Grace and Mercy, Justice and Accountability

For the past few weeks, I’ve both wanted to make a theological statement about the current state of the U.S. and to absolutely avoid doing that. Well, I’ve decided to go with the former approach.

As with many subjects, I’ve a lot of thoughts on a cluster of related topics, so I’ll try to to organize the thoughts in a reasonable manner.

I first want to say a few things about the role of religion—and Christianity in particular—in American politics. Unfortunately, in taking a firm stand on this topic, I fully expect that some folks will take my words as inflammatory: such is the cost of conviction, I suppose. I can only hope that the full breadth of my statements will demonstrate well-considered positions intended to make reasonable arguments about (what I believe to be) objective truth. You’ll be the judge.

The U.S. as a “Christian Nation”
First, let’s address the assertion often made by conservatives that the U.S. was “founded on Christian principles” (and thus should be run now under a—very particular—view of Christianity). This statement is, at best, a half-truth. Many of the founding fathers would not have considered themselves Christians. Our country (as an independent nation with our current form of government) was formed during the Enlightenment, when hostility to organized religion could be openly demonstrated—see Voltaire and the reactionary, anti-religious elements of the French Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson believed in Jesus as a moral teacher, but not a supernatural person. Even without resorting to C.S. Lewis’s argument that you must see Jesus as liar, madman or God, with no room in between, it’s clear that Jefferson doesn’t hold the core belief of being a Christian. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin likely would have considered himself a deist rather than a Christian, believing in the existence of a God (probably in the sense of the distant “Clockmaker God”) but not in the dogma, doctrine, theology or “mythology” of the Christian faith. These men, as some of the best-known fathers of the nation, are emblematic of the diversity of religious thought—and the acceptance of such diversity—among the framers of the constitution. Yes, the diversity was ultimately limited to Western thought, ignoring for the most part Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and Confucianism and only incorporating Judaism viewed through the lens of Christianity.

We must also remember that the history of the Americas prior to the founding of the U.S. is one of a search for religious freedom on the one hand and religious conflict on the other. I’ve written a number of articles on piracy, particularly in the context of gaming, but the history of piracy is instructive here as well. Bear in mind that the time when Columbus discovered the Americas was the same time that the (newly combined) Spanish crown concluded the Reconquista and expelled the Jews from Spain. There is evidence that Jews of affluence had a hand in securing the funding of Columbus’s initial expedition to find a safe place for them to live as they relocated. Others fled to the Ottoman Empire, which was generally more tolerant of them. In the following century, the development of Protestant sects of Christianity in the German principalities and in England led to fierce, violent, and prolonged conflict over the “One True Faith”—see the Spanish Armada, the attack on Cadiz, the German Peasant’s Revolt, the Thirty Years’ War, the English Civil Wars, the Spanish occupation of the Low Countries, etc. This conflict links directly with the history of piracy—in the Mediterranean, some Jews turned to privateering in service to the Ottomans to exact vengeance on European countries that had persecuted them, while in the Caribbean, the Protestant or Jewish faiths of many privateers and pirates helped justify (to them at least) their aggressions and assaults on the assets of Catholic Spain. Francis Drake’s famous expedition is emblematic of this, but consider also that many famous privateers and pirates who followed were English or Dutch protestants or French Huguenots who saw themselves as paramilitary actors in the same conflicts that were rocking Europe.

On the North American mainland, many of the early settlers were looking for a place to freely practice their faith (usually a form of Christianity, but divergent from other forms holding more political power)—the Puritans of Plymouth and Salem were too prude or fundamentalist for mainstream Anglicanism and Rhode Island was formed by those outcast for religious divergence from other settlements.

The establishment of my own Methodism as separate from the Church of England also demonstrates that religion and politics were a messy dialectic, not the influence of a monolithic Christianity on the development of new political systems. John Wesley considered himself a reformer within the Church of England, not a rebel seeking to establish a separate denomination, but, when the English government began to require clergy to swear oaths of fealty to the English Crown during the American Revolution, those Methodist preachers who refused to swear such oaths were left with few other choices.

Further, the ecclesiastic structure of the United Methodist Church follows the three-branch system of American secular government; an instance of politics influencing religion (something that has become common nowadays not in polity but in theology) rather than religion influencing politics.

If anything, the recent past had demonstrated to the founding fathers of religion and politics being too closely bound together, not the value of creating a Christian nation when so many had died fighting over what Christianity was supposed to be.

Had the intention been to establish a monolithic Christian republic, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would look very different.

Deus Vult
“Deus Vult” is Latin for “God Wills It.” It was a battle cry of the Crusades and has occasionally reared its ugly head in human history ever since.

I have a relatively easy time making the argument that Jesus had nothing to do with the Crusades. Consider the following:

(1) Jesus did not bother with a physical overthrow of the Romans. Why, a millennium later, would he sponsor European outsiders undertaking an equally bloody endeavor to take the Holy Land from Muslims? There is a sweeping argument from the Old Testament to the New moving away from the pagan belief that God is geographically bound–see especially the tearing of the veil in the Temple upon Jesus’ execution. I understand fully the power and inspiration that comes from being where God lived out God’s incarnation on Earth, but placing an overemphasis on the places and material remnants of Jesus’ life misses the greater point Jesus incarnated to make. That Jesus’ body could not be found in the tomb accomplishes more than only providing evidence of Jesus’ divinity.

(2) Ever heard the phrase, “Kill ’em all; God’ll sort ’em out?” It comes from the Albigensian Crusade, a war on heterodox believers in Southern France (in Languedoc, which literally means “the land where they speak lenga d’oc (the Occitan language). The Cathars there where heterodox to the Catholic faith, with a gnostic approach to Christianity, but political and material concerns were motivating factors just as much as religious ones (see below). In 1209, Crusader forces were besieging the city of Beziers, but they encountered a problem. The city contained both Cathars and Catholics in good standing. The Crusaders, let by Simon de Montfort, exhorted the Catholic citizens to leave the city before the Crusaders assaulted it. They refused. Now, I’d like to believe that the Catholics did so in true Christian spirit–to protect others from violence by hopefully making the moral cost of an assault too high for the besiegers. But, I’m also a realist, and it’s equally likely that, knowing what happens when a city is sacked, the Catholics were trying to protect their own homes and property without regard for the Cathars, knowing that the invading Crusaders would make little distinction in their pillaging. Maybe some of column A, some of column B.

Regardless, the Crusaders were forced to make a choice. As the story goes, the Papal Legate to the Crusaders, Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, cut through the conundrum by saying something like “Kill them all; God will know his own.” That’s been rehashed to the, probably more familiar, “Kill ’em all; let God sort ’em out.” This, I think is indicative of the problem with both the Crusades and the “Deus Vult” mentality applied to anything–even if the cause is good (and, for the Crusades and most of the other times “Deus Vult” language has been employed, the cause isn’t good either), the mindset justifies any atrocity–no matter how un-Christian–committed in pursuit of the goal.

For many of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, conservative politics and fundamentalist Christianity collided to create a Deus Vult mentality, with a number of the insurrectionists carrying flags that said, literally, “Deus Vult.” In their mind, Trump’s presidency was God-ordained.

On the one hand, they came to this conclusion because Trump supported policies they believed are “Biblical.” that’s a fraught idea, and I’d much prefer to focus on ideas and policies that are “Christian” (in following the person, nature and teachings of Christ) rather than those that are “Biblical”–the Bible says a lot of things, which are contained in different types of literature, are often not intended as examples of righteousness but quite the opposite, are bounded by the human context in which they were written (even if divinely inspired), are sometimes contradictory, and must always be interpreted to be understood.

On the other hand, equally or more problematic, the people who believe that Trump represented the last, best hope of Christianity–while behaving and spearheading policies that are absolutely anti-Christian–are guilty of one of the most damning indictments of American Christianity: that we shape Jesus into our pre-existing understanding of cultural and individual values rather than conforming ourselves to the righteous values taught to us and demonstrated for us by Jesus in his incarnation. This is a fair accusation often leveled against popular American Christian theologies, particularly by Liberation theologians who can personally speak to the injustices that just such an approach has perpetrated.

