Thursday, December 26, 2013

Looking Back on the 1990s

With the lights out, it's less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
- Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit", 1991.

"No one holds command over me. No man. No god. No Prince. What is a claim of age for ones who are immortal? What is a claim of power for ones who defy death? Call your damnable hunt. We shall see who I drag screaming to hell with me."

"A Beast I am, lest a Beast I become."
- Vampire: The Masquerade, 1991.

I've mentioned in this blog that I'm very much a child of the 1980's, being born in 1971. However, I became an adult in the 1990's. I went off to college in fall of 1989 so the great bulk of my undergraduate career was in the 1990's. I had my first serious relationship in the 90's, met my wife a mere month before graduation (on an evening dedicated to forgetting about women), began my professional career in the mid-90's, got married, and moved to the state that has been my home for nearly twenty years in the 90's

While I've spent a lot of time talking about the world of the 1980's it seems that the 1990's deserve a fair amount of love as well. This is going to be somewhat random and based upon my own experiences - that of a geeky middle-class white male from suburban southern New England.

I think I'd like to first reflect upon the technology. When one things about it many of the technologies we've come to expect in our day-to-day life began their penetration in the 1990's. While culture and styles and current events always changed, in many ways the background technology you could expect was relatively standard from the fifties through the eighties. Yes, the cars got smaller, televisions became more advanced and cheaper, video recording became commercialized. But a revolution in communications had yet to occur. If you wanted to buy a book you'd go to a bookstore or order it from a physical catalog. While there were some computer bulletin board systems starting in the 1970's, the idea you could become involved in online communication with people across the globe really began in the 1990's and cemented itself in the 2000's. When I look at my Facebook friends and my gaming group they consist of people who I have never met in person, from New York City to Utah to Australia - people whose opinions I have come to greatly value and whose involvement in my life, though virtual, has been beneficial. 

And think of what a difference the cell phone has made - think of how many episodes of Seinfeld or how many horror movies of years past would be fundamentally different now with the possibility of instant communications. I remember needing to make plans to meet with friends in advance with designated rendezvous spots. And actually needing to use payphones. Even when cellphones began penetration the old analog phones were super-expensive, with you paying for each minute of use with no free minutes. When my wife was taking grad courses at Northeastern she'd make quick calls to let me know she was safe at her car and driving back home, with us working to make the calls last less than a minute.

Online  communities really began forming back in the 1990's, where you could go on Usenet and find massive debates on how superior Storyteller games were to obsolete games like AD&D and you could count on a massive flamewar by asking if the USS Enterprise would emerge victorious over an Imperial Star Destroyer. While streaming movies to any device had yet to begin, the idea of quick access to media began to emerge with beginning its presence as a source of books, VHS tapes, DVDs, and CDs. Looking back at my Amazon history I see my second ever purchase from there in 1997 was Chaosium's Escape from Innsmouth Call of Cthulhu adventure/sourcebook.

It's also worth remembering that not everyone had broadband. Living in an apartment until 2000 we had digital cable but high-speed internet was not yet available to us - we first got that when we bought a house in 2000. So it was the dial-up modem connecting to an internet service provider for us. I remember in 1998 waiting two hours to stream the trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and at extremely poor quality. The difference with high-speed internet is amazing - we watched that same trailer at work a day or two later and we were able to watch it instantly and at much higher quality. 

Moving onto music I don't think you can underestimate the impact that alternative or grunge music had on my generation. I won't claim it was universal - again, I'm the product of my white middle-class background and am speaking of my own experience and those of my peers and artists like Janet Jackson, N'Sync, Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, and countless others experienced great success - I amusingly reflect on Billie Piper, for example, being known as a pop star in Britain with her days as a key player in relaunching Doctor Who years in the future. But the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam greatly shook up the music scene and the fashion. As the 90's continued there were backlashes and responses to grunge music - for me I became a fan of Nine Inch Nails - one of my favorite concerts to this day remains when I saw David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails performing together in September of 1995.

