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Friday Five: 5 Best Non-Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Games from the 90s

This week's host is Ben Blattberg, a freelance writer currently living in Texas. You can find him blogging about movies and story structure and making jokes on Twitter at @inCatastrophe.

"You’re all a bunch of perverted little Attilas" - Greg Costikyan, Violence (1999)

I should probably title this Friday Five “I was a geeky teenager in the 90s, let me tell you about my character.” But let’s pretend this isn’t just about me -

And maybe it isn’t; after all, it’s hard to imagine Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson telling D&D players in the 1970s that they were genocidal maniacs, like Greg Costikyan did with Violence; or telling them they looked good in eye-liner, like Mark Rein-Hagen did with Vampire. The 70s may have invented roleplaying, but in the 90s, roleplaying got weird.

Weird and awesome. While TSR’s behemoth tarrasque AD&D fought with Wizards of the Coast’s card-game/money-printing-scheme Magic: The Gathering over fantasy gaming, the rest of the RPG world was inventing some great non-fantasy games.

Here are five of the best.

VampireVampire: The Masquerade, 1991

No longer were roleplayers pale because we didn’t play sports - after Vampire: The Masquerade, we were pale on purpose. Vampire did more than bring emo-Goth kids to roleplaying and a Spelling-produced vampire show to prime-time TV; most importantly, it taught us new SAT words like “celerity” and “obfuscate.”

Vampire also changed some basic assumptions we had about roleplaying, emphasizing the “role” beyond the somewhat abstract notions of alignment or sanity. Instead, the Humanity mechanic not only allowed us to angst out over our beastly natures, but it also captured the central metaphor of the game perfectly - of belonging and being excluded. Which, now that I put it that way, sounds like the Platonic form of nerd-bait.

Counter-argument: Maybe Vampire took itself a wee bit too seriously at times.

Runner-up: Aberrant, 1999: Same basic concept, but for superheroes: with great power, comes great distance from baseline humans.

Continue reading "Friday Five: 5 Best Non-Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Games from the 90s" »

Film 101: Ghostbusters, Wayne's World & Spaceballs

Ghostbusters10. Ghostbusters (1984)

11. Wayne’s World (1992)

12. Spaceballs (1987)

Seven years separate Just Like Heaven and Friends with Kids, while there’s only a six year difference between the original release dates for Ghostbusters and Wayne’s World – and yet, the latter two feel a lifetime apart, and the former two forgettably similar.

The obvious reason for this is that I saw both of today’s films when I was a kid – Ghostbusters when I was young, maybe six or seven, and Wayne’s World when I was 12. Ghostbusters I saw on some crummy VHS tape; Wayne’s World I remember seeing in the cinema. And both were a big, big deal. Both were quoted endlessly, by everyone, for years; I practiced my Zuul voice and even today, occasionally, suggest that various friends ought to party on.

And I probably haven’t seen either in 20 years. And y’know what? They both hold up. (We'll talk about Spaceballs presently.)

Now, on the one hand, I know I’m laying myself open to accusations of nostalgia viewing; both these films were fucking huge when I was a kid, and extricating them from even my relatively pop-culture-free childhood and adolescence is impossible. But I like to think I’ve got the ability to at least make a reasonable effort to separate my historical experiences with the films from my recent viewings. I mean, really. Ghostbusters came out three decades ago. Wayne’s World is twenty-two years old. I’m moving into middle fucking age. People have lived entire lifetimes in the thirty years since Ghostbusters was released. I mean, god, I should fucking hope I’ve got some perspective.

Yeah, I probably don’t. Let’s get to it.

Continue reading "Film 101: Ghostbusters, Wayne's World & Spaceballs" »

Poking at Awards: "Literary Authors Slumming in Genre"

Last week, Juliet McKenna wrote this (rather stunning) post that set the (most) recent genre sexism disaster in the context of the industry, and spelling out why the 'shoutback' matters. A brilliant piece, and I couldn't agree more. The impact of this post, encouraging people to highlight female fantasy authors, has spilled across the genre-related interwebs and out into the mainstream media (the Guardian, amongst others). Great stuff.*

Ms. McKenna's post also had a small - non-gender-related - addendum that I thought was worth exploring in more detail. That is:

I did see one correlation in my Clarke reading, mind you. Where authors came ‘genre-slumming’, trying their hand at SF&F, there was definitely a higher incidence of tedious books trying to tickle the fancy of the mythical mouth-breathing SF fan only interested in sex and violence. 

