Augmentation in Cortex Prime

The following is a system for handling (para)human augmentation, primarily for cyberpunk and other sci-fi settings, but adaptable to steampunk, fantasy settings or any other setting aspect involving implantation and supplementation of natural body systems to achieve spectacular effects.

While the base Cortex Prime Abilities or Powers systems could be skinned to cover the same material, this system attempts to unify this mechanical aspect of Cortex Prime under its own subsystem to both accentuate this component of setting and to provide for a more narratively cogent method of addressing (para)human augmentation.

Using Talents for Augmentation

Rather than using a Trait Set, as the mod below does, to represent Augmentations, you could simply create a list of Talent SFX, with each Talent representing a particular system. This might be the preferred system where augmentations are present in the setting but not a central feature (for instance, Star Wars has cybernetics, but they are typically background dressing).

Grit and Power Levels

At the simplest, these systems can be made a Trait set available to all characters, with a set number of dice to assign between specific traits. This works especially well with cyberpunk settings that have no mystical or magical aspects to balance against.

The relative power of each augmentation system can be adjusted narratively. For instance, does a d8 in Strength systems mean that a character can punch through concrete? Throw a car? Or simply that the character has a level of strength on par with world-class body-builders? Does a character with Cognition d8 have intellectual skills on par with natural geniuses (perhaps a more complex designation than once thought given developing neuroscience) or superhuman skills of calculation and analysis? Of course, the step of the system’s die can be factored in as well—dice at steps d10 or lower may be within the realm of natural human ability, while dice at d12 represent augmentation beyond natural human potential.

These narrative factors can be combined with mechanical effects to further define the relative power of available augmentations. If you are using rules like a Limited Dice Pool, you could have an Augmentation die not apply toward the limit—this will accentuate that augmentation really does allow someone to achieve beyond normal standards. If you’re also using a track for Stress and/or Trauma, you could also allow a player to voluntarily take a point of Stress or Trauma to add a third die (perhaps specifically the Augmentation die) to the result rather than spending a Plot Point to do so. For a middle road, allow the expenditure of a Stress/Trauma “point” to have the Augmentation die not count toward the Dice Pool Limit. I’d map this as an SFX that automatically applies to each System, much like the “Use a d4” mechanic for Distinctions.

These options may work especially well in settings where human augmentation is an important aspect of genre—such as cyberpunk or certain science-fiction. As a more specific example, this might work especially well in a setting like Eclipse Phase, where characters can “resleeve” into different bodies and you want to accentuate the importance of body selection.

The System Itself

The system itself is relatively simple. Rather than seemingly infinitesimally granular selections of particular upgrades and augments, this mod looks at the sum total, classifying the Traits in the Augmentation category as “systems” that represent the overall effect of upgrades. The systems I would recommend using are: Athletics, Charisma, Cognition, Perception, Reflex, Resilience, Stealth.

Whether you use the categories I’ve designated or substitute your own, you should give a general description of the system that explains what sorts of capabilities a person with that System has as a guide to when the die from the System might apply (or when possession of the system grants narrative “permissions” that may not be reflected in mechanics but in the sorts of things the character can do.

Specialized systems providing more discrete and specialized functions can be mapped as SFX. You may consider giving characters a certain number of SFX for free at each dice step or provide that certain SFX are automatically gained at certain dice steps.

If you’re using other Traits that have SFX, or if you’re using Talents, you’ll want to carefully consider whether your choices will lead to “SFX bloat” that will complicate gameplay inordinately over the value they provide. Additionally, you’ll want to think about just how much you want to accentuate Augmentations versus other Trait sets.

If you choose not to use SFX, then you might provide short narrative descriptions of the kinds of capabilities a System has at each die step.

I’ve provided sample write-ups and SFX for my Systems below. Given the length of the article (and constraints on my time), I’ve only included a few sample SFX in each System. When I am able, I’ll supplement those SFX in a subsequent post.

Systems Descriptions

Athletics: Athletics Augs enhance the strength, flexibility and endurance of a character (but not their reaction times, which are enhanced by Reflex Systems). These are the most-commonly thought-of augs for the average person, because they are at once those most obvious in action and those with the most directly frightening consequences.

  • Oh Yeah!: Spend a PP to smash through a wall, even if made of brick or stone.
  • Optimized Cardiovascular System: Spend 1PP to step up or double any Endurance Augs when taking an action. If the action fails, shutdown Athletics Augs. Recover by activating an opportunity in a Bridge scene.
  • Hyper-oxygenated Blood: The die step of any Complication of Difficulty die accounting for fatigue from physical exertion must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.

Charisma: Charisma Augs enhance a person’s social capabilities through a number of means. This may include pheromones or other chemical signals, analytical systems providing feedback on observed body language, voice modification for a more mellifluous sound, etc.

