Berninating the Countryside

I very rarely mention politics on this blog because I am, first and foremost, a writer, a father, and a geek. Tonight, however, I’m going to talk about politics – specifically the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

I typically pick blog topics based on what makes me excited rather than what disappoints or angers me (although exceptions exist). This is partially because I recognize that I am not the target audience for every piece of media that comes to my attention and partially because (in the case of something offensive or contemptible) I prefer to punish bad art with obscurity (as opposed to free press). I can be quite critical of things I love and remain unflagging in my appreciation of them. That said, sometimes in explaining the reasons I enjoy one thing I draw unfavorable comparisons to something else of the same categoryeven something I otherwise liked a great deal. I’m approaching this blog entry in the same spirit. I am not setting out to disparage the alternative candidate or their supporters, but in order to explain why I favor one over the other some comparison is necessary.

As a final caveat, the opinion here is my own. Matt and I haven’t talked politics for a few years. It’s just not a topic that comes up very often in our conversations with each other. I have absolutely no idea what his read on this election is.

Caveat lictor.

The Summary

Minnesota’s caucus is on Tuesday, and after careful consideration of the candidates’ platforms, their credentials, their responses to challenges, and the behavior of their supporters/proxies, it is my intention to cast my ballot for Bernie Sanders. Here are some of the reasons why:

Platform

It’s a misnomer to call Sanders a single-issue candidate, but let’s be honest – his platform boils down to three key main points: Get money out of politics, reduce the disparities between the rich and the poor, and strengthen the social safety net.

Citizen’s United

The first of these is a no-brainer for just about everyone. I don’t think anyone in America outside of corporate lawyers who are paid to do so will argue that the Citizen’s United decision was a blow against tyranny and oppression. Super PACs have been a disaster, roundly mocked by anyone who has taken the time to consider their implications. When I was in high school, the big symbol of wasteful government spending was pork – finding ways to send money back to home states and districts to keep the average voter happy. Over the last decade, this has pretty plainly evolved into a situation where politicians convince voters to elect them based on campaign pledges that they quickly break, while ensuring that their wealthy backers get government contracts and the passage of advantageous legislation. Because even the most pissed off gaggle of voters can’t easily organize to throw out an unfaithful politician, but a disappointed Fortune 500 company has the resources and reach to fund a political challenger. As much as I hate the “both sides do it” fallacy, unfortunately it is increasingly true in this case. Reversing that trend will not be easy, but it is important to me that it be brought to the attention of the public (more on that later).

Wealth and Income Disparities

The second goal addresses a problem that is on par with global climate change when we’re talking about existential threats to our country’s continued survival. Contrary to the prevailing rhetoric, people living in poverty do not deserve the suffering they are forced to endure. Most were born poor through an accident of birth – one that overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) harms minority populations – so they’re running this rat race with one leg tied to the other. They’re not begging for yachts and second homes in fancy neighborhoods. Mostly they would like to be able to support their families without constant fear of financial catastrophe and to have some opportunity to climb the ladder if they work hard.

Condemning people to lives of desperation and early death is a moral hazard, and if we were half as decent as we claim to be, we would not cling to our luxuries when others’ essential needs are not being met. But even putting aside the teachings of spiritual leaders and the basic decency of non-religious humanists, ignoring the plight of the poor has serious potential societal consequences. Starve a large enough fraction of the masses so that they feel that they have nothing left to lose, and you get guillotines and although a mere 62 executions and confiscations could double the wealth of every other person in the world, revolutions do not tend to be pretty affairs, and there will be collateral damage.

If I have to pay a bit more for coffee at the airport because of a higher minimum wage in order to stave off the collapse of civilization, sign me the fuck up. Sanders is fighting for $15/hour, which seems about right given that real income in this country hasn’t increased since the assassination of President Kennedy. Which leads us to…

Social Safety Net

I’m kind of tired of living in a third world country when it comes to social welfare programs. Sanders isn’t proposing Soviet programs, here. He, like the rest of us, know that the command economy system failed spectacularly. But we can learn a lot from Europe, Japan, Australia, and other successful democracies when it comes to taking care of our people. Universal healthcare doesn’t just prevent people from going bankrupt because of an accident or diagnosis, it is actually saves the country a ton of money for too many reasons to list here. Offering affordable post-secondary education is a huge macroeconomics win – a better-educated workforce earns more money, and graduates who are more likely to make economy-boosting decisions like buying houses and having kids than those who are drowning in student loan debts.

Credentials

Looking at Sanders’ history as a politician and a human being, he strikes me as a very genuine person. This was one of the things that appealed to me about Obama during the 2008 campaign and that I still appreciate about this long-suffering president eight years later. One of the signature moments in Obama’s primary campaign was when he went on the Colbert Report and put “Distractions” on notice – because ho boy were there a lot of them being thrown at him by his main opponent in the primary in a desperate effort to derail his campaign. Here he was being attacked with trivialities on a daily basis by someone who seemed willing to do anything to secure the nomination (who was that, anyway? it’s on the tip of my tongue…), and Obama ignored the jabs that were absurd – except when he used them to inspire some of the most amazing speeches I’ve ever heard.

Sanders doesn’t seem to care much for distractions, either, which he has made clear time and time again since announcing he was running for President. You can look at his legislative record, too, and while we can always find something objectionable if we look hard enough, he has consistently supported most of the positions he is taking during the current election cycle. I don’t get the feeling that he will say whatever he can to get into the White House and then forget all about it for four years. The things he is talking about on the campaign trail are the things he has been talking about for his whole career, which explains why he sounds so passionate. While I have no doubt that Clinton could answer the proverbial 3 a.m. call, Sanders seems like the kind of guy who would make 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 a.m. calls to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell every night until they finally cave and pass campaign finance reform. Bernie doesn’t want the White House. He wants to fix a system that he knows is broken.

Facing Challenges

When you run for President, someone out there whose support you would really like to have is going to challenge you to earn that support. Black Lives Matter has made itself a force to be reckoned with this election cycle. Their activists have faced down all the relevant candidates, and the responses they have received say something powerful about their values. Trump’s supporters roughed up an activist with the candidate’s blessing, but that hardly seems surprising anymore coming from that camp. More recently, BLM confronted Clinton, and her response probably could have been better (I’m also really disappointed that her supporters respond by tone policing).

Sanders dealt with one of these interruptions all the way back in August. At the time, he was roundly criticized for his lackluster response and especially for the vitriolic reactions of some of his more rabid supporters (more on them later). I believe he was taken by surprise and probably a little frustrated by the situation, and yes, he probably could have handled it better (although I feel he handled it with more grace than his opponents did). Sanders (like me) is a white guy. I don’t think he understands the experiences of POC, but I also think he has been willing to acknowledge that and is making a sincere effort to do better – yes, because he needs the votes, but I don’t think it’s just because he needs the votes. He embraced the awkward afternoon that his opponent was too busy to participate in.

Ultimately, while he’s still an old white guy with his share of the baggage that entails, I like that he doesn’t try to isolate himself from the “little people” around him. Black Lives Matter challenged him, and he let them talk. He made an effort (however awkward) to engage with them. He expanded his platform to address their concerns explicitly. I don’t think he did it because his campaign advisers told him it would make him surge in the polls. He did it because he saw that they had a valid point and that no one else was engaging with this movement of young, determined activists.

Supporters

Sanders’ support from Millennials is overwhelming, and I think the energy he brought to younger voters is one of the strongest arguments swaying me toward him. I remember how Obama captured the youth vote and rode it to victory. He was immediately thrown into a fight to hold the country together after his predecessor pillaged it, and I think a lot of those young Obama voters ended up more disappointed that the President really deserved. He wanted so desperately to be a transformational President, but he didn’t achieve nearly as much as he set out to do, so his progress was more incremental than radical. Obama had some key wins that laid the foundation for larger changes, however, and I think that if younger voters turn out for Sanders, he has the drive to build well on that foundation.

Clinton is competent and calm under fire, but I’m afraid that she wasn’t cool when she was running against Obama, and she hasn’t become more inspiring in the last eight years. It is at times maddening that she can be so tone deaf when it comes to talking to anyone under the age of 40. Why does it matter? Because I’m worried that she is this year’s John Kerry or Al Gore – the “safe, electable” candidate that no one actually likes enough to vote for. If you’ve done your job as a presidential candidate, your dominance shouldn’t be so weak that you can lose by electoral college technicalities or Supreme Court fiat. If either had been strong candidates, they wouldn’t have cut it so close in the first place. Al Gore is especially close to my heart because as a first-time voter in a presidential election I found myself unable to hold my nose long enough to vote for him. No matter how much we 30-somethings and 40-somethings and 50-somethings nag them about “vote blue no matter who,” the 20-something crowd isn’t going to turn out to vote for someone they don’t believe in, and Clinton has made an unfortunate pattern of alienating these voters or letting her proxies do so.

