Friday, May 25, 2018

35 Years of Return of the Jedi

I have seen all the Star Wars movies when they were in release at theaters (except for Solo, as of this writing, which will be rectified tonight). I was only 4 years old when Star Wars was in the theater, and when I saw it at the drive-in with my family, I got “impressions” of it, rather than absorbing the whole plot. 

I think I remember more of Star Wars from storybooks and other products than from the movie itself, which I didn’t see again, in total, until it was on HBO, after I had seen The Empire Strikes Back multiple times in theaters.

If I remember correctly, I saw Empire about 11 times in theaters when it was out. Thankfully, I had two older siblings that would often take me to movies, so between family and friends, it was easy to rack up extra viewings.

I loved Empire, and I absorbed a lot more of the plot when I saw it, but Return of the Jedi was the Star Wars movie that I felt I was most fully invested in at the time of release. By the time that movie came out, I had the action figures. I was part of the fan club. I had the posters up all around my room. I had read the Marvel comics on a regular basis. I was actively participating in my fandom, instead of enjoying what my family and friends also enjoyed.

I still remember the complex thoughts that struck me in that movie. Yoda may have talked about the Dark Side and the Light Side and how they operated in Empire, but Return of the Jedi was the first time I started to internalize more complex moral issues. Sometimes, you need to stop the bad guys, but it may not be healthy to HATE the bad guys. Sometimes doing the right thing for the wrong reasons makes the right thing into the wrong thing.

I remember part of my brain screaming out that Luke should be able to be angry at the bad guys, because they were evil. It should be okay to be happy about taking them out, because they needed to be taken out. Why is this Light Side thing so complicated?

Then, that moment hit me.

“I’ve got to save you.”

“You already have.”

Seriously, I’m having a hard time not tearing up as I type those words. My young brain latched onto the redemption arc hard in those moments. I love that moment so much.

Considering that moment, a lot of Return of the Jedi turns into “Redemption Arc, The Movie.” Han isn’t a reluctant member of the Rebellion anymore. Lando risks his life to save a friend that he had previously betrayed. Hell, even the ewoks go from people eating furballs to heroic allies in the same movie.

The point of Jedi, it seemed to me, was that some evil needed to be stopped, and can’t be redeemed (Palpatine, the Death Star), but sometimes you needed to risk yourself to bring someone back to the light. If you don’t, what you fight for doesn’t mean as much as you think it does.

Return of the Jedi isn’t a perfect movie. In a few places, it swings way to the up side of things to counter the down beats from Empire. That said, I still get a little disheartened when people pile on ROTJ as one of “the bad ones” when it comes to Star Wars. It isn’t a perfect movie, but I think in many ways, it’s the perfect resolution to what the original three movies were trying to do. I will always love it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Radioactive Round Pegs in Square Holes--D&D, Inspiration, and Context (Playing Monstrous Player Characters)

This article was originally inspired by the Down with D&D Episode 148, "Monstrous Races Part 1," which was examining the then current Unearthed Arcana article that presented centaurs and minotaurs as playable PC characters in D&D. These rules have since been incorporated into the Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica. In the episode, they ask the question, "why play monstrous races?"

You can find the podcast here:

Like most things, I don’t think you can answer that question easily without some context. 

The assumption here is that “monstrous” means something that isn’t even close to human. Something that is alien in thought and at least significantly different in form. Races that must deal with worrying about hot and cold, eating and drinking, having emotions, and all of that, are more relatable.

Monstrous also carries the connotation that the creature’s perspective may not only be alien to humans, but may be inimical to human society. Maybe they naturally despoil the natural resources of a region, or maybe humans are potential menu items for the creature. Maybe the creature doesn’t intend any malfeasance, but they just injure beings that get too close to them. “Monstrous” implies one step beyond “alien.”

