I Want to Believe

[Warning: There are spoilers in this post, particularly for Netflix’s Crime Scene: Disappearance at the Cecil Hotel.]

I’m a big fan of paranormal stuff. I love the X-Files and listening to paranormal podcasts (Astonishing Legends, Lore and the Cryptonaut Podcast being my favorites in the genre).

But I’m also a big skeptic. What draws my interest to the paranormal is not really a belief in the existence of most of the things that are described, but a love of the stories themselves. I’m often listening for the seeds of something to include in worldbuilding or fiction, where the “reality” of an event or phenomenon doesn’t really matter. If you’d like some examples of my skepticism, I’ve placed some of my personal conclusions on popularly-discussed topics below.1

I’m inclined to disbelieve the supernatural (or extraterrestrial/”ultraterrestrial”) nature of such phenomena. I’m fascinated by the propensity of humans to misinterpret, misremember and create narrative out of unrelated details, as well as the ideas and “memes” that gain widespread cultural traction. And, of course, the stories.

A great example: the disappearance and tragic death of Elisa Lam at the Cecil Hotel (as recently documented on Netflix). I remember seeing the video of Ms. Lam in the elevator on the internet, pitched as evidence of something (never quite defined) that was “supernatural,” and remember it being cited in the description of a “Bloody Mary”-like game played with an elevator (this may have been Astonishing Legends or Cryptonaut, if memory serves). Just some of hundreds of ways that video (which seemed eerier because the police had slowed it down in hopes that that would make it easier to recognize the person in it before they released it to the public) was pointed to as “evidence” of the supernatural. But it wasn’t: it was a recording of someone with very real mental health issues in the throes of a delusional break that tragically led to her death.

But part of me wants to believe: the world would be more interesting if we were being visited by extraterrestrials and dimensional-traveling bigfoots and mothmen, being regularly haunted by the spirits of the deceased and influenced by supernatural forces that interact with us in unseen ways. If I’m mostly Scully, I’m a little Mulder, too.

And, given my general epistemological skepticism, I’m willing to leave the possibilities open. Even as I vehemently disagree with ancient alien theories as based in racism and a lack of understanding that humans 4,000 years ago were just as intelligent as humans today (if lacking the benefit of the additional millennia of experimentation and gathered knowledge we enjoy), I do admit the possibility that Earth has at some time been visited by intelligent life from other planets. At the end of the day, I wasn’t there and I cannot be sure what actually happened. I realize that and admit that; while I defer to skeptical assessments, I’m not so arrogant as to assume my suppositions couldn’t be incorrect.

Alright, what the hell is all of this about, really? In listening to these podcasts and watching these shows, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my religious faith differs (or doesn’t) from the fervent belief of many in the supernatural nature of these phenomena. I’m reminded of a Dan Bern song, “Talkin Alien Abduction Blues,” which includes the lyrics: “But once a week I meet with twelve/Other folks who’ve been abducted too/I tell my story/They tell theirs/I don’t believe them, though.”2

Funny because it’s true, maybe. My faith in Christianity, ultimately, is a belief in the supernatural. Is it different from belief in more “folkloric” topics I’ve described above? The knee-jerk Christian reaction is: “Of course, it is; how dare you!” The knee-jerk atheist reaction is: “Of course it’s not; just one more delusion.” If you’ve been reading this blog for long (or have heard my wife speak about me), you know that “it’s a bit more nuanced then that” would be my motto, if I had one.

But what, if anything, makes them different? I’m going to lay out my own thoughts (perhaps arguments) here, but they are for you to agree with or deny as you will. Go ahead; I won’t know the difference.

How are the subjects alike?

Belief, Lack of Evidence, Personal Experience
The very thing that raises the question at all is the combination that: (1) there are people who believe in either the paranormal or religion, and (2) there is insufficient evidence–and, when it comes down to it, no real methodology–for proving the objective existence of either.2 And yet, there are people whose personal experiences (myself included) have led to a staunch belief in one or the other (or both).

But we know that experiences may be deceiving. Our perceptions sometimes lie, we often see what we want to see, and memories can be problematic (we see this most often in inconsistent bystander accounts of the same event, but a far more dramatic demonstration is the false memories “recovered” from children during the Satanic Panic of the 80’s).

Proof Remains a Possibility
At the same time, the possibility of one day having undeniable proof of the truth of these beliefs remains open. It is possible that, someday, someone will catch a sasquatch, or capture an alien or their craft, that the Ark of the Covenant will be discovered, or that Jesus will come again. This possibility lends a weight to beliefs that leads people to focus on seeking that proof over understanding the meaning of the beliefs. In the case of the paranormal, the former may be the proper focus; in the case of the latter, I’ve argued (and will continue to) that the meaning of the beliefs is more important than proving them.

Reliant on Core Assumptions
Another way that these ideas share a background for comparison is that they both tend to rely on assumptions about the way existence works. In the case of Christianity, there is a foundational belief that there is a spiritual reality and purpose to the world we experience. Without that belief, there is no need to examine whether Christianity might accurately describe reality. Likewise, without a belief that some part of a human being survives death, there’s no need to investigate ghosts or EVPs.

How Might We Separate the Types of Belief?

Objective Reality
If we’re going to believe in the existence of any objective truth to existential realities (which I do), then there is, perhaps, a simple answer: something is true or not regardless of whether I (or anyone else) believe. So, then, it is possible for one thing to be true (“Black-Eyed Kids” for example) and the other (Christ’s resurrection) to be false. As stated above, the issue is not one of the truth, but of our inability to demonstrably demonstrate the truth. We are, at the end of the day, left with choosing to believe in one or the other based on experience, logical thought and what (fragmentary) objective evidence we have.

As an aside on this topic, some aspects of the supernatural may be falsifiable in the local event because they are revealed to have been a hoax. For example, the table rappings and Spiritualist performances of the Fox sisters. But such revealed hoaxes don’t answer questions about the phenomenon as a whole–disproving the Fox sisters doesn’t disprove the ideas of Spiritualism. Of course, as hoaxes mount in a particular field, we are, probably rightfully, more and more inclined not to believe in the claims and assertions of that specific field or idea.

Internal Consistency
Without an ability to test the objective truth of our beliefs, or to truly share those experiences we might have had that convict us of our beliefs, one of the remaining tools to test these sorts of ideas (whether religious or paranormal) is the internal consistency of the details of the idea. The more speculation a narrative requires to answer the questions of “why is this happening” or “why is this happening this way?”, the less believable it is. This is true of both fiction and stories purported to be truthful. Where supposition about the nature of reality is necessary to fill these gaps, faith and belief in the paranormal are similar. Where a lot of gap-filling is necessary to make the story make sense as a cohesive narrative, we have an even greater issue. This happens quite a bit in alien encounters, where the story often involves a lot of “why would they [the aliens] do that, or need to do that”, “why would the aliens be confused by X when they have technology that allows them to safely and [presumably] quickly traverse the cosmos?”, “what’s the point of that encounter at all?”