Think about this: In America, if you go into a “Bible bookstore,” or even if you order online, and you’re looking for a Nativity set, what color is Jesus in the default selection. He’s usually white. Now, there is a longstanding tradition of artistic pieces that portray Jesus looking like the person who made the art (in terms of ethnicity, not specific features), and there is some reasonable theological argument for that as an indication of how Jesus connects with each of us beyond barriers like race, ethnicity or language. But when the portrayal of Jesus as white becomes part of a subtle message of “Jesus is the best, and so is being white, so of course we should should see Jesus as white,” we have a problem.

K and I are currently listening to the audiobook of Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired; she makes a point that the Bible was used as justification by the abolitionists seeking to end slavery, but also by those seeking to maintain slavery. That something is “Biblical” by itself is a term that is worthless without greater context.

I am in agreement with the idea that we Americans have largely perverted the truth of Christianity to justify our baser desires, and I see this more and more in conservative politics in this country. I want to be careful here in not saying that I think one cannot be politically conservative and be a righteous Christian; nor does being liberal and calling yourself Christian make you good or righteous. But, on the whole, I see much more in leftist politics that coincides with the teaching of Jesus and much more bad behavior from conservatives that uses a skewed view of Christianity as cover for un-Christian behavior.

I also want to make a distinction here that I’ll try to develop more below: because I do not have the cognitive or moral capability to know someone else’s heart and soul, it’s important to me that my statements about the “un-Christian” are meant to be about behaviors, beliefs and ideologies, not about people. We are all fallible, we all fall short of doing all the things that would make us righteous, and I do believe in grace even for those who know what is right and fail to do it–we’re all there sometimes. As we’ll discuss below, there is a fine line to walk between grace and forgiveness on the one hand, and accountability, truth and justice on the other.

(3) Strong historical arguments have been made that the Crusades arose as much or more out of the socio-economic environment and psychological fears of the Middle Ages as any theological justification. Primary among these causes were issues of land division and ownership related to population growth. If your region practices primogeniture (all the land is inherited by the firstborn son), what do you do with all of the “noble” children who receive no inheritance but do not lack for ambition? If your region doesn’t practice primogeniture, how do you keep the land from being divided so much between so many children that no one is left owning a useful amount of land? The answer to both questions seemed to be to add more land to the equation, and the argument goes that the idea of Crusade to liberate the Holy Land (and other places in later Crusades) provided reasonable cover for what was ultimately a move to create an economic pressure valve.

Think about the mindset of the time, the fear of hell and the desire for heaven (especially when heaven was the only chance to live a better life than the squalor of a peasant) and then imagine being told that, by undertaking a Crusade, you’ll be cleansed of all sins you’ve ever committed (including those you commit on Crusade), you’ll skip the lines in Purgatory and go straight to St. Peter’s Gates. You’ve been indoctrinated to rely on the Church to tell you, de facto, religious truth and this comes directly from the Pope. How would you feel? Do those feelings, does that psychology, actually make you righteous? Does it actually justify–theologically–the things you’re likely to do–to be asked or told to do–while on Crusade?

All of this is to say two things: (1) we ought to call out those who claim it is their Christianity calling them to do un-Christian things; (2) at the same time, we must be very careful that we are constantly seeking to conform ourselves to true Christianity in our pursuit of justice, lest we start to be the ones saying “Deus Vult” as we seek to destroy that which we perceive as unrighteous, because we have become more convinced of our own righteousness than we are sincere in our desire to humbly follow the commandments God has given us.

How Should Christianity Influence American Politics?
C.S. Lewis wrote some profound–and still applicable–statements about how one’s Christianity ought to influence one’s politics. If you want to hear his comments, or if you’re becoming tired of mine, take a break and go look that up (I believe that topic is found in Mere Christianity, but it might be in God in the Dock).

Some of what I will have to say will parrot Lewis and, like him, I’m going to try to make some comments about how I believe that Christianity should influence a person’s (and particularly the American’s) approach to politics.

(1) Christianity directs the believer to be more concerned with striving for personal righteousness than fixing the immorality of others.

First, let’s acknowledge the pragmatic reality that laws don’t change morality. For example, when abortions are illegal, they become more dangerous, more shadowed, more exploitative, but not necessarily less common. For a less controversial example, see Prohibition. It came out of a well-meaning Temperance Movement intending to fight the definite societal ills caused by drunkenness and alcohol addiction. The end result was to give power to criminal organizations to supply what could not be had through legal channels but remained in high demand.

There are better means than legislation to try to make humans more righteous. Let’s think about the ways we can address systematic issues that push people toward destructive, injurious or “immoral” acts instead of focusing on codifying what is and is not categorically immoral. When Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” is this not a legal intervention? That’s something we should think on when looking at our own motivations for supporting certain kinds of laws.

(2) Christianity is about personal sacrifice for the greater good of others.

Political analysts make most of their predictions based on the ability of logical people to conduct cost/benefit analyses and to choose in favor of their own self-interest. We know that there are plenty of people who are incapable of or unwilling to understand the true costs and benefits of certain decisions, and some decisions will have costs and benefits to wide-ranging to be readily apparent.

But how would politics in our country change if the greater good of others were our focus in voting rather than the preservation of our own powers, rights, and socioeconomic status? What if we were able to step back and say, “Yes, this will cause a minor hardship for me, but it will alleviate a much greater hardship for many more people, so I’ll vote for it?” What if our politics was only about “us” instead of “us and them?”

(3) Christianity weighs the moral costs against the pragmatic benefits.

American politics has, in many senses, become a Crusade–all will be forgiven if you achieve the desired result. This has led to political gamesmanship, underhanded tactics, stonewalling, and all manner of other dishonorable approaches to “winning at any cost” that have undermined the systems that were put in place to protect our freedoms and to support a politics that uses compromise to reach results that benefit the greatest number of people possible. Both parties are guilty of this.

If we’re to be generous, neither party intended for things to go this way, but decades of tit-for-tat and “if they’re playing dirty, we have to, too, to have any chance!” without enough politicians standing up and saying “Enough!” that, by degrees we’ve dug ourselves into a hole from which there seems no escape.

We’ve got to get away from that. And a good Christian ethic can help us to do this (to be fair, the Christian ethics I refer to here are found in the moral systems of most or all all world religions of which I’m aware). We have to support the right way of doing things before we support getting our own way. To be ethical, procedure must be as important as results, or we end up where we are now–no one trusts that the procedures have been fair and so no one trusts the results. The results we speak of may differ between the parties, but the problem is the same.

Grace and Justice
In reflecting on my own personal experiences, my own passions and convictions, and then looking to the state our country is in, I see finding the balance between Grace and Justice to be the hardest line to walk of all. Thank God that ultimately, it is God who is responsible for bringing us to that perfect balance and not me.

You’ve probably seen in this post my own struggles with this issue–to look for the good and reasonable in the beliefs of those with whom I disagree while also trying to stand up for what I deeply believe is right. I am aware of no easy answers. But I also know that the struggle to strike the balance can never be abandoned.

This is at issue with my stance within the United Methodist Church. I deeply believe that the current treatment of, approach to, and status of people within the LGBTQ movement within the theology and polity of the UMC is unjust in the extreme. And yet, I also long for the maintenance of a unity within the believers and grace for a diversity of theological positions and interpretations within our church. It often feels impossible to balance both, and when I am forced to prioritize one over the other, which should I choose? Both rejecting unity and failing to stand up for those who are oppressed seem to be failures. And, in the end, unity isn’t just up to me–if there are some people (and there are many) who will refuse to allow the justice we seek, unity be damned, what can we do then? What must we do to be faithful followers of Christ?

Our country is in the same position. There are those who have peddled lies about election fraud, who have supported racist ideologies, who have voluntarily ignored the existence of injustice, who have placed themselves and their own well-being above all else. Some of those people attacked our very democracy by storming the Capitol on January 6th. And many of the politicians that instigated that behavior are now crying foul because “unity” should be the thing we seek above all else, and holding them accountable for their actions will hurt unity.