So for our purposes, we're going to look more at "non-traditional" than full-on "monstrous." While there are ways to make a game work when you are playing dragons or aberrant creatures that shouldn't exist, it pulls D&D further from it's established baseline for most groups.

The Trouble with Taurs

A lot of monsters have a deep, specialized history in D&D. D&D elves aren’t Tolkien elves (no, really, they aren’t), they aren’t Melinboneans, they aren’t Poul Anderson elves, and they aren’t the elves from Celtic or Norse stories either. That said, they have a little bit of all those things, to varying degrees, with the dials turned up or down depending on the setting, while still retaining a few commonalities.

D&D is a melting pot of a lot of different folklore and pop culture, and the more important something is to the overall story of D&D, the more it starts to take on a unique D&D flavor.

However, creatures that have only ever been used “on the periphery,” as random encounters or as opponents, don’t always develop those quirks. Even halflings and gnomes, who don’t have the same level of story applied to them as dwarves or elves, still have pantheons with multiple gods, which flesh out aspects of their society.

Halflings may want to be homebodies (Yondalla), but they are fiercely protective of what they love (Arvoreen), and they still value their rogues (Brandobaris), and they don’t see death as an evil thing (Urogalan). Gnomes appreciate practical jokes (Garl Glittergold), love innovation and invention (Nebelun), and are still afraid of the darkest recesses of the places they live (Urdlen).

On the other hand, for minotaurs and centaurs, we get generally implied minotaur and centaur things that you might guess from Greek mythology. Centaurs like nature, and the only D&D deity we have for them (Skerrit) also likes nature. Minotaurs worship Baphomet, the demon lord of being a big evil monster with horns.

Centaurs and minotaurs have been in D&D going back almost to the beginning, but they haven’t really had any D&D-specific hooks, nor have they had many pop-cultural “add-ons” given to them. The most significant recent pop culture reference I can think of for centaurs and minotaurs have been in the Narnia movies, where they . . . hung out in the background and looked cool.

Setting and Context

I love minotaurs. Part of the problem is that I love minotaurs because of the Dragonlance setting. Minotaurs there are noble descendants of ogres that are less brutish than their forebears. They love the sea. They broke away from being enslaved by the dwarves, which means even as an “evil” race, they have a sympathetic history. Because they worship Sargas, even when they are evil, they are honorable.

Not only has the setting had a whole empire ruled by minotaurs in Taladas, but there have been multiple novels detailing the minotaur culture of Ansalon, written by Richard A. Knaack, and if I’m not off base, Knaack was one of the most popular authors beyond Hickman and Weis.

Second edition AD&D tells us that minotaurs come from humans that have been cursed for doing vile things that offend the gods, but they can have children, so not all minotaurs are directly cursed in this manner. But that doesn’t give us much of a culture. Any given minotaur with that backstory could be a newly cursed person, who just recently committed their crime, or a third of fourth generation creature. There isn’t really any context for how existing societies of minotaurs function, or what they do, other than that they tend to worship a demon lord of brutality.

While centaurs have appeared as a PC race in the past, I have a hard time thinking of much D&D specific context given to them. I know Wendle Centaurs in Dragonlance were smaller than other centaurs, but other than having the broad stroke origin of “they got mutated when the Greygem floated by” like a lot of other creatures, I don’t know that centaurs in Krynn have much more grounding in the setting than they do on Oerth or Toril.

Whither Comes Context?

The large tauric creature in the room may be the Midgard Campaign setting. Both Minotaurs and Centaurs have recently been detailed for D&D 5th edition use in the Midgard Heroes Handbook, and have had stats in previous game products for other games supported by Kobold Press.

Centaurs are raiders from the Rothenian Plains, who are often bandits, but sometimes fall into mercenary work. They are survivors, but maybe not any more “in love” with nature than any band of nomadic raiders. Minotaurs have their island nation, and can also be found in the Seven Cities region. They are warriors, military strategists, and sailors. This interpretation files off some of the religious aspects of Krynn minotaurs, dials down the “extreme honor” a little, but keeps the sailing and military strategy.

