What Writers (and Roleplayers) Need to Know about Swordplay, Part II: Swords

For the introduction to this series, click here.

We ought to start with the Queen of Battle, oughtn’t we? By this, I mean the sword, of course.

Weights and Measures
Let’s get the most glaring error out of the way first: swords were not heavy, nor were they clumsy. You will still even hear some historians claiming that swords weighed 20 pounds or more; this is hogwash.

If you’re able, do a quick test. Get your beefiest friend and a weighlifting barbell (the big one, for benchpressing). These typically weight 15 to 20 pounds. Ask your meatloaf friend (without calling him that) to try to swing the barbell like a sword. Stand back and prepare to laugh. The results should be slow, clumsy and obviously ridiculous.

The average one-handed sword (an “arming sword”) of the medieval and Renaissance periods likely weighs between one-and-a-half pounds and three pounds. The average two-handed sword (what is properly called a “longsword” by the way) usually weighs between two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half pounds, give or take. If you’ve taken some time to watch videos on YouTube, now maybe you’ll understand how they’re able to move so fast and so agilely–we’ll return to this.

Where did we get the idea that swords are so heavy? Bad scholars is the likeliest reason. The heaviest swords actually used of which I’m aware are the zweihanders (the “true twohanders”) use by the Landsknecht mercenaries. These could weigh between six and eight pounds and could be six feet from tip to pommel.

First, it’s important to know that this was a very specialized weapon (see my next point below). By the early 16th century, when this weapon came to use, Europe had (debatedly, at least) undergone a “military revolution.” Gone were the shieldwalls and rough battle lines of the medieval period, replaced by professional or semi-professional soldiers who spent more time drilling in formations and maneuvers than their manual-of-arms for their weapons. The standard was the use of large pike formations protecting musketeers or archers (the Spanish “tercio” is a prime example of this). With their (very) long pikes and the ability to maneuver and angle their weapons together, a pike formation proved a very difficult formation to assault.

The zweihander was one tactical response to this problem. If you look at the weapon, you’ll see a long grip followed by the crossguard and a typically long-and-blunt ricasso (the base of the blade coming from the crossguard). Some examples had this section wrapped in leather and/or topped by parierhaken (parrying hooks). The design will help you to understand the use.

Gripped as a sword, with both hands on the hilt, the weapon could deliver powerful swings, excellent for knocking pike spearpoints out of the way, or potentially even cutting them off (there is not agreement about this).

Once you’re inside the length of the pike, it becomes mostly useless to its user. The pikeman would need to drop his pike and draw whatever shorter weapon he had to hand. The user of the zweihander, however, only had to position his off hand on the ricasso and he suddenly had a weapon that performed more like a short spear than a heavy sword. Advantage dopplesoldner (as these men were called). By gripping the blade with itself with one hand, the dopplesoldner could even simply push pikes up and hold them out of the way while his compatriots slid into the pike formation to do the dirty work.

This was dangerous work, especially so, and dopplesoldners (literally “double soldier”) were probably called that because they received double pay.

Over time, as the tactics of warfare continued to evolve, the zweihander became less and less useful. It retained, however, some significance as a symbol of certain military units, and versions that were intended only to be carried in parade were created. Without care given to weight and balance as is done with a useful sword, these became quite heavy. When antiquarians of the 19th century rediscovered them, they assumed that the parade swords they’d found were actual weapons of war and marveled at the strength necessary to wield them.

If you’d like to take a more scientific approach, let’s look to physics. Force exerted equals mass times acceleration, where acceleration is measured in units squared. So, all other things being equal, you get more force, comparatively, with a lighter weapon swung faster than a heavier weapon swung slower. Medieval minds may not have had the equation, but they were smart enough to look at the evidence and draw a conclusion. Add to this the fact that you have to actually hit your target to do any damage and the usefulness of a faster weapon becomes doubly apparent.

A Sword is a Tool
Like all weapons, a sword is a tool, albeit one with a macabre purpose. Understanding that goes a great distance to understand swordplay, I think. Two particularly important parts: First, force (pressure, really) applied increases diametrically to the area over which it is applied. This is the entire purpose of a blade–the edge reduces the area over which force is applied, focusing and increasing it over a small space. This is why all bladed weapons are useful–they increase the force applied to the target, hopefully sheering and cutting through it.

Second, a sword is a lever, again a tool to amplify the force exerted by the user. This amplification increases the longer the length of the lever, making the cutting area near the tip of the sword the most dangerous area (it also accelerates fastest).

This covers the most basic design purposes behind the weapon, but there is much more. Tools are often improved incrementally over time, and we see that with swords in the historical record, from early bronze weapons to the carbon steel of the medieval and Renaissance sword or with the addition of a hilt capable of blocking an enemy blade.

Some tools are generic, able to perform multiple tasks passably, but not excelling anywhere. Others are specialized, becoming more effective at limited tasks to the detriment of other capabilities. Bear in mind that at all points of human history, there is also an “arms race” between the capabilities of weapons to cause injury and the capabilities of armor to stop injury.

Swords evolved over time in relation to the armor available. Just two examples: the two-handed sword did not become a common weapon until the advent of more-effective armors–the transitional period of the 14th century as we see progress toward true plate mail: brigandine “coats of plates,” the addition of plates to protect joints and limbs, etc. When one could more reasonably rely on one’s armor to stop a blow, a shield became a less necessary item (as we’ll discuss later, a shield should really be thought of as a weapon, not armor), freeing a hand for a longer, weightier weapon, which in turn provided more advantage against that same armor than a one-handed sword.

The second example: as plate armor became more common, a different approach was necessary to the design of swords. Cutting is typically ineffective against plate armor; this is partially a matter of its rigidity and resistance to cutting, but also a matter of its design–plate armor is designed to deflect a blow, directing the force of the attack in a way less harmful to the wearer, rather than to simply stop the blow. The result of this were blades with more acute points. Much fighting in plate armor, at least with swords, results in grappling, with the combatants grabbing the blade of their sword with one hand (called “half-swording, and yes, this can be done without injury”) and aiming to maneuver the point of the weapon through the gaps between plates. Harnessfechten is truly terrifying stuff, with the end results as often as not being achieved through grappling itself (the breaking of limbs as such) or through close work at the half-sword or with the dagger.

Swords also changed as firearms altered the types and amount of armor worn, becoming lighter and developing (though not solely) into the rapier and later smallsword. Both of these, the rapier and smallsword, are excellent examples of the very-specialized sword; we’ll discuss rapiers in detail shortly.

What does this mean for the writer and/or roleplayer (especially a GM)? If you’re describing a sword, or determining what kinds of swords are likely to be found in your setting, you’d be well-advised to do some research into sword typology and the types of swords that existed at various time periods, so think about relationship between relative historical equivalents and–especially–what kind of armor is available and how that would affect sword designs and styles. There’s not necessarily a need to make mechanical distinctions between variant sword types in the gaming realm, though you certainly can if you lean heavily simulationist (or gamist, I suppose), but it will help to visualize the setting.

