Sunday, May 21, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons, "Setting" part 3

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have only just started playing again with any regularity, but I still have numerous ideas and want to use my blog as a creative outlet.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.

What Have I Got: What a Wonderful World
            Last time I talked about borrowing from history.  That the eras as we think of them today were vast, both in length of time and in how big the area they refer to could be and to adapt them with that in mind.  What you consider the core or best aspects of a historical era might not even register with someone else.
            I also talked about the importance of ambiguity.  When introducing characters, places, and events to your world you want different people in the world to have different assumptions and dispositions toward those elements.  Maybe no one knows exactly what happened or why, only that the fallout from the events was so bad that everyone forgot what started it.
            The idea here is sort of a continuation from those in part one, when I talked about using published campaign settings and borrowing elements from other areas of fiction for adaptation.  All of this is very top down and broad strokes.  So, let’s look at something specific, Religion.
            I should warn you, occasionally this blog reads like the mad ramblings of someone who has tried to condense the topic of religion into less than 2,500 words.  Cause it is that.

Wrath of the Gods: Getting by with the Bare Minimum
            Dungeons and Dragons, in its most common incarnations embraces the idea of a pantheon of gods.  A collection of powerful entities that either created the universe or embody aspects of it.  This is in the same concept as the religious traditions of Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, the Norse, and even Modern Hinduism to an extent.
            In many ways, the game is set up for this sort of thing.  Having a collection of very real and very personal gods that regularly interact with mortals, jockey for position against each other, form alliances and break them with aplomb, all of this is the sort of classic drama that forms… Well, the Classics.
            In many stories of heroism or tragedy in Ancient Greek plays gods would appear, cause trouble or instigate a conflict, watch as it played out picking favorites and twisting circumstances, and often the power of the gods was what ultimately settled many conflicts.  The literary term “Deus ex Machina” means “God from the Machine” and refers to a literal crane used to lower an actor or statue playing the “god” onto stages back in Greece so that the character of Zeus of Athena could use their power and wisdom to resolve the play’s conflict and deliver the moral.  By modern conventions I imagine many of these plays to be kind of shit.

            Much of what we understand about heroic adventures (at least in Western Civilization) comes from stories taken from Greece.  The search for the Golden Fleece, with prominent supporting character of Hercules; the defeat of the Sphinx and subsequent mother sexing by Oedipus, caused by trying to thwart prophecy; and the supreme mother of all heroic epics in the West, the Iliad in which numerous demi-gods, numerous gods, and numerous mortal heroes and heads of state clash because of events set into motion over a beauty contest held by the gods.
            Gods, insane with power and capricious in their dealings with mortals are a big part of how heroic fantasy is conceived of and having a handful of these guys floating around to use as quest givers, reasons for cults, patrons for Paladins and Clerics, or just to have something to write parables about is important for how the world works.
            You can have a world in which no one is a demi-god and no one has ever seen a god face to face (welcome to Earth), but people will still believe in something.  It is human nature.  Better to have this kind of idea spelled out ahead of time instead of just trying to wing it, religious improve can be all over the place and have questionable continuity that can lead to conflict (again, welcome to Earth).

           You’ll need a gaggle of Gods.  That sounds silly, because the term for a large group of gods is “host” not gaggle.  Let’s move forward with these small assumptions, “There is a pantheon,” “The pantheon is all inclusive,” “There is no monotheism or other system of belief that denies the existence of any particular god,” and “Different groups emphasize the worship of different particular gods”.

The Gods Must be Crazy: Using What You Know
            This is where you have a choice to make, much like with using published materials in the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk it is very easy to just pick a real-life Pantheon (I recommend using something that is not currently being worshiped to avoid offending someone who thinks you are making fun of their faith) and going with that.
            It is easy to say GREEK and everyone role with Zeus and Co.  You have plenty of legends you can work from and bend them to your own understanding.  You can do what Hollywood has been doing with them for years via scraping the bottom of the Public Domain barrel.

I am going to link to where I got this image, which is a blog about mythology.
However, this image is taken from the 3rd edition of "Deities and Demigods", a Dungeons and Dragons manual.
           Maybe you want Zeus to be past the horny days of his youth and looking to act more as a wise mentor to the younger gods who are coming into their own.  Maybe Zeus has left Olympus and now a divine civil war might break out between Athena and Poseidon over who is the new head of heaven.  Maybe you want things to be early in the timeline, and you want the Titans to be in charge, in which case you are going to have to explain why humans are not in their pre-Prometheus state of having four arms, four legs, and two faces.
            Maybe a reinterpretation is all the fun a creative exercise you want, but you might run into a player who is a Classics nerd who wants you to stick to the legends and might get cross when you don’t, the same sort of argumentative BS I mentioned as a potential issue with published campaign settings only in miniature.
            In all honesty, this can be plenty of fun and if your campaign world all takes place in an area that is a tight grouping of city states like the Greek Islands were, each with a patron god and all pushing to be king of the hill this will save you a lot of time.  It can also be a lot of fun when taken out of that setting.  Imagine Ancient Greek Gods but during a different era of history, I do not know how the Protestant Reformation would look different with the Greek Pantheon as the point of contention, but just that sentence alone could spawn a series of fantasy/alternate history novels.