Because both races are a known “thing” in the setting, beyond a monster that shows up on a random encounter chart, or the boss at the end of a dungeon, it’s easier to conceive of what a PC version of that species might be doing in the campaign. Especially since both have some reason for being mercenaries.

But Think of the Playtest

If the centaur and minotaur races come out as PCs, I trust that WOTC will end up putting in some setting context for them and making them more interesting. The fact that they have done a deep dive into motivations and drives even for monsters that aren’t intended for PC use reassures me of that. The problem is getting people excited for these races for a playtest of mechanics before they have a reason to latch on to them because of the roleplaying hooks involved.

I’m sure there are a few people that will have some mechanical tricks they want to try out just based on stats and traits, but I think the buy in would be stronger with more lore invested in the races--which is a double-edged sword, because why spend time adding more roleplaying hooks when people may not care about them?

The Lure of Monsters--Broadly

We touched on why people might have a hard time playing monsters, but if that’s the end of the story, why does nearly every version of D&D end up with playable “monster” races, to some degree or another?

Some people just like doing something different. Even if the mechanics are different, there are gamers that have played humans, elves, half-orcs, half-elves, elves, gnomes, and halflings so many times that they just want something different.

I think there is some draw to this beyond novelty, however.

I know I have been increasingly drawn to a least a little more complexity in my D&D setting. I’m not going to rehash it, but if you get the time, definitely watch Lindsey Ellis’ video discussing the movie Bright, especially when she gets into Tolkien and allegory.

Sure, undead, fiends, and constructs are all things that can be 100% bad, because they are either unthinking machines of death, or literally supernaturally evil things. But it becomes increasingly hard to think of anything outside of that type of creature as being “born evil” without introducing some uncomfortable ramifications, especially considering some of the ugliest aspects of modern society.

We really should be examining our assumptions, even in a game that is “just” for fun.

Are those orc tribes that much worse than the human barbarians that have been preying on anyone near their territory? If they aren’t worse, isn’t it possible that they are more easily dealt with, and maybe the only reason nobody has is that they just assume that orcs are “savages” that are beyond reason? The orcs may have blood on their hands, but maybe they are trapped in a cycle of violence because the humans, elves, and dwarves around them would never think to trade with them, buy their goods, or treat them as a sovereign people? Isn’t that a more interesting angle to take with an orc that might show up in an adventure?

I think some people resist this idea, because they assume that the entire paradigm of the game would shift. I would posit that if a gang of human berserkers attacks the PCs, everybody rolls initiative, and nobody worries about defending themselves--if the purpose of a monster is to attack the party, they still do that. But isn’t it more interesting if that wasn’t the only purpose orcs, goblins, and other humanoids have?

I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed that the Kingdom of Many Arrows got destroyed in the Drizzt novels, since that was one of the developments in the 4th edition Realms I kind of liked.

If we can get away from assumptions of automatically being good and evil, doesn’t that let us start stepping away from uncomfortable parallels to attitudes in the real world?

A Long History of Being Weird

I don’t know how typical I am. In the very first long-term D&D campaign I ran, I introduced a dark elf fighter/mage who was more of a chaotic neutral “Loki” type character that the PCs had to decide if they could trust. He ended up helping them stop a plague that would have wiped out most of the population of the world so that only the elite that set off the contagion would rule over his select few (I would like to get my credit for using a no-evil drow before The Crystal Shard came out, before anyone points out that I totally stole a Ra’s al Ghul villain plot for the campaign).

The party also adopted a lizardfolk warrior into the group after an adventure, and when he sold his soul to save the group, they raided the Nine Hells to get him back.

So, since about 1986, I’ve been using “monsters” and “bad guys” as potential party members and allies.

