The Ecstasy of Gold

I’ve been struggling for some time to understand how conservative Christians are able to maintain such dogged adherence to the ideas of ultra-capitalism without seeing a conflict with their faith. Ultimately, I think the only way to hold the two beliefs together is by not asking too many questions or examining very closely the assumptions required by the beliefs (either ultra-capitalism or their brand of Christian theology). This is my criticism of most conservative theologies–they start from incorrect assumptions and hold incorrect goals, resulting in theology that is doomed from the start, having never really grasped what God is about in the first place.

Still, I think I have discovered some of the unspoken underpinnings that allow for ultra-capitalism to thrive within the ideologies of (political) conservatives, and that an examination of these ideas compared to theological ones may be instructive.


We should start with a definition. By “ultra-capitalism” I mean a modern approach to capitalism that: sees market competition as social Darwinism; this social Darwinism as the natural (and thus best) arbiter of success and social standing; self-interest and the profit motive as the defining characteristics of the human individual (and as moral prerogatives); as a corollary, associates economic poverty with moral weakness; assumes that those who have become rich have proven themselves both intellectually and morally fit to rule; holds personal property rights sacred over all other things; and bears a fear of and revulsion to social programs as allowing weakness to thrive, thus undermining the moral and social fabric of a society–and this in particular at the expense of those who have “rightfully acquired” their wealth through natural and all-encompassing superiority. It is in many ways Nietzschean and nihilistic, eschewing compassion for power. It is, in short, the economic version of “might makes right.”

First and foremost, it is the dogmatic belief in the “profit-motive” as the most defining characteristic of humanity. Thus, all people are seen as acting for selfish reasons to acquire money as best they can, with a division between moral methods of acquisition of wealth based upon ideas of “work” and “dessert,” and those methods of acquiring wealth that do not result from an adequate amount of work as immoral. Thus, the thief acquires money immorally, because he takes something earned by “honest labor” through the employment of “easier” means of acquisition. That the Ten Commandments dictate that “thou shalt not steal” coincides with this moral tenet, we need not look at the analysis that brings God (and us) to this conclusion, even if the rationale is different from the capitalist one. There is, then, the added result that the idea of thievery under the capitalist’s definition then extends to those who are on social welfare programs. Those who need food stamps, or Social Security Disability, or who would benefit from socialized medicine are getting material benefits for less work than is morally required of them to deserve economic gain, making social programs nothing more than government-sanctioned thievery. I imagine that, if you’ve read this far, you already understand that social welfare programs (like socialized medicine, even) is not the same as socialism. As an economic system, socialism means the collective ownership by the workers of the means of production, not the provision by the government of safety nets for all of its people–a method of providing for the “general welfare” that is a core element of the legitimacy of a government under “social contract” theory–though admittedly so is the protection of property rights, so we are left here with a dispute over what exactly the social contract is, how competing priorities under the social contract should be balanced, and, ultimately, who gets to set the contract’s terms.

From this starting place, the sovereignty of the profit-motive goes further. If there are those who leech of the system through providing the least amount of work possible, then my pursuit of self-interest and the selfish accumulation of wealth cannot be blamed, because no one is acting outside of self-interest and I am earning my wealth. This rationale justifies a moral insistence that my property rights are sacrosanct, that taking from me (through taxes, perhaps) for the basic needs of others who will not (cannot is seldom considered) earn for themselves is a fundamental injustice, both a moral failing and an insidious idea that will cause a nation to lose its overarching economic power and thus its place in the world. The belief here is that America is the best nation in the world because of its capitalism. Both the cause and the effect should be questioned.

Let’s look now at some objections typically raised by ultra-capitalists against criticisms:

One of the statements I often hear is: “I believe that the needy should be taken care of, but I believe that that’s the church’s role, not the government’s.”

This statement greatly amuses me as a student of history. Until the Christian reformation, the church did fulfill this function in western European society–but it did so by requiring tithes, indulgences, beneficences, the donation of land to save one’s soul and other forms of coerced re-allocation of property. In other words: taxes. At the time the Reformation occurred, the early modern economy was also developing. Guilds were transitioning into private corporations and “venture companies” designed to share risk between multiple investors (the predecessor of modern business entities), the obligations of traditional feudalism had already been replaced by a system of payments rather than personal service (so-called “bastard feudalism,” which, by the time of the Reformation, was converting even more to a system where wealth and nobility had been divested from one another instead of being tightly bound, because land ownership continually lost footing to new ways of generating wealth), and “middle class” (including the “New Men” of Tudor England) was rising. The modern idea of nations, centralized enough, organized enough to actually provide for the general welfare, was nascent, and though they remained mired at the time in arguments over the divine right of kings, the power was shifting from those with hereditary right to those with wealth earned by the sweat of their brow and the cleverness of their business designs, those who could afford to send their sons to the universities and the courts of law, not to become churchmen, but to become bureaucrats and wielders of political power in the name of those whose only entitlement was the fortune of birth

The misuse by the Catholic Church of its wealth provided an impetus to the Reformation (the extravagant lifestyles of those higher in church hierarchy coupled with a general negligence toward their spiritual duties and the reduction of penance to an economic transaction through the sale of indulgences), it also resulted in a diverse approach to economics by Protestant groups. By the 17th century, you had in England on the one hand the Diggers, who attempted to set up settlements with communal property and a focus on the ecologic interrelationship between humans and the earth; on the other, you had the Puritans: Calvinists (particularly of the Reformed tradition) who largely believed that the demonstration of a good “work ethic” and the accumulation of wealth were signs of status among the Elect, those whom God had predestined for salvation. There is much, I believe, in the Puritan legacy in the United States that resulted in the modern theologies that allow the marriage of ultra-capitalism with Christianity.

While religious organizations would conduct the majority of charitable works for centuries to come, religious ideas of the time intermingled with the rise of new economic realities to create a heritage we largely follow today–even for those who have forgotten the origin of such beliefs in post-Reformation theologies.

