Jul 6, 2015

Lord of the Rings LCG: My first deck

We spent a fairly rainy Midsummer in the country, with two notable results: my entire family now knows how to play Carcassonne, and I'm completely hooked on a new obsession. My brother, you see, brought along his copy of the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game. Now, I haven't played one of these collectible card game things since I got my Magic: the Gathering cards; it was an Ice Age starter pack, so I'll let you all work out how long ago that was. I accepted the offer of a game so I could get him to play Carcassonne with us, but what ended up happening was a series of two- or three-player games that left me solidly addicted.

I very highly recommend this game. It's very easy to pick up and easier to teach to others. Despite what it says on the box, one core set will quite happily accomodate four players. Solo play is fun enough, but the co-operative multiplayer is the real jewel of the crown. Unlike most other card games (at least that I know of), players don't compete with each other, but rather co-operate to complete quests and defeat the enemy. There are three quests and something like 120 player cards in the core set, which is plenty for four players to get stuck in. An excellent, excellent product, and a steal at its current price (44€ at our store). Also, as it's one of Fantasy Flight's "living card games" rather than a traditional collectible card game, there's none of the old nonsense of buying booster packs and hoping for good cards. Instead, there are various expansion sets, which provide the same new quests and cards for everyone.

Since my partner liked the game as well but was disappointed by the lack of Boromir, the first thing I did when we got back to civilization was head to said store and pick up the core set and a copy of the Dead Marshes adventure pack.



This game hits a pretty damn perfect spot for me right now. I've been feeling generally tired, depressed and dejected, somewhat stressed out by my master's thesis and not at all looking forward to the fall and my approaching teaching classes. Now I have something fun to do and obsess over during the summer that'll hopefully provide a nice distraction well into the semester. The value this game has added to my midsummer vacation was already worth the price of purchase on its own. It also combines nicely with my ongoing Tolkien-reading project.

I got to try all of the four different starter decks over midsummer, but obviously if I'm going to take this game seriously, I have to build my own deck. Having tried the Legolas progress machine (Legolas + Blade of Gondolin), I do have to admit I enjoyed the Tactics starter, but seeing as how my partner is obviously going to be running a Tactics deck because Boromir, and my brother was interested in a Tactics/Spirit combo, I might as well forget about it! Clearly they'll be handling the fighting, so having no particularly strong feelings of my own with regard to spheres, I was left to complement them.

What did strike me when trying out the starter decks in the core set was that there were exactly three female heroes, including the best quester of them all, Éowyn. Ordinarily I'm not crazy about games adding original characters to established fictional worlds, but as I'm finding in my Tolkien readthrough, to get female characters into a Tolkien setting they're damn well going to have to be original characters. I also like Eleanor's ability, and the controversy over whether she's any good or not makes me want to find out. Also, I've been reading some tremendously helpful posts over at the Tales from the Cards blog, and they had ended up putting together a similar deck, albeit from two core sets, but still. So here's what I came up with:

**

The Amazons

50 cards, 28 Spirit / 20 Lore / 2 neutral, 3 heroes / 21 allies / 9 attachments / 17 events



Heroes:
Éowyn
Eleanor
Beravor


Allies: 19 (9/8/2)
Northern Tracker x2
Lórien Guide x3
Wandering Took x2
Elfhelm x2
Erebor Hammersmith
Miner of the Iron Hills x2
Henamarth Riversong
Gléowine x2
Daughter of the Nimrodel x2
Silvan Tracker x2
Gandalf x2


Attachments: 9 (5/4)
Unexpected Courage
The Favor of the Lady x2
Power in the Earth x2
Forest Snare x2
Protector of Lórien x2


Events: 17 (12/5)
A Test of Will x2
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
Hasty Stroke x2
Stand and Fight x3
A Light in the Dark x2
Dwarven Tomb
Secret Paths x2
Radagast's Cunning x2
Lore of Imladris

**

Obviously this isn't a very good deck, but it's the best I felt I could put together from one core set and the Dead Marshes pack. I mostly included the Silvan Trackers to have at least a few slightly durable allies, and, well, because they were there. I'm hoping to be able to provide questing, card draw and treachery management while the Tactics folks deal with the fighting. Combat ability is a concern, but with an initial threat of 26, I should get a moment to prepare when going solo, or have fightier decks handle it. I would absolutely love some tougher allies, but this is what I have so it'll have to do.

My first test run with this deck was Passage through Mirkwood in co-operation with my partner's Boromir-led monosphere Tactics deck, and we absolutely destroyed it. Eowyn's questing combined with extra progress from Legolas sped us through the various stages, and once Gimli was fortified with the Armor of the Citadel, he took on some Hummerhorns to reach a fairly amazing 9 attack. When Ungoliant's Spawn showed up for the final stage, the Tactics boys knocked it out in one go. I didn't even have to use my Forest Snare! We did very well indeed, but the experience did underline the combat weakness of my deck.

I'm unreasonably thrilled to report that I also managed to beat Passage through Mirkwood solo on my first attempt! Compared to the absolute breeze that was our Tactics-Amazons co-op, it was distinctly more hairy on my own. I was lucky to get Protector of Lórien on both Beravor and Eleanor, and with Gléowine helping out on card draw, I was able to junk a fair number of cards to help both questing and defense. Still, getting rid of enemies was anything but easy; on several occasions we had three enemies engaged, and it was all I could do to just defend them. Elfhelm and the Northern Tracker were worth their weight in gold here. In the end, we got Ungoliant's Spawn snared - and still took several turns to get rid of it. But get rid of it we did, and the quest was complete, with far fewer casualties than I'd expected. I like this deck!

**

Having run these games, we happened to pick up the Hunt for Gollum adventure pack; I swapped out my Silvan Trackers and a Wandering Took for a Rivendell Minstrel and three Westfold Horse-Breakers, having also handed one of my Gandalfs over to the Leadership deck. I also dropped one copy of Stand and Fight for a Strider's Path. We took a three-handed swing at PtM again with a new player on the Leadership starter, and it was quite successful. The healing abilities of my Daughter of the Nimrodel came in handy, as did Eleanor's treachery cancellation, but I still have too much Lore in my deck and too few Spirit allies. I restored my other Wandering Took in favor of a Stand and Fight, which helps the one but not the other. I should look for some expansions with more Spirit allies, but I'm not sure which ones they are. Maybe I should be trying to use Stand and Fight to get some Lore allies into play via the discard pile? So far I've never ended up using it. I'm also not quite sure which Lore cards to drop. With several players involved, healing is quite valuable, but much less so in solo play, where I try to avoid the damage being done in the first place. On the other hand, questing support cards like Radagast's Cunning and Secret Paths have seen relatively little use so far, but maybe that's just because the questing has been rather easy.

The true test for any deck, of course, is a hill troll. We tried Journey to Anduin three-handed over midsummer (Leadership, Spirit and Lore starter decks), and were completely overwhelmed. Not only were we finding it very difficult to deal with the troll, but the increased combat workload also meant that locations started piling up in the staging area and we eventually gave up when we lost a player altogether when his threat hit 50. That memory is why I'm not too keen to throw out the quest-boosting Lore cards! So next time: journeys along the Great River of Wilderland!

**

For later reference, this is the current state of my deck:

The Amazons; 50 cards, 29/20/1, 3/22/9/16

Eowyn
Eleanor
Beravor


Allies: 22 (12/9/1)
Northern Tracker x2
Lorien Guide x3
Wandering Took x2
Elfhelm x2
Westfold Horse-Breaker x3
Erebor Hammersmith
Miner of the Iron Hills x2
Henamarth Riversong
Gleowine x2
Daughter of the Nimrodel x2
Rivendell Minstrel
Gandalf


Attachments: 9 (5/4)
Unexpected Courage
The Favor of the Lady x2
Power in the Earth x2
Forest Snare x2
Protector of Lorien x2


Events: 16 (10/6)
A Test of Will x2
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
Hasty Stroke x2
Stand and Fight
A Light in the Dark x2
Dwarven Tomb
Secret Paths x2
Radagast's Cunning x2
Lore of Imladris
Strider's Path


And my partner's, after swapping Gimli for Thalin and a consequent lower starting threat:

Team Boromir; 46 cards, 44/2, 3/17/10/16

Boromir (TDM)
Legolas
Thalin


Allies: 17 (15/2)
Beorn
Horseback Archer x2
Gondorian Spearman x3
Veteran Axehand x3
Winged Guardian x3
Vassal of the Windlord x3
Gandalf x2


Attachments: 10
Citadel Plate x2
Dwarven Axe x2
Blade of Gondolin x2
Horn of Gondor
Song of Mocking x3


Events: 16
Thicket of Spears x2
Swift Strike
Blade Mastery x3
Feint x2
Quick Strike x2
Rain of Arrows x2
Stand Together
The Eagles Are Coming! x3

Jun 29, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 10: A Warm Welcome

The day grew lighter and warmer as they floated along.

