I’ve spent this weekend catching up with Borgen and probably reading about it a bit too much. In particular, this critical review by Rachel Cooke came to my attention yesterday via political academic Stuart Wilks-Heeg’s twitter feed, prompting this exchange:
@stuartwilksheeg What’s weird is that she slags off the stronger of those two episodes. She’s right about the journalism being unconvincing.
— James Graham (@jamesgraham) January 19, 2013
@stuartwilksheeg absolutely. But I think she also fails to grasp politics. There’s a lot she seems to ignore which applies here too.
— James Graham (@jamesgraham) January 19, 2013
@stuartwilksheeg She can’t bear the idea of a journalist being presented as a monster and can’t bear a politician being presented as human.
— James Graham (@jamesgraham) January 19, 2013
@stuartwilksheeg That’s sums up the state of British political journalism in a nutshell,
— James Graham (@jamesgraham) January 19, 2013
Personally speaking, while I wouldn’t say I’m “gripped” by Borgen, I’d say it does a pretty decent job at reflecting not just the reality of Danish coalition politics, but politics more generally. It doesn’t get everything right – I agree that some of the portrayals of journalism are unrealistic (spending a whole episode angsting over a single newspaper article – taking up days in real time – is simply ludicrous), but the way it actually reflects on why idealistic, principled people often end up failing to do the right thing or end up getting eaten alive, is very accurate.
By contrast, while much of The Thick of It rings true, for the most part it reflects on the kind of sofa-style politics which dominated Tony Blair’s government and which has to a large extent melted away (to be replaced by something which much more closely resembles Yes, Minister – plus ca change) – and it got coalition politics horribly wrong. The West Wing was famously “liberal porn” and is probably more successful for creating a modern mythology for the US Democrats to aspire to than in its ability to reflect reality. Also, is it me but does it feel that Nyborg has achieved more in two years than Bartlet achieved in eight?
We live in very consumerist times and so much political discourse is dominated by that. The left, in particular, appears to have been utterly hobbled by a lack of humility or civic duty and a mindset that is dominated by the fallacy that the customer (in this case, the angry activist) is always right. The inability to accept that bad things are sometimes done by good people on all sides leads to a conceitedness that leads people to simply repeat the same mistakes again and again. Nick Clegg is a perfect example of this, but so too are many of his critics.
I think this idea is dominated by journalists as well, and Rachel Cooke seems to struggle with the idea. It’s interesting that she chooses to criticise the second episode of the second season of Borgen and not the first, on the basis that it’s topic – choosing a Danish European Commissioner – is boring. In fact, the episode was anything but, exploring a whole range of fascinating themes such as how appointment to the Commission can be a career boost for some politicians and career suicide for others. The fact that stuff isn’t always straightforward is the definition of interesting. By contrast, the previous episode, while superficially about the war in Afghanistan and therefore “more” interesting, was remarkably pedestrian, with very little to say about the nature of politics.
Of course, understanding the difficulties of getting things done in politics is not the same thing as condoning mistakes, bad behaviour and outright treachery when they happen. But if we had a better grasp of this reality, I think we’d make a lot more progress in this country.
Where Cooke might be right is that somehow people can stomach a programme like Borgen when it is about another country and has subtitles in a way that we would struggle to accept a UK version, at least today (Professor Steven Fielding points out that we didn’t seem to have this blind spot in the recent past). I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the way we seem to distrust anything designed to promote political understanding in this country. Citizenship education never seemed to enjoy much support even amongst the teaching profession; the Electoral Commission was forced to scale back its citizenship and voter inclusion work. My own baby, Vote Match, struggles for funding despite – or rather because – while the general public seem to find it useful the political class distrust its simplicity.
If Borgen in its small way is slightly reversing that trend towards ever more impotent cynicism, then I can only welcome it.
Try as I might, I can’t stop getting annoyed by the whole debate surrounding Suzanne Moore and her continuing feud with the so-called “trans cabal” (this isn’t really an article by the way, just a series of random points – but at least it is mercifully shorter than my last effort).
Yesterday, Moore wrote a bizarre article in which we sought to argue that her persecution at the hands of transgender and queer activists is a freedom of speech issue.
What’s got her and, for example, Padraig Reidy at the Index on Censorship, jumping up and down is that the International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone tweeted on Sunday that she thought Julie Burchill should have been “sacked” for her Observer article attacking transgender people. Now, for the record, I don’t think Featherstone’s intervention was very sensible. As has been pointed out by others ad infinitum, Burchill is a freelancer and any intervention by a government minister was bound to end up a distraction – and so it has proven. Both Reidy and Moore have leapt on this as an example of state censorship and proof that Leveson report is dangerous nonsense that will lead to government interference of newspapers. The fact that this was a junior minister who is a member of a junior coalition partner just expressing her personal opinion (and the fact that Leveson wasn’t actually arguing for a government body to regulate the media but rather self-regulation underpinned by a statute to be overseen by the judiciary) gets ignored amidst all the shrieking.
The fact is, this is not a freedom of speech issue. The Observer did not take down the Burchill article (and I agree with Jane Fae that it was counterproductive for them to do so) because of Lynne Featherstone or any other government minister’s intervention – you can bet they’d be shouting about it right now if they had done so. It will be interesting to see what they say about it on Sunday but right now it appears that the editor John Mulholland took it down for the exact same reason he put it up in the first place: good old fashioned venality. They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.
I’m highly suspicious of people who are quick to leap up and down about Featherstone’s intervention being somehow sinister and an attack on civil liberties, while being so blithe about the assymetric power dynamic between Moore and her critics. There are a lot of pissed off trans and queer people out there right now who feel that Moore has been using her considerably privileged media platform to utterly misrepresent them in this debate. Again, Stavvers sums it up better than I could. What I don’t understand is why Moore is sticking to her guns in terms of her right to express her “anger and pain” while at the same time is so utterly blind at the fact that the people who are furious with her are doing exactly the same thing. At the end of her article she writes:
So I regret not making it clearer that we need both love and anger to be free. And you may continue to hate me, put me on lists, cast me out of the left. Free-thinking is always problematic. But if you take away my freedom to love, be intemperate, silly, angry, human, ask yourself who really wins? Who?
Yet it has been clear from the get go, that the problem has been her capacity to love in the first place. She escalated this row, and she continues to do so on an hourly basis on Twitter. As Deborah Orr said in response to her latest (at the time of writing) explicit troll:
@suzanne_moore Are you SURE you want the “trans cabal” to stop?
— Deborah Orr (@DeborahJaneOrr) January 18, 2013
The most telling line in Moore’s article is when she compares Featherstone to being a “humourless, authoritarian moron” (my emphasis). She isn’t the first to imply, or even express out loud that the problem at the heart of this debate is people who just “can’t take a joke”. Usually claims of humourlessness are the preserve of people like Jeremy Clarkson in their unending defence of “banter“. I’ve seen an awful lot of people over the past week making pretty similar defences, only suggesting that it is only transgender people and their friends who need to “get over it”. For some reason we are supposed to feel great at the progress we’ve made in fighting cissexism, homophobia and racism – yet we are meant to accept that trans people are an exception it is fine to laugh at and casually dehumanise. The debate seems, at its heart, to be between people who see this as an intolerable contradiction and people who don’t.
Finally, if we are to believe that this is a freedom of speech issue, and that Lynne Featherstone represents an oppressive, authoritarian government determined to crack down on the freedom of expression, why is it that the same government has just this week agreed to scrap Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986? Both Padraig Reidy and Suzanne Moore chose to ignore this inconvenient little factoid. In the case of Reidy, and the Index on Censorship, they have failed to acknowledge this at all on either their blog or weekly email newsletter. Perhaps this is because it’s a little bit of state oppression that never really affected journalists? Throughout this week I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that the real anxieties at the heart of this debate are rooted in professional self-interest rather than any genuinely noble concerns about the state of democracy; I’ve seen very little to shift this notion.
I’ve been pondering over whether to write a post about identity politics-centred twitterstorms for a while now, but each time I get close to doing so, I back off. The reason? A fear of getting engulfed in the same maelstrom that I’d be commenting on. That in itself is probably a good reason to write, but I think I should start off with a number of disclaimers.
Firstly, this blog is primarily a means by which I seek to order my own thoughts. I welcome other people’s constructive feedback because that, in turn this helps to further order my thoughts. If people agree or are inspired by what I say that’s tremendous. What it most certainly is not is an attempt to lecture people or hector them. If you are tempted to verbally assault me for anything I write here, please consider for a moment that it may just be that we disagree (or that you don’t like what I have to say) rather than assume I am being condescending or trying to silence you. I am certainly not attempting to speak for anyone other than myself.
Secondly, my knowledge of gender studies is almost certainly defective although I do my best to look up and understand unfamiliar terms. If I get any concepts wrong here (in fact, I’ve ended up largely trying to avoid them to make this article as accessible as possible), then I’m sorry and would be happy to make a correction if you point them out.
Thirdly, I’m writing this as someone who has been a political campaigner for 18 years (Has it really been 18 years?) and in the spirit of support for cultural and economic equality for everyone regardless of their identity or background. I hope that anyone who reads this will find it interesting and useful. In all likelihood, it won’t be. Either way, please read it with that in mind rather than view it automatically with suspicion as something written by a white, middle aged, middle class, southern English man in an exclusive, long term heterosexual relationship.
Why all the disclaimers and nervousness? Because some of the people involved in this storm are people I have tremendous respect and admiration for, and I really don’t want to fall out with them. At the same time, it feels as if the battle lines have been drawn in this debate and people seem to get pigeonholed (or indeed pigeonhole themselves) on one side of the debate or the other within seconds. Rational or not, it does feel somewhat as if the odd wrong word here or there is liable to blow up in my face. From reading Stella Duffy’s article on the Suzanne Moore row, it would appear that it isn’t just white middle class men who have this anxiety.
I genuinely can’t decide whether it is to queer feminists’ credit or detriment that I’m as concerned as I am about blundering into this debate as I am in a way that I wouldn’t think twice about in pretty much any other subject (I blog on all subjects these days much less than I do, but that has more to do with a fear of repeating myself than actually offending anyone). People being mindful of the language they use is a good thing; sclerosis caused by a fear about unintentionally offending people is not. Disagreeing in public with someone you like – especially if that person is experiencing a crisis to a greater or lesser extent – is much harder than disagreeing with someone you don’t.
It’s further complicated by my indecision about to what extent I actually disagree or who I disagree with. When considering the recent rows between, for example, Caitlin Moran and her critics over the last few weeks, there have been numerous times when I’ve switched sides as a new fact here or there emerged.
Finally there is the fact that I’m not perfect, and indeed my own views are evolving. My interest in feminism over the past decade, and especially over the last five years, has increased enormously partly as I’ve changed and partly as what I perceived as a rather sterile debate has revived itself. Would I blunder into the “female political blogosphere” debate quite as cackhandedly and insensitively as I did five years ago? One of the problems with having views which are emergent, is that you are rarely confident of them, especially when there are things you are on the record of having written in the recent past which you are not entirely proud of.
Anyway, enough introspection and onto the main purpose of this article. I can’t really improve on Stavvers’ analysis of the Suzanne Moore row (at least as of Friday; it has moved on since then). For me though, the most depressing moment was when I saw Graham Linehan tweet this:
Needs finessing, but a new logo for Twitter? twitpic.com/bub5hd
— Graham Linehan (@Glinner) January 11, 2013
I know a lot of people dismissed Linehan’s views a long time ago as just another member of the privileged elite closing ranks, but I was genuinely surprised to see someone who considers himself to be on the left making such a crass intervention; this isn’t so much Jeremy Clarkson-lite as Jeremy Clarkson. Even as an adolescent in the 80s in a boys school for whom women were an alien species, Millie Tant seemed like a particular low point for Viz. The jokes seemed to be just a little bit too obvious; the target just a tiny bit too easy; the strip just a teensy bit too defensive. The implication of Linehan’s tweet was that we are going back to a point in which feminism and mainstream culture simply had nothing to say to each other and that he, as part of the mainstream, was putting as much distance between it and himself as possible.
Suzanne Moore’s wounds this week were entirely self inflicted. Her response to her critics was to give them both barrels and ended up escalating the argument from a small matter of poor taste and judgement to becoming grossly offensive in a matter of minutes. What I hope her most fervent critics have noticed however is that an awful lot of sensible, rational supporters of equality ended up taking her side. In most cases, that was a kneejerk reaction having failed to bother reading the debate, let alone what Moore herself actually said (today’s revulsion by many of the same people to the Julie Burchill article in which she does little more than repeat the thrust of Moore’s argument suggests that), but who can say they don’t depend on heuristics when it comes to taking side in a debate?