As a set of disparate individual stories, cobbled together to form some sort of cohesion in the lore of Ufology, there is, naturally, a good deal of confusion and contradiction between the ideas themselves–making for, at least, a lot of passionate and fascinating argument about what “is really going on.”

I’ve argued elsewhere that Christianity, taken as a whole, presents a very coherent argument about the nature and meaning of reality. Yes, there are contradictions in the scriptures. Yes, they were also created in different times and places by different people. But together, we are given a cogent depiction of a creator God who is interested in love, goodness, and relationship over black and white rules, and who is willing to sacrifice and to stand with creation in the pursuit of those things. Even if on a narrative and intuitive level, the thrust of Christianity as a set of beliefs just seems to have much more substance than most paranormal “theories.” To me, this is the result of Christian scriptures being “God-breathed,” not a demand for dogged literalism.

And, yes, there are (myself included!) lots of people arguing about Christianity. The difference from most paranormal arguments, though, is that arguments between believers are less focused on “what is going on”–which is largely a settled matter of the faith–and more on, “what does it mean?”

Meaning and Purpose
Here is where paranormal beliefs and religious ones differ most greatly, and we should, I think, separate paranormal beliefs into two camps here for fair comparison.

In the first camp are those beliefs that seek to tell us something about the world around us, that are attempts at observation and description of immediate reality in a manner loosely approximating “scientific.” Ufology usually falls into this camp (but can blend with the other), as does the search for cryptids. These types of belief can be readily separated from religious ideologies as being fundamentally oriented toward a different goal and subject.

In the second camp are those that seek to describe something about greater or ultimate reality–beliefs in demons, ghosts, malevolent and beneficent spirits, ESP and psychic abilities. These beliefs are closer to being religious in nature–in some cases should rightly be considered religious ideas. Nevertheless, they usually lack guidance for the living of one’s life (save perhaps for warnings against certain kinds of behavior) or the kind of theological depth of explanatory power for the broader meaning of existence.

To be certain, Christianity makes assertions about the (supernatural) nature of ultimate reality. But it is less interested, actually, in describing in detail the cosmic structure of things and more interested in providing a source of meaning and guidance on how to live a meaningful, fulfilling, and joyful life in the here and now. Jesus sometimes speaks of the “world to come,” and of ultimate judgment, and of the eternal life of the person. But he is more focused in his ministry in answering the question, “How, then, should we live?” There is the fundamental difference between paranormal beliefs that attempt mostly to describe some asserted aspect of reality and religious belief, which is more interested in providing both practical and cosmically meaningful guidance on dealing with our existence and lives–both in senses quotidian and ultimate.

Conclusion

Maybe it just comes down to this: similar issues of epistemology, existential and objective truth, and our own desires and emotional needs exist for both belief in the paranormal and in religious faith. I tell my story, and they tell theirs. I don’t believe them, though.


1 (1) The Dyatlov Pass Incident: Based on my understanding of the known facts, I think it is highly likely that the Soviet military was testing aerial mines in the area, causing the injuries and panic that led to the deaths of the skiers. Not as sexy as infrasound or mythical beasts, but much more grounded in the probabilities.
(2) The Ourang Medan: A myth; the ship never existed.
(3) Most places where applicable: The Great Horned Owl. C.f. the Mothman, the Jersey Devil and Kelly Hopkinsville.
(4) “Black-Eyed Kids” and a number of similar phenomena: an urban legend perpetuated by societal anxieties and the popularity of “creepypasta” stories. See the “Zozo” legend, especially.
(5) Shadow people: errors in human perception (with pareidolia and personification) in some cases, night terrors in others.
(6) EVPs: pareidolia combined with (intentionally) low-grade equipment susceptible to electromagnetic interference and picking up stray radio signals.
2 If you take nothing else away from this post, look up Dan Bern. He’s an underappreciated genius of music, having written hundreds of songs in a multitude of styles, all of them witty, thoughtful and highly entertaining. I recommend starting with “Jerusalem”, “Marilyn”, “I’m Not the Guy”, “Eva” and, of course “Talkin’ Alien Abduction Blues.”
3 As I’ve argued elsewhere, science–while it tells us much of value about the world we live in, from evolution to germ theory, tectonics to particle physics–cannot comment on the existence of the supernatural, whether faith-based or based in folklore, because it cannot create falsifiable theories and experiments based upon hypotheses in line with the scientific method. A refusal to accept the limitations of science quickly makes a religion out of science that then falls subject to the same issues we’re discussing. It is my belief that the rational person should both accept what science can tell us about our existence (preferring science to literal readings of scriptures when discussing the physical world) and what it cannot (preferring metaphysics, contemplation, mystic experience and religion or spirituality to tell us about the meaning of it all).

A General Update

Wow, it’s been over a month since my last post. I’m not quite ready to put anything new of substance up, but I did want to provide some assurances that I’m still here and there’s still plenty more to come in the (near) future.

So, what’s with all the radio silence? Well, it’s probably a combo of things. Work has picked up dramatically over the past month, which is a great thing, but it’s left me less time for other pursuits. Then there’s the general COVID malaise we’re all under, of course. The time I’ve had (which hasn’t been sucked up by video games or our weekly RPG (currently Blades in the Dark)–the only way I’ve really got to hang out with friends right now–has been spent in reading and writing. But wait, if I’m writing, why isn’t there anything on the blog?

The writing I’ve been doing has been to produce first drafts of two new short stories. They need some good rounds of revision (which I need to find time and will for) before I send them off to see if either of them makes it to publication (I’ve got significant doubts about one, though I still think it’s a good story; the other I’ve got some serious hopes for). If, as it likely, both are rejected, they will appear on the blog in a short while.

In addition to those stories making it to the public in one way or another, here are some additional things to look forward to or to enjoy now:

(1) Avar Narn World Anvil: I had previously mentioned that all of the background information for my fantasy world, Avar Narn, has been made viewable for everyone. Well, because of a setting error, that wasn’t exactly true. That has been fixed, and if you want to delve more into the background and lore of the world in which my stories are set, you can go here. This will, of course, continue to be expanded upon.

I’m also, slowly, working on a set of RPG rules for Avar Narn. These will go up either here or on World Anvil (or both) as playable iterations become available. While they are being created with Avar Narn in mind specifically, most of the rules will work with other fantasy settings and game operating under similar assumptions.

(2) Fatherhood: We’re getting ready to open our home again for a foster/adoptive placement. It’s hard to believe it’s already been almost a year since the boys left, but we’re keeping up with them and their family and they seem, by all accounts, to be thriving! This may be a slow build, as we get all necessary approvals in order and then wait for something to happen, almost certainly with a narrower set of parameters than before.

