Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Fear of Politics

At least once a month, I spot someone blaming something on politics, suggesting that politics is inherently dirty and bad. This is one clue I use to tell if someone's going to be incredibly tedious to talk to, because it reveals a serious lack of understanding of what politics actually is. I'm sure you don't want me to think of you as tedious and ignorant and cynical and smelly, so let's all clear it up.

Politics is a process that can be summed up as the means for determining "who gets what, when, where, how and sometimes why." It's inevitable and natural and useful, and it emerges any time that groups of people form. The bigger and more enduring the group, and the more competition for resources, the more pressing this process becomes. We can all agree that the shit we like (food, housing, interwebs, sometimes clothing) doesn't just appear out of nowhere. Someone's got to procure or produce it, and this has been true during (and before) all of human existence. Figuring out who has to do what to make sure this actually happens was tricky enough for early humans, because life was shitter and shorter, and one bad winter meant a fairly immediate choice between only feeding yourself, or risking starvation by sharing food with Occ, who offers you only long-term survival advantages.

In a modern society, it's way more complex, as we have billions of people's economic activities interwoven by several different threads, performing way more tasks to provide way more products and services. This is mostly good; I like my microwave food, my microwave, my internet full of porn, my warm bed, my sturdy house, etc., but I don't want to have to make and maintain all these things myself (except my porn; 99% of it is just pictures of me anyway). But it does mean we each have a lot more to consider when judging the impacts of who we do and don't share our world with.

There's also the issue of laws. I quite like not being stabbed in the face, and I think it's a good idea that we all agree not to stab me in the face. It's such a good idea that I'm willing to agree not to stab any of you in the face in return for you not stabbing me. We can make that a law. But this gets complicated too, partly because of the growing complexity of a growing total population, but mostly because we all want different things, and we're good at convincing ourselves that we're in the right. If a starving young street starfish takes a crust of bread out of Bill Gates's rubbish, is that theft? What if he takes it off his plate instead? What if he adds jam too? How about a jacket to keep warm? How about that diamond-encrusted monocle, so he can afford to eat and stay warm without having to repeat this exercise over and over? How about the home entertainment system too, so he can get by for even longer? At what point is it too much? Deciding this legal matter becomes a matter of politics, because even in the most oppressive autocracies, unbearable or unenforceable laws can't last long.

So that's all that politics is: The meta-system by which these social systems are set up, sort of analogous to how the grand system of evolution produces a huge variety of individual biological systems. You might complain about the shitty pectoral fins evolution's stuck you with, but you can't realistically exit the system in protest. It's inevitable, but not inevitably bad. The products of politics may not always be what we want, but if we had no way of getting involved in politics at all, we'd all have to be loners, totally dependent on ourselves and nobody else.

I think some people maybe get confused between the words 'politics' and 'politicians' (by which they probably actually mean only government officials and electoral candidates, an even more limited definition). But that also reflects plain cynicism. Yes, there are plenty of examples of corrupt politicians, but that doesn't make them all corrupt. What's more, what result would you expect when you start taking it for granted that the people you're handing the reigns to are going to be selfish cocks? It's defeatist, or even self-defeatist, to cling to the notion that all politicians are necessarily corrupt. Holding politicians, both in and out of office, accountable for their public choices is an essential part of a functioning democracy, and has obvious-if-trickier use in non-democracies too. Part of this is simply trying to keep on top of what is and isn't factual truth, and this is the point where politics and skepticism can overlap nicely, even though some skeptics are loathe to go there.

I like to think that most people already know most of this, even without a politics degree. None of it's really complicated or counter-intuitive, and a huge portion of our brains' processing power is evolved to think about exactly these sorts of social interactions, so at least some of it should come instinctively. I would hypothesise that most of the defeatist cynics could accept intellectually why they're mistaken, if you really press them on it, but that they're just too overwhelmed emotionally to cope. This overwhelmingness most likely comes from an inability to handle the scale to which global politics has grown. Our Dunbar's-scale social instincts can't be expected to work properly for a society of billions, and any significant time spent pondering this is likely to produce some major mental incongruity between instinct and intellectual understanding, which leads to a shutdown, a refusal to acknowledge the problem.