It seems to me that there’s a perception problem here that somehow needs to get tackled. The problem is, we seem to be experiencing a case of ever decreasing circles here. As Stavvers writes:
Privileged person nakedly articulates something privileged or wrong or harmful. It pisses off those who are harmed by it–or those who know just how harmful such naked articulations of privilege can be. We express this. We are told not to be angry, or rude, to be rational and logical. It is all derailed. The privileged person fails to learn, change, grow, be better. They act as though they are the victim of some unreasonable mob, never giving a second’s thought to why people are angry.
I understand and share Stavvers’ and others’ frustration at this. Where (I think) I disagree with her is that the answer is to plough on, getting steadily angrier, until the “revolution” arrives (ironically of course, Suzanne Moore’s article which started this latest cycle was also in defence of anger).
Notwithstanding the fact that Burchill may have indirectly helped matters by laying her transphobia bare for all to see in her defence of Moore, I don’t see this circle and widening gulf ending well for the queer feminists. The greater danger is a return to the situation in the 90s in which feminists, when they occasionally emerged blinking into the spotlight of mainstream attention at all, had nothing more to say other than that the fight had been won by a mixture of Thatcherism, Madonna and the Spice Girls. It’s been quite refreshing to see women of the generation after mine take ownership of feminism in the way that women (let alone men) of my generation largely did not. At the moment, I worry that this trend may be on the verge of reversing.
None of this is intended to let the commentariat off the hook. The target of much of this ire recently has been Caitlin Moran. Helen Lewis wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago which went through many of the Caitlin Moran controversies. I found it genuinely enlightening, and it presents a much more sympathetic figure in Moran than her critics tend to present. But if the defenders of Moore were guilty of letting their prejudices about her critics blind them to what she actually wrote, and this is a problem queer feminists must tackle, then the same can be said of Moran. She’s got herself into a rut, with people who ought to be her champions hating her. And it’s happened because she lets her temper and weakness for a cheap gag and playing to the audience get the better of her too often. She’s allowed herself to become surrounded by a group of likeminded writers who, like her, have gone from fearing the mob to actively baiting it. And in doing so, all too often she betrays the values she espouses.
Is rapprochement really too much to ask for? Is the gulf between these two sides really so great? It is terribly fashionable to say that the left likes its infighting, but I’m not sure that actually applies to more than a minority; most people just find it all rather alienating.
For the commentariat, the demands are pretty simple: have a bit of care for your language and don’t make a minority group which faces prejudice and oppression the butt of a cheap laugh, no matter how “accessible” that makes you as a writer (I don’t believe this anyway; in what way would Suzanne Moore’s article have been undermined if she’s replaced “Brazilian transsexual” with “supermodel”? If anything it would have made it more accessible). If you lose your temper on Twitter, like Moran did when she ill-advisedly told someone she “literally couldn’t give a shit about” women of colour, then expect a storm. As a public figure, you can’t complain when it leads to a load of abuse any more than any politician could do so if they made a gaffe.
And there’s the rub. Because what a lot of this row feels like to me is a group of people who are incredibly uncomfortable with the slow dawning realisation that social media, a thing they hitherto embraced as a great leveller, is leading to increased scrutiny and thus accountability that they assumed would only happen to “them” – the politicians, bankers and business people who they perceived as alien and thus the problem. It must be a horrible feeling to suddenly realise you are perceived in much the same way as the people you yourself consider to be the establishment.
As someone who, in a previous lifetime, was a relatively high profile Liberal Democrat blogger and activist, that level of scrutiny and, yes, abuse, is something I take for granted (admittedly, at a lower level). Yes, it is often difficult to deal with and you wouldn’t be human if you always dealt with it with that perfect blend of diplomacy, tact and humour that is often necessary. But however unfair much of it is, it’s a fact of life.
It is worth noting that when politicians get abuse on social media they don’t, as a rule, attempt to smear all their critics with the same brush when responding to it. A few exceptions exist, notably people like Nadine Dorries. Here then is a hint, journalists: if you invite comparisons to Nadine Dorries, you are doing it wrong. Unlike Nadine Dorries however, all too often they get away with it; their supporters simply swallow it as fact when of course it isn’t. That’s a repository of good will which is being abused. Optimistically, I’d like to think that the commentariat will simply calm down after a few years as it learns to take the rough with the smooth of social media. There is however a chance that they will simply continue to close ranks. I doubt this will do newspaper sales many favours (accountability of journalism is also a theme of the Leveson report and thus received a similarly over the top and defensive response from journalists, but I think I’ll leave that hanging for now).
For queer feminists, the challenge is somewhat more amorphous, not least of all because it is a more amorphous grouping. The fact is that there are a lot of people out there who will happily jump on anyone they disagree with on Twitter and start issuing the death threats and piling on the abuse. James Ball triumphantly spent this afternoon retweeting a number of the ones he received for making some mildly satirical comments.
I find the vogue on Twitter to express a desire to “kill” or “set on fire” anyone you happen to disagree with rather odd. It’s tempting to dismiss it on the basis that the individuals concerned can’t really mean it, are being satirical and that the correct interpretation is that it is simply shorthand for an expression is strident disagreement, but I think there’s probably a bit more to it than that (I also wonder, at the risk of sounding patronising, whether it is a cultural issue and that the generation who spent their adolescence using the internet simply developed a different grammar and cultural norms which us oldies can’t interpret). Either way I somehow doubt that, on a psychological level, having 20 people superficially threaten to kill you does anyone any good in terms of developing an open mind about their threateners’ opinions.
I’m not going to go down a cul-de-sac about whether right-minded people have a moral obligation to condemn the threats; I don’t think that particularly gets anyone anywhere. What I do question however is whether the rhetoric of self-righteous anger is particularly helpful. No injustice was ever resolved without at least one person being angry enough to do something about it; that’s pretty redundant. But I question that anger itself should be celebrated in the way that both Moore and Stavvers were suggesting.
A lot of the time the expression of anger is a just massive suck on energy. But it’s actually worse than that. As a tool, the expression of anger has only ever been effective when it has hit the right target and when there have been other tools at people’s disposal to back it up. The poll tax riots worked – but only because there was a political opposition to Thatcher which reaped the benefits politically. 2010′s student protests failed because there was no other channel with which to direct the rage; ironically, the Tories did a fantastic job at getting that rage deflected on the Lib Dems and using it against them during the AV referendum (and by doing so, ensuring that the political system remains as unresponsive as ever). Anger without being connected to anything is simply the verbal and/or political equivalent of letting off a machine gun in a crowded street and hoping it will hit the right target.
I’m reminded of the Guy Aitchison / Jeremy Gilbert dialogue in the book Regeneration (which I failed to review last year), in which Guy’s explanation of the protest movement’s strategy depressingly resembled the Underpants Gnomes’ business strategy in South Park. To be fair, this confusion between tactics and strategy is hardly a problem unique to the radical left (in the Lib Dems’ case, you can replace “anger” with “Focus leaflet” and reach pretty much the same conclusion – although admittedly all those leaflets have proven themselves to be far more effective than riots), but it is a massively under-appreciated one amongst lefties (of course, there isn’t a perfect overlap between queer feminists and the radical left, but there is hopefully sufficient crossover for it to give people pause for thought).
Suffice to say, by all means hold on to your anger – you need it and it will keep you going. But if you aren’t combining every protest and attack with a concerted effort to build bridges and alliances, all you will succeed in doing is alienating people who should be your allies and burning yourself out. Don’t let your anger end up blinding you into carving up the world into some Manichean divide of light and dark, or the light will just look increasingly dim. And don’t confuse genuine anger with casual irritation, which is all an emotionally stunted individual needs to start issuing death threats on Twitter. They aren’t angry; they’re just nasty.
But the other area in which people could improve matters is in communications. Gender studies is the only field I’ve come across in which a criticism over the use of inaccessible language is quite so frequently inferred to be an attack on the field itself. To be fair, cis- is a useful piece of shorthand as long as everyone is on the same page, but if you’re trying to convince someone who hasn’t come across the term that you aren’t being deliberately obscurantist, it simply isn’t helpful. “Intersectionality” is arguably even worse. Again, it isn’t the meaning of the term that I would take issue with (although the term does appear to have drifted from referring to an area of study to referring to an agenda), just the way the term seems to be so frequently held aloft like some kind of talisman. I’ve lost count of the number of tweets I’ve read over the last year that go along the lines of “I just don’t understand why people can oppose intersectionality”. If each time someone wrote something like that they replaced the i-word with something like “awareness that all women face discrimination and the importance of solidarity” (that can certainly be improved upon, but it’s less than 140 chars), an awful lot of progress would have been made. At its heart, this row is rooted in people being defensive in their use of language; a bit of give and take seems necessary on both sides. If your aim is to bring people on the fence over to your side, then speaking in terms they don’t find alienating is a basic step. I’m genuinely confused why this appears to have become such a shibboleth.
I hope that, as tempers start to cool, people on both sides of the divide might attempt to reach out to the other side. If they don’t, then it will simply be an opportunity wasted.
UPDATE: There was an observation I meant to make in this post about the double standard when it comes to “twitterstorms” but I forgot. It was simply an observation that some of the same people who I observed dismissing the idea that abuse on Twitter could effectively silence a feminist writer then went on to defend Suzanne Moore against those selfsame awful feminists. An example is Hayley Campbell here and here, although Hayley is by no means alone. I wanted to include this point not to single people out but to observe quite how tribal this whole debate has become.
UPDATE 2: A few links which I found interesting:
As former, disgruntled party members go, I think it is fair to say that I’ve been remarkably discreet and reasonable. I’m not a huge believer in trashing my former colleagues (and still, in many cases, current friends) in some vanity exercise designed to justify my resignation ex post facto, and tend to distrust the judgement of people who feel the need to endlessly do so. Aside from a couple of blog posts, I’ve generally kept pretty schtum, and have very little time for those who denounce the Lib Dems as having sold out and failed to achieve anything in government, as if the position they were put into wasn’t fiendishly difficult or that the alternative – a Tory majority government – would be somehow better. Generally speaking, while I think they are getting the big picture pretty badly wrong, on a daily basis the Lib Dems are making a very real difference in government.
You can tell there’s a but coming, can’t you?
But, then. Tuesday. What, the actual, fuck? Just for the sake of argument, let’s completely ignore the human cost of yesterday’s vote on benefits. Let’s just focus on the politics. Back in September, flushed with his (non) apology about his handling of the tuition fees debacle going viral on YouTube, Nick Clegg issued an ultimatum: “For me, it is very simple. You can’t have more cuts without more wealth taxes.”
Well, aside from some tweaking to the pension rules, he didn’t get any wealth taxes this autumn. But you know what? The cuts are happening anyway. So much for “it is very simple”.
Unless, apparently, you are Stephen Tall: “It’s the kind of compromise that happens within a Coalition government.” Well, er, no. The “compromise” was that the Tories would get a cut in benefits and the Lib Dems would get a wealth tax. Spinning retrospectively that all that has happened was Cameron and Clegg split the difference is delusional. What actually happened is that Clegg made an opening gambit, Osborne called his bluff, Clegg blinked, and got a pity concession so he could at least pretend to have saved some face. Carry out your threats or don’t make them; you won’t get a second chance.
Putting benefits at the centre of a horsetrading negotiation is one thing. Failing to carry out threats is quite another. You can argue that the Lib Dems have conceded too much in this coalition, but tuition fees aside, they haven’t actually done that bad a job of over-reaching or making pledges they weren’t prepared to stand by. Clegg, to his credit, has carried out his threat to block boundary changes in exchange for the Tories’ betrayal over House of Lords reform (although the fact that the zombie boundary review lives on within the pages of the Mid Term Review speaks volumes about the weak leadership of both Cameron and Clegg). Things were looking up. Today’s capitulation however can’t be put down to naivety. What it suggests is that for Clegg there ultimately is no bottom line and no point at which he is prepared to walk away. What it tells Osborne is that he can merrily keep salami slicing the welfare bill, and the Lib Dem response will be the Stephen Tall “genius” move of “splitting the difference” each time. It would be comedy gold if it didn’t affect the lives of so many vulnerable people.
