Learning from Game of Thrones

[SPOILER ALERT: This post presupposes familiarity the sweep of the Game of Thrones TV series, with a focus on the final season. If you’re sensitive to having narrative spoiled for you and haven’t watched everything yet, don’t read.]

It would be hardly original of me to spend a post simply lamenting this last season of Game of Thrones, despite my desire to do so. Instead, I’m going to spend some time pointing out what I think are some lessons to be learnt by aspiring writers (in any medium) from the recent failures of the show.

To preface that though, I need to exhibit some due humility. The greatest lesson to be taken from the recent episodes is that good writing is difficult, no matter who you are. It is, as with so many things, far easier to criticize than to create. D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, and the other writers who contributed throughout the show’s run, have managed to create for widespread public consumption. At this point, I have not. I feel it’s only appropriate to bear that in mind and take what I have to say with a pinch of salt as we continue (though ultimately, I hope that the weight of my arguments, rather than the status of the people involved, carries the day in this discussion).

Show Don’t Tell

It’s one of the commonly-touted pieces of advice given to writers. Don’t use boring exposition when you can just as easily let the audience get the necessary information from context or from being immersed in the setting and story. Don’t explain the inner thoughts of the characters when we can understand them just as well by how the characters act and speak.

This is especially true of visual media–which is why Industrial Lights & Magic and Weta Workshop have been able to do such wonderful things for defining setting in films and TV, why concept art is such an important aspect of designing for those media (and even for the written word)!

So, for me, Game of Thrones’ after-the-show talks with the showrunners pointed out a key problem. When you have to explain what you were trying to get at in an episode after the episode, you haven’t written the episode well enough to stand on its own. When you smugly assume that everyone got exactly what you’re talking about while watching, you’re adding insult to injury.

This is largely a result of rushing the storytelling. Without time enough to lay all of the necessary groundwork to explain events and occurrences within the show, you’re going to have to either let the audience create their own explanations or hand the explanations to them elsewhere. The lesson here: make sure you’re taking the right amount of time to show what you need to show so that you don’t have to tell later.

To be clear, this is a general rule, and general rules can always be broken in good writing–if done well and only when appropriate. It is possible to have key events happen “off stage” and describe them later or to play with the relation of key information in other ways, but these decisions must be made carefully and deliberately. My recommendation is to start with a “more is more” approach when writing and then employ a “less is more” approach when editing. It’s easier (I think) to lay it all out and refine by cutting out the dross than to realize your narrative isn’t complete and then struggle to fill in gaps–I’ve been there!

Here are some specific examples from Season 8 of this being an issue: the tactics employed at the Battle of Winterfell, Daenerys’ suddden change in the attack on King’s Landing. This lesson could just as easily be called “Timing is everything,” or “Don’t Rush” (the latter of which is probably the cause of most of Season 8’s mistakes).

Reversals of Expectations: There’s a right way and a wrong way.

The showrunners made a great deal out of “defying audience expectations” in Season 8. Defying audience expectations is a key technique in good narrative, but there’s more nuance to it than that. The technique, properly employed, has two parts: (1) give the audience a twist that they don’t see coming AND (2) set up the narrative so that, in retrospect, that twist feels somehow inevitable.

This is not a game of “gotcha!” Good writers do not play with twists and surprises simply because its something to do. Good writers use twists to increase tension, remind us that, like life itself, the unexpected (but often foreseeable) occurs in narrative, to create drama.

A good surprise must satisfy multiple demands in addition to the two basics mentioned above. The twist must follow the internal consistency of the setting–it should defy expectations of plot, but not of the personality and character of the actors or the rules (spoken or unspoken) of the setting itself. It must have sufficient groundwork laid in the story; without this the “twist” feels random and unmoored from the themes and scope of the rest of the narrative.

In “gritty” fiction, there will be times when bad fortune or ill luck interjects itself into the story, times when both readers and characters are left wondering “is there a meaning to all of this, or is everything that happens just random?” But those types of events only work when explained by coincidence and happenstance–they must truly be strokes of bad luck. When we’re talking about the choices made by characters, there must be believable motivation and a way for the character to justify the action–even if we don’t agree with the logic or morality of that justification.

The example that undoubtedly comes to mind here, as above, is Daenerys’ sudden decision to kill everyone in King’s Landing. There is some building-up of her story arc in the early narrative (following Martin) that Dany might not be the great savior everyone hopes that she will be. She is a harsh mistress to the Masters of the cities of Slaver’s Bay, willing to commit atrocities in the name of “justice.” But this moral ambiguity (strongly based in the character of historical figures in similar situations) is not the same as the desire for justice slipping into a desire for power and control to implement that justice. That story arc certainly works (it is the rationale behind Morgoth and especially Sauron in Tolkien’s world), but we need a solid background for such a morally-repugnant act as mass murder of innocents. We are given the groundwork for her eventual “fall” into a person willing to use harsh means to achieve her idealistic ends, but not for her to do what she did. This lack of laying the proper foundation for her sudden change leaves it feeling like, as some commenters put it, “a betrayal of her character.” This leads us to the next point.

Internal Consistency versus Authorial Fiat

For me, the greatest issue I took with Season 8, the thing that left such a bad taste in my mouth, was my belief that the showrunners decided what would happen and then shoehorned in all of the details to get them to those decisions. Euron’s sudden (and nonsensical) appearance before an undefended Targaryen fleet and ability to quickly slay a dragon compared with his powerlessness before one remaining dragon at King’s Landing is only one exemplar here. Having Arya kill the Night King (which had been “decided early on”) is another. And just about all of Episode 6.

One of the great joys of writing (in my mind, though I hear this with some frequency from other writers) is when a story takes on a life of its own. What you thought would happen in your story gets suddenly left behind because of the momentum the story has accrued, the logic of the setting, the narrative and the characters within it. We find ourselves mid-sentence, suddenly inspired (in as true a sense as that word can be used) with the thought, “That’s not what happens, this character would do X instead! Which means Y needs to change!” All of sudden, you’re going somewhere better than you were originally headed, somewhere truly rewarding to write and to for your audience to read or see.

This is the result of a dialectic that forms between the moving parts of the story. The narrative, the dramatic tensiveness of the story, the themes and motifs, the characters involved and the conditions established by the setting; the gestalt of these elements becomes something that lives and breathes, something greater than the mere sum of its parts.

Pigeonholing the plot forces it to become stilted, forced and (worst of all) didactic. Dead and mechanical. This is, in part, the difficulty with story “formulae.” There are narrative structures that provide a general framework for certain types of genres or stories, but following the formula with nothing else results in something unsatisfactory.

Here, though, my suspicion is that the problem was more a matter of fan-service and a slavish devotion to defying expectations than rote adherence to fantasy-story formulae.

One of the things that made the Song of Ice and Fire books, and the Game of Thrones TV show so popular, so gripping for the audience, was that it pulled more from medieval chronicle than fantasy yarn for its structure. The story is about the world and the group of characters as a whole in a way that is bigger than any of the constituent characters, that survives the misfortunate end of any one (or more) of them. This left no character safe, allowed for real surprises that contradicted expectations of narrative structure rather than expectations based on the internal logic of the harsh, unforgiving setting and culture(s) in which the story takes place. The internal logic, then, drives the defiance of expectations instead of resisting forced twists of expectations inserted into the plot by the author’s whim.

In fantasy in particular, internal consistency is the golden rule. In settings where magic is real, where dragons may soar in the skies and burn down the enemies of a proud queen, we are required to suspend disbelief. Of course. But we can manage that suspension of disbelief only when there is a reward for doing so and the obstacles that might prevent us are removed from our path. Magic is a wonder to behold in the truest sense, but it fizzles and dies when it appears that the magic in a setting does not follow certain rules or structure (even if we don’t fully understand those rules or that structure). If the magic is simply a convenient plot device that conforms like water to whatever shape the author needs or desires, then it fails to carry wonder or drama. Drama constitutes the ultimate reward for the suspension of disbelief–allow yourself to play in world with different rules from our own and the stories you find there will satisfy, amaze, entertain and tell us truths about our own world, even if it is very different. But without internal consistency, there can be little meaning. Without meaning, narrative is nonsense.

Season 8 lacked this internal consistency on many levels. From the small, like the much-discussed “teleportation” around Westeros, to the glaring, like battles being predetermined by plot rather than by the forces and characters that participated in them.

But the greatest issue I took with Season 8 in its (lack of) internal consistency was the ending. To me, the sudden appearance of the nobility of Westeros to decide, “Yay! Constitutional monarchy from now on!” seemed far too after-school special for me. For a story where peoples’ personalities, desires and miredness in a culture of vengeance and violence long proved the driving factor, you need far more of an internal story arc for a sudden commitment to peaceful resolution of issues to be believable. They would have to reject their entire culture to do so, rather than rationalizing how the culture is correct all along (what much more frequently happens in real life). I can see such a decision for Tyrion and for Jon. But for Sansa and Arya, I do not. And why Yara Greyjoy and the new Prince of Dorne wouldn’t likewise declare independence, I cannot say.

In short, I just don’t think that the narrative satisfactorily supports the actions taken by the ad-hoc council of Westerosi nobles in the final episode.

When a Narrative Fails Your Narrative

Why did putting Bran on the throne fall flat in the final episode? Tyrion gave an impassioned speech about how stories are what bind people together and create meaning (something with which I wholeheartedly agree as aspiring fantasy author and aspiring existential Christian theologian) and then made an argument about the power of Brandon’s story.

Wait, what? You lost me there. What was the power of Brandon’s story? Yes, it started strong, and he did do some amazing things–crossing north of the Wall, becoming the Three-Eyed Raven (whatever the hell that means), surviving his long fall from the tower at Winterfell. But, given his role in Season 8, I’m not sure that any of that mattered. He played relatively no role at the Battle of Winterfell (at least that we mortals could see), the narrative of his role as Three-Eyed Raven was left impotent and undeveloped at the end of the series, and of those with decision-making authority in Westeros, few had any direct experience with a Three-Eyed Raven, the White Walkers or the Battle of Winterfell. To them, the whole thing is just a made-up story by the North.

For narrative to be effective, we must be able to use it to find or create meaning. Bran’s story is too jumbled a mess without a climax or denouement for us to be able to piece much meaning out of it. In fact, we’re left wondering if it meant anything at all.

Since the idea to put him on the throne relies on the meaning of his story, the act of crowning him itself becomes meaningless; we can find no internally-consisted basis for supporting making him king (other than that he can’t father children) and no meta-narrative logic for the event either. This is exacerbated by the fact that Bran earlier tells us that he doesn’t consider himself to be Bran anymore. Without continuity of character, narrative loses meaning.

Thus, the finale fails because it relies on a sub-narrative that has failed. It is a common trope for fantasy fiction to use other stories (often legends) from the setting’s past to convey meanings and themes for the main narrative (Tolkien does this, Martin himself does, Rothfuss does as a major plot device in The Kingkiller Chronicles); writers looking to follow suit need to make sure that any “story-within-a-story” they use itself satisfies the necessities of good storytelling, or one is only heaping narrative failure upon narrative failure. The effect, I think, is exponential, not linear.

What the Audience Wants and What the Audience Needs

Several of my friends who are avid fans of the show and the books, before the final episode, expressed their feelings about the uncertain ending in terms of “what they could live with.” This was often contrasted with both their hopes for what would happen and their expectations of what would happen.

There’s been much talk (even by myself) about the showrunners performing “fan-service” in this season, whether through the “plot armor” of certain characters or the tidy wrapping up of certain narratives.

