is only one exemplar here. Having Arya kill the Night King (which had been “decided early on”) is another. And just about all of Episode 6.

One of the great joys of writing (in my mind, though I hear this with some frequency from other writers) is when a story takes on a life of its own. What you thought would happen in your story gets suddenly left behind because of the momentum the story has accrued, the logic of the setting, the narrative and the characters within it. We find ourselves mid-sentence, suddenly inspired (in as true a sense as that word can be used) with the thought, “That’s not what happens, this character would do X instead! Which means Y needs to change!” All of sudden, you’re going somewhere better than you were originally headed, somewhere truly rewarding to write and to for your audience to read or see.

This is the result of a dialectic that forms between the moving parts of the story. The narrative, the dramatic tensiveness of the story, the themes and motifs, the characters involved and the conditions established by the setting; the gestalt of these elements becomes something that lives and breathes, something greater than the mere sum of its parts.

Pigeonholing the plot forces it to become stilted, forced and (worst of all) didactic. Dead and mechanical. This is, in part, the difficulty with story “formulae.” There are narrative structures that provide a general framework for certain types of genres or stories, but following the formula with nothing else results in something unsatisfactory.

Here, though, my suspicion is that the problem was more a matter of fan-service and a slavish devotion to defying expectations than rote adherence to fantasy-story formulae.

One of the things that made the Song of Ice and Fire books, and the Game of Thrones TV show so popular, so gripping for the audience, was that it pulled more from medieval chronicle than fantasy yarn for its structure. The story is about the world and the group of characters as a whole in a way that is bigger than any of the constituent characters, that survives the misfortunate end of any one (or more) of them. This left no character safe, allowed for real surprises that contradicted expectations of narrative structure rather than expectations based on the internal logic of the harsh, unforgiving setting and culture(s) in which the story takes place. The internal logic, then, drives the defiance of expectations instead of resisting forced twists of expectations inserted into the plot by the author’s whim.

In fantasy in particular, internal consistency is the golden rule. In settings where magic is real, where dragons may soar in the skies and burn down the enemies of a proud queen, we are required to suspend disbelief. Of course. But we can manage that suspension of disbelief only when there is a reward for doing so and the obstacles that might prevent us are removed from our path. Magic is a wonder to behold in the truest sense, but it fizzles and dies when it appears that the magic in a setting does not follow certain rules or structure (even if we don’t fully understand those rules or that structure). If the magic is simply a convenient plot device that conforms like water to whatever shape the author needs or desires, then it fails to carry wonder or drama. Drama constitutes the ultimate reward for the suspension of disbelief–allow yourself to play in world with different rules from our own and the stories you find there will satisfy, amaze, entertain and tell us truths about our own world, even if it is very different. But without internal consistency, there can be little meaning. Without meaning, narrative is nonsense.

Season 8 lacked this internal consistency on many levels. From the small, like the much-discussed “teleportation” around Westeros, to the glaring, like battles being predetermined by plot rather than by the forces and characters that participated in them.

But the greatest issue I took with Season 8 in its (lack of) internal consistency was the ending. To me, the sudden appearance of the nobility of Westeros to decide, “Yay! Constitutional monarchy from now on!” seemed far too after-school special for me. For a story where peoples’ personalities, desires and miredness in a culture of vengeance and violence long proved the driving factor, you need far more of an internal story arc for a sudden commitment to peaceful resolution of issues to be believable. They would have to reject their entire culture to do so, rather than rationalizing how the culture is correct all along (what much more frequently happens in real life). I can see such a decision for Tyrion and for Jon. But for Sansa and Arya, I do not. And why Yara Greyjoy and the new Prince of Dorne wouldn’t likewise declare independence, I cannot say.

In short, I just don’t think that the narrative satisfactorily supports the actions taken by the ad-hoc council of Westerosi nobles in the final episode.

When a Narrative Fails Your Narrative

Why did putting Bran on the throne fall flat in the final episode? Tyrion gave an impassioned speech about how stories are what bind people together and create meaning (something with which I wholeheartedly agree as aspiring fantasy author and aspiring existential Christian theologian) and then made an argument about the power of Brandon’s story.

Wait, what? You lost me there. What was the power of Brandon’s story? Yes, it started strong, and he did do some amazing things–crossing north of the Wall, becoming the Three-Eyed Raven (whatever the hell that means), surviving his long fall from the tower at Winterfell. But, given his role in Season 8, I’m not sure that any of that mattered. He played relatively no role at the Battle of Winterfell (at least that we mortals could see), the narrative of his role as Three-Eyed Raven was left impotent and undeveloped at the end of the series, and of those with decision-making authority in Westeros, few had any direct experience with a Three-Eyed Raven, the White Walkers or the Battle of Winterfell. To them, the whole thing is just a made-up story by the North.

For narrative to be effective, we must be able to use it to find or create meaning. Bran’s story is too jumbled a mess without a climax or denouement for us to be able to piece much meaning out of it. In fact, we’re left wondering if it meant anything at all.

Since the idea to put him on the throne relies on the meaning of his story, the act of crowning him itself becomes meaningless; we can find no internally-consisted basis for supporting making him king (other than that he can’t father children) and no meta-narrative logic for the event either. This is exacerbated by the fact that Bran earlier tells us that he doesn’t consider himself to be Bran anymore. Without continuity of character, narrative loses meaning.

Thus, the finale fails because it relies on a sub-narrative that has failed. It is a common trope for fantasy fiction to use other stories (often legends) from the setting’s past to convey meanings and themes for the main narrative (Tolkien does this, Martin himself does, Rothfuss does as a major plot device in The Kingkiller Chronicles); writers looking to follow suit need to make sure that any “story-within-a-story” they use itself satisfies the necessities of good storytelling, or one is only heaping narrative failure upon narrative failure. The effect, I think, is exponential, not linear.

What the Audience Wants and What the Audience Needs

Several of my friends who are avid fans of the show and the books, before the final episode, expressed their feelings about the uncertain ending in terms of “what they could live with.” This was often contrasted with both their hopes for what would happen and their expectations of what would happen.

There’s been much talk (even by myself) about the showrunners performing “fan-service” in this season, whether through the “plot armor” of certain characters or the tidy wrapping up of certain narratives.

The claim that the showrunners made plot choices in order to please the audience has set me thinking about these types of choices on several fronts. On the one hand, GoT rose to prominence in part directly because of G.R.R. Martin’s seeming refusal to do any “fan-service.” That communicates to me that there is a gulf between what readers want from a story and what they need to feel satisfied by the story.

We can all recognize that there are stories that don’t end happily, either in general or for our most-beloved characters, that nevertheless remain truly satisfying and meaningful narratives for us, ones that we return to time and again.

So, should giving the audience what they want (or, to be more accurate, what we think they want) be a consideration for the writer? There is no simple answer to this question. The idealistic writer (like myself, I suppose) might argue that crafting a good story–which is not the same as a story that gives the audience exactly what it wants–is more important than satisfying tastes. On the other hand, the publishing industry has much to say about finding the right “market” for a book, and knowing what kind of stories will or won’t sell. For the person who needs or wants to make a living as an author, playing to those needs may be a necessity. Even if income isn’t a concern, there’s still something to be said for what the audience organically finds meaningful as opposed to what the author seeks to impose as the meaning and value of the story.

I just want to point out this tension as something that the final season of Game of Thrones might help us think about, not something for which I have any answers, easy or otherwise. When the final books in the series are released (if that ever happens), maybe there will be some fertile ground for exploration of these ideas. Of course, the intent of the various creative minds on all sides of this collection of narratives may remain forever too opaque for us to glean any true understanding of the delicate relationship between author, craft and audience.

Conclusion

I, as many of you I suspect, was left profoundly unsatisfied with the ending of a story I’ve spent years being attached to by the final season of Game of Thrones, and my frustration is further stoked by the knowledge that the showrunners could have had more episodes to finish things the right way instead of rushing to a capricious and arbitrary ending.

That said, the failures of the season (not to mention the great successes of previous seasons) provide many lessons for we would-be authors.

What do you think?