Speaking of comedy gold, it should not be forgotten that the Lib Dems communications department would very much like its parliamentary party to keep pushing the line that “The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fair society.” Based on today’s performance, it is manifest that that assertion is not true. Of course you can trust the Conservatives. They have an agenda and they doggedly stick to it. They might not want a fair society (although by their standards, and many voters’, they do), but they can damn well be trusted. That consistency counts for an awful lot in the electorate’s eyes.
It is Clegg, and all those who go along with him, who can’t be trusted. From a communications point of view, flip-flopping in this way is more damaging to the Lib Dem brand than any number of backbench MPs going off message. The Lib Dems’ communications problem isn’t non-entities saying the wrong thing; Clegg himself is the living embodiment of the Lib Dems’ fundamental communications problem. Focusing on anything else is just displacement activity.
Oh, and a final thing. I really don’t understand why it is that so many Lib Dems are so up in arms about Ken Clarke’s secret courts legislation, with talk of special conferences and all out war coming my way from numerous sources, while the best welfare gets is a shrug of the shoulders. It isn’t that I don’t think civil liberties are worth standing up for; it’s the lack of a sense of proportion. Enabling the government to hold secret trials, at most, might affect thousands of people. Benefit cuts stand to affect millions.
Even if you agree with these cuts, from a civil liberties perspective, surely last year’s legal aid cuts were more onerous than the secret courts? I just don’t understand why so many seem prepared to die in the ditch over a principle that affects a tiny minority, while don’t appear capable of doing anything more than shrug their shoulders over cuts which affect a whole segment of society. Again, it appears dangerously to resemble displacement activity; the wider cuts are too hard and too vast, so it is easier to focus on small measures and exaggerate their importance (see also: this utter preoccupation with Labour hypocrisy and opportunism as if that somehow justifies anything whatsoever).
90% of the criticism of the Lib Dems is at best unfair, at worse downright mendacious. But what I saw on Tuesday was a party that has ceased to have any kind of strategic nouse or moral compass whatsoever; that will doom them more than anything.
I had a great time at Dragonmeet on Saturday. It may surprise some people to know that this was my first Dragonmeet (London’s premiere roleplaying convention which I believe has been going since the 1980s) but in fact, UK Games Expo this year was the first gaming convention I’d gone to since, I think, Games Day ’88 (around the time Games Workshop was transforming from a distributor to just focusing on its own miniatures games).
I had a game of Durance, Jason Morningstar’s next game after Fiasco which can best be summed up as “early colonial Australia – in spaaaace”. I wish I’d played a couple more games, especially Microscope, but Durance took a long time and I needed a break and some shopping time.
As for purchases, I picked up My Life With Master, Psi*Run, Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne and Becoming Heroes – all indie games with their own little quirks. I’ve read the rules to Psi*Run thus far and it looks great – essentially the players are amnesiacs with psychic powers who are being chased by some unknown threat: maybe they’re alien abductees or the victims of some government experiment. They start the game asking themselves a series of questions and end the game when one of them has answered all of them (as is common with indie games, you get to make these up as you go along).
I only went to one seminar, and I regret not going to the one with Robin D Laws about his new Hillfolk game which I’ve invested in as a Kickstarter. I’m still toying with investing in the Guide to Glorantha Kickstarter (I deeply love Glorantha as a setting both because it is highly original and the setting of the first RPG I ever owned), so it would have been nice to go to that, but it would have meant not having a morning game. Priorities!
The one seminar I did go to was about the future of the UK RPG “industry”. But the main point that was rammed home at the seminar was that there was no industry, just four games companies which operate out of the US (Pelgrane Press, Cubicle 7, Chronicle City and Mongoose), a distribution company (Esvedium) and a scattering of shops. And while the general consensus seemed to be that its decline from the “heady” days of the 1980s has probably levelled out now, no one could envision any sunlit uplands ahead to look forward to. There was an agreement that with the internet, we probably don’t even need an industry for the hobby to continue, but it would probably plod along in any case. There was no prospect of a renaissance.
I found it to be quite an interesting talk, not quite depressing although in many ways it should have been. It reminded me a bit of the very similar conversation going on within the comics ironic-quotation-marks-industry and the heroic but seemingly futile efforts of a handful of people working within it to persuade it that there is a mainstream audience out there to exploit if only it would haul itself out of its self imposed ghetto (I promise not to segue into a discussion about Giles Coren being a cock, except to say that Giles Coren is a cock).
I’ve written about RPGs and the mainstream recently. At the risk of repeating myself, if you want to expand your audience, you should focus on games that do not require (at least) 3 expensive “core” hardback books to play and which encourage the sort of play in which one individual dedicates huge amount of personal time preparing a game for everyone else. You should probably look at games which put as much emphasis on plot and character – possibly even sex – as they do on action and violence. You should look at games with a wide range of genres, not just another flavour of fantasy-horror-scifi. None of this is to say that any of these things are bad or that all games should contain none of these elements, just that variety is the spice of life and a narrow idea of what is and isn’t roleplaying doesn’t help anybody. Don’t mistake a genre for a medium.
Of course, there are games out there which tick these boxes, but they are known as “indie” games and seen as niche (from my experience, by their advocates as well as others in the RPG scene). I don’t think there are any particular villains here: most of the industry panellists at the seminar were enthusiastic about the indie scene. Indeed, the host James Wallis wrote The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and is in many ways a godfather of the indie scene*. All the UK RPG publishers produce games which are to a greater or lesser extent “indie” in style or tone. The issue to me is more one of mindset, and a realisation of the opportunities that games like Fiasco bring to the market.
At one stage in the seminar, one of the audience members asked the panel what they were doing to bring children into the hobby and got quite finger jabby. While enticing a new generation is important, I wonder whether too much concern about making it accessible for “the kids” is missing the point. I couldn’t make head or tail of Runequest 2 when I was 8 (or MERPs for that matter; I always seemed to buy complicated fantasy games when I was a kid); it didn’t stop me from playing it numerous times. I persevered because it seemed cool, because my media was saturated with science fiction and fantasy, and – crucially – because there weren’t shinier, easier ways to sate my appetite for immersive fantasy gameplay. Since the latter factor has now been irrevocably lost thanks to computer games and to a lesser extent miniature war games, I can’t really see how efforts to entice them will ever be enormously successful.
I think it’s the slightly older generation that is a more likely prospect and the one thing that isn’t likely to excite them is tabletop versions of something they can do on the computer in a way that is infinitely more immersive. What that suggests to me is that “old school” dungeon bashes are unlikely to cut the mustard.
Tabletop roleplaying’s potential appeal is in providing things you can’t do on a computer, and that means stuff other than killing things and solving puzzles. You can create worlds, endless situations, flawed heroes (and even not heroes at all) with a few simple rules, some friends and possibly some dice in a way you can never do on a computer (and the moment you will be able to do that will also be the singularity; best not to think about!).
Roleplaying’s potential therefore is its ability to provide boundless creativity in a social environment, if only the scene could get over its obsession with stabbing orcs. And what goes for teenagers is also likely to appeal more to women.
What all this suggests to me is that if the industry is to be truly ambitious, it needs to start eschewing notions of “old school” play and deliberately look towards games which offer things that are unique to tabletop roleplaying itself. Surprisingly (to me at least), that would suggest that the approach of moving to simpler boardgame “gateway” games such as Castle Ravenloft may not actually be the right approach. It suggests that, for example, while the Dungeons and Dragons Next project may result in a game the existing fans love, it will be a cul de sac rather than a way of bringing in new gamers.
Psi*Run offers an alternative approach. A 60 page rulebook clearly designed to be accessible to a younger audience, offering a type of game that you couldn’t do better on a computer. I’m thinking of buying it for my niece. The recently released Dungeon World appears to offer old style fantasy adventure with more of an indie aesthetic; maybe this is the way forward?
Piers from the London Indie RPG Meetup made a salient point at the seminar when he suggested that in many ways indie games are more like traditional RPG scenarios than game systems in that they are intended to be played a couple of times before the players move onto something else rather than a game you go back to again and again over a number of years. In some respects, this is a bit like novels as opposed to a massive TV franchise like Star Trek; a one off story focusing on one or two ideas rather than a never ending saga. And that also has a lot in common with how boardgames have developed over the past decade where the designer is becoming ever more important rather than the franchise.
Overall, I think there needs to be an injection of ambition into the RPG scene. There has been more innovation over the past decade than we saw throughout the 25 years before that. Accessible games like Fiasco have the potential to break into the mainstream. What the scene needs is a little more self confidence and a little less comfort with the idea of wallowing in obscurity. There’s already Free RPG Day (itself a spinoff from Free Comic Book Day) but from what I’ve seen of what most companies produce to promote this event, it is more aimed at promoting upcoming stuff to an existing base than building a new one. Perhaps this day, or another, needs to be adopted for evangelising about the mediums true potential – and potential audience.
* (UPDATE) It would appear that I stole that description of James Wallis from Robin D. Laws. But he’s right.
Sooner or later, someone is going to come up with the idea of a story about two wizards – a hirsute, midlander who worships a made up god and dapper suited, bald Glaswegian chaos magician – and the bitter feud between them. The real life story about the animosity between the UK’s greatest living comics writers Grant Morrison and Alan Moore is nothing like as dramatic, but for anyone who has even a modicum of respect for both of them, rather compelling.
We aren’t talking about a massive feud here, incidentally. The two don’t publicly attack each other at every opportunity. The intrigue is rooted in the fact that both writers have very similar interests and backgrounds, and why exactly it is that they have managed to rub each other up the same way
Pádraig Ó Méalóid has written a synopsis of the disagreement which Grant Morrison has taken exception to and comprehensively fisked. You can make your own mind up but to a large extent it is impossible to arbitrate on the issue without your own prejudices about either writer getting in the way. In the interest of full disclosure then, let me say this: on balance I am probably more of a Grant Morrison fan, so take what I have to say on the topic with that particular pinch of salt.
Although I think he is right on the broad thrust, I don’t entirely agree with Morrison though. I think he let’s himself off a bit too gently with his justification that his column Drivel for Speakeasy magazine, which he wrote in the late 80s, was purely work for hire on which he was working to a specific brief. While it is self evident to anyone who has read them that the columns were tongue in cheek – at one stage, I vividly recall his dictum being that “99% of comics are shit except for the 10% that I write” – the fact is that this persona was rehearsed in all the media interviews he gave at the time. What was quite funny a few times rapidly ceased to amuse and he slowly became the parody that he was mocking at the time.
Morrison and his then writing partner Mark Millar were given unprecedented editorial control over 2000AD in 1993 (“the Summer Offensive”) and the two set about tearing up the comic from its roots and implementing the sort of philosophy that Morrison had been espousing in his Drivel columns for years beforehand. The result was an utter disaster, best forgotten. Morrison and Millar’s take on Dredd is the worse mishandling of the character in its long history. I recall in an interview atbthe time Morrison denouncing Dredd-creator John Wagner for not writing funny Dredd strips any more. Ironically, even at his most serious and po-faced, Wagner manages to inject each episode with more genuine humour than Morrison and Millar managed in their entire run on Dredd.
To cut a long story short, in the early 90s, Grant Morrison was a bit of a dick. Having suddenly found himself rich and successful after more than a decade as a struggling writer (his graphic novel Batman: Arkham Asylum hit the bookshelves at the height of Batmania following the release of the 1989 Tim Burton film), discovered the drink, drugs and sex that he couldn’t afford and wasn’t particularly interested in during the early part of his career. In his 30s, he went on a teenage bender, something which almost destroyed him as a writer.
But the important thing is, he grew out of it. The Morrison who emerged over the following decade was a different creature altogether. Most of his works during this period have a sort of life affirming therapy quality to them, with Morrison himself effectively starring in The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo and The Filth.
I find the claim by both Moore and Michael Moorcock that Morrison is a creatively bankrupt thief of their work to be utterly bizarre. If you want to read a sub-Alan Moore deconstructionist and misanthropic take on the superhero genre, you need merely screw up a copy of Watchmen and throw it over your shoulder; the chances are you’ll hit a comic by a writer taking precisely that approach. On a superficial level, there are clearly similarities but where Morrison’s work is all about hope amidst the darkness, Moore’s work is, well, darkness amidst the darkness. They are so incomparable that it is barely worth even rebutting.