The claim that the showrunners made plot choices in order to please the audience has set me thinking about these types of choices on several fronts. On the one hand, GoT rose to prominence in part directly because of G.R.R. Martin’s seeming refusal to do any “fan-service.” That communicates to me that there is a gulf between what readers want from a story and what they need to feel satisfied by the story.

We can all recognize that there are stories that don’t end happily, either in general or for our most-beloved characters, that nevertheless remain truly satisfying and meaningful narratives for us, ones that we return to time and again.

So, should giving the audience what they want (or, to be more accurate, what we think they want) be a consideration for the writer? There is no simple answer to this question. The idealistic writer (like myself, I suppose) might argue that crafting a good story–which is not the same as a story that gives the audience exactly what it wants–is more important than satisfying tastes. On the other hand, the publishing industry has much to say about finding the right “market” for a book, and knowing what kind of stories will or won’t sell. For the person who needs or wants to make a living as an author, playing to those needs may be a necessity. Even if income isn’t a concern, there’s still something to be said for what the audience organically finds meaningful as opposed to what the author seeks to impose as the meaning and value of the story.

I just want to point out this tension as something that the final season of Game of Thrones might help us think about, not something for which I have any answers, easy or otherwise. When the final books in the series are released (if that ever happens), maybe there will be some fertile ground for exploration of these ideas. Of course, the intent of the various creative minds on all sides of this collection of narratives may remain forever too opaque for us to glean any true understanding of the delicate relationship between author, craft and audience.

Conclusion

I, as many of you I suspect, was left profoundly unsatisfied with the ending of a story I’ve spent years being attached to by the final season of Game of Thrones, and my frustration is further stoked by the knowledge that the showrunners could have had more episodes to finish things the right way instead of rushing to a capricious and arbitrary ending.

That said, the failures of the season (not to mention the great successes of previous seasons) provide many lessons for we would-be authors.

What do you think?

 

Nootropics for Writers

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor; this post is not intended to be medical or nutritional advice. It is only a description of some of my own experiences. “Dietary supplements” like the ones discussed herein are insufficiently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or other agencies and there are no serious standards for the protection of consumers or for claims made by manufacturers. I highly recommend that you consult with medical professionals before making a decision to use any supplement, chemical or “herbal treatment.” Proceed at your own risk.

I don’t, as a rule, take drugs that are not prescribed for me or available over-the-counter for the short-term remedy of mild conditions. As I’ve expressed elsewhere on this blog, I suffer from clinical depression due to a chemical imbalance in my brain. It is well controlled under my current pharmaceutical regimen, and I have no desire to threaten that careful balance. I have never used an illegal substance and have no desire to start. I don’t smoke.

That said, if you tell me there’s a way to make myself a more productive writer, you can bet I’m going to investigate. While I’m passionate about writing, my brain tends to work in short bursts rather than long slogs and I personally find that much-vaunted “flow state” elusive more often than not.

As a writer of speculative fiction (mostly fantasy but with an interest in science fiction as well), I happened to come across the idea of “nootropics” while doing research into ideas and theories about human enhancement.

As best I can tell, there is a subculture evolving, partially an overlap with the more general “maker” and “biohacker” subcultures, devoted to the use of nootropics. You will find myriad sites and forums where advocates compare their personal “stacks.”

It starts with something we are all experientially aware of: some substances seem to have positive cognitive effects when administered in proper (and safe) doses. Caffeine is the most common and widely used of these substances, it seems, and it is in fact a part of most nootropic “stacks.”

The lists of nootropics is relatively long, ranging from things like gingko biloba to hardcore prescription-strength drugs like modafinil–a military-grade amphetamine alternative. Some of the substances touted for nootropic qualities act individually, while others supposedly provide greater effects when combined with other nootropics.

Most of those experimenting with nootropics (and I think it’s still safe to say that all nootropic usage is experimental at present given the lack of strong scientific support for usage or for most of the substances put forward) develop a “stack.” The “stack” consists of a collection of nootropics to be taken together, in hopes of maximizing effect.

For those who would rather not compile information and develop a stack for themselves, there are several commercially-available stacks such as Qualia.

Because I am not recommending that anyone use these substances, I’m not going to detail the particular ones I used to develop a stack for myself to see if there was anything to this whole idea.

But I will report my experiences. Over a handful of trials of the same stack (spread out over time–none of the substances in my stack, with the exception perhaps of caffeine are supposed to be addictive, but I’m trying to stay on the side of caution), I have experienced greater focus and even what I’d call “flow state.”

I would describe the most immediate effect I experienced as increased focus combined with maintained situational awareness. This is an odd sensation, but not unpleasant. While writing after using nootropics, I did experience increased word counts (as a measure of productivity) and longer periods over which I could sit and focus on writing, which is different from my typical experiences. So, yes, I did experience what I would call noticeable improvement in cognitive function, particularly for the purpose of writing productivity.

HOWEVER, I have a number of reservations as well. First, I cannot be sure that what I experienced is anything more than a placebo effect. My evaluation is, after all, entirely subjective. Further, I cannot be sure that nootropics were the direct cause of the increased productivity–I’ve been simultaneously and very consciously working on developing my writing focus and discipline. In an age of constant-partial attention, I’m not unconvinced that my difficulties writing for long periods of time or focusing for extended writing sessions are a matter of bad habits rather than chemical brain-states. Along with this, I have to question whether there are better–non chemically-dependent–measures for the achievement of the same effect. Is it possible that meditation, mindfulness exercises, actual exercise and other means could be used to do the same thing? I don’t know for sure, but I have a suspicion that the answer is “yes.” After all, the brain is a highly sophisticated organ, one which we do not understand nearly as well as we’d like to think in this information age. I think it’s probable, likely even, that there are natural ways of tapping into the body’s and brain’s natural ability to increase focus and creativity that do not rely upon the introduction of foreign substances to them.

So, if the question begged by this post is “do nootropics help writers to write?” then the definitive answer I can give is “maybe.” While I did experience some effects in productivity (going from writing about 1500 words in a sitting to writing 2500), I can’t be sure of causation in any logical or scientific way. And I can report that there are times when I naturally match the productivity I experienced without the need for a collection of horsepill-sized supplements. Further, there is no good information on the long-term effects of nootropics, and that alone should be concerning.

Given my lack of medical background, I’m not qualified to make a recommendation about the use of nootropics. Even though I personally experienced perceived cognitive enhancement through their use, I’d highly recommend that other strategies–development of habits, regular exercise, a routine where writing occurs at the time you naturally feel most creative and focused, careful curation of the writing space to be inspiring and free from distraction, etc.–be implemented before even considering nootropics as an aid to the writer’s craft.

When it comes down to it, we all want something for nothing. We writers all want some panacea, some magic trick that makes us brilliant authors without having to face difficulties. Combine that with the myth of the suffering artist, that we must either be crazy or despairing to be creative, and its easy to see why nootropics might be an enticing idea for the aspiring writer.

But the struggle with the craft, the wrestling with turning images, thoughts, ideas and emotions into words of power on a page, therein lies the true magic of the craft. For that, there are no shortcuts, no miracle drugs, no ways but the hard way. And at the end of the day, isn’t that one of the reasons we feel so driven to do it?

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part VII: Initiation, Metamagic, Magical Traditions, Mentor Spirits

While I’m on a roll, so to speak, another piece of the Shadowrun “puzzle” for my Cortex Prime hack. This time: initiation and metamagic, magical traditions and mentor spirits.

A General Note
In many ways, this rules hack makes the Cortex system more complex than it is intended to be, but I believe that this is required to capture as much of the nuance of the Shadowrun setting as possible. Additionally, it may be that I am pushing core Cortex ideas (SFX and Assets in particular) to or past their limits–this will be evaluated (and rules ultimately rejected or revised) when I get to playtest the completed material. In the meantime, most of the complication is in character design rather than in gameplay, and it’s my expectation and intent that this ruleset remain magnitudes less complex than the actual Shadowrun rules.

When all of the posts in this series are completed (meaning that I’ve completed the ruleset as a whole), I’ll post a PDF containing all of the rules to the blog so that readers can use, playtest and comment on the hack to help me improve it.

Initiation
Initiation is the process of being awakened to the higher mysteries of magic–to the extent that they do not remain forever mysterious. It is a strange hybrid of study and the revelation of truths which may only be experienced, never told. With initiation into the greater magical cosmos comes increased power in everyday spell-slinging.

The simple way to handle Initiation is to use it as a Signature Asset as described below:

Signature Asset: Initiation: By paying an Edge Point (see the Limit below), the character may add the Initiation die to a dice pool to resolve a magical task, even if a different Signature Asset is already in the pool (this is what differentiates Initiation from other Signature Assets and balances against the Ordeal requirement below).

Limit: Edge Point: Adding the Initiation die to a roll requires the expenditure of an Edge Point.

Limit: SFX: Initiation may only be used in ways permitted by metamagical SFX purchased by the character.

Limit: Ordeal: The initiate must complete an Ordeal (see below) for each step of the Intiation die to acquire that step. (One Ordeal per new step, not one Ordeal per step of new die).

Depending upon the type of game you’re running, you may or may not want to allow the purchase of the Initiation Signature Asset at Character Creation.

Metamagic
Metamagic represents the “superpowers” of magical ability. It is best represented as SFX for the Initiation Asset. I recommend allowing one SFX to be chosen for each die step of the Initiation die and allowing additional SFX to be purchased as normal. Here are the metamagical examples I’ve come up with:

Centering: Add your Initiation Die to a dice pool for a magical task that includes the Drain limit and step up the Effect Die assigned to Drain by one step.

Fixation: Add your Initiation Die to the dice pool to create an alchemical asset. The asset lasts for the entire session rather than the next scene.

Masking: Add your Initiation Die to the dice pool opposing an assensing test on you. You may force the opponent to reroll a single die in his pool.

Quickening: When you cast a spell to create an asset, you may pay an Edge Point for that asset to remain for the remainder of the Session without having to dedicate any resources to maintaining the asset.

Anchoring: You may cast a spell and anchor it to an astral construct overlaying a place or object. Make note of the dice pool’s result and the effect die, and define a triggering event for the spell. The spell remains dormant until triggered or until the end of the session.

Apotropaic Magic: When you assign your Magic die to defend a character from Magic, you may also add your Initiation Die. If the defense test result exceeds the caster’s test result by at least five points, the caster suffers the effect of the spell at the Effect Die chosen from his dice pool.

Geomancy: You may manipulate background mana and nearby mana lines to create Assets or Complications (adding your Initiation Die to the test) that apply to all magic tasks made during that scene and which can only be dispelled by another initiate with the Geomancy metamagic.

Necromancy: You may use ritual magic (adding your Initiation Die to the dice pool) to gain information from dead bodies, blood, and the residual mana in dead things.

Psychometry: You may assense objects (adding your Initiation Die to the dice pool) to gain information about the history of the object and/or its past owners.

Divination: You may use ritual magic (adding your Initiation Die to the dice pool) to gain glimpses of the future. You may ask the GM to answer one question for each step of the Effect Die from a successful task. Answers should be reasonably vague and subject to interpretation.

Channeling: Add your Initiation Die to the pool and gain a reroll on one die for rolls to invoke spirits (see Shadowrun rules; this requires an invoking magical tradition).

Exorcism: Add you Initiation Die to the pool and gain a reroll on one die for roles to banish spirits.