 

Christianity and Warhammer 40k

(This post is the 3rd of 17 remaining in my “200 for 200” goal. While originally intended to be included in the post reviewing Wrath and Glory, I thought it better to be separated out.)

(This post is related to the “Big Review: Wrath & Glory” post. If this topic interests you, I’d encourage you to read both posts in proximity to one another. Of course, this is not mandatory.)

Fantasy Fiction and Christianity in General

No, I’m not going to diatribe about magic and daemons and the like being anathema to Christians. If you think I was, you have not been paying attention to my writing, or this is your first post of mine to read. If it’s the latter, welcome and thanks for taking the time!

To those who say that Christianity means we can’t (or shouldn’t) enjoy Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Harry Dresden or any other fiction that deals with the supernatural in any form, my response is the following:

“Put on your big-boy or big-girl pants, grow up, and understand that fiction doesn’t necessarily endorse any of those things. Realize that you don’t have to agree with everything in a fictional setting to enjoy it or–as important–be caused to think about some idea in new and different ways. That kind of intellectual challenge is healthy and good. If you are worried about the make-believe and imaginary shattering your faith or diverting you from the “one true path,” I question the composition, sincerity and depth of that faith. I suggest you read Milton’s Areopagitica.”

TL;DR: Being a Christian should not prevent you from playing games in or enjoying the Warhammer 40k Universe. Or other fantasy fiction, for that matter.

Confessions

Okay, that aside, let me confess to you: sometimes, the 40k universe raises within me some issues that make me consider abandoning the setting, despite all the things I love about it. Here’s the crux of it: 40k confronts me with the question of whether I need the settings I enjoy to be compatible with–or at least not entirely counter to–my theological beliefs.

The same question could be given about most roleplaying games that are polytheistic, like default D&D. It’s important to note that the anxiety here is not about a threat to my soul or my salvation–I don’t think that, in the theme of the Cthulhu Mythos or 40k that reading such material is going to turn me to either heresy or insanity. But there is a feeling–and it’s just that, an emotion not linked to any logic or rationale–that sometimes makes me uncomfortable with those settings where the religious beliefs are very different from my own.

I have several potential responses to myself about this feeling:

(1) “Suck it up, buttercup.” Not everything needs to make me happy or comfortable, and the idea of religious ideas different from my own (especially fictional ones) should certainly not be one of those things I get bent out of shape about.

First, I respect real religions that are not my own and honestly believe that there is value to them and that the genuineness of those who seek after what is right and true through pathways other than Christianity are not somehow offensive to God (while maintaining that Jesus Christ represents the clearest manifestation of truth in this world, that his life and death were cosmically significant for all people, and that the full answers–as best humans can understand it–to the existential questions of who and what we are and what we are supposed to be are only found in Christ.) That being the case, why should I feel threatened by a fake religion?

Second, it’s a good thing for my faith and theology to be challenged at times; roleplaying games and reading/writing fiction are probably the safest spaces for these explorations, so that should be welcomed.

I think that, at the end of the day, this may be the best answer.

(2) “Adapt and Overcome.” Usually, with some minor tweaks, a setting can be modified to be at least not contradictory to my broad theological thoughts. Tolkien’s work and my own Avar Narn (inspired by the former, of course), seek to synthesize the greatest universal truths about Christianity with an ability to tap into the mythopoiea and narrative power of polytheistic faiths; to have our cake and eat it, too.

This is especially tempting with Warhammer 40k, partially because of my ideas about the “theology of 40k” (if you’ll permit me to call it that), partially perhaps in the same vein of Arthur Derleth “posthumously collaborating” with Lovecraft to bring the Mythos more in line with his Christianity, and partially because it’s the most comfortable thing to do.

Just like Tolkien did, there are ways to do this without losing too much fidelity to the setting–if there’s some true monotheistic god who lies behind the D&D pantheon and the “gods” are essentially powerful spiritual beings who like to meddle in mortals’ affairs (which makes sense given their pettiness and ability to be killed), what’s the harm in that? Of course, given that D&D encourages homebrew settings, this is perhaps the easiest of RPGs to worry with this in.

Nevertheless, I have several concerns with this. If there’s such a thing as “fiction imperialism,” that seems to cut a bit close to it, n’est pas? Is there something disingenous or unethical about modifying some other writers setting in this way? I honestly don’t know the answer, but the possibility gives me pause.

(3) “Shake it Off.” For most games, large scale issues of religion–except perhaps for conflicts between different faiths that tend to be more about character-building and societal conflict than a real theological argument–simply never arise. There’s just no need to focus on game on meta-discussions of the world’s theology and, to be honest, you’re probably detracting from the story if that’s where you’re spending time. So, it’s probably best understood that this issue is a weird internal idiosyncracy of my own.

But, for the sake of laying some of my thoughts painfully bare and then dissecting them, let’s continue.

There are several reasons, I believe that the Warhammer 40k universe causes me to dwell on these types of thoughts more than any other setting.

First, there’s the over-the-top, nihilistic grimdarkness of the setting as often portrayed. At their core, the thoughts I’ve been describing above are probably indicative of nothing more of than a psychological need to spend time only on settings that have some glimmer of (existential) hope to them.

Second, there’s the inherent conflict between the truth of the Emperor and the religion about him in 40k. According to the backstory (particularly in the Horus Heresy books), the Emperor is patently not a god and, while whole, actively campaigned for atheism (see Graham McNeill’s “The Last Church” short story). In particular, playing characters of the Inquisition, with their fanaticism for a religion that is known to be false (at least in meta), brings about a massive cognitive dissonance for me.

Third, at its best, the ideas of 40k regarding religion (and a number of other things) are meant to get us to question things like “what should we do (or not do) in the name of religion?” What is the difference between faith as sincere believe and religion as social institution? What are the differences (existential and social) between atheism and faith? The setting sometimes begs the question I confound myself with! (Again, see “The Last Church”).

Fourth, some of the ideas (which we’ll look at next) in the 40k universe come so close to touching on core principles of Christianity (as I understand it) before backing away that it’s too tempting for me not to consider them.

The Core (Theological) Irony of Warhammer 40k

If we view the core conflict in the Warhammer 40k as the struggle against Chaos, I cannot but help see the coincidence with Christian theology. To be fair, this conflict within 40k by design is meant to be between Order and Chaos (harkening back to Elric and all) rather than Good and Evil. Nevertheless, follow me here:

The Warp, as the source of Chaos, is responsive to the thoughts, beliefs and collective will of mortal beings. It is explicit that the state of Eldar/Aeldari society brought about the birth of the Chaos god Slaanesh and implicit that the darker impulses of mortals brought about the existence of the other Chaos gods.

If this is the case, the only way Chaos can be truly defeated is through love and compassion–if all mortal beings were to become enlightened enough to be righteous, Chaos would have nothing to feed off of and would starve to death. It is the greatest irony of the setting that (especially for the Imperium of Man) the only methods actually employed to fight Chaos: hatred, violence, rigidity and regressive social thought, are contributing to Chaos in the long run!

The belief that evil must be overcome by love and not violent opposition is a core tenant of Christianity–progressive Christianity, at least.

In this way, in its typical grimdark and sardonic approach, the basis of 40k is ironically Christian.

John Milton’s Shadow

Graham NcNeill and other writers for the Horus Heresy series have explicitly given John Milton’s Paradise Lost as an influence on the writing.

I love Milton’s writings and applaud that influence making its way into Warhammer; it’s been an influence on some of the mythopoiea of Avar Narn as well.

But we must be careful in assuming that this necessarily means a Christian influence on the Horus Heresy writing. I have lamented elsewhere that what most people–Christian or not–think about Christian ideas about the nature of hell or the devil derive not from Biblical sources but mostly from Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy. We have to keep in mind that these are poetic works well-rooted in the culture and ideas of their authors. In modern and sardonic terms, we might think of these as Bible fanfic. Yes, theological arguments are made within them. Yes, Christianity is the most significant influence upon them. But neither makes them indicative of good Christian theology.

