Patreon Planning Update

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

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

More to come soon!

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – a Strange Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, enough of that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules for Piracy in Fate

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been running an RPG campaign of fantasy piracy in a nascent setting I’m calling “The Innumerable Isles.” I ended up doing a lot of work (drawing upon my The Fate of Piracy series from the not-too-distant past), to come up with some rules for pirate games in Fate.

You’ll find attached below a PDF with the rules as I currently have them. Within those pages, I’ve included a system for using Professions as Skills, rules for Ships as characters (as well as assembling and customizing a ship), general guidelines for character creation, rules for handling piratical particulars (a ship-to-ship combat system and some easy ways to run the ruses used by pirates to tempt unwary prey), and even some fantastical elements (including a magic system).

The ruleset should be easy to employ for either historical games or in fantasy games set in an age of sail analogue.

I’ll follow on soon with some background on the Innumerable Isles setting (although I am turning my main focus to writing down more of my Avar Narn material in preparation for my Patreon launch with the start of the new year) and with some additional tools for the rules included here (including some random encounter charts!)

Review: Watch Dogs: Legion – Good Timing?

I picked up Watch Dogs: Legion on something of a whim, if I’m to be honest. I played the first one but passed on the second. What piqued my interest and put me over the edge was the fact that there is no “chosen one” central character and that you recruit your resistance against the forces that have overtaken near-future London from the general populace.

I probably spent as much time recruiting characters to DedSec as I did actually playing through the story. Certainly, I devoted much more time to recruitment than I did to side missions–about halfway through the game I decided I just wasn’t interested enough to spend that much time playing.

The situation in London is bleak at the beginning of the game; a terrorist group calling itself Zero-Day (or maybe lead by someone calling themself Zero-Day, this wasn’t quite clear to me) uses a spate of synchronized bombings across London to allow the city to largely turn over authority to a private military company, ironically named Albion. At least it’s leader isn’t named “Arthur.”

This puts London in a condition that represents some of my worst fears for the direction the U.S. is headed. I should mention that my father lived outside of London for about two years while I was in high school, so I spent a good deal of time in the city and, being too young to drive in the States, I learned to navigate the Tube long before I learned how to navigate Houston’s congested highways. So, in my mind, there’s a personal link between London and my own experience that perhaps made its familiar places (I always knew I’d gotten myself lost in the West End when I found myself walking between the adult-themed shops of Soho) feel like a strong link to my present concerns.

If you’d like it laid out for you, here are some of the aspects of the collapse of London’s (the country as a whole is rarely mentioned) democracy in the game: Albion patrols the streets in armored personnel carriers, armed with the kit expected of a warfighter, not a peace officer (blurred as that line is in the U.S. right now). Normal people are stopped and harassed as the already-prevalent camera system and the personal data captured by our smart devices turn London into a surveillance state. The vestiges of British democracy–the Home Office, the Parliament, etc., still exist, but only to provide cover for the authoritarian leanings of those really pulling the strings (the game explains that Parliament has been suspended and that the Queen–no indication of which Queen that is, mind you–has not been seen for some time since the bombings). Albion is disappearing its detractors left and right, the news stories that come up in your feed are often manipulated propaganda rather than reporting with integrity, and the current administration has formed unofficial alliances with the city’s largest criminal organization to facilitate its ends.

This is the situation in which your resistance hacker collective is formed. In today’s day and age–not just in the U.S. but in Europe and Britain as well, where the specter of conservatism dangerously flirting with fascism and/or populism raises its frightening head as well–there is a definite catharsis to be had for players needing to sublimate the angst they feel at the current political climate into imaginary action. I count myself among those players.

That’s why the recruitment missions feel so powerful–the need to bring in allies of similar mindset, who confirm and justify your beliefs that there’s something wrong with the current situation that calls for action, even of the direct and aggressive variety–is something many of us feel right now, whether or not that’s a reasonable mindset.

There are plenty of reviews talking about how cool it is to search out the various abilities (or weapons) different characters have as you build your team; I’ll acknowledge that aspect of the system but not dwell on it.