And this is the nub of it: Alan Moore’s complaint about Grant Morrison appears to be nothing more than a massive troll, and potentially an attempt by Moore to get his own back for a couple of mean-spirited things Morrison said about him during his idiot period. But as Morrison says, during the Drivel years, Morrison was a 30 year old still struggling to find his place in the world. Alan Moore is a highly successful man in his 60s. In the context, it is hard to deny that Moore is the bigger dick (term used in the strict Wheaton sense of the word).
I have heard more than once people defend Moore when he says his more outrageous things that if you hear him say them in person it is clear he has his tongue firmly in his cheek when he does so. But if this is all an act, is there a risk that Moore himself ends up resembling the persona he is pretending to be? We await to see what Jerusalem is like, but the fact is that most of his work over the past decade has given me the sense of a man coasting. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is good fun and a gentle read, kind of like putting on your favourite slippers, but nothing like as edgy as it thinks it is. Century had nothing to say ultimately other than “modern culture (and particularly Harry Potter) is rubbish” – the familiar old man lament since time immemorial. We appear to have reached the point in which Alan Moore has little more to say than “99% of modern culture is rubbish, except for the 10% that I write” – the only difference between this statement and Grant Morrison’s own utterance more than 20 years previously being that even at the time we knew with complete certainty that Morrison was taking the piss.
It’s great fun to watch Alan Moore be rude and nasty about everything, but there comes a point where it’s just rudeness dressed up as criticism. I think he went passed that years ago and it’s time he reined it back in. I suspect that if he did, his work would significantly improve as he was forced to move outside of his (cynical and world weary) comfort zone.
Still looking forward to Heart of Ice though.
I’ve been exploring quite a lot of roleplaying games recently, but Microscope is probably the most unique I’ve come across thus far.
Arguably, it isn’t even a roleplaying game, although roleplaying is part of it. The goal of the players is not to play a character but to create a fictional history, potentially spanning tens of thousands of years.
The basis of the game is a timeline with a simple beginning and ending. This could be anything. For example, the start point could be “humanity struggles to recover from the zombie apocalypse” and the end point could be “humans and AIs form the galactic federation” (fantasy and mythical settings, indeed anything, can also be used – I’ve even considered it as a tool for developing a democratic reform counterfactual as an exercise for work).
In each player’s turn, they can either establish a new period, a new event (which must take place during an established period) or a scene (which must take place during an established event). You can place your chosen period, event or scene at any point in the timeline and can thus bounce around continually. The only restriction is that you must follow the “focus” – a particular thing that one of the players chooses all the players must explore during each round.
The scenes are the most complex aspect of the rules, and the closest the game gets to traditional roleplaying. For each scene, all the players pick a role and, in the process, work together to answer a question set by the person whose turn it is. So, if the question is: “Why did Halo Jones kill Luiz Cannibal in cold blood?”, one player might play Halo Jones, another might play Luiz Cannibal, and so on. The scene ends as soon as the question has been answered. If the players want to continue that story, another player will have to choose a scene on their turn to continue it.
One thing the game designer Ben Robbins is quite emphatic about is that the players must not attempt to write a history by committee. Instead, when it is your turn you have complete autonomy. The other players are banned from making suggestions, although they can ask for clarification. The only restrictions are that new elements can’t contradict old ones, and that they must stay within the basic rules. There is a slight exception to that in that during a scene a player can “Push” for something to happen – in which case the options are discussed and the players take a vote. Aside from that, and the fact that the players must initially agree what the overall theme is to be, that is the only point in which players have to reach some level of agreement. I disagree with some of the terminology used in the rule book: far from “banning” collaboration, this is an interesting way to enforce it in a meaningful way (as opposed to having the strongest willed player dominate); it takes the improvisational dictum of “yes, and…” and turns it into a fundamental building block for the rules.
The best genre settings drip with history, yet the idea of developing one of your own has been curiously unexplored by game designers up until now. I say “curiously” but it never occurred to me that it might even be worth considering until I came across this game. Now my mind is racing with possibilities, enthused by such rich histories as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Nikolai Dante, Warhammer 40,000 and Vampire: the Masquerade. But of course, those should only be starting points: the real genius of the game is not letting you explore established backgrounds but in creating your own by having a group of players subtly pulling in opposite directions. In short, this is another game to add to my burgeoning “must try” list.
A filmmaker is attempting to raise £40,000 on Kickstarter to make a film about the development and legacy of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. It’s an ambitious project which I’d love to see happen, so I’ve chipped in and would encourage you to do the same.
I was one of the first generation of Fighting Fantasy fans, starting with the publication of the Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982. We didn’t have the Puffin Club at my school; we had the Chip Club. Nonetheless, that was how me and my sister discovered the series and I quickly graduated onto the Forest of Doom, City of Thieves, Starship Traveller and Deathtrap Dungeon.
I had a bit of a pro-Ian Livingstone bias, which was probably unfair in retrospect and I suspect was limited to the fact that I got Forest of Doom while my sister got the more experimental Citadel of Chaos. That changed when I discovered the Sorcery! series, with its spellbook, overarching plot and gorgeous John Blanche artwork. I was pretty hardcore, buying Warlock magazine from issue 2, the Out of the Pit monster manual, the background book Titan, and so on.
They weren’t perfect. Like most RPGs at the time, they tended to be both combat heavy and leave you rather dependent on the luck of the dice, which was a little redundant as if you died, you would tend to simply ignore the result and carry on. But the Fighting Fantasy books opened so many avenues for me. Like many other people, they encouraged my reading, and it will be no surprise to anyone to learn that they got me into roleplaying games. But I’d credit them with something more fundamental than that, in that they made me realise at a young age that I didn’t have to just be a consumer, but an active participant in my media as well (of course, this also came at the same time as the rise of the home microcomputer – which had a similar democratising effect. As it happens there’s also an open Kickstarter at the moment to fund an updated version of Elite).
This is an important part of my personal history, so I’m keen to see the documentary get made. Plus, it is possible I might be making a minor appearance in it as they appear to be using footage from Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s presentation at this year’s UK Games Expo in it, in which you can quite clearly see me in the audience! So please have a look at the Turn to 400 Kickstarter and consider putting some dosh behind it.
Every time the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Federation or someone like Lord Blair complains about the “politicisation” of the police, the Baby Jesus cries. The police have always been political, and over the last decade have become quite shameless about this: Ian Blair representing perhaps the apex of this.
Let’s not forget the hacking scandal, and the close links between the police and media that it revealed. Or the interplay between police and politicos over the De Menezes shooting. Or the transparent way in which the Police Federation and the Sun worked together over the Andrew Mitchell affair in a blatant attempt to divert attention away from the Hillsborough inquiry.
I don’t like PCCs for very many reasons, but in terms of “politicisation” the only thing they will do in terms of the police is to take that politicisation slightly out of the hands of the establishment and put it slightly in the hands of people at a more local level. Of all the reasons to oppose them, this is the weakest.
The Lib Dems are to blame for holding the elections in November
They deserve the credit for this and twelve months ago, Nick Clegg was claiming it to everyone who would listen internally (I was on the party’s Federal Executive at the time and can claim first hand experience of this). They insisted on this partly because the party was woefully unprepared for fighting the elections in May 2012, the government’s original plan, and partly because they very much wanted them to be held as far from the council elections as possible, fearing that the increased prominence of law and order issues during that period would damage the party. This went hand in hand with a mindset, not universally shared across the party, that it shouldn’t field candidates in the PCC elections at all.
In retrospect, I’m not entirely convinced of the wisdom of this. The answer to the party being weak on law and order issues is to be better on law and order issues, not to pretend they don’t exist. I disagreed with the argument that the party should not field candidates and am pleased that in the face of some quite strong pressure from the centre, the FE did at least say it was a local issue rather than the original position of attempting to actually ban local parties from fielding candidates.
Nonetheless, as it is a stupid policy anyway, moving polling day to November has only undermined it further – and thus increased the chances that PCCs might get replaced with something better sooner rather than later. My only real concern about it is what the Tories got in return for this delay, which I fear we won’t discover until the main player’s memoirs are published.
The Tories are to blame for everything else
The sad fact of the matter is that the creation of a role like Police and Crime Commissioner goes hand in hand with the mindset that you can hold elections without having to promote the elections whatsoever. It’s all part of a “no such thing as (big) society” philosophy that dictates that participation in elections is solely due to personal responsibility and the ability of individual candidates. I’m only surprised that someone managed to force them to provide any online information at all, and that they didn’t ban the Electoral Commission from doing what it could.
Returning to Andreas Whittam Smith, it is hard to see the creation of these posts and not see clear parallels between them and the direction he wants to see British politics to go in: surely this shift from politicians to “managers” is exactly what he wants, so why not simply support the Conservatives? And it is hard to see what he brings to the table. 12 independent PCCs were elected on Thursday, out of a possibly 41. Meanwhile, Democracy 2015 managed to garner just 35 votes in the Corby by-election.
More than 4,000 people have signed Unlock Democracy’s open letter to Theresa May, calling for her to take steps to ensure we never see a repeat of Thursday’s elections, and for her to consider alternatives to PCCs. Please add your name.
Smallville RPG is one of the games that lead me to discovering the wonderful world of more collaborative, story based kinds of roleplaying. Not a fan of the TV show (beyond the first couple of seasons), I was interested in its different approach to gaming and the way it incorporated TV tropes and conventions into the game itself.
Reading about Smallville online, I kept seeing it compared to Primetime Adventures, an earlier game with a similar philosophy. But all I could find about it was the publisher’s website promising a new edition of the game in “2011“. Then, on Friday, I discovered you could still get the second edition, published in 2005, on Indie Press Revolution. I snapped it up (alongside a couple of other games) and read through it. Here are my first impressions.
Whereas it is clear that you can use Smallville to play pretty much any kind of Smallville type TV show such as Roswell or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Primetime Adventures promises even more scope: Battlestar Galactica to the Gilmore Girls and Desperate Housewives and everywhere in between. The reason it can promise so much is that the system is so simple. Characters are, for the most part, summed up by a handful of descriptive words. The only “stats” used in the game are the “budget” (a pool of points that the gamemaster – or rather the “producer” – can draw on throughout the game to provide a challenge for the players), “fan mail” (a pool of points which players accrue in the course of play for good roleplaying) and “screen presence” (a number between 1 and 3 which determines how central each player character is to the plot of any given episode – these rotate so that a different character gets the spotlight in each episode).
The game mechanic to determine whether Wash manages to outfly and escape the fleet of Reaver spaceships is essentially the same as the one used to determine whether Cordelia wins that slanging match against her rival at high school: combine your screen presence with your traits, add any fan mail and see if you can beat the score which the producer gets, which itself is based on the amount of budget he allocates to that test. Instead of rolling dice, the players all draw playing cards: for each red card you draw, you get one point.
That’s pretty much it as far as the system goes – not quite the simplest game system ever devised, but certainly pretty close (contrast that with the Smallville system which, while it looks like fun, I still find a bit baffling in places without having given it a go). I have a slight concern that in practice it might be too simple in certain places. While I really like its mechanism for changing the focus of the series from episode to episode, and quite like the rules to playing a scene, the rules for how an episode should work seem a little light. I have concerns about how you maintain momentum throughout an episode and ensure you hit the right dramatic beats. The rule book itself has quite an interesting section on how acts work in a standard four act TV episode format, but I was slightly disappointed that it didn’t provide a system for how this might work in practice. I wonder if you couldn’t have a rule whereby you should move on to the next act after a certain amount of the budget has been spent, to ensure the game stays pacy.
For a game that discourages pre-game preparation in favour of collaboration and improvisation, a mechanism for helping the players out with ideas for plot twists and complications would have been nice (a bit like the Fiasco tilt system) – especially given the fact that by using the core mechanic of playing cards you have a very simple system for randomly generating 52 different options right in front of you.
Some clarification and expansion would also have been helpful. What should the producer do, for example, if a character leaps out of an aeroplane without a parachute with the intention of catching up with the bad guy and stealing his? In this case, if the character fails he will die (assuming the setting is at least semi-realistic and a dimensional portal wouldn’t fit the genre), so does that mean it should be assumed that he will automatically succeed? If not, what should happen if the character fails (which is possible even if the producer doesn’t spend any of his budget to resist)? The rule book has nothing to say about character stress, injury or death – a bit of an omission. I would certainly be inclined to have a similar mechanic to that used in FATE and Apocalypse World/Monsterhearts whereby characters with a specific named “condition” (e.g. “broken arm”) would have to suffer some kind of penalty if they try to do things that that condition would make harder (or a bonus if they could justify that the condition would make things easier). And I’d be inclined to make character death possible – but only if the character in question was being spotlighted in that particular episode (after all, cast members on TV shows die all the time).
