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Archive for the ‘Geeky meltdown’ Category

The 23rd century used to be a very different place. I am old enough to remember when the Star Trek films were very new and rather exciting additions to the world created by the original TV show, a world which was enthusiastically studied and extrapolated upon by a generation of fans throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. At that point, Star Trek really belonged to its fans, and they happily seized upon every little point of lore and casual reference as they expanded the universe of the show.

The lack of any prospect of new Trek gave this project a freedom to innovate and go beyond the limitations of the TV show – not necessarily by dragging it into a mature readers ghetto of gratuitous sexual content and other graphic material (although there was certainly an element of this), but by treating the show like the serious SF it had always aspired to be. In the 1990s, certainly, Star Trek became the McDonald’s of science fiction, omni-present, reliable, safe, samey. But some of the early books from the 1980s are much more like the real stuff: they’re SF set in the Star Trek universe, rather than simply TV tie-in books.

Time moves on, of course, and while some of these books have lasted reasonably well, others have fallen foul of subsequent developments in the TV and movie canon. Looking at these books now is an undeniably odd experience – they often still have that authentic Trek feel to them, despite the fact that they are frequently totally at odds with the ‘real’ history of Trek.

This is particularly noticeable with The Final Reflection, a novel by John M Ford. This book was originally published in 1984, the same year that Star Trek III was released. One of the noteworthy things about Star Trek III is the fact that it’s the first movie that deals in-depth with the Klingons as we have come to know them today – although their presentation in the film is not exactly in depth, the ‘standard’ Klingon make-up debuts here, along with the familiar Bird-of-Prey ship design, and of course Marc Okrand’s Klingon language. Other writers, most significantly Ronald Moore, would take these things as a starting point and go on to develop the Klingon culture in much more detail.

The thing is, however, that John M Ford was there first, creating his own vision of how Klingon society functioned, and doing so with the approach of a fan rather than a professional. The makers of Star Trek did not explain the radical difference in appearance between the Klingons of the original TV show and those in later versions until the mid 2000s, but fans of the show had come up with their own explanation decades earlier – not being as adverse to genetic manipulation as their Federation rivals, the Klingons had re-engineered themselves into a number of different sub-species, some of which (the lumpy-headed ones) were more pureblooded, while the fusions (the ones more closely resembling human actors in face paint) had been created for the purposes of interaction with other species. This and many other things form the fabric of the story of The Final Reflection.

The story itself is partly a coming-of-age novel, partly a political thriller. There is a very brief frame story set aboard the Enterprise some time after the end of the TV show, but most of the novel takes the form of a story set nearly half a century earlier (TV characters are referred to or implied to appear). Krenn, an orphaned young Klingon, finds himself adopted into the house of a senior strategist, joins the Imperial Navy, distinguishes himself in border skirmishes with the Romulans, and soon rises to become captain of his own ship, no mean feat given the omnipresence of both rivals and Klingon Security.

This leads to him being given a singular mission: to travel to Earth and collect Emanuel Tagore, the first ambassador from the Federation to the Klingon homeworld. To say there are political tensions and factional disagreements on both sides regarding this is an understatement. Is Krenn’s mission even intended to succeed? Could it just be intended to provide a pretext for the war which some in both the Federation and the Klingon Empire seem to desperately want?

The Final Reflection is written with considerable elegance and skill, Ford skating through some potentially tricky areas (involved descriptions of space battles) with impressive deftness. I would have to say that the different sections of the story don’t quite tie together to form a thematically satisfying whole – the early chapters’ desire to provide an insider’s perspective on life in the Klingon Empire don’t really have a direct connection to the more involved plot of the rest of the book.

On the other hand, I imagine that many people reading this book will just be wanting to read about Klingons being Klingons, and Ford does not disappoint, expanding on the (actually really tiny amount of) information from the original series and The Motion Picture to create a rich and coherent culture. Ford’s Klingons have their own naming conventions, their own set of idioms (the seat of Klingon emotions is apparently the liver, not the heart), and their own pop icons – apparently the most popular entertainment franchise in the Empire is the suspiciously familiar-sounding Battlecruiser Vengeance, a long-running series about the exploits of a Navy cruiser and its senior officers. Central to all of this is the notion of ‘the Perpetual Game’, the idea – fundamental to their culture – that all Klingons are involved in an unending struggle for success and glory. The Final Reflection takes its name for a term from klin zha, essentially Klingon chess, which is a motif throughout the book (needless to say, rules for playing klin zha – though presumably not the most prestigious version using live pieces – are available on the Internet).

Most of this is created out of whole cloth, but somehow it all feels ‘right’ and convincing – for original series Klingons, anyway. Reading the book does remind you of just how much of what we learned about the Klingons in those initial episodes has been quietly erased from history – you can argue that references to Klingon slave camps are just hearsay based on faulty intelligence (in one episode a Klingon character seems equally convinced that the Federation practices slavery too), but we do see Klingons using personal torture devices on-screen, and the brutal methods employed by Kor in Errand of Mercy seem to be institutional, not just an example of one psychopath in a position of power. Certainly The Final Reflection acknowledges the existence of slave races within the Empire, and the paranoid, vicious nature of Klingon society (Vulcans travelling within the Empire, for instance, must consent to having the telepathic centres of their brains excised). One of the few criticisms I’d make of Ford’s world-building is that his Klingons do come across as, well, rather more Romanesque than the Romulans themselves, with their adoptions and slave-holdings and gladiatorial games. It’s difficult to think of an alternative set of cultural reference points, though.

Fascinating and thorough as this mostly is, virtually none of it meshes with the details of Klingon culture established since, mainly in Berman-era Trek (let’s not even get started on the Klingons of Discovery). The canon Klingons are almost wholly different – the inconsistencies in their appearance have an alternative explanation, and their biology is hugely different too – Ford’s Klingons mature and age more rapidly than humans, with sixty counting as a very ripe old age, whereas one of the biologically peculiar things about canon Klingons is that while they do grow to adulthood at a highly accelerated rate, compared to humans anyway (Worf’s son Alexander is conceived in 2365 and only ten years later is serving as weapons officer on a warship), they remain healthy and capable for a very long time (Kang, Kor, and Koloth are all senior officers in the late 2260s and are still around and active, albeit a bit elderly, a full century later).

The same goes for the Klingon language developed by Ford (he names the Klingon homeworld Klinzhai, by the way), which seems to be completely different from the entity unleashed upon the world by Marc Okrand. Okrandian Klingon translates the word ’empire’ as wo’, for example, whereas Fordian Klingon opts for komerex or kemerex (literally ‘that which lives and expands‘, thus providing another window into the Klingon mindset). It says something about the lasting impact of Ford’s book on the perception of the Klingons amongst a certain type of truly dedicated fan that even today you can find websites for a Klingon fan group calling itself Khemerex Klinzhai.

