Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Null Singularity

Null SingularityNull Singularity by Steve Bean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For me, writing and tabletop roleplaying scratch two sides of the same creative itch. As I've examined the two hobbies (neither pays enough to be a profession . . . yet), I appreciate the creative freedom that each allows. I consider writing a very "open" individual creative act, one in which I can let my imagination run free. If I use the excuse of "poetic license," I can write whatever I want, rules of grammar be damned. At least for myself. Of course, there is an audience "out there" that I need to think about for works that I'm planning on having pub(lic)ished. Even then, my own wild flights of imagination fuel the writing.

Tabletop roleplaying is, or should be, in my style of playing and game-mastering, an "open" group creative act. Rules are there simply to adjudicate situations which characters do not fully control (e.g., combat resolution, "finding" of secreted doors or traps, etc). In other words, the game master facilitates the players as they cooperatively (NB: This does not mean "without internal conflict") "tell" a story where the outcome is not entirely known until the moment dice are rolled to determine the consequences of a particular course of action.

Of course, like any other group activity, you'll sometimes have someone who spoils the fun.

Sometimes, it's the game master herself!

We call this, in the Roleplaying Game (RPG) world, "Railroading". A Railroading game master pushes player characters into situations where they have to follow certain plot points in a certain order so that the story can be completed in the "right" way. Needless to say, this tends to stifle players who value, above all else, the right to choose their own character's actions. There's an old adage among game masters that "it doesn't matter what you plan as a GM, the players are going to screw everything up in the first ten minutes anyway". The character is, after all, hers or his, not the gamemaster's. Some systems (rightfully, I think) eschew the term "game master", instead using "judge" to reinforce the idea that the person in charge should be impartial, more of a facilitator than a dic(k)tator. The literary equivalent is the overbearing editor who simply will not allow the writer any creative freedom, who dithers with the author's work so much and in such a specific way that the author's work is no longer his own.

But there are instances where a writer works under self-imposed constraints in order to "squeeze" their own creativity. Italo Calvino's excellent If on a Winter's Night a Traveller is a prime example of this. In this novel, Calvino uses a complex mathematical iteration, as outlined in the book Oulipo Laboratory , to write what is one of the most brilliant second-person narratives in all of literature, possibly the only brilliant second-person narrative in literature. He purposefully used the constraint of the form to discipline the work and to create self-referential loops that, rather than alienating the reader with academic sterility, actually bring the reader further "in" to the story. The Oulipo, a rather exclusive and somewhat secretive group of writers and philosophers, have created an entire literary movement (though I doubt they would characterize their efforts that way) around this idea that creative writing can benefit from being constrained.

Until the last few months, I must admit that, while I have used Oulipo techniques to generate some of my own works, the idea of constraining my gaming was anathema . . . until Black Sun Deathcrawl! Here, author James MacGeorge opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could be done with gaming constraints. "BSDC," as it is popularly known, showed that, with its existential, even nihilistic atmosphere, gaming with constraints could be, dare I say it? Fun and full of despair?

The subtitle of Steve Bean's Null Singularity explicitly states that the adventure is "Inspired by James MacGeorge's Black Sun Deathcrawl, and this is clearly the case. The goal here is not to be heroic, not to defeat the powers of evil, the goal is to survive as long as you can. Defeat and death are inevitable. You will die! If you're lucky, you'll have the luxury of being driven insane before the unavoidable doom that awaits you, whether it is slow asphyxiation from lack of oxygen or being slashed to ribbons by the claws of the XenoHorror. Space is big and powerful. You are puny and weak. All is hopeless.

But it works. Perhaps it is the constraints themselves that allow for a full player immersion into the heart and mind of a character that is low on resources and in a great deal of trouble, an existentialist escapism that safely allows the player to face her worst fears, then walk away from the game table physically (though not psychically) unscathed. A story will play out and, judging from the mechanics, a very fun, if fatalistic story is to be had by players and judge alike. In other words, you won't mind being "railroaded", so long as you go into this knowing that you're going to die in the end. It's kind of like life that way, isn't it? There is a certain dark wonder to it all: the universe is doomed, you are low on resources, you are rather likely to go insane simply as a result of being where you are and realizing what is happening, and it is . . . awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

Mechanically, Bean's repurposing of the Dungeon Crawl Classics rules show just how resilient the DCC ruleset is. I am continually amazed by the different "flavors" of DCC that crop up. It is possibly one of the most malleable systems around. Null Singularity uses the skeleton of the DCC rules, but clothes it in its own . . . let's call it: "EVA Suit". Once you've participated in one of the scenarios in the book, you'll understand why this nomenclature is the only adequate description of this particular flavor of the rules. "Extravehicular activity" indeed!

All-in-all, I highly recommend Null Singularity. At $8+shipping for the hard-copy zine, it's definitely worth skipping Starbucks for a day. Available from Steve Bean Games. Get it while there's still time . . . before the Null Singularity swallows all of reality and your frail, puny body along with it!

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