Sunday 9 June 2019

(Rise and Decline of) The Third Reich

The full title of this post belongs to a legendary board wargame of World War 2 in Europe, published by Avalon Hill in 1974. I owned it, and played it solo obsessively, as a teenager. Some of the finer points I only picked up following forum posts on BoardGameGeek last decade.

The partial title belongs to a novel by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, one of many works published only after his untimely death in 2003. The protagonist is a champion player of the boardgame, among other titles. Impressively, the game's play is described in accurate detail throughout the novel, and plays a major part in the plot. To my knowledge, this is the only literary work to treat a hobby game in this way; I'm not talking about the haze through which a number of mainstream writers have rediscovered their teenage Dungeons and Dragons days recently.

A combination of an intensely familiar game, and an intensely recognizable setting for me (a seaside tourist town in northeastern Spain, similar to the one half my family is from). You would think it irresistible. But, probably as intended, the short novel left me ambivalent as it ended.


At one level, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich is a slogging game of economic warfare waged on the basis of the all-important Basic Resource Points (BRPs). These are gained from territory conquered and held, and spent on waging offensives and replacing units lost to the game's bloodthirsty combat tables. Abstract submarine war and strategic bombing rules allow direct attacks on enemy BRPs. Diplomatic events offer minor yet consequential variants on the strategy of the game, which usually follows the ebb and flow of actual events.

But the stolid economic game fuels a demanding, knife-edged combat. Disaster always looms through encirclement and the catastrophic capture of a major capital. Armor, airborne, and sea invaders can ruthlessly exploit inor mistakes in placement. Further enablers of catastrophe: a low-probability combat outcome that spells disaster for an attacker who hasn't piled advantage thick enough, and the feared moment when a change of initiative based on underlying economy gives one player two turns in a row.

These strategic features come through blurrily in the novel, but the details of the game are all described extremely correctly, suggesting that Bolaño is either a fan of the game or consulted one extensively. The only few mistakes are probably errors in translation from Spanish to English. An uninitiated reader would still get the idea: this is an astoundingly complex game of skill and chance for nerds, played on the stage of world history. What's brought across most visibly is the Axis player's chance to overcome the weighty accumulation of economic destiny against them -- first Soviet, then American BRPs -- through lightning conquest and skilled tactical play.

THE NOVEL (revealing plot points)

The Third Reich is one of those novels (like Iris Murdoch's The Bell) where the author builds suspense along several lines of menace and desire, only to shrink away from fulfilling the crude expectations of the genre, delivering an anticlimax that is so very literary.

Our German narrator, Udo, is taking his weeks-long holiday in a Catalan seaside town. An emotional cipher, he never shows the passion for his girlfriend Ingeborg that he does for the solo Third Reich game he has set up in their room to plan out a strategy article. They socialize with another German couple, Charlie and Hanna, without much enthusiasm, and rub elbows with local lowlifes who are less sinister than they appear.

While the supposed driver of the plot is the mystery of Charlie's disappearance in the sea one day, there is more underlying drama in the way Udo's solo game gets replaced with a head-to-head contest. The live opponent turns out to be the local character El Quemado, a mysterious South American man with ugly burn scars who works and lives on the beach. He learns the game with surprising speed, taking the Allied side. As in history, Udo starts out in a winning position, but El Q turns things around surprisingly and drives back the Reich. As it's later revealed, he has some help, being coached by the hotel's reclusive German owner who has been sneaking into Udo's room to study the game.

I wish the ending was something worth spoiling. But as I've said, there is no real climax on any "front". The game ends peacefully, a corpse doubtfully similar to Charlie's washes up, a romantic intrigue never goes past first base. Having overstayed well into September, Udo returns to Germany (Ingeborg, and hs job, both long gone) to resume his hobby.

THE NOVEL AND THE GAME (more plot reveals)

For non-gamers, the game is still an effective literary device, an arena of alternative history. Through it, Udo gets to dream of winning the war, playing his own country, pursuing a strategy in which he invades Spain to get to Gibraltar. There's an obvious irony in the parallel reality of the German vacationers "occupying" Spain though peaceful means.