We left Bilbo and the dwarves floating down the forest river toward Long Lake, and that's where we find them now, with the hobbit admiring the scenery, which includes, for the first time, the Lonely Mountain! There's a nice bit of geography and a description of Lake-town, a human settlement built on piles driven into the lakebed. I have to build something like that in Minecraft. As invisible Bilbo floats along, he overhears the rafting elves doing some handy exposition about local events, learning that the forest river is now actually pretty much the only reasonable way through Mirkwood; apparently the forest road is now swamped in at its eastern end.

This actually raises a question: back in chapter 8, the narrator said that if only the dwarves had persevered a little longer on the road, they would have made it to the edge of the woods. I wondered then what good that would have done them, as they would've basically been stuck in the middle of nowhere with no food, and now we learn that they'd actually have been stuck in the middle of a swamp with nothing to eat. So unless they were madly gluttonous with their rations, which isn't the impression I got, sending the lot of them to trudge through Mirkwood on foot was pretty much a suicide mission. The narrator here informs us that Gandalf was very worried when he heard about the state of the local terrain, which kind of forces one to up the ante from wondering about the incompetence of Thorin's travelling circus to the state of planning in Middle-Earth in general.

Only after the barrels are poled ashore and the raft-elves head into town for some drinking, do we learn that Bilbo's lunatic dwarven flotation scheme actually worked, as he extracts the dwarves from their barrels, in various states but all alive and accounted for. To digress for a minute, okay, we're told the raft-elves go into town for "feasting", but surely that includes alcohol. Given that the image of Tolkien's elves tends to be of mysterious, aloof beings, the impression you get here is of basically decent folks who enjoy a drink.

Most of the dwarves are too waterlogged and miserable to be of any use, but Thorin, Fili, Kili and Bilbo head into Lake-town. They waltz into the guardhouse, where Thorin announces himself:

"Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror King under the Mountain!" said the dwarf in a loud voice, and he looked it, in spite of his torn clothes and draggled hood. The gold gleamed on his neck and waist; his eyes were dark and deep. "I have come back. I wish to see the Master of your town!"

Everyone goes nuts about this, and Thorin is conducted to the Master of Lake-town's hall, where a feast is going on. Thorin again announces himself as King under the Mountain, to the dismay of the raft-elves, who protest:

"These are prisoners of our king that have escaped, wandering vagabond dwarves that could not give any good account of themselves, sneaking through the woods and molesting our people!"

Never mind that this is true; Thorin gets out of it with some rhetoric, and the crowd goes crazy and starts singing about the return of the king and all the gold he'll be bringing. Soon enough, the dwarves and hobbit are being feasted, decked out in expensive clothes and put up in excellent lodgings for a fortnight of partying and song. Eventually the Master - who, to his resounding credit, is solidly skeptical about this whole thing - throws them out by equipping their little expedition to the Mountain, and off the dwarves go.

**

This is a really good chapter. We get good exposition and world-building, some excellent scenes in Lake-town and the transformation of the dwarves from half-drowned hobos to conquering heroes reclaiming their ancestral home.

It's worth noting that so far, the only thing the dwarves have done with unquestionable competence is sell their dragon-hunting story. Their song and dance act at Bag End was a tremendous success, and they effectively repeat it here in Lake-town, netting new clothes, equipment, lodgings and transportation. They're bumbling morons at anything that even remotely resembles actual adventuring, not to mention completely unequipped for it, but they sure can put on a dog and pony show. If they were around today, these guys would give amazing Powerpoint presentations.

This all suggests an explanation for the dwarves' hitherto-puzzling lack of planning, preparedness and competence: they're con men. Look at the events of the chapter from the Master of Lake-town's point of view. A bunch of dwarven hoboes with a halfling thief show up, unarmed, bedraggled and generally miserly, and give speeches about how they're dispossessed dwarven nobility on their way to kick out a dragon and reclaim their ancestral home. Without, you know, weapons. Or indeed equipment or skills of any kind. The elves protest that these are just a band of wandering criminals, which apparently to them is something different from dispossessed or indeed possessed nobility, but your subjects inexplicably mark out over the return of the king and start singing songs about dwarves and gold. Said dwarves are perfectly content to receive a fortnight of housing, feasts and gifts, and having arrived as half-drowned hoboes in barrels, leave decked out like lords.

Surely at this point, a skeptical observer would fully expect to never see them again. Maybe they used their last coins to bribe some of the townsfolk into singing about dwarves and gold at the appropriate juncture to pull it off this time, but having managed to swindle proper clothing and other gifts from Lake-town, their "King under the Mountain" act will be even more convincing in the next place they pull it. I could easily see a troupe of dwarven con men doing the rounds in Middle-Earth with an act like this. Actually, I wouldn't half mind running that role-playing campaign.

**

There are nineteen chapters altogether in the Hobbit, so we're now halfway through! For the record, the first half of the book has not so much as mentioned a single female character or creature. You'd think that some of the townsfolk in Lake-town might have been women, and certainly that some ladies would have been at Rivendell or at the Elvenking's feasts, but we don't know that they were. It really is an incredibly masculine world.

Next time: mountaineering!

Jun 22, 2015

Rogue Trader: Year one reflections

According to my book-keeping, today marks a full year since I ran the first session of our ongoing Rogue Trader campaign. We were temporarily living in Kannelmäki at the time, and our student flat featured the unusual (for us!) amenity of enough space to seat me and five whole players around a table. We took advantage of this to finally get around to doing something I'd been wanting to get back into for pretty much a decade: run a tabletop role-playing game. This is a long, rambling and essentially pointless blog post on that game. I'm going to try to actually distil some thoughts on role-playing and gamemastering into writing at some point, and this is something like a very rough draft of them.

**

My first tabletop roleplaying experience was an abortive attempt to start a Cyberpunk 2020 campaign when I was still in school. I must've been twelve or thirteen at the time, and if I recall correctly, we never got further than character creation. I think my character was going to be a cop, which is both prescient and kinda ironic given the things I've ended up doing since. I liked coming up with characters and had been looking forward to playing, so even though it didn't happen, I did end up broadening my interests from the Games Workshop figures to the role-playing game shelves at our gaming store.

Unsurprisingly for a Tolkien fan, I found myself a copy of ICE's Middle-Earth Role Playing, and for some reason I, the youngest person in the bunch, ended up being the gamemaster. We actually played in a basement! I had no idea what I was doing. I departed from a notion that it would be interesting to explore the southern parts of Eriador, probably kicking off from places like Sarn Ford being mentioned in the Lord of the Rings, but I can't quite recall where it was we ended up. The only adventure proper I remember was my players exploring a cave complex and sheltering in a ruined tower outside it, where they were swarmed by mewlips, which MERP rendered as a kind of undead predator, after dark. My players really got into it at the time, and it's the first gamemastering success I remember.

We eventually abandoned Middle-Earth as a setting, probably because it was simply too dear to some of us, and maybe a bit boring for the others. Remember that this is almost a decade before the movies! I got a copy of the Rolemaster Standard System, and got to work putting together a fantasy world of my very own. This wasn't completely new to me: I'd already attempted at least two fantasy novels, both of which I'm pretty sure must have been terrible and are fortunately lost to digital oblivion. In retrospect, being a GM must've appeared at least somewhat natural to me. Having grown up around video, board and card games, and already dabbling in miniature gaming myself, the idea of making up my own game can't have been too far-fetched.

