Friday, August 18, 2017

Don't You Dare Play an Evil Character in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

A controversy charred the pages of Dragon Magazine in the summer of 1984. In issue #89, author and contributing editor Katharine Kerr wrote a long opinion piece on the evil of running "evil campaigns" in fantasy role-playing games. Kerr wrote that "there are too many arguments against playing evil campaigns for me to review all of them here" and so she focused on the psychological harm that these games inflict on their participants: "I maintain that spending all that time pretending to be evil is dangerous to the players themselves." Her point was that playing a villain warps your personality by normalizing violent behaviour and eroding your natural sense of compassion. She even included a story about "a gamer I'll call Bob" who embarked on an evil campaign that left him and his friends "emotionally and morally calloused".

Author Katharine Kerr
This touched a nerve. In subsequent issues, Kerr's polemic against evil campaigns was strenuously debated in letters and articles. One letter began "I am sure that I am not alone when I say that Katharine Kerr's article about evil PCs left me both disturbed and contemplative. Her analysis truly frightened me into thinking that players who run evil characters have some serious emotional problems." Other letters were defensive and peevish. Some justified evil campaigns on the basis of psychology (they are an "outlet" for negative emotions) or realism (resort to harsh tactics is one well trodden path to power). In issue #91, one astute letter writer noted that even in a campaign with all good characters, one person is still obligated to take the role of the villain, namely the DM. This author goes one to ask if "the DM heading for the psychiatrist's couch?"

This debate kindled a broader discussion about alignment in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. AD&D, of course, strictly categorized all living beings into one of nine alignments based on the permutations of Good, Evil and Neutral on one axis, versus Lawful, Chaotic and Neutral on the other axis. Thus, in issue #93, one correspondent posed a series of questions about whether this alignment system is based on a medieval European morality or a "20th century, Judeo-Christian, American morality". Actually, that's rather a good question. Dragon Magazine answered with articles on "The Neutral Point of View" in Issue #99 and a plea for a less black-and-white approach to alignment in "For King and Country" in Issue #101.

What to make of this brouhaha? Well, let me start by saying that I've got a lot of time for Katharine Kerr. Besides being an accomplished author, she wrote one of my favourite magazine articles of all time, a thoughtful breakdown of medieval army logistics called "An Army Travels on its Stomach" (in Dragon #94). So I don't want to dismiss this dispute as a simple matter of hyper-morality. Rather, I think Kerr's article and the aftermath were the product of a special point in time.

The most striking part of the whole debate is how seriously people took AD&D. It seems that in the 1980's, the imaginary world of the role-playing game cut much closer to the bone than it does in our more jaded and ironic present. Reading Kerr's article and all the responding letters conveys an impression that the gaming sessions of the mid-1980's were viscerally linked to one's personality and outlook on life. What happened on the gaming table mattered, and said something about you as a person. In this sense, there was a thinner barrier between the realm of fantasy and the world of reality. (Incidentally, the muddled boundaries between the real world and the imaginative realm of 1980's D&D players is something captured well in the period piece Stranger Things.)

One thing that lent spice to the debate about evilness was the moral panic that engulfed Dungeons and Dragons during this time. I still remember the mistrust with which teachers and administrators at my school regarded D&D in the wake of movies like Mazes and Monsters (1982) or 60 Minutes special in 1985. While anyone with a shred of familiarity with AD&D knew that it wasn't a portal to demonic possession or mental illness, the controversy around the game jangled everyone. Thus, a conversation about evil PCs had higher stakes in 1984 that it does now. In fact, I don't think that sense of heightened concern wasn't as bad even a couple years before --  for example, in 1982, Dragon published a playful article about playing an evil character and there was no blow-back or debate ("How to Have a Good Time Being Evil" by Roger E. Moore in Issue #45).

It's also important to put the "evil campaign" dispute in perspective. At the same time that Kerr and company were fighting over morality and psychological health, an equally acerbic debate was going on in Dragon Magazine... about how to properly calculate falling damage in accordance with Newtonian physics. This argument also spanned several issues and engendered withering criticism. (My favourite line: "While I admire the detail of research and reasoning in Stephen Innis' article, I think he's made an error by comparing the proportionate weight of a dwarf expanded to six-foot stature to that of a six-foot human.") Which is to say, flame wars were a part of gaming culture long before the rise of the internet.

