Friday, September 6, 2013

Run, You Clever Boy

A brief note: This is a post divided into two parts. The first part is a (rather long) reflection on Doctor Who (specifically Nu-Who) and the theme of running. The second part is how that kind of theme can be implemented in Fate gaming. If you want to read just the first part, stop at “THE DIVIDING LINE,” and if you just want the second, scroll down and start there. And—this is important—my Who analysis has spoilers all the way through to the most recent episode “The Name of the Doctor,” so you may need to beware.

Running has been a very important part of Doctor Who for a very long time. Russell T. Davies knew this, and when he brought the series back in 2005, running was front and center, both on the screen and thematically. The very first word the Ninth Doctor utters is “Run!” and when he gets around to introducing himself the next scene, he repeats the concept: “I'm the Doctor, by the way. What's your name?” Rose replies, and the Doctor continues “Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!” It’s a warning on multiple levels: first, of course, he’s telling Rose to get away from the upcoming explosion; however, he’s also telling her that if she wants to keep her ordinary life, she had better run far away from the Doctor; and if she enjoys running, she should run with him. Running continues as a central metaphor through the 9th and 10th Doctors’ tenure (more on that in a bit), but when Steven Moffat introduced the 11th Doctor, he put a different spin on the 9th Doctor’s introduction. At the end of “The Eleventh Hour,” the Doctor, finally in his iconic bowtie and thus, in a way, him for the first time, says “Hello. I’m the Doctor. Basically... run.” Instead of a warning, this time it’s a threat. For the first time, he’s standing in one place and telling his foes to escape his wrath. He echoes the same threat in “The Doctor’s Wife,” telling Uncle and Auntie “You gave me hope and then you took it away. That's enough to make anyone dangerous. God knows what it'll do to me. Basically, run!” This goes even further in “A Good Man Goes to War,” as the Doctor goes on the offensive and forces his enemy to take on the moniker “Colonel Runaway.” So with this primer, we can see that “running” can mean a number of different things in Doctor Who. Let’s examine some of the other implications.

Much is made of companions running away. Repeatedly, adventuring with the Doctor is referred to as a way to run away from your responsibilities in real life. This appears with Rose: she desperately wants to escape her humdrum life, and ends up never returning home. Martha at first runs away from a much more promising life than Rose had, but ends up deciding that she wants to return to her real life and become a doctor of her own. Donna is the most extreme example, as she is older but is in many ways the least mature of any of the new companions, and repeatedly says that she wants to travel with the Doctor forever, escaping her humdrum life for good. This, is of course, her greatest tragedy, as she ends up returning to not only her life but her mindset from before she met the Doctor.

Moving into the Moffat era, Amy also runs away with the Doctor, performing the ultimate “runaway bride”—her one night of cold feet turns into an intergalactic adventure. The “running away” theme for companions is minimized in Series 6 as Rory and Amy are simply enjoying their time, but it comes back with a vengeance in Series 7 as Rory and Amy have to balance their regular life with their adventures with the Doctor. Oddly enough, they come very close to choosing their real life, but end up choosing to stay with him, only to end up forcibly settling down in their last episod. This is also symbolized by the abandonment of Amy's surname Pond , as her last letter to the Doctor (and subsequent little references to her) are under the name Amelia Williams—but the significance of “Pond” is worth a whole other post. Clara is able to have it both ways: as the Doctor puts it, “The thing about a time machine is that you can run away all you like and still be back in time for tea.” She is able to maintain her regular life as a governess while simultaneously exploring new frontiers with the Doctor (this could be considered a cheat, and might be one reason why many fans are dissatisfied with Clara as a companion). However, the theme of running comes back with Clara in several ways: she repeats the phrase “Run, you clever boy” in all three of her incarnations, and then “The Name of the Doctor” reveals that “Always [she’s] running to save the Doctor. Again and again and again,” and what’s more, she’s been doing it “right from the day he started running.”