Here’s what I have to say about that, and it’s the answer to the issues of the UMC as well: There cannot be unity until there is justice. What those who demand unity without accountability want is for us to prioritize their approval and willingness to work with us over the approval of and unity with the oppressed, the downtrodden, the impoverished, and the exploited. This same cry for “unity” is why we have made so little progress in almost two-and-a-half centuries in regards to racial equality, the disparity of wealth and equality of dignity, why we’ve allowed so much social injustice to persist.

I’ve spent a lot of this post (and it’s a doozy, I realize) arguing that our Christianity requires us to be graceful in our approach to politics in this country. But our Christianity also requires us to adhere to truth and demand that others do the same–and here I mean in facts, not in philosophical truth, Our Christianity requires us to seek justice. If we are forced to choose whether to seek unity with the disenfranchised and downtrodden or those who demand that we acknowledge their rights and superiority, I know where Jesus will be, and I will seek him there.

If we do not seek justice, to whom can we show grace? Without requiring accountability for one’s actions, the only grace we have to offer is the “cheap grace” that Bonhoeffer warns us of. Or, worse yet, what we’re giving isn’t grace; it’s appeasement.

So we have to continue to walk the line, as difficult as it is, offering grace but demanding accountability and justice. We must set an example, never resorting to violence in our demands, but always insisting peacefully. It’s not an easy road, but we can walk it together, calling ever more people to walk it with us.


Cyberware in Fate (Theory and Planning)

In my previous post, I mentioned that I’m working on some Fate hacks for Star Wars and Shadowrun. As I continue to develop ideas for those hacks, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on handling cyberware in Fate (with some ideological commentary on handling cyberware in roleplaying games in general).

Let me begin by saying that I love the complexity and diversity of cyberware and bioware in Shadowrun, even if it verges on turning character creation into “Accounting, the RPG.” Without hesitation, I’ll state that it’s the character creation systems in the official Shadowrun rules that most draw me to that ruleset. Running the game with the Shadowrun rules, though–that leaves something to be desired. I’ve spent a few evenings reading through the Cyberpunk Red rulebook (having also spent a good deal of time recently playing Cyberpunk 2077–review forthcoming), and I find the cybernetics in that game limited–frustratingly so–when compared to Shadowrun.

(As an aside, since I grew up with Shadowrun and not Cyberpunk (even before I started reading all of the fiction of the cyberpunk genre), it’s hard for me to be satisfied with a cyberpunk setting that doesn’t also include magic and elements of the fantastic. I’m tempted to worldbuild my own, fantastic, post-cyberpunk setting, perhaps for use with the RPG ruleset I’m developing for Avar Narn. Since, without a Patreon, I have some more flexibility in my worldbuilding endeavors, and since I’ve already put down the cash for a lot of functionality in WorldAnvil–a result that in my mind has been worth the whole Patreon idea even though it didn’t pan out–this might be something you see posts directing you toward in the future.)

Back to our irregularly scheduled post. Is there a good way to capture the complexity of Shadowrun-style augmentation in Fate? Of course there is–I just have to find it!

Core Approaches
The “basic” system for handling cyberware in Fate simply uses aspects and stunts (see Fate System Toolkit p. 152). Really, these are almost mini-stunts, given the difference between “minor” augs and “major” augs. This is a good start, but the Fate system can do a lot more, and, as you know, I like to play with the system and see where it might reasonably and usefully be pushed. If you’ve looked at my partial attempt at a Tom Clancy’s Division ruleset in Fate, you’ll see that I’m willing to push the envelope of the Fate system beyond its initial intent. On the other hand, it’s the initial intent–narrative focus and efficient play–that draws me to Fate in the first place, so I want to temper rules mods and modules I come up with in light of that. There’s nothing wrong with creating a new system that uses Fudge/Fate dice, but I’d like my creations to still reasonably be called implementations of Fate rather than hybrid abominations distantly inspired by Fate.

So, how do we expand on the Toolkit system? We invoke the Fate Fractal, of course! There are a few things that this will assist us with:

(1) By creating an overarching Extra, we can apply some facets of augmentation across the board. This should help implementation of ideas like Essence.
(2) By the same token, making Augmentation an Extra allows us to fine tune some of the cost of cyberware with Flaws, conditions and other character traits that can be bundled in with an Extra.
(3) While the core of stunts and aspects will easily account for many (perhaps most) cyberware/bioware/geneware/nanoware items, we’ve got other interesting options to play with.

Other Tricks
Among those interesting options, weapon and armor ratings immediately come to mind. Once I sort out exactly how I’ll handle weapons and armor, it will be easy to address augmentations like subdermal armor, integrated weapons, etc.

Even better than that (in my mind, at least), is the use of the idea of Red and Blue dice. The Toolkit describes the Red and Blue dice system on page 72. In the form presented, Red and Blue dice are used for weapons and armor, respectively. But there’s no reason they have to be. We can use the idea of Red dice as a mini- (almost micro-) stunt. “Roll a Red Die when using the Athletics skill.” This gives you a 1/3 chance of having a +1 boost to the result. Far less than the typical +1 or +2 from a stunt, but it still represents a tangible benefit (actually it’s, in raw statistics, the same benefit as a +1 to X skill in core Shadowrun, though this plays out differently because of the reduced granularity in Fate). As an additional benefit, this allows us to spread around a lot more small bonuses, allowing for characters with many different augs without having an insane character budget for extras.

Some other rules tricks I’m considering using: increase the Shift value of a Condition/Consequence; add a new Condition/Consequence; add additional Stress track boxes; modify stress box values.

Tags, Traits and Aspects
I’m also thinking about modifying the idea of “tags” in PbtA games. In Apocalypse World games, “tags” tell you something about the narrative but don’t necessarily have a mechanical component. For instance, a firearm with the “loud” tag doesn’t change the numbers on a roll when it’s used, but it should influence the types of moves the GM takes in response to its use.

Transhumanity’s Fate (the official port of the Eclipse Phase setting to Fate rules) uses a similar concept, which they call “Traits.” Traits act as “sub-aspects” or reminders of the purview and scope of the aspect to which a trait is attached. In many ways, this is that the Toolkit’s description of some “minor augs” works, like adding “low-light vision” to your cybereye.

Depending on how you look at it (or upon specific implementation), what I’m thinking about doing is actually closer to PbtA’s tags than Transhumanity’s Fate’s “traits.”

This is because Aspects actually have (at least) two functions. While an Aspect can be invoked to gain a mechanical bonus, an Aspect in Fate is also “always true.” So, at least as I understand and run the system, if someone has a Low-Light Vision trait, the existence of that trait justifies a lack of increased opposition to a roll based on poor lighting, even without the Aspect being invoked and a Fate Point being paid. This is one of those things that seems to take some settling in before new players grok Fate RPG.

If that’s how you run things, then it would be possible to divorce that “always true” portion of an Aspect from the “invoke to get a +2 or reroll” part of an Aspect. What does that leave you with? If the statement is attached to another Aspect, then it’s really pulling the duty of a TF “trait.” If it’s not attached to an Aspect, but you still treat it as “always true” for narrative purposes (we might say “for narrative positioning”), then it’s closer to a PbtA “tag.”

Implementation determines whether this is a distinction without a difference. If the augmentation system ties these “always true” statements to a stunt and not an Aspect, we’re pretty clearly in the realm of “tags.” Why would that be useful? A few reasons. Let’s look at the Fate Toolkit’s cybereye example.

