Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Was Zoran Bekric right?

Zoran Bekric was recently banned from RPGnet. Some RPGnetters might remember that name. At least for a time a few years back he was Bruce Baugh's personal bugaboo, harrying Mr. Baugh across multiple internet fora, getting himself banned from some of them for his trouble. If I recall correctly this fellow's main gripe with Baugh was that Adventure! wasn't pulpy enough, or something equally crazy-go-nuts. Mr. Bekric's lengthy RPGnet review of Adventure! was pretty much a hatchet job, but this one passage has always stuck out to me:
Beyond that, Adventure! is set in the period between the wars and one of the threats Player Characters can be expected to confront is Nazism, an ideology that maligns those it doesn't like as untermensch (under-men or less-than-humans). Presumably, the Player Characters will oppose this noxious idea and champion the democratic notion that all people are fundamentally equal. However, the game system undermines them, since the Nazis are obviously right -- there are untermensch (the Extras) and, oddly enough, they always end up being the opposition. Didn't anyone give the sub-text of this rule even a moment's consideration? (The chapter on Roleplaying has the standard literary aspirations of a White Wolf game and talks about Theme and Mood, but there's no mention of sub-text.)

Now, the idea that the text of Adventure! lines up with Nazi ideology is pretty damn ridiculous. After all, a Jew can be an Inspired hero and a gaggle of Aryan supermen can be statted out as Extras to be tossed aside by that Hebrew badass. Still, I kinda see his point. Some people are inherently better than others in Adventure!. That's going to be true of any game with levels or character points. In a fantasy game that doesn't bug me. But in a pulp game where the virtues of the day involve Motherhood, apple pie, and Uncle Sam needing you? Then it seems a little weirder, I guess. Part of the mythology of Nazi-bustin' is that a regular farmboy can whup Hitler's ass in a fair fight. Does that mean every G.I. Joe in WWII was some sort of Inspired proto-superhero? Adventure! as written seems to make that suggestion.

12 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:47 PM

    a hero is someone who is looked upon to perform great deeds

    hitler was a hero to some!

    lawbaga

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  2. "hitler was a hero to some!"

    Yeah, well fuck those people.

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  3. Eh. Mostly, I think that Zorrie was working from a skewed idea of Nazi eugenics concepts and is guilty of horribly over-generalizing.

    1. Knowing Bruce from his online presence, if you can read that sort of subtext into something he wrote, it was obviously unintentional.

    2. Adventure! doesn't assume that being inferior/superior is an inherited matter.

    3. Most RPGs make some assumptions that the PCs and major NPCs are more powerful (in some way) than the average person.

    4. Sharing a single assumption with an evil point of view does not necessarily make your point of view evil. It wasn't just the Nazi's belief in the fact that some people were inferior to others that made them bad - its what was layered on top of that: the fanatic belief that they were the superior ones, the belief that they could identify the inferior ones by certain clear criteria, the belief that those who were inferior were not truly human and had no moral rights, the belief that the world would be better off without these inferior types and that it was their duty to exterminate them, etc.

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  4. If z-rays make nazis,
    I'm duty-bound to punch them

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  5. That review was a "hatchet job"? It seemed extremely balanced and fair to me, even giving considerable praise in some areas.

    A "hatchet job" would be for me to say, point out that Bruce Baugh is the most over-rated game designer around today, an incompetent turd of a man with whom the word "great" could only be immediately associated with the word "waistline".

    http://www.xanga.com/RPGpundit

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  6. Oh, and regarding your topic: the technique in adventure is not unlike the one in Feng Shui and other games. Its meant to promote protagonism, and the criticism whatsisname made about hitler was just about one of the least sensible parts of the entire review. You sort of decided to go with the most extreme statement, there...

    The fact is, in pulp you don't want a kind of "realism"; you want an emulation of genre, and the pulp Genre has Doc Savage take down 20 goons and henchmen at a time. That's the long and short of it.

    http://www.xanga.com/RPGpundit

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  7. Thanks for the great comments, sz and pundit!