The first campaign I put together was for a couple of my classmates, and to be honest, I remember very little of it. I'm pretty sure one of the characters was a sorcerer, marking my first encounter with the perennial fantasy role-playing problem of the wizard in his salad days. I seem to recall that his fearsome abilities included being able to give people a cold. Another character I remember was a paladin of death; typically understated character concept from a bunch of teenagers! I ended up giving him a walk-on part as an NPC villain in my next project. I mention that in part because my chronology's very hazy, and the fact that a player character from that campaign later appeared as an NPC in the next one is one of the few things I can remember that help me figure out what happened when. I think that was my first Rolemaster campaign; I have absolutely no recollection of what happened, and I don't think it lasted very long. The second one was the one that became epic.

**

We started out with three players: one of my best friends, and two of his classmates from high school who were new to this whole role-playing game business. We did the traditional thing where we all sat down together to create the characters, and the most experienced player pretty much ran the show. He wanted to play a paladin, so that's what we made him. One of our novice players wanted to pretty much play Conan the Barbarian, so a fighter it was.

At this point, the player running the show strongly suggested to our other novice that it would be really good to have a wizard in the party to heal everyone. Because healing spells fall under the Channeling realm in RMSS, this meant his options were pretty much a Cleric, Druid or Sorcerer. He picked Sorcerer, but again, a first-level Sorcerer was hardly very impressive. The salad days of an RMSS wizard were pretty bleak. He could maybe cast a rudimentary attack spell but risk a catastrophic miscast. You'd try to get him a magic item that held a more useful offensive spell, and some low-level utility spells like healing d10 hit points and suchlike, but playing a wizard in those systems was pretty much about trying to survive until you leveled up a couple of times. Luckily RMSS character creation included a stage where you could pick from a number of training packages, and the sorcerer ended up getting a con man training package. It made the difference between a forgettable wizard character imposed on a reluctant player, and one of the most memorable characters I ever GM'd.

Later the player with the paladin decided he'd made a boring character, and we arranged for an appropriately heroic and paladiny death for him. He was replaced by a character modestly described as a dark elf ninja: basically a Drizzt Do'Urden making use of the Rolemaster Martial Arts Companion. Here they are in their Mithril Miniatures glory:


Left, Belial the barbarian; right, Aslach Maedhros the ninja; front and center, Degas the sorcerer con man. They were joined by a whole bunch of other characters at various times in a campaign that lasted several years.

From a gamemaster's perspective, it was a tremendous learning experience. As they got acquainted with the game and the setting, my players went through a series of crises of authority. At first, they were quite happy to go through some adventures I threw at them under the direction of their paladin leader. Eventually the other players started to become impatient with his leadership, and discovered a taste for barroom brawling. I have to admit that the brawling rules in RMSS were kinda fun, and my players enjoyed them so much that I indulged them. At some point this led to the first crisis/epiphany of the campaign: the other players realized they didn't have to do what the most experienced player told them to do. Some chaos did ensue. It was entertaining.

The next crisis/epiphany was when my players realized they didn't have to do what I said, either. When I read about roleplaying in the English-language world, I've always been struck by how adversarial the relationship between players and gamemasters seems. It's very strange to me, as I've always thought of a role-playing game as essentially a collaborative storytelling project, rather than a game with the players on one side and the GM on the other. Our campaign did at one point develop this aspect as well, when my players wanted to probe those limits of role-playing: they tried to figure out what my "plan" was and did their best to derail it. There were two problems with this. Firstly, I'd already gravitated toward a gamemastering style that combined improvising on the spot with a version of Justin Alexander's "don't prep plots" rule, so there was rarely a plan there to derail. Secondly, trying to screw over the GM is pointless, since the GM controls the damn world. As a corollary, screwing over the players is pointless, since you can always do it.

After these various crises, our campaign more or less settled down, and I gradually found a gamemastering style that I was comfortable with. Because we were playing in essentially a throwaway homebrew world, I did get to give my players a bit of a surprise by having the world end. First they got to experience Fimbulwinter, and then the great flood, which they escaped through a magic portal to another world. At this point, we all pretty much knew that the campaign was ending, so we put together a grand finale where the dark elf ninja turned on the rest of the group. The lesson there was that pitting players against other players is awesome, but really tricky to manage.

**

After that campaign wrapped up, my role-playing activities took a back seat. We did run a couple of small experimental campaigns where I got to try out some different approches to creating group cohesion and some other interesting meta stuff, but none of them really took off. We also tried using the RMSS modern rules, and I contemplated straight up running Cyberpunk 2020, but it didn't come together. I also started going through a rough time in my life, and kind of dropped out of everything.

As I started to recover, running a role-playing game was one objective I set myself, but I was initially stumped by what kind of game to pick. Fantasy is, in a way, everything to me, but my problem with it is that I take it too seriously these days to really run a fantasy role-playing game. I know I'd end up spending years trying to work out exactly what kind of agriculture they practice, how large a surplus population it can maintain and what kind of architecture would their inns represent. In other words, never let me run a fantasy RPG. Also, none of the systems really appealed to me; it seemed like everyone and their dog was running a d20 game, but Dungeons & Dragons always left me a bit cold. Too formalistic for my taste! Then again, I'd never been able to find a modern/cyberpunk game I really liked, especially with the new Shadowrun turning out to be offputtingly awful. Nothing in the science fiction vein really appealed to me, either.

After my RMSS experiences, one of the things that really interested me was group cohesion. I tend to generally see gamemastering as an opportunity to run uneducated social psychology experiments on helpless victims, so obviously I wanted to play around with how players form and operate as groups. In fantasy games, the concept of the adventuring party is so ingrained that it gets pretty much taken for granted: players will expect to be provided with some kind of nominal hook that justifies their characters forming a party, and then they go with it. I ran a brief campaign where I never provided that hook, and the group then disintegrated quite spectacularly. To me, neither of these is approaches is very satisfying.

Earlier I had tried to put together a cyberpunk campaign for a larger number of players than I'm comfortable with having in a group at one time. My limit tends to be 5 players per group, which I'd more or less stuck to in RM, with the exception of a couple of special occasions. The idea was that all the characters would work for, say, a criminal organization, and would form their own ad hoc groups to do various jobs. The idea was to give the players agency in forming their "party", and having them interact with an organization and with each other. This would have worked great with Shadowrun, which was why I was so disappointed in how disheartening the new edition was.

Then, about a couple of years ago, I came across Rogue Trader, and it was perfect. Not only would the players all be working for the same Rogue Trader family, one of them would actually play the Rogue Trader in charge of the whole operation. I've been playing various GW games for over twenty years now, from Space Marine to Necromunda and Blood Bowl, so I pretty much know the setting by heart as background, but I can't take it so seriously that it would hamper GMing. I was also tremendously lucky to be able to attract a large and diverse group of players, an especial highlight being when one of my best friends agreed to play the Rogue Trader; I knew he'd bring not only an encyclopedic knowledge of the Warhammer 40,000 universe but also an exceptional mind and a unique approach to the role. We started out with a group of five players a year ago; today, there are twelve players involved in the campaign.

**

Putting together this campaign involved two principal challenges. First of all, I needed to create a framework for the campaign that would be flexible enough to give the players themselves considerable agency in presenting their characters to others and interacting with both other players and the world. At the same time, that framework also had to very clearly create an organization in which every character had a defined role and raison d'être: everyone knows who they're working for and why.

That last part is particularly essential, since from the very beginning the second main challenge was that I was running a campaign for players of vastly different experience and familiarity with the setting, many of whom also didn't know each other at all - in two different languages! In my experience, by far the best way to teach new players role-playing is to get them stuck in, especially if you also have one or two players who are either experienced in general or familiar with your gamemastering style in particular. Even complete novices, if they have any aptitude and interest, will quickly learn by watching, listening and participating. That's why I strongly feel that motivation is the single most important criterion for selecting players for a campaign.

The downside of the learning-by-doing method is that differences in player experience will come to be mirrored in the characters' relations to each other. Whatever the characters and their relative positions in the party or organization, the experienced players will dominate the game. I specifically didn't want that to happen. This is at the root of my opposition to the common method of creating characters in a group: if you sit all the players down around a table to come up with everyone's characters, the experienced players will dominate that process as well. Certainly this was what had happened in my previous long campaign. There's a significant chance that, even if the domination isn't overt, the novices will inevitably look to the more experienced players for an example, and try to create characters that are useful to the group or whatever. Unfortunately a character that's useful to the group won't necessarily be one that the player in question ends up being interested in playing. In general, finding yourself cast in a particular role through a social dynamic at the table rather than your own interests can be very destructive to motivation.

