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Month: February 2017

When the Gods Hate You

“You’re Green, You’re Ugly, and the Gods Hate You” is the tagline for a tabletop RPG called Great Ork Gods by Jack Aidley. In this game you play as a series of Orks rather than a single character, because it’s assumed that every character will die at least once. The only way to get ahead is to use your dice to beseech the Ork gods to hate you just a little bit less.

The first interesting thing about this game is that the GM is not in charge of everything in the same way that they are in a game of D&D. Each player around the table, in addition to their Ork, receives control over one of the Ork gods. The GM still sets the scenario and tells the players what they will be rolling to accomplish a specific task such as breaking down an unlocked door. However, once it is decided that breaking down the door is a feat of strength, it is the player who has been handed the card for the relevant god (in this case, Lifting Stone, Pounding Rock) who decides whether the task is easy, moderate, or difficult. Any of the gods can then contribute a resource called “spite” which incrementally increases the difficulty, to potentially ludicrous odds. Normally it is on the DM/GM to make sure the dice rolls being asked of the players offer the right balance of probabilities for success or failure using either their intuition, notes, or guidelines from the designer of a module. In this case, it is the players around the table who have the most say over what an Ork must roll to live or die. It goes from the GM as a storyteller to the GM as a referee with the players developing grudges whenever another contributes too much spite during their Ork’s finest hour.

Scenarios can be run completely ad-hoc, or they can be framed as a quest-based adventure. In the particular scenario I got to play, our job was to do a train heist to send a message to the humans who desecrated our sacred mountain. The final boss in this scenario was named Mr. Conductor. No magic dust, but a worthy adversary nonetheless.

When you are an ork, this is what a monster looks like. (source)

Which brings me to the second thing I found interesting. It’s not that the game challenges the assumption that Orks are violent, smelly, green men who can be killed with moral impunity because, well, they’re Orks. When it comes to portrayals of Orks, I generally see them on a continuum between Tolkien’s Orcs which are mindlessly and irredeemably malevolent and Warcraft Orcs which are a misunderstood proud warrior race with a strong honour code and who can be reasoned with in the absence of demonic possession. Other settings, such as most found in official D&D source books, put them somewhere in the middle. Great Ork Gods does not even try to subvert the stereotypes. Players are encouraged to play them as simple brutes who like to solve all their problems with axes. Other games and stories subvert the trope that it’s okay to kill people if they’re ugly and green (because are they really people?) by making the Ork more human. Thrall is shown having a tender moment with his wife in the Warcraft film because we, the audience, need to be told that underneath their appearance that Orcs live and love like Humans do. When Orcs are playable races they can often be honour-bound warriors like what the Klingons became when Star Trek: The Next Generation started to explore them beyond being generic antagonists like they were in the original series. Their rough aesthetic and fondness for sharp weapons need not be erased, but to become more than violent enemies they become more human-like. So, in a typical role-playing game, Orkishness is inversely correlated with playability. Orks become eligible to be heroes once the player is allowed to play as one, and it seems less like the gods hate Orks.

This isn’t as much the case in Great Ork Gods because the player is not asked to make a green-skinned bipedal creature with tusks into a what is essentially a human with a fantastical appearance. The player is asked to play the disposable brute. The player is not the human/dwarven/elven hero mowing down faceless antagonists, the player IS the faceless antagonist. So in a way it does challenge our assumptions about Orks, but not in the same way that other stories and games do because the function of the Orks does not change just because which side the players are on does. It’s a different way of looking at things. It’s also simple fun to play an absurdly gimmicky Ork named Kudatah who solves any and all problems by cutting things with a seemingly infinite supply of axes. For what was described to me as a fun one-night diversion from a regular campaign, it turned out to be more thought-inspiring than I had assumed it would be.

CAGEO: The Best Ship

This is the fifth post in my series the Casual Alpha’s Guide to EVE Online. At the beginning of the series I thought it might be a good idea to distinguish these from my other posts by using the acronym in the title. Now every time I write a new post for the series the acronym feels sillier and sillier. I just wanted to keep it clear that I write a blog about games that sometimes talks about EVE Online, not an EVE blog that sometimes dabbles in other things. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned here? Let me know in the comments if I am right in feeling silly about the acronym, or if you think it does not detract from the content, or if you have anything to say about the content. I like feedback.

I don’t think it is an unreasonable assumption that a massively multiplayer online game is best enjoyed as interactions between players. One of the criticisms of “high-sec carebearing” (that is, playing the game in ways that do not involve shooting at other players’ spaceships, in space that is deemed to be more secure though not totally safe) is that it gets to be more of a grind than a player-vs-player experience. But, being a sandbox type game, people vary in their opinions on what the right way to play the game is. For myself, learning how to do things like ratting or hacking has not only been a fun experience, but also one that provides in-game income that can be used for other purposes such as getting into PvP or recovering from a big loss. Indeed, a person could just pay extra money for in-game currency, but to seek an in-game solution to the problem of your shiny warship being blasted into tiny bits seems a bit more fun than whipping out the Visa card. And let’s face it, the kind of ships you can get for free or almost free are made of papier-mâché. For example, my Probe class exploration frigate that got ganked in a small pocket of low-sec space a few weeks ago.

