New on Desk #7 — Sports Drama for Geeks

My week’s not been the most productive ever, but I am slowly getting back to my ordinary levels of slackery after the flu. I resumed my gym program for instance, if that’s what you call staring angrily at the weights before retiring to the changing room to swoon. The second gym visit of the week was slightly more heroic, with me managing to finish my entire routine, so I’m expecting full recovery in due time.

Speaking of the arts, though, the new thing this week for me has been compiling and refreshing my notes on the next major RPG campaign that we’ve been preparing for locally. This is something that I developed in broad strokes last summer already, but the local player base wasn’t quite ready to commit to the affair then, which led us into nine months of smaller games, including the on-going Subsection M3 campaign that I’ve discussed before. With said campaign winding down, though, I’ll need to make sure that I’m ready to thrown down with Blood Bowl the Roleplaying Game this spring!

My Blood Bowl RPG Ideal

The first edition I ever played was actually the 2nd, but the 3rd edition art is what Wikipedia seems to prefer.

Blood Bowl is a fairly well-known fantasy rugby game from Games Workshop, the company known for Warhammer. I don’t consider myself a regular practitioner, but I did play a fair amount in my teens, and I’ve certainly played more Bloodbowl than other GW games combined. I have some fair amount of respect for the game’s overall design, and with GW’s roster of games being what it is, I would say that Blood Bowl is probably the best game-considered-as-a-game that they’ve ever put out.

As the game’s topic probably tells you, it’s a straightforward boardgame about an ultra-violent rugby-like ball-game played by fantasy critters. You’ve got a team of players on the board, the opponent has theirs, there’s a ball, and you try to tackle and pass your way to the end-zone to score before the time runs out. The full game takes about two hours or so. The notable, iconic game mechanic is the notion that while every player in your team is allowed to make a move during your turn, the turn ends immediately if one of the players fails in whatever they were doing; you’re obligated to prioritize the order in which you move your players based on how risky their moves are, but also how important they are to your game plan: whatever else happens, the key moves must get through before a bad roll ends your turn.

Now, the situation on the ground is obviously enough that a “Blood Bowl Roleplaying Game” does not actually exist; what we’re planning to play is one of these unholy homebrews that I regularly whip out. The idea started to simmer last winter as a few of the miniatures fellows in our gaming group bought the newest edition of the game and started playing it semi-regularly. I’d considered the idea of transforming Blood Bowl into a roleplaying game a few times over the years, but when the idea got a surprising amount of interest among the locals I was forced into making the idea a reality.

The mission statement of my BBRPG is simply that we’re going to be forming a Blood Bowl team, with the players collectively running the team while they also play individual football heroes as their own characters. Each session of play consists of roughly an hour of management sim activities (making training and budgeting decisions for the team), another hour of “sports drama” (individual characters dealing with their own issues) and then a full game of the Bloodbowl boardgame at the end of the session, with the GM playing for the opposing team and the rest of the group collectively running their own team.

The creative agenda is something we used to call “Simulationist” in the old days: the game provides a broad swathe of slice-of-life sports drama, some character building stuff, a football manager simulation, and a brutally random boardgame that breaks and kills characters. I’m striving for a broad and eventful game that focuses in enjoying the sports festivities and silly little stories of the imaginary athletes; it’s not a big deal whether the PC team succeeds or fails in the league, and individual characters are less important overall than the team as a whole. The enjoyment should end up being mostly about dollhouse play as we develop a team with its own logo and theme song and whatnot, and roll dice to see which characters become heroes and which become cripples.

My Blood Bowl RPG will have a fair amount of rpg-specific rules systems that should hopefully fold neatly into the basic chassis of the boardgame: the ideal is that the extra detail and new rules cycles I add to the game are always unambiguously capable of being ignored in favour of the basic BB boardgame rules. A primary concern in rules development here is “compatibility” in the sense that I don’t want to teach our entire gaming group to play Blood Bowl wrong; ideally even the players who aren’t familiar with the game in advance will learn something near enough to the normal rules that they can appreciate the roleplaying game as an expansion of the boardgame rather than a completely independent game.

