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?

Quick and Dirty Review: The Witcher RPG

I only found out about a week ago that R. Talsorian Games would be putting out an RPG for The Witcher, so I fortunately only had about that amount of time to wait before sinking my teeth into the new game. This stands in contrast to Netflix’s upcoming Witcher TV show, which seems to be coming to us only at a laborious pace.

Regardless, I’m a big fan of The Witcher books and setting, and I’m a firm believer that The Witcher 3 video game is hands down the best video game made to date. So an official RPG for this world certainly caught by attention. Not only for the setting itself–my own Avar Narn setting is a gritty fantasy world and I’m always looking for innovative design ideas that might influence my own eventual RPG design.

A brief caveat: this game was (as far as I could tell) just released on DriveThruRPG.com last night (at the end of GenCon, where I believe that hardcopies were available). I picked up my PDF copy on DriveThru for $24.95. A hgher price than many RPG PDFs I’ve purchased, but not as high as several others in my collection.

I do have a day job, so this review is based on a quick read of the book. Take that as you will.

R. Talsorian is known for the Cyberpunk RPG, a classic in the development of roleplaying games as a whole, though a game I’ve never played. The rules are derived from that system, though crafted to fit more particularly with the dark fantasy of The Witcher.

I will say this about the rules–they are sensible, and relatively easy to grasp in their various parts, but there is a complexity to them that makes me think, “Ugh. A fight’s going to take forever.” The attacker rolls for damage, the defender rolls to dodge, the difference between the numbers is compared to determine a hit or critical hit. Hit location is rolled. Damage and critical hit results are rolled (criticals make use of charts that vaguely remind me of The Riddle of Steel RPG and its successors). Those things are all great for creating a gritty feel for combat, but there are a number of ways that all that dice rolling for a single action could be made more efficient.

Still, if D&D is your go-to, I don’t think that you’ll find that this game plays slower than that. And, between the two, I’d take this combat system over D&D and its derivatives any day. It may have a lot of rolling, but its somewhat intuitive and at least interesting under its own mechanics. Sorry, I digress.

I will say, though, that tracking weapon endurance points is a bit much. It’s one thing to have weapons break at dramatic moments, or to have a system that encourages players to have their characters maintain their equipment, it’s another to have to knock off a point of reliability every time I use it to block (though there are exceptions that allow for blocking without sacrificing weapon endurance in certain circumstances).

The other gripe I have is not necessarily a gripe with the rules but a potential pitfall for any RPG that does this setting justice–players who have characters who are not witchers or mages may find themselves greatly overshadowed. Careful planning and discussion before a campaign begins may be warranted to ensure that players are all on the same page.

To me, a “regular” guy (to the extent that RPG player characters ever represent average people, even within the game world they occupy) forced to deal with monsters is perhaps more interesting than a witcher who does–Geralt excepted, mostly because I don’t believe it’s his being a mutant monster-killer that makes him most interesting.

The rulebook misleads on this front a little, I’m afraid. While continuously making clear that most monsters take half damage from non-magical or non-silver attacks, it seems implicit within the writing that the designers just don’t believe that non-witchers would ever have access to silver weapons. I just don’t find that plausible.

It should also be noted that the game is licensed from CD Projekt Red, and thus based on the video game Witcher 3 rather than the books directly. There are some optional rules to bring the game more in line with how things work in the books when that divurges from the game.

As for the look of the book: the layout and artwork are exceptional; the end result is surely a thing of beauty. Combined with fairly extensive background information on the world of The Witcher, I think that this book is a must-have even for a fan of the setting who doesn’t have any interest in roleplaying games.

But for those who do, the gamemaster section of the book has some excellent advice for gamerunners. There are plenty of roleplaying game books that are valuable in particular for their advice to the GM (and a growing number of books dedicated solely to that task), but this is a nice additional benefit.

The Witcher RPG releases at an interesting time, I think–the early draft of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition just dropped recently. Both are gritty fantasy settings full up with desperate surivors over heroes, where adventuring is not a glamorous or desireable profession. Both are intricate settings with deep history and a rabid fanbase. Both games have, I think, pretty similar levels of “crunch” to them (though, to be honest, I hate the terms “crunch” and “fluff” attributed to games). In other worlds, they fill the same niche, a more mature-by-design setting for fantasy games compared to D&D and other “epic” fantasy games.

Is the RPG market big enough for them both? On the one hand, I’m not sure that it matters. They’re both out and I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of supplements for The Witcher RPG (though I won’t mind being surprised). If history is any indication, WFRP4 will have more supplements than the biggest guy at the gym. Certainly, there are loads of high-fantasy games and no shortage of designers trying to make it with new ones (or their own particular flavor of OSR games, for that matter).

In some ways, The Witcher RPG reminds me of the Artesia: Adventures in the Known World rulebook, a RPG that uses a pre-existing-ruleset-that-is-fascinating-but-more-complex-than-I-really-want-to-run to bring to life a fantasy setting born out of traditional fiction that I very much love.

Given that, I expect that The Witcher RPG will fill a similar role in my collection–an RPG that is fun to read but that I’ll probably never run.