So we see that the Doctor does his share of running as well. From his actions, we can see that he prefers to run rather than fight all through the series, and he makes many references to “cowardice” being preferential to force. In “The Parting of the Ways,” the Ninth Doctor is asked “What are you? Coward, or killer?” and he responds “Coward. Any day.” In “The Impossible Astronaut,” Eleven refers to the little girl in the astronaut suit (the young River Song, of course) as “Incredibly strong and running away. I like her.” Donna lampshades his tendency to run with “He saves planets, rescues civilizations, defeats terrible creatures...and runs a lot. Seriously, there is an outrageous amount of running involved,” and River Song glorifies it in her first appearance by promising the Doctor “You and me, time and space. You watch us run!” Even when he doesn’t remember the minor character Lorna (or hasn’t met her yet) in “A Good Man Goes to War,” he assumes that “Hey, we ran, you and me. Didn't we run, Lorna?” And later in Moffat’s run, we start to see part of what the Doctor values in running: in “Let’s Kill Hitler,” he tells young Melody Pond/River Song “Don't run. Now I know you're scared. But never run when you're scared.”

So apparently he runs not out of fear. Why does he run? He tells Clara more in “The Rings of Akhaten”: “We don't walk away, but when we're holding onto something precious, we run, and we don't stop running until we're out of the shadows.” In one of his last episodes with Amy and Rory, the Doctor really explains why he’s running, and why he values it so highly: “I'm not running away. But this is one corner of one country on one continent on one planet that's a corner of a galaxy that's a corner of a universe that is forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying and never remaining the same for a single millisecond, and there is so much, so much, to see, Amy. Because it goes so fast. I'm not running away from things, I am running to them. Before they flare and fade forever.”

However, despite what he says, there’s ample evidence that the Doctor, like his companions, is running from his past. In “The Sound of Drums,” he tells the story of young Gallifreyans looking into the “Untempered Schism.” He says “We stand there, eight years old, staring at the raw power of Time and Space, just a child. Some would be inspired. Some would run away. And some would go mad.” When Martha asks which was he, he replies “Oh, the ones that ran away! I never stopped.” To make brief mention of Classic Who, the Doctor was often said to be on the run from the Time Lords, from their society, their structures and strictures, and he wants to simply escape into the universe. He explicitly likens himself to Amy’s runaway bride schtick in “The Beast Below” as Amy asks him “Have you ever run away from something because you were scared, or not ready, or just... just because you could?” He replies “Once. A long time ago.” She asks what happened, and he just gestures to himself: “Hello!” He’s telling her that everything that is the Doctor came from that one moment of running away. He engages this again in “Let’s Kill Hitler,” trying to escape the reality of dying by pleading with Amy (or rather, a holographic interface wearing her face) “Let's run away and have adventures. Come along, Pond.”

As he is running from the society of the Time Lords, it’s said several times that the Doctor is also running from himself, from the deeds he’s done and what he’s capable of. In “Journey’s End,” Davros taunts him with the following words: “The Doctor. The man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not, out of shame.” Dorium, in “The Wedding of River Song,” similarly tells him (in typical oblique Moffat fashion) what he’s running from: “The first question! The question that must never be answered! Hidden in plain sight! The question you've been running from all your life! Doctor Who? Doctor Who? Doc — tor — Who?!” While it’s not directly stated, it’s heavily implied in “The Name of the Doctor” that one thing the Doctor is running from is the actions of John Hurt’s Doctor, which he claims he “did without choice... in the name of peace and sanity,” but not “in the name of the Doctor.” Considering that fans suspect John Hurt’s character is the actual Ninth Doctor, who fought in the Time War between the 1996 TV movie and the 2005 Nu-Who resurrection, and that we know from “The End of Time” and “The Doctor’s Wife” that the Doctor locked Gallifrey away and killed all the Time Lords, this tells us a lot about what he’s running from.

