Tags: review

Bullets, 'babes' and battlefields: Why Twilight: 2000 was wrong

This article was actually started a long time ago as part of the series of Gametime articles on old-school gaming. For various reasons, I didn't get round to posting it. Hence, here it is now, out of sequence, but conveniently two decades after the end of 45 years of fear and paranoia. It is less of a coherent argument against any single part of gaming culture, more vaguely connected muse on boyhood experience, games and the unpleasant nature of some of the stuff therein encountered.

Here's a true story:

Young lad, aged 14, plays a bit of Warhammer (the one with miniatures, not the role-playing one, that came later), is invited to try this 'role-playing game' thing by some friends. Arrives at friends house, front room full of people (about 10, including the lad in question). What is going on? Apparently, we're play something entitled 'Call of Cthulhu'. OK then. I'm given a sheet with numbers on it and something saying I'm a private eye. Grand. People shout at each other for half and hour. The guy who I assume is meant to be in charge leaves, as do many other. About four people are left, looking sheepish. I assume this is what role-playing is all about.

My friend who invited me along tries to be encouraging and says we can play another game. This time, it's one called Twilight: 2000 and apparently we're American soldiers wandering around Europe in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Right. But this time, I get to make my own character!

After passing several mathematics exams and rolling bizarre dice, I have a character who has guns more detailed than his personality. But there is no shouting and my character and the other peoples characters find ourselves driving down a road in a jeep type thing and getting shot at by people in the trees. Crikey! My gun jams three times.

On an off, this continues for several years, with me becoming increasingly concerned about gun-obsession, misogyny, political one-sidedness and the gung-ho fetishisation of the military.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of Twilight: 2000.

The 1980s were paranoid, let's face it. Growing up in the UK, we were bombarded with images of American cruise missiles being flown in to Greenham Common, the RAF exercising over the north sea and NATO troops riding roughshod over the German countryside. We also witnessed May Day parades, ranks of huge missiles and clunking tanks roaring through Red Square, Soviet troops fighting through the dust of Afghanistan and close encounters between warships on the high seas. The Reagan era saw a return to paranoia, back to the days of the missile gap and containment. The Evil Empire was just waiting for its chance to strike at the West.

It's therefore not really surprising that Twilight: 2000 poked its head over the metaphorical parapet during the period and offered willing gamers the chance to play out their survivalist fantasies in a Europe brutally ravaged by the armies and warheads of the Warsaw Pact and NATO.

In our gaming group, there was a standard joke about Twilight: "Right, you've rolled up your gun, now roll up your character." The more people I've spoken to, the more this emerges as a common theme across many groups who played this gun-heavy game. The obsession with the detail and minutiae of war and its technology. Fuel was running out, factories were non-existent, repair facilities gone. Yet every firearm, missile, cannon and armoured vehicle was described in loving detail, carefully illustrated and presented to you as something to be desired and striven for. If you had a tank, then you were a Big Man. The tank in Twilight: 2000 was the ultimate expression of masculinity, a priapic, unstoppable force to be feared by all.

And here we come up against one of the major problems I have with the game. Everything was running down, in shortly supply. Why, therefore, were we presented with such an array of essentially useless hardware? What difference did it really make if we knew whether a T-72 was better than a T-64 or not? Because Twilight: 2000 wasn't about the trials and tribulations of people scared and brutalised by war, it was about glorifying war and the martial spirit. In Twilight: 2000, the only character you could play was a warrior. Warriors were the survivors, they were the ones who could make or break society, they were the ones with the skill and fire-power to create a new world. It was survivalist fantasy writ large, an almost exclusively male world in which women were bent crones in Polish hamlets, beautiful maidens to be rescued from evil Reds or breeders tasked with re-populating the radioactive wilderness.

Oh yes, you might occasionally come across a fourth female type: the Sexy Spetznaz Officer in tight breeches, one hand casually holding a Kalashnikov while the other pats a stray lock of her bounteous blond hair back beneath her pilotka. But, she would always either end up dead or a plaything of a (male) character, nothing more than a juvenile fantasy figure.