I’m not going to delve overmuch into the Bernie Bro phenomenon – not because I don’t believe that (especially young) people can’t be horrible to each other on the Internet but because I don’t feel that the candidate has incited that kind of behavior (as Trump has pretty much non-stop since this thing started). Sanders has, in fact, denounced this behavior from his supporters. I’ll also admit that if we’re going to talk about the worst behavior of a candidate’s supporters, assholes who get delusional, misogynistic, and defensive whenever they encounter an opposing viewpoint should pose less of an obstacle to a candidate than ones who crash the world economy, take government handouts, and then use the leftover money to give their friends bigger bonuses (Fact Checking).

Electability

While Sanders’ successful nomination as the Democratic candidate is by no means assured (he’s still quite the underdog), I find the electability argument in the general election laughable. Again, we heard this exact same argument against Obama in 2008 from the exact same people who are trotting it out now. It was also used to convince Democrats to nominate John Kerry in 2004, and we all know how that turned out. Electibility is important, but the head-to-head polls against the remaining Republican candidates actually show that Clinton is less likely than Sanders to win in the general election, so I don’t think that word means what some people think it means.

Those head-to-head polls, coupled with the odds of Sanders wins in the coming weeks and with Trump numbers have me worried. Unless a revolution takes place in truth, the smart money is on a Clinton vs. Trump match-up whose results cannot be predicted. Heads, we get a competent President that feels a little slimy but will probably do a decent job. Tails, we get a fascist whose rhetoric makes actual Holocaust survivors worry that it could happen in America next. Me? This time I’m hoping the cranky old white guy from Vermont wins it.

 

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Birthdays and Deadpool

The last week has been really busy. First was the gathering of friends on Friday night, followed by the birthday party the next morning, some solo parenting Saturday night, some…I don’t even remember how I spent Sunday. Pre-work for one of the three freelance assignments I’ve picked up in the last 14 days probably. I had Monday off, but so did William, so we ended up at an indoor playground. That brought me to Tuesday, which was my birthday. Beth and I took the day off and made a Valentine hooky day out of it – lunch and a movie. That movie? Deadpool.

I want to start off by saying the usual: There will be some light spoilers ahead, but this is more of a review than an analysis.

I had absolutely no contact with this character prior to this movie. In fact, the movie wasn’t even on my radar until its marketing campaign kicked in. I’ve seen a few superhero movie marketing campaigns in my life, but I don’t think I’ve see any that were as downright creative as this one. Between the funny teasers, the fake-out trailers (“Deadpool is a romantic comedy! No, really!”), and the various videos in which Deadpool talks to the moviegoer directly, this movie came pre-macroed. I don’t know who engineered all that stuff, but they’re probably not getting paid enough. My only reservation walking into the theater was that Deadpool might turn out to be a superhero movie as directed by Adam Sandler in spite of its clever hype. You know what I’m talking about – the kind of movie that insults the watcher’s intelligence and goes out of its way to be offensive as though misogyny, racism, ableism, and body shaming are a substitute for a sense of humor.

Happily, Deadpool lived up to its marketing. It was playful and didn’t take itself too seriously, but it mostly avoided cheap shots. There were, I think, two lines of dialogue that were borderline, but I felt (speaking as someone with the face of the oppressor, so take it with a grain of salt) that it reflected more about the character than on the film itself. Deadpool is not a nice guy. At one point he encourages a stranger to kidnap and murder a romantic rival more or less for shits and giggles, after all. He does anything he can to get under people’s skin. He somehow turns his enemy’s first name into an insult, makes a few of “mopey teenager” jokes at the teenager (who is in no way taking his shit or allowing herself to be goaded by it), and yes, accuses his nemesis’ female lieutenant of being a man. However, this wasn’t really played up for laughs so much as it was another point of data showing that Deadpool can’t seem to keep his big mouth shut. The character throws insults at everyone, but the movie doesn’t do anything to dignify his insults, if that makes any sense? If this *had* been an Adam Sandler movie, Negasonic would have acted more like a stereotypical teenager, and the bad guy’s sidekick would have actually been revealed as “a man” (probably after tricking the hero into sleeping with her).

Anyway.

The fourth-wall-breaking style worked really well as a storytelling device, and I understand that it was also very much in keeping with the Deadpool of the comics. The jokes start in the opening credits, and really don’t let up until after the post-credits teaser scene. By the same token, Deadpool is still a superhero movie. It certainly plays with the tropes of the genre even while firmly a part of it – a little bit like The Incredibles meets Pulp Fiction. It earns its R rating on its use of the F-word alone, to say nothing of the cartoonishly over-the-top ultraviolence, but I thought its lengthy, gratuitous sex scene was actually more tastefully done than the playboy character establishing scene in Guardians of the Galaxy (love that movie, but the “I’ve forgotten your name” line is such a cliche and there was no reason to throw the word whore at the only woman in the group).

Negasonic and Colossus were fantastic supporting characters. They play the straight man to Deadpool’s nonstop sarcasm. They also fuel countless well-aimed X-Men jokes, which would have made them worthwhile in itself.

Between the clever marketing and being a legitimately good movie, I’m not at all surprised that Deadpool has already had such a strong showing at the box office. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, yet, it’s probably worth giving it a shot.

Posted in Updates | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Game-Designer’s Sketchpad

Lately I’ve been spending more time than is probably healthy poking Legendary, the homebrew fantasy tabletop RPG that I’ve been tinkering with since, oh, 2003. Initially inspired by 1st Ed. Exalted’s concept of stunts, built around problems of mechanically representing social interactions and knowledge rolls, and first played at the 2003-4 New Year’s party as a kind of Dungeonworld game several years before Dungeonworld existed, each iteration has been informed by the games I’ve read lately and my own ever-evolving gaming preferences. Sometimes it has reflected the larger gaming landscape, and other times it has been almost prescient of what is to come for the hobby (in accordance with the confounding rules of parallel creativity).

Legendary isn’t so much a game in itself as it is a sandbox where I build and play with systems. Maybe one day I’ll do something of consequence with it, but mostly it’s my game design sketchpad. Several of the powers I wrote for Flowers of Hell began as Heroics I invented for Legendary, most of which were inspired by mechanics in other games I was reading or playing at the time. Play Possum sprang in part from the concept of Dissolves, which had a concept from Buffy the Vampire Slayer at its root (with the ability to spend a Drama Point to end combat immediately but not necessarily in your favor – handy when you’re losing anyway or you don’t feel like devoting two hours to a combat you aren’t really into). Call Out is a direct reference to a Heroic that forces the actual enemy to face you in combat and prevents his mooks from interfering. Open-and-Shut Case similarly springs from a Heroic meant to allow the “badass manipulator who has bought the local constabulary” to eliminate – or at least greatly inconvenience – her enemies. The list goes on.

One of the concepts I’ve been toying with a lot this time around is the idea of skills as a prerequisite for cool powers. Traditionally, games have expected players to purchase skills in order to represent a generalized competence in a discipline, and many games make a certain amount of skill a prerequisite for the purchase of remarkable abilities (i.e. cool powers). Legendary does this backward. Each skill has a bunch of cool powers associated with it, but you don’t buy points in the skills. Instead, whenever you buy a cool power within a skill (a Heroic), you get a permanent +1 bonus to all rolls with that skill. I figure that if your neat trick is “shooting arrows super-fast,” you probably mastered the basics of archery a long time ago. It’s a very simple solution to something that has always irked me in games – where you want to spend XP to do more interesting things, but you still end up having to spend a lot of XP getting your stats to the point where you can purchase or successfully use your nifty powers.

Another idea I’m tinkering with but still have quite a lot of sketching left to do on concerns the way optional mechanics come into play. Legendary is almost hyper-focused on giving players a lot of control over the events of the game without entirely eliminating the role of a GM who helps provide narrative structure so that it doesn’t become a free-for-all narrative. The idea I have is to create a very simple set of rules – bare bones mechanics that don’t really offer many tactical options. However, many of the Heroics players purchase for their characters add new mechanics that affect the game as a whole. No one bought any combat-related Heroics? Combat is quick, easy, and fairly predictable. But if one or more players made an investment in being good at fighting, all of a sudden combat mechanics are more dynamic and offer advanced tactics. The Heroics you choose literally change the game you are playing – not just in that “you’re conveying information to the GM about the kind of game you want to play” but by introducing mechanics that affect everyone and for which your Heroics give you a natural advantage.