Wonder Woman: Some Thoughts

I know, I’m way late to the game. I’m not a big superhero fan (being that I like my fiction a bit grittier, though I acknowledge that there are some gritty comics), so I didn’t see Wonder Woman until it happened to show up on one of the streaming services to which we subscribe.

I didn’t like it.

I didn’t like it, not because it wasn’t entertaining (it was) or I had any issue with the acting (it was pretty good) or I didn’t like the setting (WWI is interesting). I didn’t like it because of the way it argued against its own narrative.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

If you haven’t seen the film, or have forgotten it, or have paid no heed to the spoiler warning, the main conflict of the film turns on the conflict between Wonder Woman (as champion of the mythical Amazons) against Ares, the god of war. In the story’s twist on Greek myth, Ares killed the other gods in a war over humanity but was injured himself such that he is only returning to exert his influence to destroy humanity in the early 20th century.

A key point of his plan is to create a souped-up chemical weapon (an improved mustard gas, if you will) to prevent an armistice from ending World War I so that humans will keep fighting and killing one another because Ares believes they are evil, selfish beings that deserve to be wiped out.

You can bet my ears perked up at this, because this is an existential-level question about the nature of man. An interesting set-up, but poor followthrough. Despite some platitudes between Diana and Steve Trevor about how you can’t defeat the kind of evil that Ares simultaneously represents and accuses humans of possessing with more violence, that’s really the only tool they employ (except perhaps for Trevor’s attempt to detonate the poison gas at a high enough altitude to render it harmless).

I couldn’t help but compare Wonder Woman to the poison gas itself–she functioned in most respects as a weapon against which there is no ready defense. If she entered a room full of German soldiers, you can bet that they were all dead within seconds despite the feeblest of attempts to defend themselves (which was the best that they could manage given that Wonder Woman herself is later revealed to be a god).

And thus, despite a clear intent to communicate something more, the film falls fatally into that great American lie: that the road to peace is travelled by being stronger than everyone else and able to coerce them into following your idea about what is good–or else.

Violence is never more than a temporary solution that causes as many future problems as it overcomes in the present. I’d like to say that that’s the reason I never really got into superheroes like many of my friends did–this latent power fantasy that we all in our darkest selves want to own, the ability to be forced, coerced or conquered by no man and no thing, thus establishing what is “good” and “true” by fiat.

I am not against fictional violence. I play and enjoy combat-oriented video games and tabletop games, preferring those that force tough moral choices. I watch and enjoy action movies and TV shows that often feature violence. They are exciting and when death or severe injury is on the table, the meaning of the action is heightened. This is excellent for narratives and games, but not so much for real life.

Thus, I think it’s important that we treat characters a little more realistically. Not that we can’t or shouldn’t have characters with kewl powerz, but that we take the time to nuance the choices and morality of those involved in a story. Maybe this is why, ultimately, I prefer my fiction gritty: it’s easier to put into context people who are broken and flawed participating in violence because they are unable to take more noble courses of action, separating my enjoyment of their struggles and stories from my beliefs about right behavior and moral action when real lives are at stake.

So, while the film was well-acted and well-shot, I just couldn’t get over the characters’ actions arguing so strongly against the values that they claimed to espouse. The cognitivie dissonance I felt on their behalves became too much for enjoyment.

Review: Far Cry 5: No There There

As a writer of both fiction and theology, the premise of the latest Far Cry game (creatively entitled “Far Cry 5”) quickly piqued my interest. Where the previous games in the series played upon the otherness of exotic locales, the latest installment brings the action close to home, setting us in (fictitious, though the geography is based on real geography in the southwest corner of the state) Hope County, Montana, a strange community of traditional heartland folks, stereotypical “preppers”–and a mysterious and dangerous cult calling itself the “Project at Eden’s Gate.”

The premise of such a location is full of narrative possibility, particularly in the current political and religious background of America. Here are some of the things I hoped to find within the game:

  1. Some investigation of the interplay between certain types of Christian fundamentalism and the Prepper mentality. Though entirely unscientific, my own experience with Prepper culture (some of which is through personal encounters, but most of which is through the admittedly not-entirely-trustworthy media of the internet and reality TV) seems to indicate a strong correlation between pre-millennial dispensational theology and Prepper culture. On the more disturbing end are those with even more extreme spiritually-based conspiracy theories that create within them the fears that lead to prepping for the end-times. Here, I should mention an unsettlingly-common belief that demons or fallen angels have infiltrated American government (and/or foreign governments) and are purposefully driving us to apocalypse. Yikes! This whole subject merits a post of its own, I think, but that’s for another time.
  2. Narrative that deals with the interplay between Trumpism and Christianity–the ways in which Trumpism distorts Christianity into a self-justifying parody of itself and the ways in which more honest Christianity defies the values of Trump and his compatriots.
  3. Tension between cult beliefs and traditional Christian beliefs.

Was I naive to expect any of these things? Of course I was. On the other hand, as video games are pushing into a more maintsream and respectable narrative medium, we should be expecting our games to push the envelope, to make philosophical arguments and investigate both theological ideas and political ones. Spec Ops: The Line is an excellent example of a game that’s already done this, as are the Bioshock series (is there much that’s more interesting than a well-crafted video game that investigates a philosophical system like Rand’s Objectivism?) and games like Heavy Rain.