There are some other storytelling opportunities here–if yours is a setting with ancient and magical weapons and armor (like most games of D&D, for instance), think about how that ancient weapon may differ in appearance and design from the ones made in the setting’s present. Do ancient swords of power look more like 9th-century viking swords rather than the more acutely pointed 15th-century style swords used by most people? Would the sword be less effective against “modern” armor (whatever that may be in your setting) except for the magic within it?

A side note here–as in our own historical record, the development of sword types was not solely a linear progression. Multiple sword designs competed with one another, or performed different functions, in the same period. Changes in sword morphology did not occur simultaneously over all geographic locales, and the evolution of any weapon involves some amount of discovery, forgetting, uneven development or acceptance, throwbacks, etc.

Like any invention, the discovery of the technology itself is far from the only factor involved in the “success” or acceptance of the technology. Cost, societal and cultural views, changing needs, and many other factors may cause some technologies never to be fully realized despite the fact that they perform better than alternatives.

Additionally, because weapons are tools, context is important. The comparison of European swords and Japanese swords during their respective feudal periods provides a good example. The katana is not an inherently “better” weapon than the European longsword; of course the reverse is also true. The two weapons developed in, and made sense in, different contexts.

While I’m not as well-read in Asian history as I am in western history, my understanding is that the katana’s design is a very specific response to several factors in Japan. Primary among these was the reduced availability of quality materials from which to produce reliable, weapons-grade steel. Two conditions flowed from this: plate armor did not developed or see broad usage in Japan as it did in Europe, so the importance of acutely-pointed weapons that could be used against enemies in a wide range of armors (including that “white metal” plate armor) did not exist in the same way in Japan as in Europe–the needs to be fulfilled by the weapon were different. Likewise, the resources available with which to make weapons in Japan necessitated different techniques in sword-forging, and the katana (and its variants, which are similarly diverse as European weapons, I believe) represented the best balance of effective weapon and (relative) ease of manufacture. Some exquisite weapons were made in both locales. Both, I’m sure, also saw a number of subpar weapons created because of lack of skill, the demands of semi-mass production, the corner-cutting of greedy manufacturers, or the penny-pinching of those who commissioned the weapons.

Making Swords was Difficult
The medieval and Renaissance periods did not have access to modern metallurgy. The field of chemistry was in its infancy, and though the understanding of metals and their properties certainly improved over the centuries in question, smithing metal was art and science during the medieval and early modern periods.

A sword is made of carbon steel, which is iron fused with carbon to create an alloy with the desired properties. If you’re at your local Renaissance Faire and someone is trying to sell you a sword made out of stainless steel, it is a cheap display piece. If that’s what you want it for, no worries. But if you want something you could actually swing, test cut with, or safely use for WMA, you need carbon steel.

Those physical properties change based on the amount of carbon in the steel and the properties required of good swords are quite specific. The sword needs to be able to take and hold a good edge (which I understand is something of a metallurgic “sweet” spot). It needs to be hard, but not brittle, and the blade needs to be able to flex rather than to be perfectly rigid. There are some variations on these needs based on the sword design, of course, but those facts are generally true.

Here’s the problem: early modern smiths had no way to accurately gauge the carbon content of steel. They had to learn an intuition for the right amount of carbon, and smiths developed, even before our time period, techniques for controlling carbon content (relatively if not exactly). One such technique was to create the billet for the sword from individual layers of iron and carbon-containing metallic strips, heating them together and combining them to get a steel with a semi-controlled carbon content; this is called “pattern welding”. Viking swords were commonly made this way, with the pattern of the mixed steel visible in the blade or fuller when acid etching revealed the “serpent in the blade” as it was called.

By the Tudor period, other techniques were available for increasing carbon content in steel but, admittedly, I don’t remember the specifics well enough to describe them now.

The important thing to note is that making swords required special knowledge and skill–this is not something a blacksmith would do. Basic economic theory tells us that, the more specialized knowledge and skill a product requires, the lower the supply and higher the price commanded by the commodity. This is true of swords. While it’s very difficult to determine the actual costs of swords at various levels of quality or design, I would note that, in many of the medieval laws requiring the ownership of certain arms and armor, the weapon required of most men was a spear, not a sword.

We also have some evidence of out-of-date styles of sword continuing to see use despite the changes in the “modern” design of the weapons. This likely indicates, and there is some corroborating evidence in the historical record, that swords might be passed down in a family as heirlooms because of the value they had and relative difficulty of acquiring a newer weapon. Sometimes the blade was kept and the weapon’s fittings were changed.

On the other hand, there is much evidence of schools of swordplay becoming available to the (paying) public by the 16th century–we have a number of woodcuts showing training in just such a setting. This means that, for the burgeoning middle class, the acquisition of swords and time and money enough to learn their use was not out of reach. While swords were not nearly as common as they are often portrayed, neither were they rare.

To analogize to the modern period, I think we be well served by thinking about military-style rifles. A lot of them are made by governments for warfare, and they don’t simply disappear once the war is over. An AR-15 in the United States might run $500 for a very basic model and into the thousands of dollars. According to CNN, 40% of Americans do not have $400 available to them in the event of an emergency, so at least 40% of people probably couldn’t come up with the money to purchase such a weapon without taking on serious financial risk. I would imagine for another fair percentage, the acquisition could be made only if saved for over time, financed or the budget stretched. Bear in mind that credit did not work the way it does in modern times during the medieval and Renaissance periods (which is not to say that there was no lending or borrowing of money or other extensions of credit, but the ease of access to credit was far lower). And of course, there are some people who could afford to arm an entire town or county.

So, in writing or roleplaying, think about the social status and wealth of a character when determining whether that person owns a sword. Most peasants and desperate folk won’t–they’re more likely to use something simpler, less expensive and easier to acquire–a spear, and ax, a knife, etc. As we’ll discuss shortly, using a sword is not easy and requires significant training, so most peasants wouldn’t have had sufficient free time (or resources) to sufficiently study swordplay, even if they could acquire a sword.

As with the other sections, these are guidelines to think about, choices that must be made after reasonable consideration, not strict rules to be slavishly followed. Some societies or cultures by their nature will have a higher focus on producing weapons and putting them into the hands of the populace. Switzerland’s famous status as a “neutral” nation is not simply a matter of its refusal to intervene in the affairs of foreign nations, but also the fact that mandatory military service and weapons training (members of the military store their weapons at home!) means a nightmare for any would-be invader.

You Couldn’t Just Wear a Sword Anywhere
The systems of law enforcement and public safety were not so clearly defined, structured or regulated as they are now, but they became moreso over the medieval period and into the Renaissance. As we discussed above, because a sword was not the commonest or most affordable of commodities, it was also a status symbol–as social mobility increased somewhat after the Black Death and especially into the Renaissance (though still nothing like modern social mobility), more and more people wanted to show off their success by the wearing of one.