In short, Primetime Adventures is a decent game, but the fact that the second edition was seven years ago now shows when contrasted with the more recent game rules I’ve been reading recently. I’d be tempted to write up quite a few hacks before playing it. But it’s flexibility and simplicity is extremely clever and inspiring and I really love the rules for providing characters with character arcs throughout the season. It would be an interesting experiment to run a game with non-gamer players and a non-supernatural or science fiction theme at some stage.
I’ve been following the development of Democracy 2015 in a professional and personal capacity since it launched this summer and listened with interest to Andreas Whittam Smith’s speech at the Unlock Democracy AGM on Saturday. Sadly as a result of Whittam Smith’s speech on Saturday I’ve been forced to reassess the project, away from a relatively harmless hopeless cause and towards a dangerous, profoundly undemocratic idea – which fortunately is unlikely to go anywhere (I should emphasise at this point that these are my personal views only).
If you don’t know, Whittam Smith’s big idea is as follows: he’s trying to find 650 people to stand in every constituency in the 2015 general election, sweeping the board and helping to establish a reforming parliament that will take all the difficult and radical decisions that the politicians from established parties consistently fail to. The candidates, who will preferably be selected by primaries, will served for a single term and all have experience of “running things” – be it the head of a school, a trade unionist or a someone with a business background. And finally,this will all be paid for by supporters donating a maximum of £50 each.
As a former party agent and campaign organiser, it is easy to scoff at the practicalities of all this. Even leaving aside the election campaign itself, there is the question of how all these targets will be reached. Whittam Smith stated that he expected the £35,000 cost of running a primary in each constituency that the Conservatives have had to spend would be lowered if you had economies of scale – ignoring the fact that largest single cost will be on postage which will have a fairly flat marginal cost. If you think this all sounds hopelessly impossible and impractical however, Whittam Smith has a simple answer: he agrees with you but feels he has to try anyway.
That isn’t a remotely satisfactory answer. I don’t find it especially noble or inspiring to see people embarking on a project without any credible strategy or targets whatsoever. It is, after all, other people’s money – and blood, sweat and tears – which he is planning to use up on this project. He isn’t so much a Scott of the Antarctic as a Lord Kitchener: sitting safely behind enemy lines while sacrificing others on deeply flawed plans. I can guarantee that his followers will remain quite as enamoured as they clearly are if they end up with nothing to show for at the end of this little adventure.
Thus far, this is nothing I didn’t conclude from the first week of Democracy 2015′s launch. I was struck however during Whittam Smith’s speech on Saturday by how his analysis was not only wrong but positively scary.
His main broadside against the political establishment is that it is fundamentally incompetent. No argument there, we see evidence of this pouring out of Whitehall and Westminster on a daily basis. But his analysis is that at the root of all this is the fact that politicians are simply poor at managing things: replace them with people with managerial experience, so the argument goes, and everything will be solved.
I’ve been a “manager” for the last 5 years but it is only in the last 12 months that I’ve had to fully manage staff on a daily basis. What I’ve learnt as both a manager and an employee is that “management” and “competence” can often be wildly divergent. Often the most talented person in an organisation can be someone who lacks the temperament or inclination to be a manager. Often the people who rise the most rapidly are people who’s ambition is far greater than their actual ability, but manage to float to the top because other people lower down the food chain manage to keep things on the rails and because few organisations would risk giving an incompetent employee was a bad reference and face either being stuck with them or an industrial tribunal. And then there is the Peter Principle, the dictum that “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” Great members of staff can make terrible managers, and vice versa. So when Whittam Smith dismissed the idea of cleaners and lower down the work chain as making suitable MPs, he wasn’t just being snooty but actually quite naive.
Perhaps a good test of how good a manager an MP would be would be to force them to manage and motivate a team of volunteers, raise their own money, build relationships with constituent groups and the press and generally run a difficult and stressful election campaign? Of course that happens to be what most winning candidates in marginal constituencies do indeed have to do. Not all of them do (sometimes you can get away with recruiting the right campaign manager at an early enough stage and leaving them to it – the lucky ones have the right campaign manager allocated to them by the party), and not all of them go on to become good managers, but it’s as good a test as any and certainly suggests that the key to having good people with managerial experience in parliament is to have more competitive elections.
But is management the answer to everything? Here I just think that Whittam Smith doesn’t just misunderstand the problem but is actually seeking to reinforce the status quo which has got us into this mess in the first place. As well as believing that having more managers in parliament would improve things, his concern is that ministers spend too much time interfering with the peope who are meant to manage the implementation of policy – the civil service. As an aside, I think he has a rather uncritical attitude about the civil service (the civil service is often known as the fourth political party in party circles with good reason, as anyone who has tried dealing with them will know), but the simple question you have to answer yourself is this: if the problem is too much ministerial interference and micromanagement, how will promoting more of a management culture in parliament and government help? I can’t think of anything that would make it worse. Imagine the former head of a school blundering in as the new secretary of state for education attempt to run the department like a school?
I have a rather different analysis. In my view, while I agree that the problem is that politicians have become obsessed with micromanagement and find themselves out of their depth, the cause is that politics has converged. Because there are no longer any big ideas being fought over in parliament it is only natural that politicians will turn their attention to things like competence and organisation. If parliament was fighting a daily battle over what kind of immigration policy we should have, it would be rather more content to leave civil servants with the job of implementing government policy – and ministers would too.
If I’m right, then Whittam Smith’s proposal would only make things worse. Having hundreds of MPs elected specifically on the basis of their management skills and a mandate to crack down on incompetence will only lead to more micromanagement, not less. The civil service, will not thank us for it even if former members of their ranks like Gus O’Donnell and Siobhan Benita seem to have similar shortsighted views.
What’s more, it’s the same agenda that Tony Blair inherited from Bill Clinton and bequeathed Cameron, Clegg and Miliband: ideology is dead; what matters is what works and seizing power. Whittam Smith was extremely dismissive of the people who criticised him from the left and seemed proud of his position in the centre ground. It seemed pretty evident that if he has his way, Democracy 2015 will fight on a platform firmly in the middle of the major two parties, but with a populist, anti politics edge. That’s the platform Nick Clegg adopted in 2010 and it didn’t work out too well for him.
Where he differs from the Blair copybook is his insistence that his successful candidates should only serve a single term. Whittam Smith sees this as a way of avoiding corruption, but the main purpose of re-election is accountability. What accountability will we have over MPs who plan to vanish after five years? At one stage in his speech, Whittam Smith said that he was sure that his one term MPs would have no problems seeking future employment. I agree, but most likely in the same jobs all too many MPs find themselves doing: consultancy, lobbying and public affairs. How many will spend the last few months in office behaving like taxi cabs Stephen Byers and Patricia Hewitt? And how many will find themselves in the same position as Louise Mensch, bored of the role and walking after just a couple of years?
None of this remotely resembles anything which you can call democracy. When unaccountable “experts” take over a country we call them technocrats. It’s the last throw of the die for a failed state. Is the UK a failed state? It is certainly failing but I don’t see us having exhausted all other policies first.
What we need in the UK is almost the exact opposite of what Andreas Whittam Smith is proposing: greater accountability of parliament and a return of the battle of ideas. Neither are easy to achieve within a system which is as jury rigged to favour the status quo as ours, but even if it has as much a chance of success as the Whittam Smith plan, it is certainly a more worthy prize (which isn’t to say we should be as excited by adventurism and simply stumbling along in the way that he intends to proceed). By contrast, no good can come from a project which ultimately has nothing more to offer than the technocracy of modern politics without even the veneer of idealism.
I’ve always been a supporter of Remembrance Sunday and have never held much truck with this white poppy nonsense that has always seemed more like a pose than a genuinely ethical position. This is because, for me at least, the day has always represented a reflection on the awfulness of war and the sacrifice that everyone pays – be they soldier, conscientious objector or civilian – when it sweeps across the world. It’s a act of solidarity, and walking around with a white poppy has always seemed, intentional or not, like flicking a v-sign at anyone who wishes to participate in a collective national experience. But I didn’t wear a poppy this year (although I did stand for the two minute silence despite not thinking I would).
There are two main reasons for this. The first is my shock and disgust last month at learning that Sir John Kiszely, the then President of the Royal British Legion, had been caught on camera offering to lobby government ministers at “boring” remembrance events on behalf of one of his prospective clients as a lobbyist (in this case a fake company pretending to be attempting to sell the UK government military drone aircraft). He swiftly resigned and no one at any stage suggested that the Royal British Legion in any way condoned his actions, but what does it say about the organisation that such a man was free to rise to their most senior and prominent position? Either way, I don’t think this scandal received anything like the level of attention that it deserved.
The second is this discussion about marking the centenary of the First World War, which appears to be big on history, looking backwards and even producing a kind of theme park version of the war, complete with poppy fields and token football matches, all of which looks suspiciously like a celebration. After 2012, I’ve truly had enough of all this bread and circus business and am weary of the prospect of turning such an important occasion into yet another backslapping jamboree.
As we approach the centenary, the key question we need to ask is what the purpose of remembrance is once the generation that made that sacrifice are all dead? This is universally true in the case of the first world war and increasingly so in the case of the second. Walking through Kings Cross station yesterday, I was struck at how they’d got Barbara Windsor to be the “voice” of the poppy appeal – she was 8 at the end of WW2, and far more associated with the swinging sixties. However well intentioned, having someone like that simply lacks the resonance of, say, Thora Hird.
Over the course of my life, the TV coverage of Remembrance Sunday has shifted from pictures of a dwindling parade of war veterans to pictures of a bunch of politicians doing their best to look solemn. We seem to be sleepwalking on with an annual ceremony which no longer has the same meaning, and yet there is no attempt to take a comprehensive look at how we might make it matter for a new generation. What has happened instead is that an event that was supposed to mark a dreadful, world changing war, and which could conceivably be expanded to commemorate its depressing sequel 20 years later, has come to be used to mark the low and steady hum of military conflicts which the UK as periodically get itself embroiled in in the 65 years since.
We talk about “sacrifice” but that word has acquired a different meaning over the years. 90 years ago, people were talking about the self-sacrifice of a few for the benefit of the many. But the sacrifice that is being made now looks suspiciously more like a more Old Testament style sacrifice: a blood letting to appease the Gods and maintain the status quo.
The 20th century World Wars weren’t about fighting for the status quo, regardless of the hopes of those in power at the time. Their great cost lead to a social revolution, and rightly so. Are we really that comfortable about investing its legacy into the hands of a few politicians and professional tinpot generals (I originally wrote “professional soldier” but none of the people I’m referring to have seen the front line in decades)? What was meant to be a communal event has been privatised by stealth.
Remembrance Sunday’s meditation of the dreadfulness of war has been replaced by a focus on its inevitability and relentlessness. I find that a troubling shift and an effective takeover by an industry and professional class with an interest in its continuance.
Would I be endorsing all this if I wore a poppy? No, but it’s enough to make me want to abstain for at least one year. I only hope that over the next couple of years we can, as a nation, get our heads together and subvert David Cameron’s Theme Park Centenary with something more sombre – perhaps the cancellation of the Trident replacement? That, at least, would mean something.
Travelling home from central London on a train yesterday, a bunch of eight of drunken louts got on our carriage and proceeded to spend the rest of the journey loudly singing racist and misogynist football chants (I say football, but in doing so will possibly now get loud complaints about how it has nothing to do with the culture that pervades football; it is and you know it). And aside from a tweet and the odd grimace, I did nothing.
I spent the rest of the journey home fantasising about how I should have stood up in the midst of their 5th rendition of “I’d rather be a Paki than a Yid”, announcing that I was a Jew and that they ought to be ashamed of themselves, but the fact is I didn’t (I’m not actually Jewish by the way, but I figured I could pull that off more easily than claiming to be from Pakistan). Nor did I do anything when a bunch of kids started abusing my bus driver earlier in the day for threatening to kick one of their friends off for not having the fare on his Oyster card (he actually gave in to them but still got heaped with abuse). Nor did I stick up for the passenger on my bus on Friday who told off a girl for putting her feet on the seat and got verbally assaulted by the girl and her two adult friends (possibly parents) for the rest of the journey.
I like to think I’m not a moral coward, but I’ve not exactly availed myself well recently. The worst I would have got from taking a stand in the bus incidents is a bit of abuse. In the case of the train incident, I’d have risked a physical beating but statistically speaking that probably wouldn’t have happened – and if it did, even then it would arguably have been worth it. At least that way there’d now be facing criminal charges.