I may not be right about the causes of this cynicism, but I think the cure is the same either way: Quit yer bitchin' and do something constructive for a change. If you don't see how you could possibly make a difference, then either shut up and accept it, or learn how to do something sensible and constructive (I'd prefer you aimed for the latter). Politics is not magic, it's not something that just happens by itself in a dark box. It's people talking to other people, and if you could follow this post up to here, then you've got at least half the skills needed for that, so stop being so afraid of politics.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Atlas Tugged

I mentioned that my Star Trek roleplaying group is on a break, and since things will be pretty damn different when we pick up again, I thought it was a good time to re-assess what ship they have. The small vessel with minimal crew works really well for roleplaying purposes, because it pushes the player characters deeply into the action with minimal effort, but it's not the only option. TNG did really well to stay focused on the main cast, despite the Enterprise's crew of approx. 1,000. Babylon 5 pulled off the same narrow focus even with a total population of 250,000 on the station, and potential billions more once its focus shifts to long-term plots on specific planets. There are tricks for giving the main cast all the attention while also giving them lots of minions, peers and general cohabitants, which can be used for roleplaying plots too. I really like the small-ship format (see Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, Futurama), but big ships can be fun too. From a roleplaying point of view, Rogue Trader demonstrates that nicely, with thousands of dedicated "peasant" crew to shovel babies into the ship's fusion furnaces and things like that, and surprisingly few NPC crew anywhere near as competent as the player characters.

I prepared my players a list of appropriate starship classes for which I already had the CODA-system rules, including the option of retaining the same ship they've been using all along, and asked them to vote amongst themselves for the one we'd be using next season. There's no consensus that anyone's reported back to me yet, but we've still got another month or so to prepare.

So that's all pretty neat, but hardly a story worth reporting to the entire intarwebs. What I really wanted to write about was a campaign idea I got from my list that won't fit my current plans at all well, but which could still be fun and interesting; feel free to steal this idea if you like it. You'll note my list includes the Atlas-class tug, because I have stats for it and it isn't a completely impossible and inappropriate option to include. But I'm under no illusions that the group will find that an especially appealing choice. It fluffs up the list a little, but by the standard stats, it's unarmed, it's fragile, it's not at all geared to science and exploration, it only carries a crew of 3 and it can just barely hit warp 8. Most of its systems are devoted to the specialist task of tugging other, more important starships around.
Tug and "more important" starship, to scale

Why would anyone want to run a game with one of those? You're not going to get a serious shooty pew-pew starship combat game with one, even with heavy modification. (Well, maybe with some creative modification; I was surprised every single episode at how much combat oomph my players were getting out of their little science ship, not too much larger than this Atlas-class tug.) But, you don't need to throw tugs into heavy combat (in any setting, not just Trek) to do interesting things with them.

Think about what a tug is and what it does:
  • There'll be a lot of routine "harbour" work, escorting in visiting alien ships, carrying diplomats, explorers and merchants. A great opportunity to introduce plot hooks to draw the players into those sorts of activities, even if only unofficially and tangentially.
  • There'll be some salvage and retrieval of wrecks, which creates opportunities for the players to board them to "make appropriate salvage preparations", whatever that might entail, and even supposedly friendly vessels become mysterious places when abandoned. After all, why were they really abandoned? Who's been there since? Is anyone still around? Perhaps there's some pressing safety concern too, the space equivalent of an oil spill, to add urgency to things.
  • There may be competition over legitimate salvage rights, or conflict from wreckers and pirates, trying to illegally snatch ships away from the players. I can easily picture the Ferengi filling both of those roles, simultaneously.
  • There could even be an occasional search and rescue mission, when dedicated rescue boats aren't available or lack the raw power of a tug. Saving lives can be just as dangerous and exciting as ending them, which is kind of sad, but makes for compelling stories.
  • If necessary, an innocuous tug might get away with some interestingly nocuous activities of its own, perhaps as part of a smuggling ring. The Soviets used fishing trawlers for espionage and it's not a huge stretch to see a tug in the same role, given an enemy who won't shoot first and not even bother to ask questions later.

