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Category: playing

All spells are cast on the caster.

Because magic spells fail, magic is widely and incorrectly understood to fail. But all magic spells work on the magician — and on the others in the circle, connected to the working. Parts of (because party to) the transformation.

A magical working is a fiction. (Reader-response!) Is ‘paracosm’ the right word? Ludocosm? Thaumatocosm? Ugh, maybe. It creates a space in which new practice is possible. This is why you wear a mask and practice improvisation: radical listening. Radically intense experience of that private fiction. The privacy it affords makes it possible to explore something deeply, to access impulses and inhabit personae.

The fictionality unthethers the context, the surroundings, from the binding consensus-reality — but also untethers your own actions and their effects. Within the fiction, magic can work. The spell is the fiction.

We keep two sets of books; we can live inside a fiction, many fictions. That’s what fiction is for. It begins with radical acceptance in the reader/listener/magician: agreeing to the premise, the provision, the proffer. Letting yourself be welcomed (answering the Campbellian call to adventure, with the final/ultimate adventure being living toward death). That’s the outset of the Errand, of course — choosing to set out, accepting limitation. Becoming foolish, becoming the Fool. You have to get humble (fuck around!) before you can find out.

All magic spells work on the magician. Which is to say: one way or another, they all work.


Ong’s Hat isn’t a place, it’s a world.

Stating what should be obvious:

Ong’s Hat — not the ghost town in New Jersey but the fictional town-story overlaid on it by Joseph Matheny and later collaborators/followers — isn’t a place, though it’s certainly tied to one. Rather, it’s a way of experiencing a place: once again we’re recasting supposed discrete form and substance as modes of relation. Understanding story-system, meaning-system, ideological system, etc. as perceptual filters, you might be better able to imagine how they stack and interact, and how they seem to alter experiences deeply but not so predictably and not at all consistently.

Ong’s Hat doesn’t need to make sense, only to perturb sense — it’s ‘true’ in the way any filtering functioning is ‘true’: it does what it does to how you see. It un-senses you.

Seeing the transmedia project in this way we can avoid the twin traps of (1) reducing it to ‘just’ a game/story and (2) treating it like a set of fact-claims. ‘You determine your own level of involvement.’ As with so many conspiracy theories (not only explicitly, intentionally fictional ones), the fiction offers entry to a feedback loop between new/fictional thought, new/provisional belief, and new/exploratory action. All three arcs of the circle might be termed ‘generative’ — creative. Fiction, provision, exploration.

And of course bullshit.

RPG review: VOR RUKOTH (2010).

Note: I wrote this review of a D&D 4e product in, what, 2015? 2016? Earlier? Anyway, sometime after 4e had died. In general I stand by it and I’m publishing the old draft unchanged here. In retrospect I’d only add that WotC’s 4e-era ‘Points of Light’ (‘PoLand’) setting — a placeless setting-framework — was an interesting idea, not necessarily to say a good one, but predictably executed without wit, style, or imaginative freedom. Hasbro D&D is boring. That’s their house ‘style.’

In terms of D&D history, the most telling feature of 2010’s Vor Rukoth: An Ancient Ruins Adventure Site is its second sentence:

[Vor Rukoth] is not intended to present a cohesive adventure path, but rather, dozens of locations and hooks that you can weave into an existing adventure or campaign setting.

The idea that players/DMs expect their supplements to be ‘adventure paths’ isn’t surprising — D&D’s chief competitor isn’t Pathfinder, it’s the largely linear world of video games, and has been since the days of 1st edition — but it’s bracing to be reminded that the imagined audience for 4e products sees/saw the illusionist hybrid creature known as the ‘adventure path’ as the baseline D&D experience.

Certain tensions inherent in the product seem to arise from this conception.

Vor Rukoth details an adventure site, which — as the name ‘Vor Rukoth’ clearly signals — is eeeeevil: a former human settlement whose rulers made a diabolic pact to repel a dragonborn army and were thereby transformed into tieflings (devil-people, a core species in 4e and 5e along with dragon-people). The city’s ruler opened a gate to hell, devils overran both invaders and citizens, and Bob’s your uncle, now the gate is the lich-ladylord’s phylactery and everything in Vor Rukoth is bad.

Vor Rukoth was ‘lost to civilization’ for centuries, but now a hobbit-but-wait-there’s-a-secret-here named The Coyote has established a tent city on the outskirts to provision would-be explorers. It’s a Deadwood-ish, Mos Eisley-ish place; the bartender at the saloon(!) is a devil-woman named Inferna. There’s none of the imaginative brio of Mos Eisley nor the poetry of Deadwood, but how could there be? Anyhow that’s just the first few pages. Things are bound to pick up.

So what’s inside?

There’s a generic, uninspiring city map. There’s some breathless workmanlike prose. There’re factions, each with a clear agenda and a subversive working against it, usefully cross-referenced to adventure hooks in the gazetteer (thanks, WotC, for nailing this simple bit of textual apparatus). There’s a list of Events which contains this suggestion…

As a locale where opposing forces are constantly at work, Vor Rukoth is active even when the characters are not there. One way to make the city seem more alive is to introduce events that disrupt the balance of power or change the geography of the area.

…which sounds sensible enough, but then the listed events include ‘earthquake floods the streets with lava’ and ‘prophesied alignment of the heavens brings catastrophe’ and ‘new emperor arises with a hell-army.’ The framing text emphasises verisimilitude (not ‘realism’ duh) yet the actual Events list is basically ‘minor apocalypses that change the tactical situation,’ none of them fleshed out — par for the schizo-course in a supplement that advertises itself as a ‘living city’ and spends a sixth of its page count on factions.

Locationwise, Vor Rukoth is sketchy but not evocative, as by now you’ve perhaps come to expect, and is neither detailed enough to run as-is nor compelling enough to improvise with. Each district of the city gets a bunch of backstory which the players will probably never learn, and a handful of standard D&D hooks (mostly of the ‘a patron with a Hidden Agenda wants to send you off treasure hunting’ variety). There’s magical treasure everywhere. The ‘skill challenge’ mechanic is suggested several times; it remains an awkward, blunt instrument. Flavourwise, stylewise, it’s…well: ghostly prostitutes wander the former red light district, half-orc slavers have supernatural help, there’s a cavern full of blood worms. Everything is Dark and Serious and dull.