To step back into the present, the major problem with the assertion above about the “role of the Church” in social programs is that it really represents a desire of control over one’s wealth: “I don’t want the government to make me help just anyone; I want to get to decide who is worthy of helping.” This idea both maintains the ego-driven idea of comparative dessert while maintaining social power in the hands of those with money.

The second objection is that “no one will ever accomplish anything for society unless rewarded with wealth for doing so.” In other words, the ambition for economic gain is the only instigating factor for innovation, growth or achievement in human society. This idea is flawed for two reasons:

First, the pursuit of wealth in exchange for achievement does not promote the common good. The pharmaceutical and medical research industries (again, particularly in America) are a prime example of this. If we want to look at an egregious case, we need only read the history of OxyContin and Perdue Pharma, where the pursuit of profit led to the opioid epidemic. But there are many more examples to examine, because the very premise of allowing the profit-motive to control pharmaceutical development results in intentional harm to individuals. This is codified through the system of patents that protects new drugs. The argument goes that, if the developing pharmaceutical company is unable to make a profit on a new drug, they’ll never develop it, so we need to protect their discovery by giving them a temporary (but long-lived) monopoly on their discovery so that they can profit from it. This in turn results in life-saving medications that only some can afford, while we let the rest suffer or die. If we adhere to the ideas of social Darwinism and wealth means worth and morality that are endemic to ultra-capitalism, then we should have no moral qualms about this.

Take the Covid vaccines as an example. If those vaccines had been made “open source” so that they could be synthesized by any lab with the ability to do so without having to pay Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson for the privilege of doing so, would more people be vaccinated right now (particularly in places where people are not prey to misinformation about them but, for economic reasons, cannot procure them)? I think so.

The more insidious–but perhaps equally reprehensible–aspect of this system is that research projects are selected only with profit in mind. If there aren’t enough sufferers of a condition to make the development of therapeutic techniques or medications profitable, no research will be conducted into the condition, and doctors remain forced to tell patients, “we just don’t know enough about this disease/disorder to have an effective treatment plan.” While I’m not absolutely sure that the pharmaceutical industry actively pursues the development of treatments of symptoms over ways to cure disease, the aspects of the industry I am sure about make that a likely prospect.

The second problem with this argument is that it reduces human beings to economic units by assuming profit is the only human motivation. We can but look around and see that this is not true–we all know someone who has taken a lower-paying job to work in the non-profit sector because they believe in doing good, and many of us know people who have left one job for another that pays less because it allows them to have a better quality of life. Some of us ourselves have turned down good-paying jobs out of a distaste for the effect the particular company or type of industry has on the world at large. The profit motive is, in fact, a social construct rather than an inherent human quality, pervasive as it may be.

It is a curious thing that Puritan ideas (in general, there was theological diversity even within Puritanical groups) seem to have some coincidence with the ultra-capitalist approach to economics and politics, and not just because of the “Puritan Work Ethic.” The “five essential points” of Calvinism are often summarized with the TULIP acronym (for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints). The idea of Total Depravity pairs well with the idea of the profit-motive being the natural state of man, and the idea that those who achieve their wealth through hard work are likely the Elect (and thus inherently more moral) and those who do not are not. The ideas of justification by faith alone and irresistible grace, in theory and perhaps in an antinomian way, take some responsibility off of the choices of humans, because humans cannot affect their salvation.

I should note that my own United Methodist Church doctrine also espouses the belief in justification by faith alone as a matter of salvation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s my own belief that God has made salvation easy but sanctification difficult and, having heard a sermon by K this morning discussing the role of action in our faith (reconciling the ideas of the Letter of James with the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith) I ought to admit in fairness that the belief in justification by faith alone does not, in and of itself, result in antinomianism or a rejection of the need for moral action. There are plenty of people of Calvinist doctrine (as there are of any religious faith or no religious faith at all) who are committed to moral ideals we’d likely all agree upon.

A Note About Happiness

As a quick aside, a few comments about the relationship of money and happiness. There is a study by Nobel Prize winners Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman that is often cited for the precept that “happiness does not increase for people making over $75,000 dollars a year.” That’s not what the study says. Deaton and Kahneman measured two things in their study, neither of which was happiness. They measured “emotional well-being,” referring to day-to-day feelings and experience, and “life evaluation,” whether people thought positively or negatively about their life as a whole. They found that emotional well-being did not increase for people making more than $75,000 a year, but life evaluation did increase with higher incomes. So, increased income resulted in fewer negative (and more positive) feelings day-to-day to a cap of $75,000 a year, but life evaluation continued to increase beyond that. To nuance this, subjective experience related to life and money seems to cap at $75,000, but people continued to more positively rate the achievements in their life if they made more. In a nation where we see income as directly related to achievement and worth, the latter is not at all surprising–but I also wouldn’t equate it with happiness. Emotional well-being, on the other hand, seems to be a more valuable thing (though I’m sure many scholars and psychologists have investigated or are investigating how life evaluation relates to emotional well-being). We should be weary of using this study (or any other single study) to make categorical statements about reality, but I think that, anecdotally, at least, we’d agree that money and happiness don’t necessary corollate directly. Certainly, Scripture tells us that repeatedly.

On the other hand, rankings of the “happiest countries” in the world tend to perennially place Northern European (particularly Scandinavian) countries at the top of the list. These are countries with high taxes, many social programs, and smaller wealth disparities between those with the most and those with the least. To my mind, they are a strong argument that taxation and social support do not result in the degradation of a society. On the other hand, these nations are also strongly secular, so an argument might be made on that front.

At the end of the day, while we should be striving to find emotional stability and contentment, and should be treasuring and seeking out those things that make us happy, the scope of our lives is much larger than that. We must consider what makes us happy and why, and whether that explanation is a moral one. We must also consider the value of our lives apart from our own personal happiness. If we are called to self-sacrifice for the good of others, as Christ beckons us, then we must believe that personal happiness is not the prime metric by which to consider our success in life.