As is ever the case, those who held power didn’t want to share power or prestige with others and made concerted efforts to hold the lower classes down. One of these efforts was the creation of sumptuary laws. Sumptuary laws were concerned with how a person could and could not dress based upon their social status and wealth–you had to have a certain annual income to be legally able to wear ermine (a popular type of fur), for instance. This also extended to the wearing of weapons.

More than that, though, wealthy aristocrats had good cause to fear the peasantry–they largely enjoyed their wealth and status on the backs of those less fortunate, as the German Bundschuh movements and frequency of peasant revolts (England in 1340, 1381 and 1450, France in 1358 and 1382, Friuli in 1511, the German Peasants’ War in 1525-26, just to name a few) attest. The aristocracy didn’t really want their peasants to be well-armed.

But the simple matter of public safety was also a concern, and Machiavelli’s view that “an armed society is a polite society” was certainly not held by all. We know that the wearing of weapons was specifically permitted for travelers and pilgrims of the lower classes (because of the threat of brigandry and banditry, of course)

Many towns and cities had restrictions on the length of a blade that could carried inside its limits, though the specifics varied widely by time and place and exceptions seem to have almost always existed based on social class or social function.

This is to say that, contrary to common D&D tropes, at least, people (at least by the Renaissance) didn’t often walk around in full armor and festooned with weaponry–that made people nervous and attracted attention. People were restricted from the wearing of weapons in certain settings, and even social norms played a role as well.

Bear in mind that different levels of armedness were permissible in various situations. Wearing a dagger or knife was rarely forbidden, and it was common for the nobility to wear a sword (though more commonly of a lighter “civilian” design such as an “espada de ropa” or rapier) in social settings where combat was not expected. The wearing of armor in particular (when not in an official capacity requiring it) advertised that you were looking for trouble.

The types of weapons–even swords–carried also varied by social status. I’ll give an example about what certain weapons communicated later by looking at the gang fight scene at the beginning of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. For now, I’ll just give this example–in late medieval and early-modern England, the retainers of a nobleman who were commoners but who were allowed to carry weapons by virtue of their service in the nobleman’s retinue were most commonly armed with a simple single-handed sword and a buckler. They were commonly referred to as “sword-and-buckler” men and the term “swashbuckler” derives from the practice of letting one’s buckler (hung from the belt) clash against one’s (sheathed) sword as one walked, advertising armedness with a good dash of bravado. For various reasons, but among them armed clashes between groups of retainers, laws restricting the size and makeup of liveried retainers were a common feature of this period. That they were issued with such frequency most likely indicates trouble in enforcing them–or at least a high level of concern with the problem.

And if good fiction is any indication, there’s a lot of good drama to be had when a character is caught without his armor or the weapon he’d prefer to use to defend himself. I’m certainly of the mind that this should be pursued in both “conventional” fiction and roleplaying–don’t let your characters carry an arsenal whenever and wherever they feel like it!

Using a Sword is Difficult
We’ll talk about the actual features of swordplay in the next Part, but for now, let me expound briefly on why swords are difficult to use.

A sword is not a club. That seems obvious, but think about the fact that the edge must actually contact the target for a sword to maximize its effect. Not only that, but the edge must contact the target at an appropriate angle to have an optimal effect. “Edge control” is one of the first difficult tasks faced by a student of the sword.

Then there’s the whole “not-cutting-yourself” thing. You want power and acceleration behind each swing of the blade, but you also need to control the blade after it has missed, struck its target, or been deflected. While moving. While trying not to be hit by your enemy. I have seen or heard of injuries requiring emergency medical attention and stitches during test-cuttings. If you’re not familiar, a “test cutting” is the practice of cutting a stationary object with a sharp blade. You’ll find many videos of test cuttings performed on water bottles and rolled tatami mats. I have attended and participated in test cuttings on animal carcasses (if it matters to you, the animal was not killed for the purpose of the test cutting–and certainly not during it!–so this was a matter of making the most of the carcass. If you are offended by this, I certainly understand, and there’s a perfectly reasonable question and conversation to be had there).  These are the most controlled environments in the use of a sword that you could hope to have–and yet people still manage to hurt themselves. Factor in all the fighting stuff and you have some serious concerns.

The body mechanics of the movement of the sword, whether the transition between one “guard” or manner of holding the sword ready for use, the transition from one attack to another, or from attack to defense and vice versa, are not always intuitive until you build muscle memory. The options for how to respond to any given blade contact are myriad. You can move, you can grapple your opponent, you can act “on the bind” by pressing your blade against theirs, you can counterattack; and all of these approaches have a number of decisions to make within them. Without getting too far into the “how” of swordplay in this Part (already very long!), let’s take a brief look at the questions involved in choosing to grapple: where will you grip the opponent? Where will you move as you close to grapple and how will your orient your body to theirs? In what directions will you apply force as you grapple? What is your goal: to disarm, to break a limb, to buffet the enemy with fists and elbows, to throw them or trip them? As with all hand-to-hand martial arts, it takes time and practice to understand the theory behind these choices, more to develop the skill to implement them, and even more to be capable of making and implementing split-second decisions about these techniques in the heat of combat. Add a blade, which is dangerous to both you and your opponent, and it becomes clear, I think, that a blade is more difficult to use than a club (though many of the same techniques can be employed, really).

The idea that a character will pick up a sword and suddenly be effective with it (at least against a capable opponent) is dubious at best. Keep this in mind when structuring narrative.

What is a Rapier and How is it Different?
As one of the easiest examples of how widely swords can differ in their morphology and function, let’s look at the rapier versus other types of sword.

As an introductory note, it must be stated that research about the rapier is somewhat difficult, as the usage of language in historical sources do not make the strict categorical distinction between rapier and other types of swords as modern scholars and WMA enthusiasts tend to. This is partially a result of the fact that the rapier evolved over a fairly long period, with a number of very different designs and approaches during that period.

As the fighting manuals consider them, rapiers are swords (very) heavily focused on the thrust over the cut (though some treatises do make use of cutting techniques). Modern scholars debate whether those swords called “rapiers” that are alluded to as also cutting should truly be referred to as rapiers (under modern categorization) or should be placed in the same category as “cut-and-thrust” swords or in the more ambiguous category of “sword-rapiers.”

The rapier developed starting in the early 16th century and continued to see significant use into the 17th, when it began to be supplanted by the smallword (a lighter, shorter variant, essentially).