The Cyber-Eye is a “minor” aug (meaning three to a point of Refresh) that gives a stunt-like effect (+1 to sight-based Notice rolls). This can be expanded by adding Aspects to the Cyber-eye, of which Low-Light Vision is one. But these added Aspects are also “minor” augs, meaning you potentially get three Aspects for 1 Refresh. Any problems that arise from doing things this way are minor at best and probably negligible, because the fact that there’s going to be overlap between many of these “minor” aug Assets and because, y’know, common sense and fair play. On the other hand, the low cost of these additions is better justified if they have only the “always true” element without the ability to grant a +2 or reroll. This helps fight the (again, potentially non-existent) problem of “Aspect bloat” but still makes those little tag-like tweaks worthwhile, because they still provide narratively and mechanically-significant information about when a roll should be necessary, what can be accomplished by a roll, and what reasonable opposition to a roll should be, all in line with the fiction-first approach of Fate. Example: having Thermal Imaging as a “tag” on your Cybereyes allows you to get information about the heat coming off of a vehicle’s engine in addition to make and model with a Notice roll–no additional mechanics needed and keeps the Fate Point Economy in check.

The only concern I’ve got with this approach is where it may require additional parsing and whether that additional parsing will add enough complexity to the system that the detriment outweighs value. Example: you can choose the “tag” Low-Light Vision for your Cybereyes, or you can choose Zoom Magnification. Should Zoom Magnification be a “tag”, an Aspect, or a stunt? Is it too weird to have sub-choices on an augmentation that vary so widely in mechanical effect? To be determined.

Essence and Humanity Loss
Both Cyberpunk and Shadowrun indicate that human augmentation directly results in reduced empathy, reduced “humanity.” I understand the need for Essence as a balancing issue in Shadowrun; I understand Humanity Loss in Cyberpunk less, since all characters have equal access to cyberware.

From a setting perspective, or philosophical or theological perspective, I find humanity loss and Essence rules to be strange, unsettling, and somewhat offensive. The reasons are many, but let’s focus on a few:

It’s extremely difficult to determine the psychological effects of human augmentation. If you read my theological or philosophical posts, you know that I’m an existentialist in my approach to both pursuits. I believe that our experience as embodied beings is very important to how we understand the world and our place in it. Our experiences with and relationships to our bodies are very complex things–we can talk about BMI, magazine covers, messaging about “ideal bodies,” anorexia and bulimia, and many more indicators of the nuanced and often troubled ways in which we relate to our material forms. But I defy the belief that someone who has a prosthetic is somehow less human than I am–that humanness is an inalienable part of their self. The argument made in Cyberpunk and Shadowrun on these grounds is horribly ablist.

Yes, a person’s humanity can be twisted and corrupted, made hard by experiences or choices. But I’m not convinced that fitting a piece of metal or a cloned and genetically engineered organ to one’s body is, by itself, the kind of experience that leads to such a loss of self. People who are benefited by prosthetics treat their experience of loss and restoration (however partial) in different ways–just like we all take different approaches and establish different paradigms with regards to how we each think about our own body. This paradigm might involve feelings of depression, despair, uselessness, failure and many other negative feelings that touch and trouble our relationships with self and others, but that’s a far cry from the “I feel 15% less able to relate to you or to feel compassion because my arm is made of aluminum” that our leading cyberpunk roleplaying games seem to expect.

The books in the Altered Carbon series (and the TV show), and the Eclipse Phase game (in d100 or Fate form) both take a more believable, more philosophically defensible and–perhaps most important–more interesting approach to the psyche and human augmentation. In both settings, psychological trauma can arise as a consequence of resleeving for many different reasons, but these are mostly involved with the experience of embodiment itself, of suddenly looking different or occupying a body that feels very different from what you expected. This is not the same as being psychologically traumatized by what is, at its core, enhancement surgery. Moreover, the psychological traumas of Eclipse Phase and Altered Carbon are treated with as much nuance (and perhaps empathy) as other types of psychological trauma, rather than being this unavoidable downward spiral of emotional intelligence.

Shadowrun perhaps goes farther in making a spiritual argument as well. The value of this is in adding complexity to the way the magical and supernatural elements of the game function, but the core assumption: that voluntarily changing your body results in spiritual detachment between body and soul, is a tenuous one. I can’t with any definitiveness say that it’s wrong, but it strikes me, personally, as wrong. Your mileage may vary.

Fortunately, the Fate system is more resistant to balance issues than Shadowrun is (which, despite having Essence, is full of potentially game-breaking mechanical constructs), so Essence issues do not need to be treated in as much detail as in the official Shadowrun rules. That leaves me with a design question: (1) cater to my own beliefs, suppositions and predispositions, or (2) adhere to fidelity to the setting and mechanical conceits of core Shadowrun for sake of fidelity to the system being ported. At this point in time, not sure how I’ll go. Were I designing this hack with more of Cyberpunk in mind than Shadowrun, I have to say I’d be inclined to ignore Humanity Loss altogether and let cyberpsychosis be a thing that happens in the world, but not to player characters.

Dresden Files Accelerated, “Mantles” and PbtA-Style Playbooks in Fate RPG

With our Innumerable Isles game, my gaming group is just starting to get comfortable with how the Fate RPG rules work, many of them coming from a strong background in heavier “crunch,” less narrative-focused (rules-wise, at least) games, like D&D, Shadowrun, WFRP and the previous generation of 40k RPGs (Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, etc.). Given that I both have a very fond place for how Fate plays and I understand the frustration of jumping around from rules system to rules system, I’ve decided (as I’ve mentioned before) that most of the games I’ll be running for the near future will use the Fate RPG system.

I am working on my own RPG system for the Avar Narn setting, with some ideas about some additional settings to build for use with my fiction and that eventual ruleset, but I also really enjoy tinkering with the Fate system without having to entirely reinvent the wheel for core mechanics and basic systems.

So, as two of my many side projects at any given time, I’m working on putting together my own hacks for Star Wars and Shadowrun, two settings I’m likely to revisit with predictable frequency. In doing so, a few ideas have been storming around in my brain.

My experience with my group and the Fate system is that, when it comes to character creation, at least, my players would like to have additional guidance–particularly when it comes to creating Aspects and choosing stunts. And then there’s my own proclivity for thinking about ways to have the ruleset reinforce tone, character and setting. The Playbook approach of the Powered-by-the-Apocalypse games goes a long way into simplifying character creation by providing a ready character idea with thematically focused abilities that, as a whole, maintain some flexibility within the character concept.

Generally, I’m not the biggest fan of character “classes,” as I personally prefer maximized flexibility in character creation. However, character classes and roles as distinct and discrete constructs have definite value in roleplaying systems–that’s why they’re so common in the first place. Among other things they: (1) help ensure each player in the group has an area in which their character holds the spotlight, (2) buttress the crafting of character concepts, (3) simplify and speed up character creation, (4) reinforce ideas about setting and theme.

Both Shadowrun and Star Wars are settings conductive to the use of “classes” or “playbooks,” having iconic archetypes to draw from. In Star Wars, we have the Jedi (of different types), the Smuggler, the Soldier, the Bounty Hunter, etc. (the FFG Star Wars system provides many different such archetypes). Likewise, Shadowrun characters tend to fall into archetypes as well: the Street Samurai, the Mage, the Shaman, the Rigger, the Hacker/Decker, the Face, the Infiltrator, etc.

PbtA would make each of these playbooks (indeed, you can find PbtA hacks for Star Wars and for Shadowrun, as well as The Sprawl and its supplements, which handle cyberpunk games with or without fantastic elements in the PbtA system).

I can’t say definitively whether the PbtA-style Playbooks influenced the writing of Mantles in Dresden Files Accelerated, but it sure seems like they did. Regardless, the DFA‘s Mantle system is a stroke of genius; it provides a great example of how to apply the Playbook philosophy to the Fate rules (whether Core, Condensed or Accelerated).

If you’re not familiar with DFA‘s Mantles, these are used to flesh out different character concepts or archetypes, both mundane and supernatural. Each Mantle includes some core Stunts for the Mantle as well as a list of additional stunts for selection in character creation or advancement. Sounds like a Playbook’s “Moves,” right? Where things get really interesting is that (since DFA uses Conditions instead of Consequences), each Mantle gives a character additional Conditions. Some of these Conditions have a track, boxes in which can be checked to power the stunts in the Mantle’s list. Others are binary and may do all sorts of interesting things–like shutting down the use of particular stunts. An example is the Law Enforcement Mantle, which has a “Police Powers” Condition that allows the character to do the things expected of a law enforcement officer as well as a “Suspended” Condition that prevents the use of Police Powers when checked–you’ve overstepped your authority and someone’s demanded you “turn in your badge and gun,” as the cop films would have it.