Cleansing: Add your Initiation Die to tasks to cleanse the astral pollution of a place, and step up your Effect Die by one step.

Sensing: Add your Initiation Die to astral perception tasks and step up your Effect Die by one step.

Notes on Metamagic
Those familiar with the Shadowrun setting will note that I haven’t included all of the metamagics described in the Shadowrun books. This is either because I feel that a particular metamagic doesn’t work well under Cortex rules or that one metamagic SFX described above covers multiple metamagics in the core Shadowrun rules (for example, Masking covers both Flexible Signature and Masking).

Ordeals
A character must complete an ordeal each time he or she raises her Initiation Die. Ordeals may be selected from the following, which I have placed into groups based on their general type.

Task Ordeals
Task Ordeals require the magician to complete a…task. The task may be roleplayed through, but it may be negotiated and described by the Gamemaster and the Player without playing through all aspects of the task. Regardless of which method is selected, the GM and Player should agree to change one of the Character’s Aspects based on how the experience affected the Character. Task Ordeals include metamagical quests, asceticism (which includes living as a Hermit as the ordeal) and the accomplishment of special deeds.

Limit Ordeals
As the name implies, these Ordeals involve taking on an additional Limit to the Initiation Asset. This includes both geas and oath Ordeals. Define the geas or oath and create a Shutdown Limit for the Initiation Die that occurs when the geas or oath is violated and that persists until the character can complete a recovery action involving atonement for the infraction.

Creation Ordeals
A creation Ordeal involves the completion of scholarly or artistic work. There must be a handmade original (or originals), each of which constitutes a material link to the creator (treat as an Asset for a possessor to take magical action against the creator or a permission for remote magic). This also creates a Limit on the Initiation Die: if the originals are all destroyed, step down the Initiation Die until new originals may be created.

Sacrifice Ordeals
Sacrifice Ordeals involve intentional maiming in pursuit of magical power. The character must take on a new d4 (or step up) Complication representing lasting physical injury that cannot be healed.

Familiar Ordeals
TBD.

Magical Traditions
A magic-using character will be required to take an Aspect declaring the type of magic-user that the character is and the tradition that the character follows (hermeticism, shamanism, Christian theurgy, Buddhist magic, chaos magic, Kabbalism, etc.). Quite simply, this definition should be used to determine what kind of spirits the character can summon (by reference to the Shadowrun material, and assuming that the character’s magic-using type may summon spirits), but it can also be used to add some mechanical nuance. For each tradition, choose two Approaches. For one, step up the Aspect die when the character uses that Approach. For the other, step down the Aspect die when the character uses the Approach.For instance, a hermetic character might apply their Aspect as an Advantage to rolls using the Deliberate Approach, but as a Consequence to rolls using the Dynamic Approach, whereas shamans might do the opposite. You can use the Shadowrun material to come up with patterns of use for the other traditions.

Mentor Spirits
Mentor spirits should be considered Signature Assets with the following nuances:
Core SFX: Spend an Edge Point to add the Mentor Spirit die to a magical task.
Defined SFX: Create an SFX for the Asset based on the bonuses provided by the spirit under the normal Shadowrun rules. See the Cortex “Core SFX” for this.
Behavior SFX: Gain an Edge Point by behaving in a (reckless or non-beneficial) way in line with the personality of the Mentor Spirit.
Core Limit: Shutdown the Mentor Spirit Asset to gain an Edge Point. The character must spend time communing with the Mentor Spirit to reactivate the Asset.

 

 

 

Cortex Plus/Prime Small Unit Combat, Part II: Streamlined Engagement Rules for Firefights

These rules are intended to streamline combat engagements that occur outside of CQB ranges (see the separate CQB rules for quickly handling those types of fights). While designed with modern combat in mind, the rules should prove easily useful with near-future and sci-fi based combat as well, though I have my doubts about using them for historical or fantasy combat without some extensive modification.

The rules seek to streamline combat in several ways. First, they group units of “normal” enemy combatants (those we might call “mooks” and which the Cortex Prime book calls “mobs”) into groups while keeping more important enemies separate. Second, they abstract combat to avoid becoming mired in the details of how many feet a combatant can move in a single turn or worrying about specific facing.

Note that these rules have been created under some genre expectations. Particularly, that the characters are especially potent combatants, able to cut through normal soldiers like a hot knife through butter and tough to kill. The tone of the rules creates a high-action sort of vibe rather than a terribly realistic one, though the “grit” factor may be modified by the number and types of opposition encountered at once, as well as the advantages and tactics used by enemy combatants. If deadlier and more realistic mid-range engagements are desired, I recommend using normal 1 to 1 combat rules. The CQB rules given separately should work well with either this approach or the standard one.

Where these rules seem incomplete, refer to the CQB rules to fill in the gaps. If you still have questions or want to share the results of playtesting, let me know so I can address any issues and make these rules better for you!

Differences From CQB Rules
If you’ve read my CQB combat rules, which are designed to be used in conjunction with these rules, you’ll notice some differences. In many ways, these rules “zoom out” from the CQB rules, adding (a little bit of) complexity and nuance. Where the CQB rules group both the Player Characters and their NPC opponents, these rules only group opponents and allow the characters to act individually.

A Note About Cortex Prime
The Cortex Prime rules include instructions for creating and using “mobs” and “ganging up”. The squad-based rules in both this and the previous CQB rules are essentially an expansion of this idea with slightly more granularity.

Initiative
To keep things simple, initiative will pass back and forth between the players and the GM with one activation per character or unit until one side has run out of activations, at which point any remaining activations may be used if available to any other participating group. On the players’ turn, they may choose which character activates, but no character can activate more than once in a turn. Likewise, the GM may activate the characters and units under his control in any order, but none may activate more than once in a turn.

Which side has the initiative should be decided by the situation—typically the attacking force will act first. When there is a meeting engagement (neither side was expecting the other), an attempted ambush, or other unusual situation, each side should nominate a character (or unit) to roll for their side—the roll will be Approach+Analysis+Tactics Specialization (if any)+Assets, Circumstances, Etc.(if using the set-up described in the CQB Rules; otherwise modify as necessary), with the winner choosing which side goes first.

Zones
Zones and Distance: The combat space should be separated out into zones. Zones will be used to calculate range penalties, so use this idea as a general guideline for how zones are placed. Generally speaking, firing at combatants in one’s own Zone takes place at CQB range, those enemies in adjacent zones are at mid-range, and those more than one zone away are at Long Range. Of course, narrative trumps hard-and-fast rules, so adjust as necessary.

Distance Penalties: When firing at targets at mid-range, add a d8 to the target’s dice pool. Add a d10 for targets at long range.

Cover and Concealment: The use of cover and/or concealment is important under these rules. As such, each zone should be given a “Cover Rating.” The Cover Rating represents the highest effect die that can be used (or rather, the cap if a higher die is assigned to the effect die on a roll) when creating an advantage (usually called “In Cover.”). The zone’s Cover Rating is an abstraction of the distance between pieces of cover, the size of cover, the general density of cover, and whether the zone’s cover is actually cover (something that will stop bullets) or is generally concealment (something that makes it harder to aim at a target but that does not stop projectiles fired at the target).

Cover Penalties: It is assumed that all combatants are using cover. However, the best use of cover requires skill and understanding. Add the lesser of a character’s Direct Action rating (or a unit’s lowest quality rating) or the assigned Cover Rating to pools to resist attacks.

Flanking: “Flanking” any enemy is maneuvering so as to be able to attack the enemy from the side. In small-unit firefights such as those depicted by these rules, “flanking” means achieving a position of attack from which the target does not gain the benefit of cover. An actor (individual or unit), may take an action to flank an enemy; treat this as an attack on the Cover Advantage that persists until either the target or the attacker moves.

Movement Between Zones: Handle movement by determining how many actions it would take to move from one zone to another. No need for specific measurements.

Basic Enemy Combatants
Quality Rating: The Quality Rating, expressed as a die, represents the general effectiveness of a troop type, a combination of skill and training, morale, equipment and command structure.

Grouping Combatants: Basic combatants should be put in groups of one to five; the grouped combatants act as a single entity using the Quality Rating of each combatant in the group to constitute the dice pool used for any action (in line with the “mobs” rule in Cortex Prime).

Specialists: Specialists are, as the name suggests, specially trained soldiers with specific capabilities. In game terms, Specialists count as SFX for a group of combatants, giving the group options for the expenditure of Edge Points to undertake special tasks or modify normal tasks undertaken by the group. The expenditure of an Edge Point is required to use Specialist. A group of combatants may have a number of Specialists equal to the number of troops it contains. Examples of Specialists:

Flamethrower: The acting unit must be in the same Zone as the target. The GM spends an Edge Point when the unit attacks to declare that the Flamethrower specialist is deploying the flamethrower. If the attack causes damage, the target takes an On Fire condition equal to the effect die of the attack. At the end of each turn in which the affected character has not extinguished the condition, the character takes damage according to the effect die of the condition. An affected character may attempt to put the fire out in the same manner as overcoming any other situational condition placed upon him.

Grenadier: When the unit attacks, the GM spends one or more Edge Points to declare that the Grenadier is using his or her equipment. For each Edge Point spent, the GM may do one of the following: (1) add another die equal to the Quality Rating of the Grenadier to the attack pool or (2) add another target (in the same zone as any other target) to the attack. Separate Effect Dice must be assigned to each target.

Medic: At any time, the GM may spend an Edge Point to declare that the Medic is activating to resuscitate a fallen combatant. The difficulty of the test to resuscitate a combatant is equal to 3d8; if the Medic succeeds with an Effect Die equal to or exceeding the Quality Die of the fallen combatant, that combatant is returned to his or her unit. Note that this action does not use the unit’s turn.

Drone Operator: Drones come in many forms, from remotely-operated turrets to flying surveillance or explosive-delivery devices. When the GM spends an Edge Point to activate the Drone Operator’s Specialty, she may choose one of the following:

Turret: add a new, standalone combatant with a pool of 3d6 to the fight. The turret may only take the attack or suppressing fire actions, acts separately from the unit that created it, and resists attacks at its dice pool.

Surveillance Drone: While this drone is operational, remove the Drone Operator’s die from the unit dice pool. The drone resists damage with a pool of 3d6. It may move one zone per turn and no target in that zone benefits from advantages representing concealment or cover while the drone is present in the drone.

Because the Drone Operator has limited resources in the field, the cost of deploying a drone (in Edge Points) doubles with each successive drone (1, 2, 4, etc.).

Marksman: When a unit containing a Marksman attacks and the GM uses an Edge Point, the target does not get to add his Armor Asset (if any) to the pool opposing the attack.

Machine Gunner: The GM may spend one or more Edge Points to place a Suppressed condition (disadvantage) equal to the Specialist’s Quality Die on one target for each Edge Point spent. Remove the Specialist’s Quality Die from the unit’s dice pool for as long as the condition remains in effect.

Note about Specialists: If you want to add some complexity and variation to your basic troops, you might consider giving them a separate Specialist die for various Specialists, using that die instead of the Specialist’s Quality Die in pools using the Specialist.

Attack and Defense:

The attack dice pool is formed as with any conflict under Cortex Prime rules—attacking characters will add an Approach, the Direct Action Role, and any Specializations, Assets, or Advantages to the pool, while the defenders will add their approach, Direct Action Role, Cover, Range and any Specializations, Assets, or Advantages. Units will use the dice pool formed from their combined Quality Dice.

When attacking a unit, the attacker may assign more than one Effect Die to take out multiple members of the unit in one attack, but only one Effect Die that would cause injury but not take a member of the unit out of action may be assigned.