  • Empathic Analysis: When including Charisma Augs in a social Reaction, double or step up Charisma Augs. Pay 1 PP to do both.
  • Mood Stabilizer: Spend 1PP to ignore penalties from social or mental Stress or Trauma, or Complications, for a Test.
  • Halo Effect: Spend 1 PP to step up or double Charisma Augs on a test to persuade others. If the action fails, shut down Charisma Augs and recover by activating an Opportunity in a Bridge scene.

Cognition: This System covers augmentations that enhance the computing or analytical power of the human brain. Subsystems tend to enhance object identification, pattern analysis, sensory interpretation, creativity and intellect: human methodologies for competing with the power of artificial intelligence (whether or not that means “sentient and conscious” artificial intelligence or the complicated computing algorithms already in use today).

  • Multitasking: Split Cognition Augs into two dice at one step down or into three dice at two steps down.
  • Flow State: Step up or double Cognition Augs for one action, then step back to two dice at one step down. Recover by activating an Opportunity during a Bridge scene.
  • Probability Analyzer: Spend 1 PP to add Cognition Augs (or step up by one if already in your pool) and reroll all dice on a Reaction.
  • Efficiency Optimizer: Use two or more Systems dice in a single dice pool, reduce each System die for one step for each Systems die added beyond the first.
  • Overclock: Step up or double Cognition Augs for a scene, or spend 1PP to do both. While active, take Mental stress equal to the step up the second-highest-rolling die.

Perception: This System represents augmentations that heighten or expand the sensory perceptions of the individual—the ability to see in other parts of the light spectrum, to filter certain sounds and focus on others, or even the addition of senses that (para)humans don’t normally have—a snake’s heat-sensing pits or a bat’s sonar.

Depending upon the nature of the System, a character with a Perception die may have an image link that can display a sort of Heads-Up Display (HUD), along with video, text and images, directly into the view of the character. They may also have the ability to record photos or videos.

  • Digital Zoom: The die step of any Complication or Difficulty die accounting for distance from the visual must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.
  • Enhanced Resolution: In a pool containing Perception Augs, replace two dice of equal steps with one die of +1 step.
  • Flash Suppression: The die step of any Complication of Difficulty die accounting for blinding lights must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.
  • Enhanced Spectrum Targeting: Add a d6 to your dice pool for an attack against an opponent at near range you cannot see and step back your highest die by one step.
  • Threat Identification: Spend 1PP to add Perception Augs to your pool (or step up by 1 if already in your pool) and reroll all dice on a Reaction.
  • Multispectrum Vision: The die step of any Complication or Difficulty die accounting for poor visibility must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.

Reflex: Reflex augs reduce reaction times through increased sensory-processing speed, reduced muscle-response times, and added speed and power for transmissions through the nervous system.

  • Enhanced Fine Motor Control: Spend 1PP to ignore Complication dice applicable to a test involving dexterity.
  • Reaction Enhancement: Step up or double Reflex Augs for a test involving Initiative. Spend 1 PP to do both.
  • Synaptic Acceleration: If a pool includes Reflex Augs, you may replace two dice of an equal size with one die one step higher.

Resilience: Where Athletics Augs cover enhancements to physical endurance, Resilience Augs models systems intended to protect the body from harm, whether from toxins, disease, environmental hazards, or direct physical injury.

  • Subdermal Nanoweave: Your Resilience Aug die (or its equivalent step depending on your damage system) functions as armor against physical attacks.
  • Toxin Filters: In a test to resist toxins, whether airborne, injected, consumed, or otherwise, double or step up Resilience Augs. Spend 1 PP to do both.

Stealth: Stealth systems conceal the user from detection or from identification. This may range from lubrication of joints and the strengthening of muscles and tendons to allow for quieter movement to complex augmentations that allow the user to change the color of their skin, the length of their hair and the shape of their facial features, with various specialized components to provide various kinds of stealth.

Because of the wide variety of possible stealth functions, use of SFX or a solid description of capabilities at various dice steps is essential for this System. For example, if not using SFX: at d6, the System’s focus should be on the avoidance of detection by the senses. At d8, this expands into defenses against sensor detection and perhaps “active camouflage.” At d10, shaping of physical features and appearance becomes possible.

  • Active Camouflage: Spend 1PP to double Stealth Augs against an attempt to detect you visually or by light-spectrum-based sensors.
  • Impersonation Protocols: Step up double Stealth Augs for one scene to mimic a person for whom you have detail information about appearance, physical attributes, habits, vital signs and behaviors. Then, step down Stealth Augs by 1 step. Recover after a scene in which you do not use Stealth Augs.

The Limits of Ascension

You may want to put Limits on these Systems, either to reinforce how Augmentations work in your setting or as a sort of mechanical balance against the SFX (especially if some or all are free) attached to various systems.