Generally, a rapier has several distinguishing features. First, it is a one-handed sword. Second, a thinner blade than other sword types, with that blade often being more rigid than other sword types (to strengthen the thrusting ability of the blade while sacrificing some of the blade flex that is useful to “winding and binding” with the blade (see the next Part). Third, rapier blades tend to be quite long, and longer as their development continues. Fourth, rapiers have increasingly complex hilts (over the course of their development), starting with simple rings built into the crossguard so that the index finger may be wrapped over the crossguard (next to the sword’s ricasso). This allows greater control over the thrust, while again sacrificing some authority in cutting. Ricasso rings and complex hilts were not only used for rapiers, however; the “cut-and-thrust” blades (as modern scholars call them) that have wider blades (often acutely pointed) that favor the thrust but still allow for strong cutting). This style of gripping the blade is still emulated in certain grips for modern fencing epees.

The most “extreme” rapier designs had hexagonal or octagonal blade cross-sections, almost like a piece of sharpened rebar (albeit much better balanced). These weapons were clearly designed only to thrust; their cross-sections did not allow for holding an edge.

While a “standard” rapier design is difficult or impossible to pin down, their function is not. As a lighter weapon (compared to other swords), the rapier was easier and more comfortable to carry (provided that the length was not absurd). The use of the thrust allows for a greater maintenance of distance from the opponent as well obviating the need to draw the weapon away from the opponent to prepare a swing. The downside of this is that resorting only to the thrust makes it very difficult to hold multiple attackers at bay at once (already a very difficult thing). But the lack of a need to swing proved especially useful in the often-cramped streets and alleys of Renaissance cities, where there may not have been room to swing a cutting sword at all.

Despite being a thrusting weapon, the rapier does not appear to have been effective or intended to be used against an opponent in armor. Against an unarmored opponent, however, the weapon is truly deadly–in one of the aforementioned test-cuttings I attended, I witnessed a (quality) replica rapier lightly tossed underhanded into a slab of deer meat to the hilt. As we’ll see later on, the reputation of the weapon in its contemporary time (at least in England) was that it was especially deadly compared to other weapons.

Combine the effectiveness of the weapon in urban settings and the convenience of carrying it with it’s lack of effectiveness in group combat (bear in mind that in the press of battle you may not have room to pull back a weapon for a thrust and, in a strange opposite of the alley, a cutting weapon may prove more useful), and you have a weapon very well suited to daily self-defense and to the duel, but not to military purposes.

In the next Part, we’ll talk a look at how swords are actually used. After that, we’ll look at medieval/Renaissance armor and some common misconceptions held by roleplaying games and some fantasy writers. I’ll conclude with a sort of bibliography, including books for further reading and even some roleplaying games that really get swordplay “right.”

Some Thoughts on Writing: Plotting and Pantsing

There is no One True Way to write; anyone who tells you there is is a fool and/or trying to sell you something.

That said, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on writing fiction, particularly on plotting and “pantsing,” in this post. Maybe it will be useful for someone. Maybe someone will disagree with me in the comments and that will be useful for someone.

To me, writing fiction is really two things inextricably bound together. The first is storytelling, by which I mean the structural aspects of the craft: story structure and flow (and therefore “plot”), pacing, character creation and motivation and all of the building blocks of the a story. The second is style, the actual selection of words, grammar, syntax, etc. The storytelling never becomes a story without the application of words; but the words themselves never amount to anything without a structure and purpose to them.

Both of these things are always difficult and often frustrating. I’ll liken this to exams in law school: those people who weren’t nervous about the test didn’t understand how much there was to know in that field and just how complex its operations were. You could only be blasé about it through ignorance. Perhaps there is someone in this wide world who is naturally, innately and intuitively creative and powerfully-minded enough that this doesn’t apply to them, but I doubt it.

In my writing of late, both those projects that have ultimately “failed,” or at least not come to immediate fruition, and those that I have “finished” in a relatively complete form or on which I continue working, I’ve noticed that most of my instances of “writer’s block” occur because of the intersection of the two elements of writing fiction. I hang up when I’m in the middle of a sentence and the plot has brought me to the necessity of naming a new character. I struggle when I rewrite the same damn sentence over and over because I’m trying to make it sound right and figure out where the story is going next. In short, writer’s block ambushes me when I’m pantsing, trying to split attention between both necessary aspects of the craft.

So, I have moved to a more “structured” approach to writing, one that finds good analogy perhaps in other, more tangible art forms. In painting, you don’t put paint to canvas until you’ve done sketches to create the basics of the image or prepared the canvas. Working on story structure is like that, with the actual writing of it the painting, of course.

My approach has thus become one of meticulous plotting before beginning the actual writing. I start with the broad strokes, major plot points and characters, then parsing out into scenes, then plotting out each scene. While sometimes tedious and certainly time-consuming, it allows me to make my adjustments to structure and plot lines, to make sure callbacks, foreshadowing, etc. are all properly placed and linked, and to develop or edit side plots before doing so will cause me to do a lot of re-writing. Once all of this is done, the focus can shift almost entirely to the craft and style of the writing, since everything else will already be signposted.

This is not to say that pantsing has no value, either in general or to me. Pantsing can be a great way to get the creative juices going, and it’s how I ended up with the basis of the novel I’m currently working on–pantsing a short story became 20,000 words to provide the core plot of a larger, more complex story.

But much of the skill of storytelling lies in making sure that there is a place for everything, everything is in its place, and all the pieces fit together seamlessly. Story structure and plotting are the writer’s carpentry; it makes sense here to measure twice and cut once just as it does with lumber–so far as that analogy can be pushed, at least.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit both while working on my in-progress novel and while reading Joe Abercrombie’s stuff (I’ve just started Best Served Cold right after concluding the First Law trilogy). It’s been apparent to me that, while much of the punch comes from Abercrombie’s style of writing, the combination of that with masterful structure and plotting is what makes his novels so enjoyable.

An admission: I’m writing this in procrastination of working on the novel itself. It’s perhaps best I turn to that now.

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?

 

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!

 

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.

RPG Design Journal #1: Choosing a Core Mechanic for Avar Narn RPG

Reader beware: this post is as much me working through design ideas as it is describing design choices. If that’s not interesting to you, but RPGs are, just wait until I’ve posted something more concrete about the Avar Narn RPG’s systems.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started work on an RPG ruleset for Avar Narn and then stopped.

Here’s a list of rulesets I’ve used to run games in the Avar Narn setting over the years (as the setting has developed and grown): The Riddle of Steel, D&D, Fate, Cortex Plus, various custom systems.

And here’s a list of systems I find (to varying degrees) influential on my own design approaches: Shadowrun, World of Darkness (particularly nWoD Mage: The Awakening), Dogs in the Vineyard, Fate, Cortex Plus/Prime, TRoS, Warhammer Fantasy, Apocalypse World, Barbarians of Lemuria, Artesia: Adventures in the Known World, Shadows of Esteren, The One Ring, Stoltze’s One-Roll Engine (and particularly Reign), John Wick (especially Houses of the Blooded), Blades in the Dark, Fantasy Dice, GUMSHOE, FFGs system for Star Wars and WFRP3e, Burning Wheel and Torchbearer. Yes, that’s a lot of varied designs with some ideas that are incompatible with others.