My solution was to create everyone's character completely separately from the others. I gave everyone some general background material on the setting and asked them to look at the rulebook and come up with a character concept. Incidentally, I regard the ability to do this as a fairly good litmus test of player motivation. It's fairly easy for a gamemaster to manage this process by maintaining a dialogue with the players as they do this, seeing to it that you don't end up with a group of, say, five Navigators. I absolutely abhor the idea I've seen in some RPG products where players are left to their own devices for character creation and are only expected to show up at the first session with a character sheet in hand, so I think GMs need to be fully involved in character creation anyway. This also lets you include all kinds of interesting stuff in character backgrounds that the other players will genuinely know nothing about. A real secret is always so much better than a role-played one.

The main benefit of this "character creation in a vacuum" approach is that it gives each player maximum agency in choosing how to present their character to the group. Instead of the other players thinking "oh, here's so-and-so, she's playing the seneschal with the missile launcher", the player herself will get to create the impression their character makes on the group. My hypothesis is that this will make the intra-group dynamic emphasize the characters more than the players, which I also hope will make it easier for less experienced players to get stuck in.

The other hope I had for this method of character creation was that it would lead to group cohesion perhaps developing more slowly, but in a manner that's more organic to the characters and the game, and less a reflection of the players' personalities and relationships. This way we could hopefully avoid the crisis-oriented development of my previous campaign.

Creating characters separately also really serves to reinforce one of the key themes of my campaign: information management. Rogue Trader lends itself to this very well, with the rogue trader himself probably privy to a great deal of house secrets, and seneschals and others working for him with their own backgrounds and contacts. I wanted players, especially those in positions of authority, to have to make decisions on what information to share with whom, and to never quite know for sure just who it was they were working with.

One final reason for separate character creation is that it ensures each character can stand on their own, so that in a larger, multi-group campaign like mine, I can move characters between groups. Most of the players in my campaign didn't know each other very well or at all before we started playing, so I didn't even know if they'd get along! I'm happy to say they all have so far, but you never know. For group cohesion purposes, I very much like the Profit Factor system: if nothing else, at least the players have an incentive to stay in the rogue trader's service for access to the family fortune. But even with that, having multiple groups gives your players the opportunity to play with the people they like, and to give different groups different themes, hopefully based on player interests and styles of play - and in our case, language! We ended up starting with an "overt" Finnish-language group led by the rogue trader himself, and a "covert" English-language group led by a seneschal spymaster.

**

Overall, I've been tremendously happy with how the campaign's gone so far. I feel that my approach to character creation was a success: I have a full dozen interesting characters, and my players seem motivated to play them. My GMing was really rusty to begin with, and still is, but my players have so far come back for more. I think they've all been tremendous, with the more experienced players really role-playing and the less experienced ones exceeding themselves constantly. I'd be willing to go as far as to say that my character creation philosophy also worked in terms of creating a playing environment which the players interacted with, and where the players interacted with each other, primarily through their characters.

I'm particularly grateful to those of my players who've taken on leadership roles in their groups, as their unique leadership styles have really made their mark on the campaign. Above all, I'm tremendously lucky I've managed to find so many smart, skilled and motivated players in general.

Because of my dilettante interest in social psychology, it's been extremely interesting to run a large number of players as separate groups. Each group tends to develop its own ways of doing things, and it's just fascinating how adding and subtracting people changes that. On that note, I'd like to encourage GMs to embrace player absences. Unless your group is smack in the middle of something that that particular character is absolutely vital for, if a player has to cancel at the last minute, just roll with it. Especially in a game like Rogue Trader, where you can easily come up with a whole host of plausible reasons why the character isn't participating in the action just then. Hell, for want of anything better, people get ill in the 41st millenium, too. This can be particularly rewarding if the player in question has a leading role.

Running several groups obviously means less playing time for each group than they'd otherwise have, at least if GM time is a constraint. Here, as I feel in all GMing, the two keys are intelligent prep work and a willing to improvise. If you try to run deep, epic plots for each group and have them intersect in various really clever ways, you'll end up wasting huge amounts of time and it'll never work anyway. If you can design intelligent, dynamic environments and actors, running multiple groups can be hugely rewarding and surprisingly painless. Players certainly become a lot more interested in local news when they know some of it is being generated by other player characters! It's not as much work as you might think, and juggling a complex of several player groups is challenging and loads of fun.

**

As a postscript: since I'm already pretty familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe and Fantasy Flight's Koronus Expanse setting doesn't strike me as particularly interesting, I went elsewhere for my material. I never use published adventures or settings as they are, but I do love reading RPG material as it gets me thinking. GURPS doesn't really interest me as a system, but they've got sourcebooks on the darndest things:



I bought GURPS: Alpha Centauri basically on a lark, and it's really well put together! Basically it integrates Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri into the GURPS system as a setting. Alpha Centauri is one of my favorite video games ever, but I do have to confess it never once occurred to me to run a role-playing game in it. The major shortcoming of GURPS: SMAC is that while it does a good job with the setting, it's really rather thin on the role-playing front. You'd have to have a far more serious love affair with the computer game than I ever did to run a SMAC role-playing campaign just for the joy of adventuring on Planet.

Which got me thinking: if my players wanted to play an Alpha Centauri-themed scifi campaign, what would I do? What I came up with was integrating the other GURPS supplements I've picked up online over the past year.



Here's my campaign pitch:

The Unity has arrived at Alpha Centauri, the crew divided into its various factions, and planetfall has been made. Technology has progressed to the point where at least some of the factions have returned to space, but transcendence is still a ways in the future. Earth, ravaged by nuclear war and the subsequent environmental devastation, has been quiet - until an Earth starship drops out of warp in the Alpha Centauri system.

An intrepid inventor on post-apocalyptic Earth has invented faster-than-light drive - if you like, his name is Zefram Cochrane. Humanity has entered a new era, and the first faster-than-light expeditions to nearby stars have met alien civilizations. We're definitely not alone any more; in fact, Earth - and Alpha Centauri - find themselves in the middle of a complicated web of alien factions, trade routes and diplomatic maneuvers.

The various factions of Alpha Centauri recognize that they need to be in on this action. They acquire warp drive technology and combine their forces to build Alpha Centauri's first starship. Its mission is to find out about the new interstellar reality around them, and see what opportunities there might be for Chiron to get its collective foot in the door and maintain her independence from a recovering Old Earth. The crew of the starship is drawn from the best and the brightest of Chiron's factions: your player characters.

I'd run the campaign as a sort of cross between original series / Next Generation Star Trek and Rogue Trader, making full use of the GURPS Far Trader and Pocket Empires supplements. The players would be the command crew of the starship, tasked with going out into the unknown to represent Alpha Centauri's civilizations to the wider galaxy in whatever way they see fit: exploration, combat, diplomatic intrigue, trade - whatever grabs the players' interest. The backstory on Alpha Centauri can be customized to suit the group, or even conform to an actual game of SMAC. How did they get warp technology - did the Morgans buy it? Hive spies or Data Angels steal it? The University figured it out on their own?

Not interested in theology? Maybe this happened earlier:



More GURPS stuff can always be thrown in. I picked up the GURPS New Sun supplement, based on Gene Wolfe's stories, off a sale at my local gaming store; it could be adapted into a nearer-future post-apocalyptic Earth if you really wanted to throw players a curveball. As I already alluded to, particularly enterprising gamemasters might want to set the whole thing in the Star Trek universe: the Unity was launched some time before World War III, and most of Earth is either locked in the postatomic horror, or being ravaged by the Eugenics Wars. Maybe in this timeline, the disastrous first contact with the Klingons is made by a ship from Alpha Centauri!

For bonus points, throw in some Elite 2: Frontier references. I know I couldn't run a spacefaring game in the solar neighborhood without at least a few.

I have no intention of running a campaign like this any time soon; I have a very satisfying Rogue Trader game to get through first! But this is what I'd do with GURPS: SMAC. To be honest, I've only skimmed through most of my GURPS stuff; I hope to be able to give them more of my attention later this year, so hopefully I'll be returning to them here. I absolutely love the idea of GURPS: being able to integrate all these different fictional universes across a single game system is like my teenage geeky self's dream come true. The more I think about it, the more I like this notion of the Alpha Centauri colonists returning to space for proto-Star Trek adventures.

