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Cluetrain Plus 10: my thoughts on theses 88

April 28, 2009

We have better things to do than worry about whether you’ll change in time to get our business. Business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?

Is this still a relevant ‘theses’ ten years on?

Let’s start with ‘business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours’. There is undoubtedly a gulf between a marketer’s work-life and their social-life. In Marketing and Modernity, an ethnographic study of a Swedish pizza company in the 1990s, Marianne Elisabeth Lien states that ‘practically nobody ever enters the marketing department as consumers. Yet the department is filled with people who are all part-time consumers in their various private capacities(original emphasis). This moment of realisation leads her to conclude that as far as marketers are concerned ‘consumers are the ‘ultimate other’’.

Has anything changed since Lien conducted her fieldwork in 1991/92 long before the internet became the mass phenomenon it is and even longer before global brands took an interest in what the internet could do for them? The answer, on the surface, is probably not. Marketing language may be changing to reflect the latest marketing trends, at least in a supplemental way, but the view most marketers prefer of consumers is the one from a distance. Why is this? At a superficial level it’s probably got a lot to do with the culture of most marketing departments, but at a more profound level it has got more to do with the concept of the ‘consumer’ and where it’s expected to sit in the grand hierarchy of life.

Lots of research companies claim not to like the word ‘consumer’ but ultimately ‘consumer’ is a category we tend to put people in if they don’t work in our industry, after all we might ask them about their family, their job, their hobbies, but inevitably we’re interested in what they buy and why. Of course the interesting thing about the term consumer is that nobody really thinks of themselves as a consumer, we may occasionally find ourselves admitting that we are under duress, but beyond the odd ironic slogan t-shirt we see ourselves as much richer subjects than that implied by the term. Despite the importance of consumption in our lives, we tend to see only the act of making a purchase as consumption, once we get our goods home and put them away in their proper place the act of consumption ceases. In light of this it’s understandable why the term consumer has an underlying pejorative meaning, it suggests an individual who puts more value in the act of purchase itself rather than the value of the object purchased. It’s always been a safe way to maintain the status quo, business is what the clever people do, consuming is what the stupid people do. When David Ogilvy in Confessions of an Advertising Man, published way back in 1963, says ‘the consumer isn’t a moron; she’s your wife’, he’s kidding no-one. But things have changed. The reason marketing teams aren’t encouraged to think like consumers is because all that separates them from the commodity obsessed masses is their sales sheets and knowledge of industry jargon. It’s simply safer to pretend that these tentative pieces of cultural capital will hold the dogs at bay.

For the majority of large businesses the growth of the web has done little to change this attitude, if anything the consumer has become an even more unnerving figure, inevitably distorted through media hype of the latest web trend and its most bizarre accounts. But even the companies founded on the web seem to have a rather ambivalent attitude to their consumers – for example, Facebook’s attempts to monetise users so far has ranged from disastrous to ineffectual. So simply being a successful web brand isn’t enough to guarantee an enlightened attitude to the humble consumer. The even sadder fact is that this attitude isn’t exclusive to business people, the people we classify as consumers think consumers are stupid. The Conversation on the web isn’t quite what it was, even in 1999 The Cluetrain Manifesto lamented the loss of innocence Today, we tend to think of “flaming” as a handful of people vociferously insulting each other online. A certain sense of finesse has largely been lost. In the olden days, a good flame war could go on for weeks or months, with hot invective flying around like rhetorical shrapnel’. Having been a part of the great social network site exoduses of the early 21st century I can remember distinctly the allure of Myspace with its legal band profiles, fully customisable html and I can also distinctly remember the jaded comments of friends who were sick and tired of the spam filled inboxes on Myspace, to whom Facebook was a beacon of light. That a lot of this spam came not from businesses as such but bands, club nights, self promoting individuals is no longer a surprise but it was more so at the time. If the web had been all about the conversations, it was rapidly heading in the direction of self-promotion. It seems that rather than businesses becoming more like consumers, consumers were becoming more like businesses. Thanks to the communicative and distributive tools of the internet anybody could advertise themselves and lots of people did. This trend has only accelerated – players of online games form hierarchical top-down organisations, techies develop apps in their spare time, ebay and amazon encourage people to become virtual stores. Even the less commercially minded will cumulatively spend hours updating profiles and uploading photos. If the sprawling chaos of the Myspace profile was the infomercial, Twitter is the streamlined 30 second ad where detail is less important than impact. No wonder business tries to distance itself from consumers when they threaten to move into the territory they’ve spent so long cultivating as their own.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing, the internet gives us greater control over what we consume and how we consume it and theoretically it’s great that anyone can become a business person, but the manner in which most people go about promoting themselves is rooted in over a century of traditional media and traditional media’s tactics, it suffers from the same problems and assumptions, particularly about what consumers will respond to. Hence the proliferation of spam. In the tradition of alternative histories it could be argued that the past 20 years should be known as The Age of Spam. Unlike advertising which has always been the medium of business, spam is the democratised take on one way messaging en masse. If spam was just the tool of the Viagra sellers then it would simply be another form of advertising, the fact that your friends and acquaintances are also more than happy to participate in a bit of ad hoc spamming is what differentiates it from its predecessors. In fairness to the people of the web, there are few proven alternatives to the traditional media format and let’s face it the traditional media approach works even if it’s far from perfect.

