Tuesday, 30 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a cryptofascist masturbatory homage to Brexit Britain. Here's why.

So last night I had the dubious pleasure of viewing King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which is basically everything about a Guy Ritchie movie (sweary dialogue, montages, rogueish lads) but at some kind of cosplay convention where they wear historical costume derived from almost every historical period imaginable saving the Romano-British one in which the legends of the King Arthur are mostly set. There is even a scene where David Beckham, yes that David Beckham, roars defiance with a CGI-burned face whilst wearing something from a Mordor Primark. Mostly though, it’s a sort of cryptofascist masturbatory homage to Brexit Britain.

What I fixated on, beyond the terrible plotting, over-editing and crap dialogue with all the verisimilitude of a Year 6 School Play, was how bizarre the assumptions the film made about power,  righteousness and leadership were. Whilst the core story of Le Morte de Arthur and Arthurian romance revolve around chivalry and principle and the tension of being both a Christian and a worldy knight, and the contradictory loyalties of feudalism, the fundamental themes of Legend of the Sword are a bizarre stew of prejudices about education, class and masculinity.

The main character (played by a budget Tom Hardy chap with an undercut) is a swaggery, macho male power fantasy – hardly rare as Hen’s teeth in a low-brow action film – who initially is some sort of low-key gangster in ‘Londinium’. Despite the fact he is a violent-to-the-point-of-sociopathic brothel-owner and small time thief, we are supposed to embrace this character as a standard square-jawed hero. The chivalry of Arthur here extends to violent repercussions against Viking Johns who take allowances with ‘his’ womenfolk. Here, masculinity – even heroism – is expressed as the violent defence of women that are fairly explicitly owned and exploited for sexual labour by a swaggering male authority figure. (The only other female in the plot is some kind of witch
). He is contradicted of course with his foil, the usurping Vortigern. Vortigern is soft-spoken, intimidating and aristocratic: the dialogue between him and Arthur impinge that is his very education and social class which cut him off from being authentic in his relationships, or in his drive.  We know Vortigern is evil because he has usurped the natural order by taking his brother’s throne from the ‘born king’ – the conceit of legitimacy by blood being instrumental to all these stories – and because he has sacrificed his children for supernatural powers. Let’s dismiss this as meaningless moustache-twirling which was clearly a plot afterthought or pantomime homage. Whilst Vortigern is tyrannical, it seems to only be in response to wide-scale dissent in support of The Born King, and his reign otherwise seem orderly and successful. Arthur is a tyrant, too, and also solves his problems only with the application of violence. The only difference is their relationship to the women that make up their household: - Vortigern sacrifices his familial bonds for greater power, Arthur sacrifices power in order to protect his intimates. Two roles are juxtaposed: leader as interested in the preservation of the state, or leader as invested in the preservation of his family. Would Arthur be any less murderous and tyrannical should his legitimacy be challenged? From his conduct as brothel-owner, it seems not. The legitimacy of his reign is explicitly based on his use of violence being more effective. There is a scene where he is basking in the adulation of the crown, the camera fixates explicitly on the sword, not the man himself. And yet, his masculinity, swagger and physicality is what is meant to establish this man has a right to rule to the modern cinema-going audience as well. 

The bonds of fellowship which underpin Arthurian romance are also present, in that Arthur is fanatically, stupidly, idiotically loyal to that fat bloke in the yellow coat from Utopia and a group of ethnically diverse cockneys where every corner of Earth, including several thousand miles beyond the greatest extent of the Roman Empire under Trajan, but let’s not go there. This is supposed to the Round Table motif, and that homosocial bonding element is meant to establish Arthur as definitively heroic and relatable. Vortigern possesses no male relationship which is not with an underling or enemy. Despite the Round Table motif from Arthurian romance, there is no equality here, and the others are merely minions of Arthur, who orders them around with the smug self-assuredness of a bullying older brother (again, this man is inexplicably supposed to be the righteous hero of this film). In fact, this routinely impinges his ability to lead. When a comrade has obviously been captured, and the whole party needs to escape, Arthur announces “We’ll wait until first light” – abrogating the responsibility for decision-making and risking everyone’s life to demonstrate the importance of those homosocial bonds.  This laddy, fraternal conceit goes on to the basis of his regime: his coup is followed by the placing of his completely unprepared mates into positions of supreme power and authority. This will be ok, because…

….this film has some weird class politics. There’s this standard ‘you’re only a real person whose experiences matter if they’re authentic – authenticity being defined by being poor’. Now, I don’t normally object to this: it works for tonnes of characters and I’m a commie who grew up on a council estate so it appeals t the chip on my shoulder. This of course makes Arthur innately a great monarch in waiting – the perfect place to learn the ropes of medieval kingship is in petty criminality, apparently. In the picaresque worldview of the films, just like in Lock, Stock, the educated, middle-class or soft are a liability whose conceit makes them incompetent, whereas the rough and tumble characters from the streets are innately super-competent. (The fact Guy Ritchie is a posh southerner and related to aristocracy complicates the psychology of this considerably). This bizarre creation – the lumpenprole king – saunters through a diplomatic meeting with simple assertiveness to make decisive policy. This policy involves a speech about how no-one should fuck with ‘England’ (Where’s that, Arthur? There aren’t any Angles here yet) and reduces decision making to the simple pronouncements of intent. The details of being blockaded by a hostile European power following this decision are not explored, but I do look forward to watching Arthur launch Article 50 and call Merkel a ‘silly mare’ before nutting Jurgen Klopp.  

