Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A case for game-design mentality in modding

If you don't have a clue what "modding" is and still want to read this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mod_(video_gaming)
Mount&Blade and M&B:Warband are sandbox computer RPGs set in a pseudo-medieval world.
http://www.taleworlds.com/
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Note: this post is inspired by the discussion about the differences between two LOTR mods. 
The Veiled Stars is a relatively new project in progress headed by Jarvisimo:
http://www.moddb.com/mods/the-veiled-stars

The Last Days of the Third Age is a mod originally for the older M&B, now also ported for Warband. I've been a member on the TLD team for quite a few years now, contributing everything from concept art and lore knowledge to writing and sound design.
http://www.moddb.com/mods/the-last-days

Understandably, there's a certain level of animosity between fans of these mods, as LOTR total conversions are hard to find and discussions online usually get quite heated. This is not meant to pour oil into the flames, rather I'm using the situation as a setup for an article I've been meaning to write for a while.

PS: Guys, remember your forums are public and anyone can stumble upon your bitter put-down posts about TLD. I understand where you're coming from, but it's still a bit rude. When we talk shit about you, we at least have the sense to do it in our hidden dev forum. ;P
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The background of The Last Days

TLD is actually three different mods. There are layers in both assets (visual/sound/writing..) and scripted gameplay features. This could be quite the history lesson, so I'll summarize in short:
1.) The good old TLD from when our leader Ancientwanker was still around. (2007-2009) For M&B 0.808, the mod became a real total conversion and not just the basic game with a few models swapped for orcs and Gondorian soldiers. (which is what it all began as, in the ancient beta days) 
AW (Ancientwanker) had big plans for a whole system of quests, for the War of the Ring and other features we sadly never learnt about. (due to him disappearing without a trace, it's quite likely he passed away) This layer survives in some of the assets (bits of orc equipment, lots of Harad's design, Rhun's entire style laced with Conan the Barbarian etc.) and in some features (the "Sorcerer of Mirkwood" quest is a remnant of a stealth system coded by Yoshiboy, which we sadly dropped in rest of the mod), but more importantly - in the idea of a design plan. Only when AW was gone, I realized we had little idea where to go from there. Or rather, everyone had their own ideas and no clue what AW's TLD was supposed to be as a whole. 



Here's an interesting video for comparison, someone playing the 0.808 version in 2011. :)

2.) TLD up to version 3.0 released for M&B 1.011. (2009-2011) This was the silver age. We mourned the loss of our glorious leader, wondered what his vision was and tried to reach it by running blindly into several directions. We had absolutely wonderful people on the team and what the mod is today stands on what they've done then. The war system, the quest writing, the companions, all the visuals and settlement scenes, all the custom sound work, animations and even entire pieces of development software created to make TLD. 
Lots of talented people also meant lots of arguing and design disputes. I like to believe it was necessary to distill TLD into greatness, but it wasn't always pleasant. Still, we agreed on the large concept, TLD was supposed to be a total conversion with emphasis on player immersion and focus on the War of the Ring, with occasional emergent lore-friendly roleplaying and exploration.
Mostly due to burnout, frustration caused by engine limitation and personal conflicts, the team fell apart after patching up the initial release. This is the TLD we've had and played for a few years.

3.) TLD up till now. Only a few people remain of the original team, active here and there when they feel like it. We've gotten a new programmer who's done great work in balancing the mod and adding a few new features (CppCoder). It's been mostly me posing as the voice of TLD for some time now, and I've been the annoying bugger who can't quite let go of this thing. Pushing and pulling everyone I could muster into working on the mod at least a bit. A few graphics assets have been redone, big plans were had in regards to finishing incomplete quests etc.
Then Swyter (of Star Wars: Conquest fame) decided to port the mod to Warband. I happily stayed out of his way and helped wherever my limited skills allowed it.

Keeping your core tight

I think the two major reasons why TLD is popular with players are:
1.) It's a LOTR mod. Hands down, this is the reason why people download it. There's a great hunger for LOTR inspired games, probably because there are so few actually good ones. Mods help fill this niche.
2.) It's designed like a game, (one that plays different enough to M&B itself) with a clear focus on a specific type of gameplay and player experience.
TLD's focus on the War originated in the very first of the three ages (Three ages of The Last Days of the Third Age...get it? ;-P). The native game at the time didn't have a real war system, you couldn't win. All you could do was fight the never ending line of respawning enemy parties. To have sides in the war with the possibility of losing/winning the war by defeating enemies who can actually die was a new concept, so we built on it a lot in the future.
M&B later expanded on the sandbox element of the game, with owning villages and having obligations as a vassal of a lord etc. 

During the silver age, we discussed this and decided to keep everything like marriage and fief management out. As we say in the Manual, the mod is set during the War of the Ring and to settle down with a wife, to manage building of a church and fences and whatnot, it just doesn't make sense. 
Content and features making sense in the setting is key, when introducing new stuff we always asked if it's based on anything in Tolkien's books. If not, does it seem like something that would plausibly happen in Middle Earth? The resource/rank/influence points system replacing native dinar currency is a result of this process. Not many characters in the books actually ever talk about money and if they do, it's presented as a negative thing. When military tactics are discussed, nobody asks about costs and supplies. They know the stakes, it's all or nothing. 
So you're not being paid money, you don't "buy" items. Instead you're supplied by your faction, you requisition items from the armoury based on how much your faction appreciates you. Many heated discussions were had, some of our coders still disagree with the decision, but the system seems to get about an equal amount of positive and negative opinions from players, so I take it as a matter of taste and not a gamebreaking annoyance. 