Possibly the greatest threat to businesses then is that it is being gradually commoditised, if everyone can do it then the position of expert is eroded if not erased. Perhaps the most insistent example of this is the music industry. When consumers and bands found that it was possible to distribute music more efficiently than the record companies, the music industry’s status was significantly reduced. The situation is hardly helped by programs like The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent where members of the public are raised to pop star status overnight only to be worthless a month later. It suggests that musical ability and talent is something the public at large are just as capable of discovering as the so called experts.

Finally then ‘who needs whom?’ Consumers, or whatever we call them, still need business, so much of our lives is based around the production, distribution and social status of commodities but business is no longer the behemoth it was it is worth only as much as its latest product or ad campaign, business is having to work harder to matter to people. What does business need to do to change this state of affairs? Well The Cluetrain Manifesto argues that business needs to find its human voice, to be genuine, pure, honest, but if the human voice on the web is intractably coloured by decades of marketing speak then it would seem rather foolish for business to attempt to follow this lead. After all it’s very difficult for sprawling corporations to appear genuinely human, a Facebook profile, Youtube page and Twitter account isn’t really enough to convince us of this. Instead business needs to wow us and amaze us like it did in the post war years with its modern miracles. Business is too content to follow trends set by consumers, when it should be starting the trends or at least trying to. Hopefully this would give marketing departments greater confidence in their own abilities rather than feeling like their place in the world has been usurped by the masses and consumer will cease to be such a derisory term. I think when businesses start aiming to be the experts again that then they will be ready to have a real conversation with consumers about what they are doing and what they should be doing because they’ll have an opinion and the confidence to debate its worth.

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WoW: the last blockbuster MMO?

July 15, 2008

I apologise for the tabloid-esque title for this post, it was actually inspired by an interview with Alex St John at MMOGamer. No’ I’d never heard of him either, until I read the interview, but he seems to have pretty good credentials – he was one of the people responsible for the development of DirectX and is CEO of a hugely successful digital distribution gaming platform, oh yeah and apparently, although he doesn’t say this explicitly, he was involved in persuading Richard Garriot to take his Ultima series into the online sphere and we all know what happened then. So all in all then I believe he’s someone worth taking notice of, particularly when it comes to predicting the future of gaming. His specific quote in refernece to the world of MMOs was:

“We’re going to see a generation of MMOGs that are much lighter, are delivered online, are microcurrency and ad supported, and evolve more dynamically. I think the era of WOW like MMOGs will quickly be displaced by lighter, more versatile communities that don’t require vast server infrastructure”

Now, it certainly isn’t the first time this kind of idea has been bandied about, but its timing seems apt. Age of Conan, despite remarkable sales figures, hasn’t fared so well critically now that players have had time to get their hands on it and the recent announcements concerning WAR are less than reassuring. Does this mean the whole concept of the multi-million blockbuster is flawed in the post-WoW world or are these problems specific to the games mentioned above? Will the cuts to be made to WAR at launch actually be beneficial to the game or, as the complaints against Age of Conan demonstrate, does a game need huge scope as well as depth?