(3) Frostgrave: COVID hit before I could get everything prepped to actually play this amazing game. With the time looming where I can get together with friends soon (I’ve got my second vaccination shot at the end of the month and most of my circle are already vaccinated or waiting on their second dose), I’m returning to the prep work to get this worked upon.

(4) Theology: I’ve got several half-written theology posts that I’ll be returning to shortly. I don’t want to call my time during COVID a “dark night of the soul,” per se, but I’ve been putting off writing that is very important to me on this front.

(5) Reviews: I’ve been rereading through old sword and sorcery works (Howard and Lieber, specifically), and I imagine some thoughts about the genre and the context of those stories are bubbling into an article. I also recently listened to “Black Crow, White Snow,” a fantasy novella available on Audible, which provides a great juxtaposition with the antiquated views of Howard and Lieber.

I’ve also recently reviewed a lot of different RPG systems in thinking about my own and I imagine I’ll have some things to say about all of that as well–along with my thoughts on the Blades in the Dark system after getting a few more sessions of the game experience under my belt.

Hopefully that gives everyone something to look forward to. More to come soon!

On Mapping

I have spent more time and energy on mapping tools for Avar Narn and other works of mine than I care to admit, with far less to show for it that I would like to admit, except that it might be beneficial for some of you, so here we go.

I’ve owned ProFantasy’s Campaign Cartographer since it was CC2, and, over the years, I’ve purchased most of the add-ons and about two thirds of the Annuals. And yet, I have only really completed about 2 maps with CC3+, and none that I’m particularly happy with. CC3+ is a beautiful program with tons of content and all sorts of features. It’s based in CAD, providing a solid drafting basis. You can search the web to find many, many, many, beautiful maps created through the ProFantasy programs.

For me, though, the learning curve is simply too high. I’ve come a long way from my early days with the program and understand how some of the features are intended to work and can be manipulated–I understand the use of sheets, how to change sheet effects on textures and objects, how to join paths and create nodes in paths, etc. None of this was learned through trial and error–I had to watch videos on YouTube, read the “Ultimate Mapping Guide” scour through posts on the various fantasy cartography sites, etc. Even with all that I’ve learned, I look at the beautiful maps others have created and then my own and wonder how many more things I have to learn and understand to make the mighty leap from where I’m at to where they are. Then, I spend hours fighting with the program and decide I’m better off hand-drawing. It doesn’t help that while I have a relatively powerful computer, I don’t have anything but the onboard graphics card, so draw times are slow and the program sometimes lags severely.

I like hand-drawn maps and I’ve probably spent the most amount of time working on various iterations of pencil/pen and paper maps. I’ve collected over the years copic markers, a Speedball quill and nibs, liquid inks, artist pencils, etc., etc. Still, most of my handdrawn maps (some of which have been on the blog) remain in relatively low-detail black-and-white. I try, over and over again, to practice top-down and isometric mountains and symbols and never end up with something that satisfies. Part of that is my setting high (read: potentially unachievable) standards for myself as a novice artist (at best), part of it is becoming relatively quickly discouraged, setting it down, and picking things up much later.

In the past six months, I’ve tried a number of additional techniques. I’ve started drawing digitally using Procreate on my iPad Pro. While I’m making some progress there, both in terms of mapping and general drawing, my dedication to learning has been much more lackluster than it should be.

As alternatives, I’ve tried some of the more recent mapmaking programs–Wonderdraft and Inkarnate. I went with Wonderdraft first, using it to create some passable maps for the Innumerable Isles fantasy piratical game I recently ran for friends. While I found the program easier to use than CC3+, I also ended up with coastlines that were much blockier than I’d have liked.

This past week, I decided to try Inkarnate. At $25 for a yearly subscription, it’s far more affordable than CC3+ and just slightly less than the one-time payment for Wonderdraft (at $29.99).

It’s also far more intuitive than any of the other programs (though some basic understanding of layers in digital art is necessary), the “textures” (which are background fill patterns, such as types of grass, lava, wasteland, desert, etc.) blend really well and have enough adjustability to provide a lot of function while remaining quite simple in application. One thing I especially love is the ability to import your own textures. I’m not skilled enough to create real patterns for mapmaking, but I can use the import feature to import a picture of one of my previous maps to shape the coastlines and place icons for a new version of that map before replacing the textures with ones actually suitable for the map. That’s how I created the updated version of the map of Altaenë in Avar Narn that is the topic photo for this post: I imported a digitally-drawn rough map (itself based on a previous pencil and paper map) to create the map above.

I’m pretty happy with that map. I’d still love to produce some digitally-drawn custom maps with blended colors, handdrawn features, etc., but for the time being, this is a map I’m happy displaying or using in some of my materials. The map itself took about three or four hours to do (at a leisurely pace), making it probably the most efficient map I’ve ever produced–certainly so in light of end result. To be fair, I had long ago placed the features and coastlines and come up with most of the names (aside from making changes to better suit Altaenin linguistics), so most of the heavy creative work for the map is not included in the creation time cited.

I’m also working on a world-scale map for Avar Narn in Inkarnate and, like my experience with the map above, I’m getting results I’m quite happy with, especially for the investment of effort. In fact, I’ve not been able to create continental-level maps I’ve been happy with in other media.

I’ve still got some of the creative brainstorming to do on finishing the farther-flung regions of Avar Narn for that map, so I’m probably going to turn to a city map next to flesh out the urban setting where several of the Avar Narn short stories (including “Blood Over Gold” posted last week) are set.

If, like me, you would like to quickly, inexpensively, and efficiently produce some maps for you RPGs or fiction writing, I highly recommend that you give Inkarnate a try. There is a free trial version and you could do a test paid subscription at $5 per month if you want to dip your toes before any greater commitment.

To be clear, I have no affiliation with Inkarnate’s creators and haven’t received anything from them (or anyone else) for writing this post. Sometimes, though, I get excited enough about a writing/creative tool (even one that you’ve probably already heard of) that I feel like its worth sharing for those who might find some use in it.

Blood Over Gold

[The short story below is the one I submitted to two magazines for potential publication earlier this week. Both responses were rejections, but not dishearteningly so. The first response was expected within 24 hours and came very quickly. The second magazine I submitted to also responded within 24 hours, despite a listed typical response time of weeks. This response included feedback–which pointed to a weakness in the story that I was aware of prior to submission–but was overall encouraging. I found this especially so because this piece wasn’t written with publication in a fiction magazine in mind; it was composed to provide a narrative look at the operation of shadowmen in the city of Iliessa in the Avar Narn setting as part of my worldbuilding and “setting bible project” on WorldAnvil.com (available here). Submitting this work for publication was more important (to me) for the act of starting the process and getting familiar with it more than publishing this particular story. Rather than rewrite this story into something it was never intended to be for additional submissions, I’ve decided to post it here for your enjoyment. I’m already working on another short story that I believe will be better suited for submission and (maybe) publication.]