A Note on Privilege

I came from a background of privilege. Less than some, but more than most. My parents were both highly educated, driven and upwardly mobile. We lived in large houses in the suburbs and I wanted for nothing. I attended public schools, but I went to the best public schools available. I was encouraged to be curious and academically curious from a young age, with frequent trips to the library, tons of books at home, and a number of trips abroad when I was young to broaden my experience of the world. There was never a discussion about whether I would go to college; it was a given, and my parents ensured that it cost me nothing to earn my bachelor’s degree. Though I choose a more precarious path out of law school by immediately establishing a practice of my own, I was able to do so with somewhat less fear than I might have had because I knew I had a safety net in my family should I fail. Indeed, the expected disappointment of family if I failed wore heavier on me than any worry about where I would live or how I’d get by if my business failed.

And so, I realize that the achievements I’ve had in my life, whatever they may be, are not simply a result of my own intelligence and personal will. I had parents who paved a way for me through their own hard work, but, perhaps more important, I had the fortune to be born into a family that had enjoyed some amount of wealth and opportunity for generations. It would be foolish of me to consider my success to this point in my life to be only a matter of what I “deserve” or have “earned.”

And so it is with many of those who currently enjoy wealth, power, status and privilege. To endorse ultra-capitalism and asset one’s dessert of property as a matter only of hard work and dedication lacks introspection, a view of the interconnectedness of all things, and short-sightedness. How can one say in a worship service that “all good things are gifts from God,” while secretly believing that every good things one has has been earned by individual effort alone?

Scripture (in Constrast)

Jesus gives us many warnings and hard sayings about money. “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13; see also Matthew 6:24).

I have argued elsewhere in this blog that participation in the “kingdom of God” is an existential matter of sanctification, of coming to understand the way that God sees things, to see the rightful relationships between all things (see, for example, the post “Salvation and Sanctification“). Read this way, Jesus’s statement in Matthew 19:24 is not to be a statement about salvation, but about sanctification–those who love money above all else are that much less likely to bring themselves to adopt the priorities God has created for the world. The second statement is like the first (for another look at material wealth as an obstacle to spiritual freedom, see “Dukkha in Christianity.”) Even so, the warning is dire, and there are more like it.

But the point goes far beyond the effect of wealth on personal spiritual growth. It’s the reason that is that case. Put simply, worrying more about protecting what’s yours than helping others is antithetical to the Christian ethic. The second-greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). To allow the exploitation of others to amass personal wealth, as is the status quo in American business, is not loving others as oneself. To believe in the justice of a system that protects one’s own wealth at the expense of leaving others without access to healthcare, an economic safety net, or other basic aspects of the moral good and human dignity, is foolish at best, but more likely: it’s sin.

We are repeatedly called to protect the poor, the infirm, the widow, the orphan: the least and the lost. The exhortations to do so are not subjected to caveats or exceptions–especially not those that involve cost to those called to provide for them.

This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with personal property rights, with owning property, or with gaining wealth (though the early church described in Acts did hold everything in common, we’re told). It is the prioritization of one’s own status and wealth at the expense of others that we are most warned against. It is the amassing of wealth through unjust means–which includes exploitative economic systems–that is suspect. As Chaucer’s Pardoner ironically recites from St. Jerome’s Vulgate version of 1 Timothy 6:10: radix malorum cupiditas est.

For the Christian, this should not be a political question. Christ requires us to make sacrifices of our own as we are able to care for those without the resources and privileges that we have. The only argument for Christians to have on the subject is how to best fulfill the obligations to which we are called. Maybe social programs run by the government are not the best way to accomplish this but, if not, we ought to be stepping up to fill in the gaps without judging who is “deserving” of help. First and foremost, we must oppose a society so mired in the ultra-capitalist ideal as to continue to increase wealth disparity and economic injustice in the world.

The Mysticism of Metaphor

It’s been a hot minute, n’est pas? As usual lately, I feel like I have to open with apology for having become so sporadic in posting. I’ll continue to work on that. I promise that writing is going on behind the scenes!

Apologies aside, I want to return to a topic I’ve touched upon before. Consider this a random, “And another thing!” as I walk back into the room.

In my early series, Ambiguity in Scripture, I talked about the usefulness of metaphor in Scripture–that it allows multiple things to be said in fewer words, that it forces you to consider and confront alternatives, that it begs for interpretation rather than rote recitation. I want to drill down deeper on the power of metaphor in Scripture. In particular, I’d like to argue that metaphor is a microcosm of mystic existential experience. This is self-serving, of course, being that my own formulated Christian theology takes a (semi-)mystical and (wholly-)existential approach. That said, I don’t think that fact provides any counter-argument in and of itself.

For clarity’s sake, let’s start with some definitions. A metaphor is a rhetorical device that asks the audience to compare one thing to another by (non-literal) reference. For instance, Shakespeare’s “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet the sun.”

A simile is a subtype of metaphor using “like” or “as” for the means of comparison. Another example from Romeo and Juliet: “Is love a tender thing? It is too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.”

While I’m going to focus on metaphor, it might be worth giving a quick nod to its cousin, analogy. Like metaphor, analogy is a comparison of two things. Unlike metaphor, analogy usually has a more direct and explanatory relationship between the objects compared rather than leaving the comparison open for interpretation.

And now we get into it. Why is metaphor mystical? It is a minor synchronicity, requiring an act of engagement and experience more than intellectual decoding. In apologetics, and in particular in the context of whether a person “knows” Jesus, a statement is often made comparing intellectual knowledge (I can tell you facts about Jesus as presented in the Gospels) and more personal/experiential knowledge (I am familiar with the person of Jesus; I have experienced him). Such comparison is usually followed by pointing to the different words used in Romance languages to differentiate these types of knowledge–saber and conocer in Spanish, savoir and connaitre in French, etc.