Some RPGs separate out different types of augmentation—genetic engineering from cyberware or organic augmentations, for instance. If that is the case in your setting, you may want to use different Limits to represent the specific nature of the augmentations that comprise a particular System. For additional complexity, you could restrict certain SFX to certain classes of augmentation, ruling that a character must choose one Limit when first selecting that System and that, if the character wants to add an SFX that has a Limit related to a different class of augmentation, the character must have both applicable Limits added to the System. So for instance, if a character started with a “wetware”-based System, they would have the corresponding Limit. If that character’s player wanted to add a “cyberware”-based SFX, the Limit related to cyberware would have to be added to the System as well.

For a simpler approach, you could simply assign set Limits to each System, potentially using one or more Limits to offset the automatically-granted SFX associated with the System.

Digression 1
Again, the more complexity you put in this system, the more you need to think about whether the benefit of the added complexity is really worth it. As a concrete example, I started a Cortex Plus/Prime conversion for Shadowrun some time back on this blog (to which I’ll likely return). To capture the feel of Shadowrun, at least the way I’ve approached it, adds a good deal of complexity to the Cortex Prime system, taking it somewhat away from what it was intended to be. Does it end up as complex as Shadowrun? No, but it is substantially more complex than Cortex Prime, and, at that point, it may be worth thinking about whether this is the right system for a conversion, or whether so much of the complexity needs be converted into your Cortex version. With Shadowrun in particular, there already exists a simplified version of the ruleset (called Shadowrun Anarchy) that may fit the bill for you. For me, that system swung the pendulum far too far and ended up with a system that feels inadequate to account for enough complexity to capture the feel of the Shadowrun setting in a streamlined manner.

Digression 2
As best I can tell, in reality, it looks like, by the time human augmentation because truly available, augments will combine both biological and technological aspects of design into a unified whole, making the sorts of distinctions Shadowrun cares about in its treatment of Augmentation a mostly moot point. Of course, there’s a good argument that humans will resort to wearable devices for augmentation rather than surgical intervention (except in the case of prosthetics, injury or lack of natural function, of course), but that’s not quite as fun to imagine, is it? If that suits, though, this mod could be adapted to different Signature Assets to represent that reality.

With those (admittedly characteristic) digressions taken care of, here are some discussions of potential Limits to use with this mod.

Essence
Since I’ve already opened the Shadowrun can of worms, let’s start here. There are a few ways to handle Essence as a Limit. The simplest is to add the highest System die to the opposition pool of someone trying to use beneficial magic on the augmented character. For a harsher scenario, add each Augmentation die, or, like Dehumanization below, create a single Complication die based on the steps of the System dice.

Dehumanization
If you want to incorporate the idea of lost humanity as well (something I’m personally not a fan of in RPG treatments of augmentation—lookin’ at you Cyberpunk and Shadowrun), then use one of the following: (1) When the first System die reaches d10, the character gains a permanent Complication die at d6 that is added to social tests. For each additional System at D10 or increase to a d12, step up the Complication die. If the Complication die exceeds d12, the character becomes a cyberzombie. Adjust the die step at which the Complication comes into play or is stepped up to suit; or (2) Simply add any System die at d12 to the opposition on social tests.

Hackable
A few options here:

  • A character with this Limit may have Stress or Trauma to both physical and mental tracks caused by hacking attack;
  • Hacking may be used against this character to create Complications or Conditions;
  • A System with this Limit may be stepped down like an Asset or Complication through the use of hacking. You’ll need to choose a method by which the die is recovered;
  • If you have a specific Stress/Trauma track for Augmentations or being hacked, you could tie steps down or shutdown of Systems dice to that; or
  • Some combination of the above.

Complex Biology
Add the highest System die to the opposition against tests to recover or heal from damage through medical intervention.

EMP Vulnerability
This could likewise be modeled several ways:

  • EMP devices that affect this character can apply Complications or Conditions;
  • A System with this Limit may be stepped down like an Asset or Complication through exposure to electromagnetic interference. You’ll need to choose a method by which the die is recovered;
  • When exposed to electromagnetic interference, shut down this System to gain 1 PP;
  • Some combination of the above.

Conscious Activation
As written.

Glitchy/Prototype/Bleeding Edge
Convert the System die to a Complication for a roll to gain 1 PP.

Systems Stress

You may want to consider giving characters a Systems Stress Track, particularly if using rules for Stress/Trauma Tracks like those I mentioned in my series on adding grit to Cortex Prime. If you do, a few additional options may open up to you. For one, you get a way to track the condition of Systems, whether they’re affected by overuse, by hacking, by electromagnetic interference, or some other factor. If the Systems Stress Track is filled, you lose access to Systems dice. You can set up Complication/Condition dice for various stages along the Track and/or step down all Systems dice at various points along the Track, depending on the effects you want to achieve. As an additional benefit, you can allow characters to “push” their augmentations, activating associated SFX, by adding a point of Stress to the Systems Stress Track in lieu of paying a PP. In such a case, you can allow a PP to be spent as usual, or, if you want a “push your luck” sort of system with augmentations, you can require Systems Stress to be used to activate augmentation SFX. If you choose this path, you’ll have to determine how Systems Stress is recovered.

