Wednesday 28 November 2012


I was not in the UK from 1987 to 1994, so I missed what looks like the ultimate cheesy dungeon meets TV game show experience: Knightmare. Here's an article about it by Ellie Gibson from the Gameological Society.

In fact, it looks like a lot of recurrent old school gaming themes made it into the show. From the article:

Surprises for the DM!
“There were no rehearsals, because you couldn’t rehearse the children, otherwise it would no longer be a contest. We did no retakes, because again, you would have been making them into actors, which they were not. The actors in the void, as we called it, had a very hard job. They knew roughly how they were going to guide the children, but they didn’t have a script. They had to improvise. That sounds fine, but remember, you have to keep those kids on track. [The production team] tried to work out every possibility the kids could come up with. But they never did. The kids always came up with something they hadn’t thought of.”
Palette shifting!
For instance, in the show’s first season, the path chosen by the contestants determined which rooms they would encounter, forcing the writers to prepare for all the branching possibilities. “Progressively we realized, of course, this wasn’t necessary, because the kids didn’t know. Whether they turned left or right, we could use the same scenario. So then I didn’t have quite so much to cram in.”
Failure = death!
But part of what made the world of Knightmare feel real was the fact that unfair, arbitrary things happened within it. This set it apart from other game shows, as did the absence of a scoreboard or competing teams. The challenge was to stay alive. And unlike in computer games, there were no extra lives or “CONTINUE?” options. When you died in Knightmare, you really died. 
No doubt if this show was produced today, it would have railroaded story lines, oodles of hit points and healing, and consolation prizes for all. Meanwhile ... well, I have to write what I know. New York area kids in the 80's, looking to participate in TV shows that simulated video games, had to make do with this:


Monday 26 November 2012

Slow Times but More Coming

So yeah, between falling ill, lots of stuff on the job, and having to prioritize actual play rather than reflection, this blog has kind of fallen off in the past couple of weeks.

I can tell you that Paolo "Tsojcanth" and I are preparing a special surprise that will be unveiled at London's Dragonmeet on Saturday, for those of you who plan to attend. I'm sure I'll have something to say about that. I am also running a game there based on a well-regarded one-page dungeon contest winner.

I also dropped a hint for my campaign players ... a large pinkish-gray obelisk covered with strange runes, with ape heads at its summit, one of which seems to be shooting some kind of rays? I think it's no spoiler to say, I have opened the path leading away from intrigue-based adventuring and into straight-up hardcore dungeoneering.

Certainly one of the most fun things about running a campaign the way I do is dropping other people's modules into it. Sometimes the module bends, other times, the campaign does ...

I even feel a little guilty for dropping off at a time when the blog is scratching the 250 follower mark ... but after these few weeks of hell, or maybe even sooner, I have lots of stuff on deck.

Friday 16 November 2012

One Last Harpy: Interposing Decency

Before I conclude the Naked Harpies series with a grand analysis of sociopolitical forces in conflict, I want to draw attention to one more harpy, from the 2nd edition D&D Monstrous Manual:

Here we see a transitional form. After the raw naturalism of 1st edition, it's still clear that harpies shouldn't be wearing clothes. But ... but ... the moral panic! The D&D cartoon! Think of the children! So the artist makes use of a visual stratagem as old as prudery itself  - the decorous interposition. In this case, the harpy's arm.

I guess most of us learned in Sunday School how very leafy the Garden of Eden was, and how very long Eve's hair.

For those with a more secular upbringing, you may recall that it was very important for evolving primates to put their right foot forward, or at least swing their arms a little:

Pulp magazine covers sometimes didn't even bother with the interposing object, trusting in the artistic merit of the marble-like,  hairless and pigmentless female form, diaphanously clad or not. But sometimes they used it like pros:

As moral standards for newsstand entertainment tightened, the scenery became more obliging. Here is a wonderful driftwood intervention from the height of the paperback era:

You're probably more familiar with the spoof in Austin Powers, but the height of proscenic propriety was reached in the 1970 sci-fi film Colossus: The Forbin Project, where the evil computer orchestrates a naked tryst that is shown ... well, let's just say it's the only film in history where the choice to drink wine instead of martinis was the difference between an "M" and "X" rating.

