[Meta Gaming] M. John Harrison on worldbuilding, writing, reading and play

Long long ago, in the before-time, I wrote a post that quite badly misapplied, misunderstood, or perhaps merely under-utilised M John Harrison on the matter of worldbuilding.

I stand by what I said – that the nerdist approach to games and literature and cinema is based on an obsessive and pedantic hoarding of facts that’s ultimately misguided, dull and ever so slightly dangerous – but I didn’t go all the way down and I regret that.

What Harrison actually talks about is the claim that an imagined world really exists, and is a thing that can be interacted with at all. It’s all just words – words written by an author or authors – and what you’re really engaging with is an exchange between author and reader in which you complete the process of creating fiction. It’s not real when the author writes it, and it’s not really real even after you’ve read it, and pretending that there is something real and “canonical” behind/underneath the author’s writing of it is a fundamental failure to apprehend how the real universe works.

Yes, to discuss a book relies on familiarity with what’s actually in it and what you’re bringing to it, and claiming that your headcanon is what the author wrote is factually incorrect, but that’s not a disservice to some external true-reality of what the author wrote about. The real object is the book. Paper and ink, forming words, with meanings, that express concepts. (Or the film, or the code, whatever medium you’re on about, I talk about books because they’re the most physical media objects, the easiest with which to make this point about what’s real and what’s not.)

That fundamentally transformative process is what interests me the most about roleplaying games in particular; if I ever go back to the PhD, I’d want to shift my focus into that, into drawing parallels between the RPG rulebook and the playscript as drama-texts that are very obviously only realised when the play’s afoot. Harrison is correct in that all reading works like that, but it’s a lot more obvious when you have a performative element at the readerly end of the process. It happens again, as another act of reception and re-creation in the universe of the Actual Play, which is something I wish I was more into so I could document it more thoroughly. (Those things are long, brother, and I work for a living.)

What doesn’t interest me is any sort of in-universe “explanation” (read “excuse”) for the failings of a text, be they narrative or ideological or technical craft-manifestations that just aren’t very good. These amuse me sometimes, but they’re not praxis, they’re not engaged with the material world on a level which matters, there’s a reason we used to call this sort of thing “wank” for pity’s sake. Pleasurable, but doesn’t get anything done.

This post is brought to you by my occasional frustrations with Vampire: the Masquerade fans online, and their lack of engagement with the production side of the game and text. I say “fans” because a lot of these people are media-fandom people, they’ve played the CRPGs or watched the actual plays but the game text itself is mostly of interest to them as a reference book. A map to a territory that does not exist. An act of world-building.

Under the cut you’ll find versions of Harrison’s original posts, synthesised into a rough and ready essay. I do this because they’re only available through the Internet Archive, and if that should ever fail they’ll be gone-gone, and I don’t want that. I understand the desire to delete and purge one’s online snail-trail, I’ve done it myself enough times, but I also understand that some things have an impact and a worth to posterity that warrants their preservation, just so long as the person who wrote them isn’t still getting their menchies blown up by people missing the point.

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[Meta Gaming] A Battlefield Is Love

The starting point for this was a question on Classichammer.com about how many terrain pieces people use and how they’re generated.

I don’t actually have a say in my terrain setup very often. I’m usually booking tables at one of those large wargaming venues that have sprung up on industrial estates around the UK within the last decade, and the boards are set up by staff members in the morning before either player arrives.

We generally tweak positions (to create lanes through which units can actually move) or angles (to create opportunities for dynamic play, or rather to eliminate borehammer by forcing choices).
For example:

The first Battle of Point Lestroud. This table was set up for us by the boys at Atlantic Games in Stroud, before I’d figured out how to hide the venue names in the report titles quite so well or learned that horizontal photos are best for blogs.

For the second Battle of Point Lestroud we nudged all the walls to 45 degree angles instead of parallel with the deployment zone.

This is something I picked up from Warmachine, where there are game-changing defensive bonuses to be achieved from being on hills and behind walls (as in “you may literally not be able to hit or hurt certain models if they stack DEF or ARM bonuses high enough, good luck if that’s their ‘caster or they’re on an objective!”).

A wall parallel to the deployment area creates a safe zone for whatever’s behind it, discouraging dynamic play, a wall at 45 degrees to it is more interesting as units can take cover in one direction but have to expose a flank in another. It’s really apparent in rank and flank games where the angle of approach matters so much, and the second game was so much spicier as a consequence.

This isn’t to say that weird “fight at an angle across the field” battles are always Good and solid defences are always Bad. This one’s the grand battle at Caerwysg, the big 6000 point game I played back in 2019. I got to set this one up but it had to be with the limited collection of fantasy/historical scenery that had been brought to the venue by attendees.

