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Now Five Years Later On, You’ve Got The World At Your Feet

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Apparently I’ve been at this for five years now. GAME OVER has gone from ripping-off-Stelek blue to attractively rusty with Skarre at the top to stark black on white to the gloomy, stormy version, which is actually the fourth iteration, and that just goes to show that you can’t trust me to remember what happened and in what order. Means I can’t make a Vol. 4 joke if I decide to redesign the blog again, but whatever.

The sense of time passing really has made me think about where I’ve come from and where I’ve been and where I’m going. If you go back to the beginning and follow the thread you go from “I’ve just moved back to Plymouth to train as a teacher”, teaching Shiny to play Warmachine and meeting Frugal Dave, through the brown period (which amounts to “I’m having the worst six months of my life in Gloucester and if it weren’t for Hark-hugs and Dice and Decks every Friday I might have lost the will to live”), thence two years in Wolverhampton struggling to make ends meet as a freelance writer but finally doing some roleplaying again (stark dark and white), and for the last couple of years… London, London and forsaking the PhDream and a couple of time-sink teaching jobs which have needed doing and been very noble but seem to have strangled my enthusiasm and creativity at the roots.

I spent the final third of 2013 knocking around the edge of suicide, failing hard at NaNoWriMo while I was laid up and barely in work, nearly jumping off a bridge not long before Christmas. (It was Westminster, and it wouldn’t have killed me reliably; if I’d turned right instead of left I’d have ended up on a different bridge, and I might not be here today.) In 2014 the System finally threw something that actually worked at my cyclothymia; I’ve spent seven months in and out of CBT and, within the last two months, been politely informed that I’m probably on the autistic spectrum (something like this, probably).

I’ve become rather cynical about the things I used to love over the last five years. The oscillation between perspectives on gaming speaks for itself; just look back over the entries on Warmachine. I’ve developed an increasing distaste for my academic discipline, for the obsession with theory and what-would-Judith-Butler-do that seems to obscure the primary texts. I brought this up on YDIS a while back and got a surprisingly perceptive comment from someone who a) doesn’t know me and b) managed to replicate my thought process from five and a half years ago almost perfectly.

What you gain and pursue privately is very different from the papers you turn in for a degree or buck. That’s true of all the humanities. I would also say there is quite an arguable difference between an English degree and a Comparative Literature degree. I mean, you’ve got the “cynic” line of argument down pat but for every lazy, jaded graduate there is one who is earnestly working to improve literacy rates and appreciation. It doesn’t pay well and it’s thankless but perhaps you could put your degree to good use and tutor some disadvantaged kids. You know, help them read and write enough to get through high school and not end up robbing liquor stores.

All of this is a fair cop. The distinction between private and public engagement is on the mark; I spoke without thinking, acknowledge my error and will strive to improve.

But… for what it’s worth, my day job for the last five years has been exactly that; teaching disadvantaged kids in some of the poorest inner-city boroughs in England/mentoring middle-class kids with learning difficulties. I’m (still) cynical about the need for comp. lit. theoreticals in doing so (a love of primary text, an awareness of context and an instinct for editing will probably serve better in that respect) but I have been trying to put my poor choice of degree to exactly that good use.

I use the past tense because I broke through at a bad time. 2010 ushered in a government whose budgets have brought public sector spending cuts on a hitherto unknown scale, which in turn means that a lot of fractional contracted or zero-contracted-hours folks like, say, early-career lecturers in FE colleges or part-time schoolteachers (myself included) are being made redundant to keep the budgets down.

I’ve left two jobs of my own accord and been made redundant from two during GAME OVER’s lifespan. In the latter case, it’s possibly a good thing: I was starting to phone it in and I think the indifferent teachers are the worst thing that can happen to a subject or a student. On top of that, the English curriculum’s undergoing massive revision from people who, putting it bluntly, don’t know jack about teaching and have based their model on their own half-remembered public schooldays. Once the dust has settled and I have my own shit in order I might go back in, or I might not.