Last Level Press - a review and a great analysis of TLD 

Setting is king, especially if you're doing LOTR. There are so many Tolkien nerds who will understand easter eggs, tiny references and nods. Who will spot the tiniest of inaccuracies. So we agreed to change as much writing to be setting appropriate as possible, we've added little touches like an ingame elven calendar, or messages telling you which microregion of Middle Earth you're entering. Which brings me to another aspect we tried to keep tight - the map. Comments about our map being too small amuse me. We still get questions if Eriador and other western areas will become available later. Nope, they won't. We actually downsized the map during development, because it felt too empty and we couldn't populate it with more moving entities for performance reasons. Besides "being able to go there", there wasn't any benefit in mapping the entirety of Middle Earth.

If The Veiled Stars map ends up a lot bigger (which previews indicate), I have to wonder - what are they going to fill it with? Unlike TLD, TVS keeps the town+villages model of Warband, so that's content we couldn't use. Will it be fun content? Enjoy making a bajillion custom scenes! Ask Triglav how fun it was making all our scenes by himself and how long it took. And thinking of ways to fill the map with fun and interesting content is important for TVS, as it's (so far) presented as a sandboxy roleplaying experience, not a wargame with a bit of exploration/roleplaying.

In conclusion - nobody's saying you need to read books on game design and write down pages and pages of design docs. Just sit down and write a page or two. Start with one or two sentences, summarizing what the mod's about and why anyone who's played hundreds of other mods should play it. Don't list features, write down what kind of an experience you want it to be.
When you have the essence, set limits of what's currently possible and add a pile of features you'd like to have. Then prune the pile and throw out the most difficult or labour intensive features. (or keep them for later) The pile will only grow taller in development, so being honest to yourself about what you're capable of is definitely an advantage.

When mods pretend to be games

Total conversions are extremely difficult to make and there are good reasons why most of them inevitably fail to deliver a playable version. There's a very quick turnover of people contributing, one has to be prepared to lose members all the time, due to a host of reasons. They come in wishing to help and leave a week to a few months later.
With a mod like TLD or TVS, you're building a library of assets (graphics, sounds, music, animations) and an underlying set of systems that make the game work. (programming) TLD started with AW doing the coding and contributors working on assets at the same time - this is a pretty great way to do things. You're not wasting time and you have something that works as a game and already looks like one too.
This is not the case with most mods though, many beginners start by learning 3D and making assets. They model a few items, put them in game and call it a mod. This kind of item swap is still useful, because pretty screenshots might lead supporters and contributors to you, even if the gameplay is just the same as the native game.

Pretty visuals are often the first goal of a mod. It's not wrong, we definitely wanted TLD to be as pretty as it possibly could. It's equally important to create graphics assets with optimization in mind. Especially if you're not making a game where you can adjust how the engine handles assets, keeping stuff tidy, clean and lean is essential. Often it's a performance-driven choice between a handful of beautiful items and a variety of lower resolution ones. It's about the time it takes to create them and also the final combined effect they have in game. TLD (while being made by many contributors) tried to keep a unified style to the graphics. The models are low poly, the textures are small and we don't use normal maps. I still maintain that they look good, even nicer now, in Warband's superior rendering engine.
I suppose there are different kinds of modders and different kinds of players. We aimed for player immersion and a powerful roleplaying experience. On the other hand, mods for Skyrim adding incredibly pretty items are very popular. Some players simply want to admire their own character, take pretty screenshots and dick around in the sandbox.

The Veiled Stars: Gorgeous Isengard

Eventually, you want to release something people could play. All too often, mods with ambitious plans try to embrace the development model of actual games. They publish previews, go into alpha and beta releases and keep patching after the actual release. TLD did this as well, but we've been always quite good at keeping development details to ourselves until it was time to release.
With TLD being open source since last year, I expected TVS to use our graphics assets at first while building their own code systems and implementing various features. And replacing them with their nicer Warband-specific assets in the process. This is after all how game development usually goes - you build a prototype first and start expanding and polishing it later.

If Jarvisimo isn't too mad at me at this point, I'd offer this as a suggestion. Spend more time planning, designing systems and coding, leave assets for later or have someone else make them. Since you're already releasing alpha versions, you'd benefit from having something fun to play, something different and new and interesting. Warband in a different map with a bunch of pretty models won't hold interest for long.
That said, player responses and feedback are a difficult aspect of modding. I'm infamous for being a horrible prick to everyone on our forums. Answering the same ignorant questions over and over and dealing with lazy anonymous internet entities can be very tiresome, so beware! If you can, get a PR person to do it for you. Your mental health will thank you years from now.

Almost the end

We're fully aware that Swyter's port of TLD put Jarvi and TVS into a difficult position, I've actually read your disappointed post on your forums. Still, us talking about it is not just empty words. There truly is no reason why there should be space for only one LOTR mod for Warband, or why we should measure their worth by pretty graphics or size of the map. If you have a vision, if you design with that vision in mind and if you keep hammering at it, it'll end up as something  you and others will want to play. That (not praise or ratings), to me, is the ultimate goal of modding.

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I've been meaning to write about the history of TLD for a while, a bit of a post mortem. What it was like with AW, after he left, to spill a bit of the behind the scenes gossip and so on. If there's any interest in that, I'll do it. Or I could record another podcast. We'll see if any fans read this far. ;)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Hobbit Tales

"In Hobbit Tales players are Hobbits telling tales in front of a mug of beer at their favourite inn in the Shire. Silent woods and remote mountains, Elves, Goblins and Giants populate their stories.During the game, players take turns as the Narrator and improvise a story using a hand of illustrated cards. The other players try to twist the tale, playing hazards and fearsome monsters. Drinks are served, smoke-rings are blown, and the best narrator is cheered by everyone present."
http://www.cubicle7.co.uk/our-games/hobbit-tales/ - for more information and various previews, go here.