Here, the terrain has been deliberately arranged so that the Dogs of War army has something to stand behind – defended obstacles across almost the whole zone. We did this on purpose so that they wouldn’t be swept away by 6000 points of oncoming vampire filth before their Bretonnian reinforcements arrived (it was a mashup Flank Attack/Capture scenario because neither of us wanted to count Victory Points in a game this big).

Those obstacles were a huge factor in the Dogs holding out for as long as they did (although we did misplay the extended rounds of combat across them). It took me five turns to get my elite units across them and I lost most of said units doing it. That led to a wonderfully tense end turn where the Bretonnians could sweep the field but only the Green Knight could actually reach the Capture objective and kill Mannfred von Carstein – with Mannfred dead there’d be more Bretonnian than Vampire points on the mark and it’d be game for the good guys.

This is what I want out of my Warhammer – a game that goes the distance and is worth playing right to the end – and where possible I tweak the terrain I’m given to enable it.

Sometimes opportunities are missed due to a lack of communication. This table was set for me at Firestorm Games in Cardiff for the battles at Tor Caerdydd: I came up with the “ruined city” narrative entirely based on walking in and finding this monstrosity already set up.

If I’d know about this in advance I’d have advocated for a scenario from the General’s Compendium – the one that’s basically about fighting in the Emyn Muil from Middle Earth – because you don’t often get a battlefield that’s this busy with one feature type without setting it up on purpose.

In theory we could ask for something specific from the venues but a) most of them have way, way more 40K terrain than anything suitable for WFB and b) I’m still getting other players on board with my “curate as much of the experience as possible” shtick.

It’s one of the reasons I like the Warhammer: Resurrection events so much, because Alex is on my wavelength and sets up tables that represent areas of the campaign map and puts thought into the kind of engagement that should happen there.

One day I will get back onto the deep forest table…

Is there a “takehome” from all this? I think it’s that “how many pieces?” is less important than “what kind of game experience are you trying to create here?” – answering that question will give you an idea of what to do with what’s available. If it’s just a pick-up game between pals then “what the venue’s left us with” is fine, but as ever I aspire to something a bit more shared and controlled.

[WFB] Warhammer For Adults: the New Testament

When I was a lad, playing at Wild Beasts under the table, I didn’t have the luxuries of time and choice that I have now. None of us guttersnipes did. We ran our regular pocket-money-and-birthday-present lists into each other, because that was all we had the capacity to do. It was rare enough at first for anyone to even bother with points and an army list. I was happy if we had, at least on paper, a fair fight, and so week after week I sent my Chaos Warriors trudging up the field into hails of bows, bolts and bloody High Magic spells, or lurching after Skinks who merrily hovered within eight inches but without ninety degrees for the entire duration. Because that was the only way I could play at all: constrained by the figures.

Later, in those heady glory years of playing sixth edition with my first serious disposable income, the chief constraints were not the figures, but the available space and time. Games were played in GW branches or clubs above pubs, on four foot by four boards with, generally, a queue to use them. There was no time to write up a list on the night – we’d hold things up – and so the games were pick up affairs at modest scale. 1500 points standard, with the occasional top heavy 2000 pointer so we could use Vampire Lords and Dragons and such without crowding the board. But we could get a Border Patrol in, and when we were building new armies or pressed for time, we did. And if there was a Mordheim league or similar on, we’d play that for a month instead. And I played, week after week, because that was the only way I could play at all.

Later still, as a starving graduate student, when the King of Editions had collapsed into “if only Pitched Battles are played, then only Pitched Battles shall be provided!” and my army was showing its age, I tried building another with the limited means available. I had 1000 points of Chaos Warriors, again. The local store played exclusively 2000 point Pitched Battles in preparation for the tourney scene. If I wanted to play at all, I had to borrow half an army and play with some jank I hadn’t made my own and learned and honed through the slow process of scaling up from Skirmish band to Border Patrol to 1000 to 1500 in scenarios that were built for mismatches to baby’s first 2000 point game – and my opposition would be loaded for bear, as the saying has it.

And if that was the only way to play, I wasn’t interested, so my WFB career began its slow decline into second hand armies, a morass of trading and swapping and desperately searching for the game I had loved in the game it had become.

Now, I am an adult. I play my irregular games in modern, spacious gaming centres, on twenty-four or even thirty-two square feet of sleek neoprene, with a CHAIR. Each! Maybe even a side space for rulebooks, templates, casualties and the midgame pint. Such, such are the joys. And these games are scheduled weeks in advance with other adults. They are anticipated, pondered over, thirsted after, and gleefully reported on. These games are a big deal. They should be more than the constantly, carelessly shovelled takeaways of the pick up game. They are more of a fine dining experience; a nice treat.