Alex St John, coming at it from something of a business perspective, believes that the benefit of ‘lighter’ MMOs, which I think by this he means browser based, or at least very low spec games, with no or optional subscription, is that developers can build a loyal community with less commercial risk, and that once that community is big enough more content can be added to build depth to the game. Certainly MMOs like Maplestory, Flyff and Cabal are experiencing popularity in the western markets if Xfire’s charts are anything close to representative, although how this is translating into profit is less clear.

Looking at the wide range of reasons players cite as problematic in Age of Conan there seems to be some sense in beginning an MMO with a small, niche community as multi-million dollar games need big audiences and the bigger your audience the more people you have to keep happy and this seems to stretch developers beyond their limits. For the sake of convenience let’s assum that Richard Bartle’s four player types are representative of your ‘blockbuster’ MMO audience and map out some of the most commonly expressed criticisms of AoC:

Achiever – like LotRO, there is a dearth of content at the upper levels, weapon stats that have little affect on gameplay, bugged raids.

Explorers – only one starter area that lasts the first 20 levels, high respawn rates giving players little time to ‘relax’ in a given area, instancing.

Socialisers – little variation in armour models, almost compulsory single player gameplay in early levels, very tough mobs, poor chat interface.

Killers – siege warfare not working, massive class imbalances, problems with the combo system, poor PvP system.

Okay, so it’s a little contrived, but it could be read as an argument against targeting the broadest audience. Just take a look at this poll from the AoC forums. No it’s not absolutely statistically sound, but it seems to sum up most of the problems. It’s aesthetically pleasing and has a good storyline but many of the mechanics don’t work and the customer support is pretty awful. Does this mean that WAR is doomed for failiure, a fate that might prove Alex St John’s prediction true, certainly it might scare off future developers and damage the industry? Or maybe Mythic’s decision to cut some content will actual benefit the launch of the game as Keen points out on K&G’s blog as long as the content they do provide is top-notch.

History has proven that there are always genral problems with new MMOs, usually the launch, which AoC certainly suffered, but as people are quick to point out there were issues with WoW’s launch too. But given that many first time MMO players came to WoW some time after the launch, the latest batch of MMOs may well be the first time they’ve experienced these kinds of problems which when compared to the content rich and stable experience of WoW might ultimately prove too offputting. Could it actually be that WoW has set the bar so high for the mass audience MMO that future titles will face a huge struggle to maintain large audiences and how will that affect Blizzards next MMO? Or do games like LotRO prove that an MMO can do well even if its audience is relatively small by WoW’s standards?

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Now I am the Master: what MMOs can teach table top RPGs

July 9, 2008

There is a downside to playing two MMOs and trying to write a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, that is having very little time to do anything else fun. Hence the length of time that has passed between this post and the last one, which I believe was some time back in, er, March. There was also the small issue of getting married and going on holiday and all the organisation that entailed.

Anyway, I’d heard a while back that the D&D 4th edition was flirting with some online elements, which, according to the official site, includes the opportunity to actually play online as well as more predictable features like character visualisation, character records and access to the rules. This video below show’s you the kinds of things you can get up to with it.

Although I haven’t tried out the 4th ed rules myself, judging from the reviews it isn’t only the digital features that demonstrate the influence MMOs have had on this version of the game. According to reviews, both positive and negative, it’s borrowed a lot of the core concepts that characterise MMOs, well at least those of the WoW-mold anyway, such as the Tank, Healer, DPs trinity, metagaming and character optimisation. Understandably this has raised the ‘roleplaying’ question, does the MMO influence preclude character personality or can they live together side by side? I can’t really get a sense of just how much room there is for genuine role-playing in the rules, the reviews hint at very little in the way of guidance for this element, but I do think WotC have taken an interesting approach to tabel top role playing all the same. Whether or not it will actually bring in the MMO crowd or not is probably down to the way it’s marketed as much as it is down to the system and that I can’t comment on.

The reason I bring D&D 4th ed up is that I plan on using a few MMO mechanics in the WFRP campaign I’m about to start running. Unlike D&D 4th ed, however I’m going to try and use them to enhance and reward the role-playing experience. One thing about WFRP is that combat plays a relatively minor part of the game (or at least it does in mine), so alot of the time players are interacting with NPCs or with their environment which in many cases can feel a lot less satisfying than ‘killing the bad guys’. All RPGs, as far as I;m aware, reward xp to players for ‘good roleplaying’ but this is usually a general reward given at the end of a session or adventure as opposed to xp given for specific examples of good roleplay. Also, it isn’t usually specified what good roleplay constitutes, which while giving GMs flexibility can leave players confused about what they should be trying to acheive.