Previously, Ms. McKenna cites her experience as a Clarke judge - "200 SF books over 2012-2013 as a Clarke Award judge" - as evidence that there was:

absolutely no correlation between the age and gender of the author and the presence of outdated or offensive ideas

The combination of these two statements is a little shocking: are literary authors turning their hands to genre more likely to write sexist, tedious, reactive - "bad" - books? The accusation that literary authors "slum" in genre isn't a new one, in fact, it is a statement I've made myself on more than one occasion in the past. So, with this as the prompt, I've decided to look into the hypothesis that "literary authors write 'bad' genre fiction".

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Sarah Lotz on "Hatchet Jobs and the Bad Review Syndrome"

HatchetI wrote the below ages ago – years ago, actually, and because I am a) a coward and b) the world’s worst blogger, it’s been languishing in my ‘stories and other stuff’ folder. The point of it was to try to articulate, as honestly as possible, what it feels like when you’ve been the recipient of a particularly scathing review (which is bloody hard to do without sounding like a self-pitying whinge-monger).

Since I wrote it, I’ve had many many more bad reviews (none as hatchety as the one mentioned below, but several best termed "Chestbursters", as they tend to arrive when you least expect them and totally fuck up your day). Still, my skin is far thicker these days, and I absolutely admit that this is because I have been extremely lucky and I am now able to make a living from writing (i.e. I can now afford Valium).  

* * *

Please note that I do not mean to imply here that reviewers should pull their critical punches to spare writers’ delicate egos – clearly this would be counter-productive for a healthy reviewing culture and no one wants that. But, that said, I’m not focusing on critical or simply negative reviews (again, I’ve had lots of those – they hurt, sure – but like it or not the intelligent ones can be extremely helpful in pointing out flaws that need to be addressed), I’m talking about the hatchet job.

In an article on the 2011 Hatchet Job of the Year award, The Independent’s literary editor Boyd Tonkin commented that "the defining characteristic of the hatchet-job is not that it aims to scold errors, challenge opinions or castigate artistic flaws. It seeks to wound, to wreck, to do lasting mischief to the reputation of either a work or else a whole career."

Tonkin also points out that hatchet-jobs also tend to be great fun to write and even more entertaining to read (tapping, as they do, into the schadenfreude that lurks inside everyone), but, in his opinion, their victims should, on the whole, be restricted to ‘... the influential, powerful, famous; those authors acclaimed by conformists and encircled by flatterers.

I am neither famous nor influential, but for what it’s worth, here’s my take on being on the receiving end of the hatchet (cue violin music):

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Fiction: 'A Study in Viscera' by Archie Black

Lillitha of Darkhaven, the Maestra of Mistery, put her hands on her hips and sighed. Spread-eagled on a lumpy mattress before her lay the ravaged body of what had been, relatively recently, Prince Nonpareil, barbarian king-to-be of the Western Wilds. On either side of her were ranged her compatriots in evil – Mistress Mori, wife of the spreading dark; Eveanizae, Hetaera of Hell; Bal-Shebal, the ruiner of realms; Lady Derisive, green-skinned and grumpy; and Aethelreada ‘the always-ready’ of Azizar. In a corner sniveled a pimple-faced lad of about thirteen – the recently deceased’s stable boy. It was he who’d found the body and raised the alarm.

* * *

Strangely, despite the superb reputation and supposed popularity of the Starving Stag, most of the neighboring tables that evening had been empty. Lillitha was reasonably confident that the unfilled chairs had something to do with the fact that she and her friends had descended unexpectedly upon the little tavern earlier in the day, and spent several raucous hours bemoaning the state of the omniverse over bottles of pestilential wine. In any event, they’d seen the stable boy – Burp or Fart or whatever absurd name he’d been assigned by Prince Nonpy – scuttle by earlier carrying a tray heaped with food and a foaming jug. Mori had recognized him instantly, admitting after a little prodding that she’d seduced Nonpy a few months before as the second phase in her scheme to open a portal to the seventh daemon dimension in Farkar, capital city of the Western Wilds.  