In keeping with 4e norms, no effort at naturalism has been made. The city’s built for setpieces, not the slow burn of an urban campaign — it’s a treasure-filled dungeon. Instead of ‘mere (un)life,’ the city’s full of extras, the equivalent of stage actors whispering ‘peas and carrots’ to look like they’re conversing.

The biggest surprise in Vor Rukoth is how little 4e this 4e product contains: just twelve statblocks, only five of them for threats (the others are items), and no bestiary as such. It’s practically an edition-neutral product, which is a good thing — beyond a few holdouts, there’s no 4e market left anyway. So how does it stack up against, say, other recent D&D adventure material, official and fanmade? Not too well, I’m afraid: it’s a standard WotC product, all workmanlike writing and generic fighty-fantasy art and Abandoned Streets echoing with the Cries of the Angry Dead. It certainly brings the sketchy 4e setting to life; the trouble is, that setting is utterly undistinguished. Beefy fighers with lots of buckles on their armour fight weedy little spellcasters in colour-coded robes, and the sound of your name advertises your alignment: if you’ve ever looked at a d20 product before, you’ve seen this one. On the open market for imaginative RPG projects without edition buy-in (lock-in), Vor Rukoth is a weak entry.

Summary judgment: I didn’t feel compelled to steal any ideas from this book, and I bet you won’t either.

A note about evocative writing

WotC’s D&D is like a network TV drama: no swearing, no nudity, no eroticism (but the occasional brief scene of soft-focus missionary sex), no consequential violence, no idiosyncrasy, no poetry — and no useless beauty, i.e. no time given over to the ‘vivid continuous dream’ of fiction. Whether for lack of talent, lack of editorial freedom, lack of taste, or lack of will, WotC’s work is never really terrifying or beautiful; it never quite evokes madness or the Weird; its content (for what it’s worth) is adolescent despite the creative team’s pretensions to seriousness. Mostly, it’s boring: WotC’s writers and artists never ever surprise you with ideas or presentation. (Anyone who’s ever been brought up short by a WotC product’s ingenuity just isn’t reading widely enough, sorry.)

It’s not impossible to write beautiful, compelling RPG books that double as highly functional technical writing. Plenty of folks have managed it: S. John Ross writes evocative prose (extraordinary, actually). Ken Hite too. Zak Smith and Patrick Stuart do it. Gareth Hanrahan and Robin Laws at Pelgrane, Stolze and Tynes and Detwiller at Arc Dream: check. Jonathan Tweet gave us Over the Edge and Everway, c’mon. Jenna Moran can’t not write interesting prose. Vincent Baker, Luke Crane, even the ludicrous Ron Edwards: boom. Greg Stafford, Greg Costikyan, Aaron Allston, John Varley. James Wallis — you realize his Munchausen game is an honest-to-God literary classic, right? Benjamin Baugh. Malcolm Craig. The odd damaged people responsible for GURPS Goblins and The Whole Hole. The late John M Ford and Tom Moldvay. Zeb Cook. Bruce Cordell. Bambra, Morris, Davis, and Gallagher (the Night’s Dark Terror and Death on the Reik teams.) Ansell, Brunton, and Forrest (Realms of Chaos.) Schwalb. Wick. Some White Wolf dweebs whom I don’t know because I can’t stand White Wolf’s house style. And a host of amateurs and obsessives who’ll go unnamed today.

Notice anything about that list? (Other than the fact that RPG publishers need more women writers, I mean.) Several of those folks have written for WotC — but with the exception of Planescape’s Zeb Cook, they’ve all found the creative freedom and institutional support to do their best work elsewhere. (Monte Cook made his name at TSR/WotC, but he’s best known for his 3e design work; like Stolze, he can sound a bit tiresome and familiar when he’s off in Imaginationland.)

On switching from D&D 5e to old-school play (this is dumb nerd stuff, please ignore).

My answer to an r/osr question about coming from D&D 5e to OSR:

Having done both in the last few years:

5e feels like slightly too much game for me. I’ve no interest in ‘gamist’ tactical combat, which is Hasbro’s preference — 4e was chess++, and much 5e (especially on Roll20 and equivalent) tends in that direction. B/X wants you playing fast and loose, maybe with a map but definitely with the ‘fiction-first’ approach that people misidentify as a storygame/’NuSR’ innovation. Once you’re playing on a grid you’re too far from the fiction for my tastes. Others feel otherwise.

False precision creates ambiguity and tension, opportunities for haggling — little things, but the game is full of little things. 5e is infamously falsely precise: look at how many stupid fucking clarifications and FAQs there are for what’s supposed to be a rough’n’ready adventure game ruleset. Why is Jeremy Crawford forced to spend so much time on Twitter assuaging the anxieties of young players? (The real answer is partly generational, and therefore considered rude. Let’s not.)

The 5e skill system feels like it’s a few pounds overweight; it imposes on play clumsily at times. A small example: the other day my dwarven cleric had a chance to recall some geological knowledge during a dungeon crawl. The DM wanted to call for a skill check to adjudicate that moment — but felt that INT/History (the ‘stonecunning’ class feature) didn’t quite make sense. The class feature is written juuuuust prescriptively enough to get in the way, like the spell descriptions. It worked out fine on the night of course, slowed play for 15-30 seconds or something — but the night is only so long, you know? Those decisions pile up. (FWIW, I’d have ruled it a roll-under INT check with Advantage, or an auto-success, but our DM is good and it’s his table.) There’s not much point in playing 5e if you don’t use the rules, even when they say both too much and too little at once. So the DM had to think about the right skill check, because the rules insist that you think about it, and we had this brief moment of uncertainty about a rule that doesn’t need to exist in the first place.