So, the Mantle grants thematic “Moves” and often includes thematic Conditions and even subsystems unique to that character type. If every character has a Mantle, and the Mantles are at least roughly balanced (to the extent that the game you’re playing and the players you’re playing with need balance), then there’s no need to resort to Refresh costs to apply a Mantle.

So, the Mantle carries with it the structure of the PbtA Playbook. As with PbtA, you can always allow a character to have Stunts (or Moves) not from the Mantle’s list when it makes sense for them to do so.

In DFA, Aspects and Skill (Approach, really) ratings are determined separately from the Mantle, so you get the Mantle’s structure combined with the vast freedom of creating your Aspects and the basic difference between characters of the same Mantle by how they arrange their Skill/Approach arrays. You can add to the structure of a Mantle by providing example Aspects players can choose from, suggesting or requiring apex Skills or Approaches for a Mantle, and/or building a selection of Extras that a Mantle is required to take or from which they may select (a Shadowrun Rigger needs drones, right?). Conversely, by leaving the selection of Extras divorced from the Mantle, by having a “general” stunt list available to all characters, and by leaving Aspects and Skill selection untethered to Mantles, you preserve overall character freedom while gaining the thematic and mechanical benefits of using Mantles. For a happy medium, give “suggested” Aspects, Extras, and Skill arrays that can be used by those players who want to make their character quickly but that may be modified or ignored by the players who want more freedom in crafting their particular character.

Here’s the downside: it’s a lot of work on the GM (or whomever is putting the mechanics for the game together) to build Mantles (or, as I’ll prefer to call them, Archetypes)–particularly if you’re trying to create a broad selection of Archetypes with unique Conditions and Stunts (or at least only minor overlap). I’ve found myself with the DFA rulebook open in one tab, a number of other Fate rulebooks open in successive tabs, and the Flow app open on my iPad all at once to take notes, mark things out, and generally brainstorm ideas as I list and define Archetypes. For me, it’s the kind of creative work I enjoy anyway, and I think it will improve games I run in those settings by both scaffolding players in their character creation and providing some thematic focus to character creation for the setting and particular narrative.

As I work on my personal adaptations of Star Wars and Shadowrun to Fate, look for me to post those rules, Archetypes and ideas to the blog for your use and/or modification, should you like them. At the very least, if you like Fate, go pick up a copy of Dresden Files Accelerated. It’s a great use of the Fate system standing alone, and I’ve found it to be an excellent source of ideas for hacking an already-incredibly modular RPG system.

Afterword
If you’ve followed the RPG aspects of my blog for a while, you’ll know that I previously started a hack of the Cortex Plus/Prime rules for Shadowrun (as well as posting some of my most popular articles with build advice using the official Shadowrun rules, with an eye at Sixth Edition but many of the points applicable to the 20th Anniversary or 5th edition rules as well). I’ll likely go back and finish the Cortex version at some point, as it’s another system I very much enjoy (and very much enjoy tinkering with). There are some parts of me that keep telling me that, as narratively-minded ruleset with (arguably) more crunch than Fate, it’s a better overall candidate for a Shadowrun game, and some of the same ideas in this article can likely be used with Cortex as well. But for now, I’m going to stick to Fate.

Well…That Didn’t Work

My Patreon launch was a bust, which I knew was a distinct possibility. Strangely, I’ve not really taken this as a significant blow like I thought I might. In fact, I wonder how much of a setback it really is. Yes, it would have been nice to have some supporters who chipped in a little monetary symbol of their enthusiasm for my work, but maybe I’m just not there yet. I’m okay with that.

They say that money ruins everything (at least I often do!), and we live in times that are economically difficult for many of us, so it’s completely understandable that people may want to contribute but just not be able to justify even small amounts of extraneous spending in their budget right now. Certainly, I experienced a good deal of moral support and interest in the idea–this didn’t manifest into patrons on Patreon, but I’m more interested in the support for the writing than the patronage. And, there’s something to be said for retaining freedom in creation that isn’t beholden to anyone.

I never expected to generate much income from the Patreon page, and not having picked up any patrons over the first few days had me thinking about what I really want from other people with regards to my writing. I came to the following conclusions:

(1) I’m going to be writing this stuff regardless, and I can develop the discipline to do so more regularly without needing deadlines to other people to do it.
(2) I am more interested in developing a community of people who are interested in, moved by, and want to engage with my worldbuilding and writing than I am about making money off of it. Put a different way, I want my writing to matter more than I want it to make money.
(3) It’s very possible that I simply haven’t put out enough content yet to give people enough information about whether they’re ready to “invest” in more.
(4) I’m by nature not a marketing person, and I don’t generally like asking people for money, so when I kept getting notices from Patreon about things I could do to try to get patrons, my first thought was, “I’d rather spend the time writing than selling myself.” That’s certainly counter to the mainstream advice for creatives making their living off of the democratization of the internet, but it’s also who I am.

So, with all of that in mind, I’ve decided to do things differently. I’m going to continue to meet my espoused worldbuilding and writing goals that I’d developed for the Patreon launch, but I’m going to do it without the Patreon angle. To that end, the Avar Narn material on WorldAnvil has been made public for everyone. You can find the world by going to https://www.worldanvil.com/w/avar-narn-jmflint. You may need to set up an account with WorldAnvil for access.

Once there, you’ll be able to click on a button to join the Discord server for discussion and community-building around the setting.

With money out of the way, I hope you’ll join me as I continue to develop the world and write stories within it!

And it Begins (Patreon Now Live!)

Giddy with anticipation, coffee and anxiety, I have now officially launched my Patreon!

Membership is $5 per month. By becoming a Patron, you will have immediate access to:

(1) About 33,000 words of background material on Avar Narn, arranged in World Anvil for easy perusal;
(2) A new short story exclusive to Patrons (called “Family”);
(3) A (rough) revised map of the Altaenin islands;
(4) Access to an exclusive Discord channel to ask questions, share your thoughts and feedback, and let me know what you want to see next.

A minimum of 10,000 words of additional history and lore will be added this month; I’ll be diligently working to expand the RPG rules information available and to provide access to more fiction over the course of the month as well.

You can check out the Patreon page at: https://www.patreon.com/AvarNarn.

If you’re not sure if Avar Narn is a setting you’ll enjoy, try some of the short stories, the rough first draft chapters of Things Unseen (both available in the My Writing section of the blog) or some of the introductory posts on the blog with information.

More Patreon Info

I am both excited about and dreading the launch of my Patreon with the start of the new year. Excited, of course, because it may provide both an impetus for me to really up my writing productivity and may create a community of support around Avar Narn that would be motivating in so many different ways. Dreading, because there’s every potential that the launch will garner no patrons and I’ll have to overcome that setback to morale to advance my writing endeavors (a task I think I’m up to).

Already, though, the Patreon plan has me tingling in anticipating, a restlessness that has turned to some productivity. I had in my last post mentioned my desire to have at least 30,000 words of background material waiting for patrons at launch. I’m over 32,000 words uploaded to WorldAnvil. Even that doesn’t cover the core elements of the world in terms of geography, history, religion, etc. What has been put in words so far seems just an amuse bouche, still needing lots of fleshing out. This, itself is daunting and exhilarating.

The only thing I’d mentioned having ready for launch that isn’t ready yet is a map of Altaene, which I need to finish by the end of the year. I’m now hoping to add to the launch matter a new short story (currently in planning) and some additional background and roleplaying material (the core mechanics have been included on WorldAnvil, with some additional bits close to being solidified and my initial notes on the combat system and encumbrance systems starting to come together).