**

So, if there's a conclusion to this, I suppose it's that when planning a campaign, do take an extra moment to think about how to do things like character creation or group cohesion in a way that reinforces the themes of your campaign, and how much agency they give each player. I had some goals I wanted to meet, and I think they worked out okay. A different campaign with different goals would handle things differently. But in short, I feel that the way you set up your campaign matters a lot.

Overall, running a proper, old-fashioned tabletop pen-and-paper roleplaying campaign has been a tremendously rewarding experience that has considerably increased my quality of life. I wholeheartedly recommend taking part in at least one tabletop campaign in your life. It'll be worth it.

For those of you unfortunate enough to find yourself GMing like me: reflect. That's what I've been trying to do in this huge mess of a blog post. I'll try to create some more readable posts on specific issues in the future. Until then, I've got a huge bunch of players to shepherd closer to the edge of the galaxy!

Jun 1, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 9: Barrels Out of Bond

The day after the battle with the spiders Bilbo and the dwarves made one last despairing effort to find a way out before they died of hunger and thirst.

That's a cheerful start! To be fair, it's not quite this grim: in proper fairy-tale fashion, we've been told that Bilbo and the traveling circus get out of this alive, and now we find out how. To start with, Bilbo and the remaining dwarves get captured by the Wood-elves - or at least the dwarves do, because Bilbo slips on the ring and they never so much as spot him. I wonder if much of the later history of the One Ring isn't premised on Tolkien feeling rather like a gamemaster who accidentally gave one of his player characters a magic item that's so powerful it's breaking the campaign, so it desperately needs a huge downside.

The king of the Wood-elves demands to know who the dwarves are and where they're going; perhaps not unreasonably suspecting that a posse of incompetent dwarven vagrants might be on their way to do something catastrophically stupid like devastate the entire region by waking a dragon and trying to steal its treasure. As the dwarves refuse to talk, they get locked up in the king's dungeons. Bilbo is reduced to sneaking around the dungeons and halls like a ghostly burglar, complaining about how awful everything is and how this is the worst thing ever and he should never have left home in the first place. Given that the elves come off as rather humane jailors and no-one is in immediate peril of being eaten or murdered by orcs, I really think he's laying it on a bit thick.

When he's had enough of a moan and haunted the Elvenking's halls for a few weeks, Bilbo decides to actually do something, and not only finds the dwarves but actually comes up with an escape plan. Just in time, too: when he finds Thorin, the great leader is on the verge of revealing their mission to the Wood-elves and bargaining for his release by promising them a share of the treasure. From the elves' point of view, he's the head of a group of starving party-crashing dwarven hobos; you'd think he might just as well offer them exclusive commercial rights to the Moon. Heartened by the appearance of an invisible hobbit, Thorin changes his mind and has Bilbo tell the other dwarves to stand firm so the elves don't get their grubby fairy hands on their treasure: "(which they quite regarded as theirs, in spite of their plight and the still unconquered dragon)". Now all that remained was to find a way out, and Bilbo came up with one.

To be honest, it's not one you'd much like to try at home. Bilbo discovers that there are two ways out of the Elvenking's halls: the main gate and a stream running underneath. The stream is used to float empty barrels down to the Long Lake; the Wood-elves bought food and drink and the like from the Lake-men, and sent the empty barrels back by river. Bilbo's idea was to pack the dwarves in barrels and float them down the stream; when the king's butler and the chief of the guard decide to try out the new wine from Dorwinion during a feast and promptly pass out, this is exactly what Bilbo does. To their credit, the dwarves are skeptical of the plan, having apparently discovered some wits in their cells, but when Bilbo tells them it's this or nothing, into the barrels they go. Soon enough, elves show up to dump the barrels into the stream, and Bilbo dives in after them. In a bit of suspense, we follow the hobbit on his way down the stream and into an assembly area, where the barrels are roped together into a raft and poled down into the lake - but we have no idea if the dwarves made it alive or not.

I can't help but think that stuffing people into barrels and dumping them headlong into a river seems more like a sadistic murder plot than an escape plan. Sure, people have gone over waterfalls in barrels and stranger things, but with casualties. So many things could go wrong, with dwarves suffocating, drowning, being battered or knocked senseless, you name it. The plot also relied on the elves not being at all bothered that some of the barrels were pretty damn heavy - and on a dwarf-and-barrel combo floating.

Hare-brained escape plan notwithstanding, Bilbo's evolution into a hero continues in this chapter, where despite all the moaning he really is instrumental in getting the dwarves out of yet another mess. And it's not just the invisibility ring, either, but some wits and quick thinking too. As the narrator tells us toward the end of the chapter, the eastward journey is nearing its destination, so we have to hurry along!

Next time, an urban interlude. And for those of you keeping score, nope, still not a single female character in the entire damn story.

May 25, 2015

Fixing F1?

If you want a handle on the current discussion about fixing Formula One, I recommend starting with what David Coulthard and Will Buxton have to say on the topic. Do read Mark Webber's thoughts as well. For the hell of it, I've put my two cents' worth together as well.

There are two problem areas in F1: costs and the perceived quality of the racing. The first is fairly obvious and almost dramatic by now. Several major car manufacturers (Toyota, BMW, Honda) left F1 during the financial crisis, and only one new manufacturer has joined since (Mercedes). The last time F1 tried to expand the grid ended in complete disaster: of the three new teams, two have gone under and the last remaining one went through receivership and barely made the grid this year with a car that's so slow it wouldn't even be in the points in GP2. Force India and Sauber are in dire financial straits, and Red Bull is publicly threatening to withdraw. Everyone agrees that the financial state of the sport is untenable, but no-one agrees why, or what should be done about it.

The other point is fuzzier, but arguably shows in falling TV numbers and empty grandstands. The perennial complaint is that Formula One is "boring", which is something that's been said since the nineties at least. Like the financial situation, there's no agreement whatsoever on why the racing isn't as good as it could supposedly be, much less what ought to be done to fix it. Personally, I'm of two minds on this: we've been seeing some really good racing lately, although I do admit having fallen sound asleep during the Spanish GP. I'm also not convinced that the dearth of spectators at some races is so much due to the quality of the product on track as the obscene ticket prices, driven by the gigantic fees levied by one Mr. Ecclestone, who's unsurprisingly very keen to blame the quality of the racing. But clearly there are some problems that ought to be addressed.

The drivers, apparently, aren't at all happy with the state of the sport either. This, from Coulthard, is key:

They might not say so publicly, but I know that the current drivers are all a bit disillusioned with the current F1 because the cars are so slow compared to previous years, and the drivers are so far within their ability levels during the races.

Similarly, Webber:

“I’m talking on behalf of the drivers at the front of the grid because they can’t say what they really feel. But I’m talking to them now. I’d love someone to do a stat on race pace with the 2015 race compared to the mid-2000s – probably Montoya would have lapped Seb in Malaysia three and a half times! But people aren’t looking at this. In the past, the limitation over the back part of the track in Malaysia used to be balls and how fit you were. Now its ‘save your tyres.’”

Never mind that nonsense about testicles - it's a disgrace that fast and talented female drivers like Simone de Silvestro and Alice Powell can't attract sponsorship - because the point is sound: from a driver's perspective, F1 today is not about pushing yourself to the limit at the pinnacle of motorsport, it's about being particularly skilled at saving tires and fuel. There's really no two ways about this: that's fucking ridiculous.

Why is this? Because of past attempts to fix F1. This is what makes any talk of fixing the sport now so difficult: much of the trouble F1 is in right now stems from things that have been done in the past to make the racing better. What guarantee do we have right now that the changes being mooted won't do the same? Nor can we simply imagine that going back in time to when F1 was "proper" is the answer - not least because we're never going to agree when that was. We have to be aware that change may very well make things worse; in the precarious financial situation F1 is in today, ill-conceived sweeping changes seem more likely to destroy the sport than rescue it. At the very least, cost-cutting has to be paramount. Otherwise the better racing will come at the expense of half the grid going bankrupt.