And to be fair, the game starts off in a misleadingly promissing way for my hopes. You play as a rookie deputy sheriff in Hope County, Montana; the game starts with you in a helicopter as part of a joint sheriff’s office and federal agent task force to arrest Joseph Seed, the “father” and prophet of the Project at Eden’s Gate. Walking through the Eden’s Gate compound, surrounded by tense believers with automatic rifles, knowing what you’re there to do creates a great dramatic moment with which to launch a story.

It gets better. You approach Joseph Seed to arrest him, and he does not resist. He does tell you that God will not let you take him. Exactly what you’d expect a cult leader to say. But his prophecy becomes reality. As you return to the helicopter and it attempts to take off, fanatical cultists swarm the vehicle, with some even throwing themselves into the rotor to cause the chopper to crash. Joseph leaves the wreck remarkably unscathed and with the obligatory, “I told you so.”

That’s where the narrative peaks, unfortunately–right when it poses the following fascinating questions:

  1. Was it divine intervention that Joseph Seed walked away from the crash, or was it simply fanatical human action combined with coincidence and luck? This search for an understanding of whether some felt but unprovable synchronicity lurking behind human events is real or merely imagined is a fundamental existentional question.
  2. As a corrollary to the first, is Joseph Seed right? Is he a prophet? Of course, we never really get a clear view of the theology of Eden’s Gate, so this question falls quickly by the wayside.
  3. Has America, through its recent history, culture and politics created a landscape ripe for the likes of extremist cults?
  4. What do you do when faced with a violent cult using the trappings of Christianity but promoting patently non-Christian courses of action (Eden’s Gate are murderers, thieves, abusers, drug pushers, kidnappers and a whole slew of things that you’d think would give some of its members pause, but this is never really addressed). Is violence a legitimate means for the Christian to resist evil being done in the name of Christ (though I don’t think that Joseph actually ever mentions or alludes to Jesus in the game if I remember correctly). Under what circumstances? Can a cult like this really be taken down by violence, when the expectation of violence and aggression from external sources feeds directly into their eschatological expectations?

Instead, we are treated with a two-dimensional bad guy, a stereotype onto which the elements of religiosity have been crudely grafted. Joseph Seed is made to look distinctly like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, complete with 90’s-style yellow-tinted aviator glasses. He quotes (paraphrases, really) the Book of Revelations, but never mentions any other part of the Bible and never makes any concrete theological assertion–only claiming that the end is coming and people must repent and be cleansed of their sin. By sin, he apparently means the extra-biblical “seven deadlies.” One minor caveat to this–the signboard of the church in Fall’s End (the one non-Eden’s Gate church in the game) does have a reference to a verse (but not the text of the verse) in Jeremiah that warns to beware of false prophets.

The game sends you on a blood-soaked path of murderous resistance to Eden’s Gate without sufficient self-awarness to question what that really means, underlining it only with a repeated chorus of “America, Fuck Yeah!” The other characters in the story are likewise various survivalist and prepper stereotypes that bleed into a muddy morass that deprives the game of any real humanity.

And the cultists aren’t really even that convincing. Turns out, it’s drugs, not beliefs, that create the fanaticism of the “PEGgies,” as the game calls them. The enemies are dehumanized and the bodies in your wake only a tally of progress. This may be lamentably American, and perhaps that disturbed me most about the game (kudos to the writers and designers for that if it was intentional and not a sad symptom of our culture).

If you came to this post looking for a review of what gameplay is like, I’ll have to direct you elsewhere, as there are already a plethora of reviews to handle that. But I will admit that, if you like the previous Far Cry games, you will enjoy playing Far Cry 5. It’s the “theme-park” experience to be expected in this line of games and it does have a humor and gameplay style deep enough to entertain. I played through the entire campaign and–so long as I didn’t think about it too much–enjoyed it.

But I finished the game disappointed, as is common when some narrative promises us great ideas and interesting story in the previews but fails to adequately exploit and explore those ideas in the actual doing of the thing. In my struggle to ideologically bolster the lackluster storytelling, I even watched (yesterday) the half-hour movie teaser that Ubisoft made for the game (it’s on Amazon Video). This did nothing for me (though I did like the one they put out for The Division some time back).

And maybe that’s the greatest commentary about current culture to get from this game, whether the creators made the commentary intentionally or just happen to magnify this running theme. And that’s the idea that much of American Christianity is really only the cultural stylings of the faith appended to ideas that may be “American” but almost certainly aren’t Christian–the idea that Christianity is a style of doing things rather than a substantive approach to existence. Then again, that could be a concern of mine fully projected onto the game in a desperate attempt to create some meaning where I could find none.

That ultimate emptiness and sense of unfulfilment was all that remained after I finished the game and when I think back on the hours I spent playing it–a great opportunity lost by the writers, either because they did not understand the subject matter well enough to intelligently comment on it while coopting the trappings for the style of their game or because they opted not to make any particular commentary for fear of hurting sales. That’s understandable in a commercial sense, and money often influences all forms of art. But I can’t help but feel that it’s a cop-out anyway.

So, for the TL;DR (I know, it should be at the beginning, not the end): Far Cry 5, a game to play for mindless fun and a few cheap laughs, but don’t expect any depth. There is no there there.