Armed with an iPad Pro and and Apple Pencil, I’ve collected some books and courses on drawing and digital painting. I’m a beginner to both, at best, but I’m hoping to learn enough to provide at least some interim and passible art to get some ideas across. Devoting time to this course of study has become part of my general Patreon plan.

In terms of the launch itself, only one thing remains to be done–I need a picture for the Patreon page itself. For now, I think, I’ll create a very simple logo as a place holder, to be improved and enhanced at a later date. We’ll start humble and work our way up!

I’m very much looking forward to having some fresh perspectives on the setting as I continue to expand it, to sharing its depth and breadth with new people. I hope you’ll join me!

Review: The Queen’s Gambit

Note: This review is only about the TV Series. I haven’t read the book and currently don’t intend to.

I liked this TV series. I’m a little upset that I did.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like in the series. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the role of Elizabeth Harmon beautifully, with a subtlety of expression and nuance of character far more mature than many older actors. The filmography, likewise, is intoxicating, well shot, full of dream-like color. The music suits the period and theme while providing a nostalgia for those who lived through the 60’s or, like K, who were raised on the songs of the era.

More than anything, the series builds an ethereal, mystical view of chess, depicting the tension in every move, the complexity of possibilities, the focus and forethought of the players as well as their emotional investment in one seamless package that would entice anyone to take up the game. I think that it’s this mystique that made the show so enjoyable for me.

But, at the same time, I found the storytelling to be disappointing. The show plods along from plot point to plot point in formulaic structure. Following genre and convention in the structuring of a story isn’t a bad thing–formal structures in writing have been adopted because they work, and in the commercial setting of TV shows and filmmaking, not following recognizable structure may be fatal to ever getting a first read of your work by someone with the authority to make a script a full production.

The Queen’s Gambit follows structure dutifully, though, dispassionately, focused on going through the proper motions than making them mean something. It is the difference between the dancer who is technically proficient and the one whose motions tell you a story that stirs the soul. If we’re going to be specific, the problem is that Elizabeth Harmon’s lows are never low enough. Without giving too much away, she suffers some significant obstacles in her path–some of them truly tragic–and yet we’re never given enough time with any of them to let them sink in, nor are we ever shown them affecting Beth in a deep (or even realistic) way.

Beth’s most significant flaws magically heal themselves in time for the climax. Those people she’s spent time using and then pushing away all return to loyal serve her in her time of need, with no real explanation for the change of heart. What should have been a central struggle for the character–her addiction to barbiturates and alcohol–is simply set aside when the time is right. Only Taylor-Joy’s face gives us any indication of a struggle over giving up the addiction–the script gives us about 5 seconds of film to turn around a character problem developed over episodes of the series. We’re given multiple instances of Beth indulging in her addiction, but only the flipping of a switch in being rid of it.

That’s why I feel bad about enjoying the series. The writing was passable for the most part, but sorely lacking in some of the most important aspects of story. When the climax is a foregone conclusion, you lose the drama, the catharsis, that causes us to immerse ourselves in story in the first place.

What we are left with is not a period piece or a character study, not a bildungsroman or hero’s journey, but a story about chess. The characters are merely present to show us the details–social, technical, emotional–of the game. They become pawns themselves in the writer’s moves, shadowing a game someone else played to perfection a long time ago. Pieces moving across a ceiling with dreamlike precision.

Tragic Christianity and Comic Christianity

A few months back, while only posting chapters from Things Unseen on the blog, I listened to a Great Course called “Take my Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor.” It was a fascinating look at the nature and study of humor (and how much scholars are in debate over such core ideas as what makes something funny? or why do we laugh at some things and not others?) but, as many things do, it got me thinking about theology and religion.

In one of the early lectures, the professor (Dr. Steven Gimbel) describes the differences between “gelastic” and “agelastic” societies. The term “gelastic” comes from the Greek word for laughter: “gelos.” A quick dictionary search didn’t return a hit for “gelastic,” and a search of Wikipedia turned up only “gelastic seizure,” apparently a type of epileptic fit associated with sudden outbursts of energy and, often, laughter.

So I’ll (roughly) paraphrase Dr. Gimbel’s definition of a gelastic society as one that places value in humor.  To the gelastic society, the requirement of “getting” a joke that you change perspectives serves a valuable philosophical function by widening understanding and teaching one to look at an idea in multiple different ways.

By way of example, think about the following joke: “A sandwich walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Sorry, pal, we don’t serve food here.” The double definition of the word “serve” reveals the conflict of perspective and meaning on which the joke turns. Not very well, perhaps.

Likewise the gelastic society values jokes and humor for their ability to speak truth to power, to critique foibles and failures both human and societal, to continually ask for the examination of ourselves and our worlds.

Conversely, the agelastic society sees jokes and humor as dangerous–often for the same reason the gelastic society values them. Agelastic societies tend to have a strict definition of truth that is not to be questioned or assailed. Thus, jokes that question truth, ask “why,” or require different perspectives are seditious and seductive, often undermining the narrow definition of what is “true” and “good” held by the agelastic society.

You probably already see the argument forming, but let’s continue anyhow.

Dr. Gimbel goes further to examine “tragic” heroes and “comic” heroes, how they differ, and what it might mean for a person or society who favors one over the other. For Gimbel–and he makes a strong case–comic heroes triumph through their wits, by finding creative solutions, maneuvering around obstacles, or creating compromise that allows for a happy ending. Tragic heroes, on the other hand, knuckle down and power straight through the resistance, accepting suffering (and often inflicting it) as the cost of doing business.

Shakespeare provides ample examples of the two types. Think of tragic Hamlet, unable to find any solution to his problems other than violence, or Macbeth, whose will to power results in the coming of Birnum Wood and Dunsinane against him, in the form of MacDuff. Think, on the other hand, of Benedick and Beatrice maneuvering against one another, and being brought to confess their love for one another through creative deceit. We can look at modern examples as well. For Gimbel, the action movie is the modern embodiment of the tragic hero. Think of any Schwarzenegger film from the 80’s or 90’s, of recent revenge heroes like the film Peppermint or the TV show Punisher. Tragic heroes use the direct route to achieve their ends–violence. Heroes in comic films continue to use deceit, imagination, and creative maneuvering to win the day; think of Knives Out as a strong example. Both the revenge films and the comic example I’ve given start with a traumatic inciting event, usually a death, but how the protagonists respond to that event determines the course of the film or show.

Ideas about tragic and comic heroes don’t map directly onto ideas about gelastic and agelastic people or societies, but there’s certainly a relationship to be had there.

We can, though, easily speak about gelastic and agelastic theologies within Christianity. I’d been thinking about this idea in terms of restrictive and expansive theologies prior to listening to Dr. Gimbel’s great course, and I think that this correlates with gelastic (expansive) and agelastic (restrictive) quite well.

I’d ask the question this way: Does your theology make the world less joyful, smaller, easier to explain, and focus on what is not permissible, or does your theology make the world bigger, more wondrous, less explicable, and focus on doing rather than avoiding? Restrictive and expansive. Agelastic and gelastic.

The Sunday School class I’ve been participating in recently asked me to teach for a few sessions on humor in the Bible, based in part on my sharing with them my idea about Reading Matthew 18:15-17 as a Joke. I was, admittedly, ill prepared to say more on the matter, so I ordered some books, digested them quickly, and put together some examples and arguments for them.

We laughed together as we read in the Old Testament sex jokes, dark humor, comic deceit, and bathroom humor, the sorts of things we’re taught not to expect from the Bible. In the New Testament, we looked at Jesus’s use of sarcasm and satire as a social tool for liberation, seeing in Jesus not a meek and helpless man but an image of the God who chooses to triumph without inflicting violence on others.

I made arguments about the use of humor in the Bible as a way for God to indicate understanding of the human condition, of being willing to roll around in the mud with us (so to speak), to be close to us in the human experience. I argued that God’s sense of humor is an indication of God’s sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and love for Creation. But perhaps the best takeaway from one of my classmates was the idea that, while reading the Bible, context matters. For instance, if you know that, in the understanding and practice of the Old Testament writers, “feet” are sometimes used as a euphemism for “genitalia,” there are a number of passages that suddenly become a bit more risque and much more comic. Note that this substitution does not apply to the New Testament writers, especially when reading about the washing of feet. That’s just feet.