Aramo grunted. Fontana pulled the tourniquet tight around his thigh. She clamped it with a rough iron clip. His nurse then grabbed the shaft of the repeater crossbow bolt lodged in the meat below the binding. The cart jumped as it hit an uneven cobblestone. The shaft shifted in Fontana’s hands, the metal tip tearing a new path in Aramo’s flesh. A wave of pain washed over him; he grumbled his responsive expletives through clenched teeth.

Fontana’s face contorted with sympathetic hurt. “Sorry!” she told him. “Try and keep her steady!” she yelled to Zerisi, their driver. Everyone’s ears rang, deafened by the musket fire Roran and Temas volleyed at their pursuers. Nellen reloaded for the two, trading spent muskets for fresh ones. Zerisi said nothing.

More repeater bolts from the pursuing House agents tinked off nearby walls on either side of the alley, careening back toward the crew at odd and harmless angles. The return fire proved just as inaccurate, filling the air with the smoke and fire of empty threats.

Their pursuers’ horses foamed at the mouth, struggling at the bit, stamping closer with the clitter-clack of horseshoes on stone.

“Piss off!” Temas yelled, the blast of his musket swallowing the words whole. He gripped the weapon too tightly, braced in expectation of receiving a biting bolt like the one that had struck his friend. He tossed the spent firearm into the cart’s bed next to Nellen; the squat man’s lips moved with unheard curses as he fumbled with the matchcord of another arquebus.

Roran threw a quick glance to Aramo’s wound, gritting his teeth as if it were his own. Anger sped the next bark of his firearm. He cursed again as he traded with Nellen, another miss only driving home the impotence he felt.

The House agents proved adept riders, managing their mounts only with their legs, their arms aiming more pointed death.

The cart took a sudden turn down a side path. The passengers shifted and swayed to one side, Roran dropping the loaded musket over the side and grasping at the railing to keep his bulky Rukhosi body from toppling headfirst after it.

As soon as they’d steadied, Fontana returned her hand to the repeater bolt, this time yanking it quickly and without hesitation. Air burst through Aramo’s lips as blood spilled from the wound, the tourniquet struggling against the flow. She pulled a small phial from her belt, using her teeth to pull the cork free of the top before spitting it over the cart’s side.

She hesitated with a grimace, knowing what came next. They’d all been in Aramo’s position at one time or another. They’d always pulled through. But that thought didn’t ease the experience of it. Roran leaned over and pushed Aramo down against the cart’s rough boards, holding him steady. Before Aramo could object, Fontana poured the contents into Aramo’s wound.

He spasmed with the pain. Nellen and Temas left their other tasks to hold him down. Every nerve in the bloody crevice flared back to life at once, sending signals through his brain that carried every excruciating detail of the flesh knitting itself back together.

The ordeal concluded, Fontana unclipped the tourniquet. “Good as new,” she said.

Aramo forced a weak smile, beads of sweat gathered at his brow and cheeks. “Do we have it?”

Nellen smiled, pulling back his cloak with thin, long Ilmarin fingers. The flash of burnished metal peeked from his satchel. “We got it,” he said, triumphant. Aramo patted him on the leg, a feeble but fatherly motion.

“That was a lot of blood back there,” Temas warned. “Will they be able to track us?”

“I threw the powder you made where I could, just like you said. Between that and the wards, we should be fine, right?” Aramo said, feigning returning strength. The firing of matchlocks had subsided, and the pursuing House agents had exhausted their ammunition as well, making conversation easier. The crew trusted Zerisi to do her job, and to do it well—they had no other choice, anyway. Her daring turns and sudden sidestreets had lengthened the gap between them and their pursuers.

“It’s worked well enough in the past,” Temas admitted. “We’ll hope it keeps up. Finding someone by sympathy isn’t an easy thing to begin with.”

The cart bumped along on the Upper City streets, between nobles’ townhouses and merchant family compounds, minor bureaucratic offices, laudatory statutes to the long dead, and all the other gaudiness enjoyed by the wealthy.

Fontana pulled a length of bandage from one of her pouches, looking to a cut on Roran’s arm. He waved her off, saying, “It’s a scratch. Don’t worry about it.” The others had been bruised and battered during their fighting escape, but Aramo had taken the worst of the injuries,. Behind them, they could no longer see the House agents or their horses.

“We’re clear,” Aramo called softly to Zerisi, who nodded without looking back. The cart’s horses slowed from the breakneck pace, still moving briskly. The cobblestones came gentler now. Not gentle, but gentler.

Adrenaline faded as the danger subsided, and irrepressible grins shone on each of the crew’s faces. It hadn’t been as clean as they’d preferred, but they’d survived. A job against House Meradhvor’s embassy in Iliessa, no less. Silent, self-congratulatory stupor set in as Zerisi directed them to a quiet courtyard between lavish estates, where an enclosed carriage, not the slapdash cart they’d arrived in, awaited them.

While Zerisi untethered the horses from the cart and transferred them to the carriage’s yokes, Roran and Temas collected jars of lamp oil they’d left behind some old shipping crates, dousing the cart with the odoriferous liquid inside. Nellen wrapped a length of matchcord around the cart’s railing, clenching a striker until the sparks lit the dangling fuse.

Zerisi turned her cloak inside out, a dark navy replacing the mottled brown on the other side. She wrapped it about herself and climbed onto the carriage’s driver’s bench. Aramo knocked on the wagon’s side when the rest of the crew had taken their seats; the driver clicked at her sweaty horses, urging them into a begrudging walk.

As the vehicle left by a side alleyway, a pillar of grey-black smoke rose behind them. From any distance, it seemed just another fireplace in a neighborhood of homes full of such comforts. Blocked by the surrounding buildings, each of them three stories tall at least, no Meradhvor agent would be alerted to the burning cart’s location.

Now came the true test. The carriage’s occupants leaned back, let the shadows of the interior corners conceal them. By now, Meradhvor had raised the hue and cry. Not only had they dispatched those agents and guardsmen they had available to scour the Upper City for fleeing bandits, but they’d no doubt recruited the watch to search out the shadowmen as well.

Tension returned to the crew as the wagon slowly made its way to one of the lifts between the Upper and Lower Cities of Iliessa. Once they’d returned from these lofty bastions, they’d have the huddling masses of the working classes to mask them, the haphazard and crowded pathways of the City Below to hide them. Until then, any wayward eye, any suspicious glance, could be enough to renew the chase. They could not afford the attire that would mark them as ones who belonged to the Upper City—Roran and Nellen would stand out as unlikely inhabitants anyway. And then there was the small matter of the sundry weapons they’d festooned themselves with: matchlock or wheelock pistols, blades of all size and manner, the occasional mace or hammer for dealing with armored House guards, grenadoes and those alchemical concoctions they could source and afford. No disguising the ill intent on them. Even in the Lower City they’d draw attention and suspicion arrayed as they were.