I've done some cards for Hobbit Tales in 2013 and the game's available now, so I'm finally able to show them. 
Here's what they look like as cards, all laid out and pretty:

And here are the drawings I sent in:
(all digital pencil in ArtRage 4)











And interestingly, an illustration of mine I did as an art test for The One Ring rpg some two years ago was also used as a card. :) 

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"The One Ring, Middle-earth, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the characters, items, events and places therein are trademarks or registered trademarks of the Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Middle-earth Enterprises and are used under license by Sophisticated Games Ltd and their licensees."

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Response to "critique" of Tolkien's work p.2

A response to a collection of posts by a poste called "PrimeJunta" on Obsidian forums.

Point 1. Racial purity and eugenics

One of the most central recurring themes in Tolkien is that of bloodlines. These are so important that he actually provided family trees in the appendices to his work. Characters with "pure" bloodlines are longer-lived, better-looking (the word he significantly and characteristically uses is 'fairer', which of course also has a connotation of 'lighter-skinned or haired'). Case in point: Aragorn. He is explicitly described as a throwback to 'pure' Numenorean stock, with a lifespan far longer than ordinary humans. "Miscegenation" is everywhere portrayed as bad, e.g. in the way the Gondorean bloodlines lost their purity and the advantages thereof when the Numenorean descendants there bred with 'lesser Men.' One of the central plot points in LotR is the return of the rightful King -- rightful solely by virtue of carrying the right set of ancestors, which is also the very thing that makes him so obviously superior to Denethor and Boromir of the diluted Gondorean bloodline, both so easily corrupted by the wiles of the Enemy.
The same thinking is found everywhere, right down to the characteristics ascribed to the various hobbit bloodlines. Pippin is adventurous and outgoing because he's a Took. Frodo and Bilbo get their unexpected courage and strength of character from the same bloodline. Every single 'heroic' character in Tolkien comes from a 'noble' bloodline... unless you count "heroically supporting your heroic master as a faithful servant or sidekick," as Sam Gamgee does.
I could dig up more examples from elven bloodlines, but I think that would be belaboring the point.

As I explained in the previous post, purity of bloodline and positive qualities with it associated are mostly in the eye of the beholder. Characters themselves might consider it important, but exceptions clearly show it's not the ultimate deciding factor at all. You brush Sam off as being a token sidekick, he's exactly the exception proving the rule wrong. Not only is he a gardener and a commoner, he's also a mere hobbit. In a story where a short, hairy (and swarthy, remember that the majority of Shireans were Harfoots?) and weak hobbit saves everyone, the second most important hobbit is a gardener of no noble birth. 
Another counter-example are the Númenoreans (once again), whose lineage was kept as pure as possible, which didn't keep them from being quite evil.
There are also examples of the "lesser" people being just as good or better than the "pure" lineages. (like the southern Gondorians)
Aragorn being the rightful king by blood is not exactly eugenics either. Rulers in societies like Gondor were not voted in for merit (most commonly anyway), titles were hereditary. The corruption of Denethor and Boromir cannot be merely due to their "diluted bloodline", Aragorn simply had much more time to learn and hard earned experience dealing with the Dark Lord and his influence. (true, thanks to his long life granted by his bloodline)

Challenge: Name a single heroic character from Tolkien who does not have noble blood, excluding the 'heroic servant/sidekick' role.

Beleg Cúthalion. Despite being one of the great elven captains, his ancestry is not worth mentioning to Tolkien. (AFAIK)
edit: OK, that might've been a bit of a cheat, as Beleg is quite possibly one of the elves who woke up under the stars without parents. :))
Alright - Beregond. He was heroic, yet quite the common man. All we know is the name of his father, who apparently came from Lossarnach. 
(also, Ioreth? She's heroic in her own annoying way.)
PS: I'd also somewhat doubt the "nobility" of Frodo's lineage. Sure, he was well off with Bilbo and he could afford a gardener. But as a child, a simple farmer caught him stealing crops and was allowed to punish him and live. Not exactly what we'd expect from a young noble. 

Point 2: Racial stereotypes, part 1: Orcs


Thesis: Orcs/goblins are a transparent stand-in for Turks/Arabs/Mongols.

Evidence: Orcish language, "Black Speech," is phonetically similar to Turkish. They wield scimitars. They come from the East. And here's the man himself on how they look:

The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the 'human' form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types. 

(Letter 210, paragraph 19, on page 274 of Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter, ed.)

I don't know how you can get more explicitly racist than "least lovely Mongol-types." Seriously.

I addressed this in the previous post. Black speech is an agglutinative language. Turkish is just one example of such a language. Curiously, Uralic languages are ag. as well, among them Finnish. (which Tolkien knew quite well, as we know) 
Curved swords aren't exclusive to Asians, they were also extensively used by Europeans. I suspect the reasoning was much more simple than a direct parallel (which Tolkien hated) - a curved sword for the twisted beings, the bent ones.
They come from the East, yes. If we accept this line of reasoning, the elves came from the Americas? Many critics actually argued the orcs were Russians.
You yourself defined racism as implication that an entire race is inferior to yours. Tolkien does not say Mongolians are inferior to Caucasian Europeans. He merely used the mongoloid look as an anatomical template. "Least lovely" also implies there are more lovely Mongol-types out there. As I wrote in the previous post, standards of beauty differ between various nations, Europeans would likely not find Mongolian beauty queens very attractive. 
Orcs are not transparent stand ins for Turks/Arabs/Mongols (can you decide which? They're all quite different), they're orcs. Humans tend to use likeness in description, it makes everything a lot easier. Tolkien did not draw direct parallels and orcs are not an exception to this.

Challenge: Name a single instance of a living non-white character, location, or culture being portrayed in a positive light. Never mind a protagonist, hero, or character with agency; we both know there isn't one anywhere to be found. Getting maudlin over a corpse doesn't count.
I'm sorry, getting maudlin over a corpse does count, because that corpse is the emphasized exception that makes the impact. (just like Sam)
Even if I were to discount the fallen Haradrim, there are the swarthy hobbits, southern Gondorians and heroic Bór and his Easterling sons and their host. Challenge more than completed.