Sunday, 28 May 2017

That Old Time Religion (Part 1: Movement)

Religion in vanilla D&D is boring as fuck. There’s this big, boring list of Gods (I’m Pelor the Sun-God, I like ‘the Sun’ and grant some fire-related powers and I’m lawful boring) with no interactions. All religions have this generic ‘temple plus one priest in every city’ structure, and all the drama that religion should bring to your game: schisms, crusades, heresy, intolerance, unfailing belief, philosophy , reformation– is just absent.  Even when WOTC writers work to flesh out these religons, they offer meaningless detail in place of drama: the high priests are called such-and-such and they wear robes of blue and all shave their heads and an…

One reason is, I think, that the polytheism of vanilla D&D lacks interactions between the gods. What makes Loki a powerful architype isn’t that he’s Chaotic Evil and that he grants the Trickery domain – it’s the fabric of relationships and stories that define his mythos. Zeus sitting on Olympus being King of the Gods has no story, no conflict – Zeus leafing through an ornithological journal in order to get laid in animal form is interesting, and pushes the story.  If you have a Polytheistic ‘tight’ pantheon, make them have interrelationships of conflict, cuckoldry and conspiracy. Who fucks who? Who tricked who? Who bred a monstrosity that still lurks out there somewhere? Who ventured into the underworld? For every god, a story linking them to another. These can differ geographically or culturally, but they help give a character to these unknowable beings.

To improve this, ensure your religions are in flux. They must change and alter through geography, culture, time and class. The Christianity of a Roman legionary is not the Christianity of a Baptist minister; the Catholicism of rural Spain in the Renaissance is not the Catholicism of Tolkein; the Buddhism of a Sri Lankan farmer differs from that of an American Philosophy professor. Nuances and culture predominate; beliefs fracture; reforms crack up and are carried forward or suppressed. Two fantasy worlds do this extremely well: Dragon Age; Inquisition has huge detail on this, as do the Princes of the Apocalypse books by R Scott Bakker. Contrast to say, the otherwise intricate world of A Song of Ice and Fire where religious belief is a fairly tedious aspect of the world which doesn’t mesh with much else in the world. This ensures the religion is not wall-hangings; it is a sword over the fire: an instrumental part of the world and its evolving plot.

The major homebrew religion of the Company of the Noose/ North Corner campaign has always been the worship of the Iron Tyrant; a Brahma-like super-soulthat encompasses all other gods in the setting. In their doctrine, all gods, archfey and devils are simply aspects or guises of a schitzophrenic godhead.  This bring a nice monotheistic flavour which is lacking in vanilla D&D (and most major world religions are monotheistic for a reason).  As a god, The Iron Tyrant is boring. He’s formless, inert, unimaginable. So the religion itself has to be interesting to compensate.

The flavour is drawn from early Christianity and the millennial feelings around the crusade: to worshipers of the Iron Tyrant, the end of the world is imminent. The cause? Mortal sin, which manifests as monsters and disaster. This puts all their actions on a permanent clock, and makes vigilance, readiness and paranoia the order to the day.  To ensure the religion is in flux and altering, it has a structure. In Damesht, the home continent of the campaign, the organised arm of the faithful, the Order of the Resplendent Star, is organising to tie itself to power. The Dameshti Emperor, long politically castrated by the aristocracy of his realm, is a sympathiser: like Constantine the Great, a single Empire under a single God with a single ruler seems a logical way of ordering the universe, so he is a patron of the faith. But across Damesht (and this was a major plot-point In the first story arc set in the eponymous town of North Corner) the common people are conservative and hostile to this monopolising force and its eschatological fervour.

There are schisms in the Order: a faction believe the Order should proactively police mortal actions (there are men worse than any werewolf or hag) and achieve absolute, totalitarian dominion over the lives of its subjects. Some believe worshipping other gods as aspect is an abomination worthy of execution. Some believe the Order should be paragons of honour and be living examples of a life well lived – others believe their position in opposing the looming eschaton makes morality meaningless and the only recourse should be the sword. These factions vie for power, and the actions of players could easily raise one up over the others, and have had different interactions throughout their careers (they have murdered members of the Order, and they have assisted them in conquering Loquista, as circumstances dictated – they currently seek a working alliance.)

A religion must be instrumental to the story to matter. As myself and Gaz’s campaign have seen a number of characters opt to be worshippers of the Iron Tyrant, I feel that this shows a success in making a faith with some bite.  