But their Wyrgeas proved good this night, and they made their way to the lifts without incident. Zerisi slid a swan into the liftworker’s palm, far more than the cost of the journey, and he nodded his understanding. His family would eat well that month; he’d never had a magnate of the City tip so handsomely.

The other attendants hastily hammered wedges underneath the carriage’s wheels to keep them from moving during the long descent. The initial lurch of the lift, really a short, sharp fall of a few inches, pushed the crew’s stomachs toward their throats. But the sensation subsided quickly, and the steady downward crawl of the lift became pleasant. From the carriage, Aramo examined the side of Cloudcatcher Tor as it scrolled upward, scrutinizing every patch of weathered Aenyr stone or more recent patchwork that he could before it disappeared, wondering who the now faceless figures carved into the niches and alcoves of the structure had once signified.

His fellows passed a bottle of rotgut, artificially calming their nerves. They complemented one another for their meritorious actions during the heist, when one saved the other from certain doom or another’s quick thinking prevented disaster for the lot of them. Laughing and smiles had seized them, and for this moment, nothing outside the carriage existed. You can’t stare down the cold ruthlessness of the Artificer Houses and not come to love the ones who stand with you. And this wasn’t their first job. Far from it.

Finally, the platform settled upon the Avar with a bump, like a stair met more quickly than expected. The lower lift attendants removed the wheel-blocks and Zerisi set the carriage moving without hesitation.

The crew traveled more slowly through the Lower City, both out of a sense of newfound safety and out of necessity—the alleyways of the Upper City were as broad thoroughfares in the Lower. Some of the narrower passages obliged Zerisi to stop the horses and wait for pedestrians to duck into the doorways of homes or any other alcove at hand to avoid the carriage crushing them as it passed.

The crew made their way into the heart of The Scraps and its piles of dilapidated tenement buildings, each four or five stories high, many of them leaning against one another like comrades after a night of heavy drinking, framing timbers always somehow damp. Wastewater and piss moistened the cobbles below. Shallow stone trenches had once run on either side of the street, directing such filth away from passersby’s feet, but that had been centuries past, when people of means lived in this place, waiting for the towers to be restored and the Upper City to welcome them to a grandeur separated from the rough folk below. Nightsoil had filled those drainage runs long since, and little weeds, defiant in their very existence amongst the cobbles, grew from the nutrients left behind. It reminded Zerisi of her crew: born in shit but still green with life, beautiful in an oft-ignored way.

A squat, sprawling tavern building, constructed of fieldstone rather than wood—though as poorly maintained as the rest of the neighborhood—had been erected in the ruins of several apartment buildings that burnt several decades past. The Proud Pig, refuge of the Scraps. Here, Zerisi brought the carriage to a stop.

The tavern had no stables, but neither did a stolen carriage need to be left in one place for too long. A man in a wide-brimmed hat, chair leaned back against the tavern wall in the shadow of its larger upper story, looked up from his drink to the new arrivals. He caught Aramo’s eye and ran his finger along the brim of his hat. The shadowman responded by touching a finger to his temple, not particularly returning the fence’s gaze.

The other man nodded; Aramo and his crew returned to the narrow street to make the rest of the way home on foot. The man in the hat, or his lackeys, would sell the horses, repaint the carriage, and press it into service elsewhere in the city, splitting the income from the transactions with the crew.

Avoiding any inopportune run-in with the city guard by keeping to lesser-used snickelways in the poorer districts, the crew made the long journey to their safehouse in Bywater, a brick building once used as a warehouse and nestled in the shadow of the Great Aqueduct. Only once they had crossed the threshold into that place did they truly let down their guard.

Each member of the crew first went to his or her own personal space, sorting and putting away weapons, removing pieces of concealed armor, changing into more comfortable clothes. One by one, they reconvened at the uneven wooden table where they planned their heists, shared their meals, played their games, drank and sang.

Fontana lit the planks waiting quietly in what had once been a small forge; they’d converted it into a cooktop by suspending a sheet of heavy iron over it on chains. As the flames grew, she placed a pot of water on the slab to boil, grabbing a handful of coffee beans and throwing them in a mortar. She turned to the center of the building, idly grinding the beans into powder with the pestle.

Temas carefully inspected the obfuscatory wards, the crew’s sole defense against scrying eyes. He took his time, checking for any smudge, and alterations in the carefully-painted mixture of ash and oil. Satisfied, he, too, joined the others.

Nellen pulled the Artifact from his satchel and placed it delicately in the center of the table for all to see.

A sphere, bronze in color and elaborately etched in clean, sharp lines forming unfamiliar symbols and miniature scenes that could not be deciphered at distance, rolled across the planks before settling into a gap between two of them.

“What is it?” Roran asked.

“Does it have a sympathy?” Aramo followed, pulling back the scraps of cloth that served as curtains for one of the building’s few windows and checking the street outside.

Temas stepped forward and lifted the Artifact to his face. His eyes glazed over as he invoked the Sight, searching their prize for signs of arcane tracking. After only a few seconds, he stumbled backward, Roran catching him with a powerful arm and Fontana nimbly seizing the Artifact from the air before it clattered to the dirt floor.

Shaking his head, Temas recovered his feet, bracing himself against the table’s edge. “No sympathies,” he said. “It’s not House Artifice. It’s older…Aenyr.”

Nellen stepped closer, cocking his head at an angle as he examined the sphere cupped in Fontana’s hands. “What’s it for?” he asked.

“No idea,” Temas responded, using both hands, fingers and thumbs formed into pincers, to take the object from Fontana and return it to the gap between the table’s boards so that all could see its glory. “But it’s got to be worth a fortune. Way more than we’re being paid for this job.”

“You thinking we sell it to someone else?” Zerisi asked, crossing her arms below a relaxed expression.

“Nellen, you know anyone in the Grey Markets who could find us a buyer?” Temas asked.

The short man shook a long finger at his compatriot. “What? Because I’m Ilmarin, you think I know every Grey Artificer in the city? You’re natural born; do you know every slovenly beggar in the Twists? Every whore in Gracaellas? Don’t be an asshole.”

“I just thought that, being a burglar by trade, you might know a well-connected fence,” Temas sputtered.

“Oh.”

Chuckling at the exchange, Aramo leaned forward, hands stretched across the table to his sides, resting on the edge. “We’re not selling the Artifact to someone else. We took a job and we’re going to finish it. Where’s your sense of honor? Reputation?”

Roran stepped back from the table, recoiling with a belly laugh that bared all of his teeth—but especially the dagger-like canines. Even without gear, he cut an intimidating figure, just over six feet of pure muscle wrapped in greyish flesh. “Honor? Are you kidding me? We’re shadowmen, god dammit! The whole point is that no one knows who we are. If they don’t know who we are, how can we have any reputation, much less honor?”

“We’re not common criminals,” Aramo retorted, leaning farther over the table toward Roran. “We have to have a code.”