The thing about Ford’s Klingons is that they are subtle and nuanced and oddly ambiguous in a way which canon Klingons aren’t, really: canon Klingon society is basically just a red-lit room with a bunch of guys shouting ‘Honourrrrrrrr!’ and head-butting each other – easy to get a handle on for an hour-long TV show, I suppose, but probably less interesting as the protagonists of a genuine novel.

But then again, as I say, the influence of this book has been huge and enduring, although not always very obvious. One of Krenn’s more unexpected traits is his great fondness for fruit juice of different types, which is apparently not unusual amongst Klingons – this must surely be the source for Worf’s well-known love of prune juice. And, by one of those strange coincidences, literally hours after finishing The Final Reflection, I came across The Hidden Universe Travel Guide to the Klingon Empire, a – for want of a better word – spoof travel handbook for anyone planning a holiday in Klingon space. It’s all very much in line with Berman-era canon, but odd little things jump out at you – the Klingon star is named Klinzhai, for instance. The guidebook recommends visiting a klin zha parlour in the First City of Qo’noS. There is a box-out describing the enduring appeal of the Battlecruiser Vengeance franchise, and an advert for a Vengeance theme park ride. And page 94 is dedicated to a sidebar entitled ‘Appreciating The Final Reflection’, which tells of how a Federation anthropologist named J.M. Ford wrote his famous novel while living undercover in the Empire, basing it on historical events.

Not many three-decade-old tie-in novels are still well-regarded enough to get this sort of shout-out, especially ones which have no claim whatsoever to even apocryphal canonicity. Yet it seems entirely appropriate in this case – you can’t honestly claim that John M Ford wrote the book on Klingons – at least, not any more. But he did write a book on Klingons, and one which is still influential and entertaining today. Practically essential reading for the serious student of all things Klingon; a fine SF novel for everyone else.

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Every time someone on TV changes their socks these days, it’s billed as a life-changing event, but unless you’re a struggling sock merchant who happens to be endorsed by someone hugely influential it’s almost certainly a lie. Not many people honestly and truly had their existences transformed by the revival of The X Files at the beginning of the year: like many people, I suspect, the main feeling it left me with was of something which was rather better in concept than in execution.

Still, a (very) mixed bag though the new episodes were, it got me back into the habit of watching the show, and when the revival shuffled off I got my hands on a complete boxed set of the original series (well, everything except the second movie) and settled down to relive a particular slice of my youth. As usual, I rather underestimated how long this would take: about eight and a half months, more or less, albeit with a bit of a detour near the end to watch The Lone Gunmen spin-off again.

A big show, then: nine seasons, two-hundred-plus episodes, a couple of spin-offs (does Millennium really count? Hmmm) and movies. I’m pretty sure that even the most dedicated fan of the series would happily admit that it outstayed its welcome, the question is by how much.

Having seen it all again fairly recently, for me The X Files falls reasonably neatly into four or five different phases, some of which are of considerably higher quality than others. The first year of the show, for instance, is quite a different animal from anything that follows: in the absence of a significant on-going metaplot, every episode buzzes with a genuine feeling of untapped possibilities – I remember watching this in 1994 and 95 and finding the sense that almost anything could happen almost addictive. At the time, I recall interviews with Chris Carter where he admitted that he didn’t expect the show to be renewed, and certainly not a big hit, hence the downbeat conclusion to the first season with Mulder and Scully separated and the X Files shut down (the first of many times).

The X Files

Then we roll into what I suppose we must call The X Files’ imperial phase, where it dominated the media landscape and pop culture generally (I have to say I still prefer the first season). I would say this covers seasons two to five (although this a bit of a drop-off in quality towards the end), and is probably the version of The X Files most people remember – the mixture of ongoing meta-plot episodes with the Syndicate and the Smoking Man, with monster-of-the-week stories, including the startling innovation of comedy episodes (the best ones from the pen of Darin Morgan). At this point you can watch the episodes about the Syndicate and still convince yourself that the writers have a clue as to where it’s all going, while the standalones haven’t yet started to repeat themselves too obviously.

One of the interesting factoids I came across in the course of this re-watch was the revelation that the original plan was to conclude the TV show at the end of season five (the name of five’s final episode, The End, is a bit of a clue to this) and switch over to doing a movie every few years. Part of me wonders if this wouldn’t perhaps have been a better idea than what we got, because while there are some good episodes in seasons six and seven – I’m particularly fond of the weirder stories like Rain King, X-Cops, and Hollywood AD – there is a general sense of the show starting to flail about and consume itself. The original Syndicate storyline wraps up in the middle of six, and what follows it is frankly somewhat baffling and lacking in focus or a sense of anyone knowing what it’s leading up to (if anything).

Still, it is at least still recognisably The X Files, which is not necessarily true of seasons eight and nine. It’s hard to see the decision to continue in the absence of David Duchovny as being motivated by anything other than reluctance to conclude a profitable series. You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Robert Patrick, a very able actor landed with the hospital pass to end all hospital passes as Mulder’s replacement, the dogged Doggett. Doggett’s habitual aura of bafflement and frustration could well be coming from Patrick himself, as any chance of him being able to establish himself in the show is perpetually undercut by episodes and characters banging on about Mulder all the time. Classic elements of the older episodes, such as the Bounty Hunters and the Oil, still crop up, but what’s actually going on is anybody’s guess.

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It gets even more baffling with season nine, with the introduction of the bemusing plotline about the Super-Soldiers and Scully’s wonder-baby, not to mention Annabeth Gish as Monica Reyes. Looking at some of the episodes with Doggett and Reyes, you can almost see how the show could have worked and been as vital and interesting as ever with this new duo – although it would obviously have lacked the role-reversal element (intuitive man, rational woman) which was arguably one of the things that made the early seasons so compelling. The thing is, though, that the show is never about this new duo, for Scully and the memory of Mulder are always wafting about the place, and it all feels slightly out-of-whack, looking back over its shoulder.

That said, the decision to axe the show seems to have had the effect of concentrating the minds of everyone involved: the news apparently came during the production of the not-bad standalone episode Scary Monsters, and everything that follows – the series’ equivalent of putting the chairs on the tables and turning off the lights – at least seems to have a point to it. While I would be the first to say that the series does not wrap itself up in the most elegant of manners, there are some genuinely moving moments in these final episodes – the deaths of the Lone Gunmen, Scully giving her child up for adoption. The final standalone, Sunlight Days, is arguably a much more satisfying episode than the actual finale, in the way it plays with the audience’s knowledge that it will very soon be over. ‘The X Files could go on forever,’ smiles Scully, marking the point at which you know the episode will not have the unambiguously happy ending it seems to be heading for, while Doggett’s happy comment that he ‘finally seem[s] to be getting the hang of this job’ also feels knowing and poignant. The fact that the episode is informed by people’s love for classic TV series of years gone by is also surely an acknowledgement that The X Files itself will soon just be a memory.