Conclusion

So there you have it, a system for handling (para)human augmentation in the Cortex System without resorting to the Powers/Abilities given in the core game. I’ve tried to include enough options in my write-up to let you fine-tune this system to suit your particular setting. I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this, see the additional SFX you add to your lists, and generally hear about how the system works out for you if you use it!

Let’s Talk About Midnight Mass

[THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW! IF YOU CARE ABOUT THAT SORT OF THING, STOP NOW. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!]

K and I recently finished Midnight Mass on Netflix. I enjoyed it–this time of year I’m always in the mood for some horror fiction and there’s a lot out there that just isn’t good (I also recently watched Gretel & Hansel, which was mildly interesting but really just doesn’t merit a post).

Much has already been said about the series’ approach to religion, but rather than respond to the thoughts of others (many of which I’ve found cogent and insightful even where I may not agree with them), I thought I’d write my own instead.

Communion and Vampirism

Let’s first address the elephant in the room, shall we? Midnight Mass is certainly not the only piece of fiction to have made an association between vampirism and Communion. The Vampire: The Masquerade roleplaying game played with this idea and Biblical legend has perhaps always played a part in the various cultural ideas of vampirism–after all, if you have a Christian worldview and also believe in the existence of vampires (as was somewhat broadly the case almost to the 20th century and still has its holdouts) you have to figure out how the two ideas mesh. Various possibilities have been put forth in religious folklore–Cain, Lilith, etc.

The accusation that the “love feasts” of early Christians involved the literal eating of flesh was made by the Romans (probably either in cynical propaganda or credulous misunderstandings of the new religion’s rites), but Christianity doesn’t stand alone in this regard–the “blood libel” against the Jews throughout the medieval period represents a much more serious and lasting accusation than that against Christians. If you’re unfamiliar, the “blood libel” is a long-running tradition of belief that Jews were actually eating Christian babies and children, or at least killing them and using their blood. It shouldn’t need to be said but: this was an outright anti-Semitic lie perpetuated out of a cultural need for a culpable “other” and justification for pogroms against and the exile of Jews that had financial motivations as much as socio-religious ones.

For purposes of this post, though, I’m less interested in historical beliefs and more interested in the seemingly-natural association humans seem to draw between Communion and vampirism. In other words: what does it mean to “eat the body of Christ” and “drink the blood of Christ?” This will not be a thorough discussion of the theologies of Communion, but rather some general thoughts on the matter.

The first question raised, of course, is whether the terms are intended to be literal or figurative. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation takes the meaning literally–and this, of course, is part of the reason that Midnight Mass works with Catholic liturgy and theology in a way that just wouldn’t track the same for a Protestant theology holding that the meaning of Communion is symbolic and commemorative.

The doctrine of transubstantiation is a difficult one at best. On the one hand, that means a direct confrontation with the belief that you are literally eating your Savior (and the necessary follow-up question of “why?”). On the other, this creates the additional problem of what happens to the body of Christ once you’ve ingested it, requiring a doctrine of “untransubstantiation,” because it would be improper to defecate your Lord and Savior. Yes, that’s funny, and I giggle, too, but it’s the sort of corner that theology can back itself into sometimes. I am less inclined to believe that this is a matter of the foolishness of early theologians and more inclined to believe that it simply a matter of the limitations of the human mind as it struggles with divine mystery. There’s just really no way to definitively determine the question of transubstantiation, so doctrine on the subject must be based on other theological assumptions rather than logic applied to the question itself.

As a Methodist, I belong to a tradition that denies transubstantiation and views it as a sacrament, but one that serves as reminder for grace and divine action rather than a regular miracle. Maybe that sits well with me because of my own skepticism (where, of course, skepticism is the exercise of intellectual analysis before coming to a conclusion rather than taking an answer entirely on faith–or, conversely, denying a possibility outright). This is because I think that the metaphor of Communion is two-fold: on the side of the supplicant, the metaphor is one of spiritual sustenance embodied in reference to literal sustenance. Jesus states in the Gospels that he is the source of the living water, and that he is the bread of life, but we do not take these statements to mean, literally, that Jesus was made of water or of bread. Nevertheless, the meaning is clear–God is sustainer of all things, whether that’s the coherence of reality itself or the strength of the individual soul.

The metaphor on Christ’s side–body and blood–serves as a metaphor for sacrifice. “No greater love has a man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Does that qualify as a mixed metaphor? Maybe, but I’d chalk it up to Chesterton’s argument that Christianity overcomes “problems” of contradiction by “combining furious opposites, keeping them both, and keeping them furious.” Hence, perhaps, the love of some Christian theologians for “both/and” as the answer to apparent contradictions.