And that's just off the top of my head. Clearly, there's a lot more potential for drama with a tug than there might first appear to be, given an appropriate context. And as I say, it doesn't have to be Star Trek. The New England coast in the 1930s almost literally screams out for a Call of Cthulhu tug story; just think of the non-boat things they might be called on to pull into port. A Firefly game, or perhaps Eclipse Phase, could work even better for a tug game than Trek, with their realistic portrayals of isolation in space, with scavenger fringes and limited resources; there were even a couple of Firefly episodes that touched directly on these ideas already. The rivers of the Empire might pose narrower navigational challenges, but I've learned that they're just as interesting for players to explore, and the River Reik would lead plenty of different tuggable vessels past the players' home village or town. And I believe tug-like vessels aren't completely unknown in Spelljammer either.

The only major concern I have is that the players would have to accept that they couldn't keep any ships they salvage. I can picture some of my own players eagerly drooling over the giant dreadnought they'd just dragged home, like a jack russel that's gotten hold of a huge branch. If players don't want to play the tug campaign, if they want some sort of pirate game or something else instead, then that should be openly discussed and adjusted to, but if they do want to play the tug game, then they need to get comfortable with their tug, and with having to give up anything bigger that comes their way. The GM can smooth this along with a clear idea of who in the setting has the authority and power to remove excess ships, and what (if any) reward they'll give in return.

If I were going to run this for Star Trek (just since that's what gave me the idea in the first place), I can see two very similar things I'd do with it. I'd either go with the original Kirk era, with most of space considered a wild frontier, even within the Federation's borders, leaving a tug relatively isolated and independent, or I'd skip ahead a century to just after the Dominion War, when space is better explored, so there's probably more trade going around, but things are still much more chaotic than they were in the peaceful TNG era, before the war stirred things up. One of the only things I liked about Star Trek IX: Insurrection, was the first scene onboard the Enterprise, where they show how stretched Starfleet has become, with so many ships lost to combat and so many new post-war duties to add to neglected pre-war duties. From a tug crew's point of view, that means waiting for Picard to save the day for you is just as fruitless as waiting for Kirk would have been in the TOS era; they've each got their own excess of adventures to deal with, and you're usually going to be a very low priority for them.

Stick your tug at some remote outpost that's halfway along the route between two more interesting and populated regions, and wait til the traffic starts flowing through, with shiploads of fun and adventure in tow.

[EDIT: I'm a slight idiot, having forgotten the USS Dauntless (1861), from my list of Dauntlesses, which wasn't much of a Dauntless, but which was a tug. It's worth mentioning that it was apparently also used for general river patrols, which seems like a good excuse for getting the players' ship out into space without having to give them a particular mission. Certain stories work better that way, with the action only introduced later on, when home is too far to be much help.]

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Frost pissed!

I've been increasingly grim and glum (and glim and grum) the over the last 2 weeks, as Frost's prognosis after his accident never seemed to get any better, with the doctor himself getting pretty damn emotional and gloomy. On top of that, someone vandalised my car, permanently bending open the passenger door to steal absolutely nothing. I've been pretty stressed and we were supposed to decide this past Friday or Saturday if it was necessary to euthanize the poor little bugger, and luckily the vet felt that we should give him another couple days, just to be absolutely sure. The main worry was the bladder, which had shown zero sign of functioning. Some spinal damage had definitely occurred (and his entire tail had to be amputated as a result), and there was a concern that all nerve connections with the bladder had been cut, so that he could neither voluntarily (as before) nor involuntarily (i.e. incontinently) urinate. So even though the rest of him seems fine again, mostly, there could have been that one dead component that would still kill him.

And the great news today is that Frost pissed! And took a huge shit too! Huzzah! I can't say yet how voluntary it was, but the fact that it happened at all is an excellent sign, and he may even be home by Wednesday. I doubt he'll ever function 100% right again, and as I say, he's got no tail no more. The wound from where his tail was cut off initially failed to close, because there wasn't enough skin for the stitches to hold together, and he had a massive open hole there instead, but that's already half the size after one week of regrowth, and frankly, this cat has survived so much shit in only 2.5 years that I think he can manage this too. Three cheers for scientific medicine! I should get him a red shirt, though.