“Fuck off with that shit, ‘Mo! We have to survive is all, maybe make enough coin to live better off than we started, not have to risk our necks day after day for our next meal. Leave the honor and the reputation to the fucking halfwit nobles who have the luxury of such airy concerns. It’s us against them, ain’t it?”

Aramo’s face hardened. “Of course you don’t understand, Rory. You’ve never known anything else. You scraped your way up through the street gangs to working for the Coin Lords. I guess there really is no honor among thieves.”

Roran smiled in retort, malice in the tips of his teeth and scorn in his lips. “You were a mercenary before you became a shadowman. You killed people for money, same as me. Don’t think we’re different, or that you’re better than me. Hypocrite.”

“I—” Aramo started, face softening from the blow. It wasn’t the first time they fought like brothers; it wouldn’t be the last.

Fontana stepped between the two men, table betwixt her and Aramo. “No single haul is worth our status as shadowmen,” she said.

“This one is,” Temas said, matter-of-factly.

“He’s right,” Nellen added, “We could all retire. I know a guy in the Markets, he could give us a better idea of exactly how much we could get.”

Temas threw his hands up and turned away from the table. “’I know a guy,’ he says,” he muttered. The Ilmarin shrugged with a sly smile and the others laughed, the tension ebbing away for a fleeting moment.

“Of course you say this haul is worth giving up our livelihood, Temas,” Zerisi returned. “You could go back to practicing thaumaturgy if you weren’t a shadowman. The rest of us don’t have that luxury.”

Temas turned back, swiftly. “You know that’s not true, Z. I can barely manage the simplest of workings. My master deemed me unworthy of even training as an aspected practitioner. I left because the other option was a lifetime of servitude to some magister somewhere. If I’d wanted to be a servant, I could have done that anywhere; I wouldn’t have ended up here. Did you think that this was a game for me? That I came to this life on a whim? We’re all here for the same reason: we don’t fit elsewhere. Maybe that choice was made for us, maybe we made it for ourselves. But we’re all in it together because we’re the same.”

“Family,” Fontana said, eyes examining her feet.

“Besides,” Aramo returned to the fray, “If we reneged on a job, the Coin Lords would have our heads. That’s how it works. You might have the money, but you wouldn’t live to spend it. Not without always looking over your shoulder, at least.”

“But they only know you,” Roran objected. “You’re the one they approved. They don’t know the rest of us and don’t want to. That’s how it works, Mo.”

Aramo took a step back from the table. “You’d do that to me?” he asked. His voice remained calm and even, as if it were the sort of question you might ask anyone under any circumstances. Even so, the sense of betrayal and desperation was palpable.

“I’m just saying, cos,” Roran returned. “We’re just talking, right? Looking at the angles.”

“Well, if we gave Aramo an extra share or two to compensate, it could work, right?” Nellen asked. “He’d have enough to set himself up somewhere in anonymous grandeur and we’d still have enough to live comfortably here. Maybe not in the Upper City, but one of the better places to live down here. And maybe the Upper City. It’s worth a lot, after all.”

“I can’t believe we’re talking about this!” Zerisi bellowed. “We’re not seriously thinking about doing this, are we?”

Temas lifted a hand to silence her. “We’re just looking at the options. Shouldn’t we at least consider the opportunities as we find them? That’s why we got into this damned business in the first place isn’t it? To seize opportunities for ourselves instead of helping some other bastard get richer than he already is?”

“I thought we joined to belong to something,” Fontana said, almost a whisper.

“Then you and Aramo can be naïve together,” Roran spat. “It’s easy to have a family and be poor; you can do it practically anywhere. But to live on your own terms, to climb out of the muck through your own sweat, blood and ingenuity, to live in wealth you earned for yourself. That is far rarer. You want my advice? Take the money and then find a family.”

“I didn’t ask,” Fontana retorted, a tear in the corner of her eye.

Roran shrugged.

Aramo sighed heavily as he returned to the table. “Do we need to take a vote?”

“No,” Fontana said, voice now firm. “There will be no vote.”

“Now wait a goddamned minute,” Roran roared amongst the general clamor in response to Fontana’s edict.

Holding up both hands like some master of ceremonies on a Gracaellas stage seeking to quell the audience, Aramo brought them back to calm. He looked to Fontana, all eyes following, and asked, “Why shouldn’t we vote, Fontana? That’s how we do things when we don’t agree.”

“I—” she began, but he could see the answer from the look on her face before she said another word. He’d seen that expression before, a face riddled with guilt enough to follow like a vengeful spirit, but powerless to stop the thing that had created it. Too many in the Lower City had been branded with that face, the broken face of a betrayer, torn between loyalty and ambition.

“You’ve already sold it,” their leader said, his voice heavy with despairing resignation.

Just then, the door and ceiling to the warehouse exploded inward sending shrapnel flying. The concussive blast deafened them all, leaving ears bleeding and ringing.

Cloaked men, hooded and armed with short blades well-suited to close quarters, descended from the hole above and the yawning gap where the door had been. The assault took only a minute, maybe less.

Roran threw the table at the assailants, knocked several of them over, attempting to shield Nellen with his body. The attackers slashed him relentlessly as he howled in pain. Temas threw himself between Zerisi and their murderers, feebly defending them both against stabbing blades with his empty hands. Aramo hobbled to his personal space to retrieve his matched wheelock pistols. He managed to fire them both, filling the room with a smoke that conspired to conceal from him the effect of his shots. He felt the firearms bark without hearing them, more noise in a world rendered silent. Except for that damn ringing.

A blade thrust into his back. More sharp stings followed. Aramo staggered. He collapsed onto the dirt floor. He could feel the warmth seeping into a puddle around his body, mingling with growing pools of his companions’ lifeblood. His mind raced through the past hours and days, searching out signs of Fontana’s betrayal that should have led him to prepare for this ambush. He could think of none; he’d loved Fontana as a daughter. It had made him blind.

Two thoughts followed: gratefulness that he’d not been able to hear or see his companions being cut down, regret that he’d escaped seeing the result of his failings.

Where he lay, slowly bleeding to death, too injured to move, he could see Fontana’s boots. His sense of hearing was returning, and he could make out some conversation, though it seemed muffled and distanced despite its proximity.

“Your reward,” a man’s voice said, followed by the clink of a bag heavy with coin dropping lightly into Fontana’s hands. “May you spend it in pleasure and health. Our House appreciates your service, and has a place for you should you wish it.”

“No. Thank you,” Fontana returned. “If it’s all the same, I’d like to be done with the whole business.”

“I understand,” the man said graciously. “Then this is where we part ways.”

The House agents retreated, undoubtedly with the Artifact, in near silence. Professionals, through and through. At least I haven’t been killed by amateurs, Aramo thought.

A moment later, Fontana had stepped back away from him enough that he could see her face. She looked at his for a moment, but when she saw him blink, she stepped back, swallowing hard, and turned away, fleeing into the night.

