Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Sometimes an Orc is just an Orc

I've been murdering Orcs this weekend. Hundreds of them I'd say - thousands, perhaps? I've set some on fire, and loosed giant dog monsters onto others. Some of them I mind-controlled first before sending them to their unwitting end against their fellows. I have manipulated their politics and sliced their throats, pinned them with ghostly arrows, made their heads explode.

I'm playing Shadow of Mordor. It's really quite good.

Chris Plante wrote a rather good piece about it, describing it as compelling but morally repulsive. To quote:

"The concept of this game is shocking when you think about what's actually happening. As an ultra-powerful white dude, you use fear and extreme acts of violence to manipulate an enemy's behavior, destroy its militaristic structure, and ultimately gain control of it in the form of living bondage despite being outnumbered by the thousands. Really, chew on this: This is a video game about a spurned man terrorizing an entire foreign culture, literally killing, branding, torturing and enslaving hundreds of living beings. And really they're only tangentially connected to the man's real enemy: another ultra-powerful white dude."
Chris also loves the game, by the way, describing it as incredible fun despite what he sees as moral repugnance. I only mention that because when I was searching for his article I discovered many incredulous forum posts (mostly Reddit) appalled with his criticism, then proceeding to characterise him as a handwringing antifun social justice warrior. I assume that anyone reading this has a better reading-comprehension level and understanding of cultural criticism than the redditors, but hey, I don't want to mischaracterise Chris. But I don't agree with him either.

As a symbol in the construction of narratives I find Orcs, particularly the Orcs portrayed as they are in Shadow of Morder,  to be almost entirely meaningless. They have been reduced below the level of a trope - in fantasy fiction they aren't even wallpaper, they're wallpaper paste. Used as they are here they are simply so bland a cultural artefact as to be morally inert.

When Tolkein invented the modern fantasy Orc he was reconciling contradictory tendencies; on the one hand, he was borrowing from Nordic mythology the racially-evil Svartalfs (dark elves or dwarves) to help him achieve his poetic epic for England, a tale of triumph by divinely-inspired mortals against apocalyptic adversity; on the other, in the story he was telling he needed a credible geopolitical military by which Morgoth and then Sauron could do battle against the knights of Numenor, the Elves, or Gondor. The resulting species / culture / entity has a reality only as large as the pages of Lord of the Rings. As M John Harrison describes in his essential essay "What it Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium", a story is a device whereby an author exercises his beliefs and interests, and while we can speculate beyond the edge of the page all the content we find there comes from our self, not the author. Orcs aren't real, they're a device.

Those Orcs as originally conceived are racially evil but geopolitically organised. They have material and territorial ambitions but their personal motivations come from mythic cycles and folk tales in which the arbitrary violence of the natural world is externalised to malevolent humanoid entities. This makes them utterly unlike anything you will find in real life. While there have been violent, destructive and cruel human civilizations, they have always contained an internal logic that makes sense of their actions in relation to the environmental conditions around them, and they have contained the capacity for beauty, kindness and love. The Orc race exists solely in antagonism to other races - it has no internal construction, only boundless cruelty, malice, cravenness and ugliness. It exists purely to realise a narrative conflict between mankind and the other. That's why it was invented. That's all it can do. Look inside it as a literal rather than a narrative construction and it makes no sense.

This tension is a classic conflict point in DnD. At some point a group of players will come across the women and children in an Orc settlement. The Monster Manual tells us that Orcs are Evil. Do the party therefore murder all the Orc babies, destined to grow into monsters? In roleplay we construct a world in our heads following the rules of the world as we understand them - narrative, physical, or some other logic. In narrative logic there are no Orc women and children - Orcs exist as strong, ugly, violent, male stand-ins for the universal forces that seek to undo human work, ready to be killed in an act of aimless yet somehow universal justice. If we encounter Orc women and children then physical logic intrudes. Presumably Orcs have a domestic society and a material culture. Presumably they make war for a reason. Presumably they could be raised to be gentle and kind.

Monolith Productions, the developer of Shadow of Mordor has gone to great pains to reinforce Orcs as absolutely evil. So far I've only encountered male Orcs and I'm confident this continues to the end of the game (I presume that the Orcs in this version of Middle Earth are born from gooey pods in the earth as they are in Peter Jackson's trilogy.) The AI barks for the Orcs always see them revelling in cruelty or spouting off about how great they are, like psychopathic frat boys. They spend their time in constant infighting, betrayal or murder, and when one of main character Talion's brutally murdered victims is discovered, his compatriots write him off as having been pretty rubbish in the first place. The only actions they take in the games are violent (against one another or the player) or cruel (to the mysteriously immortal slave humans dotted around the landscape,) They exist purely for the player to exercise power against them and realise their narrative purpose - as a universal evil, a function of reality, something as inevitable and thoughtless as your child drowning in a pond, a snake biting your lover's heel - yet physicalised, something we can enact a crude justice against.