5e is too often full of such moments — when you try to give the character sheet what you think it wants instead of just flying. In my experience, B/X isn’t that way: you say yes, or roll the obvious ability check (perhaps using the hidden skill system), or roll the obvious-with-a-bit-of-practice saving throw. To my eye, the stat check/saving throw system is good at catching what’s tossed to it, while imposing minimal cognitive burden during an already extremely cognitively demanding game.

Settings and situations are easier to roleplay than plots — well, ‘plots’ are arguably impossible to play anyway, cf. the early Forge insight about the Impossible Thing. When players call for ‘story’ and ‘plot’ it seems to me they actually want rich situations with legible stakes in an interesting, interactive setting, and they want their choices to matter. (Will Wright, as I recall: a game is a series of meaningful choices.) Latter-day WotC/Hasbro adventures usually fail here: they tend to be unimaginative or thin, with illusionist ‘choice’ disconnected from the setting/stakes, in boring settings. (WotC has no great writers left.) It’s no surprise that they’ve made great money wrapping 40-year-old adventures in new trade dress (and punishingly dull art). Simple rule of thumb: an adventure that presumes to tell you what the players will or must do is incorrect.

(For the opposing view, Ken Hite: ‘”Railroading” is a pejorative term for an adventure in which something is actually accomplished.’)

The old-school gold-for-XP rule is a great setup for a certain kind of adventure, because the rulebook doesn’t presume to tell you how to solve problems — it poses a challenge (find treasure) and trusts you to have (make) fun completing it. XP for combat is widely understood even by previous adherents to be merely dumb; ‘milestone XP’ is better for lame mainline use cases, but its hidden purpose is to drive players toward the pre-written, agency-denying ‘plot.’ That’s a thing I intensely dislike about 5e: its attitude toward ‘experience,’ which flows from its focus on character ‘builds’ — which the designers of the game halfheartedly disavow.

So that’s some of how I feel and some of what I think. 5e is too much game in the wrong places, and not enough in others. Its writing and art are dull and its adventures trip over themselves. B/X is lighter in the hand, quicker at the table.

On Hasbro D&D.

Someone asked on Reddit:

Is every 5e adventure [clumsy and/or unimaginative]? Honestly, I’m willing to take one more chance. But then, which one should I try? Is there at least 1 good 5e adventure?

To which I’d say:

WotC/Hasbro doesn’t have any evocative writers or trailblazing designers in its stable anymore, I think. Their job is to maintain ‘IP’ and it goes as well as you’d expect. The D&D brand is carefully protected and corporate-committee-managed, therefore the Product is all boring and ordinary — but it was that way all through 4e times as well, and nearly all 3e stuff is bloated disposable crap too. (The most interesting WotC output is the design of 4e, which is superb but isn’t actually good at being D&D.)

As has been pointed out over and over, paying RPG writers by the word for big vanilla hardcovers is a recipe for disaster — which WotC/Hasbro and Paizo demonstrate, the former more humiliatingly than the latter. See for instance the Fizban’s something something Dragons book, which is an unimaginative fucking disaster.

The essential problem with 5e D&D is that it tries to satisfy customers and shareholders instead of ever actually doing something new or beautiful or weird or even just fun. The lamest LotFP book displays more courage and conviction than the best WotC product, because it’s meant to inspire creativity rather than allay anxiety. It’s childish to mistake comfort for confidence.

All this said:

  • Curse of Strahd is ‘Ravenloft with stuff’ — this is fine, the new stuff included, and easily the best 5e adventure I’ve read, though there’s no reason to spend $50 or even $30 on ‘Ravenloft with stuff’
  • Descent to Avernus has good setpieces to offer if you put in the work to connect them up and give it weight; I really enjoyed playing in our campaign but would never run it
  • Lost Mines of Phandelver is a genuinely excellent introduction to vanilla, lowest-common-denominator D&D, and also gets graded on a curve by OSR types who figured 5e would be trash
  • The Wildemount (Critical Role) book is a good example of WotC’s B/B+ aspirations: nothing about it is interesting, it’s a corporate tie-in product inspired by a TV show, but the production values are nice and it does exactly (only) what you’d expect

The single best Hasbro D&D product is, of course, the Encyclopedia Magica, a late-20C 4-volume set from TSR which renders nearly all 5e material not just obsolete but gutless.

A bright center to the universe.

What is this? This is my one-page pitch/teaser for our upcoming Star Wars Roleplaying Game campaign — played by a bunch of my college housemates. The primary texts, beyond the sacred Original Trilogy, are Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters (a great West End Games sourcebook by Mark Rein-Hagen et al.) and a short-lived serial too obvious to name.

Things used to be simpler. A sly captain with a skilled pilot, a smart crew, and a fast ship could bring in thousands of credits running cargo on the up-and-up — and tens of thousands of credits, hundreds of thousands (or more…) if he had a little larceny in his soul and some hidden compartments in the hold.

A busy life for a more civilized age.

Things are different now.

Under Sheev Palpatine’s rule, the central government out of Coruscant — now unquestionably an ‘Empire’ — has moved to federalize control of transport, shipping, and interstellar cargo. Massive bulk freighters ply the spaceways on plush Imperial contracts, and starports from the Core Planets to the Outer Rim operate under Imperial scrutiny and oversight. Sector and system bosses, now almost exclusively human, are the usual corrupt mix: lazy bureaucrats, dimwit nepotism hires, minor tyrants, gladhandling political types, violent lunatics, true believers, even one or two competent functionaries trying to keep the starlanes open. The wrong customs officer in the wrong mood on the wrong afternoon can ruin a shipment or a career, toss you in irons on a made-up charge…and there’s not much to do about it, unless you know the guy on the next rung up the ladder.

The Republic had been a mess before the civil war, everybody knew it: stretched too thin and starting to break down at the edges. The Separatist confederacy were nuts, but they had a point — the Senate was a snakepit and the Republic only bothered to help the Right Sort of citizens. Yet it all still worked, more or less, right up to the end. A decent crew could make a decent living, especially at the edge of the galaxy or its underside, and if you could keep the engine running and the lights on, your biggest obstacles were more likely to be uselessness or venality (or mynocks) than…well. Than evil.