Normally blogging will resume shortly.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Horror, Sanity, Cats

I've been working, in my mind at least, on two different posts, one about SA's (and the world's) military stupidity and another about my exciting weekend in nature (featuring otters). Then my cat, Frost, got hit by a car sometime early Monday morning, and while he survived and is still with the vet for treatment and observation, I've been knocked flat, psychologically. It may even have physiologically exhausted me, but that's more likely entirely due to the unusually active weekend I had. Either way, I lost all my motivation for a couple days and found myself terribly angry at nothing in particular. It didn't help that I had to face anti-vaxxers literally laughing off child death stats. Fuckers.

Now, while I'm still too focused on Frost and not sufficiently focused on the other posts (or anything I've been trying to get done since the weekend), I've at least had an odd thought that might be worth sharing. It seems I find it easiest to interpret the world as a roleplaying game these days, with quantifiable skills and possessions evaluated either in terms of their survival use or their value as sellable loot. And the last few days, I've been noticing my own psychological responses and explaining them to myself in terms that I first learned from playing Call of Cthulhu: I have failed a SAN check.

For non-gamers, Cthulhu is a game of horror and things-man-was-not-meant-to-know, and it incorporates a quantitative measure of characters' sanity, with negative consequences for those who see too many horrors and who know too many not-meant-to-know things. It's not usually something that people can portray on their own very well, because those who really know what going insane is like are, I think, less likely to want to re-hash the experience as a social game for funsies. It's also hard, as either a game writer or GM, to come up with novel and reliable ways of making monsters and events scare the players even a fraction as much as they're supposed to scare the characters. In my experience, most people seem to just play along with a game's sanity mechanics, nothing more, nothing less. We abstractify a lot of other things in roleplaying (e.g. injuries, skills or physical movement), so what's one more?

Still, it never hurts to keep the reality from getting totally hidden behind the abstraction, and I've been paying close attention to my own mind, to report and provide some stuff for thorough method-roleplayers to borrow from. It's not that I think I've gone anywhere near properly insane (what Cthulhu would represent with a 20% drop in Sanity, and Warhammer would represent with a gain of 6+ Insanity Points), because that really is serious business and much harder (and more unpleasant) to describe. Instead, I'm limiting myself here to describing a short, sharp shock, the experience of finding a specific occurrence truly disturbing (what either of those game systems would represent with the loss/gain of only one or two Sanity %/Insanity Points, respectively). I believe it's what real-worldists might call an acute stress reaction. Let me be clear that I'm not suggesting that my experience is the only possible reaction to something like this. The Wikipedia link there will give you a much wider variety of symptoms. All I'm trying to provide here is a bit of an inside perspective of what some of that can feel like, beyond the dry, external, academic descriptions. Realistic roleplaying is not just about stating that something happens, but also understanding as well as safely possible what it feels like for that thing to happen to you.

The main thing that struck me was an inability to get the unpleasant experience out of my head. I didn't spend a lot of time examining Frost's wound, as getting him to the vet was a more urgent priority, but the quick glimpses stuck with me. He'd lost a large chunk of skin and outer flesh, exposing the internal organs rather neatly, like a plastic anatomy model, waiting to be clicked apart and clicked back together again. I don't know feline internal anatomy at all well, but I could work out easily enough which bit was the large intestine, because one side of it was grazed off at one point, and the feces inside was visible but fortunately not leaking out. Framing the whole wound was bright red, lumpy tissue, almost like little bubbles. Fat, I think? Muscle? He'd also bled the whole way from the road, through the house, and had somehow squirted quite a lot of blood a good 40cm up the wall just outside my bedroom door, which was odd, as the wound was on his left side and he would have been walking with that wall on his right if he'd gone straight through the house to where we found him sleeping next to a large puddle of dried blood. The whole scene was very vivid, but the bit about the red lumpy tissue was clear as fuck later that night, while I was eating my supper of soy mince (completely vegan, but also sort of lumpy). It didn't disgust me or put me off my food (I'm not squeamish at all), but the image stayed in my mind very persistently.