If we view Communion in this light, the comparison to vampirism breaks down immediately. There is no predation or consumption on or of one party by the other, but two different ways of looking at the meaning of the same event, both of which are simultaneously true if not directly compatible. For me, personally, this is where I find the argument for a commemorative Communion more convincing than the argument for transubstantiation; not in the rejection of the possibility of miracle but in preference of the meaning that most fits with my understanding of Christianity as a whole.

None of this is to discount the possibility of a personal, existential and mystical encounter with God through the act and ritual of Communion, regardless of your theological view of the sacrament.

Critique of Religion

Much has been made of the character of Bev Keane as vehicle for much critique of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Rightly so, she is the main villain and a truly horrible person. But, I’d argue (as others have done) that the critique demonstrated by her character is not a critique of religion itself, but of the use of religion–and equally applicable to the misuse of any philosophy or system of belief adhered to without any doubt or humility. That could just as easily be aggressive atheism, materialist science, the social-Darwinism tenets of neo-capitalism, political beliefs or, in a slightly less dangerous and much more amusing version, fandom.

It is not the substantive belief (i.e. Christianity) that makes Bev Keane evil. The story provides Christian characters antithetical to such a reading. Think in particular of Annie Flynn, who first offers a verbal rebuke (from the lens of Christianity) to Bev Keane and then lays down her life for the benefit of others in that ultimate expression of love meant to counterbalance the evil Keane has worked. If you want to argue that the fact that Annie doesn’t actually die undercuts her sacrifice, I have two responses. First, there are some consequences that are worse than death–especially to a Christian who believes in the promise of eternal life. Becoming whatever she became after she transitioned into undeath would not have been a welcome prospect. Second, that does not undo the terror that must be overcome to willingly slit one’s own throat and experience what followed.

Instead, there are two possibilities for explaining Bev Keane’s evil, and both are both infuriating and ubiquitous in humanity. The first possibility is that her position and the use of her faith serves only to fulfill those petty desires of the small-minded: something to control, something to feel superior to, something to set you apart for special praise. The second is that she has allowed her convictions to stand in the way of her compassion. This is the behavior that causes Jesus to rebuke the Pharisees so many times in the Gospels, to call them “white-washed sepulchers.”

I would argue that all genuine faith (regardless of creed or theology) must begin from a place of humility and an acceptance of love for others as the deciding factor in all moral questions. It is humility that keeps us from the surety and pride in our own ideas that allows them to justify hurting others in the interests of “purity of doctrine.” It is love that guides us not to hurt others for our own gain. That Jesus demonstrates these points time and time again is one of the most convincing aspects of Christianity to me, personally. At the same time, regardless of doctrine, I cannot conceive of a good God who would not appreciate a person who follows these practices, regardless of the specifics of their theology.

Erin Greene’s Speech

Here’s the problem that I have with the narrative and the arguments it makes: Erin Greene’s “I am that I am” death speech. Now, to be complete forthright and honest, I’m biased against the argument made by this speech in the first place, so take it as you will (which may be not at all). Here’s a transcript of the monologue so that it is fresh before you:

“Speaking for myself? Myself. My self. That’s the problem. That’s the whole problem with the whole thing. That word: self. That’s not the word, that’s not right, that isn’t — that isn’t. How did I forget that? When did I forget that? The body stops a cell at a time, but the brain keeps firing those neurons. Little lightning bolts, like fireworks inside, and I thought I’d despair or feel afraid, but I don’t feel any of that. None of it. Because I’m too busy. I’m too busy in this moment. Remembering. Of course. I remember that every atom in my body was forged in a star. This matter, this body, is mostly just empty space after all, and solid matter?

It’s just energy vibrating very slowly and there is no me. There never was. The electrons of my body mingle and dance with the electrons of the ground below me and the air I’m no longer breathing. And I remember there is no point where any of that ends and I begin. I remember I am energy. Not memory. Not self. My name, my personality, my choices, all came after me. I was before them and I will be after, and everything else is pictures picked up along the way. Fleeting little dreamlets printed on the tissue of my dying brain.

And I am the lightning that jumps between. I am the energy fighting the neurons. And I’m returning. Just by remembering, I’m returning home. It’s like a drop of water falling back into the ocean, of which it’s always been a part. All things, a part. All of us, a part. You, me, and my little girl, and my mother, and my father, everyone who’s ever been. Every plant, every animal, every atom, every star, every galaxy, all of it. More galaxies in the universe than grains of sand on the beach.

That’s what we’re talking about when we say God. The one. The cosmos, and its infinite dreams. We are the cosmos dreaming of itself. It’s simply a dream that I think is my life, every time. But I’ll forget this. I always do. I always forget my dreams. But now, in this split second, in the moment I remember, the instant I remember, I comprehend everything at once. There is no time. There is no death. Life is a dream. It’s a wish. Made again and again and again and again and again and again and on into eternity. And I am all of it. I am everything. I am all. I am that I am.”

