(Review) Cyberpunk 2077: This Isn’t the Future I Ordered

[I started to write this review back in mid-January, but I got distracted by life events and other writing projects and have only now come back around to finishing it.]

[WARNING: SPOILERS INCLUDED IN THIS ARTICLE.]

I waited a few weeks before I picked up my copy of Cyberpunk 2077. My brother had been playing since release day on a stock Xbox One and swore up and down he wasn’t having massive crashes or game-breaking bugs. So, about the start of the new year, I plunked my creds down and unlocked that deluge of bytes and bits that, a short time later, coalesced into the game on my Xbox One X. It seems only fitting to get the game through such a method, though I didn’t manage to find a way that I could download the game straight into my brain. Some of the things I was promised by the Cyberpunk of my youth are yet to come to fruition.

I played through most of the available content, having fewer than half-a-dozen side missions left and about as many of the available NCPD gigs. In that time, the game hard crashed fewer than tens times and, between the system’s assertive autosaving and my own constant backups, I never lost more than five minutes of playtime when a crash happened. I lost much larger chunks of play when AC: Valhalla crashed on me, which happened with less frequency than Cyberpunk crashes, but not by much.

I only noticed one other major glitch while playing, and that was that, once I equipped the Mantis Blades, they would never retract, even when I switched weapons, and continued to take up a good half of the screen. The issue resolved when I switched back to the monowire cyberweapon instead and I didn’t try the Mantis Blades again during my playthrough. There were a few minor visual bugs or errors–such as being unable to pick up certain (very low value) items that had been marked as pick-upable. Overall, the game played smoothly, was pretty to look at on an few-years-old Samsung HD flat screen, and didn’t suffer from the litany of problems I’d been led to expect. The game actually convinced me that upgrading to the Xbox Series X might not be as imminent a necessity as I’d previously thought. Your mileage may vary.

A subsequent second full playthrough (and about half of a third) had me see most of the rest of the game’s side missions, with fewer crashes or issues each time–thanks to consistent updates by CD Projekt Red.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Let’s talk about the ugly first; get it out of the way: Cyberpunk 2077 decided to resort to gimmick and shock value in its treatment of sexual issues. The range of gender presentations that had been promised in the character builder was lacking at best. Instead, you can pick your penis size, or have a vagina. None of the choices matters, and there’s really no purpose to them. I don’t mind sex and romance relationships being part of the story lines of video games–I’m a generally hard person to offend, so those things merely being there don’t incite me to anger. That said, I’m not sure that I’ve ever come across a romance system (or dialogue) or a “sex scene” in a video game that didn’t make me feel awkward and uncomfortable. You can find elsewhere a deep discussion of some of the sexualized gimmicks and mistakes made by the game designers. For my part, what I really want to comment on is the missed opportunity here, with the clumsiness of the shock-value choices made by the developers underscoring the lack of thought given to their approach. I’m not interested in the debate of whether sexual topics should have been omitted from the game altogether; with regard to such issues, my first question is always “what does the inclusion accomplish for the story” and, while the answer in Western media is often that it’s included only to pique the prurient interests of the audience, I also stand amazed, like G.R.R. Martin and others, that American society in general is simultaneously so uncomfortable with sexual issues and so comfortable with the graphic depiction of violence.

Cyberpunk, as a genre, provides us with warnings not just about technology used without regard for ethical considerations, but also the commodification of everything human by ultra-capitalist systems. While the former is certainly an increasing worry for modern society, the latter is the far more pressing issue in my mind–after making it through the widespread disaster that was Texas’s (lack of) preparedness for winter storms last week, which to my mind clearly demonstrates the problem with allowing profit-driven private interests to trump public welfare (as does the system of pharmaceutical development in the U.S. and its effects on the current pandemic)–the increasing dangers of a society caught in a death-spiral propelled by the veneration of capitalism above all other ideologies feels close to home. So, when Cyberpunk resorts to using sex and nudity only as window dressings, instead of commenting on the increasing commodification of sex and human desire, I honestly feel a little cheated about what could be meaningful narrative that could pull Cyberpunk 2077 from entertaining game into the realm of participatory literature. Even the plotline with Evelyn and her fate does little more than provide plot points without much consideration of what it means to be a “doll” sacrificing personal identity to satisfy the needs of others (sexual or not) and the plots that revolve around Clouds likewise use the profound sexual issues as a backdrop without making profound use of narrative potential.