Going a Step Further: Making Stuff Up
            If the easiest thing you can do is take a something that already exists and squish it up to your heart’s content so that it feels like your own, please do.  That’s what Rome did with the Greek Gods and people didn’t needle them about it.  But let’s try and do something that is both easier and more difficult, making up your own stuff.
            It is surprisingly easy to make up names for gods, Grisonant, Malpropre, Cul, Putain, and Autres.  You can just put a word into a translator and pick French to kick out some “names” that will have a vague context but be exotic enough to sound like… something.
            I would recommend having at least 5 gods, especially if you are going to be using the Alignment axis for morality in the world.  A god for each of the corners and the center square will allow any Cleric in Third edition to play any alignment and have clear guidance as to who they want to follow.  Here are five Greyhawk gods to serve as examples: Heironeous-LG, Kord-CG, Hextor-LE, Lolth-CE, and Boccob-N.
            You can then differentiate locations and nations by the names they use for the gods, sure Heironeous is called that in your campaign’s Paris-espy, but in London-espy they refer to Heironeous as Uther, and in Amsterdam-espy they call him Vangaret, and in Spain-espy he is Cid.  Whatever your starting point, no matter how few gods there are, people will still go to war about what the “right” name is, the proper headgear to be worn during services, or whether the Sabbath in on Saturday or Sunday.
            It is easy to create tension between the gods; it is perhaps even easier to create conflict within individual churches or fine details.
Honestly, you could create an entire pantheon based off of the Warcraft art you find by googling random fantasy names.
            Much like covering the basics of the alignment chart there is also the issue of covering lots of different things in the world.  God of Mountains, God of Time, God of Doors, God of Poetry, God of Fishermen, God of Fire, God of War, God of guys named Terry.  You can make as many gods as you want, but with fewer gods it might be best to make big ideas the baseline.
            Mother Nature could be a god of seasons, wild animals, trees, and fertility.  Dagon, god of the oceans, storms, secrets, and omens.  Moloch, god of war, fire, metalwork, and passion.  Discord, god of madness, humor, entropy, and dreams.  Cronus, god of time and space.  Think of all the things covered with just those 5 names.  Did anything feel left out?  Did anything feel incongruous?  Did anything feel unnecessary?  Are you offended that I listed Discord as a patron of dreams instead of Princess Luna?
"Oooh, Dream Weaver, I believe you can get me thru the night!"

            Gods are allowed to seem strange, they are gods.  They are big and powerful and jealous of everything.  They snap up being gods of anything and everything because they want power.  You might have a god of trickery, who is also the god of mice, odd numbers, clowns, and other useless shit.
            Those stupid little bends can be a lot of fun and add a lot of funny little chuckles at the game table, for instance: In a post-apocalyptic world, there is a shrine to a god of the woodlands, his symbol and form are of an unassuming mythical creature, they were called “squirrels” … or maybe it is “ducks” which is the word for a reptile with a shell on its back?  Not that it matters, they are all gone now.
The god of the "squirrels" or possible "ducks".

One Step Forward and One Step to the Side
            Rather than make a whole new pantheon whole cloth let’s instead do a combination of both borrowing and building.  There are numerous cultural figures that people see in Americana, we see them as symbols or totems in displays of strength and wisdom, but if we were to find these statues in the ruins of an ancient civilization we would label them gods without question.  Let me throw out some.
            Let’s take a quick moment to say, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Teddy Roosevelt have their faces carved into a mountain.  A mountain that was considered a holy place centuries before the US ever existed.  They’re deified to a comical extent, let’s move past that though, because that might cause some uncomfortable reflecting on the absurd levels American Exceptionalism operates on.  So, let’s exclude real people.
People make jokes that there is no more room on Mount Rushmore.
I always took that statement too literally and replied with, "Yes, there is, it is a huge god damn mountain".
            Lady Liberty is the largest statue in the world.  She is not a real person, but never the less has a decree written in giant letters and carries a symbol of what she is and does.  She is a God.
            Justice, a blind woman waving around a sword in a courthouse is not a real person, but (and here is a fun thing) aside from being a woman and representing Justice, she is totally different than the Greek gods of Themis and Dike whom she was originally based.  For instance, American Justice is only blind because she was drawn that way to mock how ineffective the Justice system is, and somehow that was taken as part of the package and sold as a positive!?
            Though I suppose Justice’ blindness could be a direct subversion as the Ancient Greeks had the belief that beautiful people were chosen by the gods and thus “proved” their moral superiority by stripping in court, so they would sometimes have the equivalents of judges and juries look away to keep their objectivity.