Point 3: Racial stereotypes, part 2: Dwarves as Jews

 Dwarves are a stand-in for Jews, and embody many of the racist stereotypes associated with them. I'm sure Tolkien would have been extremely upset at being accused of anti-Semitism, and compared to a Joseph Mengele he certainly wasn't. However, he did hold some pretty stereotypical views of the Jews as money-grubbing legalistic insular types, and where he portrays dwarves as truly heroic -- the only real example of that I can think of is Gimli -- that heroism is presented as a story of how he overcomes the deficiencies of his people, in his friendship with Legolas, and later in the way he puts Galadriel on a pedestal and starts worshipping a freakin' hair from her head. (That's a subject for another post in this series, namely, sexism.) 

Evidence, exhibit A: The man himself, from letter 176 (Letters, p. 229):

I do think of the 'Dwarves' like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue. ...

The ellipsis is the editor's, not mine. I wonder what he felt necessary to excise?

Evidence, exhibit B: Primary characteristics associated with the Dwarves: greed and gold and insularity plus suspicious hostility towards everyone else (projecting much?). Thrór sat under the mountain and accumulated a freakin' mountain of gold. The Dwarves betrayed and slaughtered Thingol of Doriath over riches. The Dwarves draw up an insanely complex contract mostly involving payment and money matters when hiring Bilbo, and would've been perfectly at peace with letting him get himself et by a dragon. Thórin throws a fit when Bilbo tries to keep more than what he feels is his fair share of Smaug's treasure, and indeed the main concern of the Dwarves is always some piece of shiny, like the Arkenstone in The Hobbit. The Dwarves are also always an exiled people, their ancestral homeland coincidentally taken over by, surprise surprise, those sallow Turkish-Mongol-Arab stand-ins, the Orcs.

I've been over this in the previous post. Many of the dwarves are heroic aplenty during the journey and in the last battle, Thorin is a pretty decent fellow before he dies. 
Dwarves are not the only ones displaying greed or passion for pretty things. (elves, men, you name it)
Again for the slow ones, Tolkien didn't do direct parallels.

Point 4: Sexism

 Thesis: Tolkien was a raging sexist. Tolkien's sexism was not the obviously nasty "women are evil creatures who must be kept in their place" kind. It was more the "women are beautiful things to be put on pedestals and admired from a distance, also prizes to be won by heroic men" kind. There are a quite a lot of women in Tolkien. There is, however, exactly one woman with any kind of agency that I can think of: Galadriel. Her original name was Nerwen, which means "Man-maiden." Haha. Funny that, no? And even she can't escape being pedestal-ized, of all people by Gimli. He. Worships. A. Hair! From her head! How freakin' objectifying is that?

Every other woman in Tolkien -- every other one -- is purely and totally objectified. They have no agency. They're objects noted for their beauty (e.g. Arwen) who don't actually do anything much, or if they do do something, they do it solely for the benefit of the main hero, the guy they're supposed to be helping. Consider one of the rare cases where a woman has an actual speaking role that goes past a few lines of gossip (hello, Ioreth!): Eowyn. Now she's someone who could actually kick some ass. But does Tolkien let her? No! Instead, she finds fulfilment by... setting aside the sword and shield and becoming a happy little housewife for Faramir. The point of her entire story is that it's all well and good for girls to dream of heroism, but their real calling is to be good little housewives and helpmeets for the men who do the real hero-izing. 


Tolkien obviously admired women, I'll agree with that. He certainly put his own wife on a pedestal. Nothing wrong with that actually. I disagree that all of his female characters are objects without agency. Galadriel you already pointed out, Eowyn is another one, Melian is another.
The friggin' point is this - they're not punished for their agency. Galadriel is the queen and Gimli admiring her doesn't take away her power at all. Eowyn does PLENTY of ass kicking and she gives up the sword after a horrific magical injury, a terrifying battle and her uncle father's death. Also after falling for a pacifist philosopher who convinces her it's a better way of life to be a peaceful person. (which he himself lives by)
Again, you're saying that the author thinks all women should be what some of his characters are like. Sorry, that's not the case. Otherwise he wouldn't have bothered with Galadriel or Éowyn. They're there for a reason.

I could go on, but instead I'll just make a short list, again from the top of my head.

Thingol and Melian. Thingol is a run-of-the-mill elf. Melian is a freakin' maia. Yet Thingol calls the shots, all Melian does is make a border around their kingdom.
Not true. To quote: "This was one of many instances in which she proved, through her wisdom and powers of foresight, to be wiser than her husband, and an effective queen of her land."

Beren and Lúthien. Beren is thel hero. Lúthien is the prize to be won. This despite the fact that Lúthien is part Maia and therefore should be inherently miles ahead of Beren in power and majesty. Again, the man himself (letter 131, page 135), which describes really well how Tolkien sees men and women... with a nice little nod at those precious bloodlines of his, too:

It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Lúthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests one of the Silmarilli from the Iron Crown. This he wins the hand of Lúthien and the first marriage of mortal and immortal is achieved.

Note the phrasing. It's mentioned in passing that Lúthien 'helps,' but mostly she's a prize to be 'won.' 
Already addressed Lúthien in the previous post. Not a prize to be won at all.

Fëanor's mom whose name I even forget. She gives all her power to Fëanor and dies, although elves normally don't, and in Valinor certainly don't. 'Cuz, y'know, moms.

'Cuz y'know, Fëanor. Not a typical child by any standard. Because one mother's example means Tolkien thinks all mothers should die in childbirth?