You Get What You Give

I read another review of Cyberpunk 2077 that criticized the lack of defined personality for V, complaining that The Witcher had you play a character with a defined personality for whom you still had meaningful choices to make and further lamenting that V’s personality can swing psychopathically based on the whims of the player. I’d like to respond to that evaluation and, since it’s my blog, I will. My kneejerk reaction to this sentiment is that the critic needs to play more roleplaying games (pen and paper, preferably) to appreciate a video game in which you have the opportunity to create a personality for your character without having that personality defined for you. I, for one, would rather play a protagonist I get to design for myself rather than playing someone else’s character in a story. If the character comes across as inconsistent, that’s on the player more than the designers, because you have opportunities in Cyberpunk to make consistent character choices. If, on the other hand, you approach every dialogue option from the perspective of yourself staring at a screen where you have an avatar to wonder around in making choices according to your every whim, of course you’re going to end up with an inconsistent character. Feature, not bug, in my book.

That said, not all of the character choices have enough effect in the game to be meaningful. Some aspects work well without changing the storyline much or at all–the developing relationship between V and Johnny can be cathartic, dramatic and satisfying on its own (though this is undercut somewhat by having a “secret” end-mission option based on your relationship score with Johnny causing a split between immersively playing a character and meta-gaming the program). Otherwise, though, many of the choices are too limited in effects to truly be felt. Yes, some choices will open up romantic relationships, and some will allow for different end-game missions and resolutions to the main plot, and there are a very select few that will have a later result (freeing Brick in the initial confrontation with Maelstrom may have a later effect if you play through all of Johnny’s missions), many follow the pattern of “let them say whatever they want so long as they do what you want them to.”

Maybe I’m chained to my existentialist leanings, but it seems that there’s a lot of Cyberpunk’s story and main character that only bears the meaning you personally create for it. Just like the ambiguity of life in general, that could be immensely freeing and satisfying or terrifying and ennui-inducing. Or both at once.

Gameplay
I played my first playthrough on the “normal” difficulty setting, increasing the difficulty for each subsequent playthrough after I’d grokked the game’s systems and idiosyncrasies. My first character ended up as a sort of generalist, my second a street samurai foregoing any hacking for a Sandevistan and later a Berserk module, my third going full Netrunner.

The game is devastatingly easy, even on the highest difficulty setting, for netrunner characters. One reviewer compared netrunners to wizards in fantasy settings, with programs approximating spells. I think that’s relatively true, especially because the programs work in ways that are especially “gamey” and unrealistic. If you’re going to implant yourself with cyberware, you’re not going to allow that cyberware to be wirelessly-enabled for any punk with a computer to hack into, and you’re probably going to invest in a decent firewall as well. Systems aren’t going to be designed with such blatant faults in them that you can electrocute or overheat the user. So yes, the hacking in Cyberpunk is essentially magic.

The pure combat approach, even with a good deal of stealth, is much more difficult, especially on higher difficulties. Without the ability to hack cameras, you have to be especially careful. Attacks must be carefully planned so as not to be overwhelmed. I kind of think that this was the most enjoyable approach to the game, though, both for pleasure of gameplay itself and the satisfaction of achievement. There’s something thrilling about beating a machinegun-wielding punk to the punch while swinging a katana, and the gunplay in Cyberpunk 2077 is pretty good, too–and I love a good tactical shooter.

Another exploit to use or avoid is finding the Armadillo mod blueprint. I don’t think that there’s any Technical skill requirement on being able to craft the Armadillo mod at any rarity level–the rarity level of each one you make is just randomized–and few materials are required to make them. If you keep to clothes with multiple mod slots and fill them all with level-appropriate Armadillo mods, you can maintain an Armor rating sufficient at any given level to feel nearly invulnerable.

The game lacks some of the exploration elements you might expect in an open-world RPG; you’re not going to find as many of the sorts of locations that tell their own little stories like you would in Fallout or Elder Scrolls. But the side jobs are interesting–some of them more interesting than the main story, I think–and search them out, as well as the NCPD hustles, fills some of the gap.