Aramo could hear the alarums raised by neighboring tenants, but he knew that the city’s guardsman would take their time in responding to any hue and cry in this district. That’s part of why they’d chosen a safehouse here. Safehouse, he thought. That’s a useless word. And then the darkness took him.

[A PDF copy of this story can be found on the “My Writing” page.]

A First

I’m currently thirty-seven. In my early thirties, around an impending new year, I decided that I wasn’t very interested in making New Year’s Resolutions, but that I did want to set some goals for this decade of my life. One of those was to be published by the time I’m forty. For several years after that, my progress toward the goal was lackluster, at best.

If you follow my blog, you know that I have a tendency to take on a lot of creative projects and to jump back and forth between them, so that progress is being made, but bringing anything to completion takes much longer than it would if I’d just focus on one thing at a time. To this point I’ve: written semi-regularly for the blog, worked on a number of different roleplaying projects, started a novel during NaNoWriMo that I eventually need to return to, finished the first draft of a different novel (which is posted to the blog and is currently in the early stages of significant rewrites), and started collating and expanding the setting information for my fantasy setting Avar Narn.

I’m optimistic about rewriting my novel (Things Unseen) and expect that I’ll have it in a condition I’m much prouder of once the process is complete. I also expect that to take many months at a minimum.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on some short stories set in Avar Narn. This morning, I sent one of these to a fiction magazine for consideration. Other than a short short story contest I entered I few years back, this is the first piece of my fiction that I’ve submitted for professional publication.

As such, I’m realistic about the likelihood of publishing this story: it’s very low–especially on its first submission to the first magazine I’ve decided to attempt. Nevertheless, the step feels like a significant one in actually making progress towards the goals I’ve set for myself. At the very least, I’m trying instead of only dreaming! I’m currently working on a second short story–this one involving the main character of Things Unseen, and I’m excited about its prospects as well.

For everyone, it’s been a rough year, and I’m right there with you. As a small business owner, I continue to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the economy and my fate therein. Last week’s Texas winter debacle has only deepened my weariness for these times–and, whether or not you live in Texas, I know many of you are right there with me.

So, for me, this endeavor, this step forward toward achieving the goals about which I am most passionate, is a much-needed respite from the world-weariness we’re all constantly fighting against–however brief that respite may be. The fiction publishing market is a brutal one, and my eyes are wide open. But at least I’m officially on a path now that will take me away from the question “What if?”

More to come, and soon.

(Review) Cyberpunk 2077: This Isn’t the Future I Ordered

[I started to write this review back in mid-January, but I got distracted by life events and other writing projects and have only now come back around to finishing it.]

[WARNING: SPOILERS INCLUDED IN THIS ARTICLE.]

I waited a few weeks before I picked up my copy of Cyberpunk 2077. My brother had been playing since release day on a stock Xbox One and swore up and down he wasn’t having massive crashes or game-breaking bugs. So, about the start of the new year, I plunked my creds down and unlocked that deluge of bytes and bits that, a short time later, coalesced into the game on my Xbox One X. It seems only fitting to get the game through such a method, though I didn’t manage to find a way that I could download the game straight into my brain. Some of the things I was promised by the Cyberpunk of my youth are yet to come to fruition.

I played through most of the available content, having fewer than half-a-dozen side missions left and about as many of the available NCPD gigs. In that time, the game hard crashed fewer than tens times and, between the system’s assertive autosaving and my own constant backups, I never lost more than five minutes of playtime when a crash happened. I lost much larger chunks of play when AC: Valhalla crashed on me, which happened with less frequency than Cyberpunk crashes, but not by much.

I only noticed one other major glitch while playing, and that was that, once I equipped the Mantis Blades, they would never retract, even when I switched weapons, and continued to take up a good half of the screen. The issue resolved when I switched back to the monowire cyberweapon instead and I didn’t try the Mantis Blades again during my playthrough. There were a few minor visual bugs or errors–such as being unable to pick up certain (very low value) items that had been marked as pick-upable. Overall, the game played smoothly, was pretty to look at on an few-years-old Samsung HD flat screen, and didn’t suffer from the litany of problems I’d been led to expect. The game actually convinced me that upgrading to the Xbox Series X might not be as imminent a necessity as I’d previously thought. Your mileage may vary.

A subsequent second full playthrough (and about half of a third) had me see most of the rest of the game’s side missions, with fewer crashes or issues each time–thanks to consistent updates by CD Projekt Red.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Let’s talk about the ugly first; get it out of the way: Cyberpunk 2077 decided to resort to gimmick and shock value in its treatment of sexual issues. The range of gender presentations that had been promised in the character builder was lacking at best. Instead, you can pick your penis size, or have a vagina. None of the choices matters, and there’s really no purpose to them. I don’t mind sex and romance relationships being part of the story lines of video games–I’m a generally hard person to offend, so those things merely being there don’t incite me to anger. That said, I’m not sure that I’ve ever come across a romance system (or dialogue) or a “sex scene” in a video game that didn’t make me feel awkward and uncomfortable. You can find elsewhere a deep discussion of some of the sexualized gimmicks and mistakes made by the game designers. For my part, what I really want to comment on is the missed opportunity here, with the clumsiness of the shock-value choices made by the developers underscoring the lack of thought given to their approach. I’m not interested in the debate of whether sexual topics should have been omitted from the game altogether; with regard to such issues, my first question is always “what does the inclusion accomplish for the story” and, while the answer in Western media is often that it’s included only to pique the prurient interests of the audience, I also stand amazed, like G.R.R. Martin and others, that American society in general is simultaneously so uncomfortable with sexual issues and so comfortable with the graphic depiction of violence.

Cyberpunk, as a genre, provides us with warnings not just about technology used without regard for ethical considerations, but also the commodification of everything human by ultra-capitalist systems. While the former is certainly an increasing worry for modern society, the latter is the far more pressing issue in my mind–after making it through the widespread disaster that was Texas’s (lack of) preparedness for winter storms last week, which to my mind clearly demonstrates the problem with allowing profit-driven private interests to trump public welfare (as does the system of pharmaceutical development in the U.S. and its effects on the current pandemic)–the increasing dangers of a society caught in a death-spiral propelled by the veneration of capitalism above all other ideologies feels close to home. So, when Cyberpunk resorts to using sex and nudity only as window dressings, instead of commenting on the increasing commodification of sex and human desire, I honestly feel a little cheated about what could be meaningful narrative that could pull Cyberpunk 2077 from entertaining game into the realm of participatory literature. Even the plotline with Evelyn and her fate does little more than provide plot points without much consideration of what it means to be a “doll” sacrificing personal identity to satisfy the needs of others (sexual or not) and the plots that revolve around Clouds likewise use the profound sexual issues as a backdrop without making profound use of narrative potential.