            Uncle Sam is a combination of multiple figures in Americana, mostly Lincoln obviously, but he is effectively a god, especially when he is explored in DC comics as having magical powers tied to idealized notions of America, like living in a mythical extradimensional place called “the Heartland”.
            How about the Eagle we see everywhere?  With a shield, an olive branch, and a claw full of arrows?  Nobody want to call that a symbol of divinity?
            Let’s move beyond the positive ones, how about Slender Man?  An otherworldly terror that hunts children in the night and has no face but many hands?  Sounds like something from mythology.
            Then there are figures like the Man in the Moon, Santa Claus, or the Grim Reaper.  All of these things have domains over the night, generosity and good cheer, or freaking DEATH.  How about Lady Luck?  Or Bigfoot?  His symbol of course being a plaster cast of a really big footprint.

            The question of, “What strange fictional characters keep showing up in our culture that could be reverse engineered into a mythology?”  You know, like how Abraham Lincoln fought vampires, freed the slaves, and then died for our sins; that is why they rebuilt a wonder of the world with Lincoln in the place of Zeus.
Seriously, this is meant to evoke the Statue of Zeus, one of the original 7 Wonders of the World.

The Future: I have to write a more dedicated series on this
            I have plenty of ideas of how to outline and develop more substantive religious material in a fantasy setting, I will write about that down the line in what will perhaps be far too long a series of blogs.  If this entry has been a little lacking on the nuts and bolts that is by design, this is more about ruminating on the basics of drawing inspiration and seeing how you could borrow and adapt existing stuff or make subtle permutations to ideas you have.

The Beg for Attention:
            This is an incredibly shallow look at the topic of religion, this is done deliberately.  Religion as it is depicted in fantasy gaming could be several blog entries all its own (I have already started kicking around a better plotted series of entries for just that purpose).  As someone who owns a copy of “God’s Breath” and has had my entire adult life affected by people’s incredibly poor grasp of religion, I prefer to keep it shallow.
            Real life religion is a lightning rod for misinterpretation and crazy.  To me, it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you follow some variation of the Golden Rule, and it is important to know, that no matter how black and misery inducing any act of heresy is derided for being, some asshole is going to go whole hog into the practice of worshiping it.
            Real life religion is complex, deep, arcane, and keeping this topic light is key to enjoying it in the context of a game.  Keep it light and have fun.

First Impressions 5th Edition
            Since we are talking about religion I thought I would point to a monster that is all about starting strange cults to gods that do not exist and somehow still getting super powers from doing so, the Kuo Toa.  Why did I want to focus on them and not something more substantive like demons?  Because this picture of the default Kuo Toa is adorable.
"Welcome to weekend cult services.  Can I interest you in a Sprite?  It is my favorite soda."

            Because of the necklace and face things I keep thinking he is giving me some thumbs up.  To see if I was alone in this common mistake I did another facebook poll of a RPG group I belong to and see if anyone else shares my illusion about this Fish Man being so encouraging.  Apparently, they can at least see where I am coming from.


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Friday, May 19, 2017

"Losing the Cold Peace" a Movie Idea

            “I have an idea for a political intrigue movie,” I said.  Maybe it will just be a series, or a book.  Maybe it is too long for just one movie.”
            “Let me hear your pitch.”
            “Okay,” I said.  “But this might seem a little unbelievable.”
            “I’ll keep an open mind.”

            “It starts with a sitting President at a banquet making fun of a prominent businessman who has been critical of him in the press.  And you can see the fuming of the businessman as he listens to the jokes but you can just tell he has the biggest inferiority complex in the world and wants to get back at being made to feel foolish by someone he has been so critical of.  So, he decides to run for President.”
            “Okay, sounds like a good premise.  So, is he a Gordon Gekko type?  Real sleazy?”
            “No, I thought the character would be more like a modern Caligula,” I said.  “Garish, loud, and kind of dumb.  He inherited all his money and has nearly run his business into the ground more than once, hence his inferiority complex.  He just keeps acting like he is the big man on campus and thinks that is all he needs.”
            “Is this a comedy?”
            “Thriller,” I said.
            “Okay.  How is a rich insecure doofus running for President a thriller?”
            “That is the twist,” I said.  “He has the name recognition as a businessman, and he does have the money, but he’s an idiot, so what happens is he is made the patsy of a conspiracy that has been under the surface for a long time.”
            “That is clever.  Illuminati?  Lizardmen?  Drug Cartels?  I threw the lizard men in there because sci-fi is big right now.”