Thursday 15 November 2012

Natural Nudity, Lewd Clothing

Following up the previous post, let's take history forward from the 1970's to now. In comparing the old controversy about the nudity in D&D art with more recent controversies about sexualization in D&D art, a few signal differences emerge.

The naked or topless females in OD&D and AD&D are mostly monsters, demons, or goddesses, like the harpy from last time or the memorable Loviatar. There's a certain amount of "realism" behind the nudity - how ridiculous does this foul carrion bird from 4th edition look in a smock?
Yes, she eats rotten flesh, befouls the food of others, lures men to their graves, but her only crime against decorum is daring to wear a brown breastplate with a blue skirt. (At the same time, it is notable that a lot of opportunities for male monster-nudity get passed over in those books, unlike the equal opportunity monsters of the present-day Otherworld miniatures line.)

But isn't it odd that the female adventurer pictures in old D&D are mostly reasonably clad and mostly not sexualized?
I have to grin a little because this generalization is based on a grand total of two female adventurers depicted in the 1st edition AD&D player handbook, and one more inside the DM Guide (though her and her party's adventures take up several illustrations). And feel free to point out the glaring exception: the metal-bikini Fay Wray on the DMG's cover.

Since those days, it seems that the "artistic nudity" or "realistic nudity" loopholes in mainstream gaming art have been sutured firmly shut. And yet, although more women are represented, their sexualization - particularly in player character representations - is even more evident. The difference between female and male representations, now as then, assumes that woman, not man, is the proper object of visual erotic delight.

I am reminded of Roland Barthes' essay which begins, "Striptease--at least Parisian striptease--is based on a contradiction: Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked." Eve, nude, has the possibility of being innocent; Eve, in pasties and G-string (or costumed with a cleavage window and thigh slits), does not. The covering of nipples and pubis satisfies the letter of the obscenity law, but sexuality is not a mere matter of obscenity. Going back to the infamous succubus from the AD&D Monster Manual, what's striking in light of adolescent memories is how covered up she actually is, by hair and pose and strategically placed limbs:

 Can you really say Pathfinder's present-day iconic character, Seoni, is much more covered up (except by tattoo ink)?
And those leggings and bustle/skirt/train call to mind Barthes' observation: "The end of the striptease is[...]  to signify, through the shedding of an incongruous and artificial clothing, nakedness as a natural vesture of woman, which amounts in the end to regaining a perfectly chaste state of the flesh." Except we never get to the innocent state of nudity here. Yes, we have many more female characters now than in AD&D1, but when so many of them look like this (and almost no male characters look like Riker in "Angel One"), is this really progress?

A real matriarchy would have him in short-shorts, too.

Next and last post in the series: What these issues mean to players today, and why the endless three-way flame war over sex, gender and art can be reduced to false premises.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Naked Harpies and the Fine Art Defense

Quick, name the animated Disney film that was released with female frontal topless nudity, breasts, nipples and all.

Apparently it was OK for Fantasia's harpies to swoop into your face topless, and for various she-centaurs and fairies to have exposed boobs (sans nipples and mostly covered up afterward with halter tops, but yeah), and for baby cherubs to fly around bare-assed. What was up? Wasn't this the Hays Code era of draconian film censorship?

Well, here's the list of things prohibited by the Hays Code:
  1. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words "God," "Lord," "Jesus," "Christ" (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell," "damn," "Gawd," and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
  4. Any inference of sex perversion;
  5. White slavery;
  6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
  7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
  9. Children's sex organs;
  10. Ridicule of the clergy;
  11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed
Aren't you glad they banned both racism and miscegenation?

Absurdities aside, what's remarkable is how hedged around with qualifiers the nudity language is. It almost seems like it's making room for artistic, innocent, and high-minded nudity; making room for children's butts, as long as they don't turn around.

And indeed, censorship has for a long time tussled with the artistic exception - Christian body shame against Renaissance glorification of the nude, played out in a myriad different arenas from the Sistine Chapel's "breeches makers," to Comstock's crusade against the New York Artistic League, to the final bursting of the dam in the 1960s. As much as prudes read salacious interest into high art, high art was itself used as a stalking-horse for titillation; like the high-minded, body-stockinged "tableaux" deployed for the entertainment of gentlemen in the music-hall era.