But that was 20 years ago.

The Emperor and his ‘ard boys (along with the usual soft ones) keep the star freighters running on time, pretty much, but his Moffs and stormtroopers and idiotic ‘purity’ laws replaced a relatively open but inefficient system with a draconian and corrupt one. ‘Madness and stupidity,’ to borrow Moff Tywin’s favourite phrase. No one likes the Empire who isn’t getting paid on it — but you keep your opinions to yourself, or else get labeled an insurrectionist.

It’s said a handful of star systems are in open rebellion. Maybe you sympathize with them, maybe you don’t. But you’re not in the war business, and would rather the gods bless and keep the rebels…far away from your ship. There’s an old Corellian curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ Alas for you and yours, you do.

There is money to be made. There’s cargo to move around, and other stranger jobs when things get tight. There’s work. You might not live well, but you might live free.

Republic or Empire — or whatever comes next, if that’s how things go — the goal is the same, and it’s simple: find a job, find a crew, keep flying.

Irreal Life Top Ten, allergy season 2022.

Title and form inspired by Greil Marcus, obviously, and little enough to do with ‘irreality’ but I like the name and what, I ask you, what is either of us really gonna do about it. I ask you.

  1. RIP Vangelis. Ευάγγελος Οδυσσέας Παπαθανασίου had a pop songwriter’s instinct for hooky satisfaction and an experimental sonic approach but worked on a ‘classical’ scale, i.e. he wrote Hollywood music and was perfectly suited to film scoring. His Blade Runner score is better than you remember, not just the future-chintz of the main titles and love theme but the ambientronic weirdness of the underscore for scenes like the replicants’ murderous visit to Mr Chew, the man who designed their eyes. Vangelis’s 1975 Heaven and Hell is pure excess and bombast — it even features Jon Anderson on vocals — but at the deepest point of its second half, ’12 O’Clock,’ he manages to wring an unexpected intensity out of the humming and wordless singing of Vana Verouti and choir, bringing a ridiculously pompous synth-prog megasuite to one of those unironically moving climaxes, a passage that works only because it’s both sentimental pop hogwash and the 30th minute of a ‘neoclassical’ work hyperextended to the point of madness. (Don Joyce took this section as the theme to Over the Edge, and one of the greatest OTE episodes is a three-hour improvisatory remix of the Blade Runner score. With a wink of course, it’s Negativland, but not at the expense of the work’s weird integrity.) The hardest and best and most important thing for an artist is to sound like himself. I mean ‘…for a person,’ and I hope Vangelis enjoyed his final years knowing he had only ever been Vangelis. All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain…
  2. Paxlovid. My wife and I both got this minor miracle-drug, and our worsening Covid-19 symptoms immediately turned for the better and stayed that way. As soon as I stopped the medication, I began to feel that familiar post-viral bronchial thickening — sign that I was over the initial assault and now thrown back into my own body’s well-worn patterns and limitations and miswirings. You start to recognize ‘the devil you know’ as a part of yourself, both horror and comfort. Covid-19 is survivable and manageable for most people, Paxlovid is widely available, and you should do what you can — including lie about comorbidities — to get a prescription a couple of days after symptom onset.
  3. Buffalo. My fury and despair at the mass murder in Buffalo was wrapped up, I’m embarrassed but not sorry to say, in long-simmering anger at the way mere mass death and suffering isn’t enough to engage Audience Attention in this year of our absent Lord 20-and-22. There needs to be something to sell, a Compelling Narrative Hook, which in this case — for this seemingly neverending moment — is White Supremacist ideology. A decade after the Columbine massacre, it began to be understood even by our determinedly witless national press that Harris and Klebold were (respectively) a psychopath and a depressive, and that their horrifying mass murder/suicide wasn’t fundamentally ‘about’ anything, and reflected only their alienation from normal support networks, i.e. loving parents and other adults able to understand their lives and willing to put in the time. Their grandiose rhetoric masked something stupid and banal: they didn’t like being alive and didn’t see any reason to keep at it, and the kids at Columbine High were luckless scapegoats for their rage. The ‘motivation’ for their act was, in other words, the sickened world around them, of material plenty and poverty of meaning. The vicious little son of a bitch who killed those people in Buffalo lived in their world, in ours, which has only gotten less hospitable to human souls over the last quarter-century. He’s unprepared for the world as it is and the world to come. He really is a racist fool, and the actual problem his actions remind us we must solve is the absolute emptiness that makes racism — about as stupid a set of ideas as you can now imagine — more attractive than whatever else you’re peddling. Which is to say, I’m not interested in his ‘manifesto’ and you shouldn’t be either, by all accounts it’s merely incorrect; what matters is that he managed to reach age 18 without having the faintest idea what the world is like or how to live in it. We must not forgive him, and we must understand him. There is always worse to come.
  4. Digitonal, SAVE YOUR LIGHT FOR DARKER DAYS (2008). Weary instrumental affirmations, that older person’s prerogative: arriving at a difficult middle place and seeing in it the possibility of rest, of being deeply in the time of passage rather than looking always forward or back. Digitonal started out as ‘chillout room’ music but this gorgeous album feels a bit like getting on with life, not just the moment or morning after the beat stops (contrast effect, descendent effect) but over the rest of the ordinary week, sharing private smiles and nods with faces you recognize from mad kinetic nightworld, nonetheless belonging to the waking world. Being here, just here, all the same.