The first thing I take issue with is that the speech exists at all. If you’re going to spend an entire series deconstructing religion and the problems that arise within it, I find it disingenuous to substitute your own argument for cosmological truth in the final act–it just makes everything that came before a strawman for knocking down, a rhetorical sleight-of-hand to lend strength to a belief about fundamental reality just as unprovable as the ones you’ve spent the rest of the story questioning. Given that the rest of the narrative raises questions about how we judge the leaps of faith we willingly make–or are called to make by others–trying to answer the question only cheapens it. The more honest approach is to leave the question open: we don’t know for sure what ultimate reality is or what happens when we die, no matter how deeply we believe in the answer provided by one faith or another, so let’s start from a place of compassion towards others and humility in our understanding of self.

For this same reason, this speech is entirely unnecessary and overreaches. The only satisfying answer that we find in the questions raised by the story lie within our lived lives, not our expectations of the afterlife. How our faith causes is to treat people in the here and now is the primary focus of any theological argument made by the show, so why suddenly go beyond that?

[Aside: I’d also note that this is the same focus that Jesus takes in the Gospels–he spends much less time (but not none) discussing the nature of the afterlife or resurrection, because (I think) however God has (or has not) structured any life to come, anything more than the hope of it is a distraction from the lives we lead now. Jesus has much more to say on how we ought to conduct ourselves in our present lives; I’d argue the central theme of his teachings is a revelation of how creation operates (or should operate) so that we can use that knowledge now.]

Here’s where, if the approach taken by Erin’s speech appeals to you, you may really want to leave off. I think it’s only fair to deconstruct that argument about the nature of reality in the same way the show does for other religious ideas. Here we go.

The speech begins with a denial that the self exists, but continues to speak in the first person. This is a problem that I have with any theological argument that asserts that denial of the self and re-assimilation to an undifferentiated whole is the purpose or end of existence. First, because this is, effectively, death. If you do not believe in an afterlife, that’s fine, this concept will work for you. But it is incompatible with the idea that we continue to exist after the assimilating event, you are, by necessity, a self.

More important, if you are arguing that the self is only an illusion (as does Greene in her monologue, as do some forms of Buddhism), who is making the argument? You have no internal consistency when you argue that there is no true thing as self and then make a bunch of statements as assertions made by yourself. This is the same problem with the materialist arguments that “there is no self, there is only the illusion of self because consciousness is an unfunctioning byproduct of firing neurons” (something that Green alludes to herself) or that we lack free will because “we’re just bags of chemicals.”

Erin’s cosmology leads to nothing morally superior to Christianity or any other philosophy or theology–it is not exempt from being misused. If I am everything and everything is me, I can justify doing whatever I want for my own power, because it’s all me anyway. If my actions only hurt myself, there is no one but me who can truly complain about anything I do, even if it seems to hurt part of me–I have the right to hurt myself as an autonomous being. Bev Keane could find ways to work with this kind of solipsism with no more difficulty than she justifies herself through Christianity.

I’m going to sidestep the hubris of decided that one is God, not to mention the absurdity of denying the existence self and then claiming such an expansive definition of self.

That said, I do believe that this philosophy is particularly apt for a horror story…if the point of the philosophy is existential terror. Really think about what Erin is arguing about her existence–she continually “forgets” and believes that she’s a self, has experiences, comes to find out she’s not a self and it has only been a “dream,” then forgets that dream and goes through the process ad infinitum. This is a cycle of believing that there is meaning in existence and then finding that there is none. It is a masturbatory universe playing with itself because there’s nothing else to do. Without variety, without self, without memory, without relationship, where can meaning be found?

Between Riley Flynn and Erin, what I really see motivating their beliefs is a desire for oblivion, a desire for the end of suffering. That’s understandable from a certain perspective; given enough suffering, the will to continue to exist in the face of pain and despair will eventually abate. I’d like to say I think of the Book of Job when I think of this, but really I think of the narrator in Fight Club: “On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” This is a desire for escape, a desire simply to stop suffering. Given Riley and Erin’s experiences in life, I see why such a belief would be appealing. And maybe that’s all we get at the end of life, a ceasing to exist that alleviates all pain–but that also denies any of the joys of existence. I have only my faith to say otherwise.

But that is, in fact, part of why I have faith. I want to believe that there is an ultimate meaning to existence, that we exist in the creation of an omnipotent and beneficent God who wants the highest joy for each of us when all is said and done in this world. No joy that ends can be the highest joy, so it stands to reason that eternal life is necessary (though not sufficient) to the abundant life Jesus promises us. Instead of having a hope to one day escape the bad, I would rather have something more–a hope for being complete in the good.