Having mostly cut my teeth on dice pool systems, that’s my typical starting place. I’ve read a fair bit on game design and, this time I’ve decided to start at the very beginning, without preference for a core mechanic. Here are some links to give you some background on things I’ve been thinking about as I do this:

“How Do I Choose My Dice Mechanic”
“All RPGs Are FUDGE” (while I see a little more significance to the variation between systems than this author, the point that statistical variations in the most-frequently-employed core mechanics are not as significant as we might think seems pretty sound)
“Design Patterns of Successful Roleplaying Games”
The Kobold Series on Game Design
Robin Law’s Hamlet’s Hit Points and John Wick’s Play Dirty (although these are more about running games than designing them)

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to analyze the statistical differences between core mechanics (though math is not my strong suit, and particularly when it comes to complex probability equations) only to come down with a bad case of analysis paralysis.

Here’s what my recent reading (and experience) has led me to conclude:

(1) When the rules serve their purpose well, it’s the story that gets remembered, not the results of dice throws.
(2) The actual statistics of a core mechanic are less important than the way we perceive them–the way (our view of) the dice mechanic reinforces (or undercuts) the feel of the game and setting is what matters.
(3) The most interesting thing about a core mechanic is how it can be manipulated with interesting rules that are intuitive and yet reinforce setting ideas. Thus, a core mechanic should be selected more with an eye to what it can do for subsystems and design goals than its own merit.

Here are some of my analytical conclusions so far:

(1) Efficiency is paramount. The more you can resolve with a single die roll the better. Dice pools are often faster in use than roll and add/subtract systems because counting successes is easier than addition. Is it easier enough to force a design change? No.

(2) Inspired by the FFG custom-dice game: if a single roll can give you both the main pass/fail and degree of success information and give you cues for scene complications or opportunities, so much the better. The One-Roll Engine is also good at this. Additionally, checking the dice for multiple conditions should be simplified as much as possible so that this feature does not carry with it too hard a hit on efficiency.

(3) For a gritty setting like Avar Narn, a bell-curve or Gaussian distribution makes sense for three reasons: (a) extreme results are made more rare for a more “realistic” feel, (b) character stats are more significant in a bell-curve distribution than a linear distribution, and (c) along with (a), these distributions give more predictability to players as to results, which is important in a game where consequences of actions (including but not limited to lethality) are severe. The binomial distribution of dice-pool systems aren’t so far off as to be ruled out by this, but do not fit as well as a multiple-dice roll-and-add system.

(4) Along with a bell-curve or similar statistical distribution, the “bounded accuracy” of the latest iteration of D&D helps create expectations reliable enough for players to reasonably predict the results of courses of action.

(5) Combat requires a delicate balance–it must be fast, but it must also grant enough tactical depth to be interesting for its own sake. Additionally, it must be intuitive enough that advanced lessons in martial arts are not necessary to use the system to its fullest. One of the ways to make combat quick is to make it deadly, but combat that is too deadly is not fun for players. This is exacerbated if (1) the game intends deep and serious character development, (2) the “adventuring pace” means that injured characters must take a back seat for an extended period, or (3) character creation is time-consuming and/or complex. I’ve got a number of ideas for streamlining combat, but that’s for another time.

(6) Rules principles that can be applied to many different scenarios are far better than complex rulesets. Fate and Cortex are the best at this, in my opinion.

So what does all of this mean for Avar Narn RPG? Despite my love for dice-pool systems, I’ve currently leaning toward a 3d6 system, or perhaps even the use of Fudge/Fate dice. The 3d6 is more accessible for newbies into RPGs, but it’s probably more realistic to expect this to be a niche game. And, to be honest, I’d rather have a dedicated group that loves the system and setting than having to try to cater to a large base with very diverse expectations–especially for a first “published” (read: publicly available) system.

My apologies if you were expecting a solid answer on the core mechanic in this post! Right now, my action items in making a final decision are as follows: (1) determine the subsystems the game will need/benefit from, (2) play around with manipulation rules for various core mechanics, (3) find the core mechanic that checks off the most boxes.

Thoughts from those of you who have tried your hand at RPG design?

Gnosticism: Ascension without Virtue, Salvation without Sacrifice

Why am I talking about gnosticism, an age-old system of belief? Because there’s something fundamentally enticing about what it offers, something that appeals to the less-impressive aspects of human nature, and it manages to keep popping up in society in unexpected (and frankly fascinating) ways.

What is gnosticism? Well, there are a number of variations, but I’ll give a description of those things that tend to be similar across those differences. If you want to look up specific examples, look to Merkavah mysticism in Judaism, Catharism, Marcion of Sinope, neo-Platonism and some forms of hermetic belief–though take caution, the extent to which any of these systems of belief fall into gnosticism and/or the way in which each influenced the development of the common ideas is subject to scholarly debate.

First, gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” The idea of there being “secret knowledge” that leads to salvation is key here. But that’s perhaps getting ahead of ourselves. In a brief retelling of the gnostic story, there is a supreme God (the Monad, meaning “the one”), the true God, who is only spirit. This God creates lesser spiritual beings often referred to as Aeons. The Monad and the Aeons together constitute the Pleroma, the fullness of God.

In the version of the cosmology known from the Nag Hammadi texts, the lowest Aeon, Sophia (“wisdom”), creates a spiritual being of her own (often referenced as the “Demiurge,” the “son of chaos” and known in the Sethite and Ophite versions of gnosticism as Yaldabaoth/Ialdabaoth ) without the permission of the Monad, and hides him in a cloud that obscures him from all else and all else from him.

Being an emanation of an emanation (despite the lack of photocopiers in the ancient world) and hiddent from all true knowledge, the Demiurge is considered at best to be supremely foolish and at worst to be blatantly evil. The Demiurge believes himself to be the only being in existence (in other words, God) and creates the material world in which we live.

So, for the gnostics, the material world is evil, essentially a prison created by the Demiurge from which our spiritual selves–our souls–cannot escape without attaining the (secret) knowledge of the Monad. Salvation here is not about love, sacrifice, self-improvement, repentence, faith in God or any of the other things that make Christianity such a powerful faith. It is a prison break.

A few notes before we move on. First, I see a similarity here between gnosticism and some forms of fundamentalist Christianity–not in belief but in result. In fundamentalist apocalyptic Christianity, salvation lies in saying “the magic words” about belief in Jesus. Because of the belief that God will destroy the material world anyway, there is no need to take action to reconcile, improve or ameliorate it. In other words, salvation is deeply perosnal and requires little or no concern for others. It would be unfair, of course, to say that all apocalyptic fundamentalists or gnostics have no desire to love or help others, but the system of belief makes that easier, not harder. In both, ritual action takes the place of compassion–see Cathar views on marraige, sex, and food, for instance.