It's against this backdrop, still within living memory in the 1970's, that we have to consider the much-commented nudity in early gaming materials. Like this harpy:

Was this kind of depiction considered as harmless to children as the Fantasia harpy? What has happened to our culture in the intervening generation? Why the Janet Jackson-level shock today? Aren't we supposed to be living in the Most Sexualized Times Evar? These questions and more must, alas, await the next blog post.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Eye Tyrants and Eye Trackers

It's always heartwarming to see my hobby world and research world (experimental psychology) inform each other. Such was the case with the talented Julian Levy, who used monsters and characters from D&D to test whether people's tendency to fixate on eyes is due to the attention-drawing powers of the eye no matter where it appears, or just a tendency to fixate on the head. A first-authored scientific paper at age 14? Not bad! (free access to paper until 30 November 2012)

I have my doubts, though, about whether the eyes are really the most attention-grabbing part of the body (pdf). Perhaps fantasy game art can come to the rescue again? Clearly further research is needed.

From AEG's Thunderstone card game
"Do I have to cast this GLOWING OWL FACE to get you to look up here?"

Thursday 8 November 2012

The Dungeon Is Safer Than the City

I'm reflecting on our last game session. It was one of those where not a lot of high adventure went down. Mostly it was about traveling to a new city, settling in there and accomplishing various administrative tasks - selling loot, buying goods, carousing for experience, setting some henchmen to leveling up. One player was absent, so her character was parked with an NPC for the duration.

And it's a "what now" moment for the party - having just finished a big quest, they're finding that events are moving rather quickly, and a war is brewing between humans and Faerie. After sending a "telegram" to warn a kind-of-ally on the borderlands (magpie + speak with & befriend animals + Magic Mouth), what next?

Well, our heroes have some idea they should stop the war, but how? Call it an intriguebox or what you will, but the railway station is far from evident at this point. There were some cautious attempts at intelligence gathering, but still, the realization was heavy that, well, one does not just walk into the Archimandrite's audience room with an audacious plan.

Get out now, while you can!
I still believe that these low periods are necessary to play up the moments of high adventure. All the same, this session also made me realize that adventurers have a reason to play out their city visit as a peaceful interlude. Yes, an urban setting can provide more than enough adventure and has possibilities the standard wilderness/dungeon expedition doesn't. But precisely because of this, it can feel more threatening to a cautious, pragmatic party than the terrors of the underdepths. And this in turn can cramp their style.

See, in a dungeon, you are confined and channeled ... but so are the monsters. You take things, generally speaking, one thing at a time. In a wilderness, the enemies are all around, but few and far between. But if you seek adventure in a city, there's a web of interconnections and interests all around you. Pull the wrong string, and the city guard, the lynch mob, the thieves' and wizards' and vampires' guilds are all on your tail. Not to mention the guilt of all that collateral damage to innocent citizens as your fireballs and lightning bolts vaporize your foes.

And the dungeon is nice and easy to find your way through. One door, two doors, three doors, dead end. It's even laid out in nice 10 foot squares for your mapping convenience. The city, though ... how do you sift out the adventure location from the rag-picker's house or the vacant lot? How do you follow a trail through tens of thousands of people?

Finally, once you're done with the dungeon, you're done and you move on. But with a city, you want it to stick around for you, with all its possibilities, commerical opportunities, and allies. Wrecking a dungeon is much less consequential than wrecking a city, or otherwise turning it against you.

Hell, get me out of this city, with its taxes and tithes, its envious eyes, its rats and 8% chance of diseases, its teeming masses all looking for a chance to overbear you and roll your corpse for its suspiciously weighty cache of gold pieces and magic items! Put me in a nice, safe, predictable dungeon - that's where I know I can be the adventurer I want to be.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Hodgson's Old School Gaming Appeal

In my last post, I promised to explain why William Hope Hodgson's works have such appeal in old-school gaming circles. And it's not just because of small coincidences like pig-faced orcs or the "Keep on the Borderlands/House on the Borderland" thing.