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Completing Dahl: Going Solo

This year I’m blogging once a month about my current quest, to read everything Roald Dahl wrote. I’ll be looking at Dahl’s more obscure titles, like “The Sword” from an old issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and ones I’ve simply overlooked, like Rhyme Stew.

Full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. Anyways, I’ll also watch and write about the films and TV episodes he wrote, as I’ve never seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or 36 Hours. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.

Going soloGoing Solo

I was really looking forward to reading this book. Going Solo is billed right on the cover (of my copy, at least) as “continuing the story begun in Boy, and Boy is my favorite of Dahl’s books for children. I can’t remember who I was talking to recently when I made this statement, but their puzzled “really???” reaction puzzled me in turn. True, Matilda is awesome as an ultimate wish-fulfillment/validation fantasy for smart kids frustrated by the slow pace of classroom learning. And The Witches is just so much fun, what with the awesome messages about not trusting adults and hard lessons about how one’s actions as a child might result in consequences that last a lifetime (I always thought it was bogus how in the movie version the kid is turned back into a kid). But BoyBoy got under my skin as a child. Not only did it begin my lifelong interest in the British education system, it showed me an amazing world that was entirely real, but just as alien as a fantasy-land full of dragons and wizards compared to the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.

I was a good kid, who never really got into trouble, so it really blew me away, reading about the exploits of a young man who literally put a dead mouse in a candy jar to prank a wicked shopkeeper, or who shredded up goat’s droppings into his sister’s fiancée’s pipe to punish him for being extremely annoying. Not only that, but the descriptions of Dahl’s time at school were so fascinatingly personal they bewitched me more than any of his more fantastical writings. His experience of breaking a nib in study hall while writing an essay, for example, was fascinating, as was his apologia for writing so much about caning:

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Poking at Awards: Subjective Criteria

Be warned, this is a long, multi-part ramble about genre fiction's literary awards.

The underlying premise to this is that all genre awards follow the same basic model in how they choose to express their core purpose:

The [superlative adjective] [genre parameter] [format parameter] book of the [geographically and chronologically bounded] year.

Yet despite this simple formula, literary awards can still spawn a thousand approaches and ten thousand conversations.

To help the discussion, let's split the criteria into two parts:

  • Subjective - the [superlative adjective] and the [genre parameter]. These are means of appraising the qualitative content of the book's content. These are defined or interpreted by the judges (juried awards) and voters (popular awards).
  • Objective - [physical format] and [geographic and chronological bounded]. These are not related to the book's text or content and are defined by the award's rules and administration.

But what do these criteria actually mean?

And, more importantly, how do they impact discussion around an award and the books that it recognises?

Let's parse us some variables!

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Friday Five: Beyond Broken Monsters and The Three - 25 South African SF&F Books

This week's Friday Five (...Fives) is courtesy of Nick Wood, who has focused on some of the amazing speculative fiction coming out of South Africa. More of Nick's work (and reading suggestions) can be found on his blog, or you can ask him on Twitter, at @nick45wood.

Idea WarThe South African speculative fiction scene seems to be burgeoning in the wake of Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz (whom I’m forbidden to mention, in order to give space to other, perhaps less well-known authors).*

So much so that I’m going to beg for editorial indulgence and significantly go over the Friday Five numerical limit – going to five fives. And even then it still feels like a constraint.

Given this fast emerging SF scene within South Africa, it deserves a strong local publishing platform. Traditionally, the larger local publishers have tended to shun SF/F/H fiction (novels by Lauren Beukes and Lily Herne excepted), choosing to focus on so-called "literary" fiction and other forms of genre, such as crime. 