Several years ago, it was trendy for games that focused on resource management to reward players with resources when they suffered some setback due to a flaw/weakness/disadvantage/whatever coming into play. You couldn’t do cool things unless something bad happened to you first. While I understand what game designers were trying to accomplish (you can’t be a badass 100% of the time; sometimes it’s okay to fail), these systems tended to punish quieter players while giving more aggressive players more reason to hog the spotlight. It got even worse when the game tied character advancement to the accumulation of Suck Points (which were never called that), and our table either pooled the resulting XP or used flat rewards devoid of the constant need to suck.

Legendary has always had a resource management component at its core, and rewarding a player for her willingness to suffer ignominy and defeat (Complications) in order to heighten drama isn’t a bad idea per se. However, when a player uses a Heroic to create a Complication, her character isn’t the one who benefits; instead, another player’s character receives the Heroism reward. Moreover, while Experience is pooled, the only way to earn it is by spending Heroism. The feedback loop this creates is pretty simple. You earn points that let you do cool stuff when your fellow players make bad things happen (i.e. make themselves and their problems central to the scene), but you have to spend those points to advance your character (and the rest of your party’s characters, too). You can’t do all the cool things all the time, because you’ll eventually run out of Heroism, at which point you have little choice but to yield the spotlight to other players so they can recharge you. Not that a character is powerless without Heroism, but her big guns are.

At the center of Legendary are Definitions (and Complications). These were the first seeds from which all of the game sprang. Definitions were meant to solve the problems of knowledgeable characters and socially adept characters. Most players of smart characters tend to spend a lot of time asking the GM what they know and then repeating that information with artistic flourishes for the benefit of the other players’ characters. Some groups (my own included) will let a player ad lib additional details and expect the GM to either “make it be that way” or veto it, but I’m not sure how common that experience is at other tables. In a similar vein, characters with extensive social connections and skills are quite often played by people are not quite so socially adept (or who can’t read the mind of GM as he plays an NPC).

Definitions give players whose characters should know a lot or have a lot of friends a means to seize some control over the game world. If the history scholar’s player spends Heroism and describes the epic battle that took place on this very plain, that event actually happened, and it is the GM’s responsibility to incorporate that information into her game’s world. This can range from cosmetic details that don’t cost the scholar Heroism at all to staggering revelations that could bring swift resolution to a major plot. Most of the time it introduces a solution to an immediate problem in the current scene or opens the way to the resolution of a larger challenge.

Similarly, players of socially adept characters can use Definitions to arrange convenient encounters with old friends. Not only are these allies more inclined to help the character, they are also less likely to take…dubiously worded requests and observations the wrong way. As with knowledge Definitions, the GM is expected to work these people into the story as best he can. Even if these convenient friends meet a grisly end, it isn’t as though the player can’t Define and introduce more. He’s wielding a Heroic, not working from a list of childhood/academy/professional friends.

All of this just scratches the surface of the mechanical concepts I’ve experimented with in this game over the years, but I think you get the idea. Whenever I’m feeling too left-brained to focus on my fiction, I find myself coming back to Legendary. Even if it is almost certain that nothing will ever come of it, I enjoy tinkering with it from time to time, and this last couple weeks has just been one of those times.

Posted in Articles | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Dark Matter

My household just finished watching the first season of Dark Matter, which a geek more jaded than me nevertheless described as “the better of SyFy’s two new catwalk sci-fi shows.” I’ll try to avoid spoilers on this one, because you probably won’t be 100% what’s going on until the end of the last episode.

That’s actually not a criticism. In many ways, Dark Matter isn’t exceptionally bold in its storytelling. It’s a bit in the vein of Firefly or Cowboy Bebop in that it concerns the travails of a group of mercenaries flying around in a spaceship being double-crossed by pretty much everyone who hires them. That they begin the show with something of a reputation for leaving a trail of the bodies of those who crossed them in their wake is apparently no deterrent to this strategy among the interplanetary corporations who employ them. The jobs are not, in fact, the point, and the show seems to understand this. Rather, Dark Matter is all about the Big Mystery.

The elevator pitch for this show was probably along the lines of, “Six strangers wake up on a heavily armed spaceship. None of them has any memories of their past, but it soon becomes clear that all of them are infamously violent mercenaries.”

It’s like that tabletop RPG where one person takes the Amnesia Flaw, except this time that player has convinced *everyone* in the party to take the Amnesia Flaw. They don’t know who their enemies are. They don’t know how much they can trust the people who claim to be their allies. There’s also a password-protected vault on the ship that none of them knows how to open, which adds just one more layer of mystery to the show.

They don’t dare let on about what happened to their memories for fear that it will make them even more of a target than they already are. The narrative engine runs on the slow revelation of each character’s backstory, all of which contain more skeletons than the ossuary of Paris’s catacombs. Pretty much every minute that the characters aren’t dealing with a universe of assholes who are all out to screw them, they’re discovering one anothers’ secrets and arguing over which of them is the least terrible person on the ship. Just when you think they’ve finally put that question to rest, another skeleton comes dancing out of someone’s closet and forces you to reassess which is the least of six evils. The thing is, none of them remembers being a complete scumbag, and oftentimes they’re just as horrified by the actions in their past as their crewmates are – so it isn’t as easy to just hate them for their deeds in a past life.

All of these mysteries and revelations serve to distract you from the central question, which is that one of the six people on the ship was responsible for erasing everyone’s memories. It’s not that the show ignores that question. They actually mention it quite a bit, especially when someone else finds out about all the Jedi they killed or whatever. But there’s an awful lot of narrative sleight of hand that did a pretty good job distracting me from it until it was too late. And when the final curtain came up, I was left at once stunned, confused, and absolutely certain that the reveal would be obvious if I watched the season a second time.

Dark Matter isn’t the best show on TV right now, but it was an entertaining way to spend my time, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the second season goes.

Posted in Articles | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Mage: The Awakening So Far

We resumed our Mage: The Awakening game this past Saturday, which was fun. Two of my players are now the parents of newborn twins, so the cabal has temporarily lost its Life mage and one of its Fate mages (who also makes for great plot fodder because her position within the Guardians of the Veil is essentially “mage witness protection program agent”).

I’m still under NDA, so I can’t talk mechanics. We modified them heavily in any case, so it would probably be more confusing than enlightening anyway. That said, I’m pretty pleased with the story so far, and I feel like talking about it a bit because all but one of my players had to bow out of tomorrow’s session at the last minute:

The stakes are getting to a pretty critical point, with every problem compounding every other problem. It started with a mummy breaking into their Sanctum to recover its stolen relic (which they later learned is a potentially world-shattering artifact – but not before it was stolen by time-traveling doomsday cultists).

The cabal managed to “kill” the mummy, but it got better a few days later (like Arisen do) and is now bent on recovering its relic and destroying Minneapolis-St. Paul in retribution for keeping its prize away from it. The cabal has learned that to do this the mummy will need some additional mummies to help it enact whatever ritual of reprisal it has in mind. Figuring that if they can prevent the mummy from gathering enough of its peers to perform this catastrophic utterance it will prevent disaster, they figured out where its intended allies are sleeping and set out to destroy (or at least greatly inconvenience) it. Along the way, they made an alliance with an Arisen-like creature that claimed it could permanently kill a mummy by “devouring” it. In what was easily the most difficult fight of the chronicle, the cabal managed to give this devourer its chance, which it seized. It was at this point that they discovered that it gained the power of the mummy (or Arisen relic) it consumed. This busted their original plan to let it eat the world-destroying artifact, but they still didn’t hesitate to use Fate to ensure that the devourer meet the rest of the mummies before they can destroy the Twin Cities. That’s where they left that plot thread back in late November, but it clearly won’t be the last we hear of it.

Meanwhile, someone has been possessing Sleepers seemingly at random and having them attack Consilium mages – including killing the entire editorial staff of a periodical circulated among Diamond Order mages. Being that this is the kind of thing the cabal is supposed to investigate (two Sentinels, a Guardian, and the Consilium diplomat to the neighboring Assembly of St. Paul), they do that and quickly conclude that the Seers of the Throne are behind the attacks. What is gradually becoming clear is that the Sleepers being used by the Seers are not random victims of circumstances. At least some of them are the friends and family members of Consilium mages who still have connections to their Sleeper lives – connections they simultaneously want to keep hidden but also protect from exactly this sort of thing. As far as the cabal can tell, some mages who are very close friends of the Hierarch have suddenly exhibited Seer of the Throne connections – mages who were formerly believed above suspicion. It’s disconcerting.