Standing up to antisocial behaviour might not get you very far in the short term, but it probably doesn’t take very much to get these people to think twice in future. In the case of the girl and the group of boys, you could see the fear in their eyes – their displays of bravado were because they were terrified not because they were especially angry.
We’re probably just a few harsh words away from making our journeys on public transport a significantly better experience, and yet most of us do nothing. I sort of understand the psychological reasons for that, but ultimately I don’t really find that to be much of an excuse.
Ho hum. At least I don’t have to feel good about it. That’s at least something. Maybe next time.
The decision by DC comics to cancel its imprint Vertigo’s longest running title Hellblazer and replace it with a new comic featuring its main character John Constantine in a new in-continuity title may not seem like that much of a big deal to outsiders. For the comics’ fans however, this represents the end of an era and an uncertain future. Explaining why however, may get a bit confusing – for which I apologise in advance. Welcome to the mad, bad world of corporate comics.
John Constantine and Hellblazer were originally part of official DC continuity. Constantine was first created by Alan Moore as a supporting cast member of the horror comic Swamp Thing. A British occult investigator-cum-conman, Constantine acted as the Swamp Thing’s guide to the occult as he lead (and mislead) him through a series of adventures.
The Swamp Thing’s odyssey was itself part of a larger story which engulfed the whole of the DC Comics line. Constantine would use the Swamp Thing to perform a crucial war in a magical secret war taking place concurrently with the Crisis of Infinite Earths in 1986. The Crisis was DC’s rather futile and counterproductive attempt to clean up its continuity, replacing an infinite multiverse with a single universe in which all its characters interacted with each other.
Despite this integral role Constantine and the Swamp Thing played in the creation of this new world, within five years they would spin out of it to form a continuity of their own in 1993. This was ostensibly for commercial reasons. Both Swamp Thing and Hellblazer, together with a number of other titles (all of which, at the time, were written by Brits), were enough of a critical and commercial success to lead DC to publish a new imprint Vertigo. All the initial titles published by Vertigo moved from the DC universe to their own separate continuity. Initially, all these titles were tied together, even having their own crossover event at one stage.
Vertigo wobbled significantly during its initial period however, with most of its titles struggling to find an audience. Hellblazer was the only of Vertigo’s launch titles to survive for more than three years (admittedly, in the case of the hugely successful Sandman, this was due to the author choosing to end the series rather than anything else). The idea of a “Vertigoverse” fell quickly out of favour, and Hellblazer spent the remainder of its run existing in (mostly) splendid isolation.
So far, so – reasonably – straightforward. Things got a little more complicated in 2011 however with the reappearance of both Swamp Thing and John Constantine in DC continuity – despite Hellblazer remaining in publication. Of course, this was not technically the same continuity as the one the two characters left in 1993, with the universe having been rebooted in both 2005 and 2008 (and also 1991, but that’s another story). Indeed, the continuity they returned to was not even a universe any more, but a multiverse, with it having by then been established that there were now 52 separate worlds.
Both these characters kicked their heels around in the official continuity for a few months until DC decided to reboot their titles once again, this time calling it the New 52 (because there are to be 52 ongoing monthly titles in publication at any one time, not because there are 52 worlds). In this reboot, Swamp Thing has once again been given his own title (alongside fellow Vertigo alumnus Animal Man), while Constantine joined a title called the Justice League Dark (sort of an occult version of the Justice League America). It is this character who is about to get his own solo series.
You might ask “isn’t the new Constantine just the same character as the old Hellblazer character?” No is the answer, because while DC continuity has followed the standard superhero convention of having its characters age only very slowly, if at all (New 52 continuity has actually seen all the main characters get younger), since Hellblazer moved to Vertigo, that John Constantine has aged in real time. That John Constantine is an ageing ex-punk about to turn 60. The New 52 John Constantine is a still a jack the lad in his early 30s who can probably only just remember Britpop. Constantine’s slow march to docility is a main theme in the latter Hellblazer stories; in the New 52 Constantine is probably younger than most of his readers.
So what do I make of all this? I’m in two minds. I think there is an argument that after 300 issues and 25 years Hellblazer has run its course. It has slipped into repeating itself on numerous occasions now. Furthermore, while ageing a character over several decades is interesting and something we rarely see in comics, Constantine differs from Judge Dredd (who has aged in real time over 35 years) in two fundamental respects. Firstly, the comic has had a number of typically very good but different writers, each of whom have brought with them their own ideas, themes and supporting cast. While John Constantine’s own personality has been fairly consistent, pretty much everything else has been thrown up in the air every few years.
Connected to that is the fact that nothing really changes in Constantine’s world. They hit the big reset button every few years. While one of the overarching themes of the series is that actions have consequences, you don’t see Constantine really deal with the consequences of his actions 20-30 years ago, which might as well be ancient history as far as the title is concerned, because everything has to get wrapped up in 2-5 year story arcs. In that respect the title’s continuity has been a real straitjacket. Contrast that with Dredd where John Wagner regularly revisits a storyline from decades in the past, and can irrecoverably change the world as a consequence.
So in principle, I have nothing against giving John Constantine a reboot, any more than I have for any other character. Whether this is the right reboot however is another matter; without wanting to get into the topic of the New 52 more generally, the John Constantine we’ve seen in Justice League Dark thus far has been fairly fun but unremarkable. He lacks the weight and groundedness that his past incarnation had in abundance.
It’s also interesting to note that this switch comes at a time when there are rumours of a Justice League Dark film directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Constantine has of course been in a film before, in a film which cast Keanu Reeves as a black haired resident of Los Angeles (as opposed to a blond Londoner). It shouldn’t have worked, and was certainly not a critical or commercial success, but I have to admit to enjoying it for reasons that go beyond my Tilda Swinton obsession.
My guess is that DC have decided that if the film does come off, they want to present the world with a single, simplified vision of the character, rather than two versions at different ages and with wildly divergent back stories. Of course this is dumb: they aren’t about to stop publishing the collected editions of Hellblazer, so anyone visiting a book shop will still be confronted by two versions. But it is how the corporate mindset works.
So this is a bit sad, but does point to the character getting wider recognition; and if that means more people reading Hellblazer at its best then that’s something. I just hope it doesn’t mean we’ll never get to revisit the old John Constantine again or that it will prevent other, potentially fascinating interpretations of the character.
I’m sure I have nothing to say here that will prove especially interesting or insightful, but I thought I should stick my two pennorth in nonetheless. I wasn’t entirely overwhelmed by Obamamania in 2008, but I’ll admit I was excited and stayed up to watch the results. This time, not so much.
I am pleased and relieved that he won, but it has felt somewhat that this has more to do with the fact that the other guy lost. While there have been a number of positive things to come out of Obama’s presidency, not least Obamacare, on foreign policy he has been a real disappointment.
The cynical view of US politics is that the two main parties are so closely aligned that it doesn’t matter who gets in. I don’t agree with that, but it is certainly true that for years the Democratic party pursued a triangulation strategy which made it hard to argue with. Obama’s success is not so much in his ability to push forward an authentic left wing and liberal agenda (despite his trenchant critics’ claims) but in opening up space on the left. He might not have moved quickly enough, in some areas he has merely inched forward, but there seems a greater prospect of a genuinely progressive US administration emerging eventually thanks to his ability to push the envelope.
The fact that he hasn’t managed to go as far as his base would like is due in no small part to the ability of his opponents. For a brief moment, the Tea Party – backed by its billionaire donors and media allies – looked like a real threat. It did succeed in driving the Obama administration almost to a standstill. And while Romney himself is a moderate, he was forced into taking a massive shift to the right in order to win the Republican nomination.
I have to admit that my big fear for this election was that, while I never rated Romney’s chances (who comes across as a Republican Gore or Kerry straight out of the Drew Western copybook on what you don’t want your candidate to look like), I worried that the wingnuts would be successful in getting the US political centre ground to make a massive shift to the right. Superficially, that fear now looks unfounded, with some of the most vile Republican candidates now defeated and a number of states even voting in support of gay marriage.
Despite the result on Tueaday however, it is still too soon to judge. Abortion and same sex marriage are matters for state legislatures (and ultimately the supreme court) not the federal congress. The US is a big country, and issues like abortion appear to have taken a step backwards in a number of states in recent years. As a nation, the US has never looked more divided and the traditional post election appeals for bipartisanship are liable to fall on even more deaf ears than they have in the past.
It is a country in a deep period of change both in terms of its status and its demographics. Hopefully the superficial failure of the right this week will dampen the enthusiasm in the UK and elsewhere for conservatives there to embrace a similar red fanged approach to “compassionate” conservativism, and hopefully their chances of running the country are looking more bleak than ever. But if you think they are going to give up without a fight, or fail to retain a foothold for a good while yet, you are sadly mistaken. I just hope that the Bill Clinton days of appeasement are now long gone, and that the Republican party has learned a salutary lesson.
This was meant to be Monday’s blog post, but I’ve had a really busy week – and ended up making this blog somewhat longer than I’d originally intended. Oops! Looks like I’ll be writing two a day for the next few days to catch up.
My colleagues-cum-friends Emily and John are also doing NaBloPoMo this year. Yesterday, both of them wrote about their experience of roleplaying and story games and so today I thought I’d respond to some of the points they make. You can read their articles here and here respectively (John has actually written a follow up, but I’ve deliberately not read it yet as I wanted to get this article finished).
(As an aside, it is noteworthy that up until now I’ve rarely mentioned my interest in RPGs on this blog, even going so far as to set up a separate Tumblr to write about it. I’ve often wondered why, given that I’m quite happy to write about my other geeky obsessions here. Perhaps it’s because, at its best, roleplaying is the most intimate thing you can do with a group of people with your clothes on – and like all forms of intimacy it feels deeply personal. That, and the whole devil worship, sad sack thing – basically it’s all Tom Hanks’ fault.)
John and Emily have widely differing experiences of RPGs. John has been a hardcore gamer for 10 years, playing several different games on a weekly basis. He’s also deeply involved in the LARP scene. Emily’s first experience of RPGs was just over a year ago. Aside from an abortive game I ran using the Savage Worlds system and the Slaine background (and another game currently in limbo which I started organising but haven’t actually started), her gaming experience is currently limited to Fiasco.
My experience is different again. I’ve pretty much literally been playing RPGs since before John was born. I know this because the Warlock of Firetop Mountain celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this year and John is turning 30 at the end of this month. As a teenager I played a lot of games and even helped to set up a gaming club. I got out of the habit at university but began again when I returned to London in 1998 and kept it up when I moved to Leeds in 2000-2. Since returning to London in 2004, I’ve had the odd game here and there, but the last year or so has been the most intensive period of roleplaying for a decade – which is pretty much the whole time John has been playing.
So it was that when I got excited that Mark Rein·Hagen, the creator of two of John’s favourite games Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, had not only reemerged after years of disappearance but was actually promoting a new game on Kickstarter, John was unimpressed because Rein·Hagen was some remote figure who had little to do with the game he had got into. Similarly, while I feel that the relaunch of Vampire, now resubtitled The Requiem, was a welcome, get back to basics, step, for John it represented trashing the game he knew and loved.
I differ from both John and Emily in one other significant respect in that while their gaming experience has mostly been (in Emily’s case exclusively) as players, my gaming experience has predominantly been as a referee/games master/storyteller (all games have different terms for the role but in layman’s terms this is the person who moderates and facilitates the game and plays all the secondary, non-player characters).
The difference in experience between GM and player is tremendous. John tells me he has tried being a GM in the past but didn’t enjoy it. I by contrast have tended to be a GM not simply because I tended to be the only one willing to do it, but because if I’m honest, I got a kick out of it and it suited my temperament better. At its best, it is a real blast running a game in which the players are all deeply committed and essentially wallowing in a sandpit of your creation. I’ve seen a lot of writing about the games master as world builder and as a player, but one of the enjoyable aspects of the role I find is as spectator, suppressing your ego while watching the players perform in front of you and jerk on cue when you pull the strings (I feel a maniacal laugh should be inserted here).
I don’t mind admitting that one of the things I’ve noticed since I started playing Fiasco (which I won’t go into detail about here but you can read my previous article about it here) is that I tend to play more passive characters, happy to leave the dramatic heavy lifting to others. In that respect, I’ve been lucky to find a group of players who are more than happy to do so, but it is a bad habit I need to get myself out of.
