Tuesday, January 14, 2014

We Blog - We Live!

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Blogging, yo. I still do it.

I'm not going to waste pixels on "blah blah blah, here's why I've been gone for oh so many years." I'm going to get right back into it. Screw the haters.

What I'm working on right now is an RPG setting that I plan to explore with my wife, the Abigail. The intent is to capture some of what made the Lord of the Rings special to me, but without all the stuff that either I have grown tired of, or that stopped the Abigail from every getting into that setting herself. Here is what I have got so far.

Rather than make the main conflict of the setting quite as Manichean as the Lord of the Rings, I want to do something with a little more subtlety. The Abigail can get behind purely antagonistic villains, but she needs to have an idea of their motivations, and those motivations need to make sense. Sauron always came off as too much of a dick.

So, my idea is to steal from The Whispering Vault, a little-known RPG from the mid-90s in which the main characters portray semi-spiritual beings empowered to hunt down refugees from the spiritual world who have invaded the physical world, seduced by its pleasures. This setting will have the same fundamental dichotomy: there is a spiritual world and a physical world, two sides of the same coin, and all the world's problems come from physical beings wanting to be spirits and spiritual beings wanting to be physical.

There is, specifically, a Dark Lord a la Sauron or Morgoth, but he's much more of a pitiful figure in my setting. He was the first spirit to force his way into the material world, and he has suffered for it. Now he longs for release from the various permanent wounds that have been inflicted upon his stolen flesh, swollen with power and sorcery as it is, but he's too afraid of oblivion to simply accept death. Like all spirits who have taken on flesh, he cannot escape at will - and even if he could simply shuck off his body, he knows that his spiritual cohort, the world's other spirits, are waiting for him. Perhaps in reality, they would forgive him and tend to his wounds and heal his soul... but he is too far sunken into misery and bitterness to accept that possibility.

So, the world sucks because this spirit wanted to know what it was like to eat and drink and screw. He tore a huge gaping hole in the veil between spirit and matter when he stole a body - there's a story to that, but I haven't thought of it yet - and lesser spirits have been taking advantage of this hole for millennia. The malignant ones, jealous of mankind's status as the only beings to naturally be both matter and spirit, have flocked to his banner (even though he is now too consumed with ennui and self-hatred to do much directing), while others have come through to try to repair the damage from the physical side, with mixed results. Some have remained true to their mission, while others have gotten too enamored of the flesh - or power, or whatever - and botched it up in various ways.

Hm.. I'm kind of stealing from Tribe 8, too... interesting.

At some point in history - probably at the beginning of some golden age - a spirit was sent through the gap with the goal of improving the situation by empowering humans, rather than possessing one and using him as a sock puppet to boss the other humans around. This human started lineage of humans who were touched by spirit, through their ancestry, but still fully humans (this would be my take on the Numenoreans).

Among other things - including starting said golden age - these blessed humans taught some humans how to temporarily separate their souls from their bodies, making themselves capable of magic. They taught some spirits how to merge with human hosts, rather than simply stealing their bodies. They taught other spirits how to merge with non-human material hosts, like animals or objects, in order to create "sinless" vessels whose efforts to fix things would not be tainted by the inherent problems of stealing a human's body in order to interact with the world. These gifts were intended to put humans and spirits on more equal footing, and for the most part, they worked.

But... inbreeding, decadence, and plain old boredom soured the plan. The noble lineage fell from power after a well-deserved revolt... which opened the field for the old enemy to begin planning, again, to dominate the world.

Why does he want to dominate the world?

Like I said... he's not even sure anymore, but he has generals and captains and industries of dominance who are sure that it's a good idea, and they don't really need his permission anymore. So, he's just going with the flow.

Arrayed against him are ordinary humans, humans who have learned a small measure of magic power, the tattered remains of the spirit-touched noble lineage that once stood astride the world - and they have the dubious assistance of various semi-spirit immortals, many of them tainted by the sin of having stolen the material bodies they are still wearing to this day.

And... that's all I got for now.

I'll be sure to check in soon with some more thoughts, especially as I begin to develop the system.

Is this a rebirth for the Burning Zeppelin Experience? I like to think so, but only time will tell.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Dear Norm, You Feminist You

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This is an open letter to Norm Sherman of the Drabblecast.

Dear Norm,

Norm, I love you. Your are talented and creative. Your work on the Escape Artists podcasts and Abigail Hilton's audio fiction - not to mention your own groundbreaking podcast, the Drabblecast - is incredible. I am happy to call myself a supporter, though I admit that I don't often have enough money to donate. I do recommend you as often as I can, to everyone I can.

That said, you put something in your latest podcast that kind of annoyed me.