An old metaphor is like a coin passed around so long all the writing has worn off. Everyone knows how to use it but nobody knows what it says. Just so with these Orcs. Tolkein said his piece sixty years ago, and whether or not he intended it his Orcs were metaphors for the soldiers in both World Wars, and the industrialised urban workforce, and the many forces changing the pleasant English countryside. They were the West Indians arriving on the Windrush and the grant of Indian independence. They were the twentieth century crashing down on a man who was otherwise isolated in a shining fortress of words.

By the time the Orcs arrive at Shadow of Mordor all the meaning has been battered out. Orcs are bad. That's what Orcs are for. Where you have a hole in your fantasy story that requires a bad thing, put an Orc in it. Shadow of Mordor has all the politics of a Saturday morning breakfast cartoon, and it gets that third hand from other sources. Interpreting the Orcs as a culture is like interpreting the Masters of the Universe as the UN - something you can do, but a shallow vein for enquiry and not one you'll draw revelations from. Whatever violence was done to Orc culture was done by Tolkein when he invented it.

If I find anything morally repugnant, it's that I and a huge number of grown adults have spent dozens of hours engaging with a narrative with all the moral complexity of a children's cartoon. That's not new though - that's just videogames.


On an entirely unrelated note - wouldn't a wrestling game featuring Shadow of Mordor's procedurally generated enemies and nemesis system be utterly perfect?

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Attack Book

When wizards go to war they do so with many weapons, both covert and overt. One such tool of infiltration and sabotage is the Attack Book.

To construct an Attack Book, the wizard must first spend one year cursing his adversary by reciting his name at the crack of dawn and spitting into a bucket. When this bucket of spittle is collected it is mixed with crushed beetle shells to form an ink. For each level of his nemesis the wizard must write one section (16 pages) of refutations of his opponent's philosophy and theorems for the book. It is then bound using troll leather.

When an Attack Book is inserted into its target's library, it immediately reduces its value for research purposes by 1000sp. The Attack Book begins to usurp neighbouring books, subtly corrupting their information content so that they are misleading, fallacious or otherwise worse than useless. The target wizard may seek for answers to his growing confusion by rummaging deeper and deeper into his library, bringing out ever older tomes and exposing them to the corruption of the Attack Book. The Attack Book continues to reduce the value of the library by 500sp per month.

When the library has been reduced to worthlessness, the Attack Book and its slaves will assault the target wizard, launching into the air and buffeting him with their spines and folds. After they have killed their target, Attack Books return to the shelves or stacks from which they came; they will instinctively attack any magic user other than their creator. Once he has died they will attack any sentient creature that attempts to open a book in their presence.

A swarm led by an Attack Book has the following stats:
No. appearing =
HD: 1 per 500sp original value of the library

Attacks: Everyone in a 10' area
Special Defenses: Regenerates d6 HP/round - suffer double damage from fire
Treasure: d6 random level Wizard scrolls spontaneously generated by the process of textual corruption; small trinkets as per the original Wizards' library.

Monday, 6 October 2014


I wrote an article with the lovely Pete Wolfendale that appeared in the pop philosophy volume Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy a couple of years back, and I've returned to thinking about it after seeing a few unrelated comments on Google Plus from RPG authors and commentators, speculating about DnD as an art form and its relation to other art forms. The article, "Why Dungeons and Dragons is Art", interprets DnD through a Kantian model of aesthetics (the title we actually wanted was "The Aesthetics of Roleplaying Games", but I don't argue with sub-editors). I don't think the theory that Pete came up with and I helped him to explicate is a full explanation of the aesthetics of roleplaying, I'm not enough of a philosopher to assert that it's the correct theory of art, and I don't think it's even necessary to hold a theory of art to believe that something has full status as artwork; but by entertaining it we can raise some new questions about the relationships between different parts of RPGs, and how they might (or might not contribute) to the experience on an aesthetic level.

I can't embed the original post as it's part of the OSR DnD community on Google plus, so here's the important part -

 "In essence the Kantian aesthetics (Pete, correct me if I'm wrong here) is that the aesthetic experience is a moment in which our mind encounters something made of intelligible parts but not fully intelligible (ie, an artwork), and enters a state of speculation during which it cannot alight on a judgment of the things it is speculating on. In this state it can perceive its own function (as a machine for constructing worlds out of of sensoria), and this self-perception is what we experience as the awe of art.