This is what using a sledgehammer to kill an ant looks like in [simple_tooltip content='The fictional setting for EVE Online, if you are not already familiar.']New Eden.[/simple_tooltip]
This was my first player-on-player combat. I lost horribly. What napboi does is lurk in the Enden system keeping an eye out for exploration or mining vessels, then flies in and pins them down while his friends FEDERAL OFFICER and NAN0FIBER warp in for the kill. I know this because a look at napboi’s killboard shows this pattern. I was pinned in place then they brought in a supercarrier to squash my probe. It’s a bit like using a tank to kill a bird. But the point of this post is not to offer faint praise for their use of three advanced ships to squash one worth Ƶ2.5 million (which I estimate to be about $0.04 USD worth of spaceship if I paid for my in-game currency with real money). The real point here is that whatever they’re hoping to accomplish with ganking ships like mine, these guys appear to be having fun doing it together (the Tengu alone should have been able to make short work of my Probe if shooting down my ship was their only concern). There is no way I could go get revenge by tactics nor by attempting to pay-to-win. Sure, if I had Omega status and a yuge pile of ISK I could put up a ship more comparable to any one of theirs than the paper airplanes I’ve got in the hangar today. But the reality is that I would likely need a team, not a better ship, to take these guys down. My skills at convincing other pilots to join my revenge fleet would matter far more than my skills at fitting or flying any ship in particular. And since my only causus belli is that these guys shot down my fail-fit exploration frigate, this would be very difficult unless I had several space-rich friends who wanted to do me a favour on a whim.

Or, I suppose if I was a fleet unto myself like Jason Kusion I might be able to solo those guys. Kusion is a famous ganker known for being a big part of CODE.’s larger kills. For those not familiar, CODE. is the alliance that I characterized as basically the space mafia in my post Pirates, Carebears, and Emergent Gameplay. Jason Kusion uses a technique called multiboxing which allows him to control 15 instances of the game at once, with his alternate characters all named Kusion. The following is what it looks like to be fifteen and one at the same time:

Jason Kusion is a fleet unto himself. (source)

Very, very different than what my game looks like. But even a one-man army like this was part of something bigger, the CODE. alliance. The reason I am talking about them so much today is that I was online for a little while last night and saw the Anti-ganking chat channel explode over a breaking news story: Jason Kusion has apparently betrayed his alliance and made off with over Ƶ500 billion. That is as estimated USD value of $7500 (I know it is not exactly Ƶ1 billion ISK for each extension, nor exactly $15 USD in real money, but I like to keep the math simple when precision is not necessary). It is enough to use in-game currency to buy a couple years’ worth of subscription for fifteen accounts. The story broke on reddit here first, followed by this thread allegedly posted by James315 himself admitting that CODE. is dead and his blog, Miner Bumping,will be archived. However, as of right now, a post went up on that blog today that did not address any of this. It certainly didn’t take long on the thread in the official EVE forums for people to start speculating that it this is all a ruse. It is hard to say how all of this will play out. What I know for sure is that this level of drama based on player interaction is what makes EVE special and I hope that if CODE. is really dead and Miner Bumping is over that some other group of people will take its place as the villainous evil empire of high sec. I will have to follow up on this in a future post.

At another point in the past month, I also had the chance to be given a tutorial in high-sec carebear mining, the kind of thing that CODE. was founded to oppose. I really don’t think that is my game (watching my ore hold fill with space rocks while I point a laser at a virtual asteroid), but I think that people who play EVE differently do need to understand what real mining looks like. The beginners’ career missions introduce the basic concept of what buttons to press, but there was NOTHING in that or the new tutorial that covered anything like what I saw that day. It was during this mining run that I discovered why people talk about Orca class ships and mining boosts; it makes a huge difference compared to using mining lasers on an entry-level mining ship. It’s a very different environment than getting ganked in low-sec or watching high stakes alliance drama unfold, but the conclusion remains the same: it’s alright to be good at flying spaceships, it’s not a bad idea to have good spaceships, but the best ship will always be friendship.

Characters and Kayfabe

Professional wresting isn’t something I normally think of as being a thing I enjoy. I understand it for what it is, and I feel like I gave it a fair chance in my younger years. I watched a little bit of it, and got to go see it live with a friend (who loved the whole spectacle) when the WWF came to my home town on a tour. I even made one of those little signs to get into the fan rivalry. My sign proclaimed Kurt Angle to be “our Olympic zero” riffing on his gimmick of Olympic hero. It was fun, but even at that peak I never fell under the spell of wrestling fandom in the way I could be drawn into science fiction and fantasy. If I was going to do pretend violence, I wanted to do it with fireball spells rather than folding chairs.