Those local Sleepers who don’t have a connection to a friendly mage but have been affected by this puppetry are freaked out, so it’s not surprising that they’re calling on favors from monster hunters and from those supernatural creatures with which they are acquainted. A pack of werewolves kidnapped the cabal’s Life mage (a way to write out a player’s character for a few sessions), and the cabal has not even begun to investigate what’s up with that. They’re aware of the underlying issue, though, and it seems like it might be a good idea to quiet down the city as quickly as possible before the mages’ hunter problem gets even worse.

The final problem concerns the parents of one member of the cabal, both of whom were mages who turned Scelesti before being devoured by a manifestation of the Abyss. Now they’re back and haunting her dreams every night. It’s not clear what happened to Mom and Dad, but they seem intent upon returning to the material world, which they can only accomplish with some help. Whenever they visit their daughter’s dreams, they poison her with Abyssal taint. The cabal wanted to know what the Abyss’s game is, so they encouraged Antimony to play along for a little while. Their initial requests were innocuous – spray-painting Abyssal symbols in out-of-the-way places, so it seemed harmless enough. Then the Scelesti wanted a more visible act of graffiti in St. Paul, where the Free Council holds sway (the Consilium of Minneapolis and the Free Assembly of St. Paul are not enemies, but they are not on the best of terms, either). For her obedience, Antimony’s parents rewarded her with an even greater dose of Abyssal taint, which she can’t help but leak into other nearby mages (which is the way Paradox manifests in her).

The cabal thought nothing of it until they returned from their mummy-hunting expedition and discovered (through postcognition) that a member of the St. Paul Assembly had spray-painted Abyssal runes in several visible places in Minneapolis. A single turn of scrutiny with Mage Sight earned one member of the cabal her own dose of Abyssal taint. That night, Antimony’s parents visit her, too, and now the dream Scelesti are demanding that the cabal deliver a book cataloging Abyssal manifestations to a part of a library in St. Paul frequented by Free Council mages. The cabal’s Scelesti hunter examines this tome and promptly receives a large dose of Abyssal taint and some dreams of his own. It is now becoming pretty clear exactly what the Abyssal invaders’ game is in Minneapolis – if not their ultimate goal, then at least the means they are using to achieve it. This situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

I’m looking forward to the next session.

I don’t have much more than that to report, this week. I’ve mostly entirely recovered from the first half of January, so hopefully I can get back my writing momentum this weekend. I’m in the process of reading Edge of Empire – the new Star Wars RPG put out by Fantasy Flight, but I’m not far enough in that I feel like I can comment on it, yet. I’m also reading Memories of Ice, the third book in Stephen Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and while it’s excellent so far, again, I’m barely 25% of the way through it, so my review is still a long ways off. We’ve been watching some geeky movies with William, but so far he has insisted upon watching movies I’ve already seen (including two watches of A New Hope and three of Attack of the Clones *shudder*).

With that I’m going to wrap up for the week.

Posted in Updates | Tagged , | Leave a comment

One Demon’s Hell is Another Demon’s, um, Hell?

Last week was really busy as I tried to catch up from the holiday break. This week was really busy as I tried to catch my breath from last week. Why has that involved staying up past my bedtime after stating my intention to go to bed early? *sigh*

Now, however, I finally have a 3-day weekend in which to recover from my vacation. Amusingly, William seems to be in the same condition. He has been impossible to roust out of bed, vocal in his desire to go to bed early, and completely incapable of actually making that happen. It appears that he has too much of his father in him. Hopefully this means he’ll sleep in for Beth, this weekend, because she needs the sleep just as much as we do.

The Demon Storyteller’s Guide came out last week and is currently available as a PDF (with print coming soon) on DrivethruRPG. My contributions to it were the crossover sections on Mage and Mummy, as well as the exploration of the Hell the Unchained seek. This last was particularly enjoyable, as I’ve spent an almost embarrassingly large amount of time considering what it is that fallen angels on the run from their creator would actually want to achieve on Earth. Other authors have touched on several of them in previous books, but it was fun to actually lay out “how to achieve this,” as well as “now that you have everything you always wanted, what kinds of threats will you have to face down to keep it?”

Of the sixteen different Hells I describe, though, my favorite was the personal mission of the average Integrator. This was something that sort of bothered me ever since I saw the first drafts, which seemed to assume that Integrators would jump at the first opportunity to return to the God-Machine that they encountered. This would have worked if the rest of the game showed the Enemy as unwilling to accept the Unchained back into its service or if It was somehow beyond their reach, but all over the place we talked about how rare and precious angels are to their creator, and while the Machine isn’t truly omnipresent, it is world-straddling in scope. By the final draft, of course, the game clarified that Integrators may want to return to the God-Machine’s service, but they want to do so on their own terms. In particular, they want to retain the free will that demons have and angels do not.

That works, but I always felt that there could be so much more to the Integrators than that. As time has passed, we’ve seen a bit more of what you might think of as the Blue Pill Integrators – demons who are actively working against other Unchained in hopes of convincing the God-Machine to grant them concessions beyond mere freedom. Yet that still tended to make them less sympathetic than the other Agendas, and I saw a lot of folks on the Internet who literally could not see Integrators as anything but team-killers – the kinds of characters beloved by players who use “it’s just what my character would do” as a shield for being dicks at the gaming table. That made me sad – not because I think that people who play Integrators should always adhere to the PC halo but because I have so little difficulty seeing other ways to play a Loyalist that don’t involve acting like an Alpha Complex Troubleshooter gathering dirt on your teammates until you can justify executing them all as traitors.

The personal hell was my attempt to point out something nobody ever seemed to talk about but that I found glaringly obvious because, well…

Waaaaaay back in the days of 1st Edition Exalted, I created a Solar (Akilla) who Exalted during the fall of Thorns to the undead army of Mask of Winters. She was a lifelong believer in the Immaculate Order, including their condemnation of the Anathema (which now included herself), but she also knew that booting a Deathlord out of Thorns was not beyond the abilities of a Solar at the height of his power. Rather than turn herself over to the Immaculate Order immediately, she reasoned that she would do so as soon as Thorns had been liberated from the undead. She was even very above-board about this when she fell in with other Solars, and as she warmed up to the rest of her Circle, she offered them the heartfelt pledge that she would give them reasonable warning before turning herself over to the Immaculate Order and betraying them.

So when I first heard Integrators pitched, that was where my mind went immediately. I’m not gonna lie. The hero who is tortured by what he has become but nevertheless uses the power it gives him to accomplish objectives that would otherwise be far beyond his grasp is probably one of my favorite themes. It showed up in that Exalted game so long ago. It’s a key character element in Lesson of the Fire. I embraced it again in Beth’s Hunter: The Vigil chronicle (during which my character Awakened, putting a target on his cell’s back and becoming its secret weapon at the same time).

It has its place in Demon: The Descent, too. Not all Integrators are enemy Agents looking for any excuse they can get to betray their ring. Not all Integrators fear the loss of self that will come when the God-Machine casts them into one of its forges and erases their memories. Sometimes an angel just can’t let go of a mission – whether it is one given it by the God-Machine or one they discovered along the way – and she doesn’t so much reject the embrace of her creator as put it off for awhile.

I think of the fiction bits I wrote for the core book. The one about the demon who chooses to live out the life of his cover’s grandchild because her death would pain his mortal family too much. The one about the demon who clings to its freedom in hopes of preventing a catastrophe from befalling the city he once helped to guard – a disaster that he is certain will come about because of his actions at the moment of his Fall. Those were Integrator stories – ones that simultaneously give the demon reason to long for a return to the God-Machine while also ensuring that he has no desire to do so today or tomorrow or even a year from now. Stories that could end with “and having achieved the personal goal for which she hid herself from her creator’s eyes for several years, she returned to Its embrace,” but is just as likely to merely give her time to experience mission creep. “I will save this city from the disaster my hands have wrought” flows naturally into “I will protect this city from the disasters that threaten it until it is destroyed by a cataclysm I could not prevent.” “I will be their dead daughter” evolves into a never ending series of self-sacrificial acts that protect the family from grief but also keep the demon from making her return journey to the God-Machine.  Is it sincere, or is the Integrator just as terrified of the death of self-awareness that recycling promises as his Saboteur ringmate? Even if it is, will the Integrator ever admit her fear of oblivion to herself, or will she continue to proclaim her loyalty to the God-Machine in spite of the number of times she has moved the goal posts?