            “I figure we just go with a classic Tom Clancy set up,” I said.  “The Russians might have been done to death back in the Cold War, but I think they are due for a comeback.  So, we have this older retired spymaster running the Russian government and he has retooled the whole operation as a propaganda machine.  He wants to break up all of the big alliances that have flourished since the end of the Cold War, like the EU and NATO by making all of the countries that make up those alliances super narcissistic.”
            “Ha!  And he backs the big business narcissist who is running for President.  I thought you said this wasn’t a comedy?  I can see it now; we can make the businessman transparently evil.  Racist, sexist, generally creepy, we could even give him a mail order bride from Russia that is actually a spy contact.”
            “You know it is starting to sound like a black comedy the more I talk about it,” I said.  “Let me start to unroll more of the plot.”
            “Yeah, sure, I am liking it.”

            “So, the Russian spy master starts cranking out fake news story after fake news story to make the sitting President look bad and to make the other candidate look bad,” I said.  “Meanwhile, the Businessman is transparently evil and he is so clumsy setting up contacts with the Russian spymaster he just starts loading his whole Presidential campaign with spies and traitors, and they are the last sort of people you might expect.  One is an ex-general who always looks like he just ate a bug, another is the dopey looking southern attorney who has been working in the Federal government for years.  Honestly, now we have to make this a comedy.”
            “Oh, yeah, this has comedy written all over it.”
            “So we just surround the ego maniac businessman with a growing collection of goofy spy characters who are running on a platform of racism and sexism and it looks like they are going to lose,” I said.  “The Russian spymaster is flipping his lid, turns out the President knows that something is up with the campaign, but Congress and the Senate are so mad at the President that they will call him a liar if he tries to expose the conspiracy.”
            “Because they are thinking that the racist Russian puppet is going to lose anyway, why lose senate and house seats by pointing out him being a spy?”
            “Exactly,” I said.  “They are short sighted and then the unthinkable happens.  Whoops!”
            “Turns out the voters are more racist than everyone thought?”
            “Yeah,” I said.  “But I wanted it to be an Electoral College thing.  He should win because of a bad system set up by slave holders and tax dodgers.  I think it is symbolically important.”
            “So now the President is a Russian Spy?”

            “I think it is a cool idea,” I said.  “I think the next part will be what I call ‘The Scramble’.  The Congress and Senate know President Business is a security risk and they will have to handle the situation before Russia takes over the world, but…”
            “But, they still want to push thru a lot of their legislature before they have to kick him out.  Whichever party you pick for those guys is going to hate you.  They would not like to be known as the party that put their bullshit ahead of national security.”
            “Yeah, but I can take the heat,” I said.  “What I am more interested in is how fast and furious I want things to tick down.  Maybe show the media going out of its head.  One minute just hoping President Business will stop being a loon, the next thinking maybe he’s turning a new leaf, and then slowly realizing that he really is as terrible as they seem to think he is because he just won’t shut up about every stupid thing he does and he can’t figure out why everyone is mad at him.”
            “We should have his inauguration be humiliating.  No bands want to play, nobody shows up to be in the audience, but he just keeps bragging about it being the best thing ever.  He could get super paranoid and petty about it and print up his own fliers about how big the cheering crowd was, or how many counties voted for him.”

            “That might take it too far,” I said.
            “Maybe.  This is just spitballing ideas.  It is hard to create a convincingly stupid and egotistical person.”
            “I think the conspiracy has to start to come apart faster than anyone anticipated,” I said.  “He’ll leak something important, one or more of the goofy spy characters in his cabinet will screw up, or maybe he will just let something slip.  Either way he will be considered all at once incompetent, lazy, and dangerous.”
            “Then what?  He gets impeached?”
            “I think I want to have it be kind of more bleak,” I said.
            “The ending is what made you think this couldn’t be a comedy?”
            “Yeah,” I said.  “I think what will happen is he will feel the noose closing and he will start up a diplomatic travel tour around Europe.  And then on one of the stops he walks out to play golf, a helicopter lands and he flies away, inside his gold bag is a dozen hard drives full of state secrets and computerized hacking tools he will give to the Russians.”
            “Yeah, that is bleak.”