I will mention that the game has an option for permadeath for your operatives, and I can’t imagine playing the game without this option. The consequences, the drama of recruitment and selection of a particular character, make the whole system of having no single protagonist worth it; if you can’t lose the characters you recruit, that system loses much of its narrative weight. I lost about a half-dozen characters in my playthrough, most of them being “specialist” operatives with better skills and equipment than the average recruit: I lost an anarchist (one of the best character “classes” if you’re focusing on less-lethal tactics), a spy (my particular favorite character), a professional hitman (I thought that an amateur hitman was just a murderer, but, lo and behold, I did later recruit an “amateur hitman”), a deputy director of the Met, and a few others. Their losses–especially in otherwise successful story missions–were keenly felt, and that was the point, wasn’t it?

Otherwise, the gameplay was nothing unexpected for a GTA/Assassin’s Creed/Watch Dogs/Etc.-style of game. Less free-running and more hacking, but otherwise in line with expectations. Admittedly, I played the game on “normal” difficulty which, despite my losses, seemed easier than I should have selected for optimal enjoyment. If you liked the previous Watch Dog games, you’ll like the way this one plays.

Ultimately, the game’s narrative was less satisfying than I’d initially expected. I called the nature of Zero-Day a mile away, and the plot points of the missions hit a little too hard on the tropes and cliches of the genre: the THEMIS idea essentially rehashed Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, the Skye Larson plot played out the typical mad scientist trope (while sidestepping all of the actually-interesting philosophical and practical issues of mind-uploading by making her a monster), and Mary Kelley played an unnuanced criminal mastermind the likes of which have starred in many a poor detective story. The most emotional point of the story’s ending is immediately undone after the credits roll. Part of me liked that, but it was a cheap happiness to be sure.

Fortunately, the nature of the game itself, rather than the plot, brought some nuance with it. As with Watch Dogs 2 (so I’m told), the game pushes you toward a less-lethal approach to combat. You can only unlock less-lethal weapons for your characters (some recruits come with lethal weapons, but that’s the only way to get them) and even the “takedown” animations that show a neck being broken or the hitman garroting a victim to death are revealed to be less lethal attacks in the game’s treatment of them.

As a brief digression, I found the distribution of lethal weapons on recruitable characters–especially in London–to be ridiculous. It’s at least plausible that the Spy has a silenced pistol, or that the Professional Hitman comes with a pistol and assault rifle, but that’s not the half of it.

One of the first people I passed in the game was a “Tourist” with an M249 light machine gun. I chalked it up to satire of Americans, but then I also added to my potential recruits list a Chef with the same weapon. And then a University Researcher with a silenced pistol. As it turned out the number of people casually packing in dystopian London–heavy weapons no less–mystified.

But that aside, the game’s push toward less-lethal weapons made me continually ask myself about the morality of using lethal weapons in the fight. And this is particularly where I’d wished I’d set the difficulty to a higher level. As it stood, there where many missions where I could send in a Professional Hitman and run-and-gun my way through Albion personnel, stopping shooting to hack only when necessary. I wished that the difficulty had been higher so that the hero fantasy of blasting one’s way through faceless neo-fascist bad guys without a care in the world might have been less accessible, along with all of its accompanying problems. But, ignoring the moral question within the game, I continued to ponder the point at which armed resistance becomes an acceptable approach–it is never a “good” approach. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think violence can ever truly overcome evil–only delay it–and that thought reverberated for me as I confronted my programmed “enemies.”

It was certainly the fact that the setting of the game resonated with current fears and concerns about the future of the U.S. that led me to all of these thoughts, and it was morality and politics that traveled through my brain while playing the game far more than any consideration of privacy or technology issues. Even now, as I write this review, I’m continually refreshing the AP’s report on 2020 election results, full of some hope for the presidential results but mostly dread at the stark divide in my nation, the number of people who seem to value their own economic prosperity (manufactured as that may be) over ideas of democracy, justice, equality, or any of the other things I see as the ideals that justify the messiness and difficulty of our political system.