And this is what makes me think. Dangerous, I know. It reminds me of the admonishments of Brother Ranz, of yesteryear, that a wargame is not escapism: it is played in the real world with and against your chosen opponent. With… and against. With… and against. With… And it’s that With that matters.

When one is an Adult, you see, playing Warhammer for (and against, and with) other Adults, one takes responsibility for fun, rather than expecting the game system to guarantee it.

Back in the day, when we all stuffed our face with the unsatisfactory kebab-stuff of the pickup game twice a night three nights a week, we could afford to write off the duff ones. But now, when every game is arranged with care and anticipated for weeks if not months, we can – nay, must – curate those games to ensure that they are worth the faff.

We may wish for an unequal contest. There are scenarios for that, which curate the experience and frame it. That is well and good. What is neither well nor good is the complete stomping that comes out of the blue, when both participants have prepared for their own different sense of a game – and prepared separately.

Which means that my outdated sense of the Ultimate Spirit of Warhammer, derived from Stillmania and authentic Middlehammer as it may be, is still wrong. It is born from a gaming culture and game circumstances of yesteryear, when we all did this all the time.

Here and now, walking the one list into every game is leaving too much unplanned and unprepared for. It is on me, and you, and all of us, to play With each other and properly curate our battles, so that when we come to play Against each other we actually have a good time.

Here, for reference and record, is my own sense of the Ultimate Spirit of Warhammer (Revised Standard Version).

  • The perfect game is arranged a month or two in advance. A scenario is chosen and unless teaching and learning are the goals, it is not a Pitched Battle. Army lists are constructed through a discussion; what do we want out of this game and how can we be sure we get it?
  • On the day, the big game is teased and trailed with some warm-ups. A Skirmish or two, perhaps a Border Patrol before lunch. The afternoon is the Big Game, a stout 2000-3000 point affair ideally. Play proceeds at a gentlemanly pace without any “gotcha” moments or playing for the draw because it’s a bad match up.
  • It’s all over by teatime, and the outcome and the pitch for the next game can be discussed over your choice of hearty meal and adult beverage. Paid for by the winner, to ease the sting of defeat.

I haven’t quite pulled it off yet. But I live in hope.

[Meta Gaming] Theory Thursday – "Does This List make me That Guy?"

Questions like these come up on Reddit at least three times a week, and those are just the ones I see. “{insert popular tournament list archetype here} – does bringing this make me That Guy?”


Not in a vacuum, anyway.

I don’t care what it is. The latest Internet-approved tri-Riptide donkeyflop laswing with a Seer Council, dual Knights and go-faster stripes on the infinitely respawning Daemon Allies doesn’t make you That Guy in and of itself.

What does?

Powergaming alone

If you’re rocking up with that list and nobody knows it’s coming, you’re probably That Guy. If you’re putting it down on the table and someone takes out their motley collection of metal Guard figures from the 1990s which are barely even a proper army, if you squint and overlook the one missing platoon command squad, you’re definitely That Guy.

If you know for an absolute fact that anyone you might be playing that list against on this day, in this place, will be prepared for it and have something of comparable heft on their side, you are not That Guy. Congratulations.

If you have taken the time to find an opponent and arrange a game before you even write your lists, as God and the Studio intend, you are not That Guy. Not… yet. The thing is, being That Guy is a lot like actually winning games – it’s a lot less to do with list building than you think it is.

Being a helmet

Sadly, there is no defined and qualified list of helmetic behaviours. It sucks. I know. I’m autistic. I’d like there to be a list somewhere. There isn’t. I’m going to take a stab at it, but at least one of these is something that might only be a hot button for me. Bear that in mind.