Bear in mind that Dante choose with great particularity those people he encounters in hell–they are real figures in the history of Florence and people against whom Dante held very deep grudges. While he used these real people to give examples of what he considered to be mortal sins, his choice in using them was very much to get a dig in.

And Milton was concerned with writing an epic poem in the heroic style of the Greeks but using a more palatable subject–Christianity rather than the pagan gods and heros. (Here perhaps we go full circle to my own confessions above!) In Paradise Lost, Milton paints Satan as a sort of tragic hero–filled with hubris that causes his downfall, but also indicative of a heroic will and admirable qualities.

This directly translates to Horus Lupercal in the Horus Heresy narrative. A fitting influence perhaps, but let’s bear in mind that Milton was creating a sort of Christian mythopoeia and not quite dealing with Biblical narrative or strict theological argument.

Further, as I’ve also argued before, it seems much easier for we humans to characterize evil and damnation than righteousness and the eternal good. Perhaps that’s part of the reason (aside from its innate nihilism) that there’s so much more detail to the machinations of Chaos and so little to any spiritual or supernatural forces that could truly be called good.

The Emperor, you say? Well…

The Emperor’s an Ass

There is, for those not deeply familiar with the lore of 40k, a temptation to link the Emperor with the Christian God or with Jesus as a saviour of humankind. But this really doesn’t work.

As mentioned above, the Emperor isn’t God and is an atheist according to the “Imperial Truth.” If he is ultimately responsible for the creation of the Imperium’s bureaucracy, dogma and general approach to things, he’s neither a good person nor very bright when it comes to dealing with the long-term threat of Chaos.

He’s powerful, to be sure, mostly using that power to protect humanity by pyschically staving off the forces of Chaos, and apparently immortal, but he’s just not good in any moral or theological sense. He is victim to the same mistaken belief that Chaos can be vanquished by violence rather than righteousness. At least, this is what we can say about him as an active character–as a sort of passive force from within the Golden Throne; it might be possible to speculate that he has become morally better than he was in life (but no answers are to be found here).

Let’s also remember the uncomfortable fact that, according to the lore, 10,000 psykers must be sacrificed to the Golden Throne daily to keep it operational. We could perhaps fairly chalk this up to a very misguided plan by the Emperor’s supporters, but according to the Horus Heresy novels, the Emperor is the designer of both the original Golden Throne and the life-support system that it became. We have to face it, the Emperor’s as grimdark as they come.

The Ecclesiarchy and Inquisition

The Ecclesiarchy can most fairly be said to represent the worst about institutionalized Christianity. The Schola Progenia seem to be the worst-case scenario of stereotypical old-school Catholic institutions–schools, Magdalene asylums, etc.–where what we would now call abuse served as “encouragement” to learning and good behavior.

From the pulpits of the Imperium’s temples, priests spew rhetoric of hate, fear and paranoia. Do Christian priests and pastors do this? Of course they do, every day, and especially in mainstream Evangelical Christianity in America. But to those pastors and preachers I must say, “Christianity? I think you’re doing it wrong.”

Many authors have commented and criticized organized religion as “the opiate of the masses” (to quote Marx) or as construct of societal control above all other things (Jorge Luis Borges has at least one short story with this theme). And, in some ways, this is explicitly the purpose of the Ecclesiarchy: to use fear to control the thoughts of manking and therefore (hopefully) keep them from behaving in ways that feed into Chaos. Again, the irony of this is that such coercive force itself plays right into the hand of Chaos.

The Inquisition itself offers both the best and worst in dealing with these issues, I think. Most commonly, the Inquisition is at its worst: a sci-fi reimagining of Matthew Hopkins, Torquemada (for whom one of the inquisitors is named!), the Salem Witch Trials and the early modern witch-scare of Europe. In this mode, the Inquisition is a blunt instrument wielded without analysis, the very epitome of “Kill ’em all; let God sort ’em out” (a phrase, mind you, purportedly coined by Papal legate and Cistercian abbot Arnauld Amalric at Beziers during the Albigensian Crusade). It is torture and murder and wanton abuse of power in the name of theologically unsound ideas. I hope you’ll pardon me if that doesn’t strike me as a background I’d like to have for a character in an RPG (though I will readily admit that such a background could give rise to a very interesting meta-narrative around these issues in a long-term campaign and a killer story arc as the character is confronted by this past).

At the same, some of the stories of the Inquisition give us the best of mankind in the 40k universe (I’m still hesitant to call them good, because grimdark and all, but they’re arguably closest as it comes). The stories of Gregor Eisenhorn (and probably Gideon Ravenor, though I’m less familiar with those at present) present us with this: a man possessed of deep will and an earnest desire to uphold and protect what is good against Chaos, a man able and willing to show compassion and reluctant to destroy simply for the sake of it, a man tempted by the very evil he seeks to combat. It’s still a bit militaristic of a theology for me to say it has much place in the real world (being skeptical of the “spiritual warfare” often spoken of as anything other than the internal struggle to become more Christlike), but it’s at least in the same vein of other fiction. It’s the value in fantasy that G.K. Chesterton pointed out: to tell us that there are dragons…and that they may be defeated.

What does this mean for running a 40k RPG?

To refer to my confessions above, and to again be explicit: it doesn’t have to mean anything. This is a fictional world and it can be enjoyed for what it is without having to reconcile it with Christian theology. In this sense, it still serves the convenient function of reminding us how fortunate we are that God has acted in the ways known to us through our faith rather than the cosmic pandemonium the 40k universe embodies. In the same vein, it’s okay for a Christian to enjoy the cosmic horror of Lovecraft regardless of whether it is atheistic and/or nihilistic.

If, like I sometimes feel, you’d prefer to bring the 40k universe more into line with something comfortable for you, I think that’s probably okay, too–provided you don’t suddenly argue that you have found the “one true 40k.” Like any existing setting used for a roleplaying game, those playing the game should feel freedom to adapt the setting to be as enjoyable for them as possible–otherwise what’s the point?

40k seems to me to be readily amenable to this, if it’s your preference. It’s very easy to say, “all of the Horus Heresy stuff is legend–nobody’s exactly sure what the Emperor did or didn’t do 10,000 years ago.” From there, one can easily imagine that the Emperor’s actions were morally upright but that it was the failings of his human companions that led to the current status quo. If you take this tack and view the Emperor as some analog for the Christian God, then you’re still left with the question of why the Emperor would allow this sad state of affairs to persist–but this theodical question is the very same we deal with in reality.

More likely, as I mention above, your game isn’t going to brush hard against these issues anyway, so probably nothing at all needs to be done with any of the above. If you approach your games with the kind of nuance and morality that Dan Abnett and Sandy Mitchell seem to employ in their fiction, then your 40k RPG is going to feel (in regards to this topic, at least) like just about any other RPG in a fantastic setting.

 

Big Review: Wrath & Glory (Warhammer 40k RPG)

(This is the 2nd of 17 posts leading up to my 200th blog post for my “200 for 200” goal. It’s a long post instead of several short ones to conserve the number and buy myself some time for the goal!)

This review is going to be different from my previous reviews in several key ways: First, I happened to order the “All-In” Pre-Order package for the Wrath & Glory RPG from Ulysses Spiel, so I’ll be reviewing physical products alongside my review of substance. Second, I’ll be sharing some general, probably stream-of-consciousness thoughts about gaming in the 40K universe–some of which will be purely opinion and editorial with little to do with the review proper. Let’s dig in:

Roleplaying in 40k (Come for the War, Stay for the Stuff)

I grew up playing the Warhammer 40k miniatures game. Though I don’t currently play any minis games (having over the past few years played Warhmachine, Infinity and Malifaux) and I don’t really have the patience for 40k’s massive set-up time, I do constantly think about collecting the miniatures again for the joy of kitbashing and painting and finding some minis-rules sets that I liked better to run some narrative skirmish-level games with friends. Of course, there’s now new Necromunda (which I also played and loved in its first incarnation), Kill Team and Warhammer Quest: Blackstone (I spent many hours with the original, fantasy version of Warhammer Quest).

But, over the past ten-to-twelve years, my experience with 40k has been in reading some of the novels and running RPGs. I was so excited for a 40k RPG when Dark Heresy was announced, I immediately pre-ordered the deluxe, leather-bound version of the first edition rules.