I also believe that much of the way popular entertainment crosses over into multiple forms truly came into its own in the 90's. Entertainment franchises had long licenses into other areas - for example the 1980's saw RPGs for Star Wars, Star Trek, DC Comics, and Marvel Comics. Star Trek and Star Wars also had comics in those same periods but there was little to no linkage between one franchise and another - indeed, the Star Trek novels line back then treated each novel largely as a standalone work without reference to others in the same line. However look at Star Wars in the 1990's. The RPG became source material for various novels which continued the story from Return of the Jedi. The RPG also covered these new novels. Dark Horse Comics produced comics which were also consistent with the novels and RPG (and were in turn covered in the RPG), eventually reaching a point of a coordinated release for Shadows of the Empire, set between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and being realized in video games, RPGs, toys, novels, and comic books.

This segue into RPGs leads nicely to Mark Rein•Hagen's Vampire: The Masquerade. In my opinion V:TM is a game which massively shook up the gaming industry. It is derided in some circles for moving RPGs into a more story-based style, something which often led to railroad-style adventures where PCs get to watch interesting things happen.but be powerless to influence those interesting things. However, Vampire provided something new - the opportunity to be the monster. Game mechanics allowed you to measure how much of your self-control you maintained - how human you remained. It was likely the first game since the D&D boom of the early 80's to bring an influx of new blood into the hobby (eek, just realized what a horrible pun that was). This revolution in both style and in mechanics influenced a number of RPGs of the 1990's, some of which are largely forgotten while others are still active. Off the top of my head and from a quick glance at Wikipedia reveals games like:

  • Deadlands - Alternate history in a horrific weird west with magic mechanics using hands of poker
  • Dragonlance: Fifth Age - card-based RPG with mechanics based entirely around the actions of PCs (in other words if an enemy attacks you you are attempting to avoid being hit)
  • Blue Planet - a setting and rules based entirely around a water-covered world
  • Star Trek (Last Unicorn Games) - a far less tactical take on Star Trek than had been previously seen from FASA
  • Amber Diceless - An RPG which dispensed with any random number generation (to the best of my knowledge this actually predated or was roughly simultaneous with Vampire but is definitely indicative of the 1990s style of gaming)
  • Castle Falkenstein - A gorgeously-illustrated card-based game of Victorian fantasy and steam-punk
  • The End - Biblical role-playing involving those left behind after the Rapture
  • Legend of the Five Rings - East-Asian styled RPG supplementing a popular collectible card game
  • Fudge - Less an RPG and more a toolkit, led to the popular Fate RPG of the 2000s and 2010s.
  • Unknown Armies - Occult role-playing of varying power levels with a system inspired by Chaosium's BRP
  • Nexus: The Infinite City - A nexus of realities where walking down the street can take you from Ancient Rome to a cyberpunk megalopolis. Game system later modified into the popular Feng Shui RPG
Looking back, in many ways D&D 3rd edition can be seen as a reaction against this style of gaming - while the games I list above tended towards a very free-form nature D&D 3rd edition brought about a much more rigid style of gaming, a very tactical approach. (Something I'm not downing - I've had fun in a number of D&D 3rd edition and later games.)

This has been a rather lengthy (and likely rambling) post so it's time to bring it to a close. I've just given a glimpse of my thoughts on the 1990's. I've skipped over a number of things from the 1990's - things like the Gulf War, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Crystal Pepsi, Zima, Doctor Who: New Adventures, 800-TREKKER, Seinfeld, Michael Jordan, Babylon 5, etc. In any case I hope you found this trip down memory lane interesting.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Introductions to Doctor Who and Avoiding the Info Dump

About a month ago I was watching the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special "Day of the Doctor". Jasmine, my eight-year old daughter, wound up joining me and watching most of it - she didn't quite get it having only a vague idea as to what it was about but she still couldn't pull her eyes away. She had a ton of questions and I promised her I'd watch an episode with her that made no assumptions on experience.