Ex. The player-character member of a special operations team has gotten the drop on a fireteam of enemy grunts. The player character wins the conflict test and has d8 and 2d6 left over which might be assigned as Effect Dice. The grunts are well-trained, with a Quality Die of d8. The attacked may put one enemy combatant out of action with the D8 and may assign the d6 as an injury to a member of the unit (which counts as a Consequence/Disadvantage; see the CQB Rules). The attacked cannot also assign the second d6 because there is already an injury assigned to the unit.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part VI: Magic, Foci and Alchemy

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve worked on this series. Yes, my writing work is unpredictable and jumps from topic to topic. The curse of the creative “free spirit” with too many interests, I guess (though I’m usually quick to say that “be interested in everything” was the best advice I ever got). All of that aside, I’m getting back to working on some Cortex hacks of various types to flex my RPG mechanics muscles again. I hope you find the work useful.

Foci
Foci are a big deal in Shadowrun, in many ways the magician’s equivalent of the street samurai packing the Panther Assault Cannon. Modeling them in Cortex is, on the one hand, relatively simple–each Focus is a Signature Asset. On the other hand, Shadowrun uses multiple types of foci and there are some specific attributes of foci in the world of Shadowrun that ought to be mechanically addressed as well.

The creation of foci is best handled in the same way as the acquisition of any Signature Asset: the player pays the requisite cost and a narrative explanation of how the Asset was acquired is given. There’s no need to go through complex creation rules.

Attributes of All Foci:

Limit: A focus may only be used by a character with the magical ability and the ability to take the specific types of actions to which the focus applies.

Limit: Binding: Until a character pays the cost to add a focus as a Signature Asset (whether at character creation or through advancement), a Focus is not bound to the character and cannot be used.

Limit: Active/Inactive: Foci must be powered by magic to be useful. When not powered, foci are inactive and can essentially be ignored altogether. When active, the following rules are in effect. Activation and the rules described below should be considered Limits on a Focus asset..

Astral Beacon: an active focus gives off a lot of astral energy, allowing others with the astral perception/astral projection abilities a benefit in finding, analyzing and targeting a magician with an active focus. When using astral perception to find or to gather information about a target with an active focus, add the focus to the actor’s dice pool as an advantage. A magician using Psychometry or other spells and abilities to analyze the astral signature of a place after the fact may, if the GM determines that the rating of the focus, its past use and the time elapsed since the use is reasonable under the circumstances, be added to the acting magician’s dice pool as an advantage.

Link: Because a focus must be bound to its user, it provides both a material link to the owner regardless of activity and a method for targeting its owner astrally when active. A magician in physical possession of another magician’s focus, or astrally viewing an active focus, may add that die to a dice pool to create an advantage for the purposes of targeting the focus’ owner with magic.

Specific Foci:

Alchemical Foci:
 Alchemical foci add their Rating to Alchemy tests.

Disenchanting Foci: These add to tests to disenchant artifacts, foci and other magical objects.

Spell Foci:
A spell focus adds its rating to Sorcery actions that match the category of spell and type of action to which the focus is attuned.
Limit: Category: A spell focus must describe one of the five categories of spells (Combat, Detection, Illusion, Healing and Manipulation) and may only be applied to Sorcery tests involving the category to which it is attuned.
Limit: Task: A spell focus must also describe one of the following magical tasks: Counterspelling, Ritual Spellcasting, Spellcasting. The focus may only be applied to Sorcery tests involving that task.

Sustaining Foci:
A sustaining focus allows a Magician to sustain a spell effect equal to or below its Rating without the Magician actively maintaining the spell. The spell may be cast at any time and “saved” into the focus to be used whenever the focus is activated.
Limit: Power: To add the stored spell effect to a dice pool, the focus must be activated and the Magician must pay an Edge point to use the effect for that Scene.
Limit: Counterspelling: Counterspelling may be used to reduce or obviate the spell effect maintained by the sustaining focus. To restore the functionality of a effect that has been partially or fully dispelled, the magician must cast the spell to be maintained anew.

Spirit Foci:
A spirit focus adds its rating to Conjuration tests of the task and category of spirit to which the focus is attuned.
Limit: Category: The focus must have a specific type of spirit (fire elemental, spirit of man, etc.) to which it is attuned. It may only be used for interactions with that type of spirit.
Limit: Task: The focus must be attuned to one of the following tasks: Summoning, Banishing, or Binding and may only be used for that type of task.

Weapon Focus:
A weapon focus adds its Rating to close combat tests in the physical or astral planes and allows its user to damage creatures and spirits normally immune to physical damage.

Alchemy:
Alchemy allows a character to store a spell for a one-time use later. This is simply handled: The character makes a test to cast the spell, but using Alchemy instead of Sorcery. The character resolves the test, including Drain, and pays one Edge to store the effect for later (the player should describe the form the alchemical device takes for narrative purposes).

Activation of the alchemical spell may require a test. If the alchemical device stores an attack effect, its rating should be added to an appropriate attack pool for close combat or a thrown weapon.

A spell that causes damage has an instant use. A spell that creates some other effect lasts for a Scene or until dispelled.

EDIT: You might be wondering why some of the classic foci (the Power Focus, for one) has no description here. Those foci that I haven’t listed are temporarily left out until I find a way to include them that satisfies me. As it stands, the Power Focus is just too powerful to add in–without the insane detail of creation cost inherent to the actual Shadowrun rules, I need to find some mechanisms within Cortex Prime that would allow some modicum of balance compared to the other, far more limited, foci.

Rethinking Tolkien

One of the things that’s been keeping me from posting on the blog lately is that I’ve been teaching a Sunday school class on Christianity in Tolkien for the past several weeks and my research and writing time has been in part devoted to preparing worthwhile material for that (I’ve also been slowly working on an Avar Narn short story or novella which you’ll see in the future, but that’s for another time).

I wanted to share some of my thoughts and realizations in preparing for teaching the class here. The late revelation of some of these ideas is a bit shameful to me–I’ve long had all of the evidence needed to come to these conclusions and yet somehow failed to do so until recently. I’m trying to keep that thought humbling and not humiliating; we’ll see how it goes.

In particular, I had long held Tolkien to be an exemplum of that easy trope of “epic” fantasy–evil and good painted in black and white without gray. My more recent (and mature) study of his works has revealed his writings to be anything but. Instead, they are indicative of the nuance of good and temptation within man’s soul, with many permutations of the characters falling momentarily to evil ways only to recover themselves (Boromir, for instance) and with lasting temptation that claws at even the sturdiest of souls (Frodo and Sam). The variegated grays in his works have dashed my thought of my love for gritty fantasy as somehow an evolution from or response to Tolkien. Stylistically, perhaps, but not in philosophical approach or theme.

The first four lessons I’ve taught centered on the following topics: the Silmarillion’s creation story and idea of “Fall” (and–a topic very dear to me as aspiring theologian/fantasy author–“subcreation”), Tom Bombadil as unfallen Adam and the One Ring as Sin, Gandalf’s resurrection narrative, and Tolkien’s Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon mindset. Much (much) ink has been spilled on the first two topics and I cannot claim much thought there as my own, so I’ll focus on the latter two. If you’re interested in reading more about the first two ideas, I’d recommend Ralph Wood’s The Gospel According to Tolkien. As a second admission, I think the class had intended for me to follow that book a little more closely in my teaching, but I’ve taken them down the rabbit-holes of my own interests instead. Such a rebel, I am.

Gandalf’s Resurrection as Odin Christianized

It is tempting and popular to view Gandalf’s resurrection after his fight with the Balrog (told when he re-encounters Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn in Fangorn Forest) as a thinly-guised Christian story of death and resurrection. But Tolkien was adamant about disliking easy allegory when incorporating Christian Truth into his stories (it might be fair to say that he does this despite his own protestations, but his letters indicate a conscious attempt not to). The preface of the Silmarillion (actually a letter of Tolkien’s) says as much.

And we know that mythical Odin provided great inspiration for the character of Gandalf, both in his nature as wise instigator and magician and in his very appearance with the worn grey clothes of the wanderer and the pointy hat now inseparable from the idea of a wizard. To look for some other relationship back to Odin in Tolkien’s resurrection story seems a ready move to make.

Let me summarize the myth I want to refer to in particular: Odin’s discovery of the runes. For excerpts from the original texts describing this legend, click here, and spend some time on the Word and Silence Blog while you’re at it. And now my summary:

In his quest for knowledge, Odin decided that a sacrifice was necessary, so he pierced himself with a spear and hung himself from the branches of Yggdrasil overlooking the fathomless watery depths below. For nine days he hung suspended there, without food or drink or comfort, waiting for revelation to come. Finally, on the ninth day, he began to discern shapes in the water beneath him, the runes. These runes are both indicative of the power of written word (perhaps that must fundamental and far-reaching of technologies) and the representations of a powerful system of magic for which Odin would be remembered and revered.

We know in Norse culture that human sacrifices were made to Odin (known as blót, though this term is more expansive than the particular instance here). These humans were sacrificed by being pierced by a spear or hung from a tree, or both–almost certainly related to this legend of Odin. In some way, this makes Odin’s time on the tree a sacrifice to himself in the search for knowledge and transcendence, a self-driven (perhaps selfish) ascension.

It is this, I think, to which Tolkien obliquely refers in Gandalf’s narrative. Gandalf returns full of new knowledge and insight (he spends several pages detailing the plans and failings of the Fellowship’s major adversaries) but having forgotten much about himself (such as that he “used to be called” Gandalf). That he has become Gandalf the White (as he says, “Saruman as he should have been”) is about as plain an indication of ascension as possible.

But it’s important to note the differences between Gandalf and Odin. Gandalf’s fight is an external one, very in line with the “northern heroic spirit” we’ll discuss shortly. Despite this, Gandalf sacrifices himself for the Fellowship, not for his own ascension and aggrandizement. That ascension is the unexpected reward–and responsibility–given by Eru Iluvatar, the supreme God of Arda (the cosmos of Middle-Earth). It is in the nature of his sacrifice that we see Christianity creep into the Odin story–“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Yet, while Gandalf has ascended in some way, we cannot forget the fact that he has been resurrected with purpose–because his task “is not yet finished.” His ascension carries with it responsibility, not entitlement to reverence and worship.

This goodness and Christian virtue gives Gandalf the White the right to supplant Saruman as the head of the Istari, for Saruman has chosen the pursuit of power over the role of protector and counselor to which he was intended. After his return from the Abyss, Gandalf tells us as much, that Saruman’s pursuit of power has made him foolish, that his hope of seizing the ring and gaining advantage over Sauron has been lost (though he does not yet know it), and that his massed armies, though still formidable to Men and Elves, have revealed him as an enemy of Sauron rather than an ally.

In comparing Gandalf to Saruman, we are led to ponder Matthew 16: 25-26: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Two lines, Gandalf in the first, Saruman in the second.

So, by focusing Gandalf’s actions (and the “reward” that follows) outside of himself, takes the mythic construct of sacrifice that results in ascension exemplified by Odin on the tree and “purifies” it, taking those things that are good an virtuous even in the Norse story and, through the addition of love of others, refining the unvirtuous parts into something Christian and Good.

We see this general strategy throughout The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien’s other works) in his general fusion of Anglo-Saxon virtue with Christian virtue.