So, when I was offered the chance to play World Wide Wrestling, a tabletop RPG based in the world of wrestling kayfabe rather than one of magic or spaceships I wasn’t sure how much I could enjoy this if it has been over fifteen years since I last felt compelled to engage with this kind of show in any way. But at the table with my group that usually plays World of Darkness or D&D, we started roleplaying as professional wrestlers. It turned out to be loads of fun.

This kind of scene does not occur in my usual tabletop games (source)

One thing I would recommend for anyone who isn’t already a wresting fan who wants to play World Wide Wrestling is to have a cheat sheet of professional wrestling moves handy so that you can narrate your character’s actions in the language of professional wrestling. Like the theatrical performance of professional wrestling, WWW is heavy on the narrative side. Reading your character sheet and the rule book give you a lot more information about who your character is than about the specific techniques he or she can employ. It’s up to you to know how to describe the thing you want to do, and it’s helpful to have an extra reference if “seated senton” is not part of your usual jargon. There are a couple pages of this in the WWWRPG Final Play Aids document, but I found that having Wikipedia’s list of wrestling attacks to be more helpful.

What I found is that while the real-life performance of this art is theatrical, the tabletop game plays out surprisingly dramatic. Yes, as it is in the real thing, management plans out who is going to win each match before it begins. However, how we arrive at that conclusion develops spontaneously based on dice rolls, and the narrative arc that connects the matches changes in unpredictable ways based on character choices. It’s up to Creative (that’s the role equivalent to DM or GM) to line up the matches and decide the outcome, but to weave the matches together into a coherent show is an interactive process that includes the players. The end result cannot have been predicted by Creative before the players arrived. It’s not unlike the process of sketching out a plot for a fantasy RPG and then having it warped and twisted by the schemes and actions of the players.

In many ways, this is a gaming experience that is not fundamentally different than what I consider to be more typical tabletop roleplaying games. Like the theatrical performance, I don’t think I could get into this one week after week, but every once in a while I think it’s good to try something a little bit different and I have found World Wide Wrestling to be a good way to do that.

Except By Righteousness

Back in June 2016, I found myself recalling the week following an act of evil. Today I’m there again, this time closer to home and on my side of the Canada-USA border. I was saddened by the news, then heartened by the compassionate response across my country, then angered by those who would callously exploit it to promote their conspiracy theories. As a rule, the game played by any kind of “truther” is one that should not be played.

A lot of what needs to be said has already been said, but there is one thing I’d like to be said louder and more clearly: we can’t just blame Trump for this. To do so would be inaccurate, irresponsible, and unethical. I have no doubt that the political tide that swept him into power may have encouraged this and other acts of evil, but we must not delude ourselves into thinking we are special. Canadians, we’re not better than Americans just because we’ve got a prime minister with better virtue signals and glorious hair. The roots of racist violence in this country go very deep. There is no contest among nations where Canadians can say they score higher than Americans at being less racist, less violent, less evil. And indeed, within this country, some of us seem to think that racist violence happens somewhere else – probably in Alberta. And indeed, while my home province has produced an infamous holocaust denying teacher and a sensationalist far right media network, we are not special. From the yellow peril on the west coast to the starlight tours in Saskatchewan, from the Christie Pits riot 84 years ago to the Hérouxville code of conduct 10 years ago: this is a national problem that cannot be scapegoated onto east, west, rural, or urban. It is not new; it was not invented by Stephen Harper nor Donald Trump. The antecedents to this recent attack belong to all of us.

“For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mine, if we are each free to light our own flame, together we can banish some of the darkness of the world.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Can we be better than that? Absolutely. In big ways and in small ways, chipping away at the big problem has not been an even or an easy process, but I believe it’s not only worth doing, it’s worth doing right. That’s why my posts on political topics lean towards self-critique more than just calling out what I see as being the wrongs of the world: the internet provides us with a vast surplus of hot takes about how bad the bad people are. That’s low-hanging fruit. What I want to reach for, what I want to signal boost, is the more challenging ideas about how we can build the kind of society where it’s harder to imagine a man walking into a mosque and shooting people. To me, winning is not being on the right side of history or being better than that other person. It’s living in a world where this kind of evil is unheard of. One place I can start is remembering that I am not a better person because I live in 2017, in Canada, or in a city. My religion does not confer any special status upon me, nor do my political views qualify me for some kind of title. It’s easy to say that of other people, but worth asking of oneself too.

In remembering not to take false pride in my origins, I am reminded of the words that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is quoted in the hadith as saying: “There is no virtue of an Arab over a foreigner nor a foreigner over an Arab, and neither white skin over black skin nor black skin over white skin, except by righteousness.” This I can only assume was said to declare the faith as universal, mirroring Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 about there being neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither female nor male in the faith of Jesus Christ. No matter which tradition we were raised in and/or still practice, there is a wisdom in these words which transcends cultures and religions. I think we would do well to not only affirm the obvious meaning when it comes to visible differences, but also to check ourselves for other sources of misplaced pride. For there is no virtue of a Canadian over an American, nor a Torontonian over a New Sareptan, nor a Californian over an Alabaman, nor a Republican nor a Democrat; except by righteousness.