Rosie Cotton. Besides being a nice set of b00bs to come back to for Sam, what, exactly is she? Does she ever say anything? If she does, is it anything remotely interesting?
True. That said, there's plenty of hobbit characters who don't get any more characterization. Even Lobelia gets more.

Ioreth. Look her up.
Ioreth is kind of awesome and I really liked her character while reading the book the first time. Don't know what your problem with her is. 

Morwen. Lalaith/Nienor/Niniel. Finduilas. Aredhel and Eöl. And so on and so forth.
So forth with what? Bit of a broad clump.

Challenge: Pick one woman from Tolkien that you would like to be, rather than possess.  Say, play as a character in a cRPG. Galadriel the Man-Maiden doesn't count.
Éowyn, no question. Reading the books as a kid she was among my favourite characters. (all, not just among women)


In closing:
Really, I was hoping for something less common as far as arguments go. You're overly sensitive to certain issues and have trained yourself to see offensive material everywhere. You know Tolkien's work more than other critics, but the actual faulty arguments are not much different. Either they're seeing problems where there are none, or they're factually wrong.

Response to "critique" of Tolkien's work p.1

I keep hearing this over and over. "Tolkien was a man of his time.", or "Tolkien was a racist and sexist."
No matter how many times I refute these points to individual people, it pops up again. Every single time it stems from two things:
1) Ignorance of the source material and the context in which it was created.
2) Overzealous attitude towards everything not deemed progressive enough. Old white men especially.

An excellent example of such a pathetic rant can be found here:

http://requireshate.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/the-tolkien-fanboy-fallacies-yes-tolkien-was-a-racist-sexist-bore-deal-with-it/

I decided to write a point by point rebuttal, as I don't think we need to "deal with it".

1) The Sam and a fallen Harad warrior scene (and the mistake of conflating what characters do and say with what the author thinks and wants to share with you)

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.

"Now please consider that this is the one single solitary passage in the entire trilogy. They comprise of seventy-seven (77) words. What is the total word count for Lord of the Rings as a whole? In the region of 473,000 words, if the google search I did is any indication.
That’s 0.01628% of the text.Put that against the rest of the work where these faceless hordes under Sauron, who are of course not Caucasian, are portrayed as either, well, faceless hordes or misguided primitives who need the guidance of the white men to renounce their worship of Sauron, because Whitey is the Mighty, and Whitey knows best. "
One of the common mistakes similar self-proclaimed cultural critics make is equating the setting and the story of a book with what the author wishes our own world to be like. Another is to draw awkward parallels between imaginary characters and real people based on poorly choosen attributes (often due to lack of knowledge and or context). 
The critic suggests that more of the book should deal with social issues, probably explaining why racism is wrong in detail. 
A) Nobody in Middle Earth is Caucasian, because there is no Caucasus. 
B) In fact, the "good guys" (as much as I hate to call them that) are not all white. If speaking of Lord of the Rings alone, we could point to the Harfoot branch of the hobbit species, who were "of browner skin", who formed the vast majority in the Shire. Or we could talk about the WoodWose (Drúedain) and I certainly will mention them later for their impact on the story.
"In appearance, the Woses were short, stumpy-bodied men, possibly related to the Pukel-men of ancient Rohan. They had disproportionate bodies and small, sunken eyes that glowed red when they were angry or suspicious."
Let's read that again - primitive tribal people with "red glowing eyes." Clearly an example of pure aryan demigods.
Or we could talk about the Southern Gondorians - "there were short and swarthy folk among them whose sires came more from forgotten men who housed in the shadow of the hills in the Dark Years ere the coming of the kings.
C) "Whitey does not know best." If the critic knew more of Tolkien's work, it'd be obvious how wrong this conclusion is. The Aryan supermen of Númenor were actually worshipping Sauron and served under his influence long before that unfortunate soldier from Harad fell from his oliphaunt. Precisely thanks to that experience the Gondorian heirs of Númenor knew what Sauron can do and ways he can deceive men. The north and west of Middle Earth also had the more successful Istari to thank for lessening Sauron's influence. As we know, two blue wizards went to the East and despite possibly starting counter-cults, their efforts were unsuccessful. The angels of Middle Earth failed the East, South and their people.
To address the notion that the Easterlings were written to be misguided primitives only - one can point to the Easterling chieftain Bór and his sons, who rejected Morgoth and his promises. They were loyal to their elven allies and fought honorably in the battle of Unnumbered Tears.

---> Now, to explain why conflating what characters do in Tolkien's work with what he thinks is right, does not work.
Tolkien does not preach to us about race issues. He tends to preach a little on other things, but his real views on the issue of race and differences between people are scattered in bits and pieces, one has to pick them up and put together. First mistake (as mentioned before) is to divide characters into good and bad guys based on race. Tolkien does not do that at all. There are men of "great lineage" who are utter asshats, there are elves who are mass murderers and worse. There are men among the "evil" races who do not succumb to evil and keep fighting for good even if it means their doom. Heck, there are several fallen "angels" who choose to do evil by themselves.
Another mistake is to think Tolkien agrees with everything he has the "good" characters do. My two favourite examples are the Númenoreans and the Rohirrim. The Númenoreans are ancestors to the Gondorians, the "white good guys" who fight against the evil Sauron. Yet they practiced slavery, ruthlessly conquered "inferior" lands and nations in Middle Earth and colonized its shores. Many of their kings were evil madmen. And then there was that time when they simply chose to give a huge chunk of land to the Rohirrim as thanks for helping them out in battle, driving the indigenous population out.
Tolkien very carefully and subtly refers to these mad conquests and kings preferring to consult stars in the sky to being decent rules and taking care of the living. He does so in a few places and it's obvious he doesn't view this as the golden age of Gondor, he's not nostalgic for the "colonial era".
Speaking of the Rohirrim, I said I'd get back to the Drúedain. The Rohirrim, aryan, tall and blonde, in LOTR they're inarguably the good guys, used to hunt the woodwoses for sport. Before the battle of Pellenor fields the woses appear before king Théoden and offer to help the Rohan army (!). The king is suprised they're actually thinking speaking creatures and agrees to make a stop to the wose hunting.
A similar thing happens after the battle of Helm's Deep in the previous book - one of the Rohan soldiers makes quite racist remarks about the Dunlending language. (it supposedly sounds like birds crowing and animals howling) The Rohirrim have quite the history of being huge dicks to the Dunnish, driving them into the hills, taking their land and  generally considering them lesser men. After the battle, the Dunlanders are spared and are surprised to find that men of Rohan don't burn prisoners alive as they were told by Saruman. (ehm...the White wizard who's a major dick himself at this point)