This idea is writ both large and small in the use of metaphor. Intellectual knowledge only provides the barest of foundations for understanding a metaphor–for Romeo’s declaration about Juliet, I must know what a sun is for me to be able to understand what he means. But while that intellectual knowledge is necessary, it is vastly insufficient. Instead, I must consider the properties of the sun, its phenomena, if you will, to build a bridge between the ideas being compared. There are several consequences of this:

First, this requires direct engagement. There is no passive reception of meaning in a metaphor until we meet it head on, turn it over in our hands, place it in relationship to everything we understand. The best metaphors will allow different individuals to come to similar associations with regard to meaning, though I’d venture to say that each person’s meaning and insight are slightly (sometimes greatly) different in their focus. Were that not the case, there’d be no point in discussing metaphor as high school classes are forced to do and literature students force others to do. If the edges of the meaning of a metaphor aren’t rough, we’d just state the facts and move on, no need to talk about our feelings.

Which leads to the next point: the differences in the meanings we assign to a metaphor are deeply personal; they are borne out of the sum total of our experience, personality and inner life. They arise out of our very essence. In that way, the precise “feel” of a metaphor, those subtle differences in emotive reaction to them, cannot be fully communicated from one person to another. Language fails in a semiotic mess, because what I mean by the words I use to describe a metaphor likely overlap with but do not occupy the exact same meaning you ascribe to those same words. Metaphor itself, then, is deeply personal.

The very same slippage in words and meaning give metaphor its power. By divorcing our description from language and turning our attention to the direct comparison of objects in relationship to one another, we are freed from the constraints of normal language in finding meaning. It is this ability to reach toward, if not capture, ineffable thought that makes metaphor a truly poetic device.

This, too, is the heart of mysticism. Take for instance this definitions of the word from Merriam Webster’s online dictionary: “2: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight); 3b: a theory postulating the possibility of direct and intuitive acquisition of ineffable knowledge or power.”

Every time we use a metaphor, it is a personal, existential engagement of mind and idea. I think it fair to call that mystical, without any need to resort to religious doctrine or belief. But this is a post about religion and theology, after all, so we cannot stop there.

Scripture is filled with the use of metaphor, from the fleshy: “Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that graze among the lilies,” (Song of Solomon 4:5) to the more profound statements of Jesus. Let’s walk through some examples:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). While often quoted for the assertion that only Christians gain salvation, the metaphor makes things far more complex. How is Jesus the way? What does it mean that Jesus is truth? What does it mean that Jesus is “the life.” The second statement must be interpreted in light of the metaphors in the first. Rather than provide you with my own interpretation, I’ll argue that the introspection forced by the metaphors here is the point. The believer in Jesus does not struggle with the truth of the words–this requires faith not intellect, a point underscored by the circular logic implied by questioning the truthfulness of Jesus’ assertion that he is truth. No, the introspection is one far more difficult–and far more necessary–to the honestly seeking Christian: what does all of this mean for me and how I should conduct myself? The use of metaphor moves us toward internal struggle rather than providing an easy criterion for the judgment of others.

As I’ve said in previous posts, it’s this “poetic truth,” this carefully-constructed but subtle message in the linguistic structures of Scripture, where I find the inspiration (with a capital “I,” if you wish) of the Bible–not in arbitrary authority ascribed to a narrow view of the text. But those are thoughts for another time.

Think of all of some of the other metaphors Jesus uses: “the vine and the branches,” “living water,” “the bread of life.” How about the similes used to speak of the “kingdom of God?” The kingdom of heaven is like: “a mustard seed,” “a man who sowed good seed in his field,” “leaven,” “treasure hidden in a field,” “a dragnet cast into the sea,” “a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old,” etc., etc.

By removing these truths from cold intellectual lectures and placing them within earthy extended metaphors using ideas that would be common to any of his listeners, Jesus provides a certain equality to his message. Rather than restricting understanding to scholars and academics, the use of metaphor makes understanding available to anyone with experience of the world to draw upon. Other than the ability to think abstractly, there is no special training required to glean meaning from a metaphor; the fisherman or subsistence farmer has equal access as the doctor or lawyer. I have on multiple occasions been humbled by the interpretations of Scripture by those I would not consider “intellectual” (for whatever good such a label is) who nevertheless–through the application of their experience and intuitive knowledge of “how things are”–provide understandings of Scriptural meaning far more profound than anything I’d thought up with my fancy tools of “textual” or “comparative” analysis.

There is, of course, a danger in this equality, for it destroys all authority outside of God. If we each have equal access to the truth expressed in metaphor, what right have I to lord over you, or to not start from a place of humility? That is undoubtedly terrifying to those who prefer order to relationship, easy answers to depth of feeling and experience.

But, the statement that the metaphor gives equal access to authority in spiritual understanding is not the same as saying that anything goes ie that we cannot know anything. As I’ve written in other posts, even when we may be unable to fully define the truth and mark out its sharp edges, we have tools to approximate as best we can. We can compare the internal consistency of theological argument, the way that it squares with Scripture, science and other sources of understanding our existence, and our own experience. My Methodist readers will see here Albert Outler’s “Weslayan Quadrilateral,” though the principle is not confined to any one denomination or expression of Christian faith.

Metaphor, both in the general sense and with particular regard to Scripture and theology, begins with experience and then transcends it, bringing forth from experience and creative comparison a liberation from the constraints of language and a passage into the freedom of abstract thought and intuition, where we may seek understandings concealed from us in the use of our more logical and formal thought. That is mysticism. It may not be the ecstatic mysticism of the unio mystica purportedly achieved by a handful of saints, but it is far more available to we less-disciplined souls. It is a mysticism that everyone can practice. Regularly, subtly, and yet not without profundity. And, of course, there’s the symmetry that this method of escaping linguistic thought is derived from analysis of the uses of language and rhetoric.

i invite you to reread Jesus’s parables and revel in their metaphors. See where they lead you in the search for understanding that surpasses mere words. Consider it an alternative form of lectio divina, if you like.

