Thuloid Speaks: Gaming and the Hyperreal, Part II, On the Independence of Things

Greetings again, O House. Awash of late in preparations for the day of arrival of He That Cometh, I have been remiss in my communications. Lady Thuloid has reached gargantuan proportions, and young Thuloid-to-be-Named demands sacrifice– the Abode of Thuloid is piled high with unidentifiable bits of plastic without which no baby can be had.

Once, long ago, I spoke to you of the problem of representation and games, and hinted at the sometimes fuzzy boundary between our tabletop fictions and the real. On some level our gaming world is a representation of something that never existed at all, which makes it uniquely our own–but that is part of the problem.

1975, the Golden Age of castles.

I want to point out that as gamers we are also world-builders, and this creates a tension within our goals. On the one side we, as gamers, have a desire for mastery–  we want to play well and control the movement of the pieces on the board. The payoff for mastery is the feeling of accomplishment from having surgically dismembered our opponent, executed the perfect move at the right time, and dictated the flow of the game. The risk is frustration as we lose control, as the pieces resist our moves, or as the rules, the dice and our lack of skill fail us. See me playing any shooter for details.

But mastery doesn’t explain why anyone would name his Space Marine captain or write fluff for his own army. It cannot account for the personalities with which we imbue our models. Our fictions depend upon the conceit that the figures on the table have lives and goals of their own, that they are independent of us, and so that we are truly creative. In Tolkien terms, we are Aulë’s people, desiring to have a true and free creation of our own. We revel in the feeling that the thing we have made is more than we ourselves put into it, more than we dreamed up. But we risk serious disappointment as the game shows our heroes and their brave army to be mere lumps of plastic acting according to clumsily written rules.

Mastery and creativity exist in tension, but they feed off one another. Mastery is meaningless if all things are inert. At bare minimum, my opponent and the dice are things I cannot simply control. So the very independence of the models, while to a degree frustrating mastery, also serves to heighten it, to raise the stakes. Likewise, pure independence removes any kind of “game” from the picture–what we have instead is an automaton, a sandbox. I am cut off from any hand in my creation’s fate, and that is unsatisfying–I need to contend for mastery so that I can share in the independence of the figures.

To illustrate, here is a diptych of a cat drinking whiskey:

Yes, I have a point in posting this. The cat, one Walter, is an asshole. The whiskey was not poured for him. He decided to tip over the glass and sample its contents purely out of his innate assholishness. He also assists in painting and other hobby tasks, with equal fervor. Whatever bad things I have to say about Walter (I have many), it remains true that he is his own beast. Sharing space with him means contending for mastery with a free creature. If I achieve any, it is that much more rewarding.

Of late several writers here at the House have approached this issue. Most notably, Cedric Ballbusch’s review of some oddly named Swedish game (aren’t they all?) included a fascinating discussion of command and control mechanics. What makes this particular game sexy is the way in which units, lacking command, might simply act according to their natures. Rather than being inert until my omnipotent hand moves them, they move themselves, under their own power. This is magical!

Someone brought up Orcs and animosity as a good example of a fun mechanic–the Orcs do as Orcs do, regardless of my wishes. As one learning Infinity, I have hated and then loved my Daturazi Witch Soldier–because he is Extremely Impetuous, which means he’s got to go straight at the enemy right at the top of every turn, and partial cover benefits him not at all. Tricky to use? Sure. But cheap and awesome, and figuring out how to make that impetuous order work for me enhances the game greatly. Sometimes I don’t want him to move. But he wants to–that’s the fun part.

We can go further–what if my Skavenslaves walked off the job, strung up their masters and established an autonomous collective over on the left side of the board? What if Space Marine chapter tactics meant that out of command squads have to react according to the codex and their peculiar histories? What if I, the general, want to win, but my knights want mainly personal glory? I’m not talking about random for random’s sake, of course, but of rules that encourage me in my conceit that the little men on the table would be fighting this war with or without me, and today I’m throwing in my cause with theirs to achieve victory.

The great thing about things (here defined rigorously as “stuff that isn’t me”) is that they aren’t me–this sounds trivial, but it’s remarkably easy to lose sight of. Ours is a narcissistic age in which things tend to disappear into an inflated view of myself, so that there is only me, me me. There are no more hard choices to be made, no careful trade offs, nothing in tension, because all is held together by me, and so whatever I am for just naturally fits together. Things lose rigidity and become extensions of myself (I have been writing about this on another site of late). If you’ve never given it a read, try on Mark Twain’s late, dark No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger for an interesting run at that problem.

Included so those who remember the last shot of this room can see that I don’t always live in a moldering heap of shame and filth.

While some figure on the table may represent me, perhaps it’s much better if nobody on the table is precisely me, if every figure represents at best someone like me, whom I influence. Let me put this in terms of my own present life. I have a son on the way. He will, in some ways, be like me. I may feel, often enough, that he represents me. But he is not me. He is himself. Whatever I achieve in reproduction is not and cannot be merely a personal gain. It is not mastery, though it may show profound influence.

That’s enough for now. I’ll leave off with a gratuitous shot of my early WIP Deadzone plague guys. Big boy there is kind of a pain, but damn he’s going to be nice to look at. I should start on my Morats soon. And maybe that Star Wars:Armada ship lurking in the background. If I don’t paint them, they’ll get angry, and who knows, maybe they’ll start painting themselves?

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