The More Things Change


In the midst of a discussion about White Wolf's 'Changeling', I indicated that I thought that the stuff in the game about childhood being 'innocent and joyous' was unhealthy waffle. I had said something similar in one of my Arcane columns.

Role-playing demi-God Phil Masters chipped in:

'S'funny. I happen to share the opinion that children are morally dubious little blighters who alternate being too knowledgeable for their own good and too stupid to live, and I despise amateur freudianism. However, this sort of comment does make me keep wondering if Andrew had an unhappy childhood.'

I responded in this wise:

My mummy and daddy loved me.

Middle class plastic affluence is disgustingly sterile. Did my life really centre on a couple of Action Men: did I really go ten years without breaking a window, dodging a fare, riding a bike, getting picked up by the police: did I really spend Summer evenings watching the Eurovision Song Contest?

Marzipan covered birthday cake in shape of Pippen Fort in a distorted perspective making it twice as big as me.

Being spanked by my teacher for cheating in a spelling test and spending a whole term terrified that she would tell my Mum come Parents Evening.

Daddy coming home from football in the autumn, two bar red electric heater; tea by the television; the Eternal Now of Basil Brush, Jon Pertwee, Bruce Forsyth, Ronnie Barker.

Being approached in the park by a 'dirty old man' and lacking the vocabulary or conceptual framework to explain why I felt that what he has said to me was in some way not right.

The capacity to read so much more into an episode of Spiderman (the canister with Aunt May's serum in it Just Out of Reach as the building collapses and the episode ends) than is actually there - to turn any comic, any day out in the woods, any cheap plastic toy into a world, a cosmos, an endlessly absorbing stream of nothing.

Being bullied by a group of younger boys: if they started taunting me non-stop on Monday, I could be guaranteed to throw a tantrum by Friday. In two years, the pure innocent fun never wore off.

There are no 'happy childhoods' or 'unhappy childhoods'. There is simply facts of life about how the human life-cycle works. Being little in a world full of big people is shit scary and deeply confusing. Read the Brothers Grimm. Particularly if you intend to write a game about 'fairy tales.' (Surely Tolkien taught us that Fairy Tales were not tales about fairies, or even Faeries?)

I think the point here is that I remember my Childhood, and am therefore not tempted to tell naive lives about it.

I also remember my Dreams fairly well. I don't believe people who tell me that Morpheus Realm is endlessly beautiful frightening mysterious either. Most of the time it is plain boring, full of confused memory about going to work without my trousers.

Having said that I find both dreams and childhood (as opposed to children) interesting and wish people wouldn't say trite things about them.

Childhood is a mythologised category in just the same way that The Olden Days (aka 'Heritage') is and for the same reasons. It was all so long ago we are free to use it as a symbol for anything we like.

Some time ago on we were talking about Orcs and Elves and Angels and Devils and Eternals and Deviants all beings symbols for the Good and the Bad side of Human Nature. I suggested that Children and Guns were two modern examples of the same symbolism.

'You should have said Children and Children,' said my friend Flash.

I should indeed.

This by no means entails everything said about The Olden Days being factually false. There really was a time when churches used to cycle over cricket pitches and spill warm beer over elderly matrons. There really was a time when meadow grove and stream to me did seem apparelled in celestial light. But the appeal of the good old days, or 'the sixties' as they are now called is not in fact that we used to smoke dope while putting little boys up chimneys and knowing our place. The appeal of them is that they are fixed and unchanged and we know what happened in them and we can't remember them all that well so we are free to be selective. This often appears to involve spoiling old buildings and being mildly cruel to actual children.

People who say 'schooldays are the best days of your life' are usually looking for an excuse to introduce community service orders on the under tens and spend lottery money on clubs to do your homework when you ought to be home playing with your star wars toys.

I suppose Molesworth is vaguely a satire on that, so Phil's Molesworth RPG is vaguely a satire on a satire, but he'd be the last person on earth to want his game analysed for subtexts.

When Winnie the Pooh idealises childhood (and there is more repressed darkness in the book than the average PoohSoc member realises) it at least knows what it is idealising; long summer days spent doing nothing; the 'timelessness' that adults think they remember and envy/begrudge/canonize/hate children for living in.

As dreadful a film as Stand By Me knows too. Uncomplicated unconditional male friendships that were only possible before sexuality was part of our lives and we became scared of being accused of being faggots. I never has such good friends as I did when I was ten. Jesus, does anybody. I liked you better when you were an ensign on the Starship Enterprise, actually.

But the Grimms remembered the whole thing better and more truthfully: the world is full of people twice as big as you who want to chop bits off you, or eat you, or set arbitrary tasks for you to do, and give you equally arbitrary rewards.