I was quite inspired by this discussion about character motivations on the Fantasy Flight WFRP forums. Part of the difficulty players face when roleplaying in RPGs is not being clear about what their motivations are or how they tie into their personal history. I don’t ever think that a character’s motivation should simply be about survival or making money, these should be means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I asked my players to come up with rough background ideas for their character’s which I then elaborated. This has the added benefit of allowing me, as GM, to bring their own histories into play as storylines in themselves. For example the PCs meet because they are looking to solve their own personal tragedies. I know some WFRP GMs like to make their player’s characters to be expendable, but I beleive they should sit at the heart of the story, that way they feel less like chess pieces, which is another problem that tends to arise with gritty realistic RPG settingsd more like they have, and more like they have some influence on the world they’re in .

The players have clear motivations, tied to objectives they want to acheive, meaning that it’s easy to hand out xp for acting in a way that’s relevant to these objectives. I’ve given them a helping hand by writing down four or five behaviours that will be rewarded with a range of xp in the range of 5-10 points. This xp will be handed out during the game and hopefully the players will feel a sense of progression and at the same time be encouraged to do it more frequently. On the other hand other xp rewards will be tuned down so as to prevent the PCS advancing too quickly. My first concern is that this might break the immersion experience, but I’m hoping it will be no more noticeable than dice rolling. My second concern is that my players turn into a bunch of RP power gamers, using every opportunity they can to grab xp through elaborate roleplaying, which ti be fair could be a lot of fun.

The other thing I’m planning on adding to my campaigns are mini-games. The ‘analogue’ nature of RPGs, especially when miniatures aren’t used, can make some GM decisions seem rather arbitrary, whereas mini-games allow for a degree of formal structure without it dominating the entire experience. The example I’m using in the scenario I’m currently writing uses a snake and ladders concept in a chase scene. The PCs can still use their abilities to overcome certain obstacles, but there are general rules that affect all players.

The benefit of these mechanics is that players feel like they’re getting a continuous stream of concrete rewards for playing the game the way I feel it should be played, which I hope will encourage them ti try harder to play it that way and also get them more deeply emotionally engaged in the campaign. Once it gets going I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Gender ‘swapping’ in MMOs

March 26, 2008

As usual I’m totally late on the subject of this blog entry, namely the Nottingham Trent University study ‘Gender Swapping and Socialising in Cyberspace’ . Richard Bartle provided a fairly damning appraisal of both the newspaper reports of the study and the scientificness of the research on his blog. The problem with reports like this is not so much the failings of the study itself, but the distortion of the findings created by the media response, that inevitably errs on the side of sensationalism. Sure the sample used in the study wasn’t huge and many of its findings repeat those of previous studies, but all in all the conclusion is fairly positive. Richard Bartle points to this article from The Guardian (I’m rapidly losing respect for you, you know) which opens with the quote ‘millions of internet users are using computer games to perform virtual sex changes, according to new research’ which sums up the mainstream media’s attitude. Before I start waffling about my own thoughts on this I want to say that ‘gender swapping‘ is a bloody awful term. The dictionary definition of swapping is ‘to make an exchange’ i.e. one party gives up possession of one item in exchange for another. People who play MMOs do not swap gender. If I choose to play a female Orc, I do not cease to be a human male, my gender doesn’t change. Sure, it sounds like pedantry, but I think it’s important that academics (and the media) acknowledge that identity in online contexts is supplemental - I add something to my identity, but I don’t take anything away. In other words I remain a human, male at core but additionally in World of Warcraft I am a female Orc and a male Tauren.

Why gender has become such an issue in MMO studies is interesting in itself, particularly when players also have the opportunity to play as non-humans of varying degrees and take-up occupations that range from stabbing people in the back to summoning demonic entities. The Guardian can happily announce to the world that MMO players ‘perform sex changes’, but they don’t seem as keen to announce that players can make ‘race changes’ or ‘occupation changes’. Okay, so gender is anchored in real world physiology and culture and therefore seems more relevant to a mainstream media audience, but if as the NTU study suggests that Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft normalised the female avatar than why is it still such a big deal in MMOs? The answer is of course lies with the fact that players interact with one another and are relatively anonymous and it isn’t always clear that a female character is being played by a male player or vice versa. What’s interesting about the findings in the study, is that many of the players who play genders opposite to that of their own, have clearly played genders the same as their own. The women who claim they get less hassle as male characters have clearly experienced hassle as female characters and the male players who play female characters know they’ll get fewer gifts as male characters than female becuase they’ve played male characters. Players make decisions about their characters based on their experiences in the game world, they are not necessarily tied to identity issues they may be having in real life.