This all neatly segues into the the debate over “traditional” RPGs and indie story games. Of course, if this was 20 years ago, John’s preferred mode of gaming would be regarded as pretty radical and cutting edge (I certainly remember the waves Vampire made when it first came out), but by traditional I mean a game which has a pretty meaty ruleset which focuses on detailed statistics defining each character and how well they can “do” things (I believe the vogue term is “crunchy”), an expansive and ever growing list of sourcebooks (or “fluff”), and, of course, a games master to keep it all in check. Not all “indie” games do away with the game master but typically they have a much simpler ruleset, a focus on story and relationships and encourage much greater collaboration between the players in terms of world building – in preference over big chunky sourcebooks which basically tell you how the world works.
Fiasco takes it about as far as it goes, having as it does just two statistics for players to keep track of (the number of black and white dice they have been rewarded respectively), no GM, and a mechanism that assumes you will create a whole new setting – and pretty much wreck it – in each game. There are no ongoing, 10 year Fiasco campaigns whereas for most traditional games that is regarded as all but the default – something which I’ll come onto.
John and Emily are split across this divide. John’s view of Fiasco et al is that “I like them as an occasional thing, but they’re not something I’d want to do every week… they’re more about creating an overall story that’s interesting, rather than individual character’s influence on the story/world.” Emily, by contrast, writes about her experience of Fiasco and trad roleplaying thus: “Taking out the gamemasters and limiting the number of scenes is a real advantage… My first impressions of role play games was that they requires hours of commitment, character development where learning how to fight required homework… Appealing to my somewhat scatty attention span, the great thing about Fiasco is its length and flexibility… The game doesn’t go the way you expect or is tricky to bringing the different story threads. But like any good game [it] has replayability and the scope to build on of what you’ve learnt.”
On balance, my own position is probably closer to Emily’s than John’s. I really could play Fiasco every week – the only problem being I wouldn’t be able to fit in any other gaming. I’ve never had a bad Fiasco experience. As Emily said, adding the special zombies add on to the parliament playset didn’t work especially well, but everyone still seemed to enjoy themselves. On the other hand, our previous Fiasco game was sublime. Using the Camp Death playset, which draws its inspiration from slasher films such as Friday the 13th and Halloween, the game we played was a wonderful blend of homage and inverted tropes, in which the slasher was also the scream queen and the real villains were just as colourful. We managed to hit all the right beats in all the right places – it wasn’t just a fun game, it was a film I fervently want to see (to only a slightly lesser extent my first Fiasco experience was also pretty awesome, and you can read about it here).
In short, Fiasco has completely opened my eyes to the possibilities of story gaming in a way I didn’t think was possible. The Fiasco games I’ve played are the first where the rules have served the story rather than the other way round.
But I wouldn’t want to go too far and claim that our Fiasco experience is somehow superior to John’s Exalted one. I truly envy John and his years of rich gaming experiences. It’s something I’ve hankered for myself for many years but never quite managed to find it – probably because I’ve tended to insist on being a GM, despite a lack of application, rather than a player in someone else’s game. And I couldn’t do it now, again because the level of commitment it would involve would have to come at the expense of other interests.
Equally, despite my love of Fiasco, it has it’s limitations. The mechanism is such that it only really tells one type of story: the type of story that ends in, well, a fiasco (to put it politely). I love Coen Brothers films, but that doesn’t mean I would want to watch them exclusively. So, is there a happy medium between Fiasco and more traditional gaming? Something which allows for more collaborative play, simpler rules and a focus on story but which also encourages greater depth than the frankly superficial Fiasco?
The short answer is I don’t know, but am optimistic. The next on my list of games I am determined to encourage, cajole and if need be bludgeon my friends into playing is Monsterhearts. Unlike Fiasco, this game has a somewhat more specific setting – teenage horror both figuratively and literally. Inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and films like Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body and (pfft) the Twilight Saga, the players each play a teenager with supernatural powers, be it a werewolf, vampire, ghost or something more obscure.
Intriguingly (at least for me), the game very much has a queer agenda. Straight characters are encouraged to go gay, male characters are encouraged to explore their femininity, dominant characters are encouraged to go sub… this is a game about exploring sexual identities – as we all do as teenagers.
The characters have statistics and, significantly, the game is overseen by a GM (or rather “Master of Ceremonies”). But in all other respects it is closer in spirit to Fiasco than a traditional RPG. In favour of extensive preparation by the GM, the Monsterhearts rule book suggests the “MC” deliberately avoids preparing much in advance at all in favour of “staying feral” and letting the players take the lead. And while the rules system is rather more complex than Fiasco, it’s pretty simple as rules sets go – with the focus on social interaction rather than combat. For the Emily’s of this world who lack the patience to play ongoing open ended campaigns, this game is designed to tell an overall story over the course of around half a dozen sessions – a fairly happy compromise. Further “seasons” are possible after that, but they provide a useful point for both jumping off and getting on board – and indeed finishing to move onto other things.
With Monsterhearts, the game master facilitates the players’ game; all too often with traditional RPGs, it’s the other way around. A growing number of indie games have adopted a similar approach (I’m also keen to try Mortal Coil and Monsterhearts itself is based on Apocalypse World). The question is, can you get rid of the GM altogether? Joe Prince certainly thinks so, and argues the case in this article on Geek Native. Personally, I think that’s a step too far. There is certainly a place for GM-less games like Fiasco and I suspect designers have many more amazing and ingenious GM-less to come up with. But in terms of building a larger, cohesive narrative over several sessions of play, I’m yet to be convinced you can get rid of the role altogether.
The real issue is not whether GM-less games are better or not but that traditional RPGs tend to encourage a type of GM which only a tiny minority can ever hope to aspire to. My RPG experience, and I’m sure I’m far from unique, is this: I started gaming at 8 with a game called Runequest. I didn’t really understand the rules or what GMing entailed, made it up as I went along and had a blast. As I got older I realised we were playing the game wrong and discovered others. I spent the next decade collecting games, playing by the rules and trying to get back to that original, rawly creative experience – but while I had some great times, that magic was lost. My mistake was to think that if I played by the rules, I’d find that magic. In fact the rules were stopping me.
Most RPG rule books like to emphasise how hard it is to GM and how much preparation you’ll have to do. This not only puts most people off, it encourages a very narrow view of how you can play the game. And while most RPG publishers are pretty amateur in terms of outlook (if not income), the simple fact of the matter is that if they encourage that style of play, they’re encouraging a model which puts pressure on wannabe GMs to buy every sourcebook and handbook they can get their hands on. So it is the RPG “industry” survives, but the cost is that the hobby remains niche and impenetrable for the vast majority of people.
How about, instead of making preparation heavy games the norm, RPG publishers focus on developing their own gateway games where the rules are simple and the role of player and GM is as interchangeable as possible? Then, if people want to take it further, one option would be to move onto more complicated modes of play? To be fair on some of the bigger publishers, there is now a focus on producing simple introductory games. The introductory 4th edition rulebook of Dungeons and Dragons is written like a Fighting Fantasy game book in which you learn the rules as you play (and the book comes in a box which closely resembles the classic “red box” Basic Dungeons and Dragons set which my generation grew up with). Even then however, the publishers steer you pretty ruthlessly towards a style of play in which the GM does all the heavy lifting and has all the control.
There’s nothing really to stop people from playing D&D et al in a more collaborative manner, but that would challenge convention and – perhaps more significantly – encourage people to simply make it up as they go along rather than use endless sourcebooks as a crutch.
You can’t blame the publishers for keeping the hobby in its ghetto entirely though however. In my experience, there are few people more reactionary and conservative than gamers. One of my friends told me that when he tried more collaborative approaches in the past, he got complaints from players accusing him of “attempting to get them to do his job for him”. And there are parallels with the comics industry as well, which is stuffed with people who are determined to ensure that the medium is confused with a genre (superheroes) to as great an extent as possible.
I can’t help but feel that this is all holding the RPG industry back though and, again as with comics, preventing it from connecting with a latent mainstream audience that would lap up some of the material on offer if only it knew it existed. I also suspect the industry at large is missing the zeitgeist here; in the 21st century we seem to be inexorably shifting towards a blurring between medium producer and consumer, whether it is via blogs, YouTube and social media (I should acknowledge at this point that major RPG publishers do now regularly experiment with more extensive, collaborative playtesting and open source, but only within their existing base rather than attempting to reach out more widely).
My suspicion is that there are a lot of people out there who would get a lot out of roleplaying, who simply aren’t aware of the breadth of different types of games out there. Somehow, the gaming industry needs to do more to connect with those people.
Note the first: this post contains minor spoilers regarding a current 2000AD storyline.
Note the second: back in August, I attempted to write a personal A-Z of the comic strip Judge Dredd during the run up to the release of the new Dredd 3D film. I got fairly far in but due to work pressures (and getting slightly bored of it, if truth be told), I failed to get it all done before the film came out. So one of the tasks I’m setting myself during NaBloPoMo is to get it finished off. If you’d like to read my other efforts in this series, see the index page.
The Wally Squad is nickname of the undercover subdivision of the Justice Department. As any Brit can guess, the word “wally” is a pejorative term to mean a foolish person and thus implies the respect and reverence that judges treat the people they serve. Once again, this is an example of how the strip rather liberally inserts British slang into the future East Coast of North America (see my previous comment on U-fronts).
First appearing in an eponymous story oddly inserted between “A Case for Treatment” and “City of the Damned”  (progs 390-392, 1984), artist Brett Ewins  drew the Wally Squad with great aplomb, drawing on the portrayal of the Mega Citizenry by Mick McMahon and Ron Smith, as well as the punk psychodelia of Ewins’s occasional collaborator Brendan McCarthy who went on to design the Judda.
Ever since that story, the Wally Squad have been a mainstay of the Dredd strip – the only real surprise being why it took them seven years from the creation of the strip to introduce them. Probably the most prominent Wally Squad character to appear in the Dredd strip itself was Guthrie, a deep cover agent who goes rogue in “The Pit” due to the deep corruption in the Sector House at which he is based.
But it is in the various spin-offs of Judge Dredd that the Wally Squad has really come alive. At the heart of this is the inherent problem the Judge Dredd Megazine has faced over the years in establishing sustainable and popular spin-offs of the series. Most Dredd spin-offs fit into one of two categories: judges from other countries or cities (Armitage, Shimura, Pan-African Judges, Missionary Man) or other Mega City One judges (Anderson, Hershey). There are only so many cop stories you can write, or shoulder pads you can draw, before it all starts to feel a bit samey. The advantage of Wally Squad spin-offs is that they not only allow artists to draw more original looking protagonists, but they allow writers to explore a rather more grey area of law enforcement where the nature of the cops’ work means that they are unable to live the monastic life that street judges must adopt. All in all, those grey areas can lead to some solid storytelling.
The first Wally Squad strip appeared almost by accident. In order to afford commissioning Sin City and Dark Knight Returns writer-artist Frank Miller to draw a cover for the 10 year anniversary issue of the Judge Dredd Megazine, then editor Andy Diggle wrote a 10 page script for free. The Frank Miller cover was, ahem, not very good and ended up not being used but the strip Diggle wrote, Lenny Zero (Meg 3.68, 2000), was a runaway success and would lead to Diggle finding a long time collaborator in artist Jock (see Vicious Imagery and 2000AD Covers Uncovered for more details). Lenny Zero has recently returned to 2000AD (“Zero’s 7″, 2012).
This was soon followed by The Simping Detective, originally written and drawn by Si Spurrier and Frazer Irving respectively. Jack Point, the Simping Detective in the title (yes, the name is a reference to the Dennis Potter TV drama with a similar name) is a deep cover judge who hides behind the persona of private detective who dresses like a clown. It manages to mix Mega City lunacy with a wry, ironic Chandler-esque narrative. In some ways it is the quintessential Si Spurrier strip, with his love of sick humour and overwrought puns.
Most recently we have Low Life which was originally created by Rob Williams and Henry Flint, although D’Israeli has been its exclusive artist over the last few years. Low Life, initially at least, focused on a team of Wally Squad judges but more recently has revolved around its most charismatic character Dirty Frank, who was originally modeled on Alan Moore.
Superficially, these three strips look rather similar. In the hands of their respective writers however, they are in fact quite different in tone and style. Lenny Zero has the look and feel of a rather groovy heist movie. The Simping Detective is pure comic noir. Low Life, perhaps the hardest to define, is much more absurdist (in the Simping Detective, Jack Point may be weird but the other characters are quite straight laced – in Low Life, everyone is distinctly odd).