The “Heroic Northern Spirit”

We don’t know as much about the Anglo-Saxon religion as we’d like. We know it has strong connections with the Old Norse religion, but we have a paucity of evidence about were the variations and boundaries lie. Much of the Anglo-Saxon literature available to us was written by Christians, so it’s difficult to know the extent to which the “heathenry” of those texts as Christianized in the retelling. This is something medievalists and Anglo-Saxon scholars–Tolkien included–have long debated.

We do have more evidence of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, generally speaking. I’m going to point to a few examples with that we know Tolkien was intimately familiar with.

The first is an Anglo-Saxon poem called “The Battle of Maldon,” based on an historical event. In that poem, the Anglo-Saxon leader Byrhtnoth is tasked with fending of a warband of invading Danes (a common occurrence at the time). Byrhtnoth encounters the Danes camped on a sort of island connected by a narrow causeway to the mainland. By positioning his force at the mouth of the causeway onto proper land, he can force the Danes to fight only a few at a time against a much greater number and score an easy victory.

But Byrhtnoth will have none of that. There is no glory, no honor, in a slaughter. So, despite the risk–or rather, because of the risk–Byrthnoth pulls his troops back, giving the Vikings space to cross the causeway and deploy a full shieldwall formation in a pitched battle–one the Anglo-Saxons lose badly. Byrthnoth was killed.

Tolkien viewed the poem, which he believed to be written by a Christian scholar, to be a commentary and criticism of Byrhtnoth’s pride rather than a tale about the Anglo-Saxon’s courage. He penned a work of historical fiction of his own in response, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorthhelm’s Son.” Scholar Mary R. Bowman interprets this as Tolkien’s attempt to refine the “impure alloy” of the “northern heroic spirit” by refocusing the courage (read: “reckless pursuit of glory”) reflected in that ideology into a bravery expressed for the good of others (like Gandalf’s tale).

And then there’s the granddaddy of Anglo-Saxon literature: Beowulf. If you’re not familiar, you should read it as soon as possible. At least get the Cliff’s Notes or look up the summary on Wikipedia.

If you didn’t know, Tolkien (as scholar) wrote what is arguably still the most influential piece of criticism about Beowulf, his lecture and essay entitled, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In that text, Tolkien argues (among other things), that the monsters are indispensable from the story and that they should not be disregarded to try to read the text as one of mythologically-enhanced history. It should be read as literature. He goes on to argue that the author was likely a Christian familiar with the older story who had penned the text to Christianize it. In that way, we see a morality story develop between the “northern heroic spirit” of the young Beowulf, who ventures to save Hrothgar’s people to build up his own glory, and the old King Beowulf, who lays down his life to protect his subjects when a thief rouses the anger of a sleeping dragon by stealing a cup from his hoard (anyone see a resemblance there?).

For Tolkien, that “northern heroic spirit” (at its best) is about defiance to the forces of chaos, even in the face of inevitable defeat. There are numerous places in The Lord of the Rings where we see a similar function–the Christianization of the virtue of the “northern heroic spirit.” I’ll point out only a few.

The most obvious to come to mind is Boromir. His speech before attempting to take the Ring from Frodo drips with the “northern heroic spirit” as he proposes overthrowing Sauron by force. While Tolkien’s work accepts that sometimes violence is necessary, its just use is always a stalling or defensive tactic to make space for sacrifice to occur, and Tolkien is clear that the threat of Sauron and the Ring can never be defeated by the exercise of power and violence. Even were Sauron defeated in such a way, he would only be replaced as a Dark Lord by the usurper.

And, of course, Boromir’s imagining of the overthrow of Sauron puts himself at the head of the army, where he may win glory and renown for himself. Contrast him with Faramir, who has a much more reasoned (and humble) approach to the resistance of Sauron.

After the “northern heroic spirit” momentarily possesses Boromir and drives him to his immorality, he recovers, immediately repents, and redeems himself from his infractions in the most poetic way possible–through the redeemed “northern heroic spirit” itself. He fights and dies to protect the Hobbits as they are attacked; we are told he slays at least twenty orcs in the fight. He wins the renown and glory he so desired, but only by laying down his life for others.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep provides a set of related examples. The whole action by the remnants of the Fellowship at Helm’s Deep (the Hornburg, really), courses with defiance in the face of overwhelming odds as the Uruk-Hai (and, if memory serves, their Dunlending companions) prepare to destroy all resistance. But we also have three very specific instances as well.

First, the competition between Gimli and Legolas as they taunt one another with their killcount. They spur one another to greater acts of heroism in the face of the enemy (heroism because they are fighting to protect the innocent). It is especially interesting to me that when Legolas inquires after Gimli when they are separated, he says it’s so that he can tell the dwarf he’s no up to thirty kills. His very affection for the dwarf is masked under the expression of the northern heroic spirit. We might digress here onto the topic of toxic masculinity in the northern heroic spirit, but I’ll save that ball for someone else to unravel.

Second, Aragorn’s defiance of the Uruk-hai from the walls of the Hornburg as he goes to see the dawn of the third day. That exchange is well worth the short read. Perhaps as code for modern society’s version of the “northern heroic spirit,” “the balls on that one, let me tell ya’.”

Third, Theoden’s speech to inspire the men to ride out against their attackers rather than to wait and hide, even though sallying forth means almost certain death. He says that he will die fighting, not of old age. The Norse/Germanic spirit is strong in those words.

That final act of defiance, riding out on horse from the Hornburg, brings us to a third important point.

Eucatastrophe

In his “Letter 89”, Tolkien says, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.”

He further elaborates on “eucatastrophe” in On Fairy Stories:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

The idea of eucatastrophe in Tolkien is a fascinating subject, one that Wood’s book spends time on and that is elsewhere much discussed. It is, in some sense, deus ex machina in both micro- and macrocosm.

But what truly fascinates me is the interplay between the northern heroic spirit and eucatastrophe.

The eucatastrophe that concludes the Battle of Helm’s Deep is Gandalf’s arrival with the Ents of Fangorn Forest. Given Gandalf’s nature as one of the Istari, his recent resurrection and ascension, this, I think, equates directly to medieval stories of a military force’s unlikely salvation coming when a host of angels descends upon the battlefield against their enemies. It is this divine intervention that saves the day for the Rohirrim and for Aragorn.

But pull the camera or the Eye of Sauron back just a little bit to the bigger picture. Yes, the final salvation comes from the divine and is completely out of the hands of the mortals (and Elves) fighting in the battle. But without their grim determination and defiance, their northern heroic spirits, would there have been space for the eucatastrophe at all?

And this, I think, is an existential masterstroke in Tolkien’s Christianization of the “northern heroic spirit.” The willingness to resist, to fight despite the odds, for the good of others creates the setting for divine intervention. Though God (in this existence or in God’s guise as Eru Iluvatar in Middle-Earth) does not need to rely on created beings to intervene and save the day, God finds usefulness and purpose in drawing mortal beings into participation in the grand narrative of the resistance to and defiance of Evil. To borrow Tolkien’s term, we have an example of “subcreation.”

We then have a combination of free will and divine determination in the argument, the same existential outlook I’ve argued for in my own theological writing.

Perhaps this is the best answer to that perennial question: Why don’t the Great Eagles just carry someone to Mt. Doom to drop the Ring in? Because, as much as Tolkien resists the idea, the story is allegorical, and God doesn’t seem to work that way. God has created in such a way that we must be tried and tested, that we must learn the value of sacrifice firsthand. This is our experience in the “real world,” and it’s similar to the experience of the Fellowship–enough so that Frodo and Gandalf briefly talk theodicy at the very beginning of the trilogy!

 

 

Introduction to Dark Inheritance (A Warhammer 40k Wrath & Glory Campaign)

(This is the 4th of seventeen posts remaining in my 200 for 200 goal. If you enjoy what I do on this blog, please share and get your friends to follow!)

I have obliquely referenced that I am working on a large-scale campaign for the new Warhammer 40k Roleplaying Game, Wrath & Glory, that I have titled Dark Inheritance. The depth and breadth of this campaign have made it the focus of my writing time lately and, while it’s still far from finished, I’m ready to share at least a summary of the campaign (safe for both GMs and players) with you. Here it is:

Campaign Summary

“The year is 12.M42. In the time since the Great Rift, the Rogue Trader captain Eckhardt Gerard Sigismund Immelshelder has operated his ship, the Righteous Obstinance, in a multitude of schemes to generate wealth and power. He is quite secretive, but often whispered about in gossip throughout the Gilead System. Rumors abound that he and his crew have been able to navigate the Warp despite the lack of the Astronomicon’s light, even successfully penetrating the Cicatrix Maleficarum and returning safely. Of course, there is no proof of any of this.

What is known is that Immelshelder has developed significant interests, business and otherwise, throughout the Gilead system. To what end is again the subject of many whispers but little substance. He is the distant relative of a noble family on Gilead Prime and the last of his own family.

One of the players will play the eldest child of the noble family on Gilead related to Immelshelder. The other players’ characters will represent other members of the noble household, retainers, or allies and confidants of the aforementioned noble character. When the campaign begins, the characters are gathered celebrating a reunion–members of the Astra Militarum are home on leave, those friends who have ventured to other planets in the Gilead system have returned to visit Gilead Prime, and the noble household has gathered its closest allies and its honored retainers.

But this party is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Inquisitor Amarkine Dolorosa, who bears strange tidings. Immelshelder and his closest companions have been assassinated. As a friend of Immelshelder and a person of power and stature within the Gilead System, Dolorosa has taken it upon herself to settle the Rogue Trader’s affairs. Therefore, she comes with both gifts and commands. Immelshelder’s will grants the Righteous Obstinance, his Warrant of Trade, and all of his other assets to the eldest child of the noble family. This character had met Immelshelder a handful of times but did not know him well. Dolorosa promises she’ll provide what assistance she can to see the noble scion settles into the life of a Rogue Trader as easily as possible.

In confidence, she explains that she also expects the newly-minted Rogue Trader’s help in finding and bringing Immelshelder’s killers to justice. Even with allies like the other player characters, can the young noble survive being thrown into the shark pool of Gilead politics and the web of allies and enemies that lead to Immelshelder’s demise? If they survive, will they bring Immelshelder’s killers to justice? How many ‘favors’ will Amarkine Dolorosa expect as fair exchange for her assistance?”

Additional Info for the Campaign

Dark Inheritance has been structured into three acts, with each part composed of numerous adventures playable in nearly any order (as the characters pursue various leads and clues to the final revelations and conclusions of each Act and, ultimately, the campaign). At present, I anticipate that each act will require ten or more gaming sessions (of 2 to 3 hours each) to complete.

Also included are subplots that can play out over the course of all three Acts as the GM sees fit (and as make sense given the actions of the characters in various places). It is my intention that the Campaign provide months, if not a year, of Wrath & Glory gaming.

Some Notes on Writing the Campaign (and Microsoft OneNote)

I’m using OneNote (for the first time), to write and organize the campaign. In the past, I’ve used Lone Wolf Development’s Realm Works to organize campaign materials, but I’m finding OneNote to be more intuitive and much more efficient. Yes, Realm Works has additional features and functionality over OneNote specific to the needs of the RPG campaign-writer, but–in all honesty–I’m not going to spend the time to learn all of the details of that functionality. For me, OneNote’s ability to allow me to focus on the writing, with just enough tools for organization and hypertextuality to order everything for maximum efficiency, provides exactly what I need.