Thankfully, this is changing. While stalwart publishers such as Umuzi, Jacana and Kwela are now beginning to open their doors to more speculative fare, local digital publishers have also moved into the SF scene - namely Fox & Raven, who have published work by Martin Stokes, Mia Arderne and Dave de Burgh, amongst others  - as well as wordsmack who have published Abi Godsell's Idea War (more of Abi later). Wordsmack will also publish the Vampire Queen of the South, Nerine Dorman (Inkarna and Khepera Rising), who’s not only a prolific indie author in her own right, but runs the local horror anthology/competition, "Bloody Parchment"

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Film 101: Friends with Kids (2011) and Just Like Heaven (2004)

Romantic ComediesFilm 8: Friends with Kids (2011)

Film 9: Just Like Heaven (2004)

Falling in love: what the hell. It’s all this stuff happening at once, and some of it you’re hyperaware of, and some of it you have no idea about at all. There’s the attraction and the chemistry and the sex, and the anticipation and the excitement and the disappointment, and the friendship and the happiness and the almost excruciating joy of it all, and the scariness and the insecurity and the sadness and the hope and the fear and all this stuff is happening all at once on, like, every single level while you’re still going about the entire rest of your life? It’s fucking unbelievable. And, my god, the very idea that someone could fake all that? That is nuts.

It’s beyond preposterous to think about faking falling in love – not just being attracted to someone, but actually falling madly in love with that person. And yet the movie industry does it all the time. They make us believe to total strangers are falling in love with each other, for the 90-odd minutes they’re on screen during your standard rom com, all the time! It’s amazing. I can understand faking blowing shit up onscreen, but I can hardly wrap my head around the idea that people can act well enough to make audiences believe that two people who are not falling in love are falling in love.

Why is that so hard for me to believe? Well, in the end, the issue is that rom coms are a) meant to take place in a real and relatable version of the real world, and b) are 100% reliant on the audience swallowing that two people have just fallen in love. Which, in case you’ve forgotten, is totally ludicrous.

So let’s take a look at two different rom coms and see what’s what. (Spoilers)

Continue reading "Film 101: Friends with Kids (2011) and Just Like Heaven (2004)" »

WorldCon 2016: Beijing vs KC

Now this is interesting! The two bids for WorldCon 2016 are Beijing and Kansas City. The details of both bids are here.

I'm from Kansas City, and it is a great place. Not so great for international transport - I've made that flight (flights) a lot, and it isn't so much fun. That said, unlike those jumped-up coastal American cities, KC is genuinely delighted by international visitors, and the cost of visiting (meals, cabs, drinks, etc.) is cheap.

Kansas-City-Public-Library-MissouriPlus, this thing.

The bid, I have to say, looks really solid. I've always paid attention to Kansas City bids for SF cons, mostly because, well, I have serious hometown pride and with that comes opinions. This particular proposal hits all the right notes. For one, it is based downtown, in the proper convention center, in the heart of the city. Downtown KC is great, and this means there are a lot of fun neighborhoods within a short distance - and some, like the Power and Light District, are within walking distance. Again, this is handy for international visitors and those who don't want to drive.

KC also has a great creative heritage - some publishers, a lot of advertising and design powerhouse, a brilliant art institute and, don't knock it - Hallmark Cards. What that last means is that KC has a long history of employing zillions of artists, designers and writers. They do greeting cards by day... and independent comic books at night. It is pretty cool, and, as a result, KC has a lot of small bookshops, toystores, comic shops, record stores, etc. etc. 

Also, BBQ. Which, all joking aside, amazing

All in all, it is pretty much the bid proposal that I would've made were I running the bid, which is high praise, as I've been pretty critical of previous attempts. I don't know what the convention itself will be like, but everything else? Two thumbs up.

But... I'll be voting for Beijing.

There are a lot of rational reasons to vote for Kansas City (and BBQ counts double), but one big emotional reason for Beijing: I want to live in the future. Hell, I'd even settle for the present, at this rate. This is WorldCon - and its ambition should match its name. 

And, when I was a kid in KC reading science fiction in one of the (excellent) public libraries, those stories had international conventions in places like Beijing. Those books featured the best and the brightest and the most creative jetting all over the world to fascinating destinations and the cities of the future - one planet, looking outwards to the stars. That was twenty years ago. That future is overdue.