    "You sort of decided to go with the most extreme statement, there..."

    I thought his criticism that the game lacked realistic rules for untrained little girls shooting handguns was more crazy.

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  8. Hmm. Touché.

    http://www.xanga.com/RPGpundit

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  9. Zoran Bekric1:43 AM

    I don’t know where you got the thesis you describe, but it wasn’t from me. You really ought to give proper credit to whoever actually came up with it rather than attaching my name to it.

    My point was smaller, simpler and more specific. It related entirely to a class of characters in Adventure! called Extras — as might be ascertained by noting that the passage you quote is from a section in the review subtitled Extras. These are described on page 244 of the Adventure! rule book.

    What distinguishes an Extra from a regular character? From the aforementioned page 244:

         • Hit-or-Miss: The Storyteller rolls a single die for each extra’s attack. As a result, it’s relatively easy for a character to dodge, parry or otherwise avoid an extra’s attack.
         • Lightweight: An extra has only three health levels: Hurt -1, Wounded -2 and Maimed -3. Since the dice penalty from injury would make an extra unable to attack after getting hit the first time (see Hit-or-Miss above), an extra ignores the penalty — but
    only for his attack rolls! The injury penalty applies as normal to all the extra’s other actions.
         • Take That!: If a player scores three or more extra successes on an attack roll against an extra, he does not roll damage. Instead, the target is immediately struck down in spectacular fashion! The type of attack dictates whether the mook is unconscious (bashing) or dead (lethal).


    That is to say, compared to regular characters — who get to roll a handful of dice, have seven health levels and can soak damage — Extras are much less capable and much more fragile. Simply put, they are seriously handicapped.

    What was the Nazi’s attitude to the handicapped? From the Holocaust Encyclopedia (found at http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/index.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005200):

         In the spring and summer months of 1939, a number of planners — led by Philipp Bouhler, the director of Hitler’s private chancellery, and Karl Brandt, Hitler’s attending physician — began to organize a secret killing operation targeting disabled children. Beginning in October 1939, children with disabilities, brought to a number of specially designated pediatric clinics throughout Germany and Austria, were murdered by lethal overdoses of medication or by starvation. Some 5,000 disabled German infants, toddlers, and juveniles are estimated to have been killed by war’s end.
         Euthanasia planners quickly envisioned extending the killing program to adult disabled patients living in institutional settings. In the autumn of 1939, Hitler signed a secret authorization in order to protect participating physicians, medical staff, and administrators from prosecution; this authorization was backdated to September 1, 1939, to suggest that the effort was related to wartime measures. The secret operation was code-named T4, in reference to the street address (Tiergartenstrasse 4) of the program’s coordinating office in Berlin. Six gassing installations for adults were eventually established as part of the Euthanasia Program: Bernburg, Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Hartheim, and Sonnenstein.
         Beginning in January 1940, adult patients were selected by specially recruited T4 physicians for death. These doctors rarely examined the patients themselves, but often based their decisions on medical files and the diagnoses of staff at the victims’ home institutions. Those selected were transported by T4 personnel to the sanatoria that served as central gassing installations. The victims were told they would undergo a physical evaluation and take a disinfecting shower. Instead, they were killed in gas chambers using pure carbon monoxide gas. Their bodies were immediately burned in crematoria attached to the gassing facilities. Ashes of cremated victims were taken from a common pile and placed in urns without regard for accurate labeling. One urn was sent to each victim’s family, along with a death certificate listing a fictive cause and date of death. The sudden death of thousands of institutionalized patients, whose death certificates listed strangely similar causes and places of death, raised suspicions. Eventually, the clandestine Euthanasia Program became an open secret.
         Hitler ordered a halt to the Euthanasia Program in late August 1941, in view of widespread public knowledge of the measure and in the wake of private and public protests concerning the killings, especially from members of the German clergy. According to internal T4 statistics, approximately 70,000 adult disabled patients were murdered during this initial gassing phase. However, this did not mean an end to the Euthanasia killing operation. The child Euthanasia Program continued as before.
         Moreover, in August 1942, the killings resumed, albeit more carefully concealed than before. Victims were no longer murdered in centralized gassing installations, but instead killed by lethal injection or drug overdose at a number of clinics throughout Germany and Austria. Many of these institutions also systematically starved adult and child victims. The Euthanasia Program continued until the last days of World War II, expanding to include an ever wider range of victims, including geriatric patients, bombing victims, and foreign forced laborers. Historians estimate that the Euthanasia Program, in all its phases, claimed the lives of 200,000 individuals.