I tend to write fiction with what I’m going to call the “accretion approach.” What I mean by this is that I begin with the barest ideas for a story: Dark Inheritance started as a combination of a Rogue Trader-type game with an idea for using a Warhammer voidship to tell haunted-house, sins-of-father type story influenced by games like The Room Series, the old Alone in the Dark games, Darkest Dungeon and numerous other tales (Lovecraft and the gothic horror of Clark Ashton Smith among others) and films (The Skeleton Key comes to mind). From that basis, I begin to add on more ideas and details–some that flow directly from the premise and others that at first seem discordant. After the basics of each new idea are added, I must go through and modify other concepts of the story (characters, plot devices and points, etc.) to account for the new material. Often, ripple effects from these changes beget the next set of ideas that get incorporated, until the basic story begins to take full narrative shape and the details come more and more into focus. OneNote has proved a godsend in as a tool for this approach.

For some fiction writing (particularly the novel I’m working on), I very much like Literature & Latte’s Scrivener program. In some ways, though, OneNote is a stripped down version of this (without functionality such as auto-compiling scenes and chapters, etc.) and I wonder if, for me, a more minimalistic approach might actually be better.

For Dark Inheritance, OneNote allows you to export the “binder” as just that–a PDF of linked pages in a binder sort of format. Unless I find something more efficient than that, Dark Inheritance will eventually appear for the public’s use in such a format.

I am preparing in the new year (as at least Act I becomes fully playable) to playtest the campaign with at least two different groups. If you’d like to help me with playtesting, please send me a message–I could certainly use the help and feedback!

 

Big Review: Wrath & Glory (Warhammer 40k RPG)

(This is the 2nd of 17 posts leading up to my 200th blog post for my “200 for 200” goal. It’s a long post instead of several short ones to conserve the number and buy myself some time for the goal!)

This review is going to be different from my previous reviews in several key ways: First, I happened to order the “All-In” Pre-Order package for the Wrath & Glory RPG from Ulysses Spiel, so I’ll be reviewing physical products alongside my review of substance. Second, I’ll be sharing some general, probably stream-of-consciousness thoughts about gaming in the 40K universe–some of which will be purely opinion and editorial with little to do with the review proper. Let’s dig in:

Roleplaying in 40k (Come for the War, Stay for the Stuff)

I grew up playing the Warhammer 40k miniatures game. Though I don’t currently play any minis games (having over the past few years played Warhmachine, Infinity and Malifaux) and I don’t really have the patience for 40k’s massive set-up time, I do constantly think about collecting the miniatures again for the joy of kitbashing and painting and finding some minis-rules sets that I liked better to run some narrative skirmish-level games with friends. Of course, there’s now new Necromunda (which I also played and loved in its first incarnation), Kill Team and Warhammer Quest: Blackstone (I spent many hours with the original, fantasy version of Warhammer Quest).

But, over the past ten-to-twelve years, my experience with 40k has been in reading some of the novels and running RPGs. I was so excited for a 40k RPG when Dark Heresy was announced, I immediately pre-ordered the deluxe, leather-bound version of the first edition rules.

This is all predicate to a discussion of my love/hate relationship with 40k. Perhaps there’s some deep-seated resentment of the cost of 40k gaming, but that is not where my angst really lies.

The long-used motto of the 40k universe is (say it with me, kids): “In the dark future of the 41st millenium, there is only war.” Let’s sidestep the fact that the source material has now carried the universe into the 42nd millenium.

My response to that motto has long been, “Come for the war, stay for the stuff.” A dark future of only war makes sense for a wargame, but not so much for a deep roleplaying setting. Without further, this constant, unquestioning conflict doesn’t have the depth I prefer for a roleplaying setting. Fortunately, even before the Dark Heresy RPG, there were some sources of that depth I sought.

I have read only a fraction of the available Warhammer 40k novels. I’ve mostly restricted myself to Sandy Mitchell (Caiphas Cain) and Dan Abnett (having read the Eisenhorn Trilogy, much of Gaunt’s Ghosts and the more recent Magos–which I’ll likely be finishing up today). Both Mitchell and Abnett do an excellent job of writing stories that stand strong on their own accord, even if they’d been written in a different setting, that also bring down some of the over-the-top “grimdark” of the 40k universe into a more relatable and–frankly–far less silly version of itself. They add the “stuff” to the 40k universe necessary to the setting to develop interesting stories for roleplaying.

I’ve started but not finished a number of other 40k books. Most of them, in my humble opinion, belong on the same shelf as Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight; that is, the “do not read, ever!” shelf. They’re not well-written, have ridiculous plots, and mostly just string together action sequences with little in between to make me care. Abnett (whose non-40k fiction is also worth a read) and Mitchell seem to be the exceptions to the rule.

Since the release of Dark Heresy and its related 40k RPGs (though I never had much use for Only WarBlack Crusade or Deathwatch), much additional setting information conducive to running a satisfying RPG campaign has been produced, thankfully.

Even so, it strikes me that the 40k setting, as typically advertised and as displayed in the majority of the fiction written about it, can’t sustain a roleplaying setting as is. The setting is too over-the-top, too nihilistic for nihilism’s sake, too grimdark. Now, if you’ve read my blog posts or my fiction, you know that I have a preference for the gritty. Too far, though, and the gritty becomes like chewing sand–painful and to no purpose.

To run a successful roleplaying game, the tone of a 40k RPG needs to come down a few pegs. We need to see that the Imperium of Man is not simple a fascist totalitarian regime if you’re going to play characters who feel duty and loyalty to it (in my opinion, at least). You need to see that there is some happiness and good in the universe worth fighting for, or what’s the point? Roleplaying games, like the best fiction, are about creating meaning. If your game universe runs circles around you, skipping about and proclaiming that, “nothing matters, everything is the worst, and you’re all going to go insane and/or die in the next five minutes!” there’s going to be an issue.

Perhaps the upside, though, is that the 40k universe, in needing to be tweaked to work in the roleplaying milieu, invites us to do what we should be doing with all published settings we’re using to run a game: make it our own. Like Mitchell and Abnett, we need to inject some logic, some flickers of goodness and hope, and some depth of character into the setting. That invitation, perhaps buried under piles of lore (being a worldbuilder and writer, I hate the term “fluff”), has the potential to grant us great freedom in using the setting. The flipside of this, of course, is canon-mongers who will exclaim at the gaming table, “that’s not the way it is; on page 47 of Fulgrim it says…” Those players are heretics; I hereby denounce them to the Inquisition.

I’m not likely to run a Call of Cthulhu campaign, as the types of stories that setting tells are generally very limited in scope. But, at least once warp-twisted to our own designs, 40k has the potential to tell stories with the same themes as CoC when desired, while making way for many other types of stories as well.

Scaled back a few pegs from full-bore nihilism, the setting allows us to play games that are tough on characters (without being unfair to them) in line with the setting and theme. I’m a big fan of John Wick’s Play Dirty books; the Warhammer universes (both fantasy and 40k) have provided me with my best experiences in implementing those ideas (in my own way, of course). The rate of character deaths in my Warhammer games is exponentially higher than in other RPGs I run, and a proponderance of those deaths are inflicted on one player character by another. Fortunately–and this is partially because of the themes of the setting–those character deaths have always seemed to be aspects of good writing: meaningful and somehow simultaneously surprising and seemingly inevitable in retrospect. Because of that, the players have not had hard feelings about these events, instead having a sense of profound collective storytelling. For a GM, there’s not much better than players getting that feeling, however achieved.

In short–though it’s certainly too late for that, isn’t it?–the 40k universe provides a very problematic roleplaying setting if used as labeled on the box, but if that difficulty is instead viewed as an invitation to make the setting your own (and the RPG material and the Mitchell/Abnett fiction are the best guides for that), there’s a lot of fun that can be had in 40k.

[Aside: While originally intending to put the linked material in this post, I thought it would be kinder to those not interested to separate out a digression on Christianity and 40k into a separate post. I invite you to read if that’s something that piques your curiousity.]

Updates to Setting (Immediate and Meta)

Wrath & Glory debuts after Games Workshop has implemented some radical changes to the 40k universe. With the (re-)appearance of Roboute Guilliman, the partially successful summoning of the Aeldari god Ynnead (and the changing, undoubtedly for copyright purposes of “Eldar” to “Aeldari,” just as “Imperial Guard” was changed to “Astra Militarum), the breakout of the great Cicatrix Maleficarum dividing the Imperial of Man into the Imperium Sanctus (still within the sight of the Astronomicon) and the Imperium Nihilus (on the other side of the massive warpstorms composing the Cicatrix Maleficarum and thus outside the light of the Astronomicon), the 40k universe is now a drastically different place, with many systems partially or wholly cut off from the rest of the Imperium.

Wrath & Glory does a good job of using this new situation for fullest effect, referring to it as a reason a disparate group of heroes with vastly different backgrounds might be working together. This gives easy permission to roleplaying bands that include an Aeldari corsair and a Primaris Space Marine next to the human characters who may be commissars, Rogue Traders, Inquisitors and the like. In short, it allows a justification for a smorgasbord of characters that would have been difficult to rationalize in earlier incarnations of 40k roleplaying (especially segmented into different game lines: Rogue Trader, Dark Heresy, Only War, etc., etc.).

The “default” setting for Wrath & Glory is the Gilead System, a collection of planets technically within the Imperium Sanctus but cut-off by surrounding warpstorms navigable only along a near-mythical path called the “Straits of Andraste” (now where have I heard that name before?). The Gilead System is designed to have a collection of the Imperial Planet types (Forgeworlds, Agri-Worlds, Shrine Worlds, Hive Words, Forbidden Worlds, etc.) so that each planet type is available without the characters needing access to a Warp-capable starship. Other than this, the Gilead System only has the barebones information given–a few names and factions that might serve as patrons or antagonists to the characters and some high-level story hooks.

This is both a boon and a bane, as it gives a GM great leeway in filling in details–but requires the GM to fill in details. If that’s not something you want to spend your time on, there’s nothing stopping you from setting your campaign before the Cicatrix Maleficarum and using the voluminous materials for the Scintilla area of the galaxy (or other published locations) from previous editions. For that matter, you could simply take that material and update it to the present in-universe time.

The Rules

I very much appreciate the new rules. If you’ve read some of my other writing about RPGs, you’ll know that I’m not so found of percentile systems and quite fond of dice pool systems. Wrath & Glory has moved 40k roleplying from the former to the latter, so from my initial approach I expected a positive reaction to the system. Not so much so that it was guaranteed, but I’ve found that the system is well-written. I’ll hit some of the high points.

Core Mechanics

The dice pool system uses attribute + skill, familiar to most roleplayers and six-sided dice, available everywhere. Certain things, like items, may add bonus dice, but most negative circumstances will adjust the difficulty level rather than the dice pool, allowing for faster logistics in making tests, as GM and player can calculate their respective parts simultaneously. A test must generate a number of icons equal to the difficulty level for the action to succeed. A result on a die of 4 or 5 generates a single icon, while a roll of 6 on a die generates 2 icons. In certain situations, icons in excess of the difficulty level can be “shifted” to achieve additional effects.

As a side note, the rules use the word “dice” for both the singular and the plural. This annoys me greatly. Other than this infelicity of language, the rules are clearly written and easy to understand.

Giving dice the potential to generate 2 icons allows for a much greater range and granularity of difficulty levels than might ordinarily be expected with a dice pool system. While I lack both the coding and mathematical skills to easily run statistics on this arrangement (my favored roll percentage calculator does not have the bandwith to make calculations this complex, apparently), the benefit should be relatively obvious.