  5. Reeves/Pattinson et al., THE BATMAN (2022). Normally I incline to sympathy when it comes to art that nobody wants, nobody needs, nobody asked for, nobody would miss if it didn’t exist. But there’s not a single joyful or lively frame in this movie, not a single performance (save maybe Colin Farrell’s) that overflows the bounds of what’s ultimately Yet Another Sad Batman Movie. It’s fascinating that Batman has come to signify not ‘moodiness,’ which at least implies tonal variation, but a kind of self-indulgent mopery; the character I grew up with was grim but blackly (or indeed campily) comic, with ‘knight’ right there in his nom de guerre and a giant penny in his Batcave. Hollywood appears to have misunderstood the success of both Christopher Nolan’s movies and Frank Miller’s astonishing DKR/Year One source material, which makes sense; Hollywood is made of money and money is a contagious kind of stupid. I’m with Alan Moore on this, among other things: the point of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns wasn’t the bad mood. (Y’know who understands this? The Wachowskis. Imagine what they could’ve done with Batman.)
  6. Harald Grosskopf, SYNTHESIST (1980). The Berlin School gives the drummer some — makes sense, his name’s on the cover — and the result isn’t quite a party album but it likes a nice beat just fine. The title track is pure effervescent space-disco, the sound of a car commercial drifting through the rings of Saturn. For a week this didn’t leave my metaphorical tape deck. It’s been that kind of year, and the silly season hasn’t even started yet.
  7. Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (1987-1998). West End Games did the all-time classic Ghostbusters game, an early push toward ‘storygame’ territory that’s still funnier and more clever than nearly everything that’s gone by that name since, but their hit Star Wars RPG fleshed out the earlier game’s minimal task-resolution mechanics to Fast! Furious! Fun! effect — and for years it was the only place to get the kind of paratextual nerdstuff that Star Wars fans wanted. Timothy Zahn famously used WEG’s RPG supplements when working on his trilogy of novels that singlehandedly revived the commercial fortunes of Star Wars — he even commissioned maps from their art department to help him plan out the trilogy’s climactic fight against the Dark Jedi clone ohgodwhydoIknowthis — and repaid the favour by writing several well-received supplements for the RPG line. And what do you know? The game really is fast, fun, and a friendly sort of furious: mechanics are minimal, fights resolve in a couple of (big) dice rolls, and a mildly optimized Jedi character is nigh untouchable, which is why the emphasis of the game was on the storyworld’s Other Guys… Classic supplements like Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters, i.e. ‘Firefly plus the Force,’ helped redefine the Star Wars universe in ways that continue to pay off today for (ugh) Disney, and the best WEG books still give that prickle of innocent excitement even now. There are other Star Wars RPGs, of course; money must be made. But the first is still the best — though picking one of the WEG game’s three editions is a tricky task, and good luck to you with that. (I’ll be running a 2e Revised/Expanded game next month for old friends, maybe with something closer to the 1st edition skill list. Can’t wait.)
  8. ‘Parasite in chief in her idiot hat.’ So wrote Christopher Eccleston, son of Salford, beneath a photo of the Queen in her crown. Salford City Council’s ‘About’ page begins: ‘Where is Salford? … about 200 miles north west of London.’ Which is like describing Boston as ‘about 200 miles north of New York City,’ and fuck you forever, you who teach that the limit of your vision is all that is or could be. She seems like a nice lady but I can’t blame him and he’s not wrong, though other parasites successfully compete.
  9. Trey Anastasio in Boston, 7 May 2022. He comes out for a solo acoustic encore, as is his wont, and in the middle of a beautiful improvisation out of ‘Chalkdust Torture’ he unexpectedly segues into one of the middle sections of ‘Harry Hood,’ such a smooth transition that half the crowd doesn’t realize what’s happened — plays for a minute and a half, then glides without effort back into ‘Chalkdust’ with his characteristic audible smile, Anastasio’s most winning musical attribute. That way he has, now, of being pleasantly surprised that he’s alive in his late 50s and sharing his genius with strangers and family, strangers who welcome one another into strange family. Anastasio’s ego was always matched with a self-abnegating generosity, and that difficult integration found ideal expression in the radical democracy of Phish’s improvisatory method. Anastasio has grown beyond Phish in many ways, but only because of his three bandmates, their own exploratory openness and iron dedication to transformative craftwork, was Anastasio able to discover and express his best self musically. Trey still plays music he wrote with classmates 45 years ago, and every time out he sounds like he just learned it and can’t wait to share it with everyone. His eagerness not just to impress but to bring light was always evident, generously onstage and pathologically in the business world backstage; since he got sober it’s tinged with an autumnal gratitude for the chance — and the second chance — to make a living and a life out of doing so. He’s lost more than a step on the guitar, but something inside him has grown beyond measure. Making and sharing art with his best friends, on their own terms, got him there.
  10. Catalytic converters. Our electric car doesn’t have them, which didn’t keep me from racing down the back stairs when I saw a shabbily dressed guy walk into our backyard early this morning. Turns out he was there to paint the fence, as he had been for several weekends running, which goes to show that I might be the main character but I’m not the hero. He’s done an excellent job painting the fence, by the way. It looks great.