Hell, even early Calvin & Hobbes has a pretty fair stab at remembering - it has the summers and the friendships, and the absolute freedom of the imagination, but then has the honesty to balance it against the dead racoon, the school bully and the fear of being sent to the headmaster. It even alludes to wetting the bed. Unfortunately it also falls victim to all the 'wise children' cliches, and rapidly sinks into cute third rate unfunny aphorisms about snowmen.

White Wolf, as always, settled for cliches: worse, settled for downright untruths that a glance at Freud, or Virginia Woolf, or James Joyce or Little Nemo or Batman or The Bash Street Kids or Lewis Carol could have corrected, and more to the point, corrected with something more interesting. (Given the brief, I'd have written a game about the Irrevocability of the Past. I might have called it Wraith.) But why bother when you can mutter a few half baked theories that they seem to remember Neil Gaiman mentioning somewhere and the hippygoths will soak up the ambience and get on with playing Vampire.

C.S Lewis warned against the dangers of Bulverism, the ad hominem argument taken to the final extreme. There is no need to refute someone's position. Just come up with a plausible explanation of how that opinion might have formed, and the job is done. Naturally I hold the views that someone with my background would be expected to hold. Either Changeling falsely idealises childhood or it doesn't. Biographical questions about myself are neither here nor there.

I am currently attending self-help weekends where a group of us put on all our clothes, beat out of time with Frank Sinartra records and try to rediscover our inner adults.


Phil: "On a point of order, I would never describe the Skool Rools as a satire of molesworth (lower case m, Andrew, there are certain proprieties,y'know). I will answer to either 'tribute' or 'rip-off', but some things are too sacred for satire."

Andrew: I will not push 'satire'. Let us rather say 'meta-joke.'

Genre based RPGs codify and articulate unstated genre assumptions, which the player (who is, we assume, not clever enough to spot these assumptions for himself) uses as a matrix to create a shared narrative that in some sense resembles the original genre. The process of articulating assumptions tends intrinsically towards satire. The authors seem often aware of this: witness the jokey 'catch phrases' in Star Wars, the humorous gun descriptions in Feng Shui, the whole of Marvel Superheroes. Thus Phil's game is essentially an attempt to codify the cliches of boys school stories. I would contend that the very act of writing down these cliches is intrinsically ridiculous, and thus the rules - the system, the product, the thing in Arcane 3 - is a joke. That the joke is at the expense of a work which is itself a surreal joke about those same archetypes adds to the irony - or makes the whole thing sterile and futile, depending on your mood. Of course, when a group of real human beings uses this artefact as a pretext for a riff, a jam-session, an improvisation or, as they are sometimes called 'a game' about a public school, then the result might be satirical, surreal, serious, silly, or anything else beginning with s. Indeed, if you accept that English education is a joke to start with, we may be dealing with a joke about a joke about joke about a joke. And thus is the original subject matter lost in the endless chain of signification.

Phil: "Rather than 'Bulverism', speak of 'Closed Belief Systems'. (I forget who originated the term - Toynbee?) These are theories which explain and dismiss any contrary argument by reference to themselves. Someone who questions Marx has incorrect class consciousness. Someone who challenges Freud has a repressed Oedipus complex. Anyone who disagrees with the witch-finder is clearly In League With The Devil. This sounds like a similar concept to 'Bulverism'. However, I cannot strangle the niggling thought that, of course, however suspicious a closed/Bulverite belief system might be, it may still be right. Merely tagging an opponent as closed-minded does not establish anything about the subject under discussion (except that it has closed-minded supporters)."

Andrew: Anyone who questions evolution has been brain washed by fundamentalists; anyone who thinks abortion might be wrong obviously hates women and has been brainwashed by fundamentalists; anyone who thinks some role-playing games might be harmful is anti-imagination or has been brainwashed by fundamentalists; anyone who thinks some RPGs are in bad taste wants to prevent people from expressing their own views or else has been brain washed by fundamentalists; anyone who thinks landslide majorities are a bad thing has hang-ups about Tony Blair; if you believe in God its either a fear fulfilment or a wish fulfilment; if you don't believe in God its either a fear fulfilment or a wish fulfilment; if you believe in making prisons more humane you are the villains friend; if you don't believe in making prisons more humane you are a sadist; if you think someone else is a sadist you are clearly projecting your own sadism onto them. More succinctly: there are very plausible explanations as to why people might hold most views. But this doesn't tell us anything about the truth of the views. So either stop talking about the unconscious motivations, or stop talking altogether.