[Von Plays…] World of Warcraft and Gothic Spaces: The Horror of Bradensbrook

In which I mash-up a lightweight academic-style paper on World of Warcraft with the whole ‘commentated playthrough’ thing, and see how it works.

This one’s something a bit different; I tried to mash up my two preferred media, the gameplay commentary and the practical criticism academic-style essay, and see how well they stuck together.

The commentary on WoW is probably a bit basic and I’m probably taking a working knowledge of Gothic literature for granted, but… you work the crowd you have, you know?

I want to do more of these, even if they do take me two or three full working days to crank out. I also want to get better at the editing; I know it’s a bit ropey, especially the voiceover (which I tried recording straight into Lightworks, and I doubt I’ll be doing that again).

[Meta Gaming] Whither White Wolf?

Thoughts on the new White Wolf, the latest round of Zak-related controversy, the political Gothic and Scandiwegian LARP.

I’ve had this one in the can for a while, waiting for a moment in the content schedule to let it out. One of the downsides of trying to be more pro and organised is thinking “I could post this today but it’s not on the schedule and it’ll crowd out the regular content and argh.” This one has rather blown up – every couple of days something arrives to make it more convoluted – and now I imagine the teal deers are already bounding through the woods. Better to let it loose than wait for breathing room that never comes.

Anyway. White Wolf.

The newer, more Swedish White Wolf

Some years ago I took them to task for repeated botches of their Intelligence + Sound Business Practice rolls, and then I rather lost track of who owned what in the wonderful World of Darkness. I had my Revised books and lucked into a stash of 2e, I could still play my game, the world could go hang.

Since then, Paradox Interactive – the computer game people who were going to make the World of Darkness MMO –    {ETA: I am now aware that it was CCP, not Paradox, who oversaw development of the WoD MMO – thanks to Julius and Charles for the correction} have overseen the rise of a newer, more Swedish White Wolf. These Scandiwegian types seem to be on the ball.

For one thing, they grasp that trying to make a living as publishers of tabletop RPG books is fucking idiotic. It’s a shallow well, and it leads to the promulgation of cruft and splatbooks and shit that’s coming out because you have to try and and sell something rather than because it’s good for the game.

They also recognise that previous White Wolf rulebooks have, for all their charm and impact, aged badly – they are overwrought, poorly laid out, clunky and represent a ponderous too-many-rules style of roleplaying that needs to fucking die.

Finally, they appear to have a sense of social responsibility – a game set in the here and now is obliged to answer the here and now on some level. Oh, and the new head guy who diablerised Achilli or whatever admits the new WoD is a better setting than the old, and he’s rolling with the old one purely because it has greater clout and he can do metaplot stuff without ruining it, because it’s always been metaplot driven. Martin Ericsson is not stupid. May he be blessed with whatever it is that Swedish people like. Now get a shift on and release the Dark Pack guidelines.

Scandi LARP

Ericsson and friends are LARPers. Specifically, they’re Scandiwegian LARPers, which means a particular approach and philosophy is coming with them. This might be a bit different from the “goth scene with combat rules” that this rank outsider has always suspected Vampire LARP to be. (I make no apologies for this: I do not make a convincing vampire in my own person, nor do I do well when confined to a single character for the whole evening. Also, if the DJ drops a Sisters song I reserve the right to job off and wave my limbs around, no matter who says they’re Prince.)

These high-profile mass LARP events are the future for Vampire et al, and despite my personal disinterest in the arena, I think they’re fundamentally a good thing. They create something which can be shown, rather than told about; they are content, and in my day job I have learned that content is king. They rest on a foundation of negotiation, trust and consent – care, rather than justice – which is ultimately quite healthy. If everyone’s in the trust tree, the game can be pushed to its full potential rather than having to circle at the lower tiers because someone doesn’t think it’s fair.