            “I wonder if I want the ending that gives him his just deserts though,” I said.  “Have the twist be that the hard drives are full of junk, that civil servants knew he was a spy and have been snowballing him for weeks, and when President Business meets with the Russian spymaster he gets throw in a gulag.”
            “It is a strange show when the happy ending has a gulag.”
            “Leaves it open for a sequel though,” I said.  “There is still all of the Congress and Senate people who let this happen.  There are still the idiot voters who have too much power because of the Electoral College.  And there is of course the Vice President, soon to be President who, TWIST, is a super competent Russian Spy.”
            “And now that President Business Moron is gone he can really hunker down and start ruining things?”
            “Sequels,” I said.  “What do you think?”
            “It is funny.  But I am worried that it is a little to unbelievable.  And kind of mean spirited, you are basically saying that millions of people would vote for an unrepentant asshole and jeopardize the whole world in doing so because of their bigotry.  Actually, when I say it out loud it sounds a lot less hard to believe.  What is the working title?”
            “Losing the Cold Peace,” I said.

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

Monday, May 15, 2017

"She Walks in Beauty" by Lord Byron

     It has been a while since I posted a poem by an author I like and I have recently discovered(?) Lord Byron from the romantic period.  This is literally the first poem that shows up when you google for him, and I like it.

"She Walks in Beauty" by Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night 
Of cloudless climes and starry skies; 
And all that’s best of dark and bright 
Meet in her aspect and her eyes; 
Thus mellowed to that tender light 
Which heaven to gaudy day denies. 

One shade the more, one ray the less, 
Had half impaired the nameless grace 
Which waves in every raven tress, 
Or softly lightens o’er her face; 
Where thoughts serenely sweet express, 
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place. 

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow, 
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent, 
The smiles that win, the tints that glow, 
But tell of days in goodness spent, 
A mind at peace with all below, 
A heart whose love is innocent!

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons, "Setting" part 2

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have only just started playing again with any regularity, but I still have numerous ideas and want to use my blog as a creative outlet.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.

What Have I Got: What a Wonderful World
            I took last weekend off because my brain felt like it was melting from several flavors of stress unrelated to Dungeons and Dragons.  That being said, I want to continue with this series about building a setting for your game.  You know, beyond a single fictional country or having strange iterations of monsters.
            Last time I talked a about some of the advantages and disadvantages of using a published campaign setting like the Forgotten Realms and my own resistance to doing so.  After that I gave an introduction on how to borrow elements from one fantasy setting and why grafting them into a more familiar setting can be creative, but that there is a pitfall to doing so, adding a new element to a world means figuring out how they fit in that world and answering the questions such a mix and match process can produce is where real creativity can be found.
            This week I want to talk about borrowing from history, which as we all know to be stranger than fiction (it’s really not, history is 99.9999…% entirely typical people just have a poor sense of evaluating importance and recognizing strange coincidences when they happen).  And the first thing you should learn when looking at history is the concept of ambiguity.

Borrowing from History: Whose History?
            I have to start by saying that numerous things mentioned here might mean different things to different people.  For instance, whether someone likes a particular setting because of the books they read, the art, the miniatures, or just that it is the only one they know anything about can lead to them having preconceived notions based on the “canon” they hold dear.

            "There is more to 'fiction' than what people have made up," I said.  "And there is more to 'reality' than what happened."
            "That makes no sense," said the sensible person in reply.
            "Stay with me here."

            There is an objective reality.  What happened, to who, when, why, and how.  However, we can only interpret these things thru our senses.  I am only mortal, you are only mortal, and the guys who wrote the historical accounts were mortal, and now most of them are just dead.  History is (more than a little) a narrative about “What Happened” rather than What Happened.
            Okay, so why is this important?
            Fiction often draws on history or interprets it in new contexts.  Famines, plagues, wars, and other historical calamities and minutia gain new weight and context as additional perspectives are uncovered.  Think of how mythologized Egypt was prior to the Rosetta Stone’s discovery.  Imagine if the Rosetta Stone had never been discovered, that aside from the great monuments and seemingly endless murals the knowledge of how Egyptian society would have to be gleaned without the help of all the text they left behind.

This is a rather important object.
If you want to read a little more about fantasy languages here is one of my blogs about the topic.
            Imagine trying to understand the collapse of long dead empires only knowing about them via books.  Vainglorious auto-fellatio texts about how they are glorious and indestructible… And literally nothing about how their piping was made with a metal that brain damaged their leadership into catastrophe.
            Conversely, look at records we have of lost civilizations that only exist as the villains in the history of the winnersHerod’s slaughter of the innocents is referenced nowhere outside the Bible and Rome didn’t feed Christians to lions.  No one knows who the “Sea Peoples” were.  Imagine how many countless tribes were wiped out and their language and history lost forever because someone else decided to make them stop existing.  Want to know why Confucius is such an important philosopher in China?  It’s because his texts were the only ones to escape the intellectual purging that happened after China’s unification.