For the Love of the Game: Sea of Thieves (Mini) Review

I love to sail, but I have few opportunities to do so. K’s not a fan, and I do not own a sailboat. We probably live close enough to water where I could rent a sailboat, but it’s something I’ve never really thought to do (though I’m thinking about it now!).

As you well know, I also like to play video games. I have to admit, though, that this is a guilty pleasure. Most of the time I’m playing games–though I’m enjoying that time–I wish I was doing something more productive (like writing). Perhaps what frustrates me most is that I recognize I’m often falling victim to the addiction cycle purposefully designed into modern games–do repetitive acts to be rewarded with more prestigious (but ultimately meaningless) rewards for your efforts.

This is what I like about Sea of Thieves. It has the typical multiplayer online game addiction cycle, but it’s just not that addicting. The game content is relatively limited and will certainly need to be expanded for the game to survive (I have some recommendations if Microsoft or Rare would only ask), but for now, I think it’s a benefit. It’s a benefit because I find only one good reason to play the game: because you enjoy it.

The “analog” feel of the game is its strongest point. Want to read a map? You have to hold it up to your face and read it. Need to count paces to buried treasure? Hold up your compass to count your steps. Need to sail the ship? You need to work the anchor, the wheel the length of the sails and their angle to the wind. I certainly wouldn’t call the physics perfect, but it provides enough realism that you can gain advantage when attacking another ship by holding the wind gauge, can use the anchor to execute a bootlegger turn, can (and sometimes must) effectively tack into the wind and generally get the feel for sailing.

If your ship takes damage, you’ll need to get out your wooden planks to patch the hull, and then you’ll need to get out your trusty bucket to bail out water.

Although I’ve been completing “voyages” (the games version of missions or quests), it has been the enjoyment of sailing, of searching for treasure, of moving around the ship to do all the things that must be done to effectively sail or fight, that keeps me coming back to the game.

I’ve been a big fan of the game “Artemis,” in which you and friends operate the various stations of a Star Trek-like spaceship to accomplish missions (mostly defending space stations and destroying enemy ships). I love the necessary cooperation of that game, and Sea of Thieves hits that sweet spot in a more polished game. Working with my friends to effectively sail a galleon has been great fun and–sometimes–realistically frustrating.

It’s the game for the game’s sake that is so refreshing. Play of the game is player-driven and somewhat open-ended. Will this keep me coming back over the long term? I don’t know, but I hope the immersive style of the game that begs you to play just to play becomes a future trend in games as a whole.

Destiny 2: A Horror Story in Reverse

I’d fought my way through waves of countless enemies, scaled strange landscapes and tracked down my quarry, a Fallen Captain supported by underlings, powerful Servitors and other baddies all determined to end me.

Getting to the point where I’d finally cornered my prey and he could no longer flee had cost me dearly–I had no ammunition for my Power weapon, only a handful of rounds left on my Energy weapon, and my Super would not be charged for what seemed like an eternity.

Desperate, I charged in, Kinetic weapon blazing. Return fire shredded me to pieces in milliseconds, my body ripped apart. I died.

Seconds later, I was back, resurrected by my Ghost companion. Seconds after that, I was dead again, but so was one of the Captain’s minions. This process repeated in multiple iterations–I respawned, I took out one more enemy, I died.

But respawning in Destiny is not merely a handwaved mechanic–it is a conceit of the gameworld. As a Guardian of the Light, your Ghost has the ability to reconstitute your body infinitely. There is no death for a Guardian.

As I whittled down the my enemy through sheer will, pure attrition and an unending supply of lives to throw at the problem, I began to think how that Fallen Captain must feel, watching as he repeatedly defeats an enemy who simply returns a few seconds later to destroy more of his brothers-in-arms. Movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween immediately came to mind–the unstoppable, unkillable force who relentless pursues his vengeance.

The terror and helplessness the Captain must have felt surely became too much to bear. I shortly relieved him of his worldly worries, but I can’t say that I felt good about it. Certainly not heroic (no matter what the difficulty level told me).

That’s when I realized it: Destiny 2 is not sci-fi; it’s a horror game where you play the role usually referred to as “the bad guy.” While the world does set things up as a struggle between Light and Darkness, and you are told that you’re on the side of peace, truth and justice, and your enemies do some despicable things, I’m not sure that the gameplay bears that out.

Destiny 2 was not a game I expected to give me some sort of existential crisis; I was only looking for some fun co-op with friends or a mindless activity for my hands while I listened to an audiobook. But what I got was a great uneasiness about the setting, one I can’t seem to shake.

 

Review: Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies

I love pirates. Maybe it’s the frustration in H.L. Mencken’s quotation (“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”). Maybe it’s the rawness of men living by their own ideals (however misguided) and skill and cunning. Maybe it is the more idealistic aspects of piracy–a good scholarly argument exists that American democracy has more in common with how pirate vessels voted on their leaders and courses of action than with ancient Athens. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just love pirates, whether historical or fantastic.

If you read my review of the previous novel in this series, The Lies of Locke Lamora, you know that I had many good things to say about it. The characters, the tightness of the plot, the fantasy heist–all of these worked in concert to create a story I very much enjoyed.