This is all predicate to a discussion of my love/hate relationship with 40k. Perhaps there’s some deep-seated resentment of the cost of 40k gaming, but that is not where my angst really lies.

The long-used motto of the 40k universe is (say it with me, kids): “In the dark future of the 41st millenium, there is only war.” Let’s sidestep the fact that the source material has now carried the universe into the 42nd millenium.

My response to that motto has long been, “Come for the war, stay for the stuff.” A dark future of only war makes sense for a wargame, but not so much for a deep roleplaying setting. Without further, this constant, unquestioning conflict doesn’t have the depth I prefer for a roleplaying setting. Fortunately, even before the Dark Heresy RPG, there were some sources of that depth I sought.

I have read only a fraction of the available Warhammer 40k novels. I’ve mostly restricted myself to Sandy Mitchell (Caiphas Cain) and Dan Abnett (having read the Eisenhorn Trilogy, much of Gaunt’s Ghosts and the more recent Magos–which I’ll likely be finishing up today). Both Mitchell and Abnett do an excellent job of writing stories that stand strong on their own accord, even if they’d been written in a different setting, that also bring down some of the over-the-top “grimdark” of the 40k universe into a more relatable and–frankly–far less silly version of itself. They add the “stuff” to the 40k universe necessary to the setting to develop interesting stories for roleplaying.

I’ve started but not finished a number of other 40k books. Most of them, in my humble opinion, belong on the same shelf as Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight; that is, the “do not read, ever!” shelf. They’re not well-written, have ridiculous plots, and mostly just string together action sequences with little in between to make me care. Abnett (whose non-40k fiction is also worth a read) and Mitchell seem to be the exceptions to the rule.

Since the release of Dark Heresy and its related 40k RPGs (though I never had much use for Only WarBlack Crusade or Deathwatch), much additional setting information conducive to running a satisfying RPG campaign has been produced, thankfully.

Even so, it strikes me that the 40k setting, as typically advertised and as displayed in the majority of the fiction written about it, can’t sustain a roleplaying setting as is. The setting is too over-the-top, too nihilistic for nihilism’s sake, too grimdark. Now, if you’ve read my blog posts or my fiction, you know that I have a preference for the gritty. Too far, though, and the gritty becomes like chewing sand–painful and to no purpose.

To run a successful roleplaying game, the tone of a 40k RPG needs to come down a few pegs. We need to see that the Imperium of Man is not simple a fascist totalitarian regime if you’re going to play characters who feel duty and loyalty to it (in my opinion, at least). You need to see that there is some happiness and good in the universe worth fighting for, or what’s the point? Roleplaying games, like the best fiction, are about creating meaning. If your game universe runs circles around you, skipping about and proclaiming that, “nothing matters, everything is the worst, and you’re all going to go insane and/or die in the next five minutes!” there’s going to be an issue.

Perhaps the upside, though, is that the 40k universe, in needing to be tweaked to work in the roleplaying milieu, invites us to do what we should be doing with all published settings we’re using to run a game: make it our own. Like Mitchell and Abnett, we need to inject some logic, some flickers of goodness and hope, and some depth of character into the setting. That invitation, perhaps buried under piles of lore (being a worldbuilder and writer, I hate the term “fluff”), has the potential to grant us great freedom in using the setting. The flipside of this, of course, is canon-mongers who will exclaim at the gaming table, “that’s not the way it is; on page 47 of Fulgrim it says…” Those players are heretics; I hereby denounce them to the Inquisition.

I’m not likely to run a Call of Cthulhu campaign, as the types of stories that setting tells are generally very limited in scope. But, at least once warp-twisted to our own designs, 40k has the potential to tell stories with the same themes as CoC when desired, while making way for many other types of stories as well.

Scaled back a few pegs from full-bore nihilism, the setting allows us to play games that are tough on characters (without being unfair to them) in line with the setting and theme. I’m a big fan of John Wick’s Play Dirty books; the Warhammer universes (both fantasy and 40k) have provided me with my best experiences in implementing those ideas (in my own way, of course). The rate of character deaths in my Warhammer games is exponentially higher than in other RPGs I run, and a proponderance of those deaths are inflicted on one player character by another. Fortunately–and this is partially because of the themes of the setting–those character deaths have always seemed to be aspects of good writing: meaningful and somehow simultaneously surprising and seemingly inevitable in retrospect. Because of that, the players have not had hard feelings about these events, instead having a sense of profound collective storytelling. For a GM, there’s not much better than players getting that feeling, however achieved.

In short–though it’s certainly too late for that, isn’t it?–the 40k universe provides a very problematic roleplaying setting if used as labeled on the box, but if that difficulty is instead viewed as an invitation to make the setting your own (and the RPG material and the Mitchell/Abnett fiction are the best guides for that), there’s a lot of fun that can be had in 40k.

[Aside: While originally intending to put the linked material in this post, I thought it would be kinder to those not interested to separate out a digression on Christianity and 40k into a separate post. I invite you to read if that’s something that piques your curiousity.]

Updates to Setting (Immediate and Meta)

Wrath & Glory debuts after Games Workshop has implemented some radical changes to the 40k universe. With the (re-)appearance of Roboute Guilliman, the partially successful summoning of the Aeldari god Ynnead (and the changing, undoubtedly for copyright purposes of “Eldar” to “Aeldari,” just as “Imperial Guard” was changed to “Astra Militarum), the breakout of the great Cicatrix Maleficarum dividing the Imperial of Man into the Imperium Sanctus (still within the sight of the Astronomicon) and the Imperium Nihilus (on the other side of the massive warpstorms composing the Cicatrix Maleficarum and thus outside the light of the Astronomicon), the 40k universe is now a drastically different place, with many systems partially or wholly cut off from the rest of the Imperium.

Wrath & Glory does a good job of using this new situation for fullest effect, referring to it as a reason a disparate group of heroes with vastly different backgrounds might be working together. This gives easy permission to roleplaying bands that include an Aeldari corsair and a Primaris Space Marine next to the human characters who may be commissars, Rogue Traders, Inquisitors and the like. In short, it allows a justification for a smorgasbord of characters that would have been difficult to rationalize in earlier incarnations of 40k roleplaying (especially segmented into different game lines: Rogue Trader, Dark Heresy, Only War, etc., etc.).

The “default” setting for Wrath & Glory is the Gilead System, a collection of planets technically within the Imperium Sanctus but cut-off by surrounding warpstorms navigable only along a near-mythical path called the “Straits of Andraste” (now where have I heard that name before?). The Gilead System is designed to have a collection of the Imperial Planet types (Forgeworlds, Agri-Worlds, Shrine Worlds, Hive Words, Forbidden Worlds, etc.) so that each planet type is available without the characters needing access to a Warp-capable starship. Other than this, the Gilead System only has the barebones information given–a few names and factions that might serve as patrons or antagonists to the characters and some high-level story hooks.

This is both a boon and a bane, as it gives a GM great leeway in filling in details–but requires the GM to fill in details. If that’s not something you want to spend your time on, there’s nothing stopping you from setting your campaign before the Cicatrix Maleficarum and using the voluminous materials for the Scintilla area of the galaxy (or other published locations) from previous editions. For that matter, you could simply take that material and update it to the present in-universe time.

The Rules

I very much appreciate the new rules. If you’ve read some of my other writing about RPGs, you’ll know that I’m not so found of percentile systems and quite fond of dice pool systems. Wrath & Glory has moved 40k roleplying from the former to the latter, so from my initial approach I expected a positive reaction to the system. Not so much so that it was guaranteed, but I’ve found that the system is well-written. I’ll hit some of the high points.

Core Mechanics

The dice pool system uses attribute + skill, familiar to most roleplayers and six-sided dice, available everywhere. Certain things, like items, may add bonus dice, but most negative circumstances will adjust the difficulty level rather than the dice pool, allowing for faster logistics in making tests, as GM and player can calculate their respective parts simultaneously. A test must generate a number of icons equal to the difficulty level for the action to succeed. A result on a die of 4 or 5 generates a single icon, while a roll of 6 on a die generates 2 icons. In certain situations, icons in excess of the difficulty level can be “shifted” to achieve additional effects.