(I might have a ‘wrongheaded’ approach to these things. In my book, everyone involved in a given session of play needs to be more or less on the same level. That means adjusting the group to fit the desired level of play as much as adjusting the level of play to fit the desired group. Know your players, and their boundaries, and don’t be afraid to say “look mate, I don’t think my Thursday night game of elegantly restrained erotic politicism is really the right place for someone who has custom futanari art on all his accessories and a gun catalogue in his rucksack, but how about you come to the all-out Sabbat game on Tuesday and your Lasombra can tentacle-fuck all the goons he likes.” I believe in managing expectations and selecting players so that the X-card is seldom necessary, and if it is necessary, I’ve de facto fucked up somehow.)

Video Games

Instead of being fucking idiotic, the new White Wolf is essentially going to be a video game company. That’ll keep the lights on, and the tabletop stuff will be produced out of the setting bibles that the games will need anyway. Tabletop will be the soul rather than the heart of the beast. This is good business and I’m not just saying that because it means more WoD computer games.

They’ve already released two interactive-storytelling bits, with the third (for Wraith of all things, be still my spectral heart) on the way, and announced a proper computer game… for Werewolf. Well, it’s probably about time. I’ve never been that into Werewolf but I’m willing to be persuaded by a well-tuned, party-based, richly-characterised party-level RPG that illustrates why werewolves are worth giving a damn about.

Notably, Ericsson is picking a side in the kultur wars. This is sure to provoke some delightfully tiresome discourse, but here’s the thing. White Wolf has always been anti-authoritarian, punk rock as fuck, and only just right of Trotsky. If you weren’t expecting the new White Wolf to weigh in as a device for asking questions like “what is the price of achieving one’s political ends through violence” you were tone-deaf from the start. This is what they’ve always done.

Individual storytellers may have tuned that down in favour of scaring the bollocks off their players or seducing goth princesses round candelit tables, but the monsters White Wolf uses have always functioned as political metaphors. Vampires are about class and aristocracy and privilege. Werewolves are about civilisation and the primal imperative and the attempt to control ourselves. Mages are about control of their environment, the imposition of will on the world. Faeries are about the forgotten past and the refusal of beliefs to sit down and die. Wraiths are about loss, and conscience, and our relationship with ourselves – when all’s said and done, can you look yourself in the mirror every morning?

Yeah, they’re about other stuff as well, and they have to function as fun game experiences and all that, but you’re only turning the “Gothic genre as political” slider down – you’re not turning it off.

Preludes – Vampire and Mage

I’ve bought the Preludes and I’ll be giving them a review on the YouTube channel once I’ve had a chance to actually play them. Spending this weekend sorting out a collaboration with another small channel, though, so it’ll be during the week. Early reports suggest it’s atmospheric. It is alleged to make a statement about where White Wolf wants to be in ref. current events, the Discourse, and the great false binary that defines gamerkultur in this foul year called 2017. It may not be a very good computer game though. “Interactive novel” is apparently a better word for it. I suppose we’ll see.

{ETA: Either the PC version doesn’t work very well or I’m stupid. It took two attempts to get the thing running, and the first instruction betrays its ported-from-mobile origins and doesn’t implement well through mouse clicks. I’m not buying the Android version as well, dudes.}

I also gather that Zak Sabbath has been involved in some capacity. Oh dear. Why oh dear? Read on.

Zak S and the Death of the Author

Zak’s involvement makes sense. He’s an award-winning dark talent, a thought leader in the gaming discourse, in contact with the kind of talent and the kind of politics White Wolf wants to be associated with (edgy, confrontational, get-shit-done, Left-leaning art-as-politics – the likes of China Mieville and Molly Crabapple). Getting him on board has a certain “we’re back and we’re so damn good we got this big name D&D guy” flair to it. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see his name attached to the White Wolf revival, since in all respects other than not being D&D it’s very much his jam and I seem to recall he spoke well of Martin’s intentions for White Wolf when the revival began.

His involvement is also an inevitable maypole of controversy, because where he goes, his combative style of discourse goes, and his online persona goes. Said persona is what it is. Zak makes a living by creating content, and therefore his public persona should think itself and what it does are brilliant, and spend a lot of time protecting its reputation from allegations of BadWrong or crime, because that’s how the business has to work. I don’t get on well with Zak’s e-persona, I find him difficult at best to deal with, but I understand why the persona acts the way it does.