    And what was the attitude of the heroes of the pulps? Well, Doc Savage is generally regarded as fairly representative of those heroes, so from The Land of Terror in Doc Savage Magazine Vol. I No. 2 (#2) April 1933:

         An old woman held out, hopefully, a bundle of the late newspapers. She was almost blind. Her clothing was shabby. She looked hungry. Doc stopped and took one of the papers.
         He looked at the old woman’s eyes. His expert diagnosis told him their ailment could be cured by a few great specialists. He wrote a name and address on a corner of the paper, added his own name, and tore this off and gave it to the crone. The name was that of a specialist who could cure her ailment, but whose fee was a small fortune. But at sight of Doc’s name scrawled on the note, the specialist would gladly cure the woman for nothing.
         Doc added a bill he took from a pocket. For a long time after he had gone, the old, nearly blind woman stared at the bill, holding it almost against her eyes. Then she burst into tears. It was more money than she had ever expected to see.
         The little incident had no bearing on Doc’s troubles with Kar, except that Doc wanted the paper to see what had been published concerning Jerome Coffern’s weird death — which proved to be nothing he did not already know.
         It was such a thing as Doc did often. It was part of his creed, the thing to which his life was devoted — remedying the misfortunes of others.
         It was a strange thing for a man to do who had just dealt cold and terrible justice to five murderers. But Doc Savage was a strange man, judged by the look-out-for-yourself-and-nobody-else code of a greedy civilization.


    To summarise: the difference was one of attitude. The Nazis had a brutal disregard for anyone they perceived as weaker than themselves — and it should be noted, there was nothing about race, Jews or hereditary in how they treated the handicapped. Most of those they killed were regular Christian Germans, including those whose disabilities were caused by the war. By contrast, pulp heroes believed that those weaker than themselves should be helped whenever possible.

    Okay, so which of these two attitudes are characters in Adventure! expected to reflect? How are they supposed to treat those handicapped characters known as Extras? Again, from the rulebook:

         Adventure uses secondary characters called “extras” to let the Storyteller throw large numbers of opponents at the heroes of the story without worrying too much about overwhelming them. Extras are pared-down Storyteller characters, thugs clearly no match for any adventurer. Extras are diversions, usually acting under the direction of more powerful agencies. These secondary characters are a plot device and shouldn’t interfere with the main story. After taking a few lumps, extras retreat, surrender or fall over to make way for the real action.
         Extras operate under a few special rules designed to give adventurers a great opportunity to show their heroism and sheer damn toughness. These rules apply to all extras, whether drunk dockworkers, fanatic assassins or rabid hyenas. They’re meant to make fights cinematic, yet balanced and streamlined.


    They beat them up. The handicapped characters exist just so the player characters can build themselves up by pounding on them. Even though Extras are specifically noted as being weaker than the player characters — “clearly no match for any adventurer” — player characters are expected to thump and bash and stomp on them.

    Now, which attitude does this more closely resemble? Which one does it line up with? That of pulp heroes? Or that of the Nazis? Are the player characters expected to help these handicapped characters? Or to inflict (occasionally) lethal damage on them?