While I’ll admit Savage Species went to the extremes with playable races, when I introduced my step-children to Dungeons and Dragons, they played a half-ogre monk and a Lythari (elf werewolf) sorcerer.

I think one of the reasons that Eberron had some of the following that it did was that you couldn’t assume that any humanoid was “born evil,” and the setting introduced some interesting new races with things like Changelings, Warforged, and Shifters. On the other hand, I’ve always been hesitant to introduce those specific races to other settings because they feel like they are part of what makes that setting unique.

A Long Way to Go To Circle Around

I think it’s a lot harder to introduce elements to a setting that is established that haven’t already had a niche created for them. The Realms already had some notable goblins and orcs show up over the years, so playable members of those races weren’t particularly strange. WOTC did a lot of work to introduce Dragonborn, and their nation was one of the 4th edition elements that wasn’t reversed.

On the other hand, I can’t recall Timoth Eyesbright ever mentioning anything of note about centaur culture, even though he was a fixture of the AD&D DC Comic.

Time will tell if connections can be made to D&D lore, but until those connections are made, I think it’s harder to get excited about the concept of a “background character” getting a chance to take center stage.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Confession Time

This blog is about games and geekdom. However, if there is one thing that I think the modern era has taught us, it’s that nothing with any meaning can avoid being touched by the political or the socially relevant.

Because of that, I wanted to clarify some things about myself. I’m not doing this to rally support or to declare sides, but because I don’t want people to have false impressions about me. What drives me may not always be what is on the surface, but it is always there.

The biggest reason that I’m posting this stems from the recent Origins issue, specifically regarding the Guest of Honor invitation, then reciending of that invitation, for Larry Correia.

My Past

I have had a lot of waves when it comes to my political orientation. When I was in grade school, I honest to goodness watched press conferences and State of the Union addresses. When I was in high school, I was told that my American Legion report was the best ones that my teacher had ever read--and that I had to rewrite it because it was way too cynical for a high school contest.

As I grew into adulthood, I would have, for many years, considered myself at least right of center. No matter where I judged myself, I had a tendency to not want to be tied to an actual political party.

I developed a reputation for being a diplomat and a peacemaker when dealing with contentious issues, and as such, I ended up being a moderator on various message boards. Because I considered myself right of center, and because I was a huge fan of his work on Batman, I ended on Chuck Dixon’s website.

This is relevant because Larry Correia posted there, a lot. I never heard of him before I was on the site, but eventually I checked out his books. I tend to like the monster hunting genre, so it was natural that I gravitated towards reading Monster Hunter International. I followed Larry on Facebook, and I saw many of his political comments, many of which were about gun laws.

Sticking To My Guns

Even as some of my other tendencies drifted leftward, growing up in central Illinois, I held on to the idea of that the best interpretation of the second amendment was the most open-ended interpretation. That might be why I tended to see Larry as a “laid back” conservative for a while. His biggest right leaning stance was something that didn’t challenge much of what I was thinking. Hell, he didn’t even seem to be too bent out of shape about same sex marriage, so how bad can he be, right?

Working in a school district has pushed my already left leaning thoughts on guns a bit further. It’s hard to not worry that someday it’s going to be the kids at our schools that go through that hell. That it’s going to be people I have worked with and sat on committees with that are terrified for their lives. But, sure, at the time--guns aren’t so bad, so I guess Larry is okay, right?


I had more or less forgotten about Larry for a while. I wasn’t “right” enough for some of the most prolific posters on Chuck Dixon’s website, so I moved on from moderating. It wasn’t any direct altercation, more like statements that presupposed that I couldn’t exist.

“How could anyone care for the country and think that X is a good idea? That kind of person would be the worst traitor I could think of.”

The more I heard statements like that, the less I felt like I was welcome. I had plenty of ideas that didn’t quite fit in. Had I said up front that I was moving more center in my beliefs, the rhetoric would have been “we don’t hold that against you, we just hold it against a theoretical person that holds the exact same views--you’re one of the good ones.”