Brancalonia: D&D Meets a Lighter-Hearted Blades in the Dark

Those of you who’ve been with me for a while know that I’m not a big fan of the systems used for D&D. The older and wiser I get, and the more I come to understand game design, the more I see the justification for the choices the system makes. It seems that a lot of times, my upset with the design choices are amplified by traditional (mis-)interpretations of the intent of those systems. At the end of the day, D&D is a game people love, and there’s nothing wrong with preferring that system over others. For me, though, I prefer my games a little harsher and grittier, and while I think D&D should best be considered a toolkit along the lines of Fate or Cortex (certainly not marketed that way but treated that way by DMs by long tradition), I find that it would take as much or more work to kitbash D&D into something approximating what I want as to design a system particular to my tastes. In fact, a few weeks ago I got some of my gaming friends together in our first post-vaccination meet-up to discuss putting together a fantasy game using highly-modified D&D rules (for all my complaints about the system, I listen to actual play podcasts and get a desire to play all the same). Instead of spending a lot of time discussing changes and systems, as I’d expected, we relatively quickly came to the decision that they’d (and I don’t disagree) that I devote my time to setting and system for Avar Narn and that they help playtest rules.

That’s a long walk to the real beginning of this post, mostly to explain that I don’t usually review or spend a lot of time on D&D-related books or systems as part of the blog. Brancalonia, though, is just that captivating.

Brancalonia is a setting (with rules modules) for 5e D&D, taking place in a “spaghetti fantasy” version of late-medieval/early modern Italy. Those of you who know my background understand that my interest is immediately piqued. Even without my deep love for the Renaissance in Italy, a mashup of fantasy and the spaghetti western genres sounds like two great tastes that taste great together. In execution, the “western” influence gives way more to the Renaissance themes of misrule, the Commedia Dell’Arte, and the best parts of early-modern humor. The fantasy is low without being gritty (think of a greasier, sleazier, ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold sort of vibe).

The mechanics of the system accomplish this in several ways. First, the restriction of characters to level 6 (a common change to evoke “low” fantasy in D&D without much fuss), though there are character advances that may continue to occur after hitting maximum level. Second, the inclusion of subclasses that evoke the feel of the setting without requiring massive overhauls of the core D&D classes. Third, a bevy of rules additions (more than modifications) that reinforce the feeling of Brancalonia. Short rests are changed to a full night and long rests to a week in line with the suggested rules modification in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The long rest is then incorporated into a downtime “Rollick” system.

Other rules include a system for Brawls (a non-lethal combat type indicative of both semi-good-natured contests between rivals and conflicts between criminals who know that drawing steel changes the context of the fight into something of interest to the authorities–to say nothing of lethality), methods for tracking characters’ bounties for their misdeeds (and the potential consequences thereof), the aforementioned “Rollick” system and rules for relationships to the characters’ band and company as well as an upgradable hideout. The standard D&D economy is changed not by complex changes to numbers in costs but by the vast lowering of the amount of gold characters are likely to have at any given time, limitations on magic items, a system for squandering winnings (reminiscent of Barbarians of Lemuria) and rules for “shoddy” equipment–what the characters will most often be using.

I make mention of Blades in the Dark in the title of this review not simply because it’s the previous game I reviewed, but because the systems in Brancalonia remind me of a (lighter) version of Blades in the Dark crew rules. Rather than managing the relationships between rival gangs as in BitD, the Knaves of Brancalonia are “Bounty Brothers” more often than deadly rivals. But the game does follow the same sort of job–downtime–job cycle as BitD, with a simple but perhaps more formalized system for managing the group’s hideout and its available amenities (described as Grandluxuries). The jobs set to a group of Knaves is implied to be a little more varied, both in context and geography, than the heists of Doskvol.

Also like BitD, characters regularly engage in their vices during downtime in Brancalonia, though the results in the latter are more often amusingly complicating than the self-destruction of the former. The best summary of the relationship between the two, I think is that Brancalonia takes itself less seriously, creating a picaresque tale of rowdy louts rather than a depressing story about desperate criminals.

Some notes about the writing itself: the game was originally written in Italian, and I get the feeling (or make the assumption) that part of the mastery of the feel of the setting is the immersion of the writers in both Italian culture and European history in ways that a Yank like myself can only dream of. The translation into English leaves a text that is clear and easy-to-understand–as well as very well-written. The book could have used some more editing, but the issues I find are typically minor mispellings and particularly the omission of certain letters in words (including within chapter titles!). Still, I found nothing that endangered comprehension or that reasonably compared with the first released draft of the latest Shadowrun rules.

I really can’t over-emphasize how well-written the setting material is. Not only from the standpoint of well-constructed and stylistically-impressive sentences, but also of language that evokes the feel the setting aspires to. I imagine both the original writers (the team of Epic Party Games) and the translator (Sarah Jane Webb) are to be commended for this feat. To boot, the artwork is amazing and highly evocative. I daresay that it’s worth the price of admission alone.

I must admit a certain forlorn agreement with all of the “What our party thinks it is/What our party actually is” memes when I see them, and herein lies another strength of Brancalonia–its tone is that sort of light-hearted foolishness often achieved by players of fantasy RPGs to begin with, so what may be considered a falling-short of the transcendent heights of “great roleplaying” in other conditions is right in with the theme and style of the game in Brancalonia. This alone is a huge strength.

If you’re a less-experienced GM looking for the style of BitD in an easy-to-run system, or a group who couldn’t care less about roleplaying as “Art” so long as everyone is having fun (always the first principle of committing free time to an RPG, I think, even if you want to make “Art” as well), a group looking for a grittier but light-hearted D&D setting, a new gamer wanting to learn to play RPGs, an aspiring designer looking for an excellent example of setting writing (rather than excellent worldbuilding–it may be that, too, but there’s so much material to draw on to create the setting that I’m not sure that it deserves that categorization), or a veteran gamer looking to do something decidedly fun and different, Bracalonia is definitely worth checking out.