In the intro to one of your latest episodes - #274: Amid the Words of War - you described yourself as "not a feminist," and yet, you dedicated the podcast to female writers of science fiction and bemoaned the lack of female voices in genre fiction.

There is a campaign going on to discredit feminism. Regressive forces in our world who would love nothing more than to strip rights from women are trying to present feminism as radical, dangerous, and uncompromising. They find a few radicals - angry women with extreme positions - and claim that they define feminism. It's gotten to the point that women in arts and media - women who own property, act in the public sphere, and expect their voices and person to be respected - declare that they "aren't feminists."

Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler have written that "feminism is the radical notion that women are people." While I disagree with a lot of the rest of their writing - including the Muted Group Theory that made them famous - I think that this definition is better than any other I've heard. Feminists are just people who believe that women are equal to men and have the right to participate in society in any way they chose. We aren't people who believe that women are better than men, or that men are evil, or that every aspect of our society is secretly a twisted attempt to oppress women. We just think that women deserve as much attention and credit as men and should be allowed to participate in every arena of our society, including arenas that they have been traditionally barred from.

Including, you know, science fiction and other genre literature.

That's it. Feminists are just people who think women are people. We are men and women, we are all races and religions, we have all kinds of paychecks and talk in all kinds of accents, and we come from everywhere.

There are political forces that are trying to present feminism as a unified front of unpleasantly radical crazy women who are angry about everything. They want you to think that feminists are all man-hating lesbians or meek, guilt-ridden men. They want you to think that women want your job - not just to do your job if they're qualified, but to actually take away your personal job and deprive you of your livelihood. They want you to think that all feminists agree that men lose all rights to their property and children upon divorce. They want you to think that feminists condemn marriage and monogamy and God and country. They want you to be so angry and afraid about how they have presented "the feminists" that when they take rights away from women, or deny women access to a right they need, you'll side with them, instead of with the women.

The fact is that feminists don't agree on everything. For example, let's say you think that men should hold doors open for women - or at least that it's ok for men to do that if they want to. Does that disqualify you from feminism? Of course not! You can believe that women are fully realized, fully adult humans and still hold the opinion that it's polite for men to hold doors open for them. Can you be critical of the way that divorce law functions in America and still be a feminist? Sure! Feminism merely acknowledges that there are problems; the solutions are up for debate.

So, Norm, either you're a feminist and you really should own it, or you should think about why you're bothering to do a Women and Aliens Month on the Drabblecast. Do you think that women are people and that it's a shame that some areas of life - like writing science fictinon and fantasy literature - have been closed to them? Then you are a feminist! Do you think that women are not equal to men and don't belong in some parts of our society? Then you are not a feminist... but really, why are you promoting women writing science fiction? That's a man's world, isn't it?

I hope you'll reconsider your statement and come out in your next episode as a proud, card-carrying feminist. That, or stand by your convictions and cancel Women and Aliens Month. Or explain how you can be sad that women aren't on equal footing with men and still call yourself "not a feminist or anything."

Sincerely,
Mark


PS: Don't worry. We don't actually carry cards. Actually we get secret tattoos that give us magic powers.

PPS: I'm lying about the tattoos.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Selling my Cygnar Army

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At first I was like... no, no way. I'm all professional and stuff. I can't post this.

But then I realized that this is a website, and it's got at least a few readers, and those readers are nerds, and I'd very much like for this sale to bear delicious, cash-flavored fruit... so what the hell? I've made dumb posts before, and I don't think I've lost any readers for it. This is probably not going to hurt, and it might even help.

Mental note: in the future, when I'm not having fun with an army, the correct course of action is to [B]stop buying it[/B] until I either figure it out or decide to quit. Not to buy more and more of it so it can sit gathering dust. What the hell is wrong with me?

[URL="http://www.ebay.com/itm/261177919835?ssPageName=STRK:MESELX:IT&_trksid=p3984.m1558.l2649"]My Cygnar army[/URL] - all of it lovingly assembled, some of it even painted to a good tabletop quality - is for sale on eBay. Follow the link and check it out. If you have any questions about the listing, feel free to post them here, and I'll do my best to answer them.

I'll say this here - and not on all the other places I've posted this - I really hope this army goes to a good home. I've never been the owner it deserves. If you think you can put these models through their paces: finish the paint job, give them the glory they crave, please consider taking them off my hands. I feel bad for them.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

It Begins...

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It begins today. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Drow Attack!

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First and foremost, the folks who run Endgame Oakland are awesome. I was in there yesterday and mentioned how hard it is to find copies of Keep on the Shadowfell, the adventure I was planning on using to start my middle schoolk D&D game. In response, the Endgame staff gave me a copy of Web of the Spider Queen, one of the latest D&D Encounters packs, complete with maps.