Substance and Style
The feel of Cyberpunk 2077 is the feel of 80’s sci-fi in the setting tone and dressing. On the one hand, that’s fitting; cyberpunk was born in the 80’s. But it’s also been more than 30 years since the end of that decade. Technology and culture have changed. Our cultural fears and suppositions have evolved. World events have shown us that, while the danger of megacorporations is real, it might not be so melodramatic as we expected. We’ve had Brexit, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the realization (by us–often willingly–ignorant white folk) that racial injustice has never been overcome, the resurgence of far-right terror groups and white nationalists, and the shift of widespread economic fears focusing on Japan to focusing on China. But we’ve also seen some things change for the better–green energy is innovating and being taken seriously, a majority of the world (if a slight one) believes in the reality of climate change and the moral obligation to do something about, technology has provided for democratization and methods of social resistance as much as domination.

Bear in mind that the original Cyberpunk RPG setting took place in 2013; the most popular version of the game was set in 2020. Moving the timeline forward (either all the way to 2077 as in the video game or to the 2050’s as in the tabletop Cyberpunk Red) begs the question–why hasn’t anything really changed? Yes, Mike Pondsmith and the other members of the creative teams of both projects did hard work in balancing a setting that feels at once like nostalgic Cyberpunk and just a bit different. That’s a difficult line to walk, so I’ll admit that my comments here should really be applied to the cyberpunk genre in general and not to the Cyberpunk setting specifically, in any of its guises.

But I’m ready for cyberpunk as a whole to grow up, to evolve with us. It’s insufficient to continue to dwell on the cyberpunk of the early years–though we must acknowledge a debt to Pondsmith, Gibson, Stephenson and the early fathers of the genre. Where’s a cyberpunk for my middle years, one that includes all the myriad shades of gray endemic to any genre born from noir, but that also includes some dashes of color hear and there, that gives us a gritty optimism, reasons to fight the evil in the world to preserve the good, reasons to do more than only survive?

Maybe I need to read more cli-fi and other developments out of the cyberpunk genre. My own fiction writing, while fantasy in genre, takes a number of cues from cyberpunk–but that’s not quite what I’m talking about either. Where’s the wise old cyberpunk that’s introspective in new ways? I’m seriously asking–if you’ve found it before me, drop me a line!

So, while enjoying the neon retro-future that Cyberpunk 2077 offers, I’m also left wanting something more.

Conclusions
I enjoyed Cyberpunk 2077 well enough to return to play it with different character builds, and it’s definitely reminded me of my nostalgia for the cyberpunk genre. I think that it’s the gameplay, though, that did it for me more than anything. The narratives have their clever points, drama and empathy-invoking aspects, but if you’re looking for storytelling on quite the same level as The Witcher, you’re not going to find it here. Maybe it was just too much hype for its own good. Maybe too many promises that didn’t make it into the release build. Or maybe it promised us a world we’ve already left behind in our hearts and minds.

Review: The Queen’s Gambit

Note: This review is only about the TV Series. I haven’t read the book and currently don’t intend to.

I liked this TV series. I’m a little upset that I did.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like in the series. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the role of Elizabeth Harmon beautifully, with a subtlety of expression and nuance of character far more mature than many older actors. The filmography, likewise, is intoxicating, well shot, full of dream-like color. The music suits the period and theme while providing a nostalgia for those who lived through the 60’s or, like K, who were raised on the songs of the era.

More than anything, the series builds an ethereal, mystical view of chess, depicting the tension in every move, the complexity of possibilities, the focus and forethought of the players as well as their emotional investment in one seamless package that would entice anyone to take up the game. I think that it’s this mystique that made the show so enjoyable for me.

But, at the same time, I found the storytelling to be disappointing. The show plods along from plot point to plot point in formulaic structure. Following genre and convention in the structuring of a story isn’t a bad thing–formal structures in writing have been adopted because they work, and in the commercial setting of TV shows and filmmaking, not following recognizable structure may be fatal to ever getting a first read of your work by someone with the authority to make a script a full production.

The Queen’s Gambit follows structure dutifully, though, dispassionately, focused on going through the proper motions than making them mean something. It is the difference between the dancer who is technically proficient and the one whose motions tell you a story that stirs the soul. If we’re going to be specific, the problem is that Elizabeth Harmon’s lows are never low enough. Without giving too much away, she suffers some significant obstacles in her path–some of them truly tragic–and yet we’re never given enough time with any of them to let them sink in, nor are we ever shown them affecting Beth in a deep (or even realistic) way.