Second, though it may be tempting, I would caution against drawing parallels with Buddhism here. Buddhist thought is remarkably complex, diverse and nuanced, so it is impossible (as in most things) to make a fair generalization with some applicability to all schools of Buddhist thought (I’ve heard that there’s a saying that it would take a lifetime just to read the names of all the schools of Buddhism). Nevertheless, I’ll point out what I think are some differences. Enlightenment in Buddhism does come from “secret knowledge” in a sense, but this “secret knowledge” is existential rather than abstract or categorical–it’s the realization of the connectedness of all things. Additionally, Buddhism doesn’t seem to use the mind/body dualism of gnosticism, instead viewing reality as matters of truth or maya (illusion). Because of these things, the path to enlightenment in Buddhism requires both growing realization of truth and action based on that truth–primarily compassionate action. For more detail and investigation, see Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

With that out of the way, let me make clear why gnosticism is heterodox to true Christian theology. First, Christian gnosticism sees Jesus as a savior-figure because he is the purveyor of gnosis necessary to transcend this world, not because of his demonstration of God’s love for us or the salvific act of his death on the cross. Alongside this, gnosticism views the material world as essentially evil and bad. This contrasts entirely with God’s declaration in Genesis upon creating the material world that “it [is] good.” The Incarnation of Jesus tells us that material embodiment is important to God, even if it doesn’t tell us exactly how.

Gnosticism sees the Monad as inherently unknowable. While it’s only logical that finite beings will never be able to fully understand an infinite being, Jesus is proof that God has revealed at least parts of God’s self to us. I note that there’s nothing within gnostic thought that absolutely prevents a similar view, but it does not seem to be a focus.

Gnosticism has little concern with sin under any common Christian conception. In gnosticism, the moral equation is simple–flesh bad, spirit good. The gnostic’s duty toward sin is to escape it, not to rectify it. There is no need for sanctification, for making oneself “good” in a moral sense because that idea just does not compute in gnosticism.

Additionally, gnosticism is individualized.  Is it possible to walk the Christian faith alone? I used to think so, but I am thoroughly convinced that the ultimate goal of Christianity to bring all things into right relationship with all else, and that obviates the possibility of sanctification (though perhaps not faith and certainly not Grace) in solitude.

In other words, gnosticism is what Bonhoffer would call “cheap grace.” It requires very little of the believer other than conviction that he has attained secret knowledge that accurately reflects the truth of existence. And that appeals to human nature–we’re always looking for the path of least resistance, the way to get the most “bang for our buck,” a religion that allows us to be and do what we were always going to be and do without wondering if there’s a better way. It’s easy.

So that being said, where do I see gnosticism in modern society?

There are certainly avowed gnostic believers of various stripes at work in the world today. The different sects and factions of purposeful gnostics are difficult to describe in short, except to say that these groups are diverse and often mixed with other esoteric ideas, particularly magical thought.

There are also perennial attempts by what I can only describe as “New Age” movements to draw upon gnostic-type ideas to appeal to potential adherents. The Secret, modern cults (particularly alien-belief cults, it seems), and other groups claiming to hold the truth of enlightment (and yet in unenlightened hypocrisy being willing to share such knowledge only with a chosen few) all draw something from gnostic tradition in the fabrication of their own systems of thought. I realize it is unfair to bring the great diversity of New Age thought and groups under this single umbrella, so please forgive my gross generalization.

Much science-fiction also draws upon gnostic ideas to set motifs, themes and subplots. Phillip K. Dick (one of my favorite sci-fi authors) often dabbled in–or dove in head first–to gnostic ideas in his works. To what extent he came to embrace some form of gnosticism in his own personal belief is perhaps debatable but ultimately quite likely. Look to see just how many of his works have been turned into films (though most of these are lighter on the side of gnostic thought).

The turn-of-the-millenium trilogy The Matrix also drew upon themes within gnostic Christianity, though the series made possible entire textbooks on the philosophical questions within the films, much to the joy of college professors needing something with which to relate to freshman students.

I have no issue whatsoever with gnostic ideas appearing in fantasy and science fiction–we generally refer to these as speculative fiction for a reason, and the ideas within these works should challenge our beliefs, contemplate alternative cosmologies and provide a space to explore alternative ideas.

The space where I find gnosticism most fascinatingly reborn, however, is in the semi-religion of materialist science. I’ve talked elsewhere about my skepticism regarding mind uploading, but it is not the only culprit here. Many scientifically argued bases for human immortality fall into this mold, as often do the general philosophies of transhumanism or posthumanism, though they do not inherently need to be so closely allied with gnostic thought. It is the imposition of a layer of religious thought that prioritizes the science over the existential effects or consequences of the science that leads to a blind gnostic hope that we can somehow escape all evils (if we’re only smart enough) rather than having to dig in the dirt, confront our demons, and pull out our own evils and destructiveness at the root.

But it is not just gnosticism that runs this risk–perhaps it only provides a convenient scapegoat to the warning I really want to give: to be given any serious consideration, any idea that claims to “improve” the human condition, whether secular philosophy, religion (even, I would say especially, Christianity) or other ideology must seek to do so by the confrontation and alleviation of suffering (almost undoubtedly through some form of personal growth and sacrifice) rather than simply offering some form of easy escape.

 

Blog Update

I completely missed posting last week and haven’t posted anything this week. This post is not going to be as substantive as usual, unfortunately (I’ll try to get a substantive post up over the weekend!), but I wanted to let my readers know what’s going on and what to expect in the near future.

NaNoWriMo is not a go.
Last November, I made very good progress on the first draft of my first novel set in Avar Narn by participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I had hoped to participate again this year to get the first draft finished. Unfortunately–at this point–I’ve made the decision not to participate this year.

K and I are still waiting on a placement of kiddos, which could happen at any moment now but (obviously) hasn’t happened yet. I’m concerned that, as November nears, I’ll need to be focusing more of my time on the kids when they arrive. As much as I’m yearning to get the first draft (and then revisions) done on this novel, it simply must take a back seat to the children and their needs.

Additionally, K and I are purchasing a house and will be closing and moving around November. K’s got a lot going on with her worklife right now and into the near future, so I intend to take on the better part of the moving efforts.

That doesn’t leave much room in my schedule to try to fit in 1667 words a day in November, so I’ve decided to give myself a little break on that front.

This does not mean I won’t be writing–just probably not as intensely as I would be if participating in NaNoWriMo. I’ve been spending time working on (and reworking) some of the setting information for Avar Narn (mythology, legends and history, religion, geography, etc.) that will be the basis for (hopefully) many short stories and novels in the future. Expect some posts related to this “background” information.

