Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Squared Circle

I am into dark, intense, brooding shit. TV shows like Breaking Bad. Roleplaying games like Call of Cthulhu. Videogames like the Arkham Batman games. I'm not particularly proud of this, but it's what I gravitate towards. The heart wants what it wants.

There is, however, one odd anamoly in my predictable tastes. One special part of my heart devoted to something a little bit different. That, for me, is professional wrestling; specifically, World Wrestling Entertainment, the WWE.

Why this paradoxical appreciation for a "sport" that's often considered campy, crass, or even just plain stupid? Let me count the ways:

1. There's nothing else like it out there. I will admit that the WWE is deserving of much of the criticisms that people level against it. The thing about, though, is that when the WWE gets it right, when they actually deliver on what it is they do? It is something the likes of which you'll never see anywhere else. Not in a play. Not at the circus. Not at a UFC fighting match, or a boxing match, or an action movie, or even a videogame. Watching two (or more) pro wrestlers land these sick moves, and telling a story of conflict right there on the canvas is an entertainment experience that is truly one of a kind. It's worth putting up with hours of fluff to get to just those few precious minutes of something amazing.

2. They're changing with the times. There used to be a time when being a woman in wrestling meant a few options, none of them very good. Nowadays, the women's wrestlers in the WWE are getting to the same level as the stuff put on by the men. Their rosters are getting bigger, their personalities and mic skills are getting better, and the in-the-ring athleticism? Off the hook! The WWE still has some problems...particularly with men/women of color and how they tend to get portrayed...but they've come a long way.

3. The Reality Era. The WWE is in what has been dubbed "the Reality Era" right now. That means that pro wrestling these days is as much about those behind the curtain as it is those in front of it. Long, long gone are the days where announcers were trying to convince us that the Undertaker is really some kind of wrestling zombie. Nowadays, pro wrestlers have big, bold personalities, but they are still fundamentally human, and that makes them relatable and exciting to watch. Of course there are still a few throwbacks (Bray Wyatt, to name one), but their stage presence is precisely that: a throwback to a different time, meant to be "old school" and for the hardcore to appreciate.

4. Story First. The one thing missing from sports, the thing that sets the WWE apart, is story. Sure, the stories may not always be all that great, but just the fact that they exist is something special. And we're not just talking a story contructed by announcers and producers to give context to a game; we're talking about an honest to God story, with protagonists, antagonists, themes, and tones. I'd probably watch a lot more football if that were the case in the NFL!

I do not expect too many people to get into the WWE. And I am definitely not saying that it's good, beginning to end. But when I think about all my fellow geeks out there who talk the same way about their anime shows and their SyFy channel TV shows, I think to myself, "Why not wrestling?"

Monday, July 13, 2015

In/Out of the Zone

On Saturday, I attempted to play a game of the Dragon Age RPG. I got maybe an hour into the adventure before I tapped out and called a boardgame audible.

What happened? It wasn't the game. Dragon Age, as you'll read in my Geek Native review, is an excellent RPG and the system seemed to be working very well in the short time that I used it. It wasn't the players, either. They were all sufficiently enthused, made their own characters, and were ready and willing to play. It was me.

I wrote before about how important comfort level is for a GM. An uncomfortable GM is a distracted GM, and a distracted GM usually doesn't run an adventure well, or at all, in my case. It doesn't matter how trite or idiosyncratic a GM's tastes are; it's all a part of that particular GM's style, and if those quirks aren't catered to, the game will suffer as a result. I'm not happy about this, but I accept it. It's far easier than trying to change. I'm not even sure if I can change, when it comes to this.

So what are my particular idiosyncries that, being ignored, led to my aborted game? They are as follows:

1. Tech at the table. Including my own, there were three laptops up and on at our four-person table. I know all too well the seductive allure of the internet, and I simply can't be comfortable knowing that my players may or may not be listening or caring about the adventure. I need all eyes on me! I don't mind the occasional glance at your phone, but computers and tablets are the line for me. I don't want to see them when it's game-time. I tried to be cool with it, though, because...

2. No hardcopy. Since the Dragon Age RPG isn't out in hardcopy yet, all I had was the pdf file. This was why I allowed the laptops; since there were no hardcopies of the book, I wanted several copies of the pdf open for quick reference. This proved to be a mistake, for reason 1, above. From now on, I simply will not play an RPG if I don't have a hardcopy of it at the table, whether I own it, someone else owns it, or if it's simply a printout of a pdf. Having tech at the table, as well as fumbling through a 400+ page file, just isn't good enough for my game.

3. Published adventure. I was running "Invisible Chains," the intro adventure in the back of the book. I read the adventure completely and didn't need to reference it much as we played, but I still felt uncomfortable trying to follow work I didn't create. I've struggled for years trying to allow myself to be comfortable running modules. It would make my GMing job SO much easier! Alas, I simply cannot do it. I'm drawn to GMing because of the creative process, its collaborative nature combined with the adjudication of a rules system. The creative side of my brain likes this controlled environment in which to create, and the logical side of my brain likes the rules system that adds strategy and unpredictability to the mix. Studying a published adventure instead of creating my own disturbs that balance, making me uncomfortable, and the game suffers as a result.

Again, I must stress that I'm not happy about these quirks of mine, and if I could change them, I would. But I can't. Or at least, it seems easier for me to live with them than to change them.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Third Law

I have a hard time getting into science fiction. I sit down to watch a sci-fi show, or read a sci-fi book, or play a sci-fi game, or whatever. A few minutes in, my mind starts picking at the seams of the fiction: why are noises in space? How did these aliens evolve almost exactly the same way we did? How does that laser gun work?

I doubt I'm alone, here, and I daresay this is one of the reasons fantasy is so much more popular than science fiction, particularly in RPGs. When it comes to portraying imaginary worlds, fantasy has the distinct advantage of being able to handwave everything with magic. Why are there dwarves? Magic! How can people come back from the dead? Magic! What made those monsters? Magic! Science cannot handwave.

Or...can it? I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's three laws. In particular, I think of the third one: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." This has become a big lynchpin saying of geek culture these days. Monte Cook cites the quote as the very inspiration for Numenera. This quote is used to justify virtually the entire existence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as openly declared in the first Thor movie. What's tricky for me (and, I presume, others) is that this quote is easy to apply outside of ourselves, but much harder to understand when we're the ones being wowed with that "sufficiently advanced technology."

Science fiction, at its best, poses imaginary answers to real questions. I think that idea gets lost underneath the barrage of laser swords and green-skinned aliens, but in our modern age, I think it's more important than ever for sci-fi to remember that. We're a more cynical, sophisticated audience these days. You can't play so fast-and-loose anymore with your pulp sci-fi and expect to draw a big crowd (unless, of course, we're talking about Star Wars, perhaps the biggest example ever of "the exception that proves the rule.") We all have to remember Clark's Third Law.

So keeping that law in mind, I am trying to let myself enjoy science-fiction...and, more importantly in my case, science-fiction roleplaying. When I find my mind starting to spin around the physics of it all, I reset with a simple "Third Law, Ed. Third law!"