Is it just me, or are we in something of a golden age for Italian game designers? I think of The One Ring as well and expect we’ll see more games of note from this group of designers as well.

Blades in the Dark: A Different Kind of Fiddly

As I’d mentioned before, I’ve been, off and on, playing in a campaign of Blades in the Dark over the past few months. I’ve played or run several other iterations of the Powered by the Apocalypse system, but this has been my first foray into actual play of a Forged in the Dark Game. Rather than give a traditional review–as so many have already done this capably–I’m going to leave some remarks about specific “issues” with the game (read “nuances” rather than “deficiencies”). Most of the things I’ll talk about are really aspects of the same issue: BitD requires a very skilled GM to run well.

All Improv, All the Time

That may be an overstatement, but, as with PbtA games, the “freeform” and “narrative” focus of the BitD system puts a lot of pressure on the GM and requires a lot more from them. Every roll requires some level of interpretation, and there is less scaffolding for that interpretation or how to work out the consequences of certain actions as with other, rules-heavier games. There is, of course, an upside to this; otherwise, John Harper’s game would not have become such a successful system being adapted to so many other games.

The benefits mostly accrue to the players, however, at least in practice as I have experienced it. In D&D, for instance, the existence of certain feats and class abilities implies restrictions on characters who do not have those abilities. Not a rogue? You can’t Backstab, so you’re not as likely to choose to sneak up on someone and stab them in the back. Yes, BitD does have “classes” and “abilities” in the playbooks, but these tend to give added bonuses to certain actions without depriving others of meaningfully taking those actions that a more tactical game does not. I’m always telling players, “don’t look at the rules; tell me what you want to do and we’ll figure out how to use the rules to do it.” PbtA and BitD naturally push in that direction. But that also means that the GM has to be ready for anything and can’t be too committed to any particular expectations.

With the game’s mechanics focused on creating “success at cost” results, the GM is constantly forced to, on the fly, come up with reasonable costs and reasonable degrees of success under the circumstances. Likewise, the importance of “positioning” within the game, somehow both a rule and a complete abstraction, gives the GM a shove into the deep end of GMing. Clocks can make for excellent pacing tools and representations of certain obstacles, but if they’re not used regularly and with consistency between uses, they serve only as a doodle representing GM fiat.

I want to be clear here: BitD doesn’t make it hard to run a game. Quite the opposite. It does, however, put a lot of extra responsibility on the GM to make the game go well, and if the GM doesn’t either have a virtuoso intuition for such things, or a good deal of experience with games that have more support for interpreting results, things can go sideways very quickly. When things go well, though, the player freedom and the pace of the narrative created by the system makes for excellent gaming.

So Many Rulings

This is, perhaps, only a specific instance of the general issue of the above, but here it is: There needs to be a discussion of what “success at a cost” means and consistency in the application of that very common result. Starting characters in BitD start with only a few dice in a smattering of skills. While there are very well-designed resources that allow characters to push past their normal limits, the resource-management of which underscores the desperate feel of the setting, the skewing of results toward success at a cost means that the GM has great power (and, thus, of course, great responsibility) for how capable the characters seem to their players. If costs for successes are relatively low, the characters feel capable, triumphing in the face of overwhelming odds. If costs are always made significant, the characters feel like imbeciles, way out of their element and having no business trying to pull heists in Doskvol. This quickly becomes frustrating to the players, and not much fun.

This is, I think where “positioning” comes in. A “properly” paced heist in BitD begins with small costs for success but allows those costs to add up over time until new and significant complications arise. Likewise, there should be an “aim small, miss small,” mentality, where cost is directly proportional to the risk of the action undertaken. The rules explain this, and do a pretty good job of doing so, but the devil is in the details, and when the GM is worried about coming up with a new cost for that unexpected action, keeping track of all this pacing, tension-building, and consistent rulings begins to feel like juggling chainsaws (at least, if you feel that your players are as volatile as chainsaws).

There are a few techniques that may help here. First, of course, is practice. Second is maintaining the “conversation” of the game with the players–it’s completely okay for there to be some back-and-forth between GM and players to establish consequences and costs of an action before the player makes the final decision to take it. This is a game about calculated risks more than overwhelming surprises; so using the “conversational” form of narrative roleplaying is, I think, exactly what is intended here. For bonus points, get the players to make suggestions about results. “I want my character to try to climb the building. I know its raining and dangerous, but the storm also masks his movements. How about a clear success is climbing without issue, the cost is knocking free a loose brick that makes the guards that much more suspicious, and failure means a fall?” If everyone is participating like this, the game becomes (a) much easier to run and (b) more interesting in the telling.

I’ll admit that, even as someone very interested in narrative style games, my background in more “traditional” GM roles sometimes makes it difficult to switch into that other style.

Seduction by Mechanics

Here’s something that hit me quite unexpectedly in playing BitD. The rules for managing your crew, its relationships, holdings, and lackeys is very cool. But there’s an issue with having mechanics for these systems that seems more defined than those for playing through character scenes: it’s easy to fall into the trap that the rules are the sum total of Crew management. Go on a heist, calculate results, make decisions according to the rules, plan next heist. That’s clearly not what’s intended; the crew rules are there to facilitate story, to bring to mind more plotlines and character arcs aside from playing heist after heist after heist. BitD should have a fair amount of Gangs of New York or Peaky Blinders in it–dealing with the shit your lackeys get into and the beef you start with rivals should form a substantial part of play of the game beyond the processes, mechanics and selections that facilitate the crew section. While BitD does have an innovative approach to running heists (or at least a very cogent and elegant iteration cobbled together from the ideas of previous games), it’s not just about the heist. This is evident in the fiction and examples interspersed with the rules, but leaving many of the details of Doskvol to mere implication may subconsciously reinforce the tendency toward a focus on heists rather than other interactions with the world. Again, added weight on the GM. Maybe not unlooked for; worldbuilding (even fleshing out the framework of a provided world) can be an extremely satisfying aspect of GMing in the first place.