I’ve got one Avarian short story currently underway (though I’m not sure I’ll end up happy enough with it that it will get posted) and plotting in the works for at least half-a-dozen more. I have more plotting to do for the rest of the novel (and some changes in the part that’s already written, which I’ve been slowly working through) and I hope to get some writing done towards the novel in the near future.

I had said not long ago that I’d be working on some sci-fi short stories (and a few are in their infancy), but Avar Narn is my truest passion and that’s where I’ve decided to really focus.

On Publishing
I’ve been thinking a good bit about how to approach publishing some of my work. That’s a daunting set of decisions, and I’m not fully decided, but I am currently leaning toward some form of self-publishing. While I’d love to have a large readership, I’d rather follow some advice from Joss Whedon. On talking about making TV shows, he reportedly said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I’d rather make something that a few people have to watch than something that a lot of people want to watch.”

For me, the major issue (other than perseverance through mountains of rejection letters, which I could live with) is control over my projects, staying true to the story for its sake rather than caving to market demands, and taking things in the direction I want them to go. This likely means a smaller audience and less money (to the extent that there will ever be any money in my writing, which is not a guarantee) but more personal freedom. It is a quirk of my personality to prioritize my independence and doing things my way over most other advantages–for better or for worse.

This may merit a full post, and I’d love to hear the thoughts of any readers who are themselves published (I know there are a few of you out there!).

On Theology
One of the reasons I failed to get a post out last week is that I’ve recently been teaching for a Sunday school class at the church. I love to teach and its an honor to have been asked to teach by people I so deeply respect and admire. We did two weekends on the history and polity issues confronting the United Methodist Church relating to our position on homosexuality (and the LGBTQI community in general) and are now doing two weekends on the Trinity.

There are certainly some posts in the works based on this research and some other reading/studying I’ve done recently. I’ll of course have a post on the Trinity in the near future (and why it’s such an amazing aspect of orthodox Christiany faith), but I’ve also got some ideas kicking around about theories of salvation, about William of Ockham and his theology, about (modern) Gnosticism and more.

On Reviews
I’ve finished a few Great Courses on medieval history recently and I’m currently in the midst of one on Imperial China (which, as K will attest, has really gotten me geeking out a fair deal, though perhaps no more than usual). I may do some reviews on these sometime soon.

I’m also working through a few theology books which I may have some comments on.

There are a number of video games either recently out or that will be out in the next few months that I’d, one, like to play, and, two, like to share some thoughts about. The Pathfinder: Kingmaker isometric game just released; it both takes me to an RPG setting and ruleset that’s always interested me (though that I’ve found far too complex and, ultimately, flawed to play on the tabletop) and to the isometric RPGs of the 90’s that were the mother’s milk of my early (digital) gaming life. The last installment of the recent Tomb Raider trilogy is also out and I’m definitely interested in following up on the first two very-well-done games of that series.

Of course, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Call of Cthulhu will be out soon, both of which I’m excited about. I was in law school about the time the first Red Dead Redemption came out, and I distinctly remember sitting with a judge in his late-sixties or early-seventies at lunch during a summer internship as he ranted about how great the game was. He wasn’t wrong.

On Roleplaying Games
As those of you who are interested in such things may have noticed, most of my recent posts on the truest-and-highest art of gaming–the tabletop RPG–have been about the Cortex Plus/Prime system. I’ll be continuing to post about my Shadowrun conversion for those rules.

I have always dreamed of an RPG to go along with Avar Narn. I’ve run several games set in the world over the years (using rulesets as diverse as The Riddle of Steel, Cortex, Fate, and D&D), but my ultimate desire is to build a roleplaying game specifically designed for the unique nature of the world (said every RPG designer with a pet setting ever, I know). While I love “generic” roleplaying games like Fate and Cortex for a wide variety of play, I am also a believer that systems specifically designed for particular settings are usually better, because the mechanics can reinforce the setting and vice-versa.

One of the most annoying things I see in D&D is the assumption by some players that the rules of D&D are the immutable physics of any setting using that ruleset rather than the rules serving the setting (and being subordinate to both normal and narrative logic).

Both Fate and Cortex intend to be rulesets that bridge the gap between the completely generic ruleset and the one-setting ruleset by using modularity and a toolbox approach that encourages customization. But even this, I think, will not be sufficient for my purposes.

I see games like The One Ring with mechanics that really bring forward the themes and motif of the game as a whole–not to mention indy games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Houses of the Blooded and Torchbearer that really push the envelope of rules for narrative games or RPGs (however you parse those two out)–and I am inspired. We’ll see what comes of it, so expect posts as I struggle through issues of design and ask for feedback (and, hopefully, some eventual assistance with playtesting).

I had mentioned a ways back that I was working on a massive campaign set in the Warhammer 40k universe. That is on a backburner, to be sure, but still in the pipeline.

I’d like to do some review of the newer Warhammer Fantasy and 40K rulesets in the future as well.

Reader Involvement
In case it isn’t apparent, thinking critically and imaginatively and then writing about those thoughts. Maybe it’s a disease–I’m just not happy if I’m not doing it, and I find a lot of fulfilment just from writing and from posting here.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to know that people find some usefulness in what I write! I’d love to have more comments, requests for topics, questions to follow up on from posts and more reader involvement in general! Drop me a line, even if it’s just to tell me what you think of the blog in general–or if you think there’s something I could improve on. And invite your friends!

Conclusion
Well, that’s a long list of things I’d like to do, perhaps more than can reasonably be accomplished. But it seems worth trying to do anyway, so we’ll see what comes of it.

Stealing History (for your stories)

If you follow this blog, you know that I’m a huge fan of history. Do you know what I’m an even bigger fan of? Good stories.

Yes, at its best, history is a collection of “good” (narratively speaking, not factually or morally speaking, necessarily) stories. There are heroes and villians, drama and plot twists, the exciting and unexpected. The academic historical approach concerns itself not with the strength of the narrative, necessarily, but with the determination of questions like: “What was life like back then?” “Why did X event happen the way it did, or at all?” “What might patterns in history tell us about the future of humanity?” and, perhaps the biggest bugbear of all, “What actually happened?”

These are great questions, and an understanding of historiography is a significant boon to the worldbuilder in her craft. At times, the truth is even stranger than fiction–what delight when we stumble upon such usurpations of our expectations!

But let us set both historian and worldbuilder aside for this post, shall we? What I’m interested in, here, are stories. Stories that come from history, yes, but which are not beholden to the determination of historical fact. Let us talk of the writer’s craft, of the art of good storytelling, and that ephemeral search for inspiration.

Some of the most enduring fiction takes the seeds of history–even if only for context–and waters them to blossom into something apart from, and often more existentially significant, than the history that spawned it.

Some examples:

One: The legends of King Arthur, placed as it is within an array of historical contexts (often not far removed from the storyteller’s own anachronistic understanding of history), but always concerned with issues of Englishness (perhaps it’s more fair to say “Britoness”), chivalry and good rulership. From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Sir Thomas Mallory (or T.H. White and Disney, for that matter), the story has morphed and grown as a contemplation of these ideas quite apart from any historical basis.