That’s the kind of story I would love to tell in a Demon game, and I really wanted to make sure other people had the opportunity to tell that kind of story in their own groups. It sure beats the perception of Integrators as demons who would sell out their fellow Unchained to the God-Machine for a Klondike bar.

Posted in Articles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Spoilers

As I more or less expected, the week between Christmas and New Year’s completely ate me. I try to cram so much into that one week that I’m lucky if I have two hours of free time to rub together. It’s always a lot of fun to see my family and a large percentage of my friends from high school, college, and beyond, but it isn’t conducive to writing blog entries. That said, I knew early on that I wanted to write a spoilerific post about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I knew it would be a really long one. This is that post. If you’re concerned about spoilers, steer clear of this entry until you’ve seen it.

First off, I must say how impressed I am with the Internet geek community when it came to spoilers. Due to the need to arrange childcare, Beth and I weren’t able to secure a chance to watch it until December 26th – more than a week after its release. Despite our inescapable exposure to the geek community online and my son’s insistence that we watch every Star Wars trailer a zillion times since that first teaser most of a year ago, we managed to avoid spoilers. During that week, everyone clearly labeled their spoilers so it was as easy as scrolling down without reading. Some even went so far as to post a spoiler warning and then create a link to the actual spoilers so that it wasn’t even possible to accidentally read spoilers.

This is your second warning: Star Wars spoilers ahead.

There’s a long history of action movie trailers giving away half the plot of the movie, and Star Wars had a lot of trailers ahead of its release. Every time we got word from the Mouse that no really, this is the last trailer before the movie, someone on the Internet would unearth a completely new trailer from China or Japan or Mars or wherever else Disney thinks it can sell a lot of movie tickets. In watching the movie, however, I discovered that the trailers used footage from the film in a calculated effort to mislead or at least misdirect. I mean that in the best way imaginable. I had a pretty good sense of the main characters’ backgrounds, and I knew that Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Luke, and the Millennium Falcon would be in it. But despite having seen the trailers a hundred times I didn’t really know the plot until I was in the theater. It was like arriving at a local watering hole to celebrate my birthday with a few friends and then being whisked away to my absolute favorite restaurant and discovering that a hundred of my friends had shown up to celebrate with me. Any disappointment I might have felt about not getting what I expected was completely swallowed up in my delight at what I received. (I’m speaking as an extrovert, of course, for whom “everyone shows up to hang out with me at the same time” is a cherished fantasy and not a nightmare scenario.)

This is your final spoiler warning. After this, I stop being coy and start getting specific.

The Wonderful Lies the Trailers Told Me

We get a glimpse of the Knights of Ren in the rain looking all badass, but they only appear in a single flicker of a Force vision, leaving Kylo Ren the only one of them to make more of an appearance in the movie than we get in the trailer. I’m okay with this. It sets them up to be more important in later movies, and after seeing how much of a badass Kylo Ren I’m looking forward to seeing them wreck some Resistance forces.

The trailers also show the Millennium Falcon fleeing TIE fighters above the desert junkyard planet of Jakku. This obviously happens, but the trailers cut in shots of Han and Chewie in such a way that it seems obvious that they’re the ones piloting it when in fact this scene takes place after Finn and Rey steal the Falcon and are fleeing for their lives in one of the most exciting sequences of the early part of the movie. Han plays an important role in the new Star Wars, and his presence in the trailers surely built up fan excitement ahead of the movie’s release, but this isn’t his movie any more than A New Hope was Obi Wan’s (and in the exact same way that it wasn’t Obi Wan’s movie, as it turns out…).

One of the trailers shows Rey bent over a body, looking upset, and then Leia weeping in Han’s arms. One of the geeky sites I saw analyzing that trailer frame-by-frame noted that the person Rey is worrying over appears to be Chewbacca. The shot is actually a bit vague, even if there is absolutely nothing confusing about it in context. In reality, Leia weeps into Han’s arms as they discuss their son, who has become Kylo Ren. And the vague body is actually Finn, who has been badly injured in his fight with Ren. Well-played, trailer editors. Well-played.

The trailers also show Finn with a lightsaber and introduce him in the first teaser immediately after the mysterious voice says, “There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?” Both implied that he’s the proverbial Luke, but it turns out that his co-star is the wildly Force-talented member of the cast (with a caveat that I’ll talk about more later). Similarly, Luke isn’t so much a character in The Force Awakens as he is its MacGuffin. The glimpse of him we get in the trailers is half his total screen time, and he actually has more dialogue in the trailers than he does in the movie. There are other, similar touches, but you get the idea.

Passing the Torch to the Next Generation

At its heart, The Force Awakens is about passing the torch of Star Wars from the previous generation to the current one, and the movie carefully aims to please both audiences. It does a great job of this. The first movie I remember watching in the theater was Return of the Jedi. I would have been five years old, and I vividly recall being terrified of Jabba the Hutt (and covering my eyes), but I also remember staying in my seat through the whole thing and obsessing over all things Star Wars for years afterward.

We took William to see The Force Awakens on the 30th. It was his first movie in the theater, and he spent it by turns scared and fascinated, but whenever we offered to take him out of the theater for a little while he flatly refused to budge from his seat. He has talked about little else but Star Wars ever since. He will be four in February – so within a year of the age I was when Jedi was released. Not that he never talked about Star Wars before, but then while the first movie he ever watched was The Empire Strikes Back (last Christmas, on a day when both of us were home sick), I distinctly remember the asteroid scene on my parents’ TV when I was right around that age.

Given his age, we weren’t sure how he would handle it. We’ve shown him the other Star Wars movies here and there, but big screens are another thing. So we chose a 9:30am show on a weekday. We discovered that the theater was almost completely deserted except for about a dozen families with small children whose parents were doing exactly the same thing we were. This was, to be honest, kind of cool.

A Timely Update

Even aside from what was happening in the theater, though, The Force Awakens concerns itself with moving the focus from Luke, Leia, and Han to the next generation of heroes – Rey, Finn, and Poe. While I respected the boldness of a true Star Trek reboot that read as an alternate universe of the Trekverse everyone grew up with, it nevertheless resulted in a Trek that preserved many of the flaws of the original movies that just wouldn’t fly today – an overwhelmingly white, male cast and a lead character with, um, outdated romantic proclivities, which make it a hard sell to a generation that is collectively working to slowly stamp out the universality of both of those tropes.

The newest Star Wars offering doesn’t deny the franchise’s past, but nor does it merely try to dust it of a bit in hopes that contemporary audiences won’t notice that it still has only one person of color and one woman of consequence. Leia is feisty and cool, but she also gets damselled more than once, spends a lot of time acting as a romantic interest (first for Luke and then for Han – not to mention the slave outfit thing), and never gets any cool Force powers despite the movies making it clear that she has the same potential as Luke.

Instead we get Rey, Finn, and Poe. This choice gives me hope that we can finally, finally put to rest the bullshit Hollywood “wisdom” that says a movie with a black or female hero can’t succeed. Seriously, guys, we also have the Twilight series (not my cup of tea, but that changes nothing) and The Hunger Games, so they really should have figured it out by now, but with Episode VII now the highest grossing movie ever (and it’s only been in theaters for three weeks) – in spite of none of its leading heroes being white men – that counterfactual article of faith really needs to go away forever.

Rey

Rey is what Episode I Anakin Skywalker should have been. She has a lot in common with him – a mysterious past, a gift with building machines and piloting ships, and a natural aptitude with the Force that causes other Force users to shit themselves in terror. Seriously, if prequel Anakin had sealed his deal with the Dark Side by taking down several Jedi at the height of their power instead of by murdering an elementary school we might have been willing to believe he was some kind of corporeal manifestation of the living Force and not just a whiny, child-murdering, easily manipulated brat.

Anyway, with Rey we have a plucky, self-sufficient young adult who is just trying to survive in a society that insists on cheating her on a daily basis. Her existence is defined by picking over the literal wreckage of the previous generation’s wars and selling it in exchange for starvation wages. Despite her prodigious talents and willingness to work hard, she cannot escape an endless cycle of life without purpose. She waits for relief from a family who has (for whatever reason) abandoned her to this fate, and it is her patience in that vigil that is ultimately holding her back from achieving greater things.