The finale itself is, I fear to say, hopelessly clunky and contrived, with Mulder on trial in what’s basically a kangaroo court, accused of the impossible murder of a man who was actually an alien (a premise seemingly pinched from an episode of The Invaders), and having to prove the existence of the alien conspiracy within the government in order to save his own skin. It attempts to recap the entirety of the meta-plot from the preceding nine seasons in a matter of minutes, and does so in a manner unlikely to satisfy anyone. One can only assume they were mainly intent on setting up future movies, for nothing is resolved, nothing really concluded: it ends with the X Files shut down (yet again), Mulder and Scully on the run, and Doggett and Reyes zooming off to an undisclosed location with looks of bafflement and frustration on their faces.

Which just leaves one to wonder why the subsequent iterations of the series – the 2008 movie and the revived series this year – haven’t really picked up on the new ideas seeded into the finale. In the final episode, Mulder learns that an alien invasion is scheduled for December 2012, but this never gets mentioned again: unless you count the incipient pandemic from the final episode of the revival.

One consequence of watching the main series again is that it has made me like the revival much less, in the way that it cheerfully attempts to ape the style of the show’s imperial phase while disregarding later developments for both the story and characters (all right, so there was the odd mention of young William, but even so) – I might even get slightly cross about the way they reveal Monica Reyes has been a sell-out for the Cancer Man all these years. Will there be future instalments? The jury is still out, but if they do go for another movie or TV series (and it would wonderful to see a show as smart and subversive as peak-period X Files cast its eye over Trump’s America), they must surely think about giving us some kind of resolution of the main plotline. On the other hand, if the series teaches us anything, it’s that the search for the truth is often a lot more fun than actually finding the truth. That, and that workplace romances aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

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A few years ago now I wrote a long and slightly smug thing (no pun intended) about the enormous influence of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness on the development of SF and horror throughout the rest and the 20th century and beyond – or, to put it another way, this is a story which people have ripped off a lot. It occurs to me now that, retentively comprehensive as I tried to be, I still managed to miss an instance of insidious-alien-threat-discovered-buried-in-the-arctic-ice, namely Regeneration, a 2003 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (yeah, I know the show was just called Enterprise at the time, but come on).

I’ve been watching more Trek than usual recently, but I found I’ve been sticking mainly to Next Gen and DS9. The perception certainly is that Voyager and Enterprise mark the point at which the franchise started to run out of ideas and disappeared into a creatively unrewarding fannish grotto. I’m pretty sure I haven’t watched an episode of Voyager in nearly 15 years; I hadn’t watched any Enterprise in over ten, until I decided to give Regeneration another look.

The story starts promisingly enough, with a science team at the North Pole uncovering wreckage of a mysterious alien ship. One of the things about this story is that the discerning viewer is way ahead of all the characters pretty much throughout, but there is still a bit of a frisson when the scientists discover a Borg drone frozen in the ice. (These are the Borg who travelled back in time from the 24th century to the 21st in the movie First Contact, and who’ve been frozen for a hundred years at this point. Does this seem impenetrably convoluted in terms of back-story? If you think so, then I can’t honestly bring myself to argue with you.)

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Well, upon being dug up and defrosted, the Borg initially do what comes naturally to them and assimilate the science team, but then, in a somewhat surprising but plot-enabling move, steal the research team’s starship (a research team at the North Pole have their own starship? Really…?) and flee the solar system. As luck and narrative demands would have it, their course takes them into the Enterprise‘s area, and Captain Archer and his plucky crew are ordered to intercept…

Now, am I going to restrict myself just to talking about this episode or use it to try and figure out if Enterprise as a whole is any good or not? Hmmm. I have to say that my impression is that this is a well-regarded example of a superior Enterprise episode, which – if true – leads me to confidently say that as far as the best TV versions of Trek go, Enterprise is somewhere in the top six.

It all starts very promisingly with a nicely ominous sense of foreboding as the innocent scientists completely underestimate the potential Borg threat, and some long scenes of them examining the mysterious cyborgs and trying to work out just what the hell they are (not a bad way of making the Borg seem fresh again, I suppose). But the problem is that this distorts the story rather, with Archer and the gang not even making an appearance until after the first commercial break and a rather frantic pace afterwards. The plot is almost entirely procedural from this point on. There is, I suppose, the glimmering of a character arc where Archer’s initial desire to rescue the assimilated scientists is replaced by the realisation that the only good Borg is a prejudicially-terminated one, and another one where jolly Dr Phlox gets partially assimilated and has a bit of a gaze into the abyss, but neither of these is what you’d call developed or honestly resolves itself in a properly developed fashion.

And it’s hard not to shake the idea that this story was essentially hobbled from its conception by the requirement not to muck up the established continuity too much. This is primarily achieved in classic Enterprise style by the cunning ploy of the Borg not telling anyone what their name is (what, does this even apply to Phlox, who was briefly a member of the Borg collective consciousness?). But the need to keep the Borg mysterious and unknown limits the ability of the characters to interact with them in a meaningful way.

You could also argue that Regeneration also has the big problem of nearly every other Borg story from the 1990s onward, which is what you do with the Borg in the first place. Their reputation near the top of the pile as Trek antagonists rests on their first couple of appearances, in which they are pretty much the definition of an unstoppable menace. Part of the reason why the Borg are scary, particularly on their debut, is that the regular characters are themselves scared of them. Picard is clearly desperate at the end of the episode, openly admitting to being frightened, and his fear is partly because he has come to understand the nature of the Borg. Archer, on the other hand, never really seems that fussed about what the Borg exactly are and his attitude to them is more a sort of non-descript stoicism.

I suppose treating the Borg as the explicitly terrifying juggernaut of extinction that they started off as was never an option in a story set in the 22nd century and thus required to keep the characters in the dark is to their nature. Again, this kind of defies logic and common sense, as, given the ease with which Borg cubes have been depicted destroying large swathes of Starfleet, one would expect even a small infestation to go through a significantly less-advanced planet like a particularly salty dose of salts, and having the Borg simply run away into deep space rather than attempting to assimilate Earth is a bit out of character for them. But the needs of the story outweigh the needs of consistent characterisation (and isn’t that the definition of melodrama?).

So it’s hard not to be forced to the conclusion that this episode is mainly a result of the dog-whistle appeal of the Borg when it comes to the fanbase, which makes it rather unfortunate that these are the same fans most inclined to be nitpicky about Trek continuity. Shall we do this here…? Oh, I suppose not, suffice to say that there are, to put it mildly, differing indications as to when the Borg and the Federation and/or humanity first became aware each other, and when the Borg first started operating near Federation space, and Regeneration’s worst crime in this department is only to add to the muddle by pushing the date of their first encounter back in time by about 140 years.