Beth’s most significant flaws magically heal themselves in time for the climax. Those people she’s spent time using and then pushing away all return to loyal serve her in her time of need, with no real explanation for the change of heart. What should have been a central struggle for the character–her addiction to barbiturates and alcohol–is simply set aside when the time is right. Only Taylor-Joy’s face gives us any indication of a struggle over giving up the addiction–the script gives us about 5 seconds of film to turn around a character problem developed over episodes of the series. We’re given multiple instances of Beth indulging in her addiction, but only the flipping of a switch in being rid of it.

That’s why I feel bad about enjoying the series. The writing was passable for the most part, but sorely lacking in some of the most important aspects of story. When the climax is a foregone conclusion, you lose the drama, the catharsis, that causes us to immerse ourselves in story in the first place.

What we are left with is not a period piece or a character study, not a bildungsroman or hero’s journey, but a story about chess. The characters are merely present to show us the details–social, technical, emotional–of the game. They become pawns themselves in the writer’s moves, shadowing a game someone else played to perfection a long time ago. Pieces moving across a ceiling with dreamlike precision.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – a Strange Nostalgia

I haven’t quite finished the game yet, but I’m far enough in I think I can give a good review. Here it is.

First, the ugly. Feel free to skip these minor rants if you’d like.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Assassin’s Creed games. I love the historical aspects of them: running around in reconstructions of places I’ve studied but can never truly visit, hearing at least a palatable effort at ancient spoken languages (the Old English of Valhalla being the one I’m most familiar with, as it happens), and living an adventure–if overblown and grandiose–in another time. But I hate the framing device in which all of the Assassin’s Creed story takes place. If there weren’t so many people out there trying to peddle some version of historical belief in ancient aliens (an idea I find to be demeaning to historical peoples and often invoked as a matter of racism), I might not mind it in my fantasy games. But there are, and I do.

I’m also not a huge fan of the use of Templars and Assassins as factions for what is (at least in part) supposed to be a “good versus evil through history” struggle. Both factions are too nuanced and problematic for such use, and employing them in such a way, I think, plays too much into the conspiracy theories about them. From the narrative perspective, it’s sloppy writing to resort to them. From the historical perspective, its dangerous pseudo-revisionism thinly guised by fantasy. At best, their use makes unintended assertions about history that, while placed in a fictional environment that logically has no bearing on actual history, blends enough of the semblance of history into the setting to make that easy to forget. This is only partially side-stepped by the fact that the factions we’re dealing with in this game are the “Hidden Ones” and the “Order of Ancients,” the precursors, respectively, of Assassins and Templars.

So, I try to skip through those parts of AC games (though not all the Order hunting–I’m not a philistine) and focus on the “historical” portion of the games. Thankfully, they historical portions are by far the greater part, and I’ve only really had one cut-scene of the present “Animus” framing device in many hours of play.

Gripe #2: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has no singlehanded swords for player use. Given that the early medieval sword (those that fall under Peterson’s typology rather than Oakeshott’s) is an iconic image of the Viking, it is nothing short of a travesty that they are missing from the game. This is exacerbated by several factors: (1) many enemies use a single-handed sword, so the assets and animations are at least partially present, and the “why can’t I just pick one up” question looms large; (2) you are given several ahistorical two-handed swords to use; (3) it’s just such an obvious oversight.

A further comment about the two-handed swords (with the caveat that I’ve mostly been using one in the game): my supposition is that the choice not to include dedicated one-hand swords arose out of a perk that allows you to use large weapons in a single hand (thus pressing the two-handed sword into service as a one-handed sword). Yes, it’s a video-game, but that choice strikes me as dumb anyway. From a mechanical standpoint, it reduces the value of choice of weapons, with the realism sacrificed for the “cool” value a bit over the line for my taste (which I admit is a personal matter). From a historical perspective, it pushes the problem of the lack of historicity even further.