In “The Wedding of River Song,” he asks Dorium “I've been running all my life. Why should I stop?” That question of why should he stop, and what happens when he does, has been addressed several times. Shortly after the conversation with Dorium (though earlier in broadcast time), the Doctor tells Amy and Rory “I've been running. Faster than I've ever run. And I've been running my whole life. Now it's time for me to stop.” He’s finally decided to take a stand, and similarly tells River that he “Did run. Running brought me here.” And we have seen what happens when he’s forced to take a stand, unable to run any longer. In “The Runaway Bride,” among many other episodes, he kills the monster of the week without mercy once he can no longer run or talk his way out of things. The best example of this, however, appears in “The Family of Blood.” The Doctor had been running harder than most times, going so far as to hide as a human, to avoid the Family. But at the end of the episode, it’s revealed, in the words of Son-of-Mine, “we discovered why — why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he had run away from us and hidden. He was being kind.” His vengeance against the Family is terrible, as he traps them all in eternal torture. So in a sense, the Doctor can be said to be running from himself, from what he is capable of.

As we can see, running shows up a lot in Doctor Who, especially in the Moffat era, and it has a number of different implications: running away from real life, running away from the past, running away from danger (both what could hurt the Doctor and those he could hurt)—and running towards excitement and adventure. That one simple word, one simple activity, is thematically all over Nu-Who, and interpreted in many different ways.


So what does this have to do with gaming in Fate? Obviously, running must appear in an aspect on the Doctor's sheet , many of the companions' character sheets, and really on the game as a whole. Running is almost always the right answer: characters who try to stand and fight, use bullets, seldom make it to the end of the episode. This is a good example of a game aspect. A Doctor Who campaign would need some aspects about running in order to properly reference the source material, while a campaign about strong knights of Camelot defending their home against an implacable foe might go the other way and have several aspects on the game, locations, and characters that emphasize “standing your ground.” In Strange Voyages, exploration in some fashion or questions of the truth are likely to be aspects that will appear in many games. The Kerboros Club does a great job emphasizing their setting by saying that whatever other game aspects there are, “Malum Necessarium,” the club motto, will always appear. This emphasizes the theme of its English translation, "necessary evil." Characters do what they have to do, and don't always stay on the side of the angels. Similarly, the Atomic Robo RPG (coming soon) has “Remain Calm and Trust In Science” appearing as the “mission statement” aspect of Tesladyne, and thus will always appear. Like running in Doctor Who, this tells us that the answer to an Atomic Robo problem will nearly always rely on science in some fashion.

This sort of thematic aspect can be used in a number of ways: they can be invoked in almost any circumstance where acting in accordance with the aspect gives a bonus, and thus it encourages characters to act that way. If the characters in Doctor Who attempt to run away, they will be able to gain a bonus do so, whereas they won’t if they choose to fight back. Of course, the second way you can use these aspects is through compels, either from the GM or self-compels to stay in the correct "tone" for the game, and even when Doctor Who players want to stand their ground, they can be encouraged through compels to run.. Finally, these thematic aspects give you a sense of what stories to tell. The Doctor Who GM quickly realizes not to tell stories where is necessary for the characters to stand their ground, and instead to make scenarios that explore why the companions are running away from their real-life; the Camelot game should conversely tell stories where characters will have to stand and fight, and explore why their characters need to stand and what that costs them; a Strange Voyages game should focus on stories of exploration, new things and new locations, with stories that explore why the characters are exploring in the first place. Creating a thematic aspect like this can be as simple as placing it on the game as issue, or it could add on to the game above and beyond the issues that are already there (as in the case of The Kerberos Club and Atomic Robo), and can also be encouraged to be reflected in the aspects of PCs and various faces and places throughout the campaign. How far you want to take this depends on how much you want to emphasize the theme—how far you want to run.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