Sports drama is a literary genre

A cultural aside here: it’s not the most popular genre among gamers, but in the wider world sports drama is a staple genre of storytelling. Aside from real-world sports (the reality tv of sports drama, if you will) and sports-like entertainments (e.g. show wrestling) the genre has a long history in everything from comics to movies. The gladiatorial premise makes for a natural chassis for storytelling, although admittedly an artificial one — your audience experience works best if you adopt an ironic relationship to the agonies of the sportsman, laughing at the seriousness with which this other human being sweats and bleeds for your entertainment. Quirky little people, running after their inherently meaningless balls as a microcosm of the futility of human endeavour.

And of course it’s not like the genre doesn’t rub shoulders with more gamer-popular genres at times: Flash Gordon is a sports hero who turns into an interplanetary pulp scifi adventurer, for example — his character concept doesn’t really make much sense unless you understand how Flash’s being a varsity football quarterback is supposed to be a cool and credible pulp hero backstory. It’s like being American royalty.

Of course Blood Bowl itself is a pretty good example of something that tries to appeal to geeks with sports. I remember how the fictional conceit of the game didn’t really entertain or amuse me as a teenager; I was the sort who couldn’t follow a sports match without being bored to tears, after all. Didn’t prevent playing it, but the game never quite grabbed my imagination the way games about war or adventure did. I’ve improved in this regard over the last few decades, however, such that I’m able to be entertained by some sports and most sports drama nowadays.

In the ’70s British sports comics were published in Finland and Sweden first and foremost in the Buster magazine.

I’d like to make special mention here of a somewhat obscure sports drama inspiration: when I started figuring out the style and content of the Blood Bowl RPG, my mind inevitably gravitated towards 1970s British sports comics, specifically the stuff published in the Tiger magazine in their own country, and in Buster in Finland. Billy’s Boots, Hot-Shot Hamish, and so on. I don’t quite know why this is the first thing that my mind jumps to when I imagine the kinds of sports stories that a Blood Bowl RPG would feature; it’s not like I couldn’t imagine Japanese sports comics (e.g. Eyeshield 21) that I’ve actually read this decade, or futuristic blood sports stories like Rollerball that actually resemble Blood Bowl. It’s probably because Games Workshop is a British company.

But be that as it may, my intention is to go into the Blood Bowl RPG with rather open eyes and a loosely adaptable dramatic technique: we’ll create some characters and see what kinds of stories are most natural for them, out of everything the sports genre has to offer. Doesn’t need to be British boys’ comics in style, we can do whatever the group wants. It’ll be something of a process of discovery, I think, as many gamers don’t necessarily have much prior experience with the genre. I’m confident that the framework of a professional sports team provides as much support as anything; it’s surely easier to find the interesting developments than it’d be in something like Dungeon World! Instead of monster random encounters it’ll be team-mates in steroid rage.

A few words on world building

Blood Bowl the boardgame provides an essentially non-functional setting vision, so I’m just going to scuttle most of that and figure it out on my own. This is understandable, mind; the game doesn’t really try to be anything more than a fantasy rugby, so anything and everything it says about the world it’s set in is essentially space-filler: vapid sports satire and fantasy comedy gags.

What the BBRPG needs for a setting premise is a fairly understandable, modern world that features professional sports and isn’t apocalyptic in the way Warhammer product generally tend to be. The setting obviously needs to support the Warhammer fantasy stuff that Blood Bowl’s ridden with, so there needs to be some sense of what and who all these dwarves and elves and orcs and so forth are.

The Empire of Man will be territorially about the same as it is in Warhammer; no need to fix what ain’t broke. The geography and related economic factors are what ultimately determine the shape of my Imperial Rugby League, whence the interest in the map.

My solution is to set the game in an alternate future of the main Warhammer Fantasy Battle setting, the Old World. The wargame is set in a world that is essentially similar to 16th century Europe, so if I turn the clock forward by 400 years or so, that’ll make time for the Old World to modernize and develop the socio-economic foundation for professional sports, right? I notice that the Warhammer calendar just so happens to work by adding roughly a thousand years to the historical common era count, which means that if I set the campaign somewhere around year 2970, that’ll reasonably resemble the 1970s of our world. Age of Sigmar never happened here, in case that wasn’t obvious.