I’d better quit while I’m ahead. Or at least before I’m too far behind. I’ll conclude with this: I enjoyed playing through Watch Dogs: Legion, but it was far from an amazing experience. More important, I came away from this game wondering (in all sense of the word) how the cyberpunk stories and games of my youth seemed to be more prophetic year after year. As much as I enjoy playing games like Shadowrun, or Deus Ex, or Watch Dogs, that’s not a direction I would consciously chose. Which, in turn, made me a little embarrassed to play this game after all, feeling like I was turning my angst to video games rather than getting “out there” and doing something that might help incite meaningful change in the world. Do I feel like that’s even possible, or have I turned to a game like this because I’m beginning to feel powerless? Or is the coincidence of this game’s release with the 2020 election simply a serendipitous synchronicity of memes and fears as to put me in existential angst?

I don’t think any of that was what Watch Dogs’ creators intended it to be. But for me, that was my Watch Dogs: Legion: a self-inflicted reverie about my place in and responsibilities to the world. As I look back at this article, weird as it turned out to be, I think it reflects the course of my experience with the game–a journey from light-hearted escapism into contemplating much tougher questions and concepts. Was that worth my sixty bucks? Maybe.

Poems

I don’t often write poetry, but when I do…I have no idea if it’s any good.

Nevertheless, I’ve felt myself compelled more and more to write poems lately (having not written anything of the sort in long years), and I’ve come up with a few that I think might be decent (at least worth revising and/or expanding some time in the future). Here are a few for your reading pleasure (I hope!):

Turn Back Again
Where does ignorance become willfulness?
Where does fear become evil?
Is it the striking snake or the stampeding cow?
Is it the deceitful mirage or the devastating storm?
Or are these phenomena ours alone,
We who build marvels to behold,
We who write so as to move the heart,
We who sing praises as we cover ourselves in ash and dirt?
Where is the place of responsibility?
Where the locus of guilt?
Why do we only know that place once we’ve passed it?
And why do we never turn back again?

A Balm in Gilead
There is a balm in Gilead,
But it is not what you think.
For all healing requires pain,
So that we know when we are finished.
All else is only covering a wound,
Letting it fester and rot until we become numb,
Until the stench becomes too much and the flesh sloughs away,
Leaving us to exclaim, “From whence this new wound?”

Patreon Planning

I’ve thought about it since my first post on this subject, and I’m deciding to take the leap and create a Patreon to see how it goes in expanding my production and helping me to push forward toward my goals as a writer.

First and foremost, the Patreon will not replace this blog. You should still expect to see weekly (most of the time, anyway) posts on the blog on all of the usual subjects. Instead, the Patreon will supplement the blog by providing focused materials for a portion of the blog’s readers–I do not expect that everyone who reads my writings here will be interested in what the Patreon has to offer.

The Patreon will consist of setting material, RPG rules, and fiction for my fantasy world, Avar Narn. Each week, I’ll provide patrons with a minimum of 2,500 words of background material on the world. RPG rules and fiction will be included as it is written.

Look for another post soon that gives you a “pitch” for the Avar Narn setting, so that you can see what you’d be getting into if you’re not already familiar from following the blog. You can read some of the stories and work on the “My Writing” page to get a feel for things as well.

I will be setting up three Patreon tiers with the following material:

“Tourist” Tier: For $3 per month, Patrons will receive access to a monthly newsletter and the weekly blog posts with setting material.

“Explorer” Tier: For $5 per month, Patrons will receive the benefits of the “Tourist” Tier, plus access to RPG mechanics posts, access to a Discord server to participate in a community exploring the setting together in which I will directly and regularly participate, and the ability to vote on specific topics for me to address in subsequent months.

“Venture Captain” Tier: At $8 per month, this tier includes everything in the previous tiers plus access to work-in-progress fiction set in Avar Narn (including in the immediate future the revisions and rewrites of the novel Things Unseen) and “behind-the-scenes” posts on my methods and strategies for developing the information seen in weekly posts.

Money from the Patreon will most likely be used to purchase tools, books, and services (such as the creation of artwork) to further expand the material available for Avar Narn, with the plan of eventually publishing setting books and roleplaying rules to accompany the novels and short stories I hope to publish. If the Patreon income becomes significant enough (which I do not expect), then I may use some of it to pay bills and devote more time to writing (meaning more material both in general and for Patreon).

I expect to launch the Patreon with the new year. I’d really love to hear from you if you are interested, have comments or criticisms of the above-described plan. Feel free to leave comments or send me a message or email. In all honesty, I’m a little nervous about starting this venture and would love to know that there’s actually a desire for it.

