Friday, May 29, 2015

Chess

The modern incarnation of an RPG owes its existence to D&D. D&D is, at its core, a stripped down wargame, where the player controls only one unit, albeit with far more individual options and customization, rather than an army. Wargames, in turn, are inherently derived from a long line of more abstract games which represented physical conflict. The oldest, most recognizable, surviving form of these ancient wargames is chess. Chess is, simply put, one of the finest games ever made. It is deeper, richer, and more complex than any other game ever made. Today, I would like to talk about it because I HATE chess.

First things first, what the game is. Chess is a two-player game in which both players are given an identical number of identical game pieces in identical arrangement on a symmetrical playing field. The game is flawlessly balanced. Nobody has an advantage due to anything inherent to the game or its parts. Who is playing black or white changes nothing relevant to ones chance to win. This means that nothing on the board actually decides the result of the game- it's all up to the people playing and their decisions. It is almost poetic how the game levels the playing field between two people, and gives them an abstract medium through which they may engage in a test of wits and wills. It is, truly, mind versus mind.

I have a similar opinion of many other, (And, in my opinion, far better) games, such as checkers, tic-tac-toe, and eastern chess equivalents. At the start of the game, there is no advantage. If you lose, you only have yourself to blame- the opponent bested you, fair and square. There's no random chance, and the only unpredictable element is the other player. Compare this with more elaborate games associated to gaming as a hobby, such as wargames and RPGs. Quite frequently, there is a great deal of randomness, and even where it is absent, the fields are rarely balanced, as setting up your playing field is as much a part of the strategy as actual play decisions! 

In wargames especially, players are often given a limited abstract currency (points) which are used to dictate how many units they may have, with more powerful or specialized units costing more points. Many wargames may also allow many different win and lose conditions, and the conditions may be different for each player. In all of these other games, gameplay is far more about what is happening on the table or in the game, than it is about what's happening in the minds of the players. It's not one mind versus another, it is simply tactics versus tactics, play versus play.

But this is where I believe the genius of chess ends. It is a beautiful game to think about and talk about, but I think it is a terrible game to play, mainly for two reasons.

First off, in the absence of humanity, it is not a game, it is geometry. Modern computers can play chess far better than any human ever will, and when computers are pit against each other at maximum difficulty, especially if they use the same code, the result is (almost) always a draw. Because both sides are so beautifully, perfectly balanced, there is no theoretical reason for either side to ever win. If the "best possible move" is always made by both sides, the result will always be a draw. Now that this has been so thoroughly explored and exemplified, I don't think there's much reason to play this game any more. Doing so almost seems an act of ignorance to me; there is no game left to be played here, we're just making dumb mistakes the pieces shouldn't make.

And my second reason for disliking chess is also my reason for hating it. In almost every other game based on conflict, such as wargames, you see one of two mechanics:

A) Kill all of the opponent's pieces, and you win.

B) Take some specific target, be it a unit or a location, (possibly keep it for a set time) and you win.

Chess follows neither of these mechanics. The reason it doesn't, is because chess is not about winning. 

Instead, a player cannot make a move which would result in their "king" piece being captured. If a move would leave their king open for capture, they cannot make it. So, if I threaten to take a player's king on my next turn, they must prevent it from happening on theirs, if they can. They have no choice. The game ends when one player cannot make a move, resulting in checkmate, and victory for the other player.

Chess is not about winning, it is about losing. It is about using your mind to slowly beat someone else's mind into submission. It is about methodically stripping another person of their choices and freedoms. It is the glorified, obsessive focus on the agonizing defeat of an opponent. It is, inherently, psychologically abusive. It is a game for sociopaths and cold, unfeeling machines. It is a game meant for intellectual bullies and dominating egomaniacs. It is a perfect symbolic manifestation of the mental state of medieval culture, which can clearly be seen in their violent, tyrannical history straight through the industrial revolution. It is a mental state the human race is still struggling to recover from. It is the philosophy which generates all forms of prejudice: The idea that one can be made superior, by making all others inferior.

When I play chess, I play capture the king, no castling, no en passant. It makes the game a little bit shallow, for sure, but it transforms it into a far lighter, far freeing experience. A game can be won by simply tricking an opponent to put their king in the middle of a trap! Metagame and poker face suddenly play a far bigger role! It isn't mind versus mind any more, but person versus person. This is why I feel we should leave chess behind like the archaic relic it is. 

Like the holocaust, it is a memory of where we came from, and deserving of recognition for its impact...

But that's all it's worth.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Why Piracy?

Most of my audience should know this, considering you're all personally invited at the moment, but I spent two years in a fine arts course in college and have considered myself to be an artist all my life. So, it may seem a little bit idiosyncratic when I talk about my blatant piracy and opposition to copyright law. After all, isn't copyright law the ultimate legal defense for the arts as a business? Isn't piracy the greatest modern financial threat to the creative arts' economic viability?

Yes.

That's the point.

And please don't be offended by that. I know some of you do make at least some earnings off your creative efforts. I shall explain. I may be anarchist, but I'm certainly not the bomb throwing variety.

First off, understand that I believe RPGs, indeed games in general, are the penultimate art form. An art form so profoundly deep that the audience is the medium. So, any discussion about RPGs is, at least in my mind, a discussion about art.

Now, answer me this: Why should I pay 50$ for an RPG book?

Comparatively, I basically never buy any book worth more than 30$- and that's for a REAL book!

Someone tried to argue that it's similar to the price for a fancy dinner with my girlfriend, which is wrong. I can, and somewhat infrequently do, have a filet mignon dinner with her for under 40$.

Another person argued it resembles the price of a new videogame, which I fully resent.
First off, if I can slap together a workable and moderately fun RPG in an hour on my own, I see no comparison to the years of combined specialist work and expense that goes into a modern videogame.
Second, I don't believe many, or really any, videogames warrant their price tag! They all wind up in a bargain bin for under 20$ after 6 months anyways! If that's what they're really worth, why would I spend more? It makes more sense to just wait until the marketing scheme plays out so people can look at it rationally.

Third, since I, and hundreds of other hobbyists, can make RPGs on a whim, some of them even illustrated in PDF format, as I can do, why should it be worth anything close to the value of a videogame?? Obviously, no specialist professional skills are needed, and actual creation time can be shockingly short- as brief as 24 hours. Add on top of that these people will make their RPGs whether they get paid or not. RPGs clearly have no real value.

It takes me a little over two hours to earn 50$. And I have a pretty good wage for unskilled labour at ~23$/hr. If someone walked up to me and said, "if you do this work for me for two hours, I'll give you a 5th edition Player's Hand Book", I'd laugh in his face. If the work isn't worth it, the money isn't either, because my money is a literal manifestation of my time, skill, and labor. I doubt everyone in my audience makes money the hard way like me, and so most of you would probably take longer to make that 50$. How long would it take you? Three hours? Five hours? My old room mate would take a whole shift to pull that off. Is that worth it to you? Does that seem to be a reasonable expense? If you said yes, over everything else your money could be used to do, then their priorities are clearly warped.

The pirates are winning because we are right.

It doesn't need to be wise, it just needs to work.