Doing something with the Borg in Enterprise was probably a fairly obvious idea, but obvious ideas are not always necessarily good ones. Possibly if the story had been differently structured, with the Enterprise central to the story throughout and some of the Thing references trimmed, it might have meant there was more of an engaging story and that character arc for Archer might actually have worked. But I’m not entirely sure – the most engaging part of the story-as-broadcast is Phlox’s plight as the Borg slowly assimilate him, and yet even this is resolved in the most perfunctory manner, as he comes up with a cure with the greatest of ease. The story neither grips nor rewards, it just sort of trundles past. I must confess this is the first time I’ve watched an episode of Enterprise with my critical subroutines engaged since the pilot, but I have to say I still remember it being better than this. I’m just not sure I’m willing to make the time investment involved in finding out for sure.

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Well, I’ve been a bit poorly recently, and – as you would – I took to my bed with Netflix and ended up watching a bunch of William Shatner movies. Not the Trek ones from the 80s and early 90s, as you might expect, but rather more diverse fare. A friend of mine recommended I try to get hold of White Comanche, a 1968 paella western in which the great man plays good-and-evil twins, but for some inexplicable reason Netflix has decided not to lay out on the rights to this movie (and it’s not on YouTube either). But you can’t have everything.

What Netflix does have is a couple of documentaries Shat (as I fondly think of him) wrote and directed, The Captains (from 2011) and Chaos on the Bridge (from 2015). You may be able to discern a bit of a common theme here, for it appears that Shat, like his castmates, has come to terms with the fact that – regardless of his achievements as a singer, novelist, horse breeder, and guest murderer on Columbo – it is Star Trek for which he will inevitably be remembered.

There is perhaps a certain oddity to Chaos on the Bridge, in that it largely concerns an iteration of Star Trek with which Shatner himself was not directly involved: the formative years of Star Trek: The Next Generation (henceforth Next Gen, to save my aching fingers). This was the first of the comeback TV shows, starting in 1987, also known to the general population as ‘the one with that bald English guy’.

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As all but Next Gen‘s most rabid fans will admit, the first couple of seasons are tough viewing (‘almost unwatchable’ in the words of Ronald Moore, a later participant in the franchise and also the creator of New BSG and Outlander). I myself stuck with it when it eventually turned up on the BBC in 1990 because, well, it was Star Trek, wasn’t it, and there wasn’t any other new SF being made at the time. (I do think the total lack of any competition was a significant factor in Next Gen‘s survival and eventual success. Given that TV is hardly short of SF and fantasy shows nowadays, expectations for Star Trek: Discovery – coming next year – will obviously be significantly higher, and that show may well be in for a rough ride on all fronts.)

Watching Chaos on the Bridge I was kind of struck by the odd notion that while Star Trek may have been created by Gene Roddenberry, its ultimate success was in many ways despite him. A possibly heretical idea in Trekkie circles, but if you look at the dodgiest, stodgiest, least sexy bits of Trek made in Roddenberry’s lifetime, many of them occurred when the Great Bird was at his most hands-on as a producer. There’s an argument to be made that by the time of the late 80s, Roddenberry was more interested in being recognised as a humanist visionary than in actually making good TV, but there are enough horror stories in circulation about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans on Next Gen to suggest that there was a definitely clay-like texture to the great man’s feet.

In terms of actual Roddenberry-bashing, the documentary’s contributors are relatively circumspect – no sign of the ‘goddamned lying, hypocritical, deceiving, thieving, son of a bitch… bullying bastard’ which was writer David Gerrold’s considered opinion in a recent book on Trek‘s production history. Most of the opprobrium is instead directed at the shadowy figure of one Leonard Maizlish, Roddenberry’s lawyer, who took up residence on the show and actually started rewriting the scripts despite having zero experience (this contributed significantly to Dorothy Fontana’s decision to leave the show). Interviewees fondly recall imagining pushing Maizlish out of second storey windows, and so on.

The decision just to cover the early, troubled years of the production is a curious one, mainly because it deprives the narrative of a proper conclusion. Doing the full seven years, over the course of which Next Gen found its identity as a much more consistent and impressive show, would have made for a rather different (and longer) film. It couldn’t just be that Shat only wanted to shine a light on a troubled version of Star Trek in which he had no personal involvement or responsibility? Surely not. Anyway, the film has enough life and inventiveness about it to make up for the fact that there’s probably not much here its target audience doesn’t already know about.

And so to The Captains, an arguably poorly-titled documentary from 2011 in which Shat tracks down his successors as lead actors on Trek and interviews them mano a mano (or mano a womano in the case of Kate Mulgrew from Voyager) about their lives and experiences. I say ‘poorly-titled’ as it is not really about the captains as a group, or indeed as individuals, but mainly creates a suitable venue for everyone involved to talk about Shat, whether directly or indirectly. Shat himself (note to self: awkward phrasing, think about possible alternative) is clearly in his element, and one is ineluctably reminded of Nick Meyer’s assessment of him as ‘all vanity, no ego’.

Various lesser stars from the Trek constellation make appearances – Nana Visitor, Robert Picardo, Jonathan Frakes – along with a fairly substantial interview with Christopher Plummer, there because a) he was the Shakespeare-loving Klingon villain of Star Trek VI and b) he was a mate of Shat’s way back. But the most arresting stuff is the set-piece interviews with the other actors. (The Netflix version of the film, by the way, appears to have been edited down a bit, removing the unauthorised footage of Leonard Nimoy which was the cause of the final estrangement between him and Shatner.)

Shat buzzes around between the different coasts of the US and even over to Oxford to talk to Sir Patrick (apparently ignoring the Keep Off The Grass signs at Christchurch College in one shocking sequence), and it’s fair to say that some of these discussions are more interesting than others. Patrick Stewart is always good value, but some of the other chats can get a bit earnest and are really memorable only for the little stunts Shat contrives: hiding in a cardboard box while waiting for Kate Mulgrew, singing show-tunes on horseback with Scott Bakula, arm-wrestling Chris Pine on the sidewalk outside Paramount Studios, and so on. Most of them are pretty much as you’d expect, with the real exception being Avery Brooks, whose consciousness still appears to be spending some of its time in the Gamma Quadrant. There’s some singing here, too, and at one point Shat asks Brooks if he’s ever thought about life after death, with the one-time Emissary responding by playing the piano and laughing to himself. It is quite magnetic to watch, somehow.

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In a way you can’t help thinking that this would have been a more revealing film if it had been directed by somebody else. Some of the most interesting footage is of Shat appearing at a Trek convention in Vegas and interacting with the fans – ‘a rapturous reception’ and ‘eating out of the palm of his hand’ don’t begin to do justice to how this goes down – and very briefly we see a glimpse of a Shatner who isn’t a tongue-in-cheek self-promoter, but someone rather more thoughtful and human. But then it inevitably occurs to one that we’re just seeing this because Shat let it go past in the editing process, so is it the ‘real’ him?