He was kind of a bastard.
            Something closer to home, there is at least one well known western mythology that only exists now as collections by an anthropologist long after the people who believed the myths had converted to Christianity and the stories were in danger of being lost forever.  The anthropologist, a monk named Snorri Sturluson (shockingly, even with that name, he was not a Muppet) only gathered the stories because he saw them as markers for colloquial phrases and fairy tales.  This was all of Norse Mythology; it was almost lost but for the linguistic curiosity of one guy.

History as Ambiguity: “We were good and they were wicked, so we had to carry out genocide”
            What I am trying to say is that History is a mutating institution that hears many different versions of a story, “We were the plucky underdogs… Ignore the fact that we had slaves and the empire we were rebelling against didn’t”.  People assign different weights to events and how the things that lead up to those events mattered.
            This emphasis is based on personal criteria and often ignore the voices of the people who lived in that time, or those writing the narrative have no records they can use to verify their findings, they can only guess.
When it comes to the Indus Valley Civilization, we don't even know what they called themselves.
They probably had lots of names spoken in a language that hasn't been heard for thousands of years.

            History is a glorious source of inspiration for your writing and world building.  Popular fantasy stories do this all the time and it is not even that hard to see the influences.  A STRONG SUGGESTION, when looking at history as a resource for inspiration keep as much of the ambiguity as you comfortably can.  When characters (or players) don’t know whether they are making the “right” choice, and you don’t know either, that is intriguing, challenging, even educational.
            Sure, the king might be a nice guy, but he is merciless to opposition.
            Sure, the Rebellion wants more democracy in government, but only from the “right kind” of people.
            Sure, the pirates are stealing the government’s silver, but they are stealing from a government that mined the silver with slaves.  What’s more, the pirates aren’t giving that money to charity.
            Is the church righteous?  Or are they controlling?  Is the Prince Charming?  Or Na├»ve?  Is the peasantry suffering?  Or are they safe?  Why not ALL OF THESE?  Why not NONE OF THESE?

I Realize This is Getting Really Speculative: Here is Some More of That
            What does a Dungeons and Dragons setting based on certain eras of history mean to you? 
            What does the European Renaissance mean to you?  Does it mean that the political power is merchant princes like the Borgias trying to take control of the Catholic Church to extend political control from the City state where all their wealth sits?  Does it mean a return of the "enlightened" past of Ancient Greece and Rome, with a romanticism of some bygone era via the translation of old texts and the advent of the printing press causing a cultural revolution?

To many this image might be the perfect encapsulation of everything they want to know about the Renaissance.

            Is it the Inquisition in Spain, doling out pain and suffering under the guise of piety?  Is it Columbus going to the West Indies, hitting by blind luck a previously unknown source of slaves and later silver?  Is it fighting off the Ottoman invasion of Austria, which includes such figures as John III Sobieski, who was called the Savior of Christendom and the Lion of Lechistan, who is one of those guys in history that does not get enough attention?  The Portuguese taking over trading hubs in the Indian Ocean via gunboat diplomacy before gunboats were really a thing?
            History, especially something as vaguely defined in a temporal sense as the Renaissance of Europe is a massive number of events that could evoke so many different things.  Let’s try another, but be even more broad.

            Ancient Egypt I would argue is the most iconic thing in the world because (if for no other reason) their monuments have stood the test of time.  When building a setting here what do you emphasize?  I am certain if you tell your players that you took inspiration from Ancient Egypt they are going to wonder where the Pyramids are, who the Pharaoh is, and is there a playable race of people with jackal heads.  Be prepared to answer these, and be prepared with some twists on what they expect.
            What does the ruler ship of the God-King Pharaoh look like?  This is going to be the first thing I would think to answer, and I don’t mean “is it covered in gold” because of course it is covered in gold.  What I mean to point to is this, “Is the Pharaoh good at his job?”  Not necessarily a good person, just whether he is good at being Pharaoh.  Because in real life, a lot of inbred and suboptimum rulers held that position.  It was a problem, and if you want the campaign to have an element of, “Maybe we shouldn’t be listening to the inbred man-child who wants to destroy the world”.