The sequel, more or less, picks up where the first novel lets us off. I don’t want to go to far into the details lest I give too much away, but Red Seas Under Red Skies takes what works in the first novel and throws in some maritime hijinx and semi-fantastic pirates. I must admit that I had my doubts about this at first; it seems a strange turn for the novel to take after its opening (and in light of the substance of the first novel). By novel’s end, my reservations were allayed; the story and its nautical elements manage to work their way in while preserving the atmosphere and mystique created in the first book.

Again, Lynch proves a master of “narrative circles,” those precognitions and slight references that turn out to have great significance before all is done. I’m not sure that I can remember any “loose ends” left at the end of the novel that proved unsatisfactory.

What really interested me about this novel was its focus on the relationship between Locke and Jean. Their brotherhood drives the plot, the complexities of their emotions toward one another and their interactions ring true of familial relationships, and the story ultimately turns on the extent of their willingness to sacrifice for one another. That’s a strong–and effective–message for a fantasy novel.

Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can give Mr. Lynch. If stories ought to entertain, educate and inspire, the fantasy genre manages to reach its highest art when it manages to effectively do these things with style. As more writers like Lynch are able to do this, the fantasy genre gains legitimacy, legitimacy it greatly deserves, as the fantasy genre allows us to address all manner of existential and philosophical questions with creativity and relative safety (compared to the cost of exploring these questions in “real life”).

Don’t start with this book; I don’t think it stands alone without the extensive character background for Locke and Jean in The Lies of Locke Lamora. But if you’ve read the first novel, I highly recommend that you proceed to the second.

Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first book in the “Gentlemen Bastards” series by Scott Lynch (first published in 2006). Go read this book now. I can’t stress that enough; go read the book. For those of you who are by now used to ignoring my advice (don’t worry, you’re in good company), by all means continue to read.

As is my wont, I listened to this book on Audible. The narration of Michael Page truly brings the text to life—his voices, accents and narrational panache accentuate the style of the writing in a powerful synchrony. That said, you do not need to listen to Mr. Page read the book to you to enjoy the pleasure of this novel.

I love a good fantasy heist novel, and that motivated me to pick up this book to give it a try. The story begins with a focus on a fantasy con with all the cleverness of anything that’s been done in our own world. If, like me, you’re interested in the schemes and stratagems of con artists (fully knowing that I’ll never put such knowledge to use), you can follow along with the realistic moves made as Locke Lamora masterfully strings along Don Lorenzo Salvara and his wife Sofia by appealing to their egos, their greed, and their credulity by turns.

But this is not a heist story, or even a con story. Yes, the Gentlemen Bastards at the heart of the story are thieves and con artists of the highest level, but the story quickly takes a turn. Where the tale begins as somewhat light-hearted and jaunty, with the unpleasant aspects of the criminal underworld only appearing at our peripheral vision, it soon becomes a grim and gritty tale of survival, revenge and underworld power plays. This only made me love it more.

There are four major compliments I can give to Mr. Lynch to help establish his bona fides as a talented author:

First, his style is simply a pleasure to follow, accentuating the tone of the story and shifting ever so slightly to fit the mood—he just plain writes well.

Second, Lynch gracefully steps back and forth in time in telling the story. Intermixed with the present struggles of the Gentlemen Bastards are stories of their upbringing. They were raised together from their tender youth by a master thief and priest of the Crooked Warden known as “Father Chains” or “Old Chains” to be exactly the kind of expert thieves and conmen that they presently are when the book begins. This reminded me somewhat of the TV show Lost, where every episode would reveal something about the past of one or more characters that gives us insight into their present motivations and behavior. But Lynch goes even beyond this—each childhood story told not only reveals something about one of the Bastards, it directly relates thematically to the present-day scenes that follow it. Which leads me to my third point:

Mr. Lynch is a master of firing Chekov’s gun. I like to think of this tactic as a “literary circle,” where something in the early text returns to add significance to a later event. Most published authors whose advice for writers I’ve read strongly suggest that the culmination of a story needs to create some level of both surprise and a sense of inevitability in the reader when confronted with the story’s climax. This is, I think, exactly what Chekov’s gun is about, and Lynch liberally distributes them throughout the work, some subtle and some not so much.

Fourth, his worldbuilding is excellent and hits that unicorn of a middle-ground such that the setting amplifies the story without overwhelming it. To be fair, Lynch has taken the shortcut of basing the City of Camorr, where the action takes place, on late-medieval or early-Renaissance Venice. But he does so in a way that shows that an author can use a historical backdrop as an influence in a way that gives the reader quick insight—as a Renaissance scholar and lover of early-modern Italian history, I readily recognized the inspiration for the setting and this allowed me to make assumptions about how the world of Camorr works without Lynch having to say much about it. At the same time, the Venetian inspiration does not prohibit Camorr from standing on its own, from being different enough from a historical place and time (this is a fantasy novel, after all) that the reader finds herself satisfied with the setting and not turned away from the story by it. If this had been a real-world story, early-modern Venice would have been the perfect setting for it. As it is a fantasy work, Camorr serves in the same role.