Either way, I feel like I’ve earned a break. I spent a couple of months unemployed, driving myself up the wall with trying to force a perfectly straightforward claim for benefits through the system; I’ve done some telephone fundraising for a political party in the last few weeks and found it far, far more to my liking than making sales calls ever was; I’d like to give NaNoWriMo another crack and I think I know what went wrong last time. During November I’ll be turning this blog over to a serialised novel; a series of interconnected short stories exploring the world I’ve been building for the last four weeks. I’m hoping that the obligation to produce regular content on a schedule, which manages to prise blog-words out of me on a regular basis, will serve as a similar motive for fiction.

As far as gaming and blogging go, I don’t know what’s going on any more. There’s a lot that I find interesting and not a lot that I particularly want to invest time, money and effort into. I’m oscillating a great deal – I think that X or Y or Z wargaming project might be cool but then I think about how seldom I play, and suddenly spending shitloads on new toys seems less appealing. One minute I want to burn all my bridges and Just Roleplay Forever, one minute I’m thinking “oh, but it’d be so easy to do this Theme Force or that”.

It’s safer to maintain a holding pattern for now, picking up isolated things rather than big new projects. I’ll probably have a wedding and a house move to pay for in the next year. Many of my clothes are holed, or frayed, or just worn thin; I don’t look or feel the way I want to at the moment, and my investment needs to be directed into feeling and looking better. That’s not to say I want to let it all go: when I ask myself “self, where did all your neat stuff go?” I remember how quick I’ve always been to part with things when times are hard. What I think I need to do is be selective in expansion, and cautious in disposal. I would like to own WFRP.3, having forgiven it, and I’m reading over AD&D in PDF form at the moment and realising just how broad and useful the original Dungeon Master’s Guide actually is. I think I’d like to work on some big kits; some of the pretty stuff from the Vampire Counts range, and probably a Colossal for my Retribution (although I haven’t kept my New Year’s Resolution, so… not this year).

I also want to do something different with the blog. Pure gaming blogging doesn’t have the appeal that it used to do, and – I know I keep saying this – it’d be lovely to talk about books I’ve read and places I’ve been and things I’ve done more often than I do. At the moment I don’t feel like there’s an outlet where I can do that at length, so… this will have to be it, I suppose.

[Actual Play Review] Warhammer Fantasy Role Play Third Edition (Fantasy Flight)

WFRP is definitely one of those games. The first edition was the first RPG I ever ran, and the first from which I gutted four-fifths of the rules like the Disintegrator GM I am – or would one day come to be. At the time I simply couldn’t be bothered spending whole minutes of  my lunchtime flicking back and forth through the several hundred page rulebook – and hold on to that thought, ’cause we’ll be coming back to it before this review is out.

The point is that it’s my old-school game. I have a very strong attachment to its first edition, it’s integral to my concept of The Hobby, and I’ve been dubious of any attempt to change it. Change is bad. We fear change. Change is what Chaos does to us. But we like Chaos! I’m so confused.

Second edition WFRP was greeted with cautious anticipation; it was smaller (which, by that time, I’d decided was a Good Thing), and glossier (which I still don’t automatically see as a virtue, I’m afraid) and definitely more conscious of the modern Warhammer brand, with its eight colours of magic and its siting squarely after the Storm of Chaos worldwide event. That said, I… didn’t hate it. It obviously had a sense of humour, it still felt like the same game (in much the same way that its contemporary sixth edition WFB still felt like the same game as the fifth edition with which I came in, only with a different aesthetic and a streamlined style of play) and most of my first edition resources were more-or-less cross-compatible.