FYI: King Tut had some issues related to his un-forking family tree.
Also, he was probably murdered (I am guessing because they needed a fresh king).
            How about something people do not often talk about?  Let’s focus on the culture clash of exploring the Mediterranean and the Nile?  The Nile was such a reliable source of clean water and rich soil, and such a potent means of carrying lots of cargo thru the kingdom that it was the CORE of the Egyptian culture.  But, Egypt was not the only people to use the river, it goes deep into Africa and searching for the source of the River was the basis of real life mad explorers who died of all kinds of horrible diseases and wild animals.  There were tribes of people who looked and acted very different from the Egyptians, and all of this ignores the other developed civilizations of Greek City States, Assyrians, Persians, and all the other middle Eastern and Northern African peoples who dealt with the Egyptian culture.
            Is it just about the Gods?  Beyond that, how true to myths are we going to get?  There were (as a result of having contact with so many people and existing for thousands of years) more than 160 gods and permutations of those gods in Egyptian culture, to say nothing of the religions that creeped in from other countries.  Imagine having a cleric of Zeus going on adventures in Egypt, or Someone who worships the animal totems of sub-Saharan Africa.  How religion affects your setting might not just be important for the player who wants to be a cleric, but is also important for religious wars, cults, intrigues, and what kind of treasure and artifacts people will find.

            Is it about mysterious evil creeping in from the desert?  There is no discussion about Egypt without discussion of the Sahara Desert.  A vast, lifeless stretch of sand that is the world’s largest desert.  Adventures in a desert setting are hugely fun to me.  Unlike underwater adventures they introduce environmental concerns but do not introduce too many additional rules (3D combat underwater is exhausting), and the idea of just wandering off into the scorching nothing and finding what remains of a windswept temple full of wealth seems like the perfect iconography for Dungeons and Dragons.
            Keep in Mind, what we think of as Ancient Egypt is so long a period of time that Cleopatra, the most iconic ruler in the history of Egypt lived closer to the Moon Landing than the creation of the Great Pyramid.  The scope of their culture is diverse, strange, and at the same time you can still see what remains of it because they seemed to have a philosophy of, “Build it to Last”.

The Beg for Attention: Next Time
            Last time I focused on taking from well-known fiction.  This week was about taking from history.  Next time I will look at mythology, which I have mentioned but it definitely requires its own entry (let’s be clear, religion in Dungeons and Dragons could be a series of its own, but I will focus on the basics and then come back to it down the line).
            Also, check out some of my book reviews.  "Starship Troopers", "NPCs", and "Out of the Silent Planet".

Random Survey from Facebook

            I belong to a Facebook group that is all about Geekery and has the umbrella of Dungeons and Dragons, I posed a pole to the group concerning this cool bit of real life jewelry and asked them what such an item would do in the context of a fantasy world.  Here are some of the results.

First Impressions 5th Edition
            I GG’d my first 5th edition game yesterday and it went off really well.  I am still learning the rules and unlearning terms like, “make a will save” but overall my ability to tell a story in the game seems to be holding true even after more than a year without doing anything.  I decided to go with the basic story of, “liberate a monastery from cult and undead” (this is a Franciscan/Gregorian chanting monks, not kung fu monks).
            I like the art for the undead.  The one that took the cake for these initial encounters has to be Shadows.

            3rd edition (and I dislike to speak ill of an artist’s work) had a lacking bit of art.

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Audible Review, "NPC's"

            I am unquestionably the target demographic for Drew Hayes' book, “NPC’s”.  I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years and have played with dozens of people, even trying to teach people about the game and meeting with lots of success.  I have even been writing a near weekly blog about DnD on here for a couple months, go ahead and look at some of those if you are so inclined.
            Needless to say, I feel that having some experience playing DnD or similar games is sort of a requirement to get into the book.  I do wonder how someone without experience in gaming but having read lots of conventional fantasy would enjoy it.  Anyway, Let me smash cut to the review.
The term N.P.C. stands for "Non-Player Character".
That is to say any character not controlled by a player, be they shopkeeper, villain, or random monster.

The Plot Goes Like This
            A group of adventurers die due to poor game decisions and several characters in the world of the game (the titular NPC's) have to do their best to complete the PC's mission so as to save their town from ruin. The first chapter feels a lot sillier than the rest of the book, and once you are past it (as it feels mildly contrived) the rest of the book has great action, strong dialogue, and potent characterization (which is the theme).

Would you listen to NPCs again? Why?
            Probably not in the foreseeable future, as it has sequels and the author has other series that I can dip into. I have already recommended it to others though.

What other book might you compare NPCs to and why?
            "Off to be the Wizard" which has either much more or far less meta commentary as this book about the nature of fantasy books, gaming, and the nerdy culture that surrounds each.  I have recently started “Redshirts” by John Scalzi and it also leans into the winds of meta-humor so I am guessing it too will be seen as blood in the same vein.