off twitter, sorry i didn't write down the name of the artist.

Irreal Life Top Ten, into 2022.

Most new things are terrible because they’re things, cf. all of ‘social’ media; I tend to stick to the older stuff.

Here are ten things I read or saw or heard or played this year.

  1. Robert Aickman, COMPULSORY GAMES. Aickman was the writer that Kelly Link is slightly too melodramatic to be, hard as she tries (a debt she’s been admirably candid about) — master of a slowly insinuating, deftly handled eerie domestic horror. These stories, ably selected and introduced by the independent scholar Victoria Nelson for NYRB, are even stranger now than when they were written; Aickman’s world is gone, heightening the sense of ghostly presence which his unsettling and subtly comic prose creates. His characters walk amidst invisible ruins and find themselves drawn into old invisible story, bound up in worlds at right angles to their own. Aickman’s singular stories might reasonably be called ‘urban fantasy’ but they parallel his other life as conservationist — a formless ambivalence creeps in its own time at the edges of his characters’ regimented modern lives, something stranger than civilization. The ‘supernatural’ seems to live in the earth itself, on old roads and new, in buildings and on trains. I was blessed this year to discover Aickman’s disturbing tales and must come back. Otherwise I suspect they’ll come for me.
  2. The Matrix: Resurrections. The first third of this deeply personal mess of a movie is a proud and mournful reflection on the legacy of The Matrix by one of its cocreators, which is necessarily a regretful look at points missed and possibilities foreclosed. Its final movement is an attempt by the resurrected Neo to rescue the resurrected Trinity from a perfectly mundane life in San Francisco — a successful bid to resist (momentarily) the reduction of the Wachowskis’ vision of imaginative freedom to mere nostalgic style or ‘cool’ — and this is the part that feels both most precisely autobiographical and, frankly, most sentimental and jokey. The middle is a lot of Matrix-y infodumping and rehashing (with Jonathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris killing it) and I found it hammy and irritating. Distilling The Matrix to a romantic quest-story about twinned male/female avatars reunited through magical (self-)love is…well, it’s myopic, which is to say Lana Wachowski is welcome to bring forward that facet of the extraordinarily multifaceted original, but The Matrix and its two preposterously ambitious sequels are poorly served by this revisit. I was glad to watch it, and desperately wish cocreator Lily had gotten involved too — together the Wachowskis were one of the all-time great cinematic pairings, which is maybe the hidden inner-story beneath Neo and Trinity, come to think of it. (And by the way: seeing Carrie-Ann Moss and Keanu Reeves reunited for this film makes every low-hanging joke and moment of kitsch absolutely worth it. They are simply beautiful together.)
  3. Hex, DIGITAL LOVE. The most 1993 album imaginable, just lovely minimalist ambient textures played on synths that could not possibly sound more dated. The intense ‘X-Files love scene’ vibe of the album goes right to my pleasure centers, its proto-cyberculture cheese the ideal expression of a certain zonked-out placeless nighttime soundscape. Reading Viriconium in a Disney hotel while listening to the first Software album at dawn was one of the peak aesthetic experiences of my dumb life, and this album somehow evokes that combination: it sounds like a computer consoling itself after a breakup. There’s even a track of just chanting, and it’s fine. It’s all perfectly, digitally, lovely just fine.
  4. The Dirk Gently books. Douglas Adams wrote three of the best comic novels of the 20th century, but he was a clumsy and lead-footed novelist and his other novels are all tedious and bad — these two, for instance. No matter.
  5. D.W. Pasulka, AMERICAN COSMIC. This bad book contains one chapter of real substance and the rest is credulous, innumerate, monomaniacal horseshit. What made it interesting, for pages at a time, was my sense of the book as a field recording of Pasulka either getting ‘redpilled’ by ufologist wankers or losing her mind in the most ordinary way — which explanation you choose depends on your levels of charity and credulity. I suspect she went looking for religious conversion, fell into a cult of personality, had a breakdown (check her Twitter feed), and will end up writing overwrought crank books that trade on her scholarly credentials, like her mentor Jeffrey Kripal.
  6. Subnautica, or as I refer to it around the house, ‘Underwater Anxiety Videogame.’ This Minecraft-in-the-ocean game combines mundane fetch-quests with vertiginous terror; if you have even a sliver of thalassophobia you’ll find this deep-sea diving game (which I play on Switch) truly, lastingly unnerving. It sends my blood pressure through the roof. It is lovely to behold, maddening to play, and — when you find just the right bit of salvage or weird fauna on the sea floor and are able to craft just the right item to advance — as purely, simply satisfying as any game I’ve played in years.
  7. Zelda: Breath of the Wild. An excellent candidate for ‘best videogame ever made,’ and better than ever during this idiot pandemic. It’s said that when the design team presented an early version to the creator of Zelda, he spent two hours doing nothing but walking around and climbing trees, enjoying the view and the childlike feeling of freedom. That’s how I play it: walking the vast and varied (psycho)geography of Hyrule, climbing rocks, picking apples, paragliding off mountains, occasionally hearing brief snatches of music like recovered memories. This was my escape in early 2020, and coming back to it this autumn was like slipping back into a familiar dream. On its own terms, as good as Nethack or Go — sublime.
  8. Tom Moldvay’s D&D BASIC SET. This isn’t the version of Dungeons & Dragons that absolutely everyone had; that was Frank Mentzer’s ‘BECMI’ series (Basic/Expert/Companion/etc.), along with Gygax’s ridiculous Advanced hardcovers. And it isn’t the final form of the classic game; that’s Aaron Allston’s 1991 Rules Cyclopedia, which collects the entire BECMI line (with variant ‘Immortals’ rules) in a notoriously unreadable hardcover and was for many years the most sought-after single D&D item. It’s neither the newest nor the oldest D&D version, neither its most idiosyncratic nor its plainest presentation. No, this is just the best one-book introduction to D&D and its most elegant little ruleset: quick, easy, improv-friendly, with just enough rules-weight to handle archetypal ‘fantasy’ adventure play but no more. The trend in ‘old school’ gaming is toward ultralite rules systems, but Moldvay’s 64-page distillation of the original D&D set feels good in the hand; there’s a reason millions of people fell in love with it. The current batch of ‘RPGs for kids’ fail to improve meaningfully on D&D run by a cool, sane, caring Dungeon Master — for such a group, this is absolutely the system I’d recommend. An experienced DM should get the canonical Old-School Essentials ‘retro-clone,’ which perfects the organization of the system at the cost of some of its innocent flavour.
  9. Miles Davis live, 1973. Courtesy of the essential The Heat Warps blog, Miles Davis fans are getting to revisit, in order, every known live recording from his early electric period — 1969-1975, spanning the era between the Bitches Brew live airings and the pulverizing, polarizing Agharta/Pangaea band. 1973 was a period of deep exploration for Miles driven by his mad guitar genius Pete Cosey, who was taking Hendrix’s electric experimentation to the next plane; by the end of the year the band had gone well beyond Miles’s arrogant ‘best rock band ever’ boasting into a realm of nightly ritual insanity, hard-rock companions to the free-roaming psychedelic fusion of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Mwandishi’ band. I’m listening right now to the Tokyo show from 19 June 1973, and the screaming undanceable tempos and formless solo wailing mark this as antagonistic experimentation rather than what was already getting called ‘fusion’-genre stuff; the initial emphasis is on aggressive attack rather than funk interlock, somatic but — until the spacious ‘Ife’ gets nasty on the back half — not quite erotic. To what extent Miles’s alienatingly single-minded ‘jazz-rock’ quest should be understood as political is a question for someone who knows the period, and Miles’s biography, better than I do; all I know is, the man who played some of the most nakedly, uncynically romantic music of the 50s and 60s played some of the most angrily in-your-face ‘jazz’ of the 70s, for audiences that sometimes had no idea how to process what they were hearing. Listening to the live shows reveals Miles as committed to a degree beyond curiosity or perversity; something complex and uncomfortable happens on these tapes. It’s some of the best shit I’ve ever heard.
  10. EU Machine Directive. The other day I told my brother I was reading EU regulatory documents for electronic devices the other day, and complaining about their bureaucratic insanity. His response: ‘Of course, why do you think Brexit happened?’ He’s wrong, but he’s not wrong. Such is the world in 2021, I mean 2022.