    Those who wrote Adventure! may think that it’s a demonstration of “heroism and sheer damn toughness” to beat up on the handicapped, but I don’t. People can call it “promoting protagonism” if they want, but it’s just a euphemism for behaving like a bully and a thug.

    You say “Part of the mythology of Nazi-bustin' is that a regular farmboy can whup Hitler's ass in a fair fight.” I agree entirely. But the key words are “fair fight”. If a regular farmboy takes on a regular German soldier, that’s a fair fight. If an Inspired Daredevil, Mesmerist or Stalwart takes on a similarly endowed Nazi, that’s a fair fight. It’s even a fair fight when the Inspired character takes on a whole bunch of regular opponents. But, when the Z-ray powered character starts beating up on glass-jawed, incompetent cripples, no matter how many of them there are or how they’re dressed up, that’s most definitely not a fair fight.

    That’s the point I made in the review. If you want to ask “Was Zoran Bekric Right?”, that’s the claim you would need to address — or at least some other claim I did make. You can disagree if you want, but at least have the simple decency to address what I actually said. If you want to make up some completely different claim, then you should credit it to whoever it was that actually came up with that claim rather than falsely attributing it to me.

    The only good thing about the “Extras” rule is that it seems to be something tacked on quite late in the design process, as if the designers suddenly realised that their game system — rolling fistfuls of dice — and the genre they were trying to simulate — which regularly featured group combats — really weren’t a good fit. So they introduced this rule as a rather cludgy work-around. That means it’s easy enough to ignore — though the Storyteller ends up having to roll fistfuls of dice for each NPC — and the player characters can demonstrate their “heroism” by actually being (dare I say it?) heroic.

    As for Mr Baugh, my only “gripe” with him was that he fabricated evidence. Apparently that’s not considered all that big a deal in the circles he moves in, but to those of us in the reality-based community it’s considered quite offensive and is generally referred to as “lying”.

    Regards,

    Zoran

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  10. Zoran, thanks for your response. If I follow you, the only one labeling Extras as 'handicapped' is you. Can we agree that a mechanically subpar character is not the same thing as a person suffering a physical malady? After all as the GM I could use the Extra rules for, say, the members of the 1936 German Olympic delegation. Meanwhile a boy genius in a wheelchair could easily be Inspired. Which of these characters are 'really' handicapped? The guy in the wheelchair with 7 health levels or the Olympians with one? Which of these characters will the Man of Bronze be more likely to feel sympathy for? Which is more likely to suffer under the brutal regime of the Ratzis?

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  11. An extra in Adventure! can be an Olympic Athlete. It isn't that they are physically sub-par, it is that the game mechanics don't allow them to be effective.

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  12. Zoran Bekric11:28 PM

    Jeff Rients wrote:

    If I follow you, the only one labeling Extras as 'handicapped' is you.


    So it’s okay to beat up on the handicapped as long as you don’t label them as handicapped?

    Given the definition of the term, I don’t see how you can label Extras as anything other than handicapped. From dictionary.com:

    handicap [han-dee-kap] -capped, -capping.
    –noun
    1. a race or other contest in which certain
       disadvantages or advantages of weight,
       distance, time, etc., are placed upon
       competitors to equalize their chances of
       winning.
    2. the disadvantage or advantage itself.
    3. any disadvantage that makes success more
       difficult:
    “The main handicap of our
       business is lack of capital.”
    4. a physical or mental disability making
       participation in certain of the usual
       activities of daily living more difficult.


    Extras suffer disadvantages specifically designed to make success more difficult for them. They aren’t as effective as regular characters. They are handicapped by definition.

    Can we agree that a mechanically subpar character is not the same thing as a person suffering a physical malady?

    I really don’t see how you can reach such a conclusion.