Third? Oh, fuck third. Third’s a glorified board game from those Yankee board game  merchants. Look at it! Where’s the rulebook? Who needs all this clutter? Are those proprietary dice, for crying out loud? What’s wrong with a handful of d10s? In other words, it was new and different and American and I hated it. It took me a long time to mellow out, grow up, get over my irrational anti-Americanism and… okay, I’ve never liked Fantasy Flight’s convoluted ass-about-face way of presenting rules for board games that take a small eternity to play. The point is that I’ve given WFRP.3 a try, not long after Fantasy Flight announced that it was now a dead line and would receive no further updates. Good, precious. We like the dead ones. Nobody will take the dead ones from us…

I’m sorry. I’ll try to rein it in a bit. Anyway, WFRP.3. It’s actually a lot better than I expected, once your expectations are adjusted and you have your head wrapped around why it is the way it is.

In my old-school WFRP days, we imagined where everything was; miniatures came late to roleplaying, for me, when I started playing with people who’d argue about who was where and who could see what, or demanded that ranges be more rigorously observed. We had two or three or four page character sheets, and a plethora of abilities and spells which all had a write-up in the book… somewhere. We spent a lot of time looking things up, or in my case throwing rulebooks across the room and resolving everything by ‘roll a d100, beat this number or roll below that stat, and from there, we fiat, and I might bung a few more dice around…’

WFRP.3 is designed specifically to eliminate that looking-things-up time. Everything you need to know about your character is on some sort of card; one for your career, which covers some core abilities and shows you things on which it’s economical to spend your XP; a couple for your skills and tactics, abilities which you can use to influence the outcomes of various die rolls, and quite a few for your actions; your basic melee and ranged attacks, your blocks and dodges and parries, and the rather neat ‘Pull A Stunt’, which integrates “I want to do something that’s not in the rules” into the turn sequence and provides a set of probabilities rather than demanding a ruling from the GM on the fly. There are also special actions, again purchased during character creation; these are many in number and include things like shield bashes, dramatic flourishes, two-pistol gunslinging (with flintlocks, but mine’s not to reason why…). Character creation allows you to load up on quite a few special actions and talents, so while there’s a certain hint of “you can’t do that, you’ve not got the rules for it”, it’s far more likely that you’ll have had a riff through the action deck and picked half a dozen that you like the look of and are likely to use.

All of your character’s various statuses – significant bits of equipment, wounds, the two different forms of fatigue, and the number of turns left before you can use a particular action again – are tracked with counters or cards. I grew to really like this in the one session we’ve played so far; rather than endlessly rubbing out and pencilling in and wearing holes through or putting smudges all over our character sheets, we were putting down counters on various cards and sheets and handing them back, taking and returning wound counters. The character sheet records our character in peak condition; their base-line stats and specialities, their weapons and their experience. Rather than demanding that you remember everything and make notes of everything, WFRP.3 puts its gameplay into the form of actual physical artefacts that are passed around the table.

I’ve come to appreciate that sort of thing – as I a) grow older and b) play more Warcraft I’ve become accustomed to a system that keeps track of my character’s various statuses and advantages and disadvantages for me, and displays the results in terms of an actual thingummybob that I can look at and recognise and go “ah, that’s that one, that means I can do this or I have to do that”. It’s… tactile. Tactile’s the word for which I’m groping. I like the business of actually handling paper rulebooks and physically being in the same room and having a plain old pencil in my hand when I roleplay, and WFRP.3 draws on that feeling of tactility and harnesses it for ease of play.

And it is easy, once you’ve overcome the initial oddities. Much like Vampire: the Requiem, another revamp of which I’ve come to think more kindly in the last few years, WFRP.3 is a single-roll system where modifiers are expressed by changing the number of dice you roll – and, in WFRP.3, the type. If you’re just an untrained schlub, you roll a handful of blue d8s. If you’re being aggressive/defensive, you swap some of them for red/green d10s, and you know how many you swap because you have an aggression tracker right there in front of you, with a counter showing how many dice you swap in and out. If you have a skill, you add a yellow d6 or two. Black and white d6s represent good or bad luck. There’s a purple d8 which, as far as I can tell, is the “your GM hates you” die.