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Records, Railroads and Rewards

I find one of the persistent issues that DMs - myself entirely included – find difficult to balance is the relationship between choice and structure. Ideally, you’d deposit your players in a multiverse of endless possibility and they’d gallivant merrily about pursuing their hearts desires. Realistically, you do need some structure to ensure something is happening. I personally as a player find little more frustrating that endless dithering over a quest or environment to undertake or overrun, and as a DM my eyes glaze over entirely.

To solve this I have three maxims:
- There’s adventure everywhere.
- All roads lead to Rome.
- Constraints power creativity.

Like most DMs, I have a ball-park idea of what The Company of the Noose will one day do, but I wouldn’t railroad them into it. But to ensure action actually takes place there needs to be some overview of options. To this end, I regularly update my Quest Journal and endeavour to summarise options for the players to pursue. Constraints power creativity. If they choose to ignore the main quest, fine – that villain advances their quest correspondingly. The world is alive.

if you have a brief look over it, you can see a number of Main Quests, Side Quests and Personal Quests. You’ll also notice that most side-quests or personal-quests are linked explicitly to a Main Quest. If the players pursue Landar Farshield’s personal mission to slay Valakshanya, the Vampire Queen of the Bleeding Mountain, they will also be combatting long-time party foes the Cult of Ouroboros, and will no doubt stumble across clues related to other Cult of the Ouroboros quests, or even ones related to the main quest. This is not the Quantum Ogre – if the players had instead chosen to pursue Crown, Hourglass, Sword and adventured to Zunia they would have found entirely different lead to an entirely different aspect of the ‘main’ quest – potentially related to Pursuing the Metagnosis. The point is that wherever the players go, they find something pertaining to the larger picture: a lead, a rival, an ally, an item an artefact: a feedback loop to where there is more adventure to be had. All roads lead to Rome.

An example of this is when my players, disinterested in their ‘Main’ quest, endeavoured to instead build up the keep they’ve acquired, and strike up an alliance with a Pirate-King (Blind Agni Nine Fingers) of the acquaintance. Spontaneously, they decided to curry favour by setting out to humble one of his rivals, Rasselas.

They set out for the Sea of Desolation, and there I sketch out some made up locations. I’d dimly thought of the Sea of Desolation before, and had a gist (it’s magical so islands move and shift, there are gaps between planes so weird monsters can pass into the world here, and it’s got a Sinbad meets Stranger Tides meets The Scar vibe). One of the places I’ve sketched, The Weeping Isle, I tell them is a cursed island riddled with tombs. That piques their interest, and they presume it would pique that of Rasselas, so they set out. There’s adventure everywhere.

On the island, they uncover and explore a Duergar ruin – twist, it’s a millennia-old ruin only from the future, and the Duergar meet a horrible fate at some unspecified future date. Tom’s character Rongrim, previously uninvolved in the main quests, now has a connection to explore which will eventually lead him to having a connection to the main-main quest, Pursue the Metagnosis. Additionally, the players encounter the remnants left by a former rival and ex-PC on the very same island, and have another feedback loop to combating the Cult of Ouroboros.

The players are choosing their goals, their methods and their priorities, but there’s a reward for each avenue explored, and they’re never not pursuing their main goals. This prevents the strange situation common in PCRPGs like Skyrim or Dragon Age where players cease averting the apocalypse to help a farmer find his lost sheep or look up a companion’s poorly sister: they’re always combating their enemies or growing their organisation’s strength in some appreciable way. Additionally, no one is too bored pursuing that quest that’s the baby of a single player, because ultimately they’re always pursuing their own goals simultaneously.

Additionally,  I’ve found my players love reminiscing about that time they fought on a giant chain hovering over a cavern, or when they burnt a city’s grain supply to wreak economic hell, or when they slew Sheng-Lung, a mighty water-beast in Loquista’s arena. Now, I use milestones for levelling, but that only gives you twenty or so moments per campaign where you can acknowledge a victory or moment of renown.

So as an alternative, and to keep the players mid-level long enough to have a campaign, I’m going to introduce reward feats for completion of those endeavours, either for quest milestones:

Reaper of the Raven Queen
You have vanquished three of the abominations marked by The Chooser of the Slain. Faced with you, even dead hearts shudder with fear.
Once per day, you may make all undead creatures within 15 feet make a CHA check versus fear. The DC is 8 + your level.

Or just moments that inspire bragging rights:

You have slain an apex predator – a beast whose eye had appraised civilisation as a wolf watches sheep. All shall raise a glass to your name.
You have advantage on all rolls to track dragons, or knowledge rolls about dragons. If you are a Ranger, you may treat Dragons as your favoured enemy. You need never pay for a drink again.

Power Behind The Throne
I am altering our deal. Pray I do not alter it further.
You have played kingmaker – there is a crowned head who will always be accommodating to you.

I find these are smaller power-boosts than a level, meaning I don’t have to constantly readjust the scale of my campaign to accommodate players who can now throw around a Circle of Death or turn into an Elemental or whatever, and there’s something massively cool about fucking up an enemy using an ability you won with your previous badassery, and it gets players remembering their party’s shared history or achievement and loss – something key to cohesion.