I ought to admit some personal bias here. There are a number of aspects of Lynch’s world that are close to some of the setting choices I have made (or will make) in writing some of the Avar Narn novels. While the settings are ultimately vastly different in many ways, the feel of the setting and story matches what I hope to capture in my own works and it seems that Mr. Lynch and I share similar positions on certain meta-approaches to “modern fantasy.” So, take with a grain of salt my glowing review of his choices—I may be lauding him in the hopes that my agreement with him means that I may, too, be successful as a fantasy author. That very much remains to be seen. Very much.

And let me leave you with my greatest criticism of this work. The antagonist is well, meh. He’s two-dimensional and unfortunately just not very interesting. He exists mainly as an obstacle for the Bastards to overcome, as a threat to their existence, rather than as a fully-realized and believable character. In a novel with so many interesting characters, written by an author with such talent, this is a grave oversight. Not one that tempts me not to recommend the book to others, but one that nevertheless leaves a bad aftertaste in my mouth when the rest of the work was so satisfying.

I’ll be beginning the next book in this series presently—and hopefully I’ll finish it in a shorter time than it took me to get through this one.

Review: Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel, by K.M. Weiland

I wrote my first attempt at a novel more than 10 years ago, back in college. It will never see the light of day; the print manuscript lies in a sealed envelope even I dread to open. It’s really quite terrible, but at least it’s out of my system. Maybe one day I’ll go back and completely rewrite it into something good, but it will look nothing like the monstrosity confined to a bottom desk drawer that currently exists.

Why do I think it’s so bad? Partially because my writing skills have vastly improved in the decade since then. But more to the point, I “pantsed” the whole thing. That is, I wrote it without any attempt at outlining or creating more than the loosest possible structure in my head. This lead to a story full of non-sequiturs, lost story arcs and missing character motivations—a long pile of words on pages that don’t come together into something whole in the end.

Never again.

I’m also reminded of an anecdotal story about Jim Butcher, acclaimed author of the Dresden Files novels and more. As the story goes, like most of us young and idealistic writers, Mr. Butcher railed against the idea that a novel must follow a particular structure. To prove the professors of his creative writing program wrong about this, he set out to write a novel according to the classic structure, assuming that it would, as expected, turn out to be drivel. In doing this, he wrote the first of the Dresden Files novels, the one that would eventually be called Storm Front (though at the time it was titled Semi-automagic—how I love that title!). Following the “formula” not only created a work that proved gripping, entertaining and—most important—creative, it launched his career as a professional author.

With all of this in mind, I highly recommend that the amateur writer (myself included) read K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel. Or, as I did, listen to them on Audible, where they’re both narrated by the same person, Sonja Field, who effectively brings the conversational tone of the books to life.

I’m not willing to suggest that anything Ms. Weiland does in these books is truly revolutionary. You will find a presentation of the “classic” approach to story structure, with definitions of standardized terms (“catastrophe” and “sequel,” for instance). But the information is delivered in a clear manner by someone who has used these techniques to publish several novels. She effectively uses well-known literary classics in different genres as illustrations for these structures and ideas. If I have one complaint about these books, it might be that there are too many examples. Impatient as I am, I’d be satisfied with shorter books with fewer examples.

Along with those examples, Ms. Weiland includes snippets of interviews with a breadth of authors (particularly in the outlining book). These interviews can be easily summarized: every author approaches the act of structuring and outlining their novels in different ways, but these are typically variations on a theme and very few successful authors do not outline their novels before beginning writing—though almost all of them leave themselves free to improvise on that outline when a spark of creativity hits.

This last sentence, I think, summarizes the major effect of both of these books, and why I highly recommend them to aspiring authors. First, the books give you tools and constructs to allow you to approach story structure and outlining in a productive manner—whatever your personal process turns out to be. Second, the books prove both the value of using “traditional” story structure and the fact that using “formulaic” story structures does not prohibit creativity in writing. Like all “rules” in writing, a person who understands the purpose of the rules can occasionally break them to great effect—knowing the intuitive expectations a reader has in how a story should go allows you to more effectively twist those expectations into something cathartic, or at least entertaining.

These books collectively touch upon several other grounds important to planning novels—the value of creating characters before outlining, the fact that novel-writing is a process and that you’ll likely need to make revisions to story, characters and outline as things developed, methods for brainstorming and then sorting through generated ideas (though I highly recommend the Great Course by Professor Gerard Puccio, The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit for that particular issue) and details of some of the ways stories and characters surprise their creators and develop lives and wills of their own.

These are both (relatively) short reads and, though I’d prefer them to be shorter, are easy to turn out in just a few sittings. If you intend to write novels and have not recently (or ever) reviewed story structure techniques and ideas, I’d definitely recommend picking up these books and reading them as a set.

After that, there are some alternative analyses of story structure that might be useful as well. Robin Law’s Hamlet’s Hit Points (designed for structuring roleplaying games but also generally applicable to fiction-writing, I think) comes quickly to mind. Maybe I’ll review that in the near future.

RPG Review: Apocalypse World, 2nd Edition (and Description of Play)

I’ve known about the “World” games for quite some time; I’ve had a digital copy of Dungeon World wasting away in a forgotten corner of my iPad for years. But it wasn’t until this past week that I really gave the system the attention it deserved.

I had picked up Dungeon World not to run it, but because I’d heard that it was a “must know” for aspiring game designers. I’m constantly toying with ideas for RPG systems, and while I’ve never completed a ruleset I’d be proud to publish, I’m getting a little closer each time I think. So, with the idea that I had some things to learn from the illustrious Vincent Baker, I decided to take another look.

