Monday, November 19, 2012

Pilgrim's Regress vs Firefly: The Platypus Reads Part CCII

Recently, I've been re-reading one of the stranger works of C.S. Lewis, Pilgrim's RegressPilgrim's Regress was Lewis' first attempt at trying to explain his new-found faith in literary form.  Following the lead of Puritan writer, John Bunyan, Lewis decided to recast his own Christian journey as a work of allegorical fiction.  Lewis and his friends promptly decided that the work was a failure, but that didn't keep him from other imaginative forays into the world of literature.

Looking back on the work, Lewis decided that its major fault was two-fold: obscurity and a lack of charity.  As to a lack of charity, Lewis knew better than I do -I can't detect anything particularly spiteful.  As to obscurity, that hits nearer the mark.  However, if you are familiar with the intellectual climate of first third of the 20th century, then the book is actually quite a romp.  Even if that's not the case, there are still many elements of Lewis' spiritual journey that are far more familiar than he thought.  How many of us have struggled with the meaning of desire, beauty, and transcendence in a world that continually insists that such things are mere illusions?  How many of us have been terribly thirsty only to be told, or rather have it insinuated, that there is no water to drink?

I was thinking about this the other day while watching an episode of Joss Wedon's Firefly.  In the episode Jane's Town, we see each of the characters struggling with the issue of belief.  This belief is ultimately understood from a Sartian (as in Jean Paul Sartre) perspective: it doesn't matter what you believe so long as you believe in something and that gives meaning to your life.  The show ends on a pessimistic note with Jane distraught over a young man who gave his life to save Jane in the mistaken belief that the hooligan was a hero.  The only comfort Captain Mal can give is to tell him that people just need something to believe in and that any guy who ever earned the title hero was some form of scoundrel or other.  In other words, we all need to believe, but there is no ultimate basis for belief.  Belief is a lie we tell ourselves to keep going in a world that is without objective meaning or purpose.  There is thirst, and ways of pretending to drink, but no water.

Now this is simply a philosophical bias.  Why believe that to be the case?  We could equally choose to be Platonic about the whole thing and say that Jane, unknowingly, was partaking in some ultimate Form of heroic-ness and anything that participates even a little in that Form encourages belief.  That would be a philosophical bias too, but that isn't the issue.  The issue is why we moderns and post-moderns continually believe that the uglier a thing is the truer it must be.  Why?  That question bothered the young atheist C.S. Lewis.  Pilgrim's Regress, for all its faults, reminds us that this question should bother us too.   

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Returning to Exalted (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCI

My reading through the Exalted core book continued this week bringing me all the way up to "Character Creation."  Surely, I thought, the book must bog down once it gets to the rules.

Now, by way of preface, the rules are always my least favorite part of an RPG.  I can never seem to master all those numbers and sequences just by looking at them in a book.  The only way I ever learned to play Exalted, D&D, Warhammer, or even Munchkin was by playing the game and having an experienced player talk me through the process.  I was surprised, then, at what a great job the writers of Exalted did in presenting the rules.

The basic rules are laid out as if were following two characters through and actual scene.  As Smith and Koi encounter each new obstacle in their quest to find and translate a coded message we get to see how the various rules would be applied, what would be the result of a hypothetical role, and how player and story-teller would narrate the event.  I found the section fun and easy to follow (though some of that probably owes to a good memory).  More importantly from an aesthetic standpoint, the way the game mechanics are presented preserves the overall tone of the book.  I don't feel as though the "world" of Exalted has been put on hold so that we can run the numbers.

In RPGs, whether pen and paper or computer game, there is always a question of story vs. mechanics.  A game with too much story can make the players feel as though they have no real place in the game.  Conversely, a game with too many rules and procedures can bog down the story and make the whole thing feel writing a grocery list while playing Yatzee.  Looking back through the first edition of Exalted, I think the game designers at White Wolf nailed it.  That's not an opinion shared by all as the increase in rules in the second edition testifies.  Still, whether it's the golden mean or a nice try, I really do have to take my hat off to the creative team for an amazing piece of work. 

N.B. As with all books, games, and films reviewed on this blog, mention and even praise does not mean approval of the entire contents.  Exalted does have some mature elements, as the manual itself warns, so use your own two cents if you're thinking about picking it up.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Returning to Exalted: The Platypus Reads Part CC

Well, we're now up to 200 literary meditations here at The Platypus of Truth.  It's been a much quicker trip through the second hundred than the first hundred.  I think much of that can be blamed on the last two "Summers of Shannara," but hopefully there's been an increase in more intellectual fair as well.  Whatever fair you're here for, Great Books or pulp fiction, I hope you'll be able to find plenty more of in the next 100 editions of "The Platypus Reads."

Self-congratulations aside, let's move on to today's book: ExaltedExalted is the core rulebook for Whitewolf publishing's "Age of Sorrows" line.  I used to play this back in grad school when everything Whitewolf put out was eagerly gobbled up by those jaded with dungeon crawls and D&D.  In contrast to other systems, the Storytelling System was much more fluid and dependent on those playing the game than on the rules.  Not everyone likes that, but I loved it.  Anyhow, it's been over six years since I last picked up Exalted, though it's crossed my mind a few times.  This past week, I was visiting our local used bookstore with a friend and found a copy of the core rulebook for $5.99.  I had a 15% off coupon so I thought "why not."  I've been working my way slowly through the book over the last few days and have been thoroughly impressed.  The world of Exalted is varied, intriguing, and richly detailed.  I did my grad work in both Ancient Greece and late Qing China, so the game's eclectic mixture of East and West has a special appeal for me.  The book itself is a small masterpiece of the role-playing genre deftly combining art, flavor text, references, and rules in a way that brings "The Age of Sorrows" to life.  I think that was the great draw, even more than the fluidity of its system.  Exlated is a beautifully realized imaginary world.  It's not another sub-par Tolkien knock-off or a quick sketch designed just to get you into the game.  When you've finished reading, a new world exists in your mind with the promise of new vistas to take in and new territory to explore.  I don't have any plans to start gaming again (too busy and too tired), but if another volume of "The Age of Sorrows" happens to appear in our used bookstore I wouldn't be adverse to picking it up.