All of this is to say that BitD is probably not the sort of game to cut your chops as a GM on. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to run the game well, it wouldn’t be at the top of my list to introduce new players with, either. Running the game well requires a working knowledge of the GM’s narrative and practical toolbox; some familiarity with story structure, tension-building and drama; good improvisational skills and adaptability; and more theorycraft of roleplaying games than most competitors require. But, for some thing, you only get what you give.

Brief Notes on Texas Annual Conference 2021

This was our second year to conduct the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church via Zoom. I miss the time spent between meetings eating and talking with dear friends, but I must admit that the business of the conference itself proceeds much more smoothly via Zoom than in person–and the dress code is much more relaxed.

As might be expected, it was a relatively quiet year for the Conference. Here are some notes on the salient points (at least in my mind):

Conference Business

(1) A committee had been formed to examine and make recommendations for whether to hold or sell some of the properties owned by the conference. Most important among these was the central Conference office on North Main in downtown Houston, especially as there had been some discussion of moving Conference headquarters northward. This, along with everything else going on with the UMC to date, led to fears of decisions being made based on politics or factional goals rather than for the good of the whole conference. Fortunately, the committee came back with a well-reasoned recommendation that the property should be kept, at least for now.

(2) Two petitions to the conference passed quite easily, and they are related. The first was a petition to form a committee to look at how financial and property matters could be reasonably untangled should churches want to leave the Conference and/or the denomination once things (finally) shake out at the General Conference, whenever that happens to be. The committee would make recommendations but have no decision-making power. It’s a step toward as amicable a separation as might reasonably made, and separation now seems all but inevitable with the formation of the Global Methodist Church (the GMC for short). From analysis both legal and theological, I think it’s imperative that we manage to go our separate ways with as little fighting over material wealth as possible.

The second petition was in a similar vein to the first; the gist was to commit the Conference to holding at least three information sessions in each district of the Conference to provide as complete a view as possible of the consequences of decisions made at the Conference level or by individual churches to leave the Conference or denomination (or to stay if the Conference votes to leave the UMC). All of the interested factions will have a chance to be heard, and the process is scheduled to take no less than three months and no more than six. The idea is to prevent a hasty decision from being made or for anyone to simply capture short-lived momentum to push votes through before those voting fully understand what the votes will mean.

(3) A third petition, with which I fully agreed, was submitted by Rev. Diane McGehee at Bering Memorial. The adoption of the petition would be a resolution requesting that the Bishop refrain from disciplinary actions (i.e. church trials) against persons performing same-sex weddings until General Conference is able to sort out the final resolution to the human sexuality issue at a denominational level. A number of other bishops have agreed to this moratorium, but not ours.

As always, Rev. McGehee made a logical and impassioned argument in support of her position. She argued that it is past time for the UMC to stop the harm that we are doing with the “official” position regarding homosexuality (and, to a less-talked-about degree, gender issues). Far more than words were behind this argument–that morning Rev. McGehee had surrendered her credentials as UMC clergy and the church she leads, Bering Memorial Church, was approved to leave the UMC. It has joined the United Church of Christ.

Rev. McGehee has been one of the staunchest advocates for full inclusion and a more Christ-centered theology in the Texas Annual Conference, and I, like many others, will miss her presence both for her own personality and wisdom and for the great ally she has been to the cause. At the same time, I fully understand and respect the decision that she and Bering Memorial have made: it is what is best for their congregation. I only wish that the attitudes currently prevailing in the Texas Annual Conference had not made such action necessary.

There was only one argument against her petition from the laity, and it underlined her point exactly. The speaker first made the argument that “evil triumphs when good men do nothing,” apparently asserting that there is something evil about homosexuality. He then spent several minutes complaining (irrelevantly) about the liberalism of the recent Catholic Popes before returning to that malicious and misguided slur that homosexuality and pedophilia somehow exist in proximity. It was excruciating, offensive, and, quite frankly, deeply embarrassing for me as a member of the UMC.

Despite no one wanting to give voice to their opposition to the petition after the first remarks, the petition failed the vote.


The whole of the United Methodist Church is waiting for the General Conference to meet (the timing of the “2020” GC is, of course, still unknown) so that issues can be resolved at the highest level and that conferences and individuals can sort themselves out in light of where the UMC will be headed after decisions are made. But cracks are forming in the staid expressions of patience. Many progressives, right in the argument that “justice delayed is justice denied,” are beginning to wonder whether its worth waiting for the UMC to make its decisions. With the formation of the GMC, conservatives already have one foot out of the door. We’ll see what happens.

The Best News

The best thing to happen at Conference is that, on Tuesday evening, K was fully ordained into the Order of Deacons, the culmination of a seven-year process from her initial call to service as clergy to the conveyance of authority by the Bishop. I could not be prouder of her, and I can’t wait to see what more her spiritual service brings to the faithful!

“Fluff,” Lore and Mechanics

“What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee, [fluff]!”

I absolutely hate the word “fluff” as it is applied to gaming worlds. If I understand correctly, the term was first used by wargamers to discuss the information given about the world in which their chosen wargame takes place (for me, it was first used in “Warhammer 40k fluff.” The word is, of course, derisive, with the connotation that “fluff” is not necessary, but only a nice addition to have. I understand why some wargamers might have coined and still use the term if they only carry about the actual game they’re playing itself (they want to know which options make for the best Tyranid warriors but don’t give a fig about Tyranid biology, for instance), and the word makes this plainly evident.

Even in the wargaming realm, though, I think the word does a disservice. Maybe I’m just not as competitive a wargamer as others (or maybe I think I’m not until I sit down to a game and take it overly seriously!), but the narrative of an unfolding combat is just as or more interesting than all of the rules themselves. Games overly based on the army you bring and the synergies between unit selections quickly bore me over games where on-the-field decision making and use of resources takes center stage. I want to know a reason the forces are fighting for me to be interested in outcomes more than winning and losing. I think that’s a more fun approach, too, as you can celebrate the sudden reversals in fortune for your opponent with them instead of lamenting as “unfair” every time the dice turn against you.