Therein lies the importance of humor and a gelastic outlook to good theology. In both, context matters. The requirements to change perspectives, to view from different angles, to consider multiple meanings (not always in conflict with one another) are essential to the theological task.

And yet, conservative Christianity takes the agelastic approach. Biblical humor becomes blasphemy, as if God is so vulnerable as to be injured by words. Seriousness is holiness, and a strict and limited definition of holiness, focused more on avoidance of a checklist of no-no’s than the actual pursuit of a better, more just world in line with God’s kingdom. In the conservative branch of the faith, there is but one interpretation–theirs–which may not be questioned, may not be looked at from a different perspective, and most definitely should not be joked about. Conservative Christianity is certainly agelastic; I’d argue that it’s tragic as well.

Progressive Christianity, on the other hand, is clearly gelastic. The humility that follows the admission that one’s personal theology is not the only possible theology, that one might be wrong on certain or all points, naturally includes the ability to enjoy humor, sometimes at one’s expense, but more often at the difficulty of the human condition combined with the hope of God’s promises. It is expansive, allowing one to consider multiple valuations of what is “good” and “true” and “righteous,” not in a relativistic way, but in a way that acknowledges that, even when dealing with objective Truth, context matters. Having come from a relatively conservative church background, and returning to the Christian faith with a much more progressive theology has made the world seem brighter, more hopeful, more worth fighting for. And, yes, funnier.

This is a roundabout way to argue in favor of progressive Christianity. A full argument on this tack would require much more space and time than I have here. So, I’ve settled for hitting some high points for your consideration, that you might dig deeper and see whether these ideas have some personal meaning to you in determining your own thought about your faith and theology–Christian or not. I should also say that this is not a logical argument that I’ve made–whether a theology is agelastic or gelastic does not determine whether it is true. On the other hand, “you shall know the tree by its fruit.” And I’ve often argued, and will continue to do so, that not all methods of understanding matters of faith sound in logic and cold reason. Some are matters of intuition, emotion, and experience.

Patreon Planning Update

As I continue to plan for a launch of my Patreon at the beginning of the new year, I want to keep you apprised of the details so that you can determine whether this is something you will be interested in. A few changes or additions to the plans in previous posts:

(1) I intend to have only one Patron level instead of three to simplify delivery of “the goods.” This level will be $5 per month; I’m anticipating a $50 per year alternative if you’re the kind of daring soul willing to take a risk up front.
(2) I am establishing an account on WorldAnvil, which will be used to organize content for your reading pleasure. It’s my understanding that access to WorldAnvil can be synched with Patreon, providing some nice compatibility on that front.
(3) I have been working to write, compile, revise and codify existing worldbuilding material for Avar Narn, with the intent of having a ready reserve of material to post to hit promised monthly quotas. However, I’ve decided it’s better on all fronts for me to open with as much material as I can muster by the end of this year and to devote myself to new material when the first month begins. This way, you’ll have some background on the world to explore from the second your Patreon becomes active. Some of this will be rough works in progress (particularly the long history of the world), but some will also be focused write-ups on particular topics of importance to the setting. I believe that I currently have somewhere around 25,000 words of material to begin from, and will be working as furiously as I’m able over the course of this month to increase that number as much as possible for launch. I’m also working to have a new map of Altaene (the islands that are home to the “Seven Sisters” cities and the setting of Things Unseen) by launch.
(4) 10,000 words of new setting material (or equivalents in maps and visual design work) will be the bare minimum I strive to deliver each month. Additional features beyond that amount will include: new short stories, early access to revisions of the Things Unseen novel in progress, development toward a complete roleplaying game using my own developed system–Patrons will be encouraged to playtest and provide feedback once the ruleset becomes workable, and behind-the-scenes commentary on my work progress and methods. It is my intent for the Patreon to provide broad access to the world of Avar Narn, however you want to interface with it–whether that is enjoying fiction, becoming immersed in the lore and history of the world, or leading and taking part in your own adventures within the setting.
(5) It is my intent to pour all proceeds from Patreon back into the setting itself. Funds will pay for maintenance of the hosting and other costs of online material, the purchase of books and tools to enable me to better expand the materials available for you and, if possible, the commissioning of third-parties for high-quality artwork, maps, and layout/design for the compilation of materials into books and other media.
(6) As previously mentioned, I will also be establishing a Discord for Patrons to dialogue with me and others, pose questions about the setting and generally engage in a developing community around Avar Narn.

More to come soon!

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – a Strange Nostalgia

I haven’t quite finished the game yet, but I’m far enough in I think I can give a good review. Here it is.

First, the ugly. Feel free to skip these minor rants if you’d like.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Assassin’s Creed games. I love the historical aspects of them: running around in reconstructions of places I’ve studied but can never truly visit, hearing at least a palatable effort at ancient spoken languages (the Old English of Valhalla being the one I’m most familiar with, as it happens), and living an adventure–if overblown and grandiose–in another time. But I hate the framing device in which all of the Assassin’s Creed story takes place. If there weren’t so many people out there trying to peddle some version of historical belief in ancient aliens (an idea I find to be demeaning to historical peoples and often invoked as a matter of racism), I might not mind it in my fantasy games. But there are, and I do.

I’m also not a huge fan of the use of Templars and Assassins as factions for what is (at least in part) supposed to be a “good versus evil through history” struggle. Both factions are too nuanced and problematic for such use, and employing them in such a way, I think, plays too much into the conspiracy theories about them. From the narrative perspective, it’s sloppy writing to resort to them. From the historical perspective, its dangerous pseudo-revisionism thinly guised by fantasy. At best, their use makes unintended assertions about history that, while placed in a fictional environment that logically has no bearing on actual history, blends enough of the semblance of history into the setting to make that easy to forget. This is only partially side-stepped by the fact that the factions we’re dealing with in this game are the “Hidden Ones” and the “Order of Ancients,” the precursors, respectively, of Assassins and Templars.

So, I try to skip through those parts of AC games (though not all the Order hunting–I’m not a philistine) and focus on the “historical” portion of the games. Thankfully, they historical portions are by far the greater part, and I’ve only really had one cut-scene of the present “Animus” framing device in many hours of play.

Gripe #2: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has no singlehanded swords for player use. Given that the early medieval sword (those that fall under Peterson’s typology rather than Oakeshott’s) is an iconic image of the Viking, it is nothing short of a travesty that they are missing from the game. This is exacerbated by several factors: (1) many enemies use a single-handed sword, so the assets and animations are at least partially present, and the “why can’t I just pick one up” question looms large; (2) you are given several ahistorical two-handed swords to use; (3) it’s just such an obvious oversight.

A further comment about the two-handed swords (with the caveat that I’ve mostly been using one in the game): my supposition is that the choice not to include dedicated one-hand swords arose out of a perk that allows you to use large weapons in a single hand (thus pressing the two-handed sword into service as a one-handed sword). Yes, it’s a video-game, but that choice strikes me as dumb anyway. From a mechanical standpoint, it reduces the value of choice of weapons, with the realism sacrificed for the “cool” value a bit over the line for my taste (which I admit is a personal matter). From a historical perspective, it pushes the problem of the lack of historicity even further.

You see, there really weren’t two-handed swords in the 9th century (when the game takes place). There are several reasons: first, the metallurgy of the time was not a precise science by any means, and making a durable blade of two-hander length wasn’t likely enough to succeed to be worth it. Viking blades, like katana, were created through the “pattern-welding” process of steel-making, which relies in turn on “forge welding.” In forge welding, several slats of metal are heated until they begin to fuse and then wrapped and twisted together into a cohesive whole, where the flaws of one original piece of metal are hedged by the presence of the other pieces. Because of the differing carbon content in the finished piece, a blade could be acid-etched to reveal the patterns in the twisted metal. The result is what the Vikings purportedly called “the serpent in the steel” and is often mistaken for Damascus steel.