It somehow doesn’t strike me as an accident that Rey is played by an actress whose age places her firmly among the Millennials. This is a generation that faced an impossible choice – go to college at a time when post-secondary education costs were rising so quickly that they would be deep in debt by the time they graduated and be told that they were childish, selfish, and lazy because they couldn’t afford to do “adult things” like buy houses and start families, or skip college and live from paycheck to paycheck because apparently no one who didn’t go to college deserves to make a living wage. In short, Rey is every Millennial who is just scraping by, by turns abandoned by or cheated by an older generation that sees nothing of value in anything she produces unless it has some connection to her elder’s glory days. And yet it is through a relic of that era (the Millennium Falcon) that she secures her freedom – not by merely exchanging it for money from her elders but by taking it and making it her own. In some ways it strikes me as J. J. Abrams subtly telling us that yes, he’s taking the franchise in a different direction, but that he thinks that’s a good thing, and he hopes we’ll agree.

Finn

Then we have Finn, who was recruited from birth to be a Stormtrooper – a soldier for the evil Empire whose entire on-screen purpose throughout the original trilogy was to be faceless enemies that killed innocent people or died unmourned in conflicts with the heroes we were supposed to be rooting for. It was simply understood that these were faceless minions whose deaths meant nothing to anyone. The first time we are able to distinguish Finn from his fellow faceless goons is when he recognizes and is recognized by a fallen Stormtrooper. The death of that unnamed Stormtrooper marks Finn – both figuratively and literally – and sets him apart from his companions in arms. It is the first time any Stormtrooper has been humanized in the movies. I understand that the Clone Wars animated series has clone trooper characters, but even in the prequels where they are initially the good guys, the clones are not fully developed characters. Finn refuses to participate in the massacre when Kylo Ren orders him to do so. Later, he takes off his helmet to reveal a black man underneath, and his superior officer promptly chides him for doing so without permission.

Let’s talk about this for a little bit. The Stormtroopers are not given the choice of whether to join the First Order. They are all either indoctrinated into the army from childhood or, in the case of clones, manufactured as soldiers for the Empire and its successor. An accident of birth determines not only their careers but whether or not anyone – their commanding officers or the Rebels/Resistance – will value their lives or mourn their deaths. In the original trilogy, both sides of this conflict were overwhelmingly white, which can be attributed to the previously mentioned time those movies were released. Even in Episode VII, though, the leaders of the First Order are white men, and given the relative diversity of the rest of the cast, that does not seem like an accident to me. Nor was making the humanizing face of those faceless goons a black man.

Knowing as he does that Stormtroopers are ultimately victims of a military-industrial that recruits poor children and indoctrinates them as fanatical killers, it is a bit disappointing that Finn does not hesitate to kill them. This franchise is not exactly renowned for its moral complexity, mind you, but it would be nice to see someone regret mowing down former brothers-in-arms like wheat with TIE fighter blasters. At least we still have Kylo Ren (more on him later). The way the First Order recruits its Stormtroopers also echoes what many of us have been saying since our first glimpse of the younglings in the prequels, which is that the way the Jedi Order recruits its padawans is super creepy and not indicative of the moral superiority of the Republic.

Poe

Finally, we have Poe Dameron, whom the Internet has already dubbed “nice guy Poe Dameron” and whom a friend of mine affectionately describes as “PC Han Solo.” Here you have this amazing pilot who is also concerned about the safety of the mysterious Resistance ally and visibly fond of his astromech droid. He treats Finn warmly even though he immediately recognizes that the deserter is really only jail breaking him because he desperately needs a pilot. He helps the Stormtrooper leave behind his old life by giving him a name to use in his new one, and he is visibly happy to see Finn when they meet again later.

Having watched the movie twice, I can see why so many fans are hoping for a romance between Poe and Finn, because they really have strong on-screen chemistry. Even if the franchise doesn’t take his character in that direction, Poe is an undeniably likable character – like the high school football star who never lets it go to his head and is still really nice to everyone. Others have pointed out that he even manages to radiate charisma during the planning scene ahead of the attack by standing quietly in the background and letting other people take the lead in their areas of expertise. I look forward to seeing more of him in future movies.

From the Ashes of Empire

As the Resistance and its heroes accept the torch offered to them by the Rebellion and its legends, so the First Order and its followers spring forth from the Empire and the villains of the original Star Wars trilogy. Despite these similarities, however, we see some stark differences between the two generations of bad guys.

New Order

First off, the First Order is younger and less organized than the Empire was. Look at the faces of its officers. In Episodes IV-VI, everyone on the Death Star is middle aged or older – bald spots and grey hair as far as the eye can see. Grand Moff Tarkin is a model of military discipline who shows himself perfectly capable of keeping even the frequently impetuous Darth Vader in line. When the Death Star comes under attack and his aide warns him that defeat is possible, Tarkin stays at his post. We are given no indication that anyone under his command flees the Death Star before it explodes, and that stands as a testament to the structure the Grand Moff maintains. Moreover, his decision to destroy Alderaan is cold and calculated. Had the Rebel base been in a more prominent location, he might have ordered it destroyed instead, but he feels that making a statement is more important at that juncture than winning a military victory while the Empire’s enemies continue to multiply. It is only after Tarkin dies that Darth Vader no longer has anyone to prevent him from Force choking every admiral who disappoints him – behavior that made him an iconic movie villain but probably didn’t help further the Empire’s goals. After all, seasoned, high-ranking officers are not exactly easy to replace.

By the end of Return of the Jedi, the Empire has lost all the officers on the second Death Star, as well as those aboard the various star destroyers the Rebels destroyed during the Battle of Endor. Moreover, the early parts of The Force Awakens pretty strongly hints that the Empire’s war with the Rebellion has cost it more star destroyers, which quite likely included other veteran officers. We see the consequences of this continual loss of command and control centers in the comparative youth of the First Order’s officers.

Hux

General Hux cannot have left his 30s, yet, and almost everyone else we see is as young as or younger than him. Where Tarkin held Vader’s leash but also trusted his judgment enough to risk letting the Death Star plans fall into Rebel hands, Hux and Kylo Ren spend most of the movie sniping at each other in front of their mutual boss, Supreme Leader Snoke. As soon as Starkiller Base is operational, Hux does not hesitate to trumpet its potential to his followers in a public address that expresses his fanaticism and fascist world view, and then to immediately use it to destroy five planets that he claims (without offering any proof) are state sponsors of the Resistance (do you get the idea that maybe current events had some small influence on the plot of this movie?).

When the Resistance wins the day and his doomsday device is breaking apart, General Hux abandons his subordinates to their fates and never looks back. Nor do his junior officers overlook his absence. We hear a lieutenant ordered back to his post, only to reply that even General Hux has abandoned ship. It’s worth noting that Hux evacuates in part because Snoke orders him to do so (and to bring the injured Kylo Ren with him), but this only illustrates how much less concerned with the First Order’s imperialistic ambitions he is compared to the dictatorial Emperor Palpatine.

The Empire was dangerous because it was well-organized and had access to tremendous resources. It could also be devious enough to set elaborate traps or to expend those resources to hire bounty hunters for jobs to which it was not as well-suited. Ultimately, though, the Empire existed to maintain the Emperor’s hold on his Empire. The Death Stars were meant as a deterrent, a threat that Palpatine was not likely to use lightly or often. He wanted to rule the galaxy, after all, not destroy it.

The First Order is dangerous because its leaders (like Hux) quite obviously feel that they have something to prove. They want the galaxy to fear them, and they do not hesitate to destroy planets and institutions that they might more profitably suborn or conquer (as Palpatine did). Unlike the Emperor, Snoke seems almost disinterested in the politics of the First Order. He is much more interested in finding Luke and completing the training of Kylo Ren than in the completion, use, or destruction of Starkiller Base.

Kylo Ren

Speaking of Kylo Ren, I found him to be a fascinating and believable villain. He is everything Anakin Skywalker should have been in Episodes II and III. There are plenty of parallels between the two characters. Both are young, arrogant, and believe they are doing the right thing every step of the way. They’re both prone to lose their temper, and they both indulge in whiny monologues.

That’s where the similarities end, though.

Let’s face it. If you strip all of the absurd and boring out of the prequels, Anakin doesn’t exactly have it easy. He is born a slave. The Jedi take him away from his home and simultaneously hail him as a Messianic figure and refuse to train him. His mother dies as a direct result of the Stoic devotion the Jedi demand, which did not allow him to return to Tatooine to release her from bondage. Jedi rules also prevent him from pursuing a romantic relationship and, when he not-quite-admits that he has formed a strong emotional attachment, Yoda essentially tells him his lover is better off dead. So yeah, Anakin doesn’t have a whole lot of reasons to love the Jedi Order. It makes sense that he would leap at an opportunity to learn the ways of the Force without having to kowtow to the Jedi Council. And once Palpatine kills Mace Windu in front of his eyes, there is no way Anakin is going to be able to simply go back to the Jedi and expect to be treated as other than an accomplice, so he has nowhere else to go except into the arms of the Dark Side (into whose arms the Jedi have been driving Anakin since Episode I).