Wrath & Glory (& Ruin & Campaign Cards)

Each test uses a single Wrath die (in the case of psyker powers, described below, multiple Wrath dice may be employed). A six on the Wrath die generates a point of Glory for the rolling character (which can be spent on bonus dice, damage and critical hit severity in combat, and seizing the initiative in combat). A roll of “1” on the Wrath die generates a complication to the scene at hand. These effects are independent of the success or failure of the test itself.

Characters also have Wrath points (hence, one supposes, “Wrath & Glory“). Wrath points are gained through good roleplaying, accomplishing objectives and through campaign cards. Wrath is used to re-roll failed dice, restore shock (non-fatal damage), improve Defiance tests (not dying when severely injured) and to make narrative declarations (I very much like this choice, both from a roleplaying design perspective and because it appropriately softens some of the grimdark of the 40k universe).

The GM also has a points pool called “Ruin,” allowing for similar boosts to NPCs.

As an additional side, the Wrath & Glory rules contain a full-page sidebar on failing forward. This, I think, reveals the modern gaming influences on the system design, but also indicates a conscious move away from the pure grimdark of the setting (and perhaps the earlier rulesets) just as the player ability to make “narrative declarations” does.

You may have noticed that I mentioned “campaign cards” a little ways back. A deck of the cards is available for purchase seperately from the rulebook. Each player is supposed to receive one campaign card at the beginnign of each session, which is lost if not used, but use is not required. When played, its effects are immediately resolved. Admittedly, I have not yet spent a lot of time with the campaign cards, but my sense is they are designed to give players a little more agency. Could you play without them? Absolutely, but I’m honestly not sure how much that would change the feel and play of the game. It may not be an extreme change.

Tracking Wrath, Glory, Ruin and Campaign cards (and other available cards) may seem to be a lot of fiddly-bits during play. On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with games like Fate, Cortex Plus/Prime or FFG’s Star Wars/WFRP3 games, you won’t have issues.

Combat

You’ll find many of the combat rules to be familiar territory if you’re a veteran roleplayer. I’m going to just pick out a few highlights.

First, the book explicitly states that there is no set time unit for a combat round, instead specifying that the narrative should inform the length of each round. This is relatively minor, but I think it provides some good insight into the design approach, and I like that.

Second, Initiative is handled quickly and efficiently. Under most circumstances, at the top of the combat round, the players decide which one of their characters will act first. After that character’s turn, a GM character acts, followed by another player character and back and forth until all actions are resolved. Ruin and Glory can be spent by a character to break the normal procedure and act next in a combat. Some circumstances (ambush) may also change this routine. Randomized initiative is offered as an option.

The rules include provisions for “mobs” to handle groups of less-talented foes. In my mind, this is an essential aspect of modern and effective game design.

There are rules to accommodate miniatures but they are not necessary. While I like minis games, I don’t like the drag on play efficiency that minis create in most RPGs.

Like many dice pool combat systems, the active character rolls against a static Defense number to determine whether an attack is successful.

Reloads are abstracted so that bullet-counting is unnecessary. That said, bonuses for “spending” reloads are available, giving players a reason to risk the dramatic position where they are out of ammo. Best of both worlds, in my mind.

Combat has enough variance in choices of actions for tactical complexity, has gritty critical hits, and all your favorite 40k weapons and armor.

Overall, combat appears to be a good compromise between narrative efficiency, gamist tactics, and “realistic” detail.

Psykers

I’m not going to spend much time on Psykers, but I want to point out one or two things. If you’ve played past 40k RPGs, you’ll be familiar with the psychic “disciplines”–biomancy, telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokineses, divination, etc. “Minor” psychic powers available to any Psyker are also available, though some (like “Psyniscience”) seem like they should be innate abilities rather than require a player to choose them as specific powers–the number of which a character may have are relatively limited.

A character using a psyker power must choose the mode of its use, from most conservative to most reckless: Bound, Unbound, Transcendant. The more reckless forms of employment grant extra Wrath dice but also increase the chance of Perils of the Warp–this is exactly what psyker powers should do in my opinion. Further, once you move up the scale, you can’t move back down in the same scene. The genie doesn’t go back in the bottle. Again, this matches the fiction and the feel of the setting.

“Magic” of any type in a roleplaying game is difficult from a design perspective. For a game to feel “balanced” you ideally want your “magical” characters to be somewhat limited in the types of effects that they can use and to have a very real cost to achieving those effects. Fortunately, the setting in 40k matches with this approach; in many fantastic settings the lore is difficult to fairly “balance” mechanically. The implementation here is about the best I’ve seen.

Character Creation

From the GM perspective, the core rulebook offers “Campaign Frameworks.” These are basically campaign hooks with recommendations for tier level, character types, theme and expected content.

Character creation itself is done by point-buy, though “standard arrays” are given for each Tier level to speed the process for those new to the setting or wanting to create a character quickly.

The Tier represents the campaign’s overall power level, both by determining the number of build points players have for their characters and which archetypes are available to them (Psykers require Tier 2, Inquisitors Tier 4, etc.).

Build points are used to purchase an Archetype, attributes, skills, special abilities, wargear, etc. The system is not so complex as Shadowrun, per se, but it does have enough depth to it that I would say you should expect an hour or two for character generation, perhaps more fore those unfamiliar with this or other RPGs.

On the other hand, the point-buy system allows for great flexibility in character creation, which I appreciate. Additionally, unlike previous 40k RPG incarnations, rules for playing Aeldari, Orks and Space Marines (regular and Primaris) are right there from the beginning.

Other Rules

Basic rules for vehicles and voidships are included in the Core Rulebook.

Overall

I’ll have to update this once I’ve been able to run a few sessions (be on the lookout for posts about the Dark Inheritence campaign I’m currently writing and hoping to run soon), but my readthrough leaves me impressed. Modern game design and a more narrative approach that lightens the grimdark just enough meets with a setting I’ve loved for a long time.

Physical Products

IMG_1832.jpg

I pre-ordered the “All-In” package when Ulysses Spiel US announced the opening of pre-orders. The above is the scope of what I received: the core rulebook, battle maps, pre-genned character booklets, the Dark Tides adventure book, the Blessings Unheralded adventure book, the soundtrack CD, acrylic tokens for characters and enemies, dice, a GM screen, themed poker chips for tracking points and six sets of cards (Campaign, Wargear, Psyker Powers, Perils of the Warp, Combat Complications Deck and Wrath Deck). The cards are of the quality I associate with CCGs, like Magic or Doomtown.

The books are bound as is typical for RPG books, with beautiful art and color. One difference enthusiasts will notice right away is that the art is distinctly lacking in “Blanchitsu.” I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a bad thing, especially given that the game design dials back the grimdark a few clicks. But, the art does border on the cartoony.

Everything came in a large box of heavy cardstock:

IMG_1833.jpg

Overall, I’m very pleased with the construction quality of the materials. I’m actually tempted, despite my usual preference for digital books, to spend a good deal of time with the printed materials. That’s a pretty high praise for me.

Conclusion

If you like the 40k universe and want to game in it, I highly recommend the Wrath & Glory game. Again, I’ll update when I’ve had a chance to run and/or play it, but by all accounts I expect a satisfying experience.

 

 

Review: Fallout 76: A Good Start

It seems that I’ve started most of my recent reviews this way, but the Fallout universe has a special place in my heart. I came of age in the late 90’s, and isometric RPGs were my video game of choice (surprised?).

I spent countless hours playing and replaying Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout: Tactics (I even played Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, despite its many flaws). I lamented when the “Van Buren” project was cancelled and rejoiced when Bethesda announced Fallout 3. The nostalgia factor and fanboyness runs high with this title, so be warned.

And here we are now with a new offering in the Fallout universe, one that divurges greatly from that to which we’ve become accustomed. Multiplayer. Is it the Holy Grail of Fallout gaming, a despicable money-grab by Bethesda in recycling the core of Fallout 4, or something about which we should feel a little bit less extreme and a little more ambivalent?

Multiplayer is a strange thing for me. As an introvert, I’m far more inclined to adventure by my sullen self than to link up with some randos who do or say things that do not recommend themselves to further association. The anonymity of the internet, and multiplayer games, draws out the worst in people. I just don’t have time for that in my life.

On the other hand, playing video games with people I know and have built relationships with away from the glow of the LEDs is something I very much enjoy. In this hectic world, online gaming is sometimes how I best keep up with certain friends–we play and we converse while we play. Maybe it’s the modern equivalent of those long telephone calls I used to have in high school, before texting made such obsolete for high-schoolers.

I love open world video games and the hours of exploration that come with them–truth be told, that’s probably my favorite aspect of video games altogether, though at any other moment in time I might say that it’s strong and meaningful narrative, a well-crafted story.

I’ve had the pleasure of spending hours walking through the West Virginia wasteland as a lone wanderer and as part of a team with my friends–even a complete four-person team. None of us have had the time to hit the “end-game” activities yet, and I’m not fully certain what they are at this point. Did I mention I lived in West Virginia? Only for about two years when I was in kindergarten and first grade, so my memories of that part of my life are fragmented and vague, but this perhaps adds another touchpoint for me.

Okay, background to review complete. Now on to what you really came here for:

The Good

Fallout 76 is like getting a whole ‘nother Fallout 4 worth of locations to explore. That alone piques my interest.

There are new enemies (Mole Miners, Radtoads, Gulpers, the Scorched, and more), new weapons (my favorite for its weirdness is the “death tambo,” a tamborine with the cymbals replaced with blades) and a greatly-expanded crafting system.

The use of SPECIAL and hot-swappable Perks is a lot of fun and allows for a lot of different character builds–both within one character and those that necessitate running multiple characters for different SPECIAL arrays. The theorycrafting of character builds fascinates me in Fallout 76, much moreso than any other MMO-style game I’ve played.

Fallout 76 is, by default, like “Survival Mode” in previous Fallout titles. Not only must you manage your health and radiation levels, but you must manage hunger and thirst, disease and mutations! Your gear deteriorates relatively quickly, so keeping things maintained and finding plans to build new equipment or CAMP (the mobile equivalent of a settlement) items gives the player a lot to do without even interfacing with the quests. These needs create emergent narrative, the kinds of stories that begin, “So no shit, there I was, knee-deep in spent brass and hand -grenade pins, having drunk my last purified water and then a Deathclaw shows up.” I love that, even if no one else wants to hear my stories–especially my wife.

The consequences of dying are scaled well–you lose the junk you’ve been carrying but not all of the other precious items you’ve spent so much time finding or building. If you’re fast enough (or there are no other players around), you can return to the site of your death (if you dare) and retrieve these parts. There’s a cost, sometimes fairly steep, but not one that makes you want to ragequit anytime you die. Good job on this balance, Bethesda, that’s not an easy thing.

Another well-thought out idea is that you can change the sex and appearance of your character at any time. A minor thing for some, but a great convenience for those who may want to change up their character’s visuals every so often.

The Bad

If you’re reading reviews of Fallout 76, you’ve likely come across the complaint that it “feels empty.” I think that that’s a misleading statement (there’s another Location to scavange over every crag and just a short ways down every road), but it’s true that Bethesda’s choice not to include human NPCs in the game is a massive let-down. The self-conscious weirdness of characters in Fallout is one of the main draws, and finding the corpses of these characters and listening to holotapes to give you their background just doesn’t match encountering and dealing with the characters in life.

Yes, this simplifies a number of things for the designers: there’s no need to craft dialogue trees, to manage faction reputation, to deal with conflicting narratives and closing off certain quests to certain players, etc. But it misses one of the best parts of Fallout.