A photo posted by Stevie Boxall (@consumecoffee) on Oct 10, 2014 at 1:06pm PDT

All those dice have symbols on them. You bung the dice down, look at the symbols, and then look at the card for the action that you’re trying to use. Most cards have an aggressive and a defensive option – and again, you know if you’re being aggressive or defensive because you physically flipped the card over to show the red or green side.  The card tells you what all the symbols do – if you have this many little hammers, that happens – but if you also have that many little skulls, this happens and that’s bad – and if you got a comet on one of your yellow dice, you did something totally awesome. There’s a little bit of maths involved for damage, but it’s of the “add this to your weapon damage and take away their toughness” variety, which the GM can do almost reflexively when handing out or putting down the wound tokens or fatigue/stress counters.

You have a lot of dice and a lot of counters and I piss and moan until the sky falls in when this sort of thing pops up in wargames, so why am I okay with it here? Because of the way WFRP.3 uses table space. There’s no giant map in the middle and, unlike some modern RPGs, there’s no sense that you’re obliged to use miniatures and precisely delineate ranges and spaces. Encounters involve a few sturdy cardboard figures clipped to plastic bases, a couple of cards defining aspects of the terrain – “road” or “forest” or “coach” and how they modify your die pools – and a set of range bands, essentially long-medium-short-engaged. That’s it. Everything’s expressed in those terms. It’s a nice compromise, about as complex and detailed as the maps I naturally tend to draw for combats and not prompting or asking you to keep track of every last rock, bush and crate on the landscape in case some bugger’s trying something complicated. Trying something complicated is just Pulling A Stunt and the player can describe whatever the hell they like.

That’s all very well and good, I hear you ask, but is it fun? Well, this Wednesday, a batch of the Corehammer lads sat down, built characters and played through a sample combat encounter in about three hours. Once Rob-the-GM confirmed that Ogres were an option I became possessed by the idea of playing one, which is… unusual, for me. I’m basically playing the Squirrel character – get stuck in, smash things, doze off until someone tells me what to kill.

Tofu Bean – I don’t know why either, it’s something to do with Stevie’s Halfling being called Bunce and something to do with mocking Robb-the-Irish-vegan – is basically the party’s tank. I found myself thinking about World of Warcraft a lot in character generation; the range of various actions with, basically, a cooldown (number of recharge counters) feel very much like a WoW action bar, and I became fixated on the idea of having more interesting things to do than just make a basic melee attack or block every turn, so I loaded up on four extra combat actions and gave myself a little rotation: a fearsome Ogre roar to skew some die rolls in my favour, a shield bash to knock things down and set up my next attack, a duellist’s strike to do loads of extra damage, and a sword-and-board option for a bit of aggressive defence. I also picked a tactic that gave me extra dice if my opponents were using active defences (weaving around trying not to be hit) and another that would let me discard two skulls from one roll per combat, taking the edge off bad luck. The other thing I had my eye on was cards with lots of symbols on them; as an Ogre I could roll a lot of dice for Tofu’s melee attacks and I wanted to get the most out of doing so.

It sort of works (Rob-the-GM wasn’t really using active defences for his NPCs, so that might turn out to be a bit of a waster, and I chose not to use the discard-two-skulls option during the first short session) and it definitely results in an interesting melee combatant – not a phrase I generally have cause to use. Bean and Bunce make quite a good team, too, with Stevie bouncing around and backstabbing things that are tied up fighting the giant smelly brute who’s whacking them with a shield. I’m trying to persuade him to advance into Ratcatcher so we can have a Small But Vicious Dog and name it Boggis.

So. WFRP.3. It’s not bad. It’s essentially the usual RPG fare, i.e. perhaps a little more granular and over-designed than I’d like it to be, but it’s rendered a lot simpler by shifting the emphasis from “did you remember to write this down” and “what page is that on in the book” to “here, look at the card, and I have that many counters and that’s my die roll”, and that makes it more fluid to play, with fewer stoppages to find exactly the right page and find the right words in amongst the flavour text and – you get the idea. It does demanda well-organised GM (Rob-the-GM has little toolboxes to keep all the counters and things organised, and baggies for everyone’s character’s stuff between sessions) and I can see why the box set only covers three players (but that’s a good-sized group for me, so I ain’t whingin’). The game may be dead but there seems to be a healthy market in second-hand or back-shelf copies on Amazon and whatnot; I may buy one.