Lucas made a grave mistake, though. He tried to convey this through a series of contrived conversations and over-the-top monologues – a classic case of telling the story instead of showing it. That is a blog post for some other time, though.

The Force Awakens does not repeat that mistake. Thankfully, we don’t get three movies focused on the rise and the fall of Kylo Ren. At the time Episode VII opens, he is already at a point in his narrative that his grandfather didn’t reach until the end of Revenge of the Sith. He’s not as far gone as Vader was at the beginning of A New Hope, but we certainly see plenty of evidence that he’s not above murdering younglings and other innocent people in the service of his ambition.

We didn’t need a virgin birth, a midiclorian count, a prophecy, or Jedi chin-stroking to tell us that he is strong with the Force. First, we all know his pedigree thanks to the movies that preceded this one. Even if you ignore the prequels, Vader is a scary dude. More importantly, the movie gives Kylo Ren plenty of opportunities to show off his powers – starting with the frozen blaster bolt, continuing with the interrogation of Poe, and culminating in the no good, very bad day when he fights two lightsaber duels after taking a blast from a bowcaster that should have thrown him off the bridge of Kazad Dum. Perhaps more tellingly, it is clear from the end of the end of the movie that he isn’t even fully trained, yet! Nor is he without obvious holes in his powers. We see him struggle to call Luke’s lightsaber, which is a far cry from Darth Vader flinging machinery at Luke during their duel on Bespin, and his lightsaber skills are nowhere close to as well-honed as those of the Jedi in the prequels (which I actually find completely appropriate given that Luke didn’t exactly have years of training in which to learn the old Jedi martial arts). Ren is a strong, worthy opponent, but his journey to the Dark Side is not yet complete.
The filmmakers chose to save the reason why Kylo Ren turned against the Resistance for some other movie, which is fine. Again, we know a bit about the world he grew up in, so it’s easy (even fun) to speculate about what led this child born to a family of the Rebellion’s greatest heroes to betray everything they believe in. Some fans even argue that he hasn’t actually betrayed them but is, in fact, engaged in an ambitious nd probably-misguided attempt to infiltrate the Sith and destroy them (sometimes described as the Snape theory). Was his father too distant? Was his mother too busy running a rebellion to spend as much time with him as she would have liked? Did Han and Leia find themselves clashing so much that they couldn’t hold it together in front of their son – possibly even to the point where they couldn’t stay together at all? Was Luke too gentle with Kylo Ren, or was he so intent upon not showing favoritism toward his nephew that he ended up being way too hard on this young apprentice?

If Rey is a hero for a new generation, then Kylo Ren reflects our culture’s evolving understanding of evil. When we first see him, he is a masked figure who strikes down unarmed prisoners and orders a massacre of innocent civilians. When he takes off his helmet in front of Rey, however, we see a kind of goofy-looking, skinny white kid. Over the course of the movie, he makes several grievous errors, any one of which would have gotten him Force choked if Darth Vader had been his commander – the escape of BB-8, the escape of Poe Dameron, the escape of BB-8 and company, his failed interrogation of Rey, Rey’s escape (due to the classic mistake of leaving one Stormtrooper to guard a Force-user prisoner), and the destruction of Starkiller Base at the hands of his father. Not only does Kylo Ren fail more times in a single movie than any villain since the arms dealer in The Fifth Element, but we’re given the strong impression that he is not as sure about his life choices as he wants everyone to believe.

I remember the almost universal laughter when we fans got our first glimpse of his lightsaber with the absurd cross guard. Sure, we eventually warmed up to it, trusting that it must have some purpose. Having watched The Force Awakens, I’m pretty sure our initial reaction is actually pretty close to what was intended. Ren’s weapon is trying so hard to be badass that it’s actually kind of sad, and it makes the villain a kind of pathetic figure by extension. It is exactly the right lightsaber for this villain, as it expresses his character perfectly – a powerful Force-wielder with a massive case of imposter syndrome that drives him to do horrific things in order to prove that he’s as evil as he wants people to believe he is.

The evil Kylo Ren represents isn’t the fanatical devotion of the original trilogy, where the bad guys never once question the rightness of their cause even when they’re blowing up entire planets. He isn’t a comic book Nazi or a Cold War era propaganda caricature of a Communist leader. He is someone who has done something awful, to be sure, and his better nature even seems to recognize it. Instead of atoning for his crimes and returning to the embrace of a family who clearly still cares for him, however, he stubbornly doubles down on the mistakes he has made. He doesn’t want to kill his own father, but he is so certain that murdering Han is the only way to prove himself to Snoke – and to prove to himself that he can be just as ruthless as Darth Vader was – that he takes yet another tottering step into the Dark Side.

In many ways he is a pathetic villain, in spite of his power. This aspect of his character has given us the wonderful Twitter account Emo Kylo Ren (@KyloR3n), which is hilarious. What is less comical is that his behavior is troublingly familiar. He is the quintessential “quiet kid who decides to go on a shooting spree at his school.” He has that reek of the toxic masculinity that mistakes bravado and violence for strength – prompting him to fly into rages at the slightest provocation. He allows himself to become entangled with jingoistic fascists like General Hux and a megalomaniac who clearly doesn’t have his best interests at heart (Snoke) because they are willing to stroke his ego and feed his delusions. Despite his posturing, Kylo Ren’s confidence in his own abilities is so fragile that he regards anyone whose power might be the equal to his own (such as Rey) as a threat. Moreover, as soon as he takes off his helmet, he looks no different from a million other goofy-looking, skinny white kids. You couldn’t tell him apart from the random guy you shared an elevator with this morning.

It is not without reason that I’ve seen more than a few fans compare Kylo Ren to the men who make up the ranks of Gamergate, Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), and anonymous racists who clog the Internet with screeds belittling or demonizing women and minorities. Like Kylo Ren, these folks are ultimately pretty pathetic and clearly have other problems they need to address, but that in no way excuses their repulsive behavior.

Final Points

I have just a couple more observations before I wrap up this beast.

We Need to Talk about Ben

The fact that Kylo Ren was once Luke’s apprentice, and that he murdered his fellow students in his turn to the Dark Side, really explains so much about why Han, Leia, and Luke went their separate ways. There’s no question that all three of them blamed themselves and that they would naturally assume that the other two blamed them too. The sense of failure must have been overwhelming.

I Count Two New Force-Users

It’s about as painfully obvious as Hollywood can make it that Rey has Force powers. I’m surprised by how few people have come to the conclusion that Finn is also Force-sensitive, if not the kind of wild talent that Anakin and Rey are. Those articles I’ve seen that agree with me on that point argue that Finn couldn’t have held his own in a lightsaber fight with Kylo Ren even for as long as he does except through the power of the Force. However, I’ve also seen arguments that his lightsaber skills aren’t a product of bad writing that hinge on the fact that another Stormtrooper wields a stun baton in a fight with him – implying that Finn has had the same training and so would benefit from it when he faced Ren. My argument is actually simpler:

When Finn looks up and sees the Starkiller Base weapon’s beam in the sky above Maz’s cantina, we hear a chorus of screams. I think most people just sort of assumed it was a reaction to the arrival of the First Order’s fleet, but they haven’t shown up yet, so that doesn’t seem to be the case. Is it maybe the freaked out screams of bystanders looking on in horror? I don’t seem to remember there being enough people nearby to justify that kind of a sound decision. But I remember the way Obi Wan described the disturbance in the Force at the moment Alderaan was destroyed – “as if a million voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” I generally try really hard not to speculate too much on sequels (since that always struck me as a bit of a sucker’s bet – the fandom equivalent of buying a lottery ticket), but if I have one prediction for the future of the franchise, it is that Rey’s obvious Force use was at least partially misdirection to prevent us from noticing the Finn has a burgeoning talent on par with Luke’s at the beginning of A New Hope.