Now, I know that Web of the Spider Queen was a promotional product, made and distributed for free by Wizards of the Coast, but it still takes a special kind of businessperson to think of that, especially when it offers him no direct profit. My hat goes off to Endgame, and you should all give it a visit the next time you're in Oakland.

Moving on to the content of Web of the Spider Queen.

So far, I think this is something I can use. I'm a little concerned about how much of the art focuses on drow booty. I'm more than a little concerned about, you know, the black elves being evil, and you can tell they're evil because they're black. On the other hand, there's a fun plot and an endboss who really chews the scenery, uttering memorable lines like "I'll eat your hearts for the trouble you've caused me!" I can have a lot of fun with that guy, and the kids will enjoy fighting him.

There are two problems that are real stumbling blocks.

The first is relatively minor. There's a random treasure table - I like those, as callbacks to the days when magical items were part of the weird shit that happened to you as an adventurer, rather than an anticipated and controllable part of your progression - but about a third of it is stuff from Mordenkeinen's Magnificent Emporium... which I don't own. I'll pick it up if I can find a used copy - I'll hit Endgame's used section on Thursday - but I won't buy it new. Well, that's disappointing, but I can always fudge it using content from one of the other rulebooks I do own.

The second is just a little bit bigger.

Page 9, end of the first session, the characters get a sending from Elminster. Mother. Fucking Elminster. I have no time for bearded God-damned Mary Sues in my D&D games. I am also not tying myself to the Forgotten Realms. I'm going to have to invent some other suitably super - but not spotlight-stealing, thank you very much - wizard type to replace him. Then I can kill him at a later date and manipulate my players' little emotions.

Sometimes, being a good DM means being a bad person.

Anyway, tomorrow is the first session - wish me luck!

Monday, February 25, 2013

D&D With Middle Schoolers

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Not as exciting as certain other "D&D With..." projects, but a lot less likely to create Internet uproar. Also, less likely to win me hundreds of followers, but with lesser risk comes lesser rewards. Also, I don't spend all day hanging out with pornstars.

So, I have decided to start a D&D game for some of the kids I teach. I figure this is as good a place as any to write about how it goes, and heck - we may all learn something from the experience.

Now, I hardly need to note this, given my readership, but I'm going to do it anyway. I think D&D has the potential to teach these - or, in fact, any - kids a lot. We've got social skills (following rules, taking turns, cooperating towards a mutual goal), math, storytelling, reading, writing, and critical thinking. We've got the opportunity for me to build closer relationships with some of my students. We've got a chance for me to teach all this in an environment where I only have to deal with kids who have already bought in to the setting. And we've got a chance to let off steam by killing gribbly critters - a therapeutic practice entirely on its own.

Let's start by talking about the basic premises, assumptions, and foundational choices made by myself and my players.

I know that this is going to be a controversial decision, but I decided to go with 4th Edition D&D. Specifically, I decided to go with Essentials. Why? Three reasons.

Firstly, 4th Edition D&D does an extremely good job of maximizing the fun factor. In my experience, there is always something fun a character to do, no matter what. This is intrinsically true of the fight scenes, but the free-wheeling, lightly detailed fantasy setting makes it easier for a clever DM (yours, truly) to ensure the same for the non-combat scenes as well.

3rd Edition and even 3.5 don't do nearly as good a job of maximizing fun. The attempt at a coherent system - in which things like magic and theurgy are treated as exceptions - creates a situation in which characters are frequently left with nothing to do. Cast all your spells? Bring a sword to a mage fight? Hopefully you brought a book. Sure, it's a consistent and flavorful nod to D&D's Vancian roots, but is it fun? I'm told that Pathfinder fixes some of these problems - of course, I've been told by Pathfinder fans that it's the best thing since sliced kobolds, and will also fix your receding hairline and relationship with your mother-in-law - but I don't already own Pathfinder. And I'm somewhat cynical about those claims, as I'm sure you've inferred.

Secondly, Essentials takes this one step further, and simplifies it as well. By reducing the number of powers the average character needs to juggle, making sure that low-level powers remain relevant throughout the game's progression, and making sure the powers are straightforward and flavorful, Essentials makes D&D much more accessible, and not just to middle schoolers.

Finally, I am a busy man. There is a huge wealth of material available for 4th Edition D&D. I can run my kids through Keep on the Shadowfell, then use the Cairn of the Winter King, then see what the kids are into. Whatever they want to do - take on zombies, fight pirates, explore caves - I can find a module that will let me do it with minimal work on my part.

And isn't that what we all want? To fight zombies with minimal work on my part?