What happens to turn the dystopic age of war familiar from Warhammer into a reasonably playable sports drama setting is obviously detente between the forces of Chaos and the Empire, the two big players that have turned the continent into a battlefield. I’m thinking that the prime changes in the setting over the last few centuries have been as follows:

  • Kislev has fallen to Chaos. This’ll help make the map seem more like Cold War era Europe, with the “Reds” enroaching upon the Empire, and it’ll give the “eastern block” of Chaos-aligned polities a little bit more variety in the football-playing cultures. I also wanted to have a sufficiently civilized front-man culture for the Chaos block. Besides, does it really feel like the Cold War if the Russians aren’t red?
  • The Chaos Gates have been closed, presumably after a most epic saga of heroism and sacrifice. This understandably has put something of a kink in the plans of the various Chaotic factions of the Old World, which is the basis of the current Cold War era of international politics: The Empire was too war-torn at the end to push its advantage after Chaos weakened, and although the Chaotic polities continue to exist, without the Gates they’re too weak to entertain the idea of conquest. A shallow peace has therefore reigned for the last few generations, generations who have also witnessed the flowering of the age of modernity upon the world.
  • Football is very important to the world on a nearly metaphysical level. The residents of the Old World do not generally realize it, but much of the detail in how their world has been shaped over the recent centuries has been the work of Nuffle, the god of football who has been active in the world ever since Blood Bowl was rediscovered in the 25th century. Nowadays the imperial society treats Nuffle as an accepted, although new, god of the empire, while the Chaotic nations treat him as a minor god of chaos. Neither realize the extent to which Nuffle’s hand has acted to transform this grim world into something arguably much more optimistic than before. It is possible that this is the generation that gets to see the end-game: how football finally helps break the ideological shackles of the world, joining orc and man in a technically-speaking-peaceful ritual sport that has been instrumental in dragging this wargaming world into an age of modern prosperity.

Generally speaking I’m imagining the Imperium of Man in the 30th century as 1970s England, except it’s sort of Germany, and sort of the United States. Sure there’s some fantasy stuff like halflings in there, but generally speaking the social, economical and psychological milieu of the professional sports stars can be something analogous to what we understand by the concept of “sports”. Seems legit to me.

I suppose I could write more about all this, but that wouldn’t be newsletter thinking — I’ll come back to all this if and when we’ll manage to gear up the campaign. Or maybe you’ll vote for me to write an in-depth article on my campaign notes. There’s certainly a lot to unpack in this, it’s going to be a big campaign and absolutely amazing if we manage to pull it off.

Why somebody might want to watch “Parasite”

We started a new movie season at home this week, a morning matinee — up at five, watch a movie to start the day. My brother, the cultured man that he is, started us off with Parasite, a Korean comedy/thriller that’s apparently take the world of cinema by storm recently. I think we watched the movie on the same day that it won at Oscars, earlier this week.

Parasite was a pretty interesting movie experience. I won’t go into a full-blown review of the intricacies here, but let’s just say that it was a black comedy that wasn’t funny, and a crime thriller that wasn’t thrilling. The script is obviously a hack job; I liked the acting, but that doesn’t take you far with a bad script. The movie was generally mediocre in a pretty grating way in fact, as it oozed an unfounded confidence in itself; the camera and the actors betray a self-satisfaction that seems merely ridiculous on a disparate production that starts dull-tipped and ends confused.

You won’t like all movies, of course, but the insane amount of praise (high Rotten Tomatoes stats and such) compared to the mediocre nature of the movie does attract curiosity. Inspired by the experience we started watching other movies from 2019 — sort of checking the Oscars on their aesthetic judgement. Maybe it was just a particularly bad movie year?

Ford v Ferrari was what I’d characterize as a “passable” movie. Not great, but acceptable, and recognizable as a movie. It was a pretty funny feeling when at the end of the first act I noticed myself enjoying the movie. It was just… it was such a pleasant experience compared to Parasite the day before. It was like I had been taken into a world where the cinematic arts are worth shit, only to return from thence into a world where movies can be pretty entertaining after all.