My first point about roleplaying insanity points is probably that this vivid persistence of memory is a fairly obvious thing to consider. It doesn't have to be the only thing your character talks about (or even mentions at all), but when they see their first shambling, slimy demon or whatever, the specifics are likely to stay with them for a while and spring back to mind with only the slightest reminder. GMs could put extra effort into describing memorable details, and players should make note of at least one or two things that really stand out for their character. Bring these details back to mind anytime the character should be reminded of the event, and even if they don't get explicitly mentioned, they give a more visceral long-term hook for players to hang the effects of their accumulated insanity points on.

The other big thing I noticed was the mood stuff. I'm pretty good in a crisis and getting Frost to the vet was technically pretty simple. Keeping it together in the short term is feasible, but once he's booked in to stay at the vet and I'm home with nothing else to do, things start catching up. Half of it's been simple worry about poor Frost. He's probably losing his entire tail. There may be spinal damage. There may be infections. He may become incontinent and have a miserable life. He might even still die. But I'm ok with worry, I can keep some perspective and wait for more complete news from the vet, instead of letting the uncertainties overwhelm me. What did overwhelm me was anger, rage, frustration. Last night, I wanted to burn everything, smash people, shout. Not directed at anyone or anything in particular; just an expression of displeasure combined with powerlessness. The fucking anti-vaxxers almost caught that, but I realised it would do more harm than good there, so I took it out on virtual people instead, with a few bloody levels of Hitman. Bombs thrown indiscriminately into Mardi Gras crowds worked wonders for that, and incidentally show how great the 21st century is. Real rage is very unusual for me, and real violence simply never happens at all, but what would I have done with myself a century ago that wouldn't have caused actual, real damage to myself or others?

This is quite an important point for roleplayers too. Most insanity systems have "run away/hide" as their default outcome for a failed sanity check, but that's only one half of the fight-or-flight response. Realistically, sometimes you should favour "fight", even when/especially if it's not the smart thing to do. A few roleplaying systems have mechanisms for mad barbarian berserkers who wildly (though usually voluntarily) charge into combat to slay without concern for their own safety, but usually this amounts to a huge pile of unrealistic benefits, offset only by the so-called disadvantage of potentially killing your own party too. But where's the mechanism for normal, usually-sane people who just lose their cool and start swinging when they shouldn't? Most of us don't get super powers when we're angry, and if we do more damage, it's probably only because we're bothering to hit more often before giving up. Non-physical violence, like vigorous verbal abuse, is another possibility, especially if physical contact is impossible.

It may also be relevant that the one and only properly scary nightmare I can remember from the last 3 or 4 years (the post-teaching years) was about Frost getting injured by a car. That was kind of weird, because he ended up with tomatoey noodles for legs after the car crushed them, but I was sufficiently distressed by this that I woke up in a sudden panic. I hardly ever remember dreams, and I hadn't been truly frightened by a nightmare since childhood, when I had that one. Clearly, the safety of my pets is something that already weighed heavily on me, and Frost in particular has already spent more than his fair share of time at the vet, getting stitches for bites from feral cats and having poison mushrooms pumped from his stomach. He's less than 3 years old and has already had 11 or 12 general anaesthetics. He is incredibly unlucky, especially compared with his brother, Byron, who's dodged all of this shit.

Cthulhu's Sanity rules are kind of realistic here, because exposure to horrible things will only ever make you less tolerant of them, less mentally tough, though repeated exposure to exactly the same thing will decrease the effect of that specific thing (which may be a house rule of ours; I never read that part of the rule book). But I think it makes sense that repeated exposure to vaguely similar things (monsters in general, cat/car accidents in general) should tend to heighten your fear of them, because the reality of their existence keeps getting confirmed. And when they do hit you in reality again, the psychological damage should be harder to shrug off.

So there's a few thoughts for you. It's far from a complete list of possible reactions, because it's not drawn from a complete list of distressing horrors. But it's something to consider during horror games, and I already feel a lot better for having gotten this all off my chest.