You see, there really weren’t two-handed swords in the 9th century (when the game takes place). There are several reasons: first, the metallurgy of the time was not a precise science by any means, and making a durable blade of two-hander length wasn’t likely enough to succeed to be worth it. Viking blades, like katana, were created through the “pattern-welding” process of steel-making, which relies in turn on “forge welding.” In forge welding, several slats of metal are heated until they begin to fuse and then wrapped and twisted together into a cohesive whole, where the flaws of one original piece of metal are hedged by the presence of the other pieces. Because of the differing carbon content in the finished piece, a blade could be acid-etched to reveal the patterns in the twisted metal. The result is what the Vikings purportedly called “the serpent in the steel” and is often mistaken for Damascus steel.

There are a handful of photos sometimes claimed to be of archeological finds of two-handed swords, but these photos make their argument based on the length of the grip. That itself is problematic for two reasons: (a) these photos are not of complete weapons in useable condition, and it’s difficult (perhaps impossible) to know how much of the blade’s tang that would extend into the pommel is being touted as space for a hand, which it is not; (b) without full provenance and scholarly descriptions of these blades, the photos aren’t really that helpful anyway. The second and third reason two-handers weren’t common are related to the style and nature of early medieval warfare.

Valhalla never demonstrates this (missing some interesting mechanics, I think), but battles in the 9th century (and surrounding centuries) were largely fought based on the shield wall (as since ancient times with Romans and Greeks before them). For the shield wall to work, your shield is responsible for protecting part of your body, but also part of the body of the man standing beside you. That means that everyone in the rank needs to carry a shield. That leaves no place for two-handed swords.

There are anecdotes about brave warriors moving in front of their shield wall, exposing themselves and demonstrating that bravery, while throwing spears, collecting the gear of a fallen enemy, or undertaking other exploits, but it is the fact that this is extraordinary behavior, not common behavior, that makes these descriptions part of sagas (with parallels in Celtic literature and probable other cultures’ tales of the same period).

The two-handed sword largely (but not solely) developed in the high and late middle ages for a single reason–plate armor. The reliability of plate armor meant that a shield became unnecessary as a weapon of war, and that new weapons were needed to confront the threat. The acute-pointed, two-handed blades of the late 14th and the 15th century were a response to changes in armor, allowing a weapon that could be “half-sworded” to find the chinks in an opponent’s plate at close range and that could be wielded with greater speed, power and precision generally.

There is debate (and perhaps some consensus that the answer is “no”) as to whether a single-handed sword can break through the riveted maille used by Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. Even if it doesn’t, though the force exerted by a blade hitting mail can break bone and cause significant internal injury (of course, a padded gambeson was worn under mail to help resist this). Regardless, the single-handed sword (as well as spears and axes) where largely seen as sufficient to address this problem (or the metallurgy issue trumped all in preventing two-handed swords).

Okay, enough of that.

My third issue really has nothing to do with the game proper, so I’ll keep it short. I am concern about the idea of the “modern Viking.” I’m seeing an increase of clothing brands using that kind of terminology (on them or in advertising) in soliciting buyers in the tactically-minded, survivalist, or militia-type categories. This disturbs me because: (1) Vikings were not people to be emulated; (2) our society has no place for the kind of behavior for which Vikings are seemingly idealized; and (3) identifying oneself in such a way (except for a very small minority of people, perhaps) is not realistic. Even where it may be realistic, I’m not sure that it’s healthy. It’s essentially saying “I’m someone who thinks violence is the best answer.” I cannot disagree more. Alright, that’s done and done.

Now, what do I actually think about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla? A few things, in fact. Is it fun? Yes. Is there a lot of content to play through if you want it? Yes. Is it a beautiful game? Yes. If you liked AC Origins or AC Odyssey will you enjoy it? Absolutely.

All of that said, I have some reservations about Valhalla as an “Assassin’s Creed” game. This game has added some great elements to enhance the Viking side of things, but I think that this comes at the cost of the “Assassin’s Creed” heritage. The Raiding mechanic (in which your longboat crew assists you in attacking and pillaging monasteries to steal supplies and materials used to build and enhance your own settlement) is fun and, at least on a stereotypical level, emblematic of our ideas of Vikings. Likewise, references to holmgangs, weregilds and althings help immerse one in the Viking and Anglo-Saxon cultures. The reliance on tales of Ragnar Lodhbrok may lean too heavily on the recent History Channel (which, ironically, isn’t usually that great in its historicism, preferring in both documentary and fictional programming to serve entertainment over accuracy).