You Get What You Give

I read another review of Cyberpunk 2077 that criticized the lack of defined personality for V, complaining that The Witcher had you play a character with a defined personality for whom you still had meaningful choices to make and further lamenting that V’s personality can swing psychopathically based on the whims of the player. I’d like to respond to that evaluation and, since it’s my blog, I will. My kneejerk reaction to this sentiment is that the critic needs to play more roleplaying games (pen and paper, preferably) to appreciate a video game in which you have the opportunity to create a personality for your character without having that personality defined for you. I, for one, would rather play a protagonist I get to design for myself rather than playing someone else’s character in a story. If the character comes across as inconsistent, that’s on the player more than the designers, because you have opportunities in Cyberpunk to make consistent character choices. If, on the other hand, you approach every dialogue option from the perspective of yourself staring at a screen where you have an avatar to wonder around in making choices according to your every whim, of course you’re going to end up with an inconsistent character. Feature, not bug, in my book.

That said, not all of the character choices have enough effect in the game to be meaningful. Some aspects work well without changing the storyline much or at all–the developing relationship between V and Johnny can be cathartic, dramatic and satisfying on its own (though this is undercut somewhat by having a “secret” end-mission option based on your relationship score with Johnny causing a split between immersively playing a character and meta-gaming the program). Otherwise, though, many of the choices are too limited in effects to truly be felt. Yes, some choices will open up romantic relationships, and some will allow for different end-game missions and resolutions to the main plot, and there are a very select few that will have a later result (freeing Brick in the initial confrontation with Maelstrom may have a later effect if you play through all of Johnny’s missions), many follow the pattern of “let them say whatever they want so long as they do what you want them to.”

Maybe I’m chained to my existentialist leanings, but it seems that there’s a lot of Cyberpunk’s story and main character that only bears the meaning you personally create for it. Just like the ambiguity of life in general, that could be immensely freeing and satisfying or terrifying and ennui-inducing. Or both at once.

Gameplay
I played my first playthrough on the “normal” difficulty setting, increasing the difficulty for each subsequent playthrough after I’d grokked the game’s systems and idiosyncrasies. My first character ended up as a sort of generalist, my second a street samurai foregoing any hacking for a Sandevistan and later a Berserk module, my third going full Netrunner.

The game is devastatingly easy, even on the highest difficulty setting, for netrunner characters. One reviewer compared netrunners to wizards in fantasy settings, with programs approximating spells. I think that’s relatively true, especially because the programs work in ways that are especially “gamey” and unrealistic. If you’re going to implant yourself with cyberware, you’re not going to allow that cyberware to be wirelessly-enabled for any punk with a computer to hack into, and you’re probably going to invest in a decent firewall as well. Systems aren’t going to be designed with such blatant faults in them that you can electrocute or overheat the user. So yes, the hacking in Cyberpunk is essentially magic.

The pure combat approach, even with a good deal of stealth, is much more difficult, especially on higher difficulties. Without the ability to hack cameras, you have to be especially careful. Attacks must be carefully planned so as not to be overwhelmed. I kind of think that this was the most enjoyable approach to the game, though, both for pleasure of gameplay itself and the satisfaction of achievement. There’s something thrilling about beating a machinegun-wielding punk to the punch while swinging a katana, and the gunplay in Cyberpunk 2077 is pretty good, too–and I love a good tactical shooter.

Another exploit to use or avoid is finding the Armadillo mod blueprint. I don’t think that there’s any Technical skill requirement on being able to craft the Armadillo mod at any rarity level–the rarity level of each one you make is just randomized–and few materials are required to make them. If you keep to clothes with multiple mod slots and fill them all with level-appropriate Armadillo mods, you can maintain an Armor rating sufficient at any given level to feel nearly invulnerable.

The game lacks some of the exploration elements you might expect in an open-world RPG; you’re not going to find as many of the sorts of locations that tell their own little stories like you would in Fallout or Elder Scrolls. But the side jobs are interesting–some of them more interesting than the main story, I think–and search them out, as well as the NCPD hustles, fills some of the gap.

Substance and Style
The feel of Cyberpunk 2077 is the feel of 80’s sci-fi in the setting tone and dressing. On the one hand, that’s fitting; cyberpunk was born in the 80’s. But it’s also been more than 30 years since the end of that decade. Technology and culture have changed. Our cultural fears and suppositions have evolved. World events have shown us that, while the danger of megacorporations is real, it might not be so melodramatic as we expected. We’ve had Brexit, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the realization (by us–often willingly–ignorant white folk) that racial injustice has never been overcome, the resurgence of far-right terror groups and white nationalists, and the shift of widespread economic fears focusing on Japan to focusing on China. But we’ve also seen some things change for the better–green energy is innovating and being taken seriously, a majority of the world (if a slight one) believes in the reality of climate change and the moral obligation to do something about, technology has provided for democratization and methods of social resistance as much as domination.

Bear in mind that the original Cyberpunk RPG setting took place in 2013; the most popular version of the game was set in 2020. Moving the timeline forward (either all the way to 2077 as in the video game or to the 2050’s as in the tabletop Cyberpunk Red) begs the question–why hasn’t anything really changed? Yes, Mike Pondsmith and the other members of the creative teams of both projects did hard work in balancing a setting that feels at once like nostalgic Cyberpunk and just a bit different. That’s a difficult line to walk, so I’ll admit that my comments here should really be applied to the cyberpunk genre in general and not to the Cyberpunk setting specifically, in any of its guises.

But I’m ready for cyberpunk as a whole to grow up, to evolve with us. It’s insufficient to continue to dwell on the cyberpunk of the early years–though we must acknowledge a debt to Pondsmith, Gibson, Stephenson and the early fathers of the genre. Where’s a cyberpunk for my middle years, one that includes all the myriad shades of gray endemic to any genre born from noir, but that also includes some dashes of color hear and there, that gives us a gritty optimism, reasons to fight the evil in the world to preserve the good, reasons to do more than only survive?

Maybe I need to read more cli-fi and other developments out of the cyberpunk genre. My own fiction writing, while fantasy in genre, takes a number of cues from cyberpunk–but that’s not quite what I’m talking about either. Where’s the wise old cyberpunk that’s introspective in new ways? I’m seriously asking–if you’ve found it before me, drop me a line!

So, while enjoying the neon retro-future that Cyberpunk 2077 offers, I’m also left wanting something more.

Conclusions
I enjoyed Cyberpunk 2077 well enough to return to play it with different character builds, and it’s definitely reminded me of my nostalgia for the cyberpunk genre. I think that it’s the gameplay, though, that did it for me more than anything. The narratives have their clever points, drama and empathy-invoking aspects, but if you’re looking for storytelling on quite the same level as The Witcher, you’re not going to find it here. Maybe it was just too much hype for its own good. Maybe too many promises that didn’t make it into the release build. Or maybe it promised us a world we’ve already left behind in our hearts and minds.

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!