And it Begins (Patreon Now Live!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Patreon Info

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Queen’s Gambit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tragic Christianity and Comic Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patreon Planning Update

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

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

More to come soon!

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – a Strange Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, enough of that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.