As a side note, the rules use the word “dice” for both the singular and the plural. This annoys me greatly. Other than this infelicity of language, the rules are clearly written and easy to understand.

Giving dice the potential to generate 2 icons allows for a much greater range and granularity of difficulty levels than might ordinarily be expected with a dice pool system. While I lack both the coding and mathematical skills to easily run statistics on this arrangement (my favored roll percentage calculator does not have the bandwith to make calculations this complex, apparently), the benefit should be relatively obvious.

Wrath & Glory (& Ruin & Campaign Cards)

Each test uses a single Wrath die (in the case of psyker powers, described below, multiple Wrath dice may be employed). A six on the Wrath die generates a point of Glory for the rolling character (which can be spent on bonus dice, damage and critical hit severity in combat, and seizing the initiative in combat). A roll of “1” on the Wrath die generates a complication to the scene at hand. These effects are independent of the success or failure of the test itself.

Characters also have Wrath points (hence, one supposes, “Wrath & Glory“). Wrath points are gained through good roleplaying, accomplishing objectives and through campaign cards. Wrath is used to re-roll failed dice, restore shock (non-fatal damage), improve Defiance tests (not dying when severely injured) and to make narrative declarations (I very much like this choice, both from a roleplaying design perspective and because it appropriately softens some of the grimdark of the 40k universe).

The GM also has a points pool called “Ruin,” allowing for similar boosts to NPCs.

As an additional side, the Wrath & Glory rules contain a full-page sidebar on failing forward. This, I think, reveals the modern gaming influences on the system design, but also indicates a conscious move away from the pure grimdark of the setting (and perhaps the earlier rulesets) just as the player ability to make “narrative declarations” does.

You may have noticed that I mentioned “campaign cards” a little ways back. A deck of the cards is available for purchase seperately from the rulebook. Each player is supposed to receive one campaign card at the beginnign of each session, which is lost if not used, but use is not required. When played, its effects are immediately resolved. Admittedly, I have not yet spent a lot of time with the campaign cards, but my sense is they are designed to give players a little more agency. Could you play without them? Absolutely, but I’m honestly not sure how much that would change the feel and play of the game. It may not be an extreme change.

Tracking Wrath, Glory, Ruin and Campaign cards (and other available cards) may seem to be a lot of fiddly-bits during play. On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with games like Fate, Cortex Plus/Prime or FFG’s Star Wars/WFRP3 games, you won’t have issues.

Combat

You’ll find many of the combat rules to be familiar territory if you’re a veteran roleplayer. I’m going to just pick out a few highlights.

First, the book explicitly states that there is no set time unit for a combat round, instead specifying that the narrative should inform the length of each round. This is relatively minor, but I think it provides some good insight into the design approach, and I like that.

Second, Initiative is handled quickly and efficiently. Under most circumstances, at the top of the combat round, the players decide which one of their characters will act first. After that character’s turn, a GM character acts, followed by another player character and back and forth until all actions are resolved. Ruin and Glory can be spent by a character to break the normal procedure and act next in a combat. Some circumstances (ambush) may also change this routine. Randomized initiative is offered as an option.

The rules include provisions for “mobs” to handle groups of less-talented foes. In my mind, this is an essential aspect of modern and effective game design.

There are rules to accommodate miniatures but they are not necessary. While I like minis games, I don’t like the drag on play efficiency that minis create in most RPGs.

Like many dice pool combat systems, the active character rolls against a static Defense number to determine whether an attack is successful.

Reloads are abstracted so that bullet-counting is unnecessary. That said, bonuses for “spending” reloads are available, giving players a reason to risk the dramatic position where they are out of ammo. Best of both worlds, in my mind.

Combat has enough variance in choices of actions for tactical complexity, has gritty critical hits, and all your favorite 40k weapons and armor.

Overall, combat appears to be a good compromise between narrative efficiency, gamist tactics, and “realistic” detail.

Psykers

I’m not going to spend much time on Psykers, but I want to point out one or two things. If you’ve played past 40k RPGs, you’ll be familiar with the psychic “disciplines”–biomancy, telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokineses, divination, etc. “Minor” psychic powers available to any Psyker are also available, though some (like “Psyniscience”) seem like they should be innate abilities rather than require a player to choose them as specific powers–the number of which a character may have are relatively limited.

A character using a psyker power must choose the mode of its use, from most conservative to most reckless: Bound, Unbound, Transcendant. The more reckless forms of employment grant extra Wrath dice but also increase the chance of Perils of the Warp–this is exactly what psyker powers should do in my opinion. Further, once you move up the scale, you can’t move back down in the same scene. The genie doesn’t go back in the bottle. Again, this matches the fiction and the feel of the setting.

“Magic” of any type in a roleplaying game is difficult from a design perspective. For a game to feel “balanced” you ideally want your “magical” characters to be somewhat limited in the types of effects that they can use and to have a very real cost to achieving those effects. Fortunately, the setting in 40k matches with this approach; in many fantastic settings the lore is difficult to fairly “balance” mechanically. The implementation here is about the best I’ve seen.

Character Creation

From the GM perspective, the core rulebook offers “Campaign Frameworks.” These are basically campaign hooks with recommendations for tier level, character types, theme and expected content.

Character creation itself is done by point-buy, though “standard arrays” are given for each Tier level to speed the process for those new to the setting or wanting to create a character quickly.

The Tier represents the campaign’s overall power level, both by determining the number of build points players have for their characters and which archetypes are available to them (Psykers require Tier 2, Inquisitors Tier 4, etc.).

Build points are used to purchase an Archetype, attributes, skills, special abilities, wargear, etc. The system is not so complex as Shadowrun, per se, but it does have enough depth to it that I would say you should expect an hour or two for character generation, perhaps more fore those unfamiliar with this or other RPGs.

On the other hand, the point-buy system allows for great flexibility in character creation, which I appreciate. Additionally, unlike previous 40k RPG incarnations, rules for playing Aeldari, Orks and Space Marines (regular and Primaris) are right there from the beginning.

Other Rules

Basic rules for vehicles and voidships are included in the Core Rulebook.

Overall

I’ll have to update this once I’ve been able to run a few sessions (be on the lookout for posts about the Dark Inheritence campaign I’m currently writing and hoping to run soon), but my readthrough leaves me impressed. Modern game design and a more narrative approach that lightens the grimdark just enough meets with a setting I’ve loved for a long time.

Physical Products

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I pre-ordered the “All-In” package when Ulysses Spiel US announced the opening of pre-orders. The above is the scope of what I received: the core rulebook, battle maps, pre-genned character booklets, the Dark Tides adventure book, the Blessings Unheralded adventure book, the soundtrack CD, acrylic tokens for characters and enemies, dice, a GM screen, themed poker chips for tracking points and six sets of cards (Campaign, Wargear, Psyker Powers, Perils of the Warp, Combat Complications Deck and Wrath Deck). The cards are of the quality I associate with CCGs, like Magic or Doomtown.

The books are bound as is typical for RPG books, with beautiful art and color. One difference enthusiasts will notice right away is that the art is distinctly lacking in “Blanchitsu.” I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a bad thing, especially given that the game design dials back the grimdark a few clicks. But, the art does border on the cartoony.

Everything came in a large box of heavy cardstock:

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Overall, I’m very pleased with the construction quality of the materials. I’m actually tempted, despite my usual preference for digital books, to spend a good deal of time with the printed materials. That’s a pretty high praise for me.

Conclusion

If you like the 40k universe and want to game in it, I highly recommend the Wrath & Glory game. Again, I’ll update when I’ve had a chance to run and/or play it, but by all accounts I expect a satisfying experience.

 

 

Review: Fallout 76: A Good Start

It seems that I’ve started most of my recent reviews this way, but the Fallout universe has a special place in my heart. I came of age in the late 90’s, and isometric RPGs were my video game of choice (surprised?).