Yesterday Jasmine and I watched "Rose", the first episode of the new series. She absolutely loved it. And the format was, of course, perfect. You've got an established franchise but you are relaunching it after a long dormancy. There's some die-hard fans out there who will be watching it but you need to go far beyond that fan-base. So you start with a viewpoint character who is a surrogate for this audience. And you don't dump all the history and lore of the program all at once. Instead you release it as you need to.

Jasmine liked it enough that she wanted to watch another episode so we also watched the second episode, "The End of the World". For this my wife and eldest daughter had just returned from a shopping trip and wound up joining us. My wife is a Doctor Who fan from way back but our older daughter has just minimal knowledge. And despite not being a "science fiction geek" she too loved watching it, groaning as Britney Spears' "Toxic" played as the Earth burned. Moreover it was interesting to see that despite missing the first episode she was still able to enjoy this story on its own merits.

While I love long and intricate stories (I'm eagerly looking forward to the next season of Game of Thrones) watching with my daughter did remind me that sometimes its possible to overdo this and wind up locking your potential audience out. I think this is something that happened with the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, which began with a massive info dump, had references to Skaro, Gallifrey, the Master, Daleks, the Eye of Harmony, Regeneration, etc. Moreover it started from the perspective of the Doctor. I think Paul McGann did a fantastic job portraying the Doctor but I also feel the 1996 movie was a disservice to his talents - indeed he showed he was definitely worthy of the role in under seven minutes with the recent "Night of the Doctor" web-special.

As a gamer who also every once in a while flirts with writing fiction the, I find the cleverness in how Doctor Who was re-introduced worthy of imitation. Whether in gaming or in fiction, when one creates a detailed background there's a huge temptation to show off all your work. But even in a sandbox style gaming experience it's clear that it is far too easy to overdo this and overwhelm the player (or reader). Even as the new show has progressed it has periodically made certain it has good jumping off points for your new viewer.

Tomorrow it's "The Unquiet Dead" for Jasmine and me. Excellent timing with Christmas right around the corner.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Heroism in the Cthulhu Mythos

We recently finished a Call of Cthulhu scenario in my group (we'd been playing ACKS but we needed something with a bit of a lower quorum threshold - decided to whip out that old favorite Cthulhu to see how it worked out). Having played The Haunting scenario with this group we played another of the classic adventures, The Edge of Darkness. I'm not going to go into spoiler territory, suffice to say it provides ample opportunities for investigators to meet horrible end. In our playing of it there was one PC death and many more were avoided by making some difficult, at times brutal decisions, including going up against police in order to be able to succeed in a ceremony to banish an eldritch abomination - one of those "for the greater good" circumstances.

I've heard Call of Cthulhu described as a non-heroic game and when you think about more over-the-top superhero and pulp games I can definitely see the point. The premise of the Cthulhu Mythos is that of an uncaring universe full of abominations that could wipe out humanity with ease. Yet I've found that in scenarios against such creatures there is ample opportunity for heroism - being the people that brave such encounters, that hold back the darkness for even a little while, is its own brand of heroism. It's one that demands extreme caution, where bad luck can by itself be fatal and going in with guns blazing and no knowledge will almost certainly be fatal.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fiction Review - "The Long Tomorrow" by Leigh Brackett

"No city, no town, no community of more than one thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile, shall be built or permitted to exist anywhere in the United States of America."

- 30th Amendment of the United States Constitution

As I've mentioned in my blog a few times, the post-apocalyptic genre is one that filled me with feelings of both dread and fascination as I grew up. Born in the early 70s I became aware of my world in the era of "Ronnie Rambo" and the Cold War heating up one final time. I remember playing the Gamma World Role Playing Game with our primitive mutants exploring the ruins of Pitz Burke. There were films set after the End, ranging from the "Mad Max" series to absolutely dreadful movies like "Threads" and "The Day After". (And I use "dreadful" not in the sense of a bad movie but rather an experience that can fill one with actual dread.)