As an admission, I’m playing on “Normal” difficulty. I tell myself that this is because I don’t want to devote the additional time required to play at a harder difficulty level, but you’re free to substitute whatever rationale or psychology you’d like. On normal difficulty, there quickly becomes little reason to resort to stealth, as you become powerful enough to wade into even the most heavily-guarded fortresses and take out everyone without breaking a sweat. Very Viking saga, yes, but not very assassin-y.

Overall, the game has a lot more in common for me with the Witcher 3 (although less well-written, less complex, and generally less interesting than my travels with Geralt) than with the early AC games. Gone are the desperate roof-top escapes from guardsman in a world where everyone is inexplicably a parkour master. Gone are the hit-and-run tactics. Gone is the aching for the time when you unlock the second hidden blade to take out those pesky pairs of door guards. Do I really miss those things? I miss the Florence of AC 2 and the pirate shenanigans of Black Flag, but I’m not sure I miss the stealth gameplay as a whole. It is, though, notably deficient. Again, a higher difficult mode may sufficiently remediate that problem–at the expense of no longer feeling like a powerful Viking warrior in a saga. But, given my complaints about historical accuracy above, maybe I’m just not someone easy to please, and the fault lies more with me with the game. As you know from my last review, I just came off of playing Watch Dogs: Legion, so maybe I’ve been stealth game-played out for little while. Or maybe that’s just not my style of game, much as I’d like to think it is.

But there is an aspect of the game that leaves all of the rest by the wayside and has kept me coming back to sink hour after hour into it: the setting itself. If you’re a frequent reader of the blog, you know that my own historical study has more to do with the late medieval and early-modern periods than the time of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. But I took a semester of Old English in grad school; I’ve read Beowulf, The Dream of the Rood, and The Battle of Maldon, some of the sagas and the Norse mythologies. I know enough not to think of the 9th century as a “dark age.”

As with both Origins and Odyssey, the ways in which the culture, art and architecture of the setting are brought to life amaze me and put me in awe. In addition to the pure pleasure of dwelling in the setting for a while–what I’d argue is the game’s biggest draw–it’s actually helped me discover and think about some flaws in my own historical conceptions.

Some of these are part of our general culture, I think–our movies and books tend to conflate the material culture of the late medieval–knights in shining (plate) armor, palace-like fairy-tale castles, etc.–with oversimplified cultural concepts derived more from the late Viking age and early medieval.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, in parallel to playing Valhalla, I spend some time re-reading through The One Ring roleplaying game books (impressed again at how well this system in particular captures the feel of Tolkien’s world without layering on other fantasy ideas and fandoms) and watching the Hobbit trilogy with K (we also got halfway through LotR, but some unexpected demands–mostly work in my case and football in hers–prevented the completion of the second trilogy). They reminded me how much Tolkien’s world should be conceptualized in light of the Anglo-Saxon world rather than later medieval ideas. The armored characters should be in maille, not plate, wielding Carolingian or Viking-style weapons rather than later-medieval ones. The Rohirrim embody the Anglo-Saxon feel within the films fairly directly (aside from having stirrups and cavalry), but that aesthetic, or riffs upon it, should extend far further. I wonder whether and hope that the impending Lord of the Rings reboot will follow that tack.

Since the films released, Tolkien’s Children of Hurin, relying as it does on elements of Kallervo from the Kalevala in the story of Turin Turambar, serves as a reminder that Middle-Earth belongs in the early-medieval more than the late in terms of material culture and style.

That, ultimately, is what I’ve come to love about AC Valhalla: that it makes me feel a nostalgia for a period of time I’ve discovered that I find far more enthralling and fascinating than I previously knew. I guess I’m going to have to start looking for a Great Course on the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, or go back to reading Tolkien and Norse sagas.

Maybe this isn’t the kind of review you were looking for–with its diatribes and digressions, that’s perfectly understandable. But I’d like to conclude by saying that I think the praise I’ve given here, that the game immerses one in an amazing historical milieu, is about the best I can give. Except that, if you haven’t played The Witcher 3, for God’s sake, go play that first. Then you can play Valhalla. On the other hand, if you’ve never played an Assassin’s Creed game, Valhalla makes for an easy entry point, if one that won’t prepare you for the early titles in the series.

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.