This is true not just for gender, but aspects such as race and particularly class as well as things like talent and skill builds. A player of an MMO might start the game playing a healer, only to decide later that they prefer tanking, something they could only learn by playing both classes. That most MMO players have numerous alts is not even touched upon in this study even though it’s a major part of the MMO experience and is surely as relevant to identity as gender. Choice of character is tied to what players want out of the game, the fact that they have choice and the option to play whatever combinations there are available is something exclusive to MMOs. In real-life we might spend our childhood years dreaming of being a fireman, only to find we’re better suited at being an accountant once we reach adulthood, we might possibly go through two or three career changes but our range of experiences is pretty finite. In MMOs this is less problematic, players can experience many lifetimes, from birth (level 1) to retirement, multiple times. Retired characters can also be brought back from retirement and suffer none of the issues of ill health that plague their real life counterparts. What would have made for a more interesting study would have been to look at players’ histories of character development: the number and kind of alts they have, their first character, how often they play their characters, what made them try a new character out and stick with it or abandon it and so on. If academics are going to look at gender in MMOs they need to look at the bigger picture, then they might find that it’s not just female characters that get hassle, so do certain classes and talent builds (e.g. hunters), while some classes are more priveleged, e.g. tanks and healers as well as the pressure players may get from guilds and friends to play certain classes. Pressures aren’t related exclusively to gender but a lot more complex and unlikley issues.

(Edited for shit spelling and poor grammar)

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Worlds of Fantasy: fantasy… “…the biggest thing in our modern culture”??

March 17, 2008

gandalf-for-president-2.jpg

So, the final episode of BBC4′s Worlds of Fantasy series aired on Wednesday night (I caught it on the recently cracked BBC iPlayer) and it was easily the most interesting of the lot, managing to pack pretty much everything I complained about the absence of in the first two epsiodes. Under normal circumstances I’d have moaned about the overabundance of Terry Pratchett (as a teen I preferred Piers Anthony’s Xanth series) but in his favour he’s done a good job of popularising the genre and given that he just donated $1 million to Alzheimer’s research and is sadly suffering from the disease itself I think he deserves all the attention out of sheer respect, if nothing else.

It all began very well with some clips from World of Warcraft at long last, then drove straight into the subject of the post-war fantasy boom, with interviews from Michael Moorcock, who explains that coffee and sugar where his drugs of choice during the 60s, and, get this, Lemmy! While discussing the hippy movement’s love for Lord of the Rings the narrator, quite unintentionally states the funniest line on the whole series, when he says that ‘fantasy thrived in an underground scene of radical thinking, wild imagination and the kind of drugs that made people want to befriend elves’.

Moorcock draws an interesting parallel between rock’n’roll and fantasy genre, a point he explores in more depth in Wizardry and Wild Romance, the emphasis being on the ‘romance’ element. Given the penchant for fantasy imagery amongst ‘power metal’ bands like Blind Guardian, Doomhammer, and my personal favourite Crystal Viper this seems particularly relevant. We finally get to see some D&D in action with what appears to be a very young Steve Jackson and some very dodgily painted miniatures. We get a bit of Hollywood in here too in the form of Guillermo del Torro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth and even MMO’s own great grandfather Richard Bartle.