  • Gamesmanship. Undermining your opponent either more directly (they hand you their list, you glance at it, stifle a snort and hand it back) or less (every time they get their game face on to make a decision, you ask them a well-timed question about something another of their units does). The outcome of a toy soldiers game is not worth playing mindgames on another human being. (Incidentally, I apologise for all the times I’ve pulled this one. I’ve been That Guy.)
  • Slow play/fast play. Playing noticeably slower than your opponent – stalling for time, especially in timed game environments, hoping to get the alpha strike and the last turn – is very bad form indeed. Playing faster than your opponent can follow – scooping up dice before they’ve registered the results, declaring your intent in a series of barked shorthands or worse, not at all, never stopping for anything that might be negotiable, hustling them to take decisions like whether or not to Deny the Witch? That’s also bad form.
  • Looking with your fingers, not with your eyes. Maybe this is more of a pet peeve, but I hate people touching my models even with permission. If break it, that’s on me and I’m allowed to be cross. If you break it I’m expected to eat that anger for the sake of the social contract and that doesn’t tickle me at all. This goes double for insolently flicking my dudes over when they die. (Nobody has ever actually done this to me, but I break out in a cold sweat thinking about it.) I gather that some scenes, like competitive Blood Bowl, are a lot more chill about this, and all I can say is that don’t fly with me. Unless I ask you to touch my stuff, don’t. Assume everyone is as uptight about this as I am.
  • “Gotcha!” There was a time when wargames were closed-information affairs: the exact nature of your list was a secret because there existed rules for scrying, scanning and so on. No more. Lists are open. Rules are open. Withholding key information until someone’s made a decision and then being all “no takebacks bro” is a sure sign that you are That Guy. That said…
  • Constantly reminding your opponents about a rule verges on being That Guy too, especially if it’s something like Stealth in Warmachine, where people often know  the shot will auto-miss but are hoping to catch something with the blast. This one is more forgiveable than the others – some people struggle to retain some rules, some people do pretend this state for advantage, and in general I would consider it good form to declare intent, issue reminders and narrate things like blast deviations, even if it does make you sound like a dice-rolling app on legs. This one is more about reading your opponent – if they seem heated, maybe don’t poke that inner fire too hard. Try asking questions rather than making statements – “you do know she has Stealth, right?” before the shot is taken is a bit less enraging than “Stealth” right afterwards.
  • Taking your eyes off the prize. Yeah, yeah, gaming is a social activity, I get that – but gaming is also gaming. If you’re more interested in the game on the next table over, whatever you watched on Netflix last night, the cute game store girl or telling me about your eighteenth level Paladin, you’re being a bit of a helmet. Maybe a skullcap or something. If you came out to play a game, play the game.
  • Hard tilt. This one is hard to cop to because it is my major sin of choice, but for the sake of honour and completeness it must remain. If you are still mildly traumatised from the unspeakable things that were done to your dudes in the last game, you need to recover before you hit the next one. If your single point of failure has been reached and you’ve already totally blown this game at the top of turn two, you’re either playing badly or being melodramatic, and in either case you need to breathe and think and ideally come back at this another day. I’m really bad at this, which is why I don’t play tournaments any more – the tension from the first game shorts my brain out and I totally forget how to handle myself in the next.
  • The Discourse. Off-colour jokes don’t fly when your opponent isn’t laughing and is squirming. There’s a time and a place for everything, even the dead baby jokes, but come on – read your opponent. If they don’t laugh, dial it back a notch and save everyone a boring argument. Likewise: tone policing. I get it; you don’t want to hear the word ‘rape’ five times in one sentence while playing toy soldier games. Doesn’t thrill me either. The thing is, when people are in mid game they aren’t always watching their every thought and word for every possible BadWrong they might say, and they aren’t going to be receptive to a hot button conversation right that minute. Distract, derail, move them along with the game, and unleash the Discourse afterwards, in controlled conditions. There’s a time and a place for everything.

The bottom line

Your list doesn’t make you That Guy. That Guy is someone you are, independently of the game mechanics. Failure to read your opponents, share desired outcomes in play, and uphold the social contracts: these are the hallmarks of That Guy. We are all That Guy sometimes, when our concentration lapses and our ill side gets the best of us, irrespective of what’s in our figure case today. It’s not what you play. It’s how you play it.

[Meta Gaming] A Moment of Sanity

Apparently this appeared in the New York Times the other day.

Judge John Hodgman on the Quest of Dungeon Master Dad

Paul writes: “I have a dispute with my son’s friend’s parents. They feel that Dungeons & Dragons is inappropriate for 5-year-olds. I think the imaginative play is good for our boys, but the other parents believe that the game will make their child an outcast. Help these parents see reason and allow their child to play a game of D&D.”

The court agrees that your neighbors are terrible snobs. I suspect, however, that playing D.&D. with your son is more your fantasy than his. Five-year-olds don’t need a lot of hex paper and dice to imagine that they are warriors or elves (or cyborg mermen with rainbow breath): They’re built for it. It is the adolescent who craves D.&D., as it offers the illusion that all of his increasingly terrifying interactions in real life are governed by a secret math that, while occasionally cruel as a vorpal blade, is at least comprehensible. Your moment as dungeon master will come, Dad, but for now I order you to simply let the children play.

I’m not dead. I’m just playing WoW again. I’m also designing a dungeon crawl for this year’s ArmadaCon. Well, I say ‘designing’, it’s more ‘flipping tarot cards and working out how many undead miniatures I can fit in my luggage’…