There are a handful of photos sometimes claimed to be of archeological finds of two-handed swords, but these photos make their argument based on the length of the grip. That itself is problematic for two reasons: (a) these photos are not of complete weapons in useable condition, and it’s difficult (perhaps impossible) to know how much of the blade’s tang that would extend into the pommel is being touted as space for a hand, which it is not; (b) without full provenance and scholarly descriptions of these blades, the photos aren’t really that helpful anyway. The second and third reason two-handers weren’t common are related to the style and nature of early medieval warfare.

Valhalla never demonstrates this (missing some interesting mechanics, I think), but battles in the 9th century (and surrounding centuries) were largely fought based on the shield wall (as since ancient times with Romans and Greeks before them). For the shield wall to work, your shield is responsible for protecting part of your body, but also part of the body of the man standing beside you. That means that everyone in the rank needs to carry a shield. That leaves no place for two-handed swords.

There are anecdotes about brave warriors moving in front of their shield wall, exposing themselves and demonstrating that bravery, while throwing spears, collecting the gear of a fallen enemy, or undertaking other exploits, but it is the fact that this is extraordinary behavior, not common behavior, that makes these descriptions part of sagas (with parallels in Celtic literature and probable other cultures’ tales of the same period).

The two-handed sword largely (but not solely) developed in the high and late middle ages for a single reason–plate armor. The reliability of plate armor meant that a shield became unnecessary as a weapon of war, and that new weapons were needed to confront the threat. The acute-pointed, two-handed blades of the late 14th and the 15th century were a response to changes in armor, allowing a weapon that could be “half-sworded” to find the chinks in an opponent’s plate at close range and that could be wielded with greater speed, power and precision generally.

There is debate (and perhaps some consensus that the answer is “no”) as to whether a single-handed sword can break through the riveted maille used by Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. Even if it doesn’t, though the force exerted by a blade hitting mail can break bone and cause significant internal injury (of course, a padded gambeson was worn under mail to help resist this). Regardless, the single-handed sword (as well as spears and axes) where largely seen as sufficient to address this problem (or the metallurgy issue trumped all in preventing two-handed swords).

Okay, enough of that.

My third issue really has nothing to do with the game proper, so I’ll keep it short. I am concern about the idea of the “modern Viking.” I’m seeing an increase of clothing brands using that kind of terminology (on them or in advertising) in soliciting buyers in the tactically-minded, survivalist, or militia-type categories. This disturbs me because: (1) Vikings were not people to be emulated; (2) our society has no place for the kind of behavior for which Vikings are seemingly idealized; and (3) identifying oneself in such a way (except for a very small minority of people, perhaps) is not realistic. Even where it may be realistic, I’m not sure that it’s healthy. It’s essentially saying “I’m someone who thinks violence is the best answer.” I cannot disagree more. Alright, that’s done and done.

Now, what do I actually think about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla? A few things, in fact. Is it fun? Yes. Is there a lot of content to play through if you want it? Yes. Is it a beautiful game? Yes. If you liked AC Origins or AC Odyssey will you enjoy it? Absolutely.

All of that said, I have some reservations about Valhalla as an “Assassin’s Creed” game. This game has added some great elements to enhance the Viking side of things, but I think that this comes at the cost of the “Assassin’s Creed” heritage. The Raiding mechanic (in which your longboat crew assists you in attacking and pillaging monasteries to steal supplies and materials used to build and enhance your own settlement) is fun and, at least on a stereotypical level, emblematic of our ideas of Vikings. Likewise, references to holmgangs, weregilds and althings help immerse one in the Viking and Anglo-Saxon cultures. The reliance on tales of Ragnar Lodhbrok may lean too heavily on the recent History Channel (which, ironically, isn’t usually that great in its historicism, preferring in both documentary and fictional programming to serve entertainment over accuracy).

As an admission, I’m playing on “Normal” difficulty. I tell myself that this is because I don’t want to devote the additional time required to play at a harder difficulty level, but you’re free to substitute whatever rationale or psychology you’d like. On normal difficulty, there quickly becomes little reason to resort to stealth, as you become powerful enough to wade into even the most heavily-guarded fortresses and take out everyone without breaking a sweat. Very Viking saga, yes, but not very assassin-y.

Overall, the game has a lot more in common for me with the Witcher 3 (although less well-written, less complex, and generally less interesting than my travels with Geralt) than with the early AC games. Gone are the desperate roof-top escapes from guardsman in a world where everyone is inexplicably a parkour master. Gone are the hit-and-run tactics. Gone is the aching for the time when you unlock the second hidden blade to take out those pesky pairs of door guards. Do I really miss those things? I miss the Florence of AC 2 and the pirate shenanigans of Black Flag, but I’m not sure I miss the stealth gameplay as a whole. It is, though, notably deficient. Again, a higher difficult mode may sufficiently remediate that problem–at the expense of no longer feeling like a powerful Viking warrior in a saga. But, given my complaints about historical accuracy above, maybe I’m just not someone easy to please, and the fault lies more with me with the game. As you know from my last review, I just came off of playing Watch Dogs: Legion, so maybe I’ve been stealth game-played out for little while. Or maybe that’s just not my style of game, much as I’d like to think it is.

But there is an aspect of the game that leaves all of the rest by the wayside and has kept me coming back to sink hour after hour into it: the setting itself. If you’re a frequent reader of the blog, you know that my own historical study has more to do with the late medieval and early-modern periods than the time of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. But I took a semester of Old English in grad school; I’ve read Beowulf, The Dream of the Rood, and The Battle of Maldon, some of the sagas and the Norse mythologies. I know enough not to think of the 9th century as a “dark age.”

As with both Origins and Odyssey, the ways in which the culture, art and architecture of the setting are brought to life amaze me and put me in awe. In addition to the pure pleasure of dwelling in the setting for a while–what I’d argue is the game’s biggest draw–it’s actually helped me discover and think about some flaws in my own historical conceptions.

Some of these are part of our general culture, I think–our movies and books tend to conflate the material culture of the late medieval–knights in shining (plate) armor, palace-like fairy-tale castles, etc.–with oversimplified cultural concepts derived more from the late Viking age and early medieval.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, in parallel to playing Valhalla, I spend some time re-reading through The One Ring roleplaying game books (impressed again at how well this system in particular captures the feel of Tolkien’s world without layering on other fantasy ideas and fandoms) and watching the Hobbit trilogy with K (we also got halfway through LotR, but some unexpected demands–mostly work in my case and football in hers–prevented the completion of the second trilogy). They reminded me how much Tolkien’s world should be conceptualized in light of the Anglo-Saxon world rather than later medieval ideas. The armored characters should be in maille, not plate, wielding Carolingian or Viking-style weapons rather than later-medieval ones. The Rohirrim embody the Anglo-Saxon feel within the films fairly directly (aside from having stirrups and cavalry), but that aesthetic, or riffs upon it, should extend far further. I wonder whether and hope that the impending Lord of the Rings reboot will follow that tack.

Since the films released, Tolkien’s Children of Hurin, relying as it does on elements of Kallervo from the Kalevala in the story of Turin Turambar, serves as a reminder that Middle-Earth belongs in the early-medieval more than the late in terms of material culture and style.

That, ultimately, is what I’ve come to love about AC Valhalla: that it makes me feel a nostalgia for a period of time I’ve discovered that I find far more enthralling and fascinating than I previously knew. I guess I’m going to have to start looking for a Great Course on the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, or go back to reading Tolkien and Norse sagas.

Maybe this isn’t the kind of review you were looking for–with its diatribes and digressions, that’s perfectly understandable. But I’d like to conclude by saying that I think the praise I’ve given here, that the game immerses one in an amazing historical milieu, is about the best I can give. Except that, if you haven’t played The Witcher 3, for God’s sake, go play that first. Then you can play Valhalla. On the other hand, if you’ve never played an Assassin’s Creed game, Valhalla makes for an easy entry point, if one that won’t prepare you for the early titles in the series.