In the end this is probably more of interest to Shat-watchers than Trekkies generally, but such is its occasional weirdness I can imagine it finding something of an audience amongst people who enjoy watching really, really odd vanity projects, as well. What I suppose it comes down to, ultimately, is that there are two kinds of people in the world – people who can’t get enough of William Shatner and all his works, and the sane ones. The former group at least are well served here.

 

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At the cinema the other day I finally came across the trailer for Star Trek Beyond (I have been routinely referring to it as Star Trek Up The Khyber or Star Trek Beyond A Joke for some time now, so you may get some sense as to the modesty of my expectations), in all its Beastie Boys-playing, motorcycle-jumping, everyone in constant jeopardy-being absurdity, and even though I knew what to expect I felt a tiny sliver of my soul shrivel up and turn to ashes at the sight of it. Just another sign of the terrible pop cultural malaise of our times, if you ask me: Star Trek doesn’t really feel like Star Trek any more, James Bond doesn’t feel like James Bond, Star Wars doesn’t feel like Star Wars (actually, it isn’t, as friends are bored of hearing me say), and (most especially) Doctor Who doesn’t feel like Doctor Who. (It has been put to me that I am far too much of a purist in these matters. To which my response is, obviously: no I’m not.)

Oh well, if nothing else, it reminded me of the fact that – as I have said in the past – while Star Trek may not own my heart, it has a perfectly valid claim to one of my lungs. No-one has the capacity to hate Star Trek more than its own fans, in the same way that no-one is more critical of a poorly-performing sports team than its own supporters – the emotions and the dedication are more intense in every way. Anthropologically, I’m sure that the major fandoms are functionally very similar to the great religions – they all have their articles of faith, their canons, their subdivisions, splinter groups, and heresies. It’s all a question of devotion.

And it’s articulated quite well in Set Phasers to Stun: 50 Years of Star Trek, a look at the franchise in its entirety by Marcus Berkmann, writer, journalist, and semi-professional Fifteen-to-One contestant. (Berkmann’s credentials as one of the faithful are already known to those of us who remember his stint as a columnist for DWB twenty years ago, although I notice this doesn’t appear in his author biog.) With (as the title suggests) Trek‘s golden anniversary looming, I would predict a lot of this sort of thing before the end of the year (my own contribution is in ATB Publishing’s Outside In Boldly Goes – not sure whether this counts as full disclosure, a cheap plug, or both), and Berkmann has made the quite sensible decision to pitch his book at a general audience, presumably reasoning that the dedicated fanbase will likely pick it up anyway, while a more specialist tome would struggle to attract casual readers.

phasers

The result is, essentially, a narrative history and appreciation of Star Trek in all its many incarnations, starting with Gene Roddenberry deciding it would be a good idea to create his own new TV show, and concluding with CBS All Action deciding it would be a good idea to recreate someone else’s old TV show (Berkmann is generous in his assessment of Roddenberry’s role in the creation of the original series, but the sheer weight of circumstantial evidence does paint a picture of a rather unpleasant character). As mentioned, this is a book more for the general reader, and the narrative is paced to reflect that – so the genesis of the original series and its various travails (network indifference, behind-the-scenes tensions, Fred Freiberger) are dealt with in considerable detail, as are the origins of the early movies, but as the franchise continues the focus pulls out to present a more general view, with Voyager and Enterprise receiving only the most general of overviews. (Occasionally he goes off on a tangent and delivers a quick appreciation of Space: 1999, Galaxy Quest, or the new Battlestar Galactica, and these may in fact get more attention than either of the most recent shows.)

(To be fair to him, Berkmann does say some very complimentary things about Deep Space Nine, which to my mind is the crowning achievement of what I suppose we must currently call mid-period Trek, but he makes the reasonable point that it does mark the moment at which the franchise left the cultural mainstream and took up residence in the cult ghetto.)

And I have to say that it’s all rather winningly done, extremely readable, highly informative, and often very funny indeed. I am, as you may have guessed, fairly well-versed in matters of Trek, but this is such a thorough and comprehensive telling of much of the story that I still feel like I learned a lot: and Berkmann retells some of the old stories, such as the extraordinary shenanigans surrounding the writing of the script for Wrath of Khan, so well that it’s no chore to go through them again. Berkmann has a very engaging prose style, although the general tone of the book – glib, ironic, amused – may not be to everyone’s taste (yes, yes: pot-kettle interface approaching).

His analysis of the episodes, too, is quite interesting, although inevitably tastes vary: he is very critical of Who Mourns For Adonis? and The Omega Glory, two episodes I personally find I can watch over and over again without feeling much in the way of fatigue, although on the other hand we (mostly) agree as to what the greatest treasures of the Trek canon are. Some of his more general observations chime very strongly with me too, unfashionable though they may be – I was particularly tickled by his crack that if Voyager were to be made today, Tom Paris, the only white male human amongst the principal characters, ‘would probably only have one leg’.

One common occurence when dedicated fans find themselves writing about the object of their devotion for a general audience is that they seem to feel obliged to establish their credentials as a ‘regular person’ – ‘hey, I’m one of you, I don’t take this stuff too seriously’ (when it’s fairly clear that they really do). Hence, from my own bailiwick, the notorious ‘any old **** with an Equity card’ gag which took Mark Gatiss so firmly off the Christmas card lists of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. Things kick off in a similar vein here, with the author at pains to make it clear he’s not really a Trekkie himself (yeah, right), variously describing dedicated fans as ‘odd’ and ‘deranged’. Beyond this, Berkmann is really quite breathtakingly rude about certain of the Trek regulars – hilariously, but even so. ‘God knows what the food is like on Vulcan, but he appears to have eaten all of it,’ is his comment on Scotty/Jimmy Doohan putting on a fairly substantial amount of weight between Star Treks III and IV, while TNG should appeal to tree-lovers, we are told, because it features Jonathan Frakes, ‘who is about the same size and shape and apparently made of wood’.

In the end, though, the overall tone of the book is deeply appreciative, even loving. (When it comes things which are beloved in quite this way, even the mickey-taking is really a sign of love. Even the hate is a sign of love.) And I find myself to be quite on the same page as Berkmann when it comes to the current state of Star Trek, under the grim hand of JJ Abrams and his associates. Never mind what he says of the Freiberger episodes: Into Darkness is a ‘travesty’ that ‘MAKES NO SENSE’ (Berkmann’s caps). Again and again, this chimes with me, I know these feelings – Doctor Who stories like Meglos and Timelash are horrific duffers, but I hope and expect to watch them a few more times before I am absorbed into the great Matrix in the sky, whereas you would have to pay me a very substantial amount of money to watch most of Peter Capaldi’s episodes again.