The only thing that truly troubles me about the 1984 controversy is that one one mentioned the most important and obvious part of evil characters: however evil they may be, they never actually see themselves on the wrong side.

I bring all this up for two reasons. First, I love travelling back in time and seeing how attitudes towards our hobby have changed, even within my lifetime. And second, I want to introduce you to my own evil campaign...  

In the meantime, do you think there is any problem with playing evil characters? Does that question seem too naive to even ask it?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Guest Post: Arbaal the Undefeated... a stopover in Oldenhammer

My friend Travis, proprietor of Hot Dice Miniatures and miniature painter extraordinaire, has written a guest post for Oldenhammer in Toronto. I'm happy to be able to showcase his superb work...

Matthew has graciously allowed me to show off some of my Old Hammer here on his blog. Unfortunately this means that you as the reader can expect none of the charm, and about half of the wit usually found here. For this occasion I have dug out something from my closet that is extra special in the market of old Games-Workshop pieces.

The story about how I first came to own this particular miniature begins as it always does: in a game store. I was out of town playing in a Kings of War Tournament when the game store's dusty corners revealed an old gem to me. "Champions of Chaos" bore a piece of masking tape marked in red sharpie: $5.

One of the showcased figures began to jump out at me after some trips to the porcelain throne with the old paperback. Near the back of my bookshelf is where this tome would end up after its newness had worn off. Some time later I spotted this miniature that looked so familiar on Ebay for an absurd $200 CAD. 

I pulled out the Champions of Chaos book to see if I could source the miniature’s back-story, points cost and so forth! 

“In the name of Khorne, Arbaal the Undefeated challenges a Vampire Lord to single combat.” 

Low and behold he was in there...

“Thousands have felt his axe blade at their necks and now their white skulls lie at the feet of Khorne. At the city of Praag in the northlands, Arbaal led a hundred Daemons in the assault on its boundaries. It was Arbaal who finally breached the gates of the city and ended the siege. Legends claim that Arbaal slew a thousand warriors that day.”

Arbaal comes in weighing at 570pts, and has a Weapon Skill rating of 9. Every turn he rolls 2D6 to generate his number of melee attacks, and turns into a Chaos Spawn when he fails Leadership tests!

No more than two weeks after the Ebay spotting I found a listing for him on the local Kijiji for a measly $20 CAD! I couldn’t believe my eyes. Money was exchanged and now I can bring you the above photo of his bare metal beauty.

It turns out that his banner is actually a sticker à la the 90’s. I was both intrigued and dismayed to realize that this wasn’t the type of transfer that I’ve grown accustomed to over many years of purchasing GW kits.

The figure went together beautifully 
using Super T Hot Stuff, no pinning required. I couldn’t help but notice how cool the box he came in was while I was putting him together.

I’ve just finished painting some modern GW plastics and 5 crisp Infinity sculpts. I’m not sure why exactly but it felt as if this old model was fighting against every inch of the paint job. I struggled with the rounded edges and blown out details on the rider.

Not being a huge fan of the paintjob exhibited on the box art I decided to attempt a decidedly more red & bronze scheme.

There are things about the final paint job that I like, and some that leave me a little disappointed. The things that I like include the horns, the axe’s blade and the glove’s fur. What surprised me was how good the sticker-banner looks when compared with regular hard plastic banners. 

The pooch upon which Arbaal rides went through multiple colour changes, and ended up being one of the things about the paint job which left me disappointed. Perhaps it is the way the horns don’t contrast with the skin, or the general messiness of the skin details. 

A Slaanesh Champion challenges Khorne’s most devoted servant to a throw-down.

I’ve been enjoying messing around with my minis in Photoshop using silly .PNG pictures lately. If you enjoyed this diarized project then perhaps you might enjoy a peak at my blog. I don’t always paint Old Hammer stuff; usually just whatever shiny manages to grab my goldfish-like attention span.

Thanks to Matthew for allowing me share with you all. Paint criticisms & critiques are appreciated.​