**

To me, the biggest issue is the one highlighted by Coulthard and Webber: F1 isn't about pushing the limits of the drivers any more. The reason for this is simple: perceived problems in the quality of the racing have been addressed by gimmicks. Pirelli was brought in to make comedy tires for the cars that would degrade artificially quickly. This was done to give us more pit stops, more variable action on track and whatnot. You can argue we've got that, and this is no criticism of Pirelli as they've come in and done exactly what was asked of them, but it's also taken the edge off the driving. The tires also make one of F1's biggest problems much worse, because they make overtaking much harder. The aerodynamics of an F1 car are so finely tuned that the downforce the cars generate is drastically reduced when they're running in "dirty air" behind another car. The airflow to the various aerodynamic elements is disrupted by the car in front, and the trailing car loses grip. This also makes tire degradation much worse, and with the comedy tires, it means that drivers have to hang back and conserve their tires rather than attack the car in front.

To fix this problem, the DRS was introduced. The euphemistically named Drag Reduction System is a rear wing that can be opened on designated parts of the track to reduce downforce and increase straight-line speed. It is completely idiotic. As I said ages ago, the idea of the DRS is based on the notion that overtaking by itself is always exciting and makes for better racing. This is the same kind of nonsense you sometimes hear in hockey, where they claim that more goals means better games. Utter rubbish there, and also in motorsports. A DRS overtake involves no driver skill whatsoever: it simply meams that whenever a car that's faster on the straight finds itself behind a slower car, the faster car will receive a free overtake in a special overtaking zone and speed on by. In other words, the DRS sorts the cars into order by speed more efficiently. It guarantees that if a faster car finds itself far behind the race lead, it has an easy passage up the pack by making DRS passes of everyone in front. There is just no way that makes for better racing.

The real problem with DRS is much more profound. We introduce a gimmick (comedy tires). The gimmick makes something worse (overtaking), so we introduce another gimmick (DRS) to fix the problems with the previous gimmick. This is such a terrible way to run a sport that words fail me. I'm genuinely scared that in order to "fix" F1, they're going to come up with even more gimmicks. Certainly Mr. Ecclestone's suggested some that are simply far too stupid to even contemplate. Every gimmick takes F1 further away from racing, and makes it that much more difficult for the casual fan to follow or understand.

I firmly believe that the era of gimmick tires needs to end. It's beyond ridiculous that the most vital skill needed for a driver to succeed at the top level of motorsports is tire management. The DRS also needs to go. Introducing completely artificial trickery to create false "excitement" is a complete waste of money and effort that cheapens the sport metaphorically and makes it needlessly expensive and complicated in reality.

So how do we deal with the overtaking problem? In David Coulthard's words:

It was quite striking to hear Lewis Hamilton of all people saying to his Mercedes team during the Spanish Grand Prix that he could not get close enough to Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari to try to pass him.

I don't have the answer, but surely there must be a way to design the aerodynamics of an F1 car so this is not such a problem, whether it be by having more of the downforce created by the under-floor or whatever.

It is not beyond the F1 designers to come up with a solution to this

After all, IndyCar racing must have found a way, or their cars would not be able to run so close together on oval tracks.

There is widespread agreement that the difficulty of overtaking is, as said, due to the aerodynamics of F1. The answer here seems to be an obvious combination of better racing and saving money: restrict aerodynamics. As a start, I'm with Sean Kelly: restrict the front wing drastically. Making front wing aero much less complicated should dramatically reduce the difficulty of closely following another car. To run with David Coulthard's Indycar analogy, take a look at Indycar front wings compared to the F1 spec ones. The changes so far would all support each other: proper tires mean increased mechanical grip, which means less need for extensive front wing aero, which means more overtaking opportunities, removing the need for the DRS. To me, it seems that these changes would not only improve racing but also make F1 less expensive, so everybody wins.

**

And along comes the Strategy Group. Made up of the five biggest teams (Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams, Red Bull and McLaren) and the best of the rest by constructors' standings (Force India), plus the FIA and a gnomish demilich, the Strategy Group essentially exists to exclude the smaller teams from decisions concerning the sport. They met a week ago on Friday to fix what ails F1 and create a new formula for 2017, and what they came up with is awful.

The 2017 changes address three main issues. Firstly, the engines will be make to rev higher so as to generate more noise. From a TV viewer's perspective, all the moaning about F1 cars making less noise with the new V6 engines is completely ridiculous. At one point, the whining got so terrible that they actually attached a fucking trumpet to the exhaust. A TRUMPET.



That is the stupidest thing I have ever seen on an F1 car. I'm sure there's a market somewhere for a dadaist motorsport series where the cars look like Terry Gilliam animations propelled by flatulence, but surely F1 is not it.

The engine non-issue is being addressed in a vaguely more intelligent manner now, but it all seems completely mad. The new engines are technologically brilliant and road-relevant, which is why all the engine manufacturers refused to change them despite Bernie Ecclestone's inexplicable continuing campaign against them. Lately I've been completely unable to understand why Mr. Ecclestone does the things he does; from his persistent lies that the V6 engines aren't relevant to seeming to do his best to drive the smallest teams out of the business, the outside observer cannot fathom whose interests Mr. Ecclestone is acting in. They don't even seem to be his own. At least he didn't get his way with the engines.

The other major issue is that the cars are to be made considerably faster. F1 cars right now are several seconds a lap slower than those of some previous formulas, which is hardly surprising with the smaller engines, tighter aero restrictions and gimmick tires. The Strategy Group wants to fix this by increasing aerodynamic downforce, so the cars go faster. As James Allen points out, this seems likely to not only fail to increase overtaking, but rather undo much of the work done over the last few years to increase it. Certainly as I understand it, increasing aerodynamic downforce will make the "dirty air" problem much worse than it is now. So in terms of race quality, this change should lead to less overtaking and less battling on track.

**

The third innovation grabbed the biggest headlines: refueling is coming back. This is basically a terrible idea. Now, in theory I like the idea of introducing more strategy variables into the F1 equation, but refuelling generally made for boring races where drivers would overtake each other on pit stops, not on the track. The combination of refueling and increased aero would seem to pretty much guarantee this. Refueling is also dangerous: F1 pits are something of a fire hazard at the best of times, even when you're not pumping high-pressure gasoline into a running engine.

So the Strategy Group's ideas seem to be terrible from a racing viewpoint. They're even worse because they are literally the opposite of cost-cutting. Every team will have to invest in extra personnel and refueling equipment - equipment that was discarded partly because lugging it around was so expensive! As before, all cost-cutting proposals were rejected. Instead, the idea of customer cars was raised again, which in prctice mens tht instead of developing their own crs, smaller teams would buy ready-made cars from the bigger ones. The idea was studied s one way of controlling costs for smaller teams, but it has significant drawbacks: customer cars would effectively divide the grid in half into the constructors and the "B-teams", and it's not at all clear that this kind of racing would make any sense from a sporting or business viewpoint for either the smaller constructors or the B-teams. While I think that something like a co-constructor model could work, the current customer car proposals do seem to confirm the worst fears of the small teams about the Strategy Group.

On the whole, then, in terms of the two perceived main problems of F1, the Strategy Group's suggestions would seem to have the net effect of making everything worse. There are very few reasons to think that what they've come up with will improve the quality of the racing. It seems absolutely impossible that costs would be reduced.

**

The Strategy Group doesn't get to make regulations on its own; everything it suggests will have to be approved down the line. It's already been said that if refueling turns out to be too expensive (if?), it'll be abandoned. But even if none of the proposals outlined above ever see the light of day, they're still profoundly worrying, because they very strongly suggest that the major teams, the commercial rights holder and the FIA have terrible priorities. Apparently none of them care one bit about any kind of cost control. The return to refueling seems to be a perfect example of their decision-making process: it's pointless, seems by all indications to be more likely to only make everything worse and more dangerous, and the only thing we can be sure if is that it will make F1 more, not less, expensive. The Strategy Group has certainly made it clear that the smaller teams' interests mean nothing to it. Similarly, the focus on making the cars faster and louder seems to be counterproductive to improving the actual quality of the racing.

I'm very concerned by the future of F1 right now. Unless the world economy suddenly booms, it's difficult to see how the smaller teams can stay afloat. Customer cars may well be their deathknell. It doesn't seem farfetched to thinl that in a few years' time, the F1 grid will be made up by the current big teams and a couple of marketing ventures like Lotus and the incoming Haas F1 team. This is not to in any way denigrate the current small teams; on the contrary, they're pretty much heroes of motorsport for sticking in there. But if things go on like this, they'll be forced out.