Posted in Articles | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas (or whichever holiday you and yours celebrate at this time of year). I’m currently hanging out at my in-laws’ house while William expends the last of his day’s energy on the year’s toy haul. After that, I get to handle bedtime, as usual. Let’s see if I can get this written before my intervention is required…

I had a really productive weekend. In all, I added 12,500 words to my current draft of Kingmaker‘s sequel of the course of three days.  Most of that was revision or rework – scenes I had already written but that were in the wrong order in the story – but I did a pretty hefty amount of writing, too. I’m now past the place where I got stuck previously, and I have a pretty clear idea of what needs to happen between now and the end of the book. The length is looking to be much longer than I ever dreamed this story would require – possibly even longer than Lesson of the Fire was, and that made no pretense of being aimed at younger readers. Matt might trim that down on the next go-around, but it might simply be that the story needs to be longer. Certainly it is more complicated than the book that preceded it, which didn’t delve as deeply into subplots.

It’s a work in progress, but it is certainly coming along, and I hope to get a good chunk of work done on it during our ten days of travel and holiday festivities.

I finished reading Assassin’s Quest (by Robin Hobbs), yesterday. Some spoilers for that book and the two that precede it in the trilogy ahead. I’m enjoying this author’s work. Where she really shines is in getting deep inside her characters’ heads and in inventing complications that make sense and yet remain entirely unexpected. I remember thinking to myself when I set the book down on Wednesday that I had a couple suspicions about some of the things that would come into play, but I really had no idea how it would end. I even had a conversation with Beth (who read these books years ago – long enough ago to have written an awesome trio of songs about the trilogy in the same world that follows it) that evening in which I said I could see no way that the book wasn’t going to end without resolving a few loose ends. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it actually wraps everything up nicely – both as a book and as a trilogy.

It is a solidly epic fantasy series, and while it doesn’t have the complete disregard for the lives of its heroes that made A Song of Ice and Fire (and its TV adaptation) famous, Hobb comes up with some really clever complications and resolutions to them. Sometimes it’s clear that Fitz is doing something absolutely stupid that is certain to fail (like when he decides that his only course of action is to assassinate the king even though he has neither resources, help, nor even a germ of a plan). In some cases it seems like things will work out the way he imagines it, but Hobb kindly drops us enough hints to the contrary that it isn’t jarring when they don’t (like how when Buridge and Molly believe Fitz is dead and take up living together to care for Fitz’s daughter, somehow that could *gasp* blossom into a romantic relationship). The whole “a man dying on the horns of a stone dragon causes it to stir closer to life” line of inquiry was one of those things that I was pretty certain would be critically important later, but Hobb performed a sleight of hand routine for so long that it almost had me convinced that she had dropped the plot to save it for a later story. Regal’s real scheme should have been obvious (there’s even an outright “Fitz tells us it was obvious to him when looking back” section in the framework story), but I didn’t realize it until way late in the book. It was interesting how the body swapping was foretold by the queen’s earlier comment that Fitz was a comely youth, and that whole bit leaves me wondering that more isn’t made of the fact that Fitz is still the biological father of Verity’s son. I’ll admit that I was tickled by the “failed” plot to poison the soldiers sent to capture him, only to discover that he had succeeded after all (an entertaining reversal of the author’s more common preference for frustrating expectations by introducing unexpected complications to an otherwise serviceable plan).

In the end, Hobb really didn’t waste any of the pieces at her disposal. Pretty close to every concept and every interesting character plays some role in the conclusion. Probably my favorite was the vengeful ferret’s victory, although Fitz’s final handling of Regal was at once poetic and kinda terrifyingly awful. Of course, the same could be said about Verity’s final request of Fitz, because yikes.

Next up is Stephen Erikson’s Memories of Ice, the third book of his Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Now for something completely different, in other words. I’m sure I’ll come back to Hobb sooner rather than later. Her particular style of story braiding is actually quite close to what Matt and I favor for the books in our own world. For now, however, I have a small child to coax into falling asleep.

Posted in Updates | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Calm Before the Storm

I’ve been busy on Kingmaker’s sequel this week and haven’t reached any major media milestones. I’m almost done with Assassin’s Quest, I have a big writing weekend planned (I took Monday off), and I have tickets to a showing of Star Wars VII scheduled for 12/26. Yes, there was a day I would have been there for opening night, but finding childcare on a weeknight is complicated – especially when it seems like most of your friends are already going to the same midnight show you would have liked to be at. I can wait a week, although I must admit that it heightens anticipation when William insists on watching the trailers with me every evening.

I showed William the first two of the Lord of the Rings movies last weekend. He couldn’t stop talking about FotR on Saturday night, although his response to TT was a bit more muted by comparison. He has, as usual, already incorporated it into his games of pretend. He has also started demanding to watch the Honest Trailers of all the Tolkien movies on a nightly basis. I hope to find the time to show him RotK before we leave town this week, but we’ll see what happens.

We had a bunch of people over last night for a sort of beer tasting party where everyone brought their weirdest and/or snobbiest beers to share in small pours. It was a lot of fun but not, as you can imagine, conducive to writing a blog. As you can see, however, I don’t have a whole lot to talk about this week anyway. Next week should be more interesting.

Posted in Updates | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Human Privilege

I’m going to talk a bit more about the BBC show Humans. I’ve only seen the first three episodes, so I’m sure there’s a lot more going on as the season progresses, but I want to talk about the killer quote from episode 3. If you’re bothered by spoilers for this show, give this post a miss.

As I alluded to last night, I’m seeing a lot of commentary in this show on the nature of class and privilege. Partially, the android story has always included an element of moral peril that is inherent in forcing one sentient being to serve another. That, by its nature, establishes humans and androids as different classes – one ruling and one serving. But this was the first time I had seen an apparently human character (albeit one with android-like cyberware) in one of these stories identify as an android (called synths in this show) instead of as a human (Leo). Adding to this, he’s both a white man and the de facto leader of a group of androids who are women and people of color – a white woman, an Asian woman, and two black men. Despite Leo’s role in the group, his authority by no means goes unquestioned, and it is clear on a couple of occasions that he hasn’t made the right decision.

We learn that Niska (the synth who presents as a white woman) has been recaptured and returned to service in a brothel. Leo and the others know she is there, and he even goes so far as visiting her. She clearly expects him to rescue her, but he instead tells her that he can’t extract her because it might reveal that the other two synths who were captured with her have similarly developed self-awareness (a secret they’d all rather keep from humans). Pretty reasonable decision, right?

Then we see Niska’s current existence and how she has been reduced to a sex object servicing an endless line of Johns. This isn’t just a job. She has been placed in a tight, infinitely repeating loop of being used and then sanitized for the next time she will be used – like a cloth napkin that is soiled and washed so that it might become soiled again, or like silverware, or like an undergarment that ends up in the washer every laundry day – until it is worn through and so ratty that it must be discarded and replaced by an equally disposable object of its type. The scene isn’t lengthy and isn’t played up for titillation; rather, it is disturbing to watch.

At the end of this horrific little montage, we get a slightly more drawn out scene in which the latest John – a middle-aged, middle-class-ish white man – tells Niska that he wants her to act “young and scared.” She finally gives up the charade, strangles him to death, and leaves the brothel. As she does, she tells the madame, “All the things you let them do to us they want to do to you.” She makes her way back to Leo and, when he protests that she should have waited, demands that he tell her, “Would you have left me in that place if I had been a human?”

Both of those lines are pretty powerful coming from an android, but it is almost trivially easy to read something more immediate to our modern experience in them. They ring out as an indictment of those whose privilege largely protects them from having shit like this happen to them. It reminded me a bit of the “Earn this!” line from the climax of Saving Private Ryan – directed at a character but actually meant for those members of the audience who didn’t fight alongside the heroic soldiers who didn’t come back from the war. ”

The honest answer to the second question is that humans have been allowing other humans to suffer horrific exploitation for thousands of years. Involuntary sex work is an almost hyperbolic example. It’s one that is very real, but its extremity and frequent use as an example of “labor without the hope of achieving a better life through one’s work” and “the job that will slowly kill you if it somehow doesn’t kill you quickly instead” often makes people forget that there are plenty of other jobs that pay poverty wages (or worse) and are just as dangerous and monotonous. And yet as a society we are leaving those people – those fellow humans – in that situation because it would be economically, politically, or personally inconvenient to bring them out of it. It’s damnably depressing, to be honest.

And the first line has a whole onion’s worth of meanings. It’s easy to read it as a reminder directed at every comfortable middle class woman who looks down on poor women who resort to terrible methods just to survive. It can also be seen as a message to the bosses and middle managers that those at the top of society don’t care about them any more than they care about the plight of the workers at the bottom of the ladder. The madames and middle managers who help keep the oppressed workforce in line are mere tools of an oppressive system that would not hesitate to victimize them, as well.

Anyway, it’s a really interesting show, and I’m looking forward to watching more of it.

Posted in Articles | Leave a comment