To the eighth issue of The Guild Companion. Since my last editorial, the adventure games industry has seen the merger of the three major American distributors, ICE's declaration of Chapter 11 bankruptcy and their recent loss of the Middle-earth license, and the toy manufacturer Hasbro buying Wizards of the Coast for a cool 325 million US dollars. We snagged an official statement on the last topic from Ryan Dancey, the man in charge of the TSR division of Wizards of the Coast. Meanwhile John W Curtis III, familiar to many ICE customers, resigned from his post as Rolemaster Series Editor, and has been replaced at the helm by Craig "Ichabod" O'Brien.
Despite this turmoil in the industry, The Guild Companion intends to continue publishing with a new issue appearing every month, and we plan to continue publishing material for Middle-Earth Role-Playing and the Middle-earth Collectible Card Game.
Why do we review gaming products? I suppose it boils down to a desire to share our experience, whether enjoyable or not, with other people, in the same way that we talk to our friends about movies we've seen, books we've read and so on. There are a lot of game publishers out there, with new products appearing every month. Some products you know are "must-buys", some products you know are not for you; and in between, you have all the rest that might be useful or amusing, and if you're lucky, you'll even know that they exist.
I could claim that providing reviews is an act of altruism on the part of The Guild Companion to provide you, the reader, with a subjective but unbiased commentary on some of the products that are out there. Of course, that's only part of our rationale. We provide reviews because you want them and you read them. Articles that raise our reader count and our hits are good for the webzine, as "circulation" and activity are what matter to prospective advertisers. Raise sufficient advertising revenue and we can keep The Guild Companion a free publication. In addition, you should have noticed links to affiliated on-line retailers appearing on some of the reviews. If you follow the link and buy the product (or anything else for that matter) from the on-line catalogues, The Guild Companion receives a small commission which again helps to pay the bills.
Does the fact that we stand to gain from you purchasing reviewed products influence the tone of our reviews? No. The reviewer has already made a judgement call on the product by putting down the cash to buy it. I'm certainly choosy about what I buy, so if I've handed over my money, I'm doing it in the expectation that the product will be useful, interesting, amusing or all of the above. That does not guarantee an easy ride when it comes to the review - if there are problems with the product, they will be discussed as well.
Which brings me to Violence : the role-playing game of egregious and repulsive bloodshed, a new release from Hogshead Publishing. The nature of this product is such that I don't feel that I should review it as we would any normal game or supplement, and in particular, I don't feel like encouraging readers to go out and buy it, so I'm not going to discuss it in the context of an ordinary review article with information on how to obtain a copy and the like. But I am going to talk about it because I think it merits discussion.
In the copyright and trademark preamble to Violence, there's a line that runs "Basically, this product doesn't work, never did, and we aren't responsible for anything." Violence can't be read (and should not be used) as a game, because it isn't. Instead it must be read as a satire, a grim, biting, black satire on the foundations of role-playing games. If you think of it as the RPG equivalent of Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal, then most of Violence can be read without risk to your mental health.
(Jonathan Swift, better known as the author of Gulliver's Travels, wrote a satire called the Modest Proposal which proposed a "solution" to overpopulation and chronic food shortages in Ireland. The "proposal" suggested that Irish children should be fattened up and exported as gastronomic delicacies.)
In Violence, "Designer X" explores the violence at the heart of many role-playing games, so naturally the satire is in the form of a "role-playing game" with mechanics and descriptions. "Designer X", by the way, is actually Greg Costikyan, designer of Paranoia, Toon, and Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, but unsurprisingly he'd prefer not to have his name on the credits for this one.
Let's step back a moment. Most of us probably started role-playing with some flavour of Dungeons & Dragons, and the early games were dungeon bashes. Your characters trudged around underground complexes, kicked in doors, slaughtered the orcs or the monsters or whatever, and took their treasure. Eventually we developed better games, better plots and better stories that were not simply about mindless violence.
Violence satirises the gaming industry by taking the dungeon-bashing style and setting it in the modern urban world with modern firepower. So instead of armoured fighters, robed mages and cloaked thieves, the characters are now street thugs, who kick in the doors of apartment buildings, torture and kill normal human beings, and take their possessions. The characters are the monsters.
A satire is effective only if it is delivered in an appropriate style, and to give "Designer X" credit where credit is due, the style of presentation is masterful. Violence follows the format of a game system. Rather than presenting the game system as a finished artifact, "Designer X" talks through the process of game design, producing rules, mechanics, and descriptions on the fly - "Mumble mumble. Any thing else? Oh yeah, we need hit points. And pain points. Actually I could just use the stats but that would be too simple." As a running gag, this cynical perspective helps to bring some twisted humour to Violence and allows for a number of en passant sideswipes at gamer behaviour, the utility (or lack thereof) of "GM screens", publishers' dependence on supplements and sourcebooks and gamers' willingness to buy them, the RPGA, and so on, and these are amusing. Very amusing if you've actually had to produce a game or a game supplement. There are also quite a few wry comments about aspects of American, British, police and counter-culture slipped into the cracks between the "game mechanics".
All of this serves to lull you into thinking that perhaps Violence is not quite as bloody, as brutal, as dark or as evil as the publisher warns on the back cover. Except it is. Normal role-playing games usually have a bestiary section where a list of monsters is supplied to provide sword- and spell-fodder for the player-characters. Violence characters don't go around killing gelatinous cubes, goblins, undead, etc., instead they terrorise normal people. So there is a section on "Decent Law-Abiding Citizens" which does give "stats" for these innocent victims but mostly describes them as real people. You will be disturbed by this section. And that is the point. "Dungeon-bashing" isn't role-playing.
Violence may amuse you a little. It will disturb you. I'm not going to recommend it. Proceed with extreme caution.
Time for me to stop ranting and for you to start reading. Our next issue will be published in November 1999 and we'll have some pleasant surprises and real games reviewed for you, but until then,
Keep gaming and have fun!
Nicholas HM Caldwell
Coauthor Mentalism Companion