Despite their differences, these strips (Lenny Zero excepted, at least thus far) have recently come together with Judge Dredd to form a rather unique crossover storyline. Completely untrumpeted, and initially starting as three completely different stories, the current storyline has Dredd investigating the disappearance of computer file which has major implications for both Jack Point and Dirty Frank. The high point so far was Prog 1807 when the three strips literally all flowed into each other.
Normally, crossovers in comics get announced in advance in huge neon letters, so it is a credit to the creators and editorial team that they opted to keep this little treat a secret. As surprises go, it is up there with the big reveal at the end of The Dead Man.
Nonetheless, at the time of writing the fate of the Wally Squad judges is undetermined. In many ways however, the Wally Squad typifies the genius of Dredd: taking a fairly common trope of cop shows and cinema and giving it a futuristic and cynical twist.
 It is clear from the script that the latter was meant to follow on from the former – but presumably they were having problems with the artists on Damned, as you can see from the wide range of different artists who worked on it.
 For more on Brett Ewins’ unfortunate life since his 2000AD days and recent incarceration, see here. I for one wish him well – his treatment by the police appears to be typically heavy-handed and appalling.
The main reason I’ve allowed this blog to fall into misuse over the past couple of years is that I stopped writing about politics. While my original concept behind this blog was always to write in the intersection between politics and geekery, at some point – specifically in May 2010 – I decided I could no longer really afford to vent my undiluted spleen about the state of the nation and had to start being a little more diplomatic and careful about what I say.
The problem is, I’m a little all-or-nothing and being careful quickly lead to me saying nothing at all. I figured it would get easier once the spotlight was off after the AV referendum; it didn’t. I figured I could be much less careful after I’d quit the party and thus my views became instantly irrelevant in the media’s eyes, but at that point I acquired a new problem: how can I write about politics without it either coming across as or actually being score settling following my resignation? I exchanged one set of anxieties for another and sclerosis quickly settled in once again.
And so, here I am, writing a blog about politics – which once again is really all about me. This is my problem in a nutshell. All I can do is plead for sympathy from you, dear reader: after 16 years, quitting a political party really is a big deal. It’s a wrench. It is no surprise at all that nearly eight months on I’m still a little defined by it. But at least you now know why it is that I’d much rather be writing about comics or, if you’ve seen my tumblr, even more esoteric things.
My article in September about quitting the Liberal Democrats had an interesting response. It was surprisingly positive, but I found it strange how so many people told me that they either loved or hated it but didn’t really engage with the issues at all. I had several Clegg loyalists tell me how much they loved it; curious given that I was not exactly nice about him. My favourite response was from a friend who told me that he agreed with “35% of it”. It was a strangely precise figure, yet he wouldn’t expand on what he actually meant by it.
Most of the negative feedback I did get from it, other than the abuse, centred around the accusation that I was being cynical and didn’t have anything constructive to say. I think the latter was fair comment and pretty much sums up where I am politically at the moment, but there is a difference between cynicism and nihilism. I don’t think I am cynical – indeed my decision to quit the party was about as far from cynical as it was possible to get. I took the decision to walk away rather that to stay on the inside and just feel bitter about things. The fact that I don’t have a fully worked out alternative to what the Lib Dems, and for that matter, politics more widely, doesn’t make me a cynic – it just makes me average.
But yes, I am a political nihilist at the moment, and as someone used to having a cause I can assure you that’s far more of a problem for me than it is for anybody else. All I have is a few scraps of ideas about what a possible way forward might look like, and they can be summed up as follows:
- Triangulation is a doomed strategy for any political party – doubly so if you aren’t either Labour or the Conservatives. The people leading the political debate right now are the outliers who are working outside of the political mainstream but are successfully shifting the centre-ground to their direction simply by being well organised and disciplined. Right now, sadly, for the most part that means the weird axis of economic libertarians and social authoritarians who are exemplified by the Tea Party in the US but operate in different forms around the world. They aren’t succeeding electorally, but they don’t really need to. Everyone else is dancing to their tune.
- Capitalism as we know it needs to die. Not trade, not commerce, but the system which commodifies and seeks to squeeze wealth from everything from people to ideas and natural resources is utterly anathema in terms of what humanity needs to do to survive the next millennium. That means critically reassessing what we regard as capital and property and thus what we believe can and cannot be owned. I feel I’ve just used a load of meaningless words there, but it makes sense to me. In terms of specific examples this means a fundamental shift from income and sales taxes onto things like land value taxation, and a massive global crackdown on the drift widening intellectual property laws to mean that every aspect of our culture ultimately becomes owned by a corporation out to make a quick buck.
- It’s too bloody easy to blame the politicians. Our politico-economic system and media have infantilised the public, but as information technology spreads so does the onus on individuals to accept responsibility for the health of their democracy and culture. We have the tools to create a much better world, yet most people just sit there like good little consumers waiting for someone else to do it for them, and consider passively shrugging about it to be the mature response for when they don’t.
Beyond that? I’m lost. I have no idea about how you take those notions and turn them into something tangible which has any chance of being implemented. But I’m thinking about it – a lot. And perhaps I should write about it here a bit more often.
For many people this is bad news; it simply means more bad films cashing in on the goodwill of a dwindling generation of fans who are destined to be disappointed. Sometimes I think Star Wars fans have very selective memories, choosing to forget not only that Star Wars all but invented film related merchandising as we now understand it, but that they lapped it up as kids as well. Would either Empire or Jedi had been anything like as successful as the were if their prospective fan bases hadn’t spent the previous three years tirelessly playing with their action figures and dreaming about what might happen in the next sequel? I doubt it.
The prequels failed for several reasons: bad scripts, an over reliance on CGI, poor directing and poor continuity with episodes 4-6. Most of the problems can be laid at George Lucas’ own door. If he had recognised his limits and handed directorial duties to other people – precisely as he had done with both Empire and Jedi – we would almost certainly have ended up with better films. Both iterations of the Clone Wars animated series have been both superior to the prequels and felt more Star Wars-y and it cannot be a coincidence that Lucas has been for the most part at arm’s length from them.
But there’s a more fundamental problem, and that is that they were prequels. Prequels are inherently problematic because you always know how they’re going to end – and what might make for satisfying backstory will often fail to work as drama itself. So, for instance, Padme always was a doomed character and making her more interesting would have been problematic in terms of tying into the later episodes (which isn’t to say that pretty much anyone could have done a better job with her than Lucas managed). To make things worse, the episodic format meant that they were stuck with telling a linear story that couldn’t really reference anything which we knew was to come later (see the Godfather Part 2 for an example of how a less restricted prequel could work – I understand there’s a TV edit somewhere with the story of both Godfather films put in chronological order; it sounds like an utterly awful idea).
And finally, you have the problem that, more than 30 years ago, Lucas chose rather arbitrarily to make A New Hope episode 4. The series could have sustained one prequel – two at a push – but it is pretty hard to deny that there simply wasn’t enough story to sustain three films (this is one of the reasons why I personally feel that Attack of the Clones is a worse film than Phantom Menace, but I won’t get into that right now).
In short, the two biggest handicaps of episodes 1-3 – the fact they were prequels and George Lucas himself – will not apply to episodes 7-9. It is hard to imagine how they could in any way be worse. And we should also be a little fair here: I would regard Attack of the Clones at its worst to be light years (never mind parsecs) ahead of a film like the latest Total Recall or any of the Twilight films. The Harry Potter films at their best fall far short of episodes 4-6. So the idea that making new Star Wars films will lead to a new dark age of commercial cinema is simple nonsense.
So, with that out of the way, what are my hopes for episodes 7-9? Well, for starters, I’m hoping they’ll be a continuation of episodes 1-6, not just a sequel. For me that means two things: it has to be about this whole “balance of the force” thing, and it has to feature Anakin/Vader as a significant character. However tempting it might be to simply ignore episodes 1-3, ultimately the final three films have to reflect on the prequels’ ideas – especially if they are to be in keeping with Lucas’s idea about repeating motifs and themes throughout the films as if they form an overall symphony (I might not like Lucas’s execution, but I’ve always thought he had some great ideas behind his films).
I’m not terribly familiar with the Star Wars New Republic expanded universe beyond the Dark Empire comics – and since there’s so much of it (and since no one will buy me the encyclopaedias – I probably never will). Generally though, I think they should avoid adapting anything which might have been written before. I also think they ought to resist the temptation of featuring the cast of episodes 4-6 too heavily, leaving them instead as mentor figures. The focus should instead be on a new generation of Skywalkers/Solos.
I said it should reflect on the balance of the force. This prophecy was discussed a lot in episode 1 but was barely touched on in the later films, except (and my memory may be flakey here), when it is announced that the prophecy is clearly wrong because Anakin has turned to the dark side. But it has long been speculated that, in fact, the prophecy was true. Anakin brings balance in two ways: firstly in bringing down the Old Republic, which has become infantilised by its over reliance on the Jedi (and here, Ryan Britt’s recent article about illiteracy is particularly instructive) and secondly by being instrumental in bringing down the Emperor. So we’ve seen him redress the balance, but what we haven’t yet seen is him restore some modicum of equilibrium.
The agenda of episodes 7-9 therefore must surely be to recount how that equilibrium was eventually achieved. Possibly this means getting to the roots of the Sith-Jedi conflict (and even how the Mandalorians fit into that).
As for Anakin himself, both 3 film cycles thus far have focused on his life as a Jedi Knight and as a Sith Lord. Both cycles end on him transforming into something new. The Revenge of the Sith states at the end that the blue glowing “life after death” form that we see both Obi Wan, Yoda and Anakin eventually become is a relatively new innovation discovered by Qui Gon Jinn, but this is thrown in as an almost throwaway line. For me, the films have to ultimately be about how Anakin in this new incarnation somehow plays a decisive role in restoring this final equilibrium.
Episode 9 therefore needs to be a real resolution in the way that episode 6 never was. That isn’t to say there can’t be any Star Wars films after that – indeed, by all accounts it is Disney’s plan to keep churning out Star Wars films after that for as long as they keep making money. But these films can be set in other times or focus on other characters.
Anyway, that’s how I see the films developing. I may well find myself disappointed, but I’ve never really understood why Star Wars has been treated as a a sacrosanct film series which should have a finite number of films, while it seems fine for other franchises to continue to churn out sequels endlessly. If this move to Disney means slightly less reverence, the franchise can only benefit.
UPDATE: I also wrote this for Unlock Democracy today, about the parlous state of democracy in the Old Republic: Unlock the Galaxy.
It’s November, and I’ve decided to set myself two tasks. The first is to take part in Movember, partly to raise money for prostate cancer research but mainly because I reckon I can kick my colleagues’ fellow moustache growing attempts thanks to my swarthy Mediterranean genes.
But the other thing I’m planning to do is National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo). Or should that be International Blog Posting Month (InNaBloPoMo)? For that matter, I’m not clear if this is even a thing; the only reference to it I can find is the BlogHer portal in the US and they haven’t updated their Twitter feed for a year.
No matter. I’ve seen people doing this in the past and my colleagues Emily and John are planning to do the same – so this can be our thing.
I briefly flirted with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo before realising I was doomed to failure. I may have a novel in me, but extracting it isn’t going to happen right now (I’m also a little ambivalent about the whole concept – surely we should be encouraging aspiring writers to perfect the art of the short story first before getting them to inflict their doorstop sized magnum opi on us? Discuss).
In lieu of there being any clearly established set of NaBloPoMo rules as far as I can tell, I’m going to set myself a few. Unlike those brave NaNoWriMo souls, I’m not planning to bash out 1,700 words on this blog every day (although I’ve been known to write far more in a single posting). My only rules are that each posting must be an article and not simply a couple of sentences, and that I do a piece every day (if I skip a day for any reason, I’ll have to catch up – which could get challenging if I leave it for more than a day). I’m going to aim for articles to be around 300-500 words, with the occasional longer piece.
In the not so distant past, doing this would not have seemed like much of a challenge – I’ve certainly had periods where I wrote far more than that. Right now, it seems quite a task: I didn’t even manage to finish my A-Z of Dredd in the summer (although I plan to use this as a chance to rectify that) – it’s very true that writing is like a muscle; the more you exercise it the easier it becomes. Any suggestions about what to write on would be greatly appreciated.
In the meantime, please contribute to my Movember‘s efforts. Thank you!