On Tolkien as mythos (or not).

Note: The following is a sketchy first-draft excerpt from a manuscript in progress. –w.

It makes little sense to speak of a ‘Tolkien mythos’ — his ‘legendarium’ lacks the quality of mystery, of uncertain and seemingly unknowable depth, which characterizes the Lovecraft mythos (‘Yog-Sothothery’), the Silver John stories of Many Wade Wellman, or the Discworld books (q.v. all three). There’s rather a domestic quality to Tolkien; he doesn’t give the feeling of having received or discovered the Middle-Earth stories, and as we read there’s a pervasive deflating sense that every detail of his world-story is Fully Worked Out somewhere. (His son/literary executor Christopher Tolkien’s periodic exhumation of ‘new’ JRRT works deepens this sense, unfortunately but perhaps not unintentionally.)

Tolkien obsessives love this, of course; the idea of a fantastic encyclopedia of all things is certainly a locus of ‘adventurous expectancy’ for many readers, and the idea that Tolkien himself became such an encyclopedia does have a strange charm and charge. But while Tolkien’s characters occupy a world shot through with myth-history, in which the relics of the ancient past regularly irrupt through the earth itself (think of the Balrog, the colossi at Rauros, the White Tree), Tolkien didn’t write in such a way as to extend that sense to the reader. Tolkien’s mythic past is a known unknown.

Put another way: if you’re a fan of Middle-Earth, what could you possibly write fanfic about? Frodo’s day off? Mary Sue Pandolfin, who romances Isildur and charms Legolas? There’s a whole bookshelf of knockoff Cthulhu stories and games, a vast Star Wars Extended Universe (look up the ‘Corporate Sector’)…but if Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser came to Gondor, what could they possibly fill their time with? Tolkien created a world-story, a world built for one story; there’s nothing left to happen once The line of tales has been drawn, and anyone else who turns up is just there to watch the Chosen do their heroic thing.

Put another other way: there’s a reason Lord of the Rings-themed board games have done reasonably well, while Middle-Earth roleplaying games have never worked. Iron Crown’s Middle-Earth Role Playing, which I owned and loved as a kid, is remembered — if at all — as a valiant but doomed attempt to carve out a space for ‘noncanonical’ stories in a bespoke paracosm where everything is built to feel canonical. Like the beloved (and successful!) West End Games take on Star Wars roleplaying, MERP worked as a source of fan-supplements for nerds, but unlike George Lucas, Tolkien gives no sense of a busy world in which something else is about to happen.

Partly that’s down to story-form: Lucas created serial/episodic tales, Tolkien set out to make a unified ‘legendarium.’ The edges of the Star Wars universe remain ragged in order to accommodate Upcoming Episodes, and that has imaginative consequences — for one thing, what’s Lucas’s storyworld called? Who knows? The Star Wars tales are named after a kind of thing that happens in them, ‘star wars,’ while Middle-Earth is actually explicitly called ‘Middle-Earth’ by its inhabitants; of course this is presented as a translation of Hobbit-speak, or Wizard-speak, or the ‘common tongue’ or whatever, but the sense remains that the world, the tale, is bounded by the manner of its telling — the words themselves constrain it. And they constrain anyone who’d follow. ‘Pulp Tolkien’ and ‘frontier Tolkien’ and ‘Gimli goes into politics’ are ludicrous contradictions on face, but ‘Star Wars romance’ and ‘Star Wars detective story’ and ‘Jedi schoolkids’ aren’t, and that’s as much down to the exclusivity of Tolkien’s storytelling approach as to Lucas(film)’s inclusivity.

(I feel comfortable predicting that the forthcoming ‘Second Age of Middle-Earth’ TV series will be terrible and feel nothing at all like Tolkien — like Petter Jackson’s horribly ill-advised Hobbit movies, for what it’s worth.)

To be clear, none of this criticism indicts Tolkien. Lord of the Rings has provided me with two of the peak aesthetic experiences of my life, more than 20 years apart, and I look forward to revisiting that tale some other autumn. It’s one of the great achievements in all of English literature, not a perfect novel but perfect of its kind, and Middle-Earth has continued to enrapture readers because of the nature of its imagining. You don’t go to Middle-Earth to brainstorm fanfic topics or project yourself into some corner of the tale, you go to feel what the hobbits feel on their journey through mythic geography, to get Tolkien’s vivid sense of walking through a sort of fictionalized Lancashire studded with broken ruins of millennia-old empires. To feel small in a particular way, connected to an immensity of Time, over the extent of a thousand-page novel: of course control is required.

Whatever Tolkien’s obsessive ‘legendarium’ meant to him, it’s Lord of the Rings that matters to the human species, and its value depends on its completeness, its cohesiveness. The closest it comes to admitting something wholly alien to its own cosmos is the fairytale episode at Tom Bombadil’s house, easily the most widely derided (and indeed disregarded) piece of the story, which Jackson simply cut from his (disastrously superseding) movie translation altogether. Bombadil is the story’s most Lovecraftian element, you might say: he steps in and out of the tale without quite feeling of it — something (a literary device, a demigod) vast, warm, and sympathetic, but palpably Other. The story closes around him as he goes.