In summary, characters who are otherwise good, or are often grouped up as "the good guys", do pretty awful things in Tolkien's writing. Out of ignorance, from tradition, etc. It's heavily implied that Tolkien himself does not condone their actions, for every such example there is a hint of disapproval from the author.
To simplify Tolkien's characters and races as "the taller and fairer you are, the better" is simply false and only shows you don't know what you're Tolkien about. 

It's actually quite clear when Tolkien writes in ideas he wants us to share with him. It's all about compassion, understanding, overcoming of differences. For details, I recommend this paper by Anderson Rearick III:
http://www.lib.washington.edu/subject/History/BI/honors251c/tol.pdf

2) The Jews and the Mongol Orcs. 

A) "The dwarves of course are quite obviously – wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic."

of course, the critic then follows with: "“The dwarves of course are quite obviously Jews,” eh?" and "Collolary: BUT TOLKIEN ONLY MEANT THEIR LANGUAGE!1!! This requires the aforementioned mental gymnastics. One does not say “wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of Jews?” when you mean to say “I constructed their language to sound Semitic.” I promise, o neckbeard of little literacy."

Or, you know, the way their several tribes have been scattered and how they sometimes adopted the language of people they lived among...
Nope, the critical interpretation is such so that it obviously offends as a Jewish stereotype:
"There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much."
If you consider that the elves in Tolkien's writing are equally skilled craftsmen of precious metals and gems, similarly greedy, tricky and treacherous on ocassion and some of them are not, you'll come to the conclusion the elves were Jews also.

B) "he describes orcs like so:
they are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."
to which the critic responds:
"Here’s a newsflash, assholes: even in that time saying something like that in public wouldn’t have gotten you kudos."
He used a visual analogy. Here the critic once again assumes that parallels are the ultimate reason behind writing and that Tolkien pretty much says Asians are all born evil. *sigh*

"Considering that Tolkien himself was a European, what does his acknowledgment of “to Europeans” mean exactly? A tacit admission that he found “Mongol-types” repulsive?"
Now that's a clear misreading. "repulsive" is tied to "versions", not Mongols. If I skip over the fact standards of beauty certainly differ in various parts of the world (and Mongols are a good example of a beauty standard quite a lot different to "white European" one), Tolkien merely hints that orcs looked a bit like really really ugly Mongolians. It's not racist to have a preference for a specific set of facial traits. 
Tolkien's orcs are not simple Mongols in disguise. For Tolkien, nothing was more important than language. Black speech is often cited as being "like Turkish", presumably to make the Mongolian connection stronger. (Mongols and Turks actually don't share a genetic relationship) That's the opinion of one linguist, because the language is agglutinative. Many languages were and are just that, not only Turkish. (Klingon is one. ;))
Here are Tolkien's won thoughts on constructing black speech:
"The Black Speech was not intentionally modeled on any style, but was meant to be self consistent, very different from Elvish, yet organized and expressive, as would be expected of a device of Sauron before his complete corruption. It was evidently an agglutinative language. [...] I have tried to play fair linguistically, and it is meant to have a meaning not be a mere casual group of nasty noises, though an accurate transcription would even nowadays only be printable in the higher and artistically more advanced form of literature. According to my taste such things are best left to Orcs, ancient and modern."
Furthermore, orcish culture is nothing like Mongolian culture. In fact, despite popular belief, Tolkien never drew direct parallels between Earthly cultures and those in Middle Earth. The Rohirrim are not Anglo Saxons, the Gondorians are not Eastern Romans etc. For more discussion on this topic, I'd suggest reading Michael Martinez's essays.

3) Tolkien doth protest too much

"Yelling as shrilly as possible that you are not a sexist, or a racist or a homophobe, does not necessarily mean you aren’t one. "

Possibly the silliest of all the points raised in this rant. Tolkien supposedly alienated a world super power currently on the brink of war and gave up publication of his books in Germany, just to appear not-racist. To impress....ehm, who again? If (as many  comments suggest) everyone at the time was a bit anti-semitic or a bit racist, why on earth would Tolkien try to pathetically reject his real views in various letters and in important pats of his books? Doesn't make any sense.

"Tolkien was, in a lot of ways, a proto-neckbeard. He thought he was a pretty progressive guy who would never ever think a single racist thought, but there is a reason neo-Nazis adored (and likely continue to adore) his books; there’s a reason the British National Party did (and for all I know, still do) make Lord of the Rings required reading. It’s not an isolated incident–multiple white supremacist groups honestly thought his works endorsed their principles."