I will be posting material for other settings on this blog, but these materials will not be nearly as regular nor as detailed as those for Avar Narn on the Patreon. Depending upon how the Patreon goes, I will consider adding some of those other settings to the Patreon (with an increase in detail and frequency of writing of material for them) if doing so looks feasible to add value without detracting from my work on Avar Narn or burning me out.

Review: The Sparrow

I know; I’m a little late to the game if I’m reviewing a book that’s twenty-five years old. But I’m excited about it enough that I really don’t care about that.

So, we’re gonna talk about Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, an exposition of theodicy wrapped in a sci-fi tale that’s secretly a bildungsroman of sorts. If you’re not a theology nerd, “theodicy” is the word for the study of the problems of evil and suffering. In Christianity, in particular, this problem might be more specifically phrased as “If God is all-powerful and entirely good and loving, why does God allow evil and suffering in the world? Why do these things happen to seemingly good people?”

Job is my favorite book of the Old Testament, in part because it addresses this very question and gives us the best answer I think can be had for it. When God appears to Job at the end of the poem, God’s answer to Job’s questioning is to tell Job that he cannot understand the answer. It’s too complex, it’s too nuanced, for the human brain to comprehend in all its depths. The ultimate answer God gives that humans can understand is “Trust me.” Faith, faith that God is sovereign over all things, that God is love and intends ultimate good for God’s creation, hope that everything will one day be clear and suffering and evil will be conquered fully after having served their purposes–as inscrutable to us as those purposes may be–is the answer. It is, admittedly, an answer that I find at once entirely frustrating and comforting. It’s not my job to solve the problem of evil and suffering; it’s my job to respond to evil in suffering in the way that God has instructed me.

Part of the brilliance and beauty of Russell’s book–and only part, mind you–is that she takes the same approach. There is no attempt to answer the question of suffering, only an attempt to hold it in her hands and turn it at all angles for the reader to view, to experience in part, all of its manifest complexity and difficulty. There are no apologies here, no arguments, only an investigation of the issue that is by turns beautiful and terrifying, humbling and infuriating.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but I’ve got to at least tell you what the book is about, right? All of that investigation into theodicy is not exposition or diatribe, it is examined through the experiences and humanity of the characters.

The Sparrow tells of the aftermath of a first-contact mission put together in secret by the Society of Jesus to the planet of Rakhat, discovered by the Arecibo facility in Puerto Rico in 2019, when the astronomy equipment there picks up radio signals that turn out to be the singing of the indigenous peoples of Rakhat.

Only priest and linguist Emilio Sandoz survives the mission; the handful of clergy and layperson companions that accompany him to Rakhat do not. The time dilation of space travel, the reports of the second, secular mission to Rakhat, and reports from the first missionaries themselves seem to tell the tale of a horrific fall from grace and into depravity on the part of Sandoz. The story jumps back and forth between the Jesuit interviews with the recovered Sandoz (in an attempt to discover the truth of the reports and, hopefully, salvage something of the Jesuit reputation after the reports of the missionary journey have decimated it), the first discovery of Rakhat and the synchronicity that brought Sandoz and his companions into the mission in the first place, and the events that actually unfolded on Rakhat. These separate narratives meet, as it were, at the climax of Sandoz’s telling of his story.

That main thread, and its analysis of theodicy, contrasted with the modern missionaries’ own thoughts about their relationship to the 16th century missions of the Jesuits to the “New World”, form the core of the text, but Russell’s writing of the missionary characters, their backgrounds, their feelings, their developing relationships to one another, their thoughts about their places in Creation as they confront their missionary (or priestly) status, provides just as much literary joy and human insight as the “mystery” that frames all of these subplots.

This is, after all, a sci-fi story (one for which Russell won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1996, the year the book was published), and great detail is paid to the physiology and culture of the peoples of Rakhat, to the methods of space travel (the missionaries convert a mined-out asteroid into their spaceship) and the believable physics of story. At the same time, those elements never get in the way of the narrative; no time is lost on long exposition about the nature of technologies or theories of culture and alien psychology. These run seamlessly throughout the text, woven in with the unfolding plot instead of interrupting it.