Have you listened to any of Roger Wayne’s other performances before? How does this one compare?
            I haven't heard any of the voice actor's performances before but judging him against the numerous performances I have heard on Audible, Roger is obviously talented.  He gave distinct voices to each of the main characters and read with the speed and energy necessary to keep the action lively and the humor punchy.

Any additional comments?
            I actually bought and finished the second book in the series before writing this review and plan to listen to other titles/series by the author.
            If I do have any complaint it is that the first few chapters do feel contrived. There is a sort of hump that you get past in the story, I would say the first attack by demons is when the story becomes breezy.  This makes sense, as most fantasy stories tend to be a little slow to get going, this is to acclimate the readers to the world and rules of the story.  As the narrative progresses the encounters escalate in danger and intensity so that you never feel like you are getting too much at once but feel like progress is being made.

            This is a perfect story for anyone who plays Dungeons and Dragons or other tabletop games.  EVERYONE has had a game with the bad/jerk/asshole type players present in this game... Or have been one (myself included).

This is the second book in the series.
I have already listened to it and liked it more than the first.
            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Audible Review, "Starship Troopers"

"One of the Worst Performances"

Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?
            No, and I almost shut it off forever at numerous points. Whenever I am left thinking, "Well, I already bought it, might as well finish it," it is not a good sign.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Starship Troopers?
            There are several discussions in the book concerning political science. While several do a good job at illuminating their points the one that stood out to me was the one about "value" which misused macroeconomic terms for a microeconomic discussion. It was so flatly wrong that it was distracting.  It is sad when the most standout part of a book is the thing that makes me realize it is a lot dumber than it thinks it is.

Would you be willing to try another one of Lloyd James’s performances?
            GODS, NO! HE WAS THE ABSOLUTE WORST! How do you make combat with giant alien bugs via power armor boring? He has the habit of pausing. After. Every. Sentence. Often for up to a full second, which doesn't sound like a lot but good lord does it make the whole thing sound even slower and more boring. His reading is the most detached, dry, plodding performance I have ever heard. He should be embarrassed.
            You might be saying, "just turn up the speed" I did, it just makes his pitch annoyingly high and the pauses are still there and are still long proportionate to the now sped up sentences. AWFUL WORK!

Do you think Starship Troopers needs a follow-up book? Why or why not?
            There have been follow up works, just not by this author. "Starship Troopers" practically spawned the genre of Space Military. With discussions of applied technology, tactics, and the morality of fighting a war of genocide against thinking creatures who are so alien that the idea of seeing them as worthy of moral consideration is difficult if not impossible.
            I have already talked about “The Forever War” which is a much bleaker and more cynical look at the exact same subject matter.  “Troopers” leans much more on a dry philosophical discussion of social science (which it laughably miss-labels as a hard science) while “Forever” leans more on talking about the technology that makes the universe go around.  The evolving social order of “Forever” is far dumber and more obnoxious than the distant (proto-fascist) civilian world of “Troopers”.
Which is still more democratic than the most nerd popular Space Marine franchise.

Any additional comments?
            In addition to the reader being absolute fail, the recording itself had dozens of errors, as sentences scattered thru the book drop in audio clarity, volume, and are done but what may be a different actor. This is shoddy work. If not for this book's status as a modern classic I could not imagine it receiving a rating as high as it has.  Which leads me to a final point, the fanboys.
            I don’t think it is any secret that there are far too many insipid dipshits who find something they like and will hear no words of criticism against it and shower it with praise regardless of failings, but “Starship Troopers” seems to have rung the bell calling home the hoard of stupid.  This thing has a stupid level of 5 star ratings on Audible in spite of the performers lacking abilities being listed by many of them.  I HAVE NO IDEA WHY.
            I also cannot figure out why people feel the need to bad mouth the movie as a means to stroke the book.  HEY IDIOTS, if someone came to read/listen to the book because they found the movie engaging then maybe don’t try to shove them off.
            Either they will read/listen to it and enjoy the deeper exploration of the concepts at the sacrifice of action, OR they will find the book boring and preachy (like I did) and go back to enjoying the movie with greater perspective on both having been gained.

            YOU ARE NOT HELPING them to learn anything by calling them dumb for liking the movie, and you are not helping to sell the book or the ideas you hold in high esteem by shoving back the people who want to purchase and enjoy the book.  STOP BEING SNOBBY DIP SHITS.  It is the job of anyone who enjoys a thing (or part of being an adult) is to be an ambassador for the things you like, and part of being an ambassador is knowing that different people like different things.  STOP BEING A SNOBBY DIP SHIT.  Let people like what they like and then go on liking what you like.  Grown up.

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.