Backwards implication. Because his work was misinterpreted and thus popular among nacionalists, he shared their views. Ehm, nope, doesn't work that way.
Also  note the omnipresent "neckbeard" used as an insult. Body shaming is wrong! Except if you're a white man with a beard, you slimy creep. (ok, if you haven't guessed already, this particular critic is a bit of a man hater)
Summary:
"While I doubt Tolkien consciously believed all Jews should be eradicated, his treatment of his Semitic analogue in his own fiction is telling. Likely he never thought “women’s only place is on the pedestal,” yet that’s where his female characters generally end up. In short, authorial intent doesn’t matter. The neckbeards of today likewise think of themselves as progressive, liberal, and open to gay marriage–but spend your time in the company of any neckbeard and you quickly realize they are some of the most regressive people you’ll find outside of an Aryan Nation meeting. After a while bleating that you can’t possibly be racist or sexist or prejudiced in any way becomes protesting way too bloody much."
Once again, it doesn't matter what ideas the author puts in his work consciously or what personal opinions we pull from his personal correspondence. It's which offensive misinterpretation the critics distill from it that matters.

4) The crime of omission

"Tolkien was writing an Anglo-Saxon mythology, of course everyone is white! 
This is valid only if you believe there have never been any POCs whatsoever in Europe or specifically England. It requires a staggering amount of ignorance, but then people who defend Tolkien rabidly tend to be burdened with staggering amounts of ignorance. This, incidentally, is what Tolkien actually said:I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish, but nothing English, save impoverished chapbook stuff.
So “English” to Tolkien was… what? All white, all the time?"

A) Not everyone is white as we established. B) Yes, the English were "white". The idea is that because POC (people of color) lived in Britain since the Roman occupation in fairly limited numbers (difficult to establish exactly), they should be included into works of fiction attempting to be "English". All for greater diversity and so on. Again, this is a very silly point, built on a faulty premise, not worth going further into.

5) OH THE SEXISM AND CLASSISM!

I should start with saying there is rarely a way to please this type of critic. If a woman fights, she's just aping men. If she's strong in another way, she's being put in her place and not kickass enough. We'll see enough of both.

"Luthien - performs heroics for a man (Beren), dies for a man; overcomes Morgoth by dancing and singing, which is peculiarly gendered and sexual (hurr hurr! The only way a woman may defeat a man…). When she passes away, the world mourns her not because she is powerful and heroic: it mourns her because she was the most beautiful woman. She’s so much on a pedestal that it becomes extra special creeptastic when you realize that she’s meant to be Tolkien’s tribute to his wife."
It's interesting how anything man releated is automatically perceived as wrong and insufficient. I suppose Lúthien should've gone off into the wild and ruled over a woodland realm of her own, wandered the land partying or doing something totes independent and rebellious. No, she's motivated by love and that's wrong. She also uses dancing and singing as magic, which is apparently gendered (despite dance and song being the primary type of magic in most prehistoric and early historic societies, for both men and women. 20th century goggles, lady.)
Putting your wife on a pedestal is also wrong, apparently. Ah well, love is evil and creeptastic. I wonder if she knows Tolkien's wife used to dance for him.

"Eowyn – performs heroics because she crushed on a man (Aragorn), almost dies defending a man (Theoden), speaks to other women about once (in the House of Healing), gives up the sword for a man (Faramir) who treats her like a child."
Éowyn performs heroics because she wants to, her "crush" on Aragorn has little to do with it. (it's more an admiration of leadership and warrior skills, not necessarily a physical or romantic attraction. She wants to be more like him.) She defends her adoptive father. (who is reduced to "a man", family means nothing apparently.) She gives up the sword, because Faramir convinces her it's the better way in life. Not because he treats her like a child on purpose (oh you silly woman you, what do you know? get back in the kitchen.), but because he's the pacifist of the story, the philosopher and very clearly part of Tolkien himself. She's also just been through a horrible battle where her father and many kinsmen died and where she was magically wounded with a cold death spell. Gee, I wonder why she doesn't want to be a warrior anymore. Could it be that her shared experience with this nice man who preaches peace and understanding might've changed her mind? 
Way to misread and misunderstand the text.

"Arwen – she has how many speaking lines in the books? Prizes that exist to be won by a man don’t need to talk, okay? Oh hey, she wove Aragorn a banner! Awesome."
That stupid banner means SHE approves of Aragorn. A woman is validating a man's worth to become a king and an heir to his people. She's not a prize to be won, he's on trial to determine if he's worthy enough to seal the love that's already there between them. She's hardly "given" to him in the end, rather he's judged good enough for her.
A "prize to be won" is a favourite trope and very often hurled at Tolkien's female characters by the way, but rarely does it truly stick.

"Nienor – where do I even fucking start. She has her memory erased by a dragon, runs through the forest naked, is rescued and falls in love with her brother, and commits suicide after discovering her pregnancy is first-class incest. The narrative then focuses on her brother’s manpain. Finduilas, from the same story, fulfills a similar role–falling in love with Turin, and then dying, all to contribute to said manpain and make Turin super extra sad because abloo bloo bloo emo wangst bullshit."

*shrugs* I don't like these characters. But there's nothing sexist about them. They're tragic, sure. Their deaths help bring a tragic end to Túrin's story, sure. They're not super progressive female characters you'd want to show as role models to your daughter, but they're not sexist either. Amusingly, struggle and tragedy of a male character are not important, in fact they're infantile drivel not worthy of anyone's attention. Understood.

"There are a lot more rapes in Middle-earth. Like, lots and lots. And women who commit suicide. The men are, of course, never subjected to any sexual threat because NO HOMO, NO HOMO."
I doubt Tolkien set out to write rape fiction because he hated women so much. I also doubt he actively hated gays. I'm not aware of any documented Tolkien quotes on the subject of homosexuality. Despite being Catholic, he seems to have been quite fond of Mary Renault. 
I suspect the omission of gay characters and or gay sex might be a result of the format and style he chose for his books (ie. "lost heroic epic for England" based on Germanic sagas etc.).