But the statement quoted in the title of this post is what surprised me most. Maybe I’m a bit out of touch here, but despite the popularity of The Lord of the Rinsg films and Harry Potter I thought that being a fan of this genre was nigh on the worst social stigma conceivable. Okay, so commuters unabashedly read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings on the tube, but this falls a long way short of encompassing the genre as a whole. Perhaps it would be fair to say that ‘fantasy’ in the broadest sense is having a major impact on our entertainment preferences, especially if we count superheroes, supernatural horror and the ‘magic realism’ of shows like Pushing Daisies as well as the continuing production of more conventional fantasy releases like The Spiderwick Chronicles and the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit. Perhaps it’s not a huge surprise that most of the conventional fantasy films are aimed at younger audiences, I’m doubtful we’ll see an Elric or Cugel the Clever film anytime soon, more’s the pity. MMOs are used to illustrate that people want to do more than just read about fantasical quests, they want to do them. We get lots of nice shots fro World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, but again, in the UK at least there is still social stigam attached to these games, even more so than single player games. This isn’t to say that fantasy isn’t appealing, I’ve noticed the strange gleam in friends’ eyes when I show them my Dungeonquest and Talisman boardgames, I’m sure I can see their inner struggle, their curiosity to know if it will be just as exciting to pretend to be a barbarian or magician as it was when they were kids, so perhaps the fantasy is better described ‘guiltiest pleasure’ in our modern culture.

The last part of the programme briefly discusses ‘The New Weird’ and its more gritty take on the genre, asking the question is fantasy popular because of some millinerian anxiety, a need for a escapism or an abstract lense through which to view the great fears of the day? It’s a difficult call really and I’m dubious that a single factor alone can have such impact. The Harry Potter series began in 1997 four years before 9/11 and The Lord of the Rings trilogy began its run in cinemas a year before that, so fantasy was rising in popularity before our fears became apparent. Could it have been a general response to the turn of the millenium? Well, give that prior to 2001 the greatest conceived threat was the ‘Millenium Bug’, a disaster movie concpet so unconvincing that even the most desperate Hollywood studio wisely ognored it, then I would say, no. Harry Potter probably has as much in common with The Famous Five as it does Lord of the Rings, maybe even more, and I think its popularity has as much to do with the reclamation of romanticised British culture from nationalism (and football) something ex-colonies, and probably most of the globe can appreciate. The Lord of the Rings films made the most of the amazing special effects available today and conicided with two other epic ‘fantastical’ trilogies (Star Wars prequels and the Matrix films) and is as much a part of their heritage as fantasy litertaure. Likewise the popularity of MMOs has as much to do with improved computer graphics, simplification of gameplay and the rapid spread of broadband than some underlying ideological pressure. Fantasy will probably always be there, it’s popularity like that of sci fi will wax and wane depending on the quality and relevance of media to societies tastes and preferences. Whether it will ever be accepted in the world of formal institutions is up to the next generation of those who find themselves in a position to champion its cause. I know I’ll be doing my best.

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I’m a Neutral Good Halfling Druid/Bard…

March 14, 2008

At least I am according to this ‘What D&D character are you?’ test I read about on Psychochild’s blog. Here are my stats:

Ability Scores:
Strength- 13
Dexterity- 17
Constitution- 13
Intelligence- 15
Wisdom- 18
Charisma- 12


Alignment:
Neutral Good- A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do. He is devoted to helping others. He works with kings and magistrates but does not feel beholden to them. Neutral good is the best alignment you can be because it means doing what is good without bias for or against order. However, neutral good can be a dangerous alignment because because it advances mediocrity by limiting the actions of the truly capable.

Race:
Halflings are clever, capable and resourceful survivors. They are notoriously curious and show a daring that many larger people can’t match. They can be lured by wealth but tend to spend rather than hoard. They prefer practical clothing and would rather wear a comfortable shirt than jewelry. Halflings stand about 3 feet tall and commonly live to see 150.

Primary Class:
Druids- Druids gain power not by ruling nature but by being at one with it. They hate the unnatural, including aberrations or undead, and destroy them where possible. Druids receive divine spells from nature, not the gods, and can gain an array of powers as they gain experience, including the ability to take the shapes of animals. The weapons and armor of a druid are restricted by their traditional oaths, not simply training. A druid’s Wisdom score should be high, as this determines the maximum spell level that they can cast.

Secondary Class:
Bards- Bards often serve as negotiators, messengers, scouts, and spies. They love to accompany heroes (and villains) to witness heroic (or villainous) deeds firsthand, since a bard who can tell a story from personal experience earns renown among his fellows. A bard casts arcane spells without any advance preparation, much like a sorcerer. Bards also share some specialized skills with rogues, and their knowledge of item lore is nearly unmatched. A high Charisma score allows a bard to cast high-level spells.