However, partly because of the serious allegations made and partly because of the way Zak’s persona operates when responding to allegations, the discussion has become about him and what he’s said and done and what people have said and done to/with/about him. He didn’t start this round, as far as I can tell – this is raking of old muck by people who don’t want to see an alleged/debunked/suspected harasser with a large and vocal ‘fandom’ and ‘hatedom’ given a platform by White Wolf. Nonetheless, muck was raked, and the fellow is professionally and personally obliged to enter the fray and address it, and here we go again.

As ever with arguments on the Internet, it has become a disparate thing taking place on multiple social mediaplatforms, with disparate persons and levels of bias arguing the same thing with different levels of information and input. As ever with arguments on the Internet, it has become a morass of sock puppets, deleted comments, impersonations and obliterations of the paper trail. If you’re half an hour late to the party it’s bloody difficult to establish who said or did what to whom and on what grounds, which also makes proving or disproving the charge of harassment into a right pain in the arse.

{ETA: Moderators on the VtM Facebook Page have deleted the thread to which I linked previously, and issued justification. Now, it’s their page and they can do what they like with it, but I would have welcomed notice so that the discussion – which to my mind was constructive, albeit tense, and nothing like my idea of a ‘flamewar’ – could have been archived for reference. Once a thing has been said it should remain said.}

I know what people are like. Screenshots can be faked, accounts can be created and uncreated with a flick of the wrist, cliques can be mobilised and the facts can be obscured. I hate it. It’s the worst fucking thing about the Internet, and I hate having to expect ill intent on everyone’s part (because presuming good intent has brought me into these shitstorms before, playing a significant role in that nervous breakdown I had recently).

White Wolf claim they’ve investigated and found no evidence of harassment. {ETA: One of the previous victims, David Hill, another White Wolf employee, casts doubt on this claim. Zak’s take on things seems most up to date here.} I have no way of proving a damn thing to my own satisfaction, or knowing who’s doing what and in whose name to who, so… I await to see how this shitstorm turns out. There is no such thing as bad publicity, but there are a lot of j’accuses in the air – not the best start for the new White Wolf.

{ETA: White Wolf issues statement of regret. Read it and make up your own mind. For what it’s worth, this is still mostly muck-raking. White Wolf claim they did the diligence and decided they had more to gain than lose by associating with Zak. From a cultural/political legitimacy point of view they’re right.}

Thank gawd for the Death of the Author, eh? At least it’s intellectually legitimate to talk about the work as detached from its creator, even if Camille Paglia would disapprove. I gather that more hyperactive channels already have their Let’s Plays coming out, but I have a consistent schedule to maintain. Maybe I’ll do Preludes on Thursdays, before the elegantly restrained political eroticism.

{ETA: Either I’m thick as shit or Preludes is badly ported to PC. Possibly both. Either way, clicking on the simulated mobile phone in the PC port (which strikes me as a lazy-ass way to do a PC port) doesn’t seem to do owt. Unimpressed.}

More on this as details emerge.

{ETA: The multiple edits this morning are attempts to fix the formatting of the post – the final paragraphs keep clustering together instead of carriage returning like a good wall of text.}

[Meta Gaming] Terror, Horror and the Gothic Fantasy

There is a split in the tradition of Gothic fiction, almost as old as the recognisable genre itself. At its most clear, the split is between the ‘terror’ Gothic of Ann Radcliffe and the ‘horror’ Gothic of Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. This is not after-the-fact critical flimflam but a distinction articulated by Radcliffe herself, around the time she was writing The Italian as a repudiation of Lewis’ style and proclivities.

Radcliffe’s Gothic plays upon the sensibilities of the novel readers of her day – middle-class women for the most part – and beneath its explained supernatural trappings it is as much a matter of manners as Austen. Among its qualities is the emphasis on ‘imagined evils over actual, physical threats, in accordance with theories of the sublime (terror expands our mind through imagination, while horror contracts it through earthly fears)’. The surroundings and situations in which Radcliffe’s heroines find themselves prey upon their susceptible, sensitive minds until they keel over in a swoon of pure terror at the thought of what might be about to happen.