    The mechanics of a game exist specifically to represent a character’s abilities. If I want to have a character be really strong, I have to give them a high score in Strength. Alternately, if a character has a low score in Dexterity, we accept that means they are clumsy. Countless pages of various rulesbooks — including Adventure! — are devoted to detailing what various mechanical scores mean and how they reflect a character’s abilities within the world of the game.

    If a physical (or mental) malady limits a character, then one would certainly expect to see that reflected mechanically. A guy in a wheelchair would have a reduced movement rate; a blind one wouldn’t be able to make observation rolls; a deaf one wouldn’t be able to make listen rolls; and so on. Given that, it’s only reasonable to read back from mechanical limitations to physical (or mental) limitations on the part of the character. Otherwise, the mechanics don’t mean anything. If the fact that Extras only get to roll one die when taking any action doesn’t mean anything, then neither does the fact that your Inspired character gets to roll ten dice — and it doesn’t matter how many points you had to spend to get that level of ability.

    A mechanical limitation may or may not represent a physical (or mental) malady. It could represent the effects of drugs or restraints. It could represent the effects of a magic spell or psychic powers. Treating it as if it represents a physical (or mental) malady is simply applying Occum’s razor and taking the most likely explanation — especially since there’s nothing in the text to support the idea that Extras are suffering as the result of drugs, restraints, magic, psychic powers; or, indeed, anything else.

    After all as the GM I could use the Extra rules for, say, the members of the 1936 German Olympic delegation. Meanwhile a boy genius in a wheelchair could easily be Inspired. Which of these characters are 'really' handicapped? The guy in the wheelchair with 7 health levels or the Olympians with one?

    The Olympians, obviously. They get to roll only one die per action, while the guy in the wheelchair gets to roll a handful; they have only three Health levels, while the guy in the wheelchair has seven; and they go down automatically whenever they are on the receiving end of three of more successes, while the guy in the wheelchair still has a chance.

    What you are doing is confusing appearance and reality. The appearance — Olympic athletes versus guy in a wheelchair — says one thing, but the reality revealed by the actual mechanics is quite different. And, in a RPG, the mechanics are the reality.

    You’re also ignoring the fact that Extras are limited compared to normal characters. Inspired characters get all sorts of advantages, normal characters enjoy the full mechanics, Extras are inferior to both. The ranking would be:
         Inspired Daredevils, Mesmerists & Stalwarts
         Regular, everyday people
         Extras

    This is somewhat counter-intuitive.

    Let’s compare this to something like Dungeons & Dragons. In D&D you could represent a pulp-style hero like, say, Conan by making him a 16th level barbarian. Now Conan needs to cut his way through the King’s Guard. These are elite troops, so let’s make them 12th level warriors. This would make them better than the regular soldiers (5th - 10th level warriors) and definitely superior to the peasants (1st - 6th level commoners), but still not up to Conan’s standard. The ranking would be:
         Pulp heroes (Conan)
         Elite troops (Royal Guard)
         Regular soldiers
         Everyday people.

    Maybe I’m just showing my age here, but this makes much more sense to me. I can see why the King would hire the 12th level warriors to be his Royal Guard; they would be more capable than the regular soldiers and the commoners. By contrast, I can’t see why anyone would hire a bunch of Extras as thugs or anything else. I mean, seriously, they only get to roll one die for any action. The rules themselves define that as “Poor/Novice” (page 111). Why not hire someone competent instead?

    Which of these characters will the Man of Bronze be more likely to feel sympathy for?

    Hmmm... let’s see: a story in which Doc Savage is attending the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and discovers that the entire German Olympic team is made up entirely of deliberately weakened and handicapped individuals forced to act as athletes. What would he do?

    I don’t know exactly how Doc would respond to that situation, but I imagine he’d try to help them while working on finding out who is behind such a hideous scheme. (Also what they would hope to gain by it, but that would be secondary.)

    The one thing I am certain he wouldne’t do, however, is beat up the members of the team. That would be seriously out of character.

    Regards,

    Zoran

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