As a curious aside, I find in interesting that some fictitious settings get “lore” or a “legendarium” while others have only “fluff.” I’m not quite sure where the distinction lies, but I’d love to locate the line. It’s not simply that games have fluff and speculative fiction has “lore”–the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age worlds are often spoken of in terms of “lore” and not “fluff.” Maybe some of this is just a matter of how seriously a particular person takes a particular settings; almost certainly some of it is a matter of semiotic fluidity and carelessness with words.

But I do think it matters. Over the past fifty years, roleplaying games (and games based on fantasy and speculative fiction in general) have increased both in popular appeal and in the seriousness with which the writing of gamebooks and the playing of the game are taken as artistic and literary pursuits. Academia is studying and writing about roleplaying games more and more, and I think that’s an amazing thing; there may be more to learn about how humans examine and work through their own existence in the roleplaying game than in the solitary virtuoso’s classic novel.

When it comes to roleplaying games, I absolutely detest the word, “fluff.” I like a good set of mechanics for a game and I have a great interest in analyzing, modifying and creating RPG mechanics, as some of the posts on this blog demonstrate. I don’t want to fall into the trap of proclaiming the “one true way of roleplaying,” so take my opinions for just that: opinions. But I believe that the setting in which a roleplaying game takes place is not only just as (or more important than) the hard-coded rules, but that the setting and lore surrounding the game are part of the rules.

Those of you who read my RPG-related posts with some frequency know that I gravitate toward narratively-focused games, and especially Fate. But my posts on character-building for Shadowrun are probably the most-read posts on the entire site, so I’m not averse to rules-heavy games either. Still, the games I favor tend to explicitly incorporate setting as mechanics. Fate uses Aspects as a mechanism for those things that are narratively important to affect the dice resolutions, Cortex Plus and Prime do the same thing in a slightly different way. These rules are both focused on providing flexible mechanical systems to handle those points of narrative where randomness and insecurity of outcome is beneficial to the game, while keeping the narrative at the forefront. There are not rules for every case, nor do these rules get too bogged down in exceptions, combos, etc., leaving both Fate and Cortex as RPG toolkits for those gamemasters who like to tinker with and personalize their rules without having to start from scratch.

Forged in the Dark and Powered by the Apocalypse take a different, maybe even more direct, approach to setting as mechanics. They call this narrative or fictional “positioning,” and they don’t need hardcoded rules to do it. The premise is simple–when deciding how successful and effective an action is, we look at the context of the action to make the determination rather than resorting to a “margin of success” or other explicit rules. In a gunfight with a knife and you’ve out-rolled the opponent? Maybe you’re able to get a good slash on the opponent and disarm him. Had you been using a gun of your own, maybe the result would have been a John Wick-style headshot, since you’d have had a much better fictional possession relative to your opponent.

Both systems can use the “hardness” of a GM response, cost of success or degree of success or how many pieces of a clock are filled in for a more specific tracking system.

But neither of these system is necessary to use the “setting and situation as rules” approach. In fact, I think it’s fair to argue that all games to this to a greater or lesser extent. Even Dungeons and Dragons, where you might have a discrete dice roll for damage or to determine whether a condition is suffered, many tests (especially skill tests) are wide open to interpretation of result by the GM. Genre, setting and situation can be drawn upon to determine results in such cases.

A few notes on this:
(1) I think that this is part of what OSR gamers are looking for–greater acknowledgment of setting and situation for resolution rather than specific rules for every action authorizing what can and cannot be done. There’s an opportunity cost for writing rules for specific actions, one most evident in feats and abilities for characters, I think. If there’s a “Great Leap” ability that allows for a jump attack, there’s, at the very least, an implication that characters without this ability can never make (Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy-style) badass jumping attacks.
(2) Also with reference to D&D, the opposite situation–when mechanics are treated as the physics of the setting, even when that doesn’t make rational sense–occurs. I think that this is part of what drives me away from the D&D system as a whole (among other things). I think of Jake Norwood, writing in the preface of his awesome game The Riddle of Steel, when he states that part of the impetus for creating his game was a D&D experience where his character stood on the edge of a cliff, a horde of orcs rushing towards him, and he realized he’d take less damage jumping off the cliff than fighting the orcs. It’s okay to say, “if your character does this, he will die”–even if the rules say otherwise. Unless you’re trying to play a goofy slapstick game (power to you if that’s how you roll), everyone at the table should understand that logic trumps rules when they’re in conflict. A good example, I think, was how the Serenity RPG handled being thrown into space without protection. The rules state (in paraphrase): “The character dies. If you really need to, roll all the dice on the table and apply that much damage.” Note that I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate for a game to have a mechanism for resolving falling damage, only that that mechanism should give way to the fiat of death (perhaps modified by whatever “barely escape from death” points the system has) when it is logically appropriate.
(3) No rules system can cover all situations, nor can it possibly account for all of the minute variables that might factor into a resolution roll, so by necessity we resort to using setting and situation (as our form of internal consistency and logic) to structure resolution rolls in the first place. Is this a one-die penalty for difficulty or two?

And, of course, the lore of a setting tells us what types of things are likely to happen in that setting, what things are extremely unlikely, and how actions or events are likely to play out. You can, and sometimes should, homebrew and modify rules to reflect those realities, but the truth is that you don’t necessarily need to if the setting itself provides the North Star in guiding the structure and interpretation of rolls.

For all of these reasons, I’d argue that setting is a much a part of mechanics (or at least should be considered such) as everything that falls within the “rules” section of the books. When that’s the case, there’s no such thing as “fluff,” there’s only information about the setting that helps us understand how to position the mechanics we use when playing in that setting.

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.


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 (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.


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.]