As for classism, the main character and ultimate hero of the books - Frodo - is not a noble. He's well off, certainly, but not a prince or a duke. In the wider context of Middle Earth, he means nothing, governs exactly one hobbit hole and has a bit of gold to spare. Sam is cited as the token lower classman, the rube used for laughs. 
That's just wrong on many levels. Sam and Frodo's relationship is very clearly not just a relationship of a master and a servant. They're friends and comrades through adversity. Even more importantly, Sam's down to earth "common" ways prove to be extremely useful and even essential to the Ring's destruction. (after all, Sam is rightfully one of the ringbearers)

She failed to even mention Melian and Galadriel, who both possessed great magic and political power, did awesome stuff and ruled over woodland kingdoms. Or queen Berúthiel, who would've been a good case for the hate crusade as she was quite evil and a cat lady at that. Still, she did stuff on her own. ;)
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In conclusion, the critic writes:
"Ultimately the core of the trouble is that fanboys don’t want to believe that Tolkien’s body of work is anything other than an “epic work of creative genius,” that anyone saying otherwise must either have an agenda, have no taste, or in some way defective. They refuse to consider the thought that Middle-earth fiction has contributed nothing of worth to culture at large, outside of enforcing the straight-white-male hegemony of the genre… which, naturally, they are all too happy to keep up and praise as excellent and worthy. Much of the politics in it will resonate strongly with those believing in the nobility of the bromance, the boys’ own adventure, the exclusion of women outside the sphere of a reward at the end of a quest, someone who keeps the house tidy (or weaves them banners, as it were)."

It's difficult to argue otherwise, since you DO have an agenda. (and clearly have no taste ;)) Claiming Tolkien contributed nothing of worth is simply ignorant. This entire paragraph is extremely bitter, I understand where she's coming from, but that doesn't make it any less wrong or hateful. What's wrong with "bromance"? A friendship between men these days is mocked and berated. What's wrong with boys having their own adventures?
Tolkien certainly didn't write what he did with the intention of shutting the door of the fantasy genre in front of women's faces. He wrote what he knew well, he wrote what influenced him in his life. Many others tried to copy him for all the wrong reasons and fantasy did end up white male dominated, yes. But it's not the case anymore, as you know I'm sure. The times they're a'changin'. 

I understand where the hate for Tolkien comes from, but it's based on ignorance and starting your analysis from the conclusion.
Tolkien was no doubt a fairly progressive person (not due to being a man of his time, exactly despite being a man in his time) and I don't have to deal with your nonsense, thank you very much.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Games of the Mighty And Powerful


Dračí Doupě II: Hry mocných (Dragon's Lair II: Games of the Mighty) is a supplement rulebook for the Dračí Doupě II roleplaying game, which I worked on and which was released in June 2011.
http://janpospisil.blogspot.cz/2011/07/draci-doupe-2nd-edition-with-cream-done.html

I've done all the illustrations for classes back then and I got to paint all the class illustrations for this "advanced" rulebook.

DrDII comes with a low fantasy setting you can use for the game (but the rules don't depend on it). Its inspiration comes mainly from Slavic myths and much of it is fairly closely based on early medieval times. It's all hills, rivers, fields, forgotten ravines and decaying bronze age hillforts. Bands of steppe people roaming vast plains, rich merchants travelling between walled cities by rivers under heavy guard. It's about adventuring in small villages full of ordinary characters as well as facing supernatural threats in complex cities.
If you've played any of The Witcher games, it's quite similar.

                                  (concept art for The Witcher, NOT painted by me, (c) CD Projekt RED)

It's quite possible to play with western-style-fantasy flying ships, paladins in shining plate armour worshipping their angry gods and dark elves living in the Underdark. We just like our own semi-Slavic flavour better. :)
(another example of such regional RPG flavour would be Drakar och Demoner in Sweden)

What I enjoy about this work is mainly the low key aspect. This advanced book is aimed at players at high levels, who want to lead armies, build cities and defeat godlike creatures. Still, while I had to show these classes are very powerful and that they have abilities far beyond what the basic classes can do, they had to stay believable and...plain? Simple?

Here's all 10 of them (painted in ArtRage 4):

                       
                          


                              
                                                                

1st row: Kroll** Warlock is carried by his company of diseased cultists./ Dwarven Inquisitor is using her seer ability to investigate a murder./ Elven Wonderdoer (super skilled wizards) walks a path in Between the Worlds and wards off hostile elder beings
2nd row: Human Avenger is quite smug about her ability to sneak up on a heavily protected villain. / Kroll Destroyer in her half-dragon form is wrestling a hydra./ Human Palatine is receiving a blessing to fight an undead wolf demon.
3rd row: Hobbit Shadow carrying a bag of precious loot escapes a guard./ Elven Leader rouses a crowd./ Dwarven Elementalist uses his affinity with the earth to ambush a travelling army.
4th row: Female hobbit Zhretz*** receives tribute from devoted villagers.

** - krolls are a DrD specific race, similar to half orcs in their strength. They also have bat like ears and hearing.
*** - Žrec was a name for Slavic priests, we used it for a class of shaman/druid like super priests of Nature.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Come hang out on webcam!

AetherCon is an online convention. Last year I only watched a couple of my fellow artists' online booths, this year I'm participating as well.

http://www.aethercon.com/a2/

This weekend (15th-17th November) you can come and watch me paint on webcam, we can chat, I'll probably do a sword/armour tutorial and answer questions. Or we can bore everyone by talking endlessly about Tolkien.

I'll be on at these times:

Friday: Jan Pospisil- 2 PM- 5 PM EST
Saturday: Jan Pospisil- 1 PM- 4 PM EST
Sunday: Jan Pospisil- 1 PM- 4 PM EST


 For my Czech/central European friends, that's 20.00-23.00 and 19.00-22.00 in our local GMT+1 timezone.

My public AnyMeeting profile is here:

http://www.anymeeting.com/JanPospisilPub

You should be able to get to all the streams from there.

I hope to see you tomorrow (or on Saturday. Or Sunday.)!