Having studied at the British Library and the National Archives as part of my senior honors thesis on “Henry VIII’s Use of Arthurian Legend as Tudor Propaganda,” I can say with some confidence that there never was a King Arthur (though there was a Prince Arthur–Henry VIII’s older brother who died young), but I can also say definitively that that doesn’t really matter to the value the King Arthur story has even in the modern age.

Two: The early tales of Robin Hood lack the moral fortitude or noble birth of the hero, having more in common with medieval tales of Reynard the Fox than the Disney fox. At least as of current scholarship, the likeliest origin of the Robin Hood tales is with a supporter of the Lancastrian uprising around Nottingham in the 1320’s (see the excellent “Our Fake History” Podcast for details in two forty-five-minute sessions). But origins mired in 14th-Century factional strife and medieval vendetta rather than a “rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor” morality seem not to have stopped stories about “Robin of Locksley” (previously Robert, Earl of Huntington) from carrying the imagination from the late middle ages to the very modern (cue Bryan Adams, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes and Mel Brooks). The history of Robin Hood tales also demonstrates that the stories took on a life of their own completely independent from any historical basis–and perhaps rightly so, because these stories tell us something about popular ideas of morality versus the law, bad rulership and justice undone. They’re stories about a certain view of the world.

Three: Romeo & Juliet. While I’m particularly a fan of the Baz Luhrmann film, this story originates with a very real set of historical events–a much surer foundation than either Arthur or Robin Hood–but stands wholly apart from those events.

You see, the original author of the story, Luigi da Porto, was the nephew of Antonio Savorgnan, the leader of the Zambarlani faction in Venetian-controlled Friuli in the early 16th-Century. Da Porto was also a student of the famous humanist Pietro Bembo. On Fat Thursday in 1511 began the “Cruel Carnivale” in the city of Udine, the culmination of long vendetta between the Zambarlani, formed of Savorgnan, his peasant militias and the artisans and poor folk (mostly loyal to Venice) on the one side and the Strumieri, composed of the rural nobility and their retainers (mostly loyal to the Austrians and the Holy Roman Emperor) on the other. A large number of Strumieri nobles were murdered during Carnivale, some of the rural castles sacked and burnt, many others driven to flee for their lives.

But on that Fat Thursday, just as the violence and chaos was ramping up, da Porto had the good fortune to see the beauty Lucina Savorgnan (Antonio Savorgnan’s second cousin) sing at a party that evening. As the story goes, he fell in love with her (though she married another and I’m not sure whether the love was ever requited). This experience, set against the backdrop of dueling factions (quite literally) in northern Italy, caused him to write the original Romeo & Juliet  that provided the basis for Shakespeare’s enduring tale.

Yes, da Porto’s story takes some liberties, transferring the scene to Verona and putting the lovers in opposing factions rather than on the same side. But the context of the story–exile as a common form of punishment, lasting feuds that contiunously claimed the lives of family members and retainers, violence and unrest in the streets that the government could not contain–all of this comes from a discrete historical time and place, and the direct experience of the author.

So where am I going with these examples?

For the writer, who isn’t particularly bound by what “actually happened,” history provides a veritable treasure trove of ideas to develop into plots, settings and stories.

In writing the Game of Thrones series, G.R.R. Martin drew heavily upon–but did not allow himself to be bound by–the history of the Wars of the Roses.

The writers of the TV series Black Sails pulled not just from Treasure Island (itself borrowing heavily from the fictitious Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates) but from the most recent scholarship on early modern piracy to tell its tales convincingly, using many historical persons but taking plenty of liberties with them.

Tolkien borrowed more heavily on the literature of the Anglo-Saxons and the ancient Nordic-Germanic peoples of Europe than their histories in creating Middle Earth (taking even the very name from Viking mythology), but none of that literature is divorced from its own historical context.

The History Channel has been recently making its money off of historical fiction (and reality TV) rather than “serious” history, and on the far-more-humorous end is Comedy Central’s Drunk History and its inebriated retellings of historical events renacted by well-known actors.

The writer can rip from history the juiciest bits without being encumbered by historicity or the concerns of historiography. Reading, listening to or otherwise devouring history will provide a steady diet of interesting plots and “what if” prompts that need not be detectably related to the events that created them. In that sense, the histories devoured don’t even have to be very good (academically speaking) histories–we’re not concerned with the truth of the situation here.

And that opens up to us a second realm for our burglary–mythologies and superstitions. Having recently binged the entire series of the Lore podcast (well worth the time), I cannot number the story ideas that came to me during my listening, many of which are so easily adapted to my own Avar Narn as to surprise even the skeptic within me.

It doesn’t matter whether the Thunderbird is real or what people who claim to have seen the Mothman of Point Pleasant actually saw–the story is what matters! A few tweaks and twists, your own personal touch a different setting and off you go.

If you haven’t bought into the idea that all great artists steal ideas wherever they can, think about this: only God creates ex nihilo; we humans create new things by combining old things in new ways. Lean into it.

And here is one place where I can rejoice in, rather than lament, the almost complete lack of historical literacy of the average modern person–most people are not going to have any idea who Shackleton was or what happened to the Mary Celeste (even in the general sense since, as far as I can tell nobody knows what happened to the Mary Celeste). So when you take such a cosmic egg and hatch your own original story from it, who will be the wiser? Even better, those who do see the influence will feel so smart about recognizing it that they’ll like the story more not less. I speak from arrogant experience. Ask K.

In other words, for the fiction writer especially, there is much to gain and little to lose by raiding history for its secret stories and unpolished gems of ideas. Grab your whip and your fedora (but forget to say, “It belongs in a museum!”) and get searching!

To get you started, a few of my favorite historical podcasts, all of which have been mentioned above or elsewhere on the blog:

(1) Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. To me, this is the end-all-be-all of historical podcasts, Well researched, inimitably told and stretching through multiple three-plus hour sessions per topic, my only complaint about Mr. Carlin’s work is that there isn’t more of it (which, given the investment of time and effort into what he does put out is entirely understandable). The best aspect of Hardcore History? Mr. Carlin’s ability to imaginatively communicate the idea of being there.

(2) Lore by Aaron Mahnke. Mr. Mahnke tells stories of myth and superstition in a captivating way, leaving any judgment of the reality of the events retold open to the listener. When the truth just doesn’t matter and the topics range from the spooky to the outright bizarre, you have a veritable gold mine for fiction writers.

(3) Our Fake History by Sebastian Major. In a voice that sometimes  reminds me of Mr. Carlin above, Mr. Major dispels common (and not-so-common) (mis-)conceptions in history “to figure out what’s fact, what’s fiction, and what is such a good story it simply must be told.” That last part is the undeniable bread-and-butter of the writer, so need I say more?