That faith and hope makes me a better person. Yes, it helps me to suffer more patiently. Yes, it helps me to be generally happier. But it also helps me to strive to create meaning, in both life and art. It helps me to love others and to push for that abundant life here and now (what, after all, is eternity but an unending “now?”). It helps me to do good. This kind of faith isn’t a crutch; it’s a ladder.

It’s possible that Erin’s explanation of reality is the correct one; I lack the knowledge and experience to say anything conclusive on the matter. But I also see no reason, theological or practical, to live one’s life with such a belief. I, for one, will continue to set my faith on something higher.

Conclusions

If you watched this show and felt that it singled out Christianity for special treatment (I think there’s an argument that it went softer on Islam, but it’s also true that that may only be a matter of space in the story and the fact that it is Monsignor Pruitt and his church that is the focus), I’d ask you to ask why you think that is. There is, as I’ve mentioned above, the strange relationship between Communion and vampirism. But I’d argue that that’s not it. Instead, I’d argue that this is a matter of the times in which we find ourselves and of the nature of American Christianity (painted unfairly in the broadest possible brush, of course).

In the past few years, we’ve had conservative Christians call Obama the antichrist, act as if Trump were the Second Coming (a thought so antithetical to me that I have a physical reaction upon writing it), call the Covid-19 vaccine a sign of the End Times, use their faith as an excuse for not showing compassion to their fellow man (again with the vaccine, and I’ve written previously about the use of faith as an excuse given by child placing agencies to discriminate within the Texas foster and adoptive care systems) to support fascism undercurrents and spread lies about our government, to make arguments against equality, and so on and so on. The litany of offenses would be a long one indeed, and this is nothing new.

Given these stances and their affect on believers and non-believers alike, they should be subject to scrutiny and criticism. It should be a matter for every honest believer, regardless of their specific beliefs, to introspectively question the rightness of their theological positions as a matter of a desire to truly live faithfully–entrenched tradition and interpretations of doctrine originating in very different historical contexts should be especially subject to this process. Not because we have changed for the better, necessarily, but because the interpretations that arose in one context may be influenced by that context just as ours affects our interpretation. The argument that progressive Christians are trying to “change the Bible” because of changes in culture is a willful ignorance that all interpretation is subject to human limitation and the influence of culture on the mind. By having a greater diversity of interpretations, we may be able to make comparisons and weigh arguments to find something closer to the truth.

Those who’ve read my blog for a while know that one of the primary focuses in my religious writing is to argue against the fundamentalist and conservative interpretations of Christianity that I believe grossly miss the meaning of the faith–and create barriers to others in considering what true Christianity is about by creating an image of the faith that is repulsive to those who feel that compassion and love, not fear and hatred, is the message of a good God, regardless of the specific faith. In that sense, Midnight Mass makes a strong and valuable point–we have a moral obligation to consider whether our religious beliefs lead to good things or bad, lead us to make the world better or to make it worse. When it’s the latter, is it really fair to resort to divine mandate theory–that because God said it it’s true and moral? Or should we believe in a God that does not ask us to hurt others for vainglory?

On Mapping

I have spent more time and energy on mapping tools for Avar Narn and other works of mine than I care to admit, with far less to show for it that I would like to admit, except that it might be beneficial for some of you, so here we go.

I’ve owned ProFantasy’s Campaign Cartographer since it was CC2, and, over the years, I’ve purchased most of the add-ons and about two thirds of the Annuals. And yet, I have only really completed about 2 maps with CC3+, and none that I’m particularly happy with. CC3+ is a beautiful program with tons of content and all sorts of features. It’s based in CAD, providing a solid drafting basis. You can search the web to find many, many, many, beautiful maps created through the ProFantasy programs.

For me, though, the learning curve is simply too high. I’ve come a long way from my early days with the program and understand how some of the features are intended to work and can be manipulated–I understand the use of sheets, how to change sheet effects on textures and objects, how to join paths and create nodes in paths, etc. None of this was learned through trial and error–I had to watch videos on YouTube, read the “Ultimate Mapping Guide” scour through posts on the various fantasy cartography sites, etc. Even with all that I’ve learned, I look at the beautiful maps others have created and then my own and wonder how many more things I have to learn and understand to make the mighty leap from where I’m at to where they are. Then, I spend hours fighting with the program and decide I’m better off hand-drawing. It doesn’t help that while I have a relatively powerful computer, I don’t have anything but the onboard graphics card, so draw times are slow and the program sometimes lags severely.

I like hand-drawn maps and I’ve probably spent the most amount of time working on various iterations of pencil/pen and paper maps. I’ve collected over the years copic markers, a Speedball quill and nibs, liquid inks, artist pencils, etc., etc. Still, most of my handdrawn maps (some of which have been on the blog) remain in relatively low-detail black-and-white. I try, over and over again, to practice top-down and isometric mountains and symbols and never end up with something that satisfies. Part of that is my setting high (read: potentially unachievable) standards for myself as a novice artist (at best), part of it is becoming relatively quickly discouraged, setting it down, and picking things up much later.