I purchased and began to read the second edition of Apocalypse World, the game that started it all, so to speak. Having read (but never played) Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, I knew going in that there was a powerful mind engaged in building profound storytelling games behind the work.

In the past, I’d only really skimmed Dungeon World, and it seemed too fast and loose for my tastes. Then again, I grew up playing Shadowrun, d20 and World of Darkness games and reading and re-reading the Rolemaster books, so my definition of fast and loose was itself pretty fast and loose.

In reading Apocalypse World, I was surprised to find a system that was deceptively tight, with rules determined to incessantly advance the story at all costs. Even more than Fate, one of my favorite systems over the past few years, this game is designed from the ground up to play out fiction-first games that put the characters at the heart of the narrative and keep them there. The examples of action—which I found to be believable portrayals of the rules in effect—reminded me constantly of a well-written and run television show—say Deadwood or Game of Thrones. The cast of characters is connected to the setting in ways that inevitably draw them into conflict, which is, of course, the essence of plot.

I don’t mean to say that Apocalypse World is a perfect system; there’s not such a thing. But AW does fit a certain playstyle very well, a playstyle that resonates with me. I like reading roleplaying games—they’re often great sources for both mechanics to adapt to other systems and setting ideas to explore in games or writing. But there are few that, upon a first read, make me want to go out and play the game as soon as possible. AW is one of those systems.

As a word of minor warning: if you’re not familiar, AW has some narrative space dedicated to sex, particularly the way sex influences relationships between characters and drives plot. Each character class gets or gives certain bonuses for having sex with other characters (with an explicit focus on these relationships developing between player characters). I fully appreciate the power of sex in the human psyche (and therefore as a motivating or driving force within fiction) and don’t consider myself prudish by any means, but the prospect of weaving a subject so fraught with sticky wickets into a tabletop game with my friends is daunting and doesn’t appeal. In the one game I’ve run so far, I’ve tried to take a middle ground in establishing that there are some sexual/romantic relationships between PCs and NPCs to get some plot mileage out of these connections but leaving the prurient details (well, most of the details, really) to remain in the background.

I give the warning above because some players and readers might be turned off (no pun intended, I suppose) by this content in the game. If that’s the case, and who could blame someone if it is, my recommendation is to ignore all the “sex stuff” and run the game without incorporating the rules dedicated to that aspect of the game. As is typical of any narrative or roleplaying game that addresses mature subjects, it’s best for the group to decide where the boundaries of those subjects lie by adapting the boundary established by the most sensitive player to the subject. This is just good teamwork, and a good roleplaying experience requires teamwork.

Which leads me to one of my favorite aspects of this system—it is collaborative between the gamemaster (called the Master of Ceremonies or MC) and the players in a truly effective way. The MC asks questions to be answered by the players and incorporates those into the story. This takes some of the improvisational and preparatory burden off of the MC (though an MC not comfortable with generating story on the fly should approach this game with caution) and gives the players some real skin in the game, with characters who have established ties to the setting influenced if not created by their own ideas and storytelling interests.

You can find plenty of reviews that detail how the rules play, so I’m going to skip that and talk more about the “feel” of the game.

I very quickly suckered some friends into trying the system out, so we set up a time yesterday to meet, make characters and start playing. Here’s how it went:

The game strongly discourages significant work on the MC’s part to “plan” game sessions and sets things up so that the MC is also “playing to find out what happens.” The prep I did was as follows: First, I created a few basic setting details—the game takes place in the Greater Houston area and the Apocalypse that happened about fifty years ago: (1) had nothing to do with nuclear annihilation and (2) involved massive sea level rise, making parts of downtown Houston look akin to Venice and completely submerging Galveston and some parts east of the downtown area (I looked at several map projections for climate change and sea level rise to get a feel for this). That said, I didn’t fully define the reasons behind or events of the Apocalypse—I’ll play to find out the details as they get created, just like the players. Second, I created a list of apocalyptic-sounding names to use for characters (the rulebook advises that the MC should “name every NPC” and make them feel like real living people). I printed the rules references and the playbooks for characters. I created an “Apocalypse World” playlist in iTunes with some movie soundtracks, a mix of hard rock, blues, Tom Waits, Nine Inch Nails and other seemingly-appropriate artists. I watched about two-thirds of The Book of Eli and about a third of Doomsday to collect ideas for—as the game puts it—“barfing forth apocalyptica.”

My players arrived around 11:00 to make characters. I’d set them during the week to thinking about the different playbooks/classes and what they might want to play. The choose The Angel (a medic-type), The Chopper (a biker-gang leader, think Clay Morrow or Jax from Sons of Anarchy), The Hardholder (the leader of a community, this reminds me somewhat of characters in Jericho but even more of Al Swearingen in Deadwood), The Brainer (a psychic with mind-control and mind-reading powers) and The Maestro D’ (the owner of a bar or entertainment establishment, the closest thing I can think of offhand, unfortunately, is Peter Baelish and his brothel in Game of Thrones).