I spent countless hours playing and replaying Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout: Tactics (I even played Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, despite its many flaws). I lamented when the “Van Buren” project was cancelled and rejoiced when Bethesda announced Fallout 3. The nostalgia factor and fanboyness runs high with this title, so be warned.

And here we are now with a new offering in the Fallout universe, one that divurges greatly from that to which we’ve become accustomed. Multiplayer. Is it the Holy Grail of Fallout gaming, a despicable money-grab by Bethesda in recycling the core of Fallout 4, or something about which we should feel a little bit less extreme and a little more ambivalent?

Multiplayer is a strange thing for me. As an introvert, I’m far more inclined to adventure by my sullen self than to link up with some randos who do or say things that do not recommend themselves to further association. The anonymity of the internet, and multiplayer games, draws out the worst in people. I just don’t have time for that in my life.

On the other hand, playing video games with people I know and have built relationships with away from the glow of the LEDs is something I very much enjoy. In this hectic world, online gaming is sometimes how I best keep up with certain friends–we play and we converse while we play. Maybe it’s the modern equivalent of those long telephone calls I used to have in high school, before texting made such obsolete for high-schoolers.

I love open world video games and the hours of exploration that come with them–truth be told, that’s probably my favorite aspect of video games altogether, though at any other moment in time I might say that it’s strong and meaningful narrative, a well-crafted story.

I’ve had the pleasure of spending hours walking through the West Virginia wasteland as a lone wanderer and as part of a team with my friends–even a complete four-person team. None of us have had the time to hit the “end-game” activities yet, and I’m not fully certain what they are at this point. Did I mention I lived in West Virginia? Only for about two years when I was in kindergarten and first grade, so my memories of that part of my life are fragmented and vague, but this perhaps adds another touchpoint for me.

Okay, background to review complete. Now on to what you really came here for:

The Good

Fallout 76 is like getting a whole ‘nother Fallout 4 worth of locations to explore. That alone piques my interest.

There are new enemies (Mole Miners, Radtoads, Gulpers, the Scorched, and more), new weapons (my favorite for its weirdness is the “death tambo,” a tamborine with the cymbals replaced with blades) and a greatly-expanded crafting system.

The use of SPECIAL and hot-swappable Perks is a lot of fun and allows for a lot of different character builds–both within one character and those that necessitate running multiple characters for different SPECIAL arrays. The theorycrafting of character builds fascinates me in Fallout 76, much moreso than any other MMO-style game I’ve played.

Fallout 76 is, by default, like “Survival Mode” in previous Fallout titles. Not only must you manage your health and radiation levels, but you must manage hunger and thirst, disease and mutations! Your gear deteriorates relatively quickly, so keeping things maintained and finding plans to build new equipment or CAMP (the mobile equivalent of a settlement) items gives the player a lot to do without even interfacing with the quests. These needs create emergent narrative, the kinds of stories that begin, “So no shit, there I was, knee-deep in spent brass and hand -grenade pins, having drunk my last purified water and then a Deathclaw shows up.” I love that, even if no one else wants to hear my stories–especially my wife.

The consequences of dying are scaled well–you lose the junk you’ve been carrying but not all of the other precious items you’ve spent so much time finding or building. If you’re fast enough (or there are no other players around), you can return to the site of your death (if you dare) and retrieve these parts. There’s a cost, sometimes fairly steep, but not one that makes you want to ragequit anytime you die. Good job on this balance, Bethesda, that’s not an easy thing.

Another well-thought out idea is that you can change the sex and appearance of your character at any time. A minor thing for some, but a great convenience for those who may want to change up their character’s visuals every so often.

The Bad

If you’re reading reviews of Fallout 76, you’ve likely come across the complaint that it “feels empty.” I think that that’s a misleading statement (there’s another Location to scavange over every crag and just a short ways down every road), but it’s true that Bethesda’s choice not to include human NPCs in the game is a massive let-down. The self-conscious weirdness of characters in Fallout is one of the main draws, and finding the corpses of these characters and listening to holotapes to give you their background just doesn’t match encountering and dealing with the characters in life.

Yes, this simplifies a number of things for the designers: there’s no need to craft dialogue trees, to manage faction reputation, to deal with conflicting narratives and closing off certain quests to certain players, etc. But it misses one of the best parts of Fallout.

At least Bethesda had the good sense to write the narrative around this concept–there is a reason everyone in West Virginia is dead. But the idea that this approach accentuates player importance by making every living human you encounter a PC just doesn’t work. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it deprives players of a sense of agency. There’s no one to really save, no cause or ideal to support, no settlement or character to get attached to (as much as is psychologically healthy for a fictional character, I suppose). There’s no choice between the Minutemen or the Brotherhood of Steel or the Enclave or the Institute. There’s no choice of dialogue options. There are choices in branching quest lines. There are no choices.

As with any online game, you also have to deal with the jerk gamers on occasion–and they are legion. I’ve gotten into several PVP situations and had about half of them also involve the other player sending me insulting messages over Xbox live and other assorted jackassery. That is, I suppose, unavoidable.

The Ugly

Bethesda stubbornly resists logical physics in a number of ways. No, I don’t mean the super-sciency stuff, I can suspend disbelief for that. But despite many games in this series, Bethesda still thinks the average rifle weighs about 20 pounds (unless the weight units are not pounds–I’m honestly not sure). This is somewhat mitigated by the starting carry weight without penalty being 150 lbs (and Perks that allow certain items to be reduced in weight by up to 90%), but the numbers in weights across the board still bother me. I’m trying to remember back to Skyrim about whether this applies to their concept of medieval weapons as well (a real two-handed sword should weigh between about 3 and 4 pounds–though the massive zweihander could weigh 8 or 9, that’s a very specialized weapon for a very particular purpose and was used in the fashion of a spear as much as a sword).

There are a number of bugs in the game, some leading to program crashes, others causing questlines not to advance, items to suddenly disappear or other minor but infuriating issues. I have not found a glitch that restarting the program (or just logging out and back in) hasn’t fixed.

Hope for the Future

Bethesda has indicated that they intend to support Fallout 76 for the long haul. What exactly that means is unclear, but I assume that it means something like Destiny 2–at least a few years of support with new DLC quarterly or so.

If that’s truly the case, Fallout 76 could have legs–provided that Bethesda has realized that it needs to add human NPCs and everything that comes with that (factions, etc.). If not, it’ll be fun while it lasts; maybe it will tide me over until Fallout 5.

Review: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, First Edition, was the first fantasy roleplaying game I ever owned. It was the early nineties, and like all good Christian parents, mine denied me access to Dungeons & Dragons, fallout and carry over from the demonic-worship craze of the late eighties. As we all know, but I didn’t question as a child, there was nothing inherently demonic or evil in D&D (the opposite mostly, though one of Tom Hanks’ early films told a different story). But, not knowing better, they allowed me this gem of a game, darker, grittier, and far less wholesome than the high-fantasy cheese of AD&D.

Ownership of this vaunted tome (which I lost or gave away or sold somewhere along the way, much to my present chagrin) had a very formative effect on me. It solidified my love of roleplaying games, proved the gateway into my miniature gaming hobby, and gave me my first real taste of dark fantasy (a penchant I cannot shake even now). As someone, even in elementary school, deeply interested in medieval and early modern history and wanting some semblance of verisimilitude in my roleplay, it’s little wonder that WFRP, warts and all–no, warts especially–has a special place in my heart. Before high school, I’d also purchased several of the Rolemaster FRP books so, though I didn’t know it, 80’s “realism” in RPGs became my foundation.

I never ran or played a game of First Edition WFRP, though I did manage to collect most of the books at one point or another. When Second Edition was released (I was now in college), I scrupulously and slavishly purchased each of the books as it was released and ran a few games with those rules (though I admittedly used the Riddle of Steel rules, released close in proximity, for those Warhammer Fantasy-based games I most enjoyed). My miniature gaming had focused mostly on 40K, but something about the Tolkien pastiche smashed up with a more historically-influenced setting always called me back to WFRP in my gaming (of course, the first edition of Dark Heresy had not yet been hinted at even–though that’s a story for when I review Wrath & Glory, I suppose).