The writing itself is beautiful, jealousy-inducing for an aspiring writer such as myself. The blend of familiar, practical tone with clever description and amusing turn-of-phrase reveals the intelligence and imagination of the mind behind this tale in an ever-delightful manner. The pacing and plotting of the story are an example of mastercraft in that aspect of the art, something especially apparent to me as I struggle with revising the plotting and pacing of my own fledgling work.

I must also express a debt of gratitude to my wife for bringing me to read this book. It’s one she first read–and told me about–almost a decade ago. It sounded interesting, but I must not have been paying close enough attention to her explanations, because this a book that fits with my own interests so uncannily perfectly. Only when she announced that she was going to read it again, now that her experiences in ministry and seminary had sharpened her abilities to appreciate the tale, did I agree to read it alongside her. As I must often admit, she was right all along. I should’ve read it the first time she told me to. So should you.

Infinite Recursions

I think it was Stephen King who wrote or said that, if one wants to be successful as a writer, one needs to writing like a (second) job. I’m not one for taking people’s advice on reputation alone, especially on something so deeply personal and resistant to generalization as writing. Nevertheless, I think (maybe “worry” is a better word) that he’s right.

In light of that, I’m considering starting a Patreon. Through that medium, I’d add some focused posts on my personal worldbuilding endeavors, including fiction and roleplaying rules for those settings. Avar Narn would, of course, be a particular focus, but I also have a handful of additional settings I want to develop—especially for roleplaying (mine and others’). Posts would be at least weekly, with deep dives into aspects of setting, maps, and much more for the enjoyment and use of patrons. I don’t know if I really have a critical mass for something like that to work, but I think it would be useful to me in several ways. First, the deadlines and accountability this could bring me would, I think, help my productivity.

I’m also reminded of a story about a Russian agent working for CIA case officers at the height of the Cold War. He’d regularly ask his handlers for money in exchange for his services, increasing the amount that he wanted every time he asked. Eventually, the Soviets found him out and did what they always did to suspected spies. The CIA officers rushed to his apartment to strip out anything that could link him to others before the KGB could recover it. As they did so, they found all of the money they’d paid him. He had never been the mercenary they’d expected; the money was his way of ensuring that the information he passed to American spies was worthwhile and valuable.

I’d like to think that that’s how Patreon would work for me—as a tangible indication that people are actually interested in my creative work. It would be nice to have some associated income—either to allow me to devote more time to writing and other creative endeavors or to invest in the settings themselves—for artwork and other needs that could allow me to produce professional-grade works—but I don’t expect the income derived therefrom to be a life-changer.

One of my reservations about taking the leap, other than the possibility that a lack of response becomes a de-motivator, is some release of creative control over my productions. Which leads me to the title of this post.

As I was thinking about the prospect of a Patreon, of what it would practically look like, I realized the fallacy of thinking about absolute creative control. Once a piece of art or writing is shared with others, it irrecoverably shatters into a number of pieces equal to the number of participants in the setting.

There is no single Middle Earth, no one Marvel Universe, no absolute Star Wars (just ask Disney). And this goes well beyond fanboy-ism and head cannon—the “feel” of a setting is going to be unique in some inexplicable way to each experiencer, even before we talk about fan fiction or roleplaying games set in that world.

And that’s not a bad thing—it’s a really fascinating one to think that every fictional world becomes infinite worlds, recursions of varying degrees all riffing in some core ideas.

Like all things, that makes the creative act both deeply personal and necessarily communal if it is to be enjoyed. That dialectic speaks to my soul, if I’m going to be honest, and all my worries about whether other peoples’ ideas creep into my own creations seems stupid, honestly, in the light of our corporate relationship between a setting with all of its idiosyncrasies created by our own idiosyncrasies, and the relationship that creates between each of us.

Frankly, it makes me want to create more, write more, give others more setting to make their own in their various ways and enjoy.

I think I’ll give Patreon a shot. We’ll see what happens.

Things Unseen: After-Action Report

First and foremost: Thank you to those of you who’ve accompanied me in this process, whether reading online or off, whether sharing your thoughts with me or not. Every “like” on a chapter post gave me motivation to keep writing. I cannot say how much I appreciate your support.