At least Bethesda had the good sense to write the narrative around this concept–there is a reason everyone in West Virginia is dead. But the idea that this approach accentuates player importance by making every living human you encounter a PC just doesn’t work. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it deprives players of a sense of agency. There’s no one to really save, no cause or ideal to support, no settlement or character to get attached to (as much as is psychologically healthy for a fictional character, I suppose). There’s no choice between the Minutemen or the Brotherhood of Steel or the Enclave or the Institute. There’s no choice of dialogue options. There are choices in branching quest lines. There are no choices.

As with any online game, you also have to deal with the jerk gamers on occasion–and they are legion. I’ve gotten into several PVP situations and had about half of them also involve the other player sending me insulting messages over Xbox live and other assorted jackassery. That is, I suppose, unavoidable.

The Ugly

Bethesda stubbornly resists logical physics in a number of ways. No, I don’t mean the super-sciency stuff, I can suspend disbelief for that. But despite many games in this series, Bethesda still thinks the average rifle weighs about 20 pounds (unless the weight units are not pounds–I’m honestly not sure). This is somewhat mitigated by the starting carry weight without penalty being 150 lbs (and Perks that allow certain items to be reduced in weight by up to 90%), but the numbers in weights across the board still bother me. I’m trying to remember back to Skyrim about whether this applies to their concept of medieval weapons as well (a real two-handed sword should weigh between about 3 and 4 pounds–though the massive zweihander could weigh 8 or 9, that’s a very specialized weapon for a very particular purpose and was used in the fashion of a spear as much as a sword).

There are a number of bugs in the game, some leading to program crashes, others causing questlines not to advance, items to suddenly disappear or other minor but infuriating issues. I have not found a glitch that restarting the program (or just logging out and back in) hasn’t fixed.

Hope for the Future

Bethesda has indicated that they intend to support Fallout 76 for the long haul. What exactly that means is unclear, but I assume that it means something like Destiny 2–at least a few years of support with new DLC quarterly or so.

If that’s truly the case, Fallout 76 could have legs–provided that Bethesda has realized that it needs to add human NPCs and everything that comes with that (factions, etc.). If not, it’ll be fun while it lasts; maybe it will tide me over until Fallout 5.

Types of Evil (or at Least Antagonists)

This post could just about as easily be a theological one, but since I’ve come to these ideas in working on Avar Narn, I figured they’re better suited to being addressed to the writers out there–anyone who wants to extrapolate into the realms of spirituality and morality is welcome of course.

As an opening, let me first say that it is difficult to write an “evil” character, whether major antagonist or supporting character. It’s difficult because few things in the world are black and white, so a character that isn’t nuanced in his/her morality isn’t believable in stories that intend to maintain verisimilitude. On an obviously allegorical, mythological or moralistic tale, there’s a lot more leeway for capital “E” evil characters. But that has its own bag of tropes and expectations tht I’m not going to address here.

Instead, I’m going to try to put together a few general categories of character types we might describe as “evil.” I think we (myself included) are quick to use terms like “bad guys” when we mean “antagonist” in the more literary criticism sense of the term. That’s probably something we should all be careful of. That said, on to some gross oversimplification that I hope will nevertheless prove useful:

(1) Capital “E” Evil
This is the character who just wants to watch the world burn, who enjoys inflicting suffering for suffering’s sake, who exists to malign and misuse everything around him for the sake of just that.

As such, this should also be the rarest kind of evil in fiction, becuase it’s the hardest kind to get right. I think that there are two subtypes to be thought of here.

The first is cosmic evil–that kind of supernatural evil that is unknowable in its reasoning or motivation. Think Lovecraftian horror. We sidestep the major problem here by positing that we just can’t understand this evil. It just is. Particularly in fantasy, we can often get away with this, but it requires special suspension of disbelief or extra worldbuilding to swing. Even then, we’ve created a de facto villain that is really only interesting in an existential sense.

The second type is the corrupted individual. What we need, I think, to make this work is a believable backstory. Nobody begins that way, so we need an explanation as to what suffering the person has gone through to mold him into this type character.

This runs two ancillary risks, however. The first is that in describing said backstory, we humanize the character to the point that he no longer really fits into the Capital “E” Evil category. The second is that we turn our story into an analysis of the nature of evil. That can be an enthralling type of tale, particularly if the “evil” character is the protaganist of the story.

(2) Mistaken Beliefs
This subgroup belongs to those characters who honestly believe that they are doing the right thing while they commit atrocities the rest of us would find blatantly evil.

There are plenty of real-life examples to draw upon here to make the argument concisely. Take the Islamic State for example. Adherents to this would-be theocracy believe that they are practicing true Islam while murdering the innocent. This is an extreme case that can be attributed to any radical/fundamentalist religious group–Christians who kill doctors who perform abortions, for example. If you truly believe that God (or gods) demanded it and that makes it right, it’s easy to justify your actions.

Next, think of the person gripped by psychosis such that they are driven by an irrational belief that they cannot bring themselves to disavow. This is a particularly moving type of antagonist because they are driven by an affliction and not by their own agency–we can’t actually morally blame those who aren’t in control of themselves. This gives us a good opportunity to explore our “hero’s” approach to evil–is she only interested in ending threats or is she interested in redemption? What does she do when that redemption isn’t something she can achieve.

There are plenty of “lower magnitude” mistaken beliefs that make interesting villains. Les Miserables’ Javier is an excellent example–a man so overcommitted to his idea of “justice” that he cannot allow himself any mercy. This type of extremism in belief is all around us–just listen to how some people think we should fight the “War on Terror” or what we should do to criminals.

We can also extend this to what in the law we would consider a “mistake of fact.” When the antagonist believes that the protaganist is a villain who must be stopped, for instance. Yes, the antagonist’s belief is untrue, but if it were true would we think of the antagonist as a “good guy?”

A brief aside here: what if the protaganist is acting immorally? Watching a character spiral out of control is heck of a dramatic ride, and testing a character’s willingness to act as he says he believes is a classic conflict to explore.

Mistaken identity (along with the particular of being falsely accused) is one of the great archetypal plots, one which fits directly into the mistake of fact.

(3) The End Justifies the Means
This is a commonly-used type of antagonist, perhaps because it’s so relatable. The constant moral choice that faces all of us in life is whether we’ll sacrifice our values to get what we’re after. The only difference here is one of scale. For the sake of drama, the means to achieve the end must be dire–the determination of life and death, or the fates of many. For what profiteth it for a man to gain the world but lose his soul?

One of my favorite examples of this type of evil is the Operative from Serenity. The Operative is a man who accepts that he does evil things, but he is sincere in the belief that it will bring about a better galaxy (which perhaps makes him fall under (2) as well). In fact, he views his sins as a form of sacrifice–he does the unspeakable so that others don’t have to. There is a sort of nobility to his principles, even if they are ultimately wrong. And, for those of you who prefer your characters to wear capes rather than swords, Batman isn’t far off here, either. In fact, I’d say that Batman and the Operative have far more in common than we should be comfortable with if we’re going to call one “hero” and the other “villain.”

Speaking of Batman, most vigilantes fit into this category. Because we love it when the bad guys get theirs, even when they get it in a way that requires a sacrifice of our values, this can be a popular protagonist as well–think of the Punisher.

I would wager that most of our favorite anti-heroes fall into this category as well–it’s their beliefs and the willingness to risk for those beliefs that make them heroes, but the way they go about pursuing the fulfillment of those beliefs that adds the “anti-.”

(4) Honor and Identity
This is perhaps a subcategory of “Mistaken Beliefs,” but it’s a significant-enough subtype that it deserves its own treatment.

People do evil things in the name of maintaining honor all the time. As a student of history–and particularly the medieval and Renaissance periods, the first examples that pop into my mind are the duel and the vendetta. I’ve recently read a book called Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli in the Renaissance, which reinforces the connection for me. But Renaissance Italy is not the only honor culture known for the tit-for-tat systemic murder that defines vendetta–the Hatfields and McCoys come to mind in slightly more recent history.

And, of course, we could discuss “honor killings” in certain Middle Eastern or South Asian cultures (though, to be fair, the Napoleonic Code also permitted a husband to kill an unfaithful wife and her lover, and even in American law a murder is often considered manslaughter when a husband kills his spouse after finding her “in flagrante delicto.”)

Honor cultures and actions taken under the justification of defending one’s honor are typically about maintaining a sense of identity–either one of purity or of strength (or perhaps both). The ideology of the honor culture says that if one does not maintain honor, one will be viewed as weak and will be taken advantage of by the rest of the culture.

And defending one’s sense of identity is a strong motivator, one that can create fascinating internal conflict, because it can be the conflict between internal belief and external pressures of society. For instance, “I believe that I should show mercy, but my culture tells me that I am not a man if I do not take vengeance.” Powerful stuff.

Honor, of course, is not the only identity-related factor that can lead a character to become “evil” or antagonistic. The need to belong to something greater than oneself is a fundamental human motivation, on that can lead to similar conflict between the will of the individual and the will of the group. Is there a story about gangs that doesn’t include this plotline? What about cults and religions (which takes us back to (2))?

(5) Cross-Purposes and Limited Resources
I don’t have to explain that characters don’t have to possess malicious intent to be antagonists. The world has a habit of pitting humans against each other by its very nature–or at least tempting us to work against instead of with one another.

The core of successful narrative is conflict, and all it takes is characters who want things that are opposed (or even better, mutually-exclusive) to create such.

This suits certain types of stories especially well–the noir and anything else that might be considered “gritty” immediately come to mind. The story doesn’t need to be one of moralistic pedantry, though one must be careful not to let ambivelence about morality become relativism (at least I’m going to moralize on that point).

The Game of Thrones novels come to mind, as does Abercrombie’s First Law books. The political intrigue inherent to both puts POV characters at odds with one another, certainly giving us occasional “villains,” but not as a central theme of the stories.

But this type of conflict does not just suit the morally-ambiguous; it plays well to analysis of morality. I’m going to turn here to my favorite atheist philosopher (and one of my favorite storytellers), Joss Whedon. He’s been quoted as saying, “If nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.” As an existentialist theologian, this freedom to create meaning when meaning is not thrust upon us is a core concept to me (but not one we’ll discuss here). Likewise, when the there’s no clear “good and evil,” we must judge the morality of the characters by the choices that they make. This can, of course, be easily combined with all but (1) above.

The conflict within a character of wanting to do the right thing, but perhaps being unwilling to pay the cost to do so, is a conflict we can all relate to. I’m inclined to argue that there is nothing in the craft of fiction so real as this. If you want your writing to have that air of verisimilitude, readers will suspend disbelief for a lot of things when the characters seem lifelike and complex to them. That’s not an excuse to write fiction that is sloppy except for the characters.

That, I think, is why I’m personally drawn to “gritty” stories. They’re rich with meaning.

(6) Inanimate Evil

I include this mostly as a footnote becuase it needs little explanation. This is the classic “(wo)man versus nature” story, where an uncaring and unresponsive natural force (i.e. the elements) forces a struggle for the protagonist to survive.

Conclusion

This list is, of course, not exhaustive. Each category has subcategories and nuances to be explored (and isn’t that one of the great joys of writing?). More general categories could be appended to this. When I think of them, I’ll post an update. I’m also inclined to write more about creating the types of characters that fit into (5), or at least stories of ambivalent morality–that is, dispassion on the part of the narration about moral judgment, leaving such a task to the reader. For now, this seems sufficient.