In the past six months, I’ve tried a number of additional techniques. I’ve started drawing digitally using Procreate on my iPad Pro. While I’m making some progress there, both in terms of mapping and general drawing, my dedication to learning has been much more lackluster than it should be.

As alternatives, I’ve tried some of the more recent mapmaking programs–Wonderdraft and Inkarnate. I went with Wonderdraft first, using it to create some passable maps for the Innumerable Isles fantasy piratical game I recently ran for friends. While I found the program easier to use than CC3+, I also ended up with coastlines that were much blockier than I’d have liked.

This past week, I decided to try Inkarnate. At $25 for a yearly subscription, it’s far more affordable than CC3+ and just slightly less than the one-time payment for Wonderdraft (at $29.99).

It’s also far more intuitive than any of the other programs (though some basic understanding of layers in digital art is necessary), the “textures” (which are background fill patterns, such as types of grass, lava, wasteland, desert, etc.) blend really well and have enough adjustability to provide a lot of function while remaining quite simple in application. One thing I especially love is the ability to import your own textures. I’m not skilled enough to create real patterns for mapmaking, but I can use the import feature to import a picture of one of my previous maps to shape the coastlines and place icons for a new version of that map before replacing the textures with ones actually suitable for the map. That’s how I created the updated version of the map of Altaenë in Avar Narn that is the topic photo for this post: I imported a digitally-drawn rough map (itself based on a previous pencil and paper map) to create the map above.

I’m pretty happy with that map. I’d still love to produce some digitally-drawn custom maps with blended colors, handdrawn features, etc., but for the time being, this is a map I’m happy displaying or using in some of my materials. The map itself took about three or four hours to do (at a leisurely pace), making it probably the most efficient map I’ve ever produced–certainly so in light of end result. To be fair, I had long ago placed the features and coastlines and come up with most of the names (aside from making changes to better suit Altaenin linguistics), so most of the heavy creative work for the map is not included in the creation time cited.

I’m also working on a world-scale map for Avar Narn in Inkarnate and, like my experience with the map above, I’m getting results I’m quite happy with, especially for the investment of effort. In fact, I’ve not been able to create continental-level maps I’ve been happy with in other media.

I’ve still got some of the creative brainstorming to do on finishing the farther-flung regions of Avar Narn for that map, so I’m probably going to turn to a city map next to flesh out the urban setting where several of the Avar Narn short stories (including “Blood Over Gold” posted last week) are set.

If, like me, you would like to quickly, inexpensively, and efficiently produce some maps for you RPGs or fiction writing, I highly recommend that you give Inkarnate a try. There is a free trial version and you could do a test paid subscription at $5 per month if you want to dip your toes before any greater commitment.

To be clear, I have no affiliation with Inkarnate’s creators and haven’t received anything from them (or anyone else) for writing this post. Sometimes, though, I get excited enough about a writing/creative tool (even one that you’ve probably already heard of) that I feel like its worth sharing for those who might find some use in it.

Blood Over Gold

[The short story below is the one I submitted to two magazines for potential publication earlier this week. Both responses were rejections, but not dishearteningly so. The first response was expected within 24 hours and came very quickly. The second magazine I submitted to also responded within 24 hours, despite a listed typical response time of weeks. This response included feedback–which pointed to a weakness in the story that I was aware of prior to submission–but was overall encouraging. I found this especially so because this piece wasn’t written with publication in a fiction magazine in mind; it was composed to provide a narrative look at the operation of shadowmen in the city of Iliessa in the Avar Narn setting as part of my worldbuilding and “setting bible project” on WorldAnvil.com (available here). Submitting this work for publication was more important (to me) for the act of starting the process and getting familiar with it more than publishing this particular story. Rather than rewrite this story into something it was never intended to be for additional submissions, I’ve decided to post it here for your enjoyment. I’m already working on another short story that I believe will be better suited for submission and (maybe) publication.]

Aramo grunted. Fontana pulled the tourniquet tight around his thigh. She clamped it with a rough iron clip. His nurse then grabbed the shaft of the repeater crossbow bolt lodged in the meat below the binding. The cart jumped as it hit an uneven cobblestone. The shaft shifted in Fontana’s hands, the metal tip tearing a new path in Aramo’s flesh. A wave of pain washed over him; he grumbled his responsive expletives through clenched teeth.

Fontana’s face contorted with sympathetic hurt. “Sorry!” she told him. “Try and keep her steady!” she yelled to Zerisi, their driver. Everyone’s ears rang, deafened by the musket fire Roran and Temas volleyed at their pursuers. Nellen reloaded for the two, trading