Likewise, when FFG published the third edition of WFRP, I couldn’t help but go all in on that system as well. For all of the quirks and fiddly-bits of the 3rd edition (much of which I found very innovative and fascinating from a design standpoint), I ran some of the most narratively deep scenes based on those strange custom dice. The board-game like pieces really did provide some opportunities for building unique subsystems to support the story, from chases to countdown clocks. The “stances” adapted just enough from Riddle of Steel (which remains one of my favorites for three reasons: (1) at the time of its release, I was a study group leader for the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and deeply invested in the study of real swordplay; (2) the writer of TRoS was also a member of ARMA, one with whom I’d had the fortune to spar with; (3) there are design ideas, like spiritual attributes, that I still find amazing, even if I now find the combat system too intricate for my gaming needs and desires) to sate my desired treatment of combat at the time.

I don’t want to participate in “you-should-have-been-there”-ism too much, but I will relate one fascinating development in one of the WFRP games I ran. When the PCs stumbled across some warpstone, one of the characters decided to squirrel some away to sell later. As it tends to do, the warpstone started to have an effect on this character, and a fellow PC (a staunch and suspicious Kislevite), discovered this. While the first character slept soundly, the Kislevite snuck up on him and, pressing the barrel of a pistol to the first character, ended the foolish threat to the party. What surprised and pleased me was the response of the murdered character’s player: “Yeah, that’s what you should of done. That was not going to go well.” That’s mature roleplaying from dedicated players. Drama!

I should also note that, perhaps the result of my fumbling with Rolemaster, I’ve never been a huge fan of d100/Percentile RPG systems. I fully admit that this is a personal thing and not some objective complaint about that style of system itself (my preference, almost certainly a side-effect of my playing White Wolf games, Shadowrun and TRoS, is for dice pool systems).

When I heard that Cubicle 7 had the contract for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition, two things excited me: first, I’ve found the One Ring to be both the most faithful RPG version of Tolkien’s world yet and mechanically innovative to boot; and, second, I’d hoped that the new ruleset would veer away from the d100 system used in the past (as Wrath & Glory has done). One of those things proved true.

Perhaps the best compliment I can give WFRP4 is that it’s a percentile system I’d actually consider running. Even with my preference for the Fate or Cortex Plus/Prime systems, this ruleset reinforces the grittiness and darkness of the setting in what I feel merits the additional crunch. Reading the rulebook has also reminded me that, second only perhaps to D&D/OSR rules, how much material there is out there that could be easily adapted for subsystems or alternative/house rules for WFRP4. I’ve found myself very interested in some of the things that the Mythras system has done with d100, and then there’s all of the Chaosium, Runequest, Zweihander (particularly appropriate) and Rolemaster stuff out there as well.

My personal confession to the versatility and playability of percentile RPGs is not the point of this post, however. Let me instead focus on the (many) things that I really enjoyed about this system, especially as an iteration of the first and second editions (which I’ll assume you’re familiar with).

First, the art is beautiful. Andy Hepworth and Jon Hodgson, who worked on The One Ring illustrations also worked on this tome, and the artwork is similar to that of TOR: watercolory, somber and evocative of the setting’s tone. As I said in my Witcher RPG review, the artwork itself is almost worth the price of admission–but I’m a very visual person.

Additionally, in the style you’ll remember from the FFG version of the game, much of the setting information is given in-character through letters and reports. The beginning of the book combines pictures with a skillful economy of words to highlight the Empire, giving just enough detail for even a newbie to the setting to run a session that a seasoned veteran would say, “Yep, that feels like Warhammer.” I just love this.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself, though. I really should have led with the thing that I love most about WFPR4–its transparency that the players and GM should make the setting their own personal version of the Warhammer Fantasy world, supplemented with reminders about this throughout the text on the subjects of both mechanics and setting, and supported by optional rules and reminders that rules that don’t fit your game should be ignored or changed.

Let’s talk about some of the changes to the previous incarnations (of course skipping the outlier that was 3rd Edition). Fourth Edition has “softened” character generation and brought it into the world of “modern” gaming. Where the early editions of the game relied entirely on random generation of player characters (yeah, everyone wants to be a Ratcatcher, but no one wants to play the poxy doxy), the latest edition has kept the random generation tables but has given rewards to sticking to them rather than making them mandatory. For instance, for your starting career, you first roll one result. If you take that result, you get a substantial XP bonus you can either hoard or spend on starting upgrades to your character. Didn’t like that result? You roll two more, and if you pick one of the three, you still get an XP bonus (though not as substantial as when you only had the one option). Don’t like any of the three results? Just choose what you want to play. No XP bonus, sure, but at least you’re playing something you find interesting. This goes for most aspects of character generation.

Above, I mentioned the Spiritual Attributes of The Riddle of Steel RPG. While WFRP4 doesn’t use those per se, it does join the forefront of modern player-driven (narrative) gaming by giving both the individual players and the group as a whole ambitions. Ambitions are short- and long-term goals that, when completed, grant XP for character improvement (in addition to the normal XP of session survival and accomplishment). Like 13th Age’s “One Unique Thing” or Milestones in Fate, they give the GM some guidance on what players are interested in dealing with in the narrative of their game.

As well, ambitions are a call-to-action for players to learn about the game world (so that they can craft good ambitions) and help define those elusive both most-important aspects of character–character itself (as in the inner life, personality, beliefs and psychology of a fictional entity beyond the mechanical numbers on the page).

My other favorite new thing in Fourth Edition? The “Between Adventures” chapter. These optional rules recall the “township events” of Warhammer Quest (God that we would get an updated version closer to the original instead of the bastard “End Times” game that was produced–oops, my rabid fanboy is showing). I spent a good deal of my youth (when I was but had not realized that I was an introvert) playing that game. In WFRP4, the Between Adventures chapter gives the players interesting complications that might arise while not in the wilderness fighting orcs or Chaos as well as endeavors that might be undertaken to gain small–but perhaps lifesaving–advantages during the next adventure. It’s a clever way to provide for some roleplaying opportunity and character development without having to devote large amounts of playtime to characterization–though if that’s what your group wants, there’s no reason you can’t do that, either!

Much of the rest of the rules will prove familiar to the player of the first or second editions–nasty critical hits, rules for corruption and disease, limited magic, careers that range from the extraordinary to the ultra-mundane (if historically accurate), Skills and Talents, etc.

Petty magic is back for those who missed it (I did). Each Career now has four tiers of advancement, so the Apprentice Apothecary and the Master Apothecary are within the same write-up instead of spread across four different careers that represent incremental steps in the same line of work and training. Character social status (as within the Bronze, Silver and Gold tiers of society) is more explicitly treated and made relevant to gameplay. Task difficulty has been more effectively balanced (Very easy tasks are now +60 to Attribute+Skill Ranks) given the relatively low attribute and skill values of starting characters. Advancement, XP and skill ranks have been streamlined in a way I find to be an improvement.

First and second edition adventure material should require little or no adaptation to be usable, and previous mechanics or careers will be relatively easy to adapt.

In short (though perhaps it’s too late for that), if you liked the first and second editions of WFRP, you’re very likely to enjoy Cubicle 7’s take. If you didn’t, I’d take a look anyway.

The main competitor for WFRP4, I think, is the indy-game Zweihander (itself an iteration of WFRP2), though Shadow of the Demon Lord may be a better fit for those who want a game closer to classic D&D but heavily influenced by modern gaming mechanics and the approach and feel of Warhammer (the creator, Robert J. Schwalb, worked on WFPR2 among other things).

The release of the book has very much tempted me to return to the Empire circa 2511. If I do, I’ll probably even use this ruleset rather than trying to adapt to a more narrative-focused system, as WFRP4 seems a decent compromise between massive crunch (which I ideologically though not practically miss) and the narrative-focused games to which I’ve become more focused.

Have you had a chance to read through the book? What did you think?

Stealing History (for your stories)

If you follow this blog, you know that I’m a huge fan of history. Do you know what I’m an even bigger fan of? Good stories.