One thing I find bitterly amusing in the continuing fan debate on what's wrong with F1 is the insistence that the teams cannot run the series, and a higher authority must be brought in to make them do what's good for them. Apparently Bernie Ecclestone, who's publicly admitted to admiring Adolf Hitler, has more kindred spirits in motorsports than you'd think. Certainly the idea of excluding the smaller teams from important decisions is absolutely terrible, but it's just complete nonsense to suggest that competing teams can't run a sports series. Anyone who says this has to be completely ignorant of how almost all of the world's major sporting leagues work. Hankering after an FIA dictatorship is pure stupidity - unless you genuinely think that F1 would be better if we could only resurrect Jean-Marie Ballestre. Especially given how well the FIA's strongarm tactics worked last time.

What is it with fascism and motorsport, by the way? Former FIA president Jean-Marie Ballestre was an SS man during the war, and he was succeeded by Max Mosley - son of Oswald Mosley! And then there were Bernie's Hitler comments. He also dismissed the Strategy Group, saying he "doesn't like democracies. Given that only the wealthiest half of the grid is represented, the Strategy Group hardly qualifies as anything like a contemporary democracy, but that isn't stoppig both fans and pundits from, without a shred of irony or indeed any kind of awareness whatsoever, getting starry-eyed over a "benevolent dictatorship" to run F1. It's amazing.

Speaking of dictatorships, I strongly feel that one particular problem that was completely ignored by the Strategy Group does need to be addressed: the circuits. Far too many of the new circuits have been rubbish. Has there ever been an interesting race at Abu Dhabi? There certainly never was at Valencia, which suffered from the main problem of modern street circuits: no matter how pretty the environs, once the racing starts it's just cars hurtling down a stupidly narrow concrete-lined canal. Even Singapore, which always draws fanboylike oohs and aahs from the TV presenters, is a rubbish circuit, and the racing not only looks terrible but is incredibly boring. The only time Singapore has ever been even remotely interesting was, well, that one time. Sochi is worse: as if having to watch everyone kowtow to a diminutive megalomaniac dictator wasn't bad enough, then Putin shows up. With perennial snoozefests like Barcelona and Hungary stuck on the calendar alongside them and locations like the Nürburgring and Monza dropping out, the circuits are also becoming a real problem. Putting on a good race becomes exponentially more difficult when your circuit is not only designed to stop the drivers from overtaking but also to put every viewer to sleep. Maybe I'm just a pessimist and Azerbaijan will be brilliant. Somehow I doubt it.

I'm genuinely scared that F1 is in peril. The terrible irony of it all is that the new engine regulations were supposed to provide the sport with long-term stability, which it badly needs. Now that's being completely undone in a frantic effort for change for the sake of change, which is simultaneously ccelerating the financial self-destruction of the sport. The (few!) people making decisions in F1 today would do well to remember that it's not a law of nature that there needs to be such a thing as Formula One at all. If the number of teams keeps dropping and the racing gets worse, how interesting is something like the World Endurance Championship going to start looking? And how many peope will tune into that thing with the motorized bicycles instead of F1? The fantastic success Formula One has had can't be taken for granted.

May 4, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 8: Flies and spiders

They walked in single file.

I talked about Tolkien's attention to geography in an earlier installment. It's generally agreed that mountains were a bit of a thing for him, and this chapter is our first encounter with another major theme: forests. Mind you, there have been plenty of trees earlier: the trolls' camp was on a wooded hill, there were trees and forested valleys on the way to Rivendell, as well as on both sides of the Misty Mountains. But those were forests; Mirkwood is a Forest. As anyone who's read the Lord of the Rings knows, a forest is just a place with some trees, while a Forest proper is a dark, foreboding, awe-inspiring place. Entering one is an occasion and a considerable, and very dangerous, undertaking.

As a personal aside, I should point out that I come from a culture that fondly harbors utterly pseudo-historical notions (pdf) of its supposed recent descent from some kind of moody Cimmerian forest-dwellers and eagerly deploys these to explain everything from our political beliefs and imagined military prowess to our drinking habits. Part of the reason this series of blog posts is progressing with such glacial speed is that I'm working on a Master's thesis on the military ramifications of these notions. But for that reason, and I suspect ultimately because of the small stretches of woodland near where I grew up, forests fascinate me. Having been born in Switzerland, I'm also somewhat subject to Tolkien's romance with mountains, but in the Hobbit at least, mountains aren't nearly as spectacular as forests.

Indeed, if you compare the mountains in chapter 4 to Mirkwood, the mountains are basically benign until a thunderstorm strikes. The forest, on the other hand, is unequivocally hostile: a hateful, dark place.

It was not long before they grew to hate the forest as heartily as they had hated the tunnels of the goblins, and it seemed to offer even less hope of any ending. But they had to go in and on, long after they were sick for a sight of the sun and of the sky, and longed for the feel of wind on their faces. There was no movement of air down under the forest-roof, and it was everlastingly still and dark and stuffy. Even the dwarves felt it, who were used to tunneling, and lived at times for long whiles without the light of the sun; but the hobbit, who liked holes to make a house in but not to spend summer days in, felt that he was being slowly suffocated.

Seriously, by the description, it is worse than the goblin-tunnels! But on they trudge nonetheless. I've pointed out before that on re-reading the Hobbit, what's really striking is how badly this entire dragonslaying caravan seems to be organized, and last time (admittedly a while ago!) I felt that Gandalf leaving the dwarves on their own seemed like an absolutely terrible idea. As the dwarves and Bilbo make their way deeper into Mirkwood, they're not only constantly spooked by the woods, but their provisions start to run out, most crucially the water. Eventually they arrive at a stream, have a hell of a time getting over as the bridge is gone, and Bombur falls in and drops into some kind of magical forest coma. So now they're hauling along a sleeping dwarf, their food is running out, and they've wasted all the arrows Beorn gave them firing mindlessly after various animals they've run across.

At this point the reader is wondering how anyone could have thought it was a good idea to let these morons out on their own. The narrator helpfully points out that if the dwarves had only persevered a bit longer, they would have made it to the edge if the woods. Surely someone could have told them this? Although one also wonders why it matters, since based on what we've seen of the party's wilderness survival skills so far, they'd still have been far from civilization and starving. Looking at the whole thing from the outside, so to speak, the whole project just seems completely absurd.

They get Bilbo to climb a tree to have a look around, but he can't see the edge of the woods because they're actually in a valley at the moment, so when he comes down and the food runs out, the dwarves are feeling a bit desperate. Again, it's slightly difficult to square the abject misery of Mirkwood with the notion of Tolkien's stories as happy-go-lucky Boy's Own adventures, but this is a recurring problem anyway. Bombur eventually wakes up and starts talking about the magical woodland feast he'd dreamed about and the various foods on offer there. It's a miracle they didn't strangle him. As night is falling, they spot a glimmer of light in the woods, and drawing closer to it they see torches and fires among the trees. You remember what Gandalf and Beorn reminded the dwarves to never ever even think about doing? That's right, leave the path. But honestly, at this point they're pretty much facing starvation because they ventured into a giant goddamn haunted magic forest with far too little food, so I don't really blame them for thinking "fuck those guys, let's eat".

As it turns out, though, elven parties aren't that easy to crash. Every time Bilbo and the dwarves make it to the elves' torchlit forest party, the lights go out and the elves vanish. After their third attempt, the dwarves get hopelessly lost and separated from each other and Bilbo, who's left by himself in the middle of the pitch-black Mirkwood. Figuring, unlike the dwarves, that running in a random direction and screaming might not be the best wilderness survival strategy, Bilbo decides to settle down and wait for dawn to get his bearings. If it's more than a little surprising to find Bilbo making better outdoor decisions than the dwarves, it gets plenty more surprising when he wakes up from a snooze to find a giant fucking spider trying to coccoon him in a web, and promptly kills it with his sword.

Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and pit it back into its sheath. "I will give you a name," he said to it, "and I shall call you Sting".