As you’d expect, Lewis’ ‘horror’ Gothic is much more about physical threats: the dagger held to Matilda’s bosom presents the threat of injury to her own person and of sexual temptation to the onlooking Ambrosio, while the novels’ incidents are full of physical desire and panicked flight through dark places.

This is not to say that a given work is either terrifying or horrible, although Lewis seems to have won out. Terror and horror are present to varying degrees in varying works within the tradition. Masterpieces of the Gothic successfully blend them to some extent.

Frankenstein has the grotesque appearance and physical power of the Creature, but it also has the moral sensibility of the Creature and his creator at its heart, the ethical struggle over what the Creature might do or be. Dracula is closer to Lewis, a series of perilous incidents unfolding upon one another, but the physical and spiritual contamination of undeath is a threat of terror to the rational Victorian middle classes forming Stoker’s cast and readership. Gormenghast, the peak of the tradition as far as I’m concerned, comes in for flak because ‘nothing happens in the first book’ – the truth is that the first book is a slow burner which explores terror and, barring the library fire and Steerpike’s flight across the rooftops, provides little physical threat. The third book is a fever dream of horror as Titus reels from incident to incident with little comprehension of where he is or what is happening to him – the great evil which he imagines is the absence of a physical qualifier for his experience, the possibility that Gormenghast does not exist and never existed, but he is constantly beset by lesser physical evils and these drive the narrative. The middle book is the pinnacle, in which the physical perils of fire and water harmonise with the psychological perils of ritual and unfettered nature. But I digress.

On screen, Gothic often slides too far into horror. Horror films are rich with incidents and implied physical threats but they do not always achieve that access to the sublime sensibilities which is necessary for terror and thus the complete Gothic experience. Without cultivated access to the inner lives of characters, the events of Gothic cinema – however faithfully adapted – lose their ability to terrify. This is further compounded by the tendency of Gothic cinema to go easier on the physical threats than the gore porn of ‘pure’ horror. The result is the cosy non-horror of the Hammer movie or the Hinchcliffe-era Doctor Who serial: the style of the Gothic without its substance.

What is all this to the Master of Games? Well, let us consider Ravenloft. The original Module I6 is a blur of Hammeresque visual trappings and generic events which falls into exactly the same trap as the films which set its tone. It has too much of Lewis’ lurid adventuresome romp and not enough of Radcliffe’s excision of sensibility for my liking.

This is a problem of D&D and its ilk, if I’m honest. Terror resides in the imagination and the characters, the avatars by which we navigate the imagined world of the RPG, do not have an imagination of their own. It is the sensibility of the players at one’s actual table which must be identified and incorporated into the events of the game, and we must go beyond “your character may die!” – this is an imaginary peril which puts the wind up a player but it is nothing that roleplaying in some other genre does not accomplish equally as well. For the Gothic we must go further.

I have lunged for and sometimes achieved the complete Gothic experience in my gaming. It has invariably been done with players who I know well. I know their heartstrings and can saw on them as a virtuoso on his fiddle. In the early days of my Victorian Age Vampire group (fourteen years: we were so much younger then…) things were more Lewis than Radcliffe, a lurid bloodsoaked romp through Victorian London, more style than substance. It wasn’t until I knew the people behind the characters that I could feed them clashes in sensory perception, fragmented awareness of time, isolation in exactly the sort of place that preyed on their thoughts or the looming presence of a genius loci, and in so doing provoke them into roleplaying convincing fear or madness – and in one case have one player sleeping with the lights on for a week.

A Gothic module will only ever achieve tired aesthetic Hammerisms – the genre’s lowest common denominator played for lighthearted, unmoving fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the pinnacle of Gothic roleplaying. That needs tailoring. It needs players with sensibilities which can be played upon by a DM willing to do so to a point just shy of trauma. It’s not for everyone. Too much resilience drives it back into the realm of cliché and pastiche: not enough and the DM becomes a mere bully, fucking with vulnerable players who aren’t entertained by his antics. I haven’t had a group who can do it right for years and the last time I did I let them down by running Module I6 by the jolly hollow book instead of reaching out for what I knew was there, but I now have a couple of players with whom the right chord (D minor) might just be struck.