Udo tries to square his national self-esteem with the moral abyss, disconnecting bravery and technical skill from the aims of the Nazi Party. Udo knows each German corps counter by its general's name, a list he recites for us at one point in a narcotic litany.  Near the end he has visions of the brave, great generals looking down from the heavens and approving his efforts, doomed as they all may be in this instance.

El Quemado is not having it, and through Udo's unreliable narration we see glimpses of what the game must mean to someone who, it's implied, has survived a South American authoritarian regime. As the cardboard war's tide turns, Udo's opponent hangs photocopies of Nazi documents on the wall, a reminder of the moral facts that Udo would rather forget. As Udo's defeat becomes certain, El Quemado begins to mutter about war crimes trials, preparing us for a violent dénouement that never happens. Instead, Udo resigns himself to technical and moral defeat, the opponents hug it out late at night, and he has to return to his boring job and content himself simply with Germany being the peaceful, economic master of Europe.


As I said, there isn't another novel out there that uses gaming in this way, as a living, adult hobby that becomes a vehicle for deeper meaning. It's worth reading, and probably a better introduction to Bolaño than his mega-novel 2666 which I started but had to put down at the point where the exposure of misogyny via the murders of women in Mexico became a relentless, voyeuristic supercut. No matter what you think of it as a novel, The Third Reich is a rare treat for the literary-minded gamer.

Thursday 6 June 2019

Post-OSR Adventure Gaming with the Interactionist Set

So Zak fell, and G+ died, and people seem to have scattered and sorted. It's time to reflect on the adventure gaming movement known as "OSR" now that at least one heir contender to the title has popped up (see also this).

I have been following this movement for 9 years, both in the sense of interest and in the sense of dedication. But it took the splitup to see the fault lines that had always been there. Here's my analysis.

In the first place, the OSR was a reaction against 30 years of D&D development. Technically you could care about other games and be OSR, but in practice D&D was the big kahuna, the starting point for so many people's experiences, the touchstone often returned to, the market-share leader to watch.

Starting in 2008 or so with the release of 4th edition, people started to chafe at it it. And then in a kind of dance of the veils, they stripped away the previous layers of development, questioning each edition back to the Original books.

Fourth Edition: Away with the carefully balanced tactical game with roleplaying cut scenes, the blurring of class abilities.

Third Edition:  Away with the unified mechanic, the scaling treadmill, the bewildering character options and optimization, the rules that cover every circumstance in talmudic detail.

Second Edition: Away with even the tamest instances of all-class skill rolls, the slight tweaks to character kits and class specialization. (This was an easy veil to strip off, very lightweight.)

AD&D: Away with the late-era developments of plotlined modules, the crufty mechanics that nobody used anyway, the fancy spells and character classes.

Not everybody took that last step, but most of the "old school" took as role models either Original D&D or the Basic offshoot. But why? If game design is progress, why go backwards?

The different answers to this question, in hindsight, can reveal the eventual fractures in the movement.
  • Because nostalgia. Some people (concentrated in places like Dragonsfoot, Grognardia, and Knights & Knaves) just wanted to experience, or re-experience, the old rules, the old adventure tropes and clichés. Where they had an intellectual position, it was cultural conservatism -- the wisdom of the ages may seem irrational, but there is probably a good reason for it, and we should really strive hard to find the hidden brightside of things like descending AC or racial level limits. That position always struck me as silly. We are talking about game rules that aren't even 50 years old and have never gone a single human generation without substantial and multiple revisions. It's like going all-out G. K. Chesterton in defense of the original box design for Corn Flakes.
  • Because idiosyncrasy. Some people (most egregiously, Alexis of the Tao of D&D) wanted to strip the old mechanics back down to their roots in order to build their own layer of heartbreaker complication from the ground up. That impulse itself is very old-school, rooted in the hoary traditions of Arduin, Arms Law, and dozens of other bolt-ons. Implicitly, this: "Increasing simulationist complication and character options isn't a bad thing, but I'd rather just have them my way, thank you."
  • Because edginess. Some people (for example Raggi, McKinney) realized that stripping away the history of D&D also meant rolling back the layers of accommodation to prevailing social tastes: squeamishness over Satanism in the 80's and 90's, egalitarianism in gender and otherwise, but most importantly the "nice" style of gaming in which characters started with a lot already invested and it was hard to get killed for good. This left room to embrace all kinds of pulp-magazine nastiness: rape, slaves, body horror, morally blurred characters, meaningless character death, "nega-dungeon" effects that wreck the whole campaign world.
  • Because interaction. The most esoteric development, but also the one I find most appealing, was to realize that after stripping away all the conventions of play, you are left with a space beyond rules, traditions, and railroads. You are free to emphasize creative improvisation, interaction between GM and players, and to design situations and systems that make the most of this. Philotomy's Musings and Finch's Primer, for example, put this forth as a play aesthetic, but there are also those who have made it into a design aesthetic -- often known as the "artpunk" or "DIY" movement.  
I don't think too many people saw this at the time, but this Interactionist school was actually a fourth goal, not covered by Ron Edwards' Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist scheme that dominated discussion about RPGs in the 2000 decade. Significantly, it is the Interactionist perspective that has made it into the DNA of D&D's fifth edition, rather than anything else that Zak or Pundit could have given it as consultants. The game now realizes that exploration and social interaction are co-equal pillars with combat; that the rules should be loose enough for GMs to improvise mechanics; that players have a hand in building the setting.