However there is still the sense of fascination. We humans are an adaptable lot. We managed to survive ice ages and a lack of natural weapons by using our wonderful brains. Indeed many works of the post-apocalyptic genre assume that it is our wonderful brains that bring about our own doom, unleashing genies of nuclear warfare, bioweapons, and nanotechnology. But even with that we like to assume that humanity would find a way to endure and build itself back up. (Indeed Walter Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz takes this idea and runs with it.)

I'm not sure what the first science fiction set in the aftermath of a nuclear war was. However I'm pretty certain Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow, first published in 1955, is among the first. The Long Tomorrow takes place some three generations after a nuclear war - the elderly grandmother of the primary protagonist, Len, was a child at the time of the nuclear war which demolished civilization.

Many of the tropes that have become hallmarks of the genre can be found in this novel - civilization knocked back to the 18th or 19th century, massive loss of life, expansion of religion. The United States still exists, albeit in a far more agrarian form - and for most people the federal government is a distant thing.

The novel follows our protagonist, Len Colter, and his cousin Esau, as teenage boys from their Mennonite village and out into the larger world where they grow to adulthood. Both of them have an intense curiosity about the world that used to be, something that is forbidden by their society. This is illustrated early on when at a religious gathering (that their fathers had forbidden them to go) the cousins witness a mob killing a man because he is supposedly from Bartorstown, a land dedicated to bringing back the forbidden ways which brought down God's wrath in the Destruction. However Len becomes obsessed with the idea of Bartorstown. The two dabble in forbidden technology and eventually leave their homes.

Settling in the town of Refuge we are introduced to more tension, with the cousins working for a merchant who wants to expand his business, though doing so will violate the 30th Amendment which sets a cap on the size of any community. There is also tension between the cousins, with both vying for the affections of the same woman, the daughter of a judge in the community. You get the sense that Len could build something for himself in the community but he cannot accept the deliberate refusal of progress. The tension eventually explodes, and the cousins are again on the move. It should be no surprise that they eventually find themselves in  Bartorstown.

One recurring theme in the novel is that of fanaticism - religious fanaticism causes many deaths and much destruction in the course of the tale. However, one of the characters later reveals there are other kinds of fanaticism as well. It also deals with the theme of the balance between discontent and finding a home. Obviously Bartorstown is not what Len hoped it would be. Meanwhile Esau finds that he's able to live pretty much anywhere and be relatively happy. There really isn't much of a judgment on who is right. Indeed, one criticism I'd level on the book itself is while I don't need to be spoon-fed everything I don't feel that topic got the closure it deserved.

Another criticism one might level at the book is simply it is a product of its time. All of the religions are Christian-based and there is really only one strong female character in the book and even she eventually becomes passive and follows Len's lead.

However, Ms. Brackett does deliver well on the tension between contentment and progress.Len's father is a good man who has found his place in the society he lives in. Len can't find that contentment - indeed he really can't find it anywhere. But his yearning for the old ways - which are also the way to the future - are delivered very well. Late in the book he is, for lack of a better term, seduced, by a woman who puts on a red dress from the time before the Destruction. Both the brightness of the color - a brightness not found outside of leaves - and the cut of the dress - do the job of filling him with desire - both for the woman and for the society that dress represents. (And being a novel of the 1950s, any seduction is far more implied than shown - and to be honest I think that makes it even more effective.)

As you can tell by some of my criticisms I didn't find this a perfect novel. I don't think it delivered the closure it really needed to on Len. But it definitely proved to be an enjoyable read and provided an interesting society, pointing the way to later works like Alas Babylon and A Canticle for Leibowitz. (The former I've yet to read though the latter is one of my favorite novels.)