It ended at 150,794 words, six weeks after I’d planned to be finished. The last bit was hard to slog through, honestly. Not only because life–as it tends to do–intervened to make sitting to write more difficult, but also because the more I realized how significant of rewriting I was going to need to do, the harder it became to sit and write an ending I knew would be subject to change, potentially drastic change. So yes, I rushed the ending. Badly. For that, I apologize.

But, I decided that there was great value to finishing the first draft in its entirety, regardless of how satisfied with it I was, and that the sense of accomplishment for doing so, however small, would be an important motivator in starting the difficult work of getting the text to where I might consider it being “great.”

I’d call it a solid “okay,” as it stands. I’ve read some things that managed to be published that I think, even in its current state, this text is better than. But that’s not saying much. And I don’t really want to be a “passable” author, I want to be a brilliant one. That’s going to require a lot more work on my part!

The good news is that at least have a solid idea of how to get there. If I had to sum it up in a phrase, the novel needs “more and less.” On the “less” side, I need to cut out some of those parts that don’t really pull their weight with regard to the main story. This includes the trip to the Crimson Close and the fight against the Child of Daea. As much as I enjoyed writing those chapters, and as much as they provide some important background to the world of Avar Narn, I think that they take up space that could be better devoted to focusing on the core story of Orren’s spirit and the interlocking desires and machinations of the people of Vaina.

And that’s where the “more” comes in. I need to deepen the characterization across the board, build more depth for the interweaving plots of the suspect and involved characters. The whole story needs to be “tighter” in that regard; gaps need to be eliminated between the logic of events and the storytelling. Which is not to say that I intend to cut out the jumps from one scene to another so much as to more carefully consider the pacing.

To that end, I’m considering this first draft more of a very extended plot outline than a full draft. Where I can, I’ll be pulling from scenes as written to form jumping-off points for rewrites. But first, I’m going to do my own readthrough, distill each chapter to its plot points as an updated outline, and then use that to create a new outline that goes not just scene by scene, but beat by beat, notating for intended “feel” as well as plot and for the sensory details and descriptive elements I want to include.

I’ve written several times on the blog about the approach to writing as “brain hacking;” that good writing carefully constructs the string of thoughts and emotions in the reader. I don’t want to commit to that thought as the One True Way of writing, but I do feel that it describes the approach I think I need to take to take the novel from “meh” to amazing. And I’m really just not willing to settle for less.

It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to it. I hope you’ll continue the journey with me.

Things Unseen, Final Chapter

For the unofficial preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

I enjoyed a night of relative peace before guards summoned me in the early morning. The suns had not risen yet; I understood that this was business to be taken care of before prying eyes were awake to witness it. The two men who’d come to get me wore breastplates and swords, but neither helmets nor polearms. An attempt to seem less threatening, perhaps. Not that it mattered.

They gave me a short time to dress and strap on my belt before calling me onward. I hoped not to need my blade but suspected that things could come to that—especially after catching the expressions traded between the two men as I took up my sword. the guardsmen led me down the castle hallways and staircases, not to Aryden’s study as I’d expected, but to the great hall.
There, Lady Aevale amn Vaina occupied the chair of judgment. Four more guardsmen I didn’t recognize flanked her, two on either side. Barro, freed from the imprisonment to which Aryden had sent him, stood directly next to Aevale’s seat. The expression of pious serenity he wore like a mask inflamed my anger more than if he wore the grin of smug satisfaction at his return to power. I looked around for Aryden, for Vesonna and her tight-laced tutor, for Gamven or Deadys, but it was only the seven of us.

“I saw you,” Aevale said, her voice low and raw, out of practice. “In my dreams. Nightmares, really.”

“You did.”

“Barro has filled me in on what has befallen us since your arrival, what transpired last night. You’ve really made a mess of things, haven’t you, lord thaumaturge?”

In my cynicism, I’d expected something like this, the rationalization of recanting on a deal after services had already been rendered. I’d prepared for it. Son I said nothing.

“You have left all of my husband’s plans hanging by a thread. The amn Estos threaten to leave without a wedding. Edanu has halted negotiations for Vesonna’s wedding to House Meradhvor. My priest had been imprisoned. You’ve spread rumors that the burning of a witch was unjust, and you’ve nearly fallen into fights with every important person of the town.”