Illustration by Philippe Druillet
First, as I explained last time, the morality of Hodgson's writing is based on contagion, resistance and disgust. Evil does not consist in things you choose to do, even less so in your motives for doing them. It is a thing you catch, or are overwhelmed by. This is obviously closer to the "pick a team" alignment of original and basic D&D, than the meticulous graphing of alignment as a consequence of character behaviors encouraged by AD&D.

But it's even more primal than Team Law vs. Team Chaos. It is quite simply a morality of physical and psychic survival against forces of evil with purely destructive intent. You never meet people who have gone over to the dark side and make the case for corruption in Hodgson's tales. The closest you get is seeing wretches who have become half-assimilated, who lacked the pluck to resist. Chaos is insidious, relentless, but ultimately voiceless if not completely mindless. It is closer to games where the number one concern is not sticking to alignment, but simple physical survival, and avoidance of such curses and level draining as would render the character useless even if still technically alive.

In these stories, the Enemy is so visibly inhuman that its side is never a temptation. Indeed, as soon as humans recognize each other in these bleak and desolate landscapes of the soul, there is an immediate urge to mutual aid which never falters. Betrayal is not an issue in Hodgson. There are no politics, no clash of vested interests or cultural worldviews; the largest issues between humans concern the tactics of fighting the visible evil. The enemy has no babies whose fate can be debated.

I know that many game tables have involved inter-player intrigue, and even more (including my own) mix up their straightforward adventuring with embroilments in the world of politics and religion. Certainly, allowing players to steal, backstab and otherwise compete with each other smacks of a freewheeling, juvenile style that many players quickly abandon. But there's also something of innocence lost when erstwhile adventurers find themselves in the thick of things with guilds, courtiers, and ambassadors. A more mature subject, maybe, but there's a reason Conan the Barbarian pined on the throne of Aquilonia for his freebooting younger days.

Hodgson's stories appeal to this straightforward spirit of adventure; a band set against inhuman evil, pledged to help each other. They may be working to save the village or the world, but there's no grubby running after the errands of some duke. It also helps that the evil enemies and landscapes are, with only a few exceptions, described so inventively and compellingly (I still think he could have done a better job with "The Hog" but the horrors of the other Carnacki stories, and their constant suspense between supernatural and rational explanations, are first rate). It is this same spirit, I'm convinced, that leads people steeped in intrigue-heavy social campaigns back to the raw experience of adventure, whether within the same campaign or between campaigns.

Speaking of which ... there's an issue I want to raise soon, which deals with the role of the town or city in adventure gaming. It has to do with a recent session in my own game. Stay tuned.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Fungi and Swine: William Hope Hodgson's Disgust Morality

William Hope Hodgson was an early 20th century imaginative writer whose fictions often show up on old-school gamers' "Appendix N" lists of inspirational material (here, here and here for example). I've been trying to come to grips with Hodgson's appeal and limitations ever since I discovered his works, most of which are in the public domain and available on Project Gutenberg.

Two themes in Hodgson's work deserve attention, both using physical contagion to achieve horror. One is found in his sea-stories, the best of which is the oft-cited "The Voice in the Night," and the longest of which is "The Boats of the Glen Carrig." In these and others, the sea and its shores, islands, sargassoes and ships adrift teems with biological menace. Whether fungoid, lignic, or cephalopod, there horrors all have a certain flabby and spongy quality. They promise death or worse by assimilating, by being assimilated, by infecting, by crawling on the flesh in the night and leaving slime and sucker marks. I consider "The Voice in the Night" the best of these tales because of its excellent framing, its focus on a single monstrosity, and most of all, the way in which the physical threat merges with a moral struggle.

This element leads us to the next theme - the strange moral cosmos of The House on the Borderland, The Night Land, and the Carnacki the Ghost Hunter stories, of which the most revelatory is "The Hog."  In this shared universe, humanity is menaced by dark forces of evil which lie outside a protective barrier but sometimes break through. The postscript of "The Hog" explains this in terms of a "defense" around the Earth that is energized by the Sun's rays and weakest at night. In the far future world of the Night Land, set after the sun has gone out, the barrier is rather smaller - a circle of white "Earth Current" that protects the great pyramid of the last known city on earth.