Avalanched under a ton of guns, soaked in the hyper-macho Cold War rhetoric, why wouldn't teenage boys turn Twilight: 2000 into a swaggering testosterone fest? I note that a new edition of the game has recently appeared, entitled Twilight: 2013. I'm trepidatious about looking at it. Will anything have changed, other than the time line being moved on and the Cold War being over? Will it still be as right-wing and masculine as its 1980s progenitor?*

This being 2009 and me being hopeful that gaming may have moved on somewhat, I hope things have changed. I hope that gaming might have clambered out of that mid-80's cesspool of bullets, babes and battlefields. I somehow doubts it. The attitudes that were cringe-makingly apparent then can still be seen at conventions and gaming groups around the world, much to the chagrin of many of the participants. The Cold War ended 20 years ago and the world moved into a new, if not necessarily brighter, era. Maybe gaming should do the same thing?

Cheers
Malcolm

*I should add that this is not meant as a critique of Twilight: 2013. As I said, I have not had the opportunity to browse the game and it could be a marked departure from the original T:2000. If anyone has read it, I'd be delighted to hear their views.

Thy Vernal Chieftains - a review

Thy Vernal Chieftains (TVC) is a set of storytelling rules by Paul Czege, author of My Life with Master and Bacchanal (a game I'll be comparing to TVC later in this review). TVC is extremely readable, with an approachable tone and clear descriptions of how play proceeds; however I found myself confused about how one particular element - Traits and Prices - would be used in each player's narration.  After my read through of the rules, I found myself wondering if the game would succeed or fail and play: would the rules provide an opportunity for players to tell engaging stories that would grip the rest of the group, or would it lead to 'bubble play', where each player would be off in their own separate world despite the best efforts of the rules.

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A COMPARISON TO BACCHANAL

Paul Czege is also the author of Bacchanal, another game that provides a framework for telling stories to the other members, and places less importance on having in-character experiences.  In Bacchanal, you place a citizen of Puteoli, a city to the south of Rome in 61 A.D.  You've been accused of a crime and must escape the city with your companion.  But your plans are complicated when the god Bacchus descends from the hills outside Puteoli, and infects the city with the madness of wine.

Bacchanal places strict limits on the situation of the game.  There is a short timeframe, and the city of Puteoli provides an interrelated setting where characters can weave in and out of each other's plots - in fact, Bacchanal's system encourages you to do this in your narrations.  Characters also share a specific objectives (escape the city with your companion).

In contrast, TVC feels more wide open in the types of stories it can tell, and the time-span it could cover. I could easily see the events in a game of TVC covering a generation.  As such, the pre-play homework (studying the era) seems very important to creating interesting situations and imagining the world.

In Bacchanal, inspiration for narration is provided by the type of dice that come up with the highest results.  In TVC, it comes from other players and a limited palette of thematic tokens (which I describe below).

There is the danger of an early endgame in Bacchanal (if you have a certain combination of Soldier and Accuser dice).  That's not so much of a threat in TVC - each character's story will continue until at least one character has achieved enough goals to trigger the endgame.

SUMMARY

Thy Vernal Chieftains provides an intriguing structure for a game.  As I mentioned, it was produced as a competition entry, under tight time constraints (you can read Paul Czege's account of how it nearly killed him, here).  For people that enjoy creating stories more than playing a character, Thy Vernal Chieftains provides a lot of support - while still requiring each player to make exciting and thought-provoking contributions in order to create a worthwhile story.

I admire the way Prices shape the story, and I'm excited by the primal nature of the Tokens (see below).

Thy Vernal Chieftains is attempting a difficult thing: critquing modern society by exploring the best and worst of the past.  The game's ambition fascinates me - but the setting doesn't quite excite me yet.  I'd prefer more guidance about the possibilities of this particular moment in history; seeds of story, setting, and starting situations.  It's at this point that the tight time-constraints of writing the game come into play for me; if the game included anywhere from 5 pages of finely-tuned inspirational material to 25 pages of essays and story seeds, I think that it would be lifting the roof of my head right now.

As it is, Thy Vernal Chieftains doesn't engender 'must play right now' enthusiam in me yet, but the style of play intrigues me, the subject matter catches my imagination, and the game has put "Research post-Roman Britain on Wikipedia" surprisingly close to the top of my to-do list.

Thy Vernal Chieftains is available for $1 until Jan 31 (US Time).</div>
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