You know what I’d love to read, though? A story about a team of modern archaeologists recovering cursed artifacts in the remains of Middle-Earth, trying to figure out who built the cyclopean ruins, colossal tiered cities, creepy subterranean delvings, and odd fairy-rings that dot the landscape of what they’d always suspected was just England. What ritual was performed at this burial mound in the field amongst standing stones? How did a gold ring come to rest in this river?

There’s room for a weird tale, for dark strange myth — ‘in the deep places’ — but I fear Middle-Earth must pass away entirely for us to find it.

Sexual identity (politics).

Epistemic status: Thinking out loud, written months ago in what I can only assume was a real bad mood. I genuinely have no idea whether any of this holds up. I’ll note, though, that it’s the kind of old-fashioned blogpost I don’t write anymore, where I hit on a metaphor I like and try to pass it off as philosophy. Somebody give me tenure. –wa.

The funny thing about ‘I’m a sub’ — ‘I’m a queer nonbinary top’ — ‘I’m an asexual furry’ — is the way such declarations assume absolute fixity of sexual identity and ‘preference.’

Wait…fixity? Don’t you mean ‘fluidity,’ oldperson/fascist?

You’d think that, wouldn’t you.

Let’s talk about Magic: The Gathering for a second.

M:TG‘s best trick was to turn deckbuilding into a game activity, a subgame played away from the table. For millions of players over a quarter-century (though by no means all), creating a custom deck has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of M:TG play.

Deckbuilding is solitaire. It’s wonderful, but it’s purely self-centered. Indeed, deckbuilding-by-newsgroup is known as ‘theorycrafting,’ and is a hugely popular activity in the M:TG community — though ‘theorycrafting’ is an awfully elevated term for ‘talking about card combos with strangers.’

The ‘play of the hand,’ meanwhile, is all compromise and reaction and tactical maneuvering and plans not surviving contact with the enemy. What happens at the table is the game itself, and this is where ‘filthy casuals’ find their enjoyment — hence the increasing popularity of the grab’n’go fixed-deck distribution model, even for M:TG itself.

I’ll note here that the term ‘simultaneous solitaire’ is used derisively to talk about games where players choose strategies which are carried out by rote, independent of opponent interaction. Such plans are known as ‘degenerate strategies,’ and they’re major sources of the dreaded Negative Play Experience, because they take the play out of gameplay. They turn it into ‘a piece of business’ (cf. Rob Long’s magnificent book Conversations with my Agent).

For expert M:TG (or Pokémon TCG) players, at-the-table gameplay itself is fun — they wouldn’t stick around otherwise — but high-level play is in dispiritingly large measure a quest to create perfectly predictable decks, removing contingency and guaranteeing the execution of a set gameplan. That’s where the ‘customizable’ in ‘customizable card games’ (CCG) comes from — though note, too, that it used to stand for the more honestly nauseating ‘collectible’…

Now, sex, or rather politics:

Sexual identitarianism — e.g. my opening list of taxonomic declarations — is sold to westerners now as a form of freedom. (Never mind that freedom cannot be sold.) Declare your allegiance, align yourself with a group, know your place (and declare it in your Twitter bio), and We will back up your claim. If you like, We’ll even join in deriding those people so uncool that they don’t yet have a paraphilia. ‘Marginal’ identity is seen as a source of virtue — or rather pity, but only fascists split hairs — and crucially you can opt in to such identity by declaring a marginal sexual preference. (Insert dark joke about ‘predictable endpoint of neoliberalism’ here.)

Sexual identitarianism is deckbuilding — no, it’s theorycrafting, simultaneous solitaire. The (let’s dispense with pretense and just say ‘ideological’) purpose of saying ‘I’m an asexual furry’ isn’t to announce the kind of activities you like, it’s to create the conditions for enforceability, i.e. a justification for disconnecting from an uncomfortable situation. ‘Isn’t that a universal good?’ I suppose it would be, yes, if you assumed ‘uncomfortable’ meant ‘bad.’

The ‘play of the hand’ is where the action is, erotically speaking. The good part of sex is…sex, not theory. But sexual identitarianism’s core sleight-of-hand is to displace eroticism, which is all about bisociation and ambivalence and negotiation and suspense and longing (usually unfulfilled, in the aggregate) and vulnerability and story and posture and tension and fluidity and improvisation and performance and drama and imaginative freedom, in favour of what we might well call brand loyalty. In an identitarian-capitalist system, the outcome of the sexual/ludic/social interaction must be preordained, which means avoiding collective improvisation and negotiation to the extent possible, hence Tinder instead of clubbing and ‘I’m an XYZ’ instead of ‘Let’s find out.’ That’s the palliative point of such anxious preemptive categorization: to stave off unpalatable/unmarketable uncertainty in people accustomed to pleasure ‘on demand’ and by design, even if such preemption means chucking out the eroticism-baby with the uncertainty-bathwater.

Yes motherfucker, you just read the best metaphor in the history of metaphor.

(Hey did you know that collaborative board games — people against a rules-system, an AI, an no interpersonal competition to be found — are hugely popular nowadays? Indeed. I won’t say why.)

Deckbuilding is a fun solo activity but every ‘filthy casual’ — let’s dispense with pretense and just say ‘vanilla’ — knows that the play is the game.

Back to where we started: today’s declarations of sexual identity assume absolute fixity of those identities and of sexual ‘preference’… by which I mean they assume the displacement of sexual desire from the realm of imagination — ambivalence, negotiation, play — to the realm of taxonomy and strategy, the business plan, the knowable, the saleable, the prepackaged, the reassuring, the generic. They manifest an ideology that turns bodies into types, into data points. They’re boring, which is not unconnected to why they’re popular.

Yet you must be able to fuck as you please, obviously, as long as you’re not harming anyone, yourself included. And no one should have to hide (from) their healthy sexuality.


The next bit’s the hard bit, so I’ll defer (avoid) it by ending here.