That’s my theory on why you might want to watch Parasite, by the way: I don’t know if this works for somebody who’s been watching movies regularly, but if you’re like me and watch Parasite after several weeks of no cinema at all, it might cause an amusing recalibration for your expectations. The next movie you watch after Parasite might feel remarkably entertaining.

We also watched The Lighthouse and The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil this week. To make a long story short, they were roughly as good as Ford v Ferrari: passable, and clearly better than Parasite. Valid movies that all would deserve a moment of consideration if this was a movie review blog. Add to those Joker, which we watched earlier in the winter, and we have a bunch of recent movies to compare, all of which belong in a superior class of quality. Notably The Gangster, etc. is a Korean film, so I can’t even in good conscience say that Parasite would have been the best Korean movie last year. I guess that’s how the Oscars fall sometimes.

An aside about the circus arts

Beyond the morning movie matinees, I’ve been watching a bit of entertainment television this week: Penn and Teller: Fool Us is a stage magic show that I understand is still an on-going concern in the tv-land. The show acts as a showcase for magicians who each get a chance to put up a short act on stage, with the arch-magicians Penn and Teller giving a short critique afterwards. So it’s basically a magic show anthology series.

I’ve discovered two things while watching this show. The simpler one is that I enjoy the positivity. The titular hosts are amiable and generally only have nice things to say to the visiting magicians. The show’s ostensibly a competition, but it doesn’t take itself seriously in that regard, so mostly it’s just smart professionals complimenting other smart professionals for their skills. It’s a very technical showcase too, so it’s intellectually stimulating without having any drama, which is nice. You learn a lot about stage magic.

The more complex thing I learned is the true nature of (stage) magic, which is misdirection in service to amazement. It’s an interesting art form in how it’s not particularly wedded to specific tools or expressive routines so much as it is defined by the higher-order semantic relationship between the performer and the audience. It’s similar to roleplaying in that way: both are art forms that use things like standup or music or other expressive arts, but are not defined by them.

This nature is shared with other circus arts, by the way: it’s interesting how the entire field is defined as arts that are coincidentally aesthetic, but only in service to amazement. Juggling, for instance: it may look nice, but that’s incidental to it looking amazingly difficult. It’s like whether anything you do is an ordinary action, or an aesthetic expression, or circus, depends not at all on the substantial nature of the act, but on the audience’s expectations.

Gentlemen on the Agora

My cultural saloon has again been producing nuggets of wisdom. Let’s have a look:

  • The IRC channel activity got a mid-winter boost as one of the core contributors returned from their self-imposed Aikido seclusion. The celebrations were glorious, as the returning hero had achieved 3rd Dan in a belting exam, losing only one toe in the process. The take-away for the gentlemen on the Agora was that although you can treat these types of initiation rituals as basically somewhat ironical games-that-adults-play, the real trick is that the more you contribute to the affair, the more seriously you take it, the more rewarding it will be as an experience. The important part of the experience was not the belt, but rather the conscious decision to focus in training and the role Aikido plays in the celebrant’s life for a full month. My understanding is that the gentleman is now newly renewed in his Aikido motivations, ready to break bones, heal toes and return to teaching in the local community.
  • A contributor directed the club’s attention to a hilariously obtuse critical interpretation of Tintin comic books. The ensuing exchange about what the Adventures of Tintin comics franchise means was interesting, I felt. I myself argued for what I feel to be an amply justified nihilist position, namely that Tintin is an empty-vessel protagonist of entirely externalized pulp adventure stories, and therefore any analysis that attempts to ascribe some thematic quality to Tintin himself as a character is misguided. A pulp adventure hero is a placeholder, essentially a camera-like audience-representative, and Tintin is certainly not gay: he’s not anything sexually speaking because he has no internal character whatsoever. I demonstrated my position by challenging the gentlemen to imagine Tintin and Mickey Mouse changing places in their respective pulp adventures: they’re the same character, or rather the lack of one, and therefore nothing changes about their stories if you swap them about. A fun and illustrative thought exercise, I thought.
  • As I described earlier, I’ve been watching movies, so that’s been a topic on the Agora. An interesting spin-off from my complaining about Parasite was a lengthy analysis of the roots of the modern superhero movie: given that Iron-Man (2008) is recognizably different in attitude and style and understanding of the superhero genre than Batman (1989) and its sequels, what was it that happened in between those two? Is it just cultural drift due to time passing, or does the modern superhero movie benefit from some insight that was lacking when Hollywood did superhero movies in the ’80s? We traced the historical influence in ’00s superhero movies and their ’90s equivalents, attempting futilely to construe a credible chain of influence, a bridge from one to the other; it seemed that something weird had happened to superhero movies around the millennium to make them less zany, but what was it? A contributor cracked the case rather neatly, I thought: superhero movie as a genre didn’t so much evolve after Batman as it actually died and was reborn in the late ’90s as a variant of the blockbuster action movie; where old-style (childish, cartoony) superhero movies were more in the adventure movie genre, the modern superhero movie is essentially an action movie, which explains most of the differences on a much deeper level than the passage of time does. Casual exegesis of the creative personalities and stated influences supports the analysis rather neatly: the people who established the style of the modern superhero movie in the transformative millennial era we identified were genre action movie people who simply added swimsuits into their movie recipe to make them be about superheroes. As I neatly summed up the matter: the history of the modern superhero genre doesn’t go Batman (1989) -> Crow (1994) -> X-Men (2000) -> Spider-Man (2003) as was first posited; rather, it’s much closer to something like Predator (1987) -> Terminator 2 (1991) -> Blade (1998) -> X-Men (2000) -> Spider-Man (2003). The genre was rebooted with a fresh start in the late ’90s, such that recent superhero movies have much more in common with Terminator (1984) than they do with Superman (1978).
  • A contributor brought in a social media poetry challenge as they’re sometimes wont to do; we seem to be suckers for these, as they allow us to strut our stuff as wordsmiths in a very casual way. This time the topic was “horror stories in six words”, and many horror stories were indeed formulated and told. Looking at the crop, many of these are total word games, poetry and filthy puns, but some do translate into English well enough. My favourite was maybe “Awakening at the hospital after a bout of illness; the doctors insist on a lobotomy treatment” (which is six words in Finnish, of course). Probably the best one I wrote myself was “Pa’s always been a bit weird; today I realize that he’s a Chimpanzee.”

The State of the Polls

I revised the polling options a bit, adding some stuff. You might have figured out by now that the options that are present from the start of the month have an advantage in our polling system, but no worries; I’ll be transferring promising also-rans over to next month, so they’ll get their chance for a full month.

On the other hand, I think that the Mentzer Immortals stuff, while intriguing to me and consistently popular, doesn’t seem to be breaking through the glass ceiling this month either. C’est la vie, so near yet so far. I need more OSR readers, clearly.

A short update on this month’s articles: I should be publishing my first C2020 article next week. The surprisingly long-lasting flu has postponed stuff for me this month, but on the positive side, I’ve grown slowly more interested in the project, so maybe you’ll find it interesting as well. I’m intending to do the Storyboarding article as well once I get the C2020 thing done.

[February 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • C2020 Redux: Character Creation Rules (18%, 16 Votes)
  • Pointbuy game design (17%, 15 Votes)
  • Subsection M3 (11%, 10 Votes)
  • Using Mentzer Immortals for Xianxia D&D (11%, 10 Votes)
  • Neoplatonic Hellraiser stuff (10%, 9 Votes)
  • My Star Control RPG Notes (10%, 9 Votes)
  • My Magic: the Gathering RPG Notes (9%, 8 Votes)
  • Creative Safety - handling Lines and Veils (8%, 7 Votes)
  • Blood Bowl RPG campaign and rules (2%, 2 Votes)
  • Critical review of Batman comics (1%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 29

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As always, feel free to vote and suggest any new subject matters.

3 thoughts on “New on Desk #7 — Sports Drama for Geeks”

    1. Ha, that’s a funky concept – I imagine that the way everything ultimately comes down to quests and skirmish combats in D&D makes for a fruitfully twisted perspective on professional sports.

      And you’ve got a massively documented Youtube video series on this. Good show, slow clap. Intimidating level of production quality, too.

  1. Pingback: Kiinnostavia blogauksia: helmikuu 2020 | Efemeros

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