But while today's D&D has Interactionist DNA, it is not a fully interactionist game, and certainly the official adventure material looks staidly conventional when compared to artpunk's open play and creative flourishes. At its best the DIY movement has given us: Borgesian monsters posing problems that go beyond combat; weird magic systems with flavor and creative effects; adventures that map out strange societies and oddball challenges.

Can we really still call it "Old School" or is it more like a "Never-Was" school? Certainly if anyone back in the 80's was playing or writing like this, I never heard about them. As the antithesis of nostalgia, Interactionist gaming uses the blank space around the stripping-down of the World's Most Popular Role-Playing Game to fill with its own peculiar objectives and ideas. That's what I like the best; that's my banner, right there.

Saturday 1 June 2019

Enemies of Vegankind

For gaming campaigns that aim for weirdness, whimsy ...

or simply things that kids can hack and slash at without too much moral injury ...

let's imagine some of the standard humanoids as semi-sentient plant creatures.


Unclothed, they appear as limbs and torso of tightly coiled, hairy green vines, surrounding fruity inner organs and supporting a bulbous head with pointy ears and an evil little face that -- according to the goblin's age -- is green, yellow, orange, or lighter and deeper shades of red. They give off a characteristic sharp green smell.

They are usually wrapped in cast-off pieces of clothing and armor, armed with sharp spear-sticks for poking and throwing.

When one is fatally squashed, pulp and seeds spatter everywhere, and if allowed to grow, one seed equals one future goblin.

The existence of these creatures is one reason tomatoes are feared. Adding to this reputation, a tomato goblin will on rare occasions become infected with green, horned, noxious worms (treat as the worms of a Son of Kyuss).


These larger creatures are built and scented similarly to tomato goblins, but their vines are more yellow, their heads and organs various hues, some a very deep purple, some mottled with ivory white, some fully albino. Their age can be seen from the head and jaw, the young rounded and egg-shaped, the older more elongated.

These "aubgoblins" are less impulsive and more strategic than their tomato cousins, but speak the same Nightshade language. Their heads are packed densely with spongy, pale matter, within which a few dozen seeds can spawn new aubgoblins if the old one falls. Human-sized, they take care to select the best martial equipment from battlefields they loot, and usually have at least medium armor and 1-3 weapons including a shield.


Their tall, rangy bodies covered in dark green leafy hair, vegetable bugbears sport a broad, squat, orange gourd on their shoulders. Born blind and faceless on the vine, their rite of maturity has them carve their own features into the pumpkin, letting out the inner, flickering glow of a corrupted soul. They move in absolute silence, and can dim their jack o'lantern light to firefly brightness when they don't wish to shine in the dark.

Stealing material from farms to clothe and arm themselves, they wear burlap sacking, tarpaulin canvas, pot-helm and pan-lid armor, all tied on with frayed rope. Their preferred weapon is a heavy piece of log with pounded spikes, bolts, or an embedded plowshare at the business end.

Having no seeds with which to reproduce, bugbears clip and plant grafted vine segments from their bodies that new ones may grow. Their penchant for stealing and frightening human children may stem from the inadequacy of their family life.