There are a few things for each character to define and describe in that character’s playbook—The Chopper makes some decisions about the edges and flaws his gang has, The Hardholder defines some of the advantages of and threats to the hardhold, etc. I followed up on this by asking pointed questions and letting the players answer however they wished. For instance, we determined that the Chopper had once had someone betray the gang, the one rule they cannot abide being broken. But instead of killing the underling to make an example of him, The Chopper beat him badly and banished him. Instant villain—the banished character, who we named Ajax, has recently returned with a small army at his heels to get revenge.

We established that the hardhold is a rusted-out tanker ship washed fairly far inland by a tsunami, with Lita’s (the Maestro D’s bar) in the lowest deck and the upper decks providing the habitations, workspaces and other necessaries of the hardhold. This followed with the creation of some nearby settlements with whom the Hold (as the hardhold was quickly named) had tenuous relationships—a pseudo-feudal community producing much of the areas fuel and ammunition and a matriarchal society of slavers. Further questions established some history and relationships between the characters.

And away we went. Since the players had determined that the Hold had a bustling market for trade, that gave me a starting place—an injured caravaner arrived to explain how she and her fellows had been ambushed and robbed on a western road toward the Hold, territory The Hardholder was responsible for protecting. While The Maestro D’ stayed back to manage the hold (well, mostly her bar), the other characters road out in force, taking The Chopper’s entire gang, half to the Hardholder’s guards and several armored vehicles. They too were ambushed, though they fared much better than the caravan—only one of The Chopper’s men was injured by sniper-fire before the crew was able to eliminate the hostiles—too well, as explosive rounds left little to investigate about the nature and origin of the attackers except for a cryptic tattoo found on a remaining arm.

I’d like to pause here for a moment to point something out. This fight ran fast and smooth, with the characters making tactical decisions based on what they’d tactically do rather than looking to their character sheets for permission. There was the aforementioned enemy sniper, RPGs (that’s the other kind—rocket-propelled grenades), dragging the wounded to cover, exchanging fire from a mounted gun, near misses against the characters and more, with the whole thing taking less than five minutes.

Combat in AW (or any “World” game, as far as I know) doesn’t use initiative, with the MC just bouncing back and forth between players as narratively appropriate. Since the players roll all the dice, the MC only has to initiate a “move” and have the players roll to respond when the NPCs are doing something more than reacting to PC actions.

As an aside, I noticed that this is how combat was run in the “not-Pathfinder” game depicted in the show Harmon Quest—in a half-hour episode, quick combat is essential! Like D&D, it takes players who are either willing to do something non-traditional or unfamiliar enough with the system not to notice to pull something like this off, but I think it’s much preferred to the “classic” tactical combat of D&D or games like Shadowrun.

I have to admit that, when running RPGs, I sometimes find ways to shy away from fights because of rules that make them play out laboriously, slowly and without much excitement. AW does RPG fights right—the rules push the narrative of the fight but remain effectively in the background while allowing for narrative details to immerse the players and add nuance to the fight that just aren’t well captured in simulationist mechanics.

The players had determined that the ship had a functioning radio suite, one that was used both for communication with other settlements and for entertaining radio broadcasts. When the players had eliminated one “lead” to advance the plot I simply offered another—they began to pick up a new broadcast on the ship radios, one that sounded very much like a religious cult.

Once they’d returned to the Hold, I pushed more MC moves to advance things—an assassination attempt on the Hardholder, sabotaging of the ship’s power generation, the leaders of the other holds disclaiming responsibility, hard deals to track down the new cult—only to find out that it was a splinter sect and not the cult proper responsible for the attacks, etc.

It’s a general RPG axiom to never “split the party.” AW often encourages just this, and the Maestro D’ was working contacts in the Hold while the Chopper and his men went patrolling for other ambushers and the Hardholder, the Angel and the Brainer went on a diplomatic mission to secure help from the matriarchal hardhold. Because the action of the game carries forward pretty naturally, presents new twists and ideas to the story and allows the MC to not get bogged down in the resolution of events, there was no perceived difficulty at jumping back and forth between various scenes and characters. Unlike many games I’ve run, where players zone out when not actively involved in a scene, the players listened intently to the other player’s actions and scenes, wanting like the rest of us to find out what happens next.

The system is not fast and loose; it supports rather than controls a quick-pace of narrative and action. Just as with writing traditional fiction, pacing is important in roleplaying games and the narrative demands should control pacing more than mechanics—particularly overly-complex ones.

In all, not counting a pizza break, we played for a total of five hours. I haven’t played a single roleplaying session that long since I was in college, and never with so little preparation beforehand.

I loved Apocalypse World—mainly for the usefulness of the rules and the collaborative approach to plot and setting. In all honesty, I could probably take or leave the apocalyptic setting itself. Fortunately, there are tons of “hacks” for AW (Dungeon World, tremulus, Urban Shadows, Uncharted Worlds, just to name a few) and hacking one’s on setting or version of AW seems pretty easy to do. I certainly haven’t tested the system to its limits and breaking points yet (all systems have them), but I feel like even a single session of the game has greatly improved both my GMing chops and my game design toolbox. I highly recommend it for casual gamers, dyed-in-the-wool narrativists (though I don’t buy too hard in GNS theory) and would-be game designers; there’s a lot to sort through here in a tight and somewhat condensed ruleset.