“I—”

“To say nothing of my husband! He has left us, like a thief in the night. For what?”

“He chose exile, my lady. For your sake.”

“So I’m told. That’s awful convenient, isn’t it?”

I took a step forward, only for the guardsmen to put hands to sword hilts. My own hands fell to my hips obstinately. “And you think that I’ve arranged all of this for just such a purpose? To undermine your petty kingdom? For what?”

“For my husband’s siblings,” she spat.

“You and Aryden are more alike than I’d expected.”

“That is ‘Lord Aryden’, to you!”

“It’s not,” I quipped. “Not anymore. Not to anyone. He renounced that title, bonded his own Wyrgeas to enforce the abjuration of his position. And he did that to save you from death as revenge for his murder—and your own curse. Point your finger all you want, Lady Aevale; you know where responsibility for all these things lies. Even had I wanted to, I’d have needed to take no action to destabilize the delicate balance of power your family has managed to hold here for so long. The consequences of your own actions unfolded to do that. Have you no decency, no humility, no introspection to admit your own role in your fate? I have completed the task for which your husband hired me; I have my payment. I’ll collect my things and be on my way.”

I turned to leave but found the tips of swords pointed in my direction. Far enough to not be an immediate threat, but close enough to send their message clearly.

“I’m afraid not,” Aevale rasped from behind. “I can’t risk you spreading lies and calumnies about what you ‘witnessed’ here. I will not allow you to make our family’s ruin complete.”

I smiled a little, reaching my left hand into one of my pouch pockets, a maneuver that caused the guardsmen to step cautiously away from me. Over my shoulder I lifted a small ultramarine clod, the dried paint I’d stolen away from Ovaelo’s palette. Now that I thought about it, the oily residue in my hand held quiet a value; part of me regretted not choosing a more common hue for my purposes. Regardless, though, that chunk of paint had more value to me now that to anyone else in the world, for in this moment, it meant my life.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Aevale asked, croaking.

“Did Barro explain the counter-ritual to you? Did he explain the working I performed with your husband’s help last night?”

“He said you bound Orren’s spirit into Ovaelo’s painting of me.”

I turned to face her now. “Yes. And this is paint used in that painting.”

Her brow furrowed as she failed to see the connection.

“Which means that this little blue clod bears a sympathetic link to the painting itself, a link that I can use from wherever I am to create a working that affects the painting itself. Should that painting be sufficiently damaged, Orren will escape and resume his assault upon you. Aryden’s sacrifice is already made; it cannot be made again. So I do not believe you would find renewed respite from the curse that you wrought upon yourself.”

“So you would be the arbiter of justice, then?”

I spat. “None of us knows well enough to use that word well. For me, this is only a vengeance against you should you flout the help I have given your family. It is a surety against your good behavior, a letter of safe passage. Beyond that, I care not. I’ll be happy to be done with this place, and with all who bear your name.”

“Then begone with you, and do not return.”

“There is one more thing,” I said.

“To blackmail now, is it?”

“Call it what you want,” I told her. “I never made a claim that it was justice.”

“Out with it.”

“There is a place within your demesne, a place where the veil is thin and the Power spills into our world more readily than elsewhere. I believe the folk of Vaina know it well.

This place is why Meradhvor is so interested in a marriage alliance; they want to exploit it for their own ends. As long as you are alive and hold power as the Lady amn Vaina, you shall not allow any of the Artificer Houses to make claim to that place. If you do, I shall restore your torment to you.”

“You do seek our ruin,” she rasped.

“As I said, my task is done. I no longer owe your family anything. I’ll take my leave.”

The guards stepped back, unsure of what would transpire if they did otherwise, and I passed between them without incident. Briefly, I returned to my room to collect my belongings and then proceeded directly to the stables to recover Windborne.

None of the servants had yet taken their place with the horses, which suited me fine. I recovered the saddle and tack and fitted them to my mount on my own, thinking of Savlo and Errys, of Falla—even of Orren’s pitiable fate. I would pray that The One speed them all to new life and happiness, for I knew no other justice to be had for them.