Yes, at its best, history is a collection of “good” (narratively speaking, not factually or morally speaking, necessarily) stories. There are heroes and villians, drama and plot twists, the exciting and unexpected. The academic historical approach concerns itself not with the strength of the narrative, necessarily, but with the determination of questions like: “What was life like back then?” “Why did X event happen the way it did, or at all?” “What might patterns in history tell us about the future of humanity?” and, perhaps the biggest bugbear of all, “What actually happened?”

These are great questions, and an understanding of historiography is a significant boon to the worldbuilder in her craft. At times, the truth is even stranger than fiction–what delight when we stumble upon such usurpations of our expectations!

But let us set both historian and worldbuilder aside for this post, shall we? What I’m interested in, here, are stories. Stories that come from history, yes, but which are not beholden to the determination of historical fact. Let us talk of the writer’s craft, of the art of good storytelling, and that ephemeral search for inspiration.

Some of the most enduring fiction takes the seeds of history–even if only for context–and waters them to blossom into something apart from, and often more existentially significant, than the history that spawned it.

Some examples:

One: The legends of King Arthur, placed as it is within an array of historical contexts (often not far removed from the storyteller’s own anachronistic understanding of history), but always concerned with issues of Englishness (perhaps it’s more fair to say “Britoness”), chivalry and good rulership. From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Sir Thomas Mallory (or T.H. White and Disney, for that matter), the story has morphed and grown as a contemplation of these ideas quite apart from any historical basis.

Having studied at the British Library and the National Archives as part of my senior honors thesis on “Henry VIII’s Use of Arthurian Legend as Tudor Propaganda,” I can say with some confidence that there never was a King Arthur (though there was a Prince Arthur–Henry VIII’s older brother who died young), but I can also say definitively that that doesn’t really matter to the value the King Arthur story has even in the modern age.

Two: The early tales of Robin Hood lack the moral fortitude or noble birth of the hero, having more in common with medieval tales of Reynard the Fox than the Disney fox. At least as of current scholarship, the likeliest origin of the Robin Hood tales is with a supporter of the Lancastrian uprising around Nottingham in the 1320’s (see the excellent “Our Fake History” Podcast for details in two forty-five-minute sessions). But origins mired in 14th-Century factional strife and medieval vendetta rather than a “rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor” morality seem not to have stopped stories about “Robin of Locksley” (previously Robert, Earl of Huntington) from carrying the imagination from the late middle ages to the very modern (cue Bryan Adams, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes and Mel Brooks). The history of Robin Hood tales also demonstrates that the stories took on a life of their own completely independent from any historical basis–and perhaps rightly so, because these stories tell us something about popular ideas of morality versus the law, bad rulership and justice undone. They’re stories about a certain view of the world.

Three: Romeo & Juliet. While I’m particularly a fan of the Baz Luhrmann film, this story originates with a very real set of historical events–a much surer foundation than either Arthur or Robin Hood–but stands wholly apart from those events.

You see, the original author of the story, Luigi da Porto, was the nephew of Antonio Savorgnan, the leader of the Zambarlani faction in Venetian-controlled Friuli in the early 16th-Century. Da Porto was also a student of the famous humanist Pietro Bembo. On Fat Thursday in 1511 began the “Cruel Carnivale” in the city of Udine, the culmination of long vendetta between the Zambarlani, formed of Savorgnan, his peasant militias and the artisans and poor folk (mostly loyal to Venice) on the one side and the Strumieri, composed of the rural nobility and their retainers (mostly loyal to the Austrians and the Holy Roman Emperor) on the other. A large number of Strumieri nobles were murdered during Carnivale, some of the rural castles sacked and burnt, many others driven to flee for their lives.

But on that Fat Thursday, just as the violence and chaos was ramping up, da Porto had the good fortune to see the beauty Lucina Savorgnan (Antonio Savorgnan’s second cousin) sing at a party that evening. As the story goes, he fell in love with her (though she married another and I’m not sure whether the love was ever requited). This experience, set against the backdrop of dueling factions (quite literally) in northern Italy, caused him to write the original Romeo & Juliet  that provided the basis for Shakespeare’s enduring tale.

Yes, da Porto’s story takes some liberties, transferring the scene to Verona and putting the lovers in opposing factions rather than on the same side. But the context of the story–exile as a common form of punishment, lasting feuds that contiunously claimed the lives of family members and retainers, violence and unrest in the streets that the government could not contain–all of this comes from a discrete historical time and place, and the direct experience of the author.

So where am I going with these examples?

For the writer, who isn’t particularly bound by what “actually happened,” history provides a veritable treasure trove of ideas to develop into plots, settings and stories.

In writing the Game of Thrones series, G.R.R. Martin drew heavily upon–but did not allow himself to be bound by–the history of the Wars of the Roses.

The writers of the TV series Black Sails pulled not just from Treasure Island (itself borrowing heavily from the fictitious Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates) but from the most recent scholarship on early modern piracy to tell its tales convincingly, using many historical persons but taking plenty of liberties with them.

Tolkien borrowed more heavily on the literature of the Anglo-Saxons and the ancient Nordic-Germanic peoples of Europe than their histories in creating Middle Earth (taking even the very name from Viking mythology), but none of that literature is divorced from its own historical context.

The History Channel has been recently making its money off of historical fiction (and reality TV) rather than “serious” history, and on the far-more-humorous end is Comedy Central’s Drunk History and its inebriated retellings of historical events renacted by well-known actors.

The writer can rip from history the juiciest bits without being encumbered by historicity or the concerns of historiography. Reading, listening to or otherwise devouring history will provide a steady diet of interesting plots and “what if” prompts that need not be detectably related to the events that created them. In that sense, the histories devoured don’t even have to be very good (academically speaking) histories–we’re not concerned with the truth of the situation here.

And that opens up to us a second realm for our burglary–mythologies and superstitions. Having recently binged the entire series of the Lore podcast (well worth the time), I cannot number the story ideas that came to me during my listening, many of which are so easily adapted to my own Avar Narn as to surprise even the skeptic within me.

It doesn’t matter whether the Thunderbird is real or what people who claim to have seen the Mothman of Point Pleasant actually saw–the story is what matters! A few tweaks and twists, your own personal touch a different setting and off you go.

If you haven’t bought into the idea that all great artists steal ideas wherever they can, think about this: only God creates ex nihilo; we humans create new things by combining old things in new ways. Lean into it.

And here is one place where I can rejoice in, rather than lament, the almost complete lack of historical literacy of the average modern person–most people are not going to have any idea who Shackleton was or what happened to the Mary Celeste (even in the general sense since, as far as I can tell nobody knows what happened to the Mary Celeste). So when you take such a cosmic egg and hatch your own original story from it, who will be the wiser? Even better, those who do see the influence will feel so smart about recognizing it that they’ll like the story more not less. I speak from arrogant experience. Ask K.

In other words, for the fiction writer especially, there is much to gain and little to lose by raiding history for its secret stories and unpolished gems of ideas. Grab your whip and your fedora (but forget to say, “It belongs in a museum!”) and get searching!

To get you started, a few of my favorite historical podcasts, all of which have been mentioned above or elsewhere on the blog:

(1) Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. To me, this is the end-all-be-all of historical podcasts, Well researched, inimitably told and stretching through multiple three-plus hour sessions per topic, my only complaint about Mr. Carlin’s work is that there isn’t more of it (which, given the investment of time and effort into what he does put out is entirely understandable). The best aspect of Hardcore History? Mr. Carlin’s ability to imaginatively communicate the idea of being there.

(2) Lore by Aaron Mahnke. Mr. Mahnke tells stories of myth and superstition in a captivating way, leaving any judgment of the reality of the events retold open to the listener. When the truth just doesn’t matter and the topics range from the spooky to the outright bizarre, you have a veritable gold mine for fiction writers.

(3) Our Fake History by Sebastian Major. In a voice that sometimes  reminds me of Mr. Carlin above, Mr. Major dispels common (and not-so-common) (mis-)conceptions in history “to figure out what’s fact, what’s fiction, and what is such a good story it simply must be told.” That last part is the undeniable bread-and-butter of the writer, so need I say more?