The evil forces are tangibly corrupting, with a very physical sense of contagion. Their most usual visual and auditory signature is porcine, in "The Hog" of course, but also in the house-besieging pig-men of Borderland, the strange swine-phantom of the later visions, and in certain of the ab-humans in the Night Land. The image of the abyss or pit also stands for this evil, and its colors are sickly greens and yellows. It is difficult to read Tolkien's description of Minas Morgul and Mordor without seeing an echo of Hodgson's infernal visions published thirty years earlier.

What fights against this evil? The most ordinary struggle involves the individual with courage to resist the darkness, physically and mentally. When people find each other in these tales they almost invariably band together, the stronger helping the weaker. Technology sometimes helps, whether the electric apparatus of Carnacki or the far-future devices in The Night Land. But less often, when it is most needed, there is a mysterious supernatural intervention that almost certainly symbolizes the theological grace of God - as when, at the climax of "The Hog" when the foul entity is about to break through, a green-banded blue barrier manifests itself to dispel the evil.

Interestingly, there is no human moral dimension to this evil. People do not come to it by their deeds, at least not against each other; but they can be infected or possessed by mere contact with it. There is no hint of the strong theme, running through Tolkien, that lust for riches and power is the root of evil, nor even the glimpse of a possibility that evil might tempt people to use expedient but morally corrupt means to fight it. Hodgson's evil is one of contagion, one of disease, one of disgust - man against the Other, having nothing to do with man against man.

This, I believe, explains why Hodgson's vision is only partly compelling in the modern day. In our everyday experience, what stands in for the Other, the ab-human? We cannot really hate nature that way any more, nor can we hate people of other races, cultures, and social strata just for what they are with a clean conscience. After the hundred horrible years that began with World War I - in which Hodgson lost his life, and Tolkien survived - most of us now understand that the Enemy is not the inhuman, but the all-too-human, our normal lusts to level, exalt, defend or attack magnified into systems of slavery and genocide. Disgust is no longer enough; anger at injustice must fuel our outrage for it to be justifiable.

I also think Hodgson put a wrong foot down in choosing the pig as his symbol of Otherly evil. This became evident this weekend as I performed a dramatic reading of "The Hog" to my wife. I am afraid to say that we couldn't help laughing at passages like this:
A sort of swinish clamouring melody that grunts and roars and shrieks in chunks of grunting sounds, all tied together with squealings and shot through with pig howls. I've sometimes thought there was a definite beat in it; for every now and again there comes a gargantuan GRUNT, breaking through the million pig-voiced roaring - a stupendous GRUNT that comes in with a beat. [...]
'And as I gazed I saw it grow bigger. A seemingly motionless, pallid swine-face rising upward out of the depth. And suddenly I realised that I was actually looking at the Hog.'
Or in Hodgson's Mythos-tome equivalent, the "Sigsand Manuscript," where the following passage occurs:
If in sleep or in ye hour of danger ye hear the voice of ye Hogge, cease ye to meddle.
I guess in an era when very few people have heard the cries of slaughtered pigs in the city or countryside, the pig has become a figure of fun, a cozy barnyard animal, bdee-bdee-bdee-that's-all-folks. As Lovecraft, a big fan of Hodgson, realized to good effect - it's the invertebrate Horrors from Outside that have real staying power, the tentacled and flabby and chitinous things. If Hodgson had used his marine horrors for his metaphysical threats we would indeed have something very close to Lovecraft.

Instead, the pig's enduring horror is that it is too close to human, close enough to transplant organs, as smart as a dog, and its fate is uniformly horrible - of all the animals of the farm it alone has no purpose except to be slaughtered for meat. William Golding understood this when he called the doomed boy in Lord of the Flies Piggy, and had the marooned boys erect a pig's head totem. Margaret Atwood's abnormally intelligent pigoons in Oryx and Crake are disturbing because they are us - engineered to carry human genes and twice the normal complement of organs for transplant purposes. I guess the pig as metaphysical unclean evil might fly better with a Muslim or devout Jewish audience, but for those that eat swine, the pig's potential for horror is that it is us; within, not outside.

Next: Why is Hodgson's fiction so appealing to the old-school style of adventure gamers?