I lead Windborne carefully from the stables, her stiff joints needing time to limber up before I mounted. Wordlessly, the guardsmen opened the castle gate for me, and I passed into Old Vaina, where the townsfolk were just beginning to come to life as the first of our suns peeked over the horizon. I ignored the signs of the Tree, the suspicious looks and spitting that once again greeted me amongst the townsfolk. They would never be allowed to know the fullness of the service I rendered to the amn Vaini, nor how the amn Vaini had wrought their own maladies. To them, I would always be just one more wicked thaumaturge, in league with forces dubious at best, but more likely evil. At that moment, I pledged not to take another job outside of the Sisters—I preferred being caught in the machinations of the Coin Lords over those of the nobility. The former, at least, knew what they were and didn’t insult you by trying to hide their duplicity while stabbing you in the back. But, even as I made the pledge to myself, I knew it would not hold. I’d go where the opportunities were. For coin, yes, but more to push the boundaries of my own abilities. This job had done exactly that, and I’d kept eld Caithra’s hidden book for my collection as well. For all the nastiness that accompanied my time in Vaina; for all the moral failings of mankind, all of the suffering wrought by unintended confluences, by things unseen and only felt upon their consequence; even for the less-than-happy ending, I didn’t regret coming here. Some of the things I did and said, sure. Some of the paths not taken that might have been better for all of us? Absolutely. But I could not summon up regret that I had come at all. There’d be plenty of time for that later, if it manifested.

When I passed under the gate into New Vaina, I found the constable Daedys waiting for me. How long he’d been standing in the dark before the suns rose I could only guess, but he carried no weapons and I breathed in a sigh of relief that he’d not come for some misguided but renewed insistence upon vengeance against me. Which gave me a thought.

“You are leaving, I see. How did it turn out?”

“Walk with me,” I instructed. He did as asked. I told him everything I’d learned without holding back. Someone had to know the truth, and at least once, I had to tell it. I told him how Orren had intended to take advantage of the amn Vainas for his own profit, how the potion Falla had given Nilma provided an unexpected opportunity. How he’d used that opportunity to seduce not Lady Aevale, but Aryden, causing him to break his trothbond to his wife. How, when Aryden discovered the treachery, he plotted to and then murdered the boy. How, at that very moment, Aevale, who’d also discovered the affair, had been undertaking a working to curse Orren, a working given to her by the priest Barro even as he offered such fear and hatred for Falla from his pulpit. How Orren’s murder acted as a sacrificial release of power that warped the curse into something else entirely, transforming Orren into a vampiric spirit of unusual power. I told him of Aryden’s sacrifice to undo the curse, of Orren’s binding to the painting as the only respite for anyone. Only this did I attempt to soften, explaining that the scholars seem to agree that mortal spirits somehow bound to the Avar do not stay indefinitely, but only for a time before they return to the Path and the Wheel. I finished with the information that Aryden had left in the night, a fulfillment of his oath, and that the recovered Lady Aevale now sat the seat of judgment in Vaina.

I don’t know how much he listened to. He was mumbling to himself, “Aryden killed my nephew,” over and over. A mantra, an oath. I could see that cold desire for vengeance re-enter his eyes, and I wondered whether he would find the wandering former lord—and what might happen if he did.

“There’s something I need to ask of you,” I told him.

This broke him, at least momentarily, from his obsessive course of thought.
“What is that?”

“Your place of Power, the place where you met with Magaréil. It is without a defender. I would ask that you watch over it, that you prevent it from falling into the hands of man or spirit who would exploit it. If you find such, write to me in the City.”

“What of Magaréil, then?” he asked.

“I don’t know yet. They’re coming with me, and I think we have a lot to discuss, they and I. From there I suppose I’ll have to find some place to free them where they cannot seek power over mortals as they did here.”

“You’ve deprived the folk here of their greatest ally, you know,” Daedys said.

“I’ve done a great many things that have changed this place for a long time. I meant well, but only time will tell how much good intentions had to do with, or how accurate my understanding of ‘good’ is. We make the choices we have and we live with the consequences.”

He nodded, and I returned to Ilessa.

[Return tomorrow for my own thoughts on the first draft. I’d love to hear yours!]