Regarding the kids, I have four of them, with a possible fifth and sixth joining in if they can get their shit together to come in and make characters. I'm going to go ahead and use the kids' first names, but not last names. I'm not actually under any confidentiality agreement, and I really don't think that anyone is going to try - or be particularly enabled - to kidnap a kid because they know is name is "Cameron" and he plays D&D.

Anyway.

My four players are two girls (Jada and Cassandra) and two boys (Ismael and Abdiel). Despite my best efforts, my two girls are both playing sneaky/support characters (thief and warpriest, respectively) and my two boys are playing in-your-face fighter types (knight and slayer, respectively). It took only minimal nudging, but I managed to convince the kids to play a pretty balanced party: so far, we have two melee strikers, one defender, and one leader. If I get another two players, I will nudge them towards the controller and ranged striker roles. I find that the average party really only needs one defender.

That said, the system really is flexible enough that the kids can play whatever they like. Once a party has the basics - one leader, one defender, one striker - everything else is gravy.

Now that characters are made, we will have our first proper session on Thursday, I believe. Possibly not. I may have a meeting. I can't be bothered to check my calendar right now. Either way, I'm excited, and there's more to come soon!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Some Story/Setting Thoughts

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I thought to myself "let's have an update post where I complain about having insufficient motivation to write and how it's messing with my self image as a writer," but then I thought "let's just post about writing and save the wanking for my special private time."

You're welcome.

This is an idea I've been kicking around for a while. I'm eager to hear your thoughts on it, oh faithful readers.

The premise of the setting is, basically, epic fantasy all growed up. A world of sword and sorcery, having achieved not just an industrial revolution - that's arcane steampunk, and it's been done - but the same successive waves of urbanization, nation building, and advances in information technology that define the world we live in today. In other words, this is a world grounded in fantasy, but looking a lot like our world.

I'm not a big fan of magic/science as a black-and-white dichotomy, but for reasons that will become apparent later on, I am going to say that in this world, they are at least a little dichotomous. Magic is an inborn trait of many individuals and species. With practice, you can more or less count on magic to do what you want it to, but it maintains a personal, mystical nature. Magic is not repeatable or rational. Although you can use it to get results, it's ultimately irrational, subjective, and unreliable. In this world, science, on the other hand, is just science. Ultimately, it's rational, reliable, repeatable, and inherent to the entire world - and therefore, democratic.

In other words, magic is the old world. It's hierarchical; it favors the few and the lucky. Science is democratic. While I have no illusions - and this setting doesn't, either - that everyone has equal access to scientific training or the fruits of science, theoretically anyone can learn it and benefit from it.

Sorry about the commie digression there.

Now, to get us to the time and place the game is actually set in, there's a bit of fantasy history I need to cover.

About a generation ago in this world - roughly equivalent to the 1940s - the last independent Elven nation began the equivalent of World War II. They had been in decline for some time - think the fading Ottoman Empire - in part because of their traditional reliance on magic (a powerful force, but since it's unreliable, it's more helpful as a source of personal power than it is as the basis of nation-building) and in part because of their insistence on remaining a racial monoculture, led by an inbred monarchy supported by an unwieldy bureacracy.

So, the elves had a renaissance, but pre-war Germany style, they decided to blame everyone else for their problems rather than accept that the needed to change, and started a war to right old wrongs and reclaim their dominance.

The elven armies were crushed. Their territories were carved up among the nations who had united to defeat them. With no appreciable economy, an elven diaspora began, leading to elves living as underclasses in cities all over the world.

Which brings us to the modern day.

Before I continue with the actual story I actually want to tell, I want to acknowledge the holes.

  • Other fantasy species? What about, I dunno, Gnomes? Hobbits? Dwarves? Are dragons monsters or an intelligent magical species (I'm inclined towards the latter) and if so, what is there role? If part of the appeal of this setting is "epic fantasy growed up," then I ought to include a selection of favorite tropes, the question is which and how.
  • Magic. I went and put magic in. That means that there's still a lot to decide about how it works, its limitations, and so on. Since I decided that magic is actually magical, rather than just being science with the serial numbers filed off, I can cheat a little, but only a little.
  • There are many details that would need to be fleshed out to tell a larger story. "The allies" who defeated the elves need histories, cultures, religions, and so on.

Now, the story.

Personally, I think there's a lot of potential here to tell a lot of interesting stories, but the story I want to focus on is something dear to my heart. I kind of want to write a story about a teacher in an impoverished, partly elven neighborhood in the equivalent of an inner city. I like the idea of mixing all these big ideas and fantasy tropes with the job I've come to know so well. I like the big history, and how it provides lots of complicated causes for the current events.

So... well, I guess I don't really need to know what you think. I'm happy that I got a chance to put my thoughts all together and in print. That said, I'm curious to read any thoughts any reader might have.

I don't know where this story is going to go, but it's good to be creative again. Catch you later.