This is very much the moment when Bilbo makes the transition from screaming and fainting bourgeois Mr. Baggins to the world of Norse epic, monster-slaying and naming ancient magic swords. Again, because things aren't that simple with Tolkien, the transformation is anything but complete and irreversible, but a pivotal moment is had nonetheless. Feeling dead butch, Bilbo promptly goes off and rescues the dwarves from certain death by outwitting the entire local population of giant spiders with an invisibility ring, some thrown rocks and a mocking song. I have to take a moment to quote one of my favorite sentences in all of Tolkien:

Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody.

Attercop, it turns out, is an Old English word for spider, as are Lob and Cob, the two other insults Bilbo hurls at them. Somehow I just thoroughly enjoy the fact that we've been told which nickname spiders particularly detest.

Having freed the dwarves, Bilbo then distracts the spiders again to let them make their getaway, and they all succeed in escaping. Bilbo's definitely moved up in the world from useless, occasionally screaming baggage. The dwarves gain a new respect for Bilbo as they press him for details of his escapade and the magic ring, and eventually they fall asleep sheltering in one of the elves' clearings, which the spiders seem unwilling to enter. But in the meantime, Thorin has been captured by the Wood-Elves, who very much want to know why there are suddenly dwarf hobos in their woods. As Thorin dwarvishly refuses to tell them why, exactly, it is that he's come all this way to starve in a forest, they lock him in a cell until he talks.

**

There's a lot going on in this chapter, which I'd also like to use as an excuse for having taken ages to finish this post. We go from dreary forest-slogging to elf-chasing and spider-fighting, and end up with an extended description of the Wood-Elves and Thorin's interrogation. It's difficult to not think that the elf-exposition at the end of the chapter couldn't have been saved for the next one. But there's action, an excellent mocking song and starving despair in a horrible forest. I don't think I'd ever properly realized just how awful Tolkien makes Mirkwood; if you accept the logic that the biting cold of The Mountains of Madness arose from Lovecraft's terror of freezing temperatures, then surely Tolkien must've had some truly terrible arboreal experiences at some point in his life.

Next time: elves, burglary and barrels.

Mar 2, 2015

The trouble with Russia

So far, the most likely explanation for Boris Nemtsov's death is Mark Galeotti's, and unfortunately it's also the scariest. I agree that it's highly unlikely Putin directly ordered this. Nemtsov is no Kirov, nor does Putin seem to need this kind of excuse for whatever it is he's planning. Instead, Galeotti raises the frightening possibility that Nemtsov, repeatedly denounced by the Kremlin as a traitor and a fifth columnist of the west, was killed by someone taking the law into their own hands - either rogue elements in the security forces or someone else entirely.

Before the assassination, I had planned to title this blog post "The trouble with Mr. Putin". I was going to make the argument that the trouble with Putin's Russia is that we don't know what he wants. To take an extreme example, if we knew - literally knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt - that Putin plans to start World War III when he feels his military is strong enough, then we - the West - should attack Russia now. The odds are only going to shift in his favor, and even now, NATO decisively outnumbers and outguns Russia, especially at a time when Russian forces are tied down in the Donbas.

But of course, we don't know beyond the shadow of a doubt that that's what he intends. I'd bet very few sensible people would even consider that remotely likely. The whole scenario is a complete fantasy, because we'll never know with total certainty what another person intends, much less a whole state apparatus.

But in Putin's case, we're really struggling. It's dauntingly difficult to interpret even a single act of the current administration. Why did Russia invade the Ukraine? To create a "frozen conflict" on their border? To cement the annexation of the Crimea? To carve up the Ukraine into smaller territories? To occupy the whole country? Or was it just to get the Russian people excited about his courageous stand against the nefarious West and restore Russia to her rightful place in the world hierarchy? I don't know, and neither do you. We all have guesses, and certainly some guesses are much better informed than others, but they're still guesses. I don't believe for a minute that anyone can reliably tell how much Putin's actions are aimed at his domestic audience, or perhaps audiences would be better, and how much they're part of a strategy directed outward. Certainly they're always to some extent both.

It's similarly impossible to understand what Putin's strategy toward Finland is. We've had him send over a general to threaten us and question our right to hold military exercises inside our own borders, and present a 2010's version of the Molotov-Ribbentrop accords masquerading as a missile defense arrangement (against who? Ze Germans?). There's a particular Finnish docent, better known locally as the десант, accredited both by some Russian institutions and the Donetsk People's Republic as their official representative, given to spinning ridiculous tales about the imaginary atrocities inflicted by the fascist Finnish authorities on innocent Russian children. There are the airspace violations, too clearly periodical to be accidents. What are we to make of all this? How much of Comrade десант's fulminations are aimed at discouraging Russians from moving to the Finnish near abroad, and how much are they an attempt to build a case for action against Finland? Clearly many of the actions of the Russian state are meant to frighten us - but into what? Is all this happening because Putin wants to maintain a level of tension on his northwestern flank, or in preparation for some strategic move here? If so, what move?

Again, we don't know. And the trouble is that if something that goes beyond the kind of provocations and testing of the guard that we've experienced so far does happen, we still won't know for a good while. Certainly keeping us on our toes and guessing seems to be part of the plan. But really, we have no idea what the plan is.

I firmly believe that the most dangerous aspect of the entire situation is that no-one in the West seems to know what Putin's plan is. Or even if he has one at all. This opens the door to all kinds of disastrous possibilities, the worst of which by far is that the West may dangerously overreact to one of Putin's provocations. Perhaps he'll pull some kind of stunt on the Baltic countries, hoping to score some easy political points at home through a largely symbolic action, and through some combination of mistakes and unfortunate coincidences, NATO interprets his provocation as an actual attack. Shots are fired, people are killed, a counterattack is mounted, and all of a sudden the world is at war. Think back to 1914. Putin's strategy of escalation and misdirection is a phenomenally dangerous nuclear gamble.

But maybe the problem with this analysis is that it may not be Putin's gamble. We see that Russia cannot be described as a democracy. We see the strongman's shirtless posturing, the nostalgic references to the Georgian fellow with the moustache. We identify this as a dictatorship. But is it really? Nobody, not even Stalin, ruled through personal force alone. And do we really believe Putin commands a cult of personality to rival Stalin's? Hardly. His pseudo-fascist program of national chauvinism, order and war on the weakling outsiders has become popular enough to sustain the regime - but is he himself necessary to it? Even the most merciless totalitarian dictators of the 20th century had to rule through a system, and had to game the system in order to remain indispensable to it: to stay in charge. How good is Putin at gaming the system? It's believed that some time ago he purged most of the remaining oligarchs from his inner circle, and relies on the siloviki: the alliance of the security services and organized crime. How well does he really control them? Or for that matter, the armed forces? If the murder of Boris Nemtsov was carried out against his wishes, what else might be?

At one point during the Cuban missile crisis, when two seemingly conflicting letters from Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev arrived in the United States, the US leadership had to seriously consider the possibility that they were no longer actually negotiating with Khrushchev but that there had been a coup and he had been replaced; only they had no idea by whom. Nor do we know now to what extent Putin is actually running the show. It's bad enough to think that we're facing a revisionist Russia run by a ruthless chekist determined to regain his country's pretended superpower status at the expense of its neighbors. What might be even worse is a Russia whose population is starting to feel the bite of the declining economy, becoming increasingly hostile toward foreigners and especially the West - and slipping from Putin's grasp.

It's the uncertainty that gets you. We don't know who killed Boris Nemtsov, or why, nor will we. We don't know what Russia intends to do next, let alone why. Nor do we know who, exactly, Russia is at any given moment. We have to prepare for the worst, but in doing that, we run a terrible risk of making the worst a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if we fail to prepare for the worst, we leave ourselves weak, which gives Russia all the more incentive to push us harder. All our options are bad. But some are worse than others.

None of this would happen if our current world system wasn't based on the idea of an anarchic collection of states all keeping their populations in line by scaring the crap out of them with both external and internal threats. Not to mention actually creating such threats with their behavior, both to themselves and others. The logic of this system of international politics is absolutely fucking terrible, but apparently we're stuck with it for the time being. And the only reasonable way to safeguard our rights and safety is to play along with it as best we can., because there's no opt-out clause. Neutrality is great if you're surrounded by mountains and lubricated by the most influential banking system in the world. We aren't. All we can do is prepare for the worst and do our damndest to avert it. I just wish we knew what that damndest was.