Bottom line? I was wrong about the board-game stuff. It’s a feature, not a bug.

A Grand Day Out At The British Museum

Hark and I went to the British Museum earlier this week. Here are some things I saw; they are all things in which I am aesthetically or culturally interested, and many of them are also things which I see as plunder or booty to be used as influences upon gaming, some less directly than others.

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The works of Durer demonstrate both allegorical density and immense complexity; in particular, the physically-impossible-to-build-on-the-budget triumphal arch of Maximilian I, shown below. Imagine a realm where every ruler commissions something like this and, by magical means and agency, it’s actually possible to build them; a realm where the monument dwarfs, and is the principle product of, all other forms of residence or industry. Many of Maximilian’s conquests were outright fabrication; possible future events used as demonstrations of his informed prowess; again, imagine that as the norm. You don’t do things, you just lie and say you did, in grand architectural form.

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Gold coins, in the pre-industrial sense, are actually wafer thin. I never realised, and it’s something I haven’t always considered in terms of encumbrance. I’m sure they still weigh a fair bit but not, being not so chunky as the modern oncer (shown above), as much as I’d envisaged. The weighty coin seems more a late medieval thing, especially commissioned as ornate artefact commemorating or honouring an individual.

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Verdigris’d bronze tablet and crocodile-cult parade armour. The former was used to convey the metal from foundry to forge (or is it the other way around?), the latter to display membership in the cult (presumably they wore dead crocodiles rather than butchering live ones). Shown here for… reference. Reference of course having nothing to do with impending Nurgle releases for WFB, nor for the Gatormen who I confess are one of the more compelling Hordes factions. I’m also quite inspired by the crocodile cult; the forsaking of human kinship and the embracing of a totem animal chimes in with some of the ideas about ancestry and religion that are knocking around at the moment. It’s cool because of the kind of implied shapeshifting, or soulshifting; you are (or were) what you wear (or were).

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An archaic Chinese (I think) banknote, of value equivalent to one thousand strung-together coins. The size of the thing’s what gets me; it’s about an A4 page and densely populated with information. Imagine them bespoke, like banker’s drafts; detailing not merely the amount for which they’re good, but the status of the originator, aspects of their biography and wherewithal – not merely a promissory note, but a guarantor grounded in reputation.

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A couple of depictions of ritual magic at work, the latter especially interesting to me since it depicts a raising of the dead. I love this crowded, monochromatic style; it has a certain stark quality, a statement that Here are the Things and you’d better like them ’cause they’re going nowhere.

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Mentally captioned ‘The Adventuring Witch’ – and isn’t the spaniel-Cerberus on the right the most adorable thing you’ve seen all day?

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Satan, Sin and Death, after Milton; the powers that wrestle over men’s downfall. Interesting to me less because of what it depicts than how; the anthropomorphic personification and its allegorical reflection. Eternal life in damnation vs. the final release of oblivion, with temptation as arbiter and uniting factor between them. That’s the sort of thing I expect to see in religious art.

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The greatest of the Temptations of St. Anthony. Mentally captioned: Bad Day, Worse Day, Actually Quite Alright Day, and then this one: the Worst Day Ever. St. Anthony becomes less and less relevant to his own story after a while, eventually becoming a tiny detail in this vision of apocalypse. With all due respect to Ian Miller et al, sometimes one just has to go back to one’s sources.

Despite recent lamenting and trailing off in content I am very much alive, actually quite interested in the prospect of the new Nurgle releases for Warhammer (though I can’t in all good conscience afford them) and currently soaking up inspiration and impression in readiness for next month’s writing odyssey. Tempting a colleague and a close friend into joining me will be crucial in the venture’s success, I feel. I’ve also been playing one of those despicable modern RPGs, as will be discussed on Sunday or thereabouts.

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