So as I drifted from the community, I saw Larry’s posts less. Eventually, the message boards fell apart, and everything migrated to Facebook. I was added to the group, but never became very active there. I had a few people I enjoyed talking to in the community, but it became harder to just connect with them.

I didn’t want anyone to think I was being actively hostile, so I just “unfollowed” the group without leaving it, and “unfollowed” Larry, because I didn’t want random things cluttering up my Facebook page.

Then, I heard about the Sad Puppies thing.

To this day, I’m not quite sure why you go on a crusade to get the work of people doing “good old fashioned two-fisted action stories” recognized by an organization that you have already decided is not about the kind of fiction you write. In the end, I think the contempt shown by this attitude reveals that movement wasn’t really about getting “deserving” writers proper recognition--it was about destroying something. “This isn’t about us, so it should be ridiculed and undermined.”

I have heard people mention that Larry wasn’t the worst actor in this situation. He got the ball rolling, but Vox Day was the one that really made the movement toxic. Sure, Vox Day’s rhetoric was more confrontational and adversarial, but at the end of the day, Larry’s contribution to the whole situation was to say “this group doesn’t respect us--it’s not really going to benefit us all that much to get these awards, but if we can show that we can game the system, that means nobody takes it seriously.”

It was an effort to ruin something expressly because that thing wasn’t designed for your particular group, rather than just saying “this isn’t for us” and calling it a day. It’s not “Live and Let Live,” it’s “you need to be punished for being wrong.”

For the Record

I’m not sure its 100% relevant to everything else, but if you want a wrap up of how I’ve drifted over the years, here’s a quick primer:

     Why the hell would I tell anyone they can’t get married to anyone else?
     Who am I to tell anyone that I know better who they are then they do?
     Why the hell wouldn’t we take a hard look at gun laws in light of all of the shootings?
     Why the hell would I worry about anyone wanting marijuana to be legal?
     Why the hell would we give primacy to a religion that the founders thought gave them permission to own people, but wasn’t important enough for them to enshrine in the actual founding documents?
     How the hell do we think we’re the good guys when we come up with rules for torturing people?
     How the hell do we think we’re the good guys when we murder people with drones?
     How the hell do we think we’re the good guys when we keep refugees from coming into the country?
     How the hell do we think we’re the good guys when we ignore systematic sexism, racism, and exclusion, not just in private organizations, but also in public institutions meant to help everyone?
     How the hell is it not “providing for the general welfare” to admit that a little socialized medicine might actually be the best thing for our country?

I’m sure there is a ton of stuff I’ve missed, and it’s not the most nuanced of ways to elaborate a stance, but that’s a quick snapshot of my political brain. Just so you don’t think I’ve gotten less cynical, I trust about 0% of politicians, still don’t like aligning to a political party, and think we should audit the shit out of every government agency, not because they shouldn’t exist, but because our public officials don’t need “their take.”

How I’m A Screw Up

I never spoke up when I was “in” communities where discussions were happening. I was too worried about being the peacemaker. Even after I saw the Sad Puppies thing developing, I never actually said anything about it. I wanted to stay “above the fray.” I wanted to have my own personal opinions, but not to engage when it might be uncomfortable.

I still fall into this pattern at times. I would much rather help two people talk to one another, than to watch a conflict unfold. I tend to devalue my own opinion on things, because I’m sure others have a better take on just about everything where I have an opinion. I do it less now, but I still fall silent at times that I should not fall silent. That’s bad.

The main reason I point all of this out is because, this is who I am. I’m a more left leaning guy now that still doesn’t always do the right thing, and had a past where I was more right leaning.

To sum up:

     If you don’t like me because I used to be right leaning, I get it
     If you don’t like me because I still have a hard time being the person I want to be, I get it
     If you don’t like me because I’m now more left leaning, I get it

But now you know, and can make an informed decision.