I’m not sure how I became a Halfling given that when it asked me my height I ticked ‘tall’ but apart from that I’m fairly happy with being a hybrid class Druid/Bard although my Bard spellcasting abilities will suck, because I have very average Charisma. But not to worry as I’m a long way from casting any decent spells being a mere level 2/2. One thing it doesn’t tell me is how many Hit Points I have, assuming this is AD&D (did they eve have Druids and Bards in basic D&D?) I guess I’d get 1D8 + 1D6/2, right, meaning an average of about 4 hitpoints per level, so roughly 8? Probably enough to take out a Kobold, maybe two if I used my healing spells. Can a Druid’s animal companion attack at this level, anybody(My D&D books are in my mum’s garage)?


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Tolkien and Peake: The Next Stage of Fantasy Literature

March 12, 2008

I finally got round to watching the second part of the BBC4 series Worlds of Fantasy, after having some issues with the iPlayer which I won’t go into here, I think there are enough complaints about it already. Unfortunately, it took me so long to get round to watching it then writing this that there’s only 10 hours left to catch it (sorry), although the final part of the series was shown last night and should be available on the iPlayer now. Incidentally, what’s with the Spinal Tap-esque volume adjuster on that thing?

So part two focuses on just two fantasy authors, Tolkien (no surprises there then) and Mervyn Peake, who I was very surprised to see included as the only other author. Let’s be totally honest, Tolkien had to be included, even before the success and mainstream appeal of the films he was still, for the majority of people familiar with this genre, the top of the pile. And naturally his name will bring more eyeballs to the screen, which I haven’t got a problem with at all. I wasn’t expecting a Moorcockian trawl through the outer limits of Gothic and Romantic literature (I’m reading his book Wizardy and Wild Romance at the moment, I know for a fact that if I live my lifetime twice I’ll never read all the books he has read) but I was expecting more than just Tolkien, and oh yeah, Peake. In essence what we got was two brief biographies of the authors, looking at what influenced them (Germanic myths, Worcestershire landscape, the horror of war, Arundel Castle) and what their motivations for writing in this genre were. The most interesting element discussed less fully than it could have been was the idea of ‘secondary world creation’ – Middle Earth and Gormenghast were not set somewhere on earth past, present or future or even a dimension parallel to earth from which they could be accessed, they were entirely secluded locations that had their own histories and cosmologies, especially in Middle Earth’s case (which the documentary does cover in a fair bit of depth, although I don’t recall them mentioning the Silmarillion).

I’ve tried to convince myself that it was for this reason that the programme focused on these two authors exclusively. If we look at the other early fantasy authors there is an element of ambiguity about whether or not their worlds are entirely seperate from a fictional version of our own earth or not. Obviously Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series is set in our universe and Howard’s Conan stories are set on earth albeit in a very different pre-ice age landscape. But what about the other originators of the genre like Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber? Many of their fantasy worlds are distinctly unearthly. I suppose it’s possible that Vance’s Dying Earth is set in the future of our own planet, but never is that made explicit to my knowledge. And there is at least one adventure where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser enter our earth’s past, but this is an exception to the rule. So why were two such influential writers not included? Well, I think it has alot to do with the fact that both Tolkien and Peake were British writers, that Jack Vance and Fritz Lieber are US authors and probably less familiar over here (the Gormenghast TV series from 2000 will have brought some familiarity to the masses) and finally that Lieber and Vance are deemed to have less literary worth in BBC circles.

Given that Tolkien and Peake are described as the ‘grandfathers of modern fantasy’ it would have been nice to have seen a wider range of things thay had influenced. Okay, they mentioned games and actually showed a few clips from Lord of the Rings Online, but I was a bit pissed that they didn’t even mention Dungeons and Dragons or even something like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (perhaps that would have raised to many questions about the absence of Conan). Strangely enough, and maybe in order to emphasise the point that Peake, though clearly in the shadow of Tolkien, has influenced a crop of contemporary fantasists the show featured some prominent clips of books by China Mieville and Joe Abercrombie, but none say of classic Tolkien-inspired romps like Dragonlance or Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series.

To be fair if I didn’t know a great deal about fantasy authors the program would have been fairly informative if limited in scope. Personally I think that Lieber and Vance would have much more appeal to someone who watched the program because they liked Tolkien, and they have they added bonus of a sense of humour. Speaking of humour apparently tonight’s instalment features Michael Moorcock talking about the influence drugs had on fantasy writing in the 60s, should be interesting.

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