On the Brink

I just had an Experience. Experience with a capital “E.” Something unique and magical and out of the ordinary. And all it was was going to a concert. A small, intimate concert, with a bunch of people that I’d never met, but know anyway. People with “Shadowrun” T-shirts and nerdy card games just happening to sit in their pockets, there to listen to a band called the Doubleclicks and a singer whose most famous song is called “The Nerd Anthem.” There was a sense of community, of communion, and although I did not speak to a single person, I was really comfortable. I just watched, and felt like I belonged even though I wasn't interacting with anyone. Maybe I should've talked to someone, I'll probably regret that later. But it didn't seem necessary, didn't seem vital to enjoy that moment, and despite my isolation I felt like I was part of something. This is an experience that I haven't had since I was 19, feeling like nothing so much as sitting in the makeshift black box theater next to the pizza parlor on my college campus, listening to amateurs up on stage sharing their souls in the Midnight Beatnik Society (who were not beatniks and did not meet at midnight). That close, intimate “these people are just like me and that’s awesome” feeling, with both the people in the audience and the people on stage. Marian Call and the Doubleclicks spent the intermission hanging with the people who came to their concert.

They’re on a different level—no one would be foolish enough to publish a CD of the ramblings of college-age Ryan Schmidt strumming along on his guitar to the Tacoma Song (though now I understand he’s doing quite well for himself as an improv comedian), and I certainly wasn’t invited up onstage with Marian to share my latest blog post, but I still felt that connection. Perhaps it was because these people were not pure amateurs, but burgeoning professionals. I believe Marian Call makes her living as a musician, but she is not a household name, nor will she ever be. I would be surprised if the Doubleclicks don’t have day jobs, and Josh A. Cagan’s big claim to fame is contributing to a not-terribly-good web series. They’ve moved on from the level of amateur, but they’re not yet at the level of pure professional, not Ozzy or Stephen King or even Felicia Day. That’s where I’d like to imagine I am—certainly a step behind, with my first game just about to come out, instead of my career being a few CDs in like Marian and the Doubleclicks are, no professionally produced webseries to my name, never mind the quality. But it’s that level of leaping forward onto the professional plane that I feel like I connect with. I might just be humoring myself, but I’d like to think I’m finally coming into my own. Twenty-nine, a little late, but that’s not uncommon in this day and age, this generation of delayed adolescence.

I may never be a household name, but I think that's okay. If I could simply foster the kind of camaraderie that I felt at this concert, share that feeling with some portion of the world, I just might be okay with that. I used to have far loftier dreams, wanting every single person in the world to experience my art, whether or not they liked it, but perhaps I can settle for something smaller.

There are 3000 people on the Fate Core community on Google+. I don’t know what percentage of the Fate Core crowd that represents, and I don’t know what percentage of that crowd I might be able to capture with my game or games—but if I could, if I could get 3000 people to buy my game, that would be an amazing accomplishment. 3000 is in some sense not that much: it would be a small town. It would be a small con. If a television series got those ratings, it wouldn’t finish the first episode. But for someone on the brink of professional artwork, three thousand would be like a million. Like ten. I’m trying to keep my expectations low. Maybe only a few dozen people will buy my game, maybe into the hundreds. Something along those lines is what I envision. But just think about it. I had maybe two dozen people who followed my blog back in the day, if that. I’ve shared my games with a dozen or two people over the course of my lifetime, and always in groups of five or six at a time. If I could spread that out, see and hear the effects further on, and further out, well that’s what being an artist is all about, isn’t it? Giving something of yourself to the world. I don’t write for me. If I did, I wouldn’t be trying to publish something, I would simply write in my journal and call it good. I write because I’d like to think that someone else would like to read what I’ve written, would like to play the game I’ve designed, would like to explore the worlds that come flowing out of my head. This is not to say the small and intimate don’t have their place. I cherish my time with my gaming group, and adore the job I have working one-on-one trying to help a single individual succeed. But there is something to be said for quantity.

Tomorrow, I have to return to my ordinary life, some of the pain-in-the-ass stuff I have yet to do: doctor’s visits and another day at work. But for a few hours, I was part of something, and if I can just hold on to that sensation, summon it up when I really need to, I just might be able to make that same connection with someone else out there in the world. Wouldn’t that be remarkable?