RPGs are a collective experience of world-constructing through consensus (between players and rules) and randomisation. The goal-oriented play of an RPG enables immersion in the constructed world, and enables the aesthetic experience of speculation without a judgeable object. The excitement of simultaneously being in your living room eating pizza and being in another world comes about, in part, through the aesthetic experience of your own ability to construct a functional world out of scant experience, that is both independent of you and also known to be an incomplete model; just as we experience reality itself."

I put some other terminology into the post as well which connected to a debate/disagreement that, from the comments that followed, I evidently didn't realise the full extent of. I'll get onto that later. 

An RPG is a nest of many different things. It has players and play experiences and sessions; it has rules documents and rulebooks and rule-following and referees (and rules arguments); it also has documents that guide play that aren't rules, such as setting documents, or adventure modules; it has unwritten rules, social rules, house rules; it has stories and art; it's also possible to turn play experiences into stories and art. So what part of that complex is the artwork? We found it easier to ask, "When do you experience the art?" and then reify that into an object; and we decided that the experience of play is the moment you feel the distinct aesthetic power of RPGs, which makes the play-experience the object that has aesthetic characteristics. It was the one part that we definitively knew was not present in any of the constitutive elements of an RPG. (We could Germanize it for added Philosophy - Spielerfahrung. Actually that's awesome. I'm going to use that.)

The essay attempts to find a theory for the artfulness of RPGs that does not collapse into another theory for another artform, and that is more than a sum-of-its-parts argument. It was an attempt to find what it is about the Spielerfahrung that can generate awe, distinct from the capacity of other artforms to create awe. A reductive explanation would be that all artworks enable our mind to look at some part of its own capacity to construct a world; when we play RPGs, we have root access, because we are literally engaged in an act of collective world construction. Yet RPGs are more powerful than even that suggests. The trick for a Kantian aesthetic experience is that normally, your mind is judging something or other. It is judging a table to be flat, or the wallpaper to be green. If you try to judge your capacity to build a world by looking at part of it, you instead judge that object - like fighting Medusa, you cannot look directly at your ability to create a world. It's only when you experience something seemingly but not finally explicable that exceeds your capacity to interpret and which you cannot definitively judge, that your judgment can circumvent the object you are speculating on and instead alights on your speculation itself. When you participate in the Spielerfahrung you are engaged in the act of constructing a world; yet you do not judge the Spielerfahrung because you are invested in the world you are creating. Or another way of putting it - being immersed in an RPG world stops your mind forming a judgment about the way that you create that immersion. Your mind is constructing worlds without end, it is not focused on a judgable object, and in this state it can judge its own world-building power (and find it good).

Now, to re-insert that point that I alluded to three paragraphs back. The terminology I used was "Narrativist vs. Simulationist." What I thought the terms meant was "games/rules that attempt to enable play that recreates narrative conventions", and "games/rules that attempt to enable play that mimics physical reality." Zak Smith in his insistent style pointed out that the terms have a rather broader and ill-defined use, not universally agreed upon or adopted. While narrativist vs simulationist is a false dichotomy between types of RPG, it is true that some games rules complement play that aims to reflect "what would really happen in X circumstance", while others "what would happen in an action movie/dramatic narrative/western". These aren't opposed tendencies, and they aren't the only scales on which the rules of RPGs affect play. But importing the theory from the DnD and Philosophy essay, I think they represent two very important ways in which RPGs create the aesthetic experience.

A world in the sense I have been using is a construct for making sense of experience, inferred from an outside reality but not equivalent to it. Our minds build worlds - but the physical world is not the only one. The physical world is a primary way in which we experience reality; it's a world of causality, physics, human-independent facts. The narrative world is a world of politics, idealism, fatalism, narrative conventions, and human-dependent sequences of events. The symbolic world is part of language, tarot reading, saga and myth. The dream world exists in the associative logic of schizophrenics and sleep deprivation, faces in car bumpers, overactive pattern-forming and unfounded conviction. I'm sure there are sub worlds (tragedy vs. comedy vs. police procedural within the narative world) and that there are worlds of experience missing from the short list. A world as construed here is just a framework for understanding what we perceive, and there should be as many as there are humans. When we participate in Spielerfahrung, we are able to experience our capacity to build many different types of world, and different RPGs will engage us in the creation of each type of world to a greater or lesser extent.

So, questions arising from this:

What RPGs are there that enable you to construct the weird outlier worlds? Any game can be jury-rigged to support any kind of world-making by inserting setting material, referee styles, house rules and so on, but are there any rules systems that particularly encourage dream logic?

Which conventions of play enable you to experience immersion? What makes you forget that you are engaged in building a world from a quintessence of dust?