Which leads me to wonder about the state of Star Trek today. Looking back on it, you could argue that the franchise underwent a surprisingly swift resurrection – rather less than five years passed between the end of Enterprise and the dawn of the Age of Abrams – but it’s whether you consider the recent movies to be a glorious reinvention of the concept or just cack-handed attempts to milk a well-known brand name made by people with no essential understanding of what makes great Star Trek so special. Were Star Trek‘s wilderness years surprisingly brief, or are we still, actually, in the middle of them? I suspect the incoming TV series, which it saddens me to realise I am probably quite unlikely to see, will help to provide some resolution. In the meantime, the series remains beloved, and I would say deservedly so, and Set Phasers to Stun does an excellent job of reminding you why this should be. A book as engaging, informative, and funny as this is a credit to any TV or film series.

 

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Say what you like about the new movie, and I see that many people have, but if nothing else it has certainly succeeded in putting Star Wars back at centre-stage when it comes to popular culture: books, models, DVDs, toys, games, a veritable deluge of the stuff. Now, I feel I should make clear that whatever my attitude to the Disney films and JJ Abrams, my affection for Star Wars in general remains entirely undiminished, which is probably the main reason why I recently checked out Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPG system.

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It took a relatively long time for an official Star Wars RPG to come out – 1987 or thereabouts, with WEG’s fondly-remembered D6 system, which I of course bought, along with several of the supplements. I still have good memories of the simplicity of the basic system, which was a welcome step away from the more crunch-heavy percentile- and d20- based games I’d mainly been playing up to that point.

Later there was a d20 Star Wars game, which I steered clear of, partly because I wasn’t doing any gaming and partly because it looked a bit too much like D&D. (There may well have been even more Star Wars RPGs that passed me by completely: it’s not as though there was ever any shortage of demand for Star Wars games. I’ve seen homebrew supplements cooking up Star Wars-specific rules for lots of other systems.)

And so to the FFG system, which I am reluctant to call a game, singular, as the company have opted to release a triptych of Core Books, each dealing with a different aspect of adventuring in that galaxy far, far away. Edge of the Empire focuses on shady doings and underworld life on the fringes and in the dark underbelly of the Empire, with players most likely playing smugglers, bounty hunters, and other equally dubious characters. Age of Rebellion is the book for anyone wanting to play a member of the Rebel Alliance (the default setting for the game is around the time of Episode IV, though I suspect it’s easy enough to adapt for adventuring during the era of the Old Republic, the Clone Wars, or either of the post-Episode VI continuities) – pilots, diplomats, commandos, and so on. Finally, Force and Destiny is the Jedi-centric book, with players adopting the roles of survivors of Order 66 or other Force-sensitive individuals with a modicum of Jedi training.

The first potential brick to be slung in FFG’s direction is the decision to release the above as three hefty (and fairly expensive) 200+ page hardback books, with a fair degree of duplication of material within them, certainly as far as the core rules go. One wonders why they didn’t just produce a single book with just the game rules in it and then three setting-specific sourcebooks, and it’s hard not to conclude that the bottom line is ultimately the overriding concern. I can’t really imagine any group wanting to role-play in the Star Wars universe being entirely happy limiting themselves to playing just scoundrels, or rebels, or Jedi, so purchasing multiple core books is probably going to be a requirement for most groups wanting to run this game.

Another potential bone of contention is with the core rules themselves, which use a set of special proprietary dice. Now, to be fair, you don’t actually need to buy these dice: a conversion table for using standard D6s, D8s, D12s is provided (an electronic dice roller is also available on t’internet), but I suspect this would result in an extremely cumbersome gameplay experience until everyone got familiar with the table.

...hmmmm.

…hmmmm.

Set against this is the undeniable fact that FFG’s system is interesting and fun and potentially very creative for all concerned. The typical resolution mechanic of most RPGs is to roll either a d20, or d100, or some other dice pool, and attempt to beat a specific target number set by the GM. While many games incorporate the possibility of really good or really poor results (or ‘criticals’), this is still essentially a binary-based, succeed or fail, mechanic.

The FFG system is anything but binary. When carrying out an action check, you assemble a pool of ‘good’ dice based on your abilities, skills, and favourable conditions, and add to that ‘bad’ dice based on the difficulty of the task and any unfavourable conditions, and roll them all together. The various good dice generate positive results, called Success, Advantage, and Triumph, and the bad dice generate their opposites, Failure, Threat, and Despair. They key thing is that Success and Failure cancel each other out, as do Advantage and Threat, but your Success does not reduce your level of Threat, nor your Advantage your level of Failure.

As a result you can succeed in a task but still generate Threat against yourself, or fail and generate Advantage – it’s not a binary Yes/No system, but one with a huge range of possible Yes, And…/Yes/Yes, But…/No, But…/No/No, And… results.

How does this work? Well, let’s say I’m playing the game and I want my character to swing his lightsaber at an annoying stormtrooper. As a moderately well-trained Jedi, I get two proficiency dice and an ability die, and the trooper is taken somewhat by surprise (a situational effect) so my kind GM has granted me a Boost die to reflect this. On the other hand, the GM is adding two Difficulty dice as this is a standard close combat check. I roll the six dice and get…

Well, let’s say I roll 2 Successes, 1 Triumph, and 3 Threat (a Yes, But… result). The combined Successes and Triumph are enough to make this a solid hit against the trooper, doing more than enough damage to take him out (individual troopers are relatively puny, so only a single saber hit usually disposes of them). But, and this is something I can’t think of any other system incorporating, I still have those 3 Threat to resolve – I’ve taken out my enemy, but it’s left me at risk somehow, in a manner to be negotiated with the GM. Maybe I’ve left myself open to an attack from one of my opponent’s allies (granting them a Boost die on their next attack check), or the rigours of combat are wearing down my resolve (reducing my reserve of what are called ‘strain’ but are essentially kind of non-lethal hit points).

I’ve seen it suggested that there are essentially 18 possible results of any dice check in the FFG system, but even this seems to me to be ignoring the fact that the degree of Success, Advantage, etc, generated is also an issue. Generate enough Advantage and you can activate the special features of your weapon (using a lightsaber to sunder an opponent’s weapon, using the linked laser cannon on an X-wing to hit multiple times from one check, and so on), for instance.

sw-aor

It’s an innovative and appealing system but there is the expense involved in buying all the proprietary dice required, and it makes playing over a web platform like roll20 almost impossible unless you really know your stuff technically. Plus there is the complexity involved in bringing new players up to speed on the system – most people can grasp ‘roll a d20 and get 12 or more’ fairly swiftly, but the learning curve here would be rather longer and steeper. This is a shame, as any system based on Star Wars should be an ideal ‘gateway game’ to get new people into RPGs, especially right now. (To be fair, FFG have released a ‘beginner game’ for each core book, which apparently breaks the newbies in gently, but yet again they are open to the charge of simply padding out their profits – you need to buy the beginner box and the core book to play the full game.)

I suppose the rules are hackable into something more traditional using regular dice, but it would be an extensive hack and lose much of the charm and potential of the system – and if you were sufficiently unimpressed with the FFG system to do that, I suspect it would be simpler just to use the WEG rules (for instance).

Apart from the central resolution mechanic, the rest of the game seems like a fairly solid system, with perhaps a touch more crunch than I personally like in the rules that I use. Character creation is fairly straightforward – you choose a race, a career, and a specialisation for your character, and invest a number of starting experience points (XP) to bring them on a bit before the game starts.

Many of the obvious Star Wars alien races are covered in the different core books (Wookiees, Rodians, Mon Cal, Twi’Lek, Zabraks, and so on – no sign of Gungans or Ewoks so far, shockingly), along with a few rather more obscure ones, especially in the supplements (yes, you can play a Hutt, if you really want to). (Droids also count as a playable ‘race’ for game purproses.) As someone who would want his Star Wars RPG to actually resemble Star Wars (which is, after all, humanocentric), I’m not sure how I would head off the possibility of the entirely non-Human party, short of putting an outright ban on non-human Player Characters except by GM consent. Perhaps giving human PCs substantial bonus starting XP and well-played alien PCs bonus in-game XPs would be a possible solution, but here we’re drifting on to one of my personal bugbears when it comes to RPGs, so let’s move on.

Each core book provides half-a-dozen careers for characters – so Edge of the Empire characters can be bounty hunters or smugglers, for instance, Rebel characters can be aces or commandos, and Jedi can be guardians, sentinels, mystics, and so on. Each career is further broken down into three specialisations – so, for instance, a smuggler could be a pilot, a scoundrel or a thief. Each specialisation has a number of special abilities tied to it which can be purchased in-game, along with a set of skills. Fifty-four starting specialisations covers a lot of territory, with more available in the various supplements, so there’s no shortage of possible character types. Characters can belong to more than one specialisation, too, not necessarily from the same career (though this is more expensive) – so if you want to play a fallen Jedi Makashi duelist from Force and Destiny, turned underworld enforcer from Edge of the Empire (there’s a potentially terrifying melee combatant…), you can – GM permitting, as usual.

There is, inevitably, quite a lot of crunch to negotiate here, with the commensurate risk of the spectre of D&Dthink manifesting itself and endless discussions as to the best talent and career options ensuing, but I suppose this is all a question of play style, and discreet game-management by the GM should keep this sort of thing to a minimum. Overall, I would say number-crunching and rules are kept to reasonable levels, except perhaps in the section on equipment, which seem to assume every weapon and vehicle possessed by players is going to get heavily modified fairly quickly.

Rules for the Force are, inevitably, most detailed in the Force and Destiny books, but again they are not excessively complex and mesh well with the narrative/cinematic style of the game. If you are running a composite game, there’s the question of how to handle the tricky issue of a character’s relationship with the Dark Side – this is fairly central to Force and Destiny, as you’d expect, but the other core books skip over it.

sw-fad

In a similar way, each core book introduces a specific mechanic – Obligation for EotE (perhaps that pesky debt your character owes the local Hutt crimelord), Duty for AoR (the consequences of signing up with a military organisation), and Morality (one’s Light/Dark Side balance) for FaD. How to combine these in a game featuring multiple character types is left to the individual GM, but it’s my understanding that this mechanic also gets quietly dropped in many games. (I’m not entirely surprised that the FFG system often gets house-ruled, to be honest.)

Moving on from the actual system, the books themselves are extremely handsomely presented pieces of work, stuffed with lovely and evocative pieces of art, and equally evocative text pieces introducing parts of the Star Wars universe that people only familiar with the movies may not know that much about.

I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here and just take a moment to praise, and indeed marvel at, the consistency and coherence of the way the Star Wars universe has been presented in other media over the years. Given the rather ramshackle development of the fictional universes of most comic book companies, or that of Star Trek or Doctor Who, LFL’s devotion to incorporating as much as possible into their canon is – or was – hugely impressive. I picked up The Imperial Handbook recently (published this year), which in addition to being completely compatible and consistent with 27-year-old sources such as the old WEG Star Wars Sourcebook, also has a go at including things originally existing as slightly dubious models in the old Kenner toy line. The quantity and quality of detail is almost irresistibly convincing – to the point where you really feel the pain of those hard-core fans outraged by having many years of post-Episode VI ‘history’ – the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, the fall of Darth Caedus, and so on – obliterated to make way for the Disney incarnation of Star Wars.

In short, there’s a wealth of detailed setting material – places, people, races, history – freely available on sites like Wookiepedia, most of which can easily be interpreted in game terms for the FFG system. Added to the immense popularity of Star Wars in general, the result is an almost uniquely appealing setting for an RPG. Whether this is the ideal set of rules to exploit that is another question, but the system is an innovative and imaginative one, and one I’m looking forward to giving a proper try in the not too distant future.

 

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Those who know me even passingly well will be aware that the playing of games has been a significant element of my life for a very long time. This year in particular has been somewhat notable, as I’ve stuck with my usual regime of board, card, and computer games, but my long-standing involvement in tabletop wargaming has come to what feels like a very definite end, while I’ve spent more time on role-playing games than in any year I can recall.

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Having been out of RPGs in a serious way for the best part of two decades, one of the interesting changes in the hobby is the way that people have been giving serious thought as to what makes these games appealing and how best to approach running them as a referee/storyteller. So I thought I would offer a couple of small thoughts on this front, mainly to do with the massive influence of Dungeons & Dragons on the whole genre and how it affects play-style and attitudes.

As I’ve said before, when it comes to synonymity, Dungeons & Dragons is to role-playing game as Hoover is to vacuum cleaner – maybe even moreso, with the rise of Dyson and so on. I routinely refer to my ‘Saturday night game of D&D’ even though I don’t believe I’ve played any flavour of the game in 25 years. The reasons for this association are not exactly obscure – if D&D didn’t invent the genre, I’ve no idea what did, and it was certainly the game that made the biggest cultural splash back in the late 70s and early 80s.

So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise if we find the influence of D&D over RPGs generally to still be incredibly strong. It continues to be a massively popular game. How popular is it? Well, a friend started up an RPG club recently, which he almost-inevitably called ‘Dungeons and Dragons and other roleplaying’. He probably needn’t have bothered with the ‘other roleplaying’ as the majority of the respondees made it fairly clear they were only really interested in playing either 5th Edition D&D or Pathfinder (a game originally derived from the more complicated 3rd-and-a-Half Edition D&D ruleset). More objectively, nearly two-thirds of the games run on roll20 – the website which facilitates most of my current gaming, which is web-based and international – are of some variant of D&D, or a system closely derived from it.

And one gets the impression that even when veteran gamers say they want to play something other than D&D, and end up playing a different rules system, on some subconscious level they still think they’re playing it – or perhaps the subconscious assumption is that all RPGs are really like D&D when you actually get down to brass tacks. And I’m not sure this is always necessarily a good thing. Hopefully making people more aware of the implicit biases and assumptions of D&Dthink will help them shake them off, and lead to more interesting and varied gaming experiences.

Perhaps the single most defining and influential feature of the original D&D rules was that they developed out of tabletop wargaming (or ‘toy soldiers’ to the uninitiated). Commentators have observed that the perceived weaknesses in the original conception of D&D, many of which have filtered down to us today, arise from the fact that it was originally intended for each player to control a whole bunch of characters rather than just one, in something much more akin to a skirmish-style wargame.

To some extent that’s what D&D remains to this day – it is, at least, the most basic playstyle of the game. Players generate a team (traditionally ‘party’) of characters, who then wander about in tunnels usually killing everything they possibly can and looting the place of treasure and other good stuff. The rules were originally not much more than a combat system with rules for character advancement, and while recent editions have addressed things like character backgrounds and motivations, there’s not much mechanically in the rules that requires these to be enforced. The default setting of D&D is the dungeon-crawl rather than any kind of structured narrative, and the default role of the DM – in theory – is to impartially implement rules procedures.

I write this as someone who doesn’t play D&D, as mentioned above, so bear in mind I may be biased – but that kind of experience appeals to me less and less as time goes by. Perhaps this makes me more sensitive to apparent occurences of D&Dthink when I’m playing other games – but I do think this is a genuine phenomenon.

What kind of thing am I thinking about? Well, earlier this year I was trying to figure out what a game was (it was a slow day) – in short, what is it that a board game like Chess and a freeform RPG like Fiasco share, that we can call them both games? I couldn’t come up with anything solid, but it did occur to me that in Chess, one player wins – it has a defined victory condition. That’s also true of most tabletop wargames – games usually have winners and losers (and occasionally tied results).

D&Dred

Every D&D rulebook I have seen says that, in the game, everyone wins by having fun, and maybe they’ve meant it, but many of the D&D groups I’ve played with seem to have had the working assumption that everyone ‘wins’ by getting through to the end of the dungeon/adventure intact, having won every fight on the way (or at least run away from the big monsters successfully). And so ‘winning’ at D&D becomes primarily about being good at combat, both individually and as a team.

Individually, this takes the form of learning the rules backwards and coming up with the best choices, options, equipment and combos to make your character the baddest ass possible, regardless of all other considerations. Interesting characters are discarded in favour of optimised ones, and people spend hours cooking up absurd creations like half-Elf multi-classed sorcerer/monks, based solely on how their numbers stack up rather than any character- or story-based reason.

As a group, a similar thing happens – there’s a kind of Mission Impossible mentality, where every group has to have a fighter, a healer, a ‘face’ character, and so on. To be honest I have less of an issue with this, given the diverse group of comrades is such a trope of fiction from Lord of the Rings to The A-Team, but what I do find is that people still have the D&D team ‘roles’ in their head when thinking about groups of characters for other games.

I have seen D&Dthink in action quite a few times this year, in most of the games I have played. The main games have been Numenera and Mutants & Masterminds. Numenera is essentially the D&D experience re-skinned as a science-fantasy game, with a very simple and elegant ruleset which does not give extra attention or emphasis to combat as a means of conflict resolution. M&M is a fairly ‘crunchy’ game rules-wise, and it does assume combat as a major resolution mechanic, but this is because it is intended to simulate the action in superhero comic books, where every problem can be solved by a fist fight.

Overall, D&Dthink seems to be less of a problem the less complex and more abstract the ruleset is – D&Dthink is all about working the rules to your advantage – and so it was less of an issue in Numenera. Nevertheless, maybe it’s just the nature of fantasy RPGs – there was a lot of worrying about combat and intense, serious discussion about how best to divvy up treasure, and one keen young player asked many questions about the possibility of making a particularly vicious monster into a playable character type.

M&M is a lot crunchier and prone to min-maxing (this is RPG-speak for super-optimising your character to absurd degrees). As a comic book purist, I am a noted pain in the neck as an M&M GM, as I insist on characters having strong concepts and logical rationales for their powers. I think I must have helped eight or ten people come up with characters for M&M games this year – and it was here more than anywhere else that I saw D&Dthink casting its peculiar spell.

No matter how carefully I explained that I was hoping to recreate the feel of a ‘classic’ superhero team, very odd choices of characters and powers kept coming back to me – lots of interest in Healing as a possible superpower, not because it’s common in the books or particularly logical for that character, but because years of playing D&D had conditioned folk to believe that every team needed a healer. Someone else wanted to play the long-range support specialist, sniping from concealment – again, a solid choice for a D&D character, but not really the stuff of super-teams.

On one occasion I agreed with a potential player that he would play a super-speed character. He came back to me with a creation the most notable feature of which was a magic electrical sword which paralysed anyone it hit and did extra damage 20% of the time. None of this was remotely rationalised, it was just the best way to spend points and wreak the most havoc in combat, both of which would have been absolutely the way to go in most D&D games.

(Needless to say, this guy, like several others, ended up not participating in our game, mainly because I wouldn’t allow them to work the rules as they desired. One of the things about D&Dthink is that the rules are treated much more as some kind of holy text, not as something to be hacked or modded to make a better experience for the group.)

One of the most useful ways of thinking about RPGs that I’ve come across is something called the GNS triangle, G standing for Game, N for Narrative, and S for Simulation. These are, it is suggested, the three main approaches to RPGs – some want to have a game-style experience where it’s all about cleverly working the rules to ‘win’, others want to tell a genuine story, others want to replicate the style of a particular genre of fiction (maybe even a specific movie or TV series).

D&D is absolutely a Game-style RPG, as I hope I’ve made clear. Numenera and its sister games probably tend towards Narrative-style gaming. M&M, at least when we play it, is very Simulationist (although inevitably providing a good narrative is part of the genre experience). It seems a shame that a Game-oriented approach like D&Dthink should crop up when people are running N- and S-style games, but given D&D‘s dominance it’s only to be expected.

I don’t know. Hopefully, as players, people can make themselves aware of the existence of these kinds of thought patterns and try to go beyond them – my own M&M players have proven to be quite flexible when I pointed out just what was going on. And, perhaps more importantly, GMs can keep an eye out for D&Dthink and do their best to close it down before it gets started. When you’re actually playing D&D, D&Dthink can be perfectly logical. When playing a game in a different style, the best you can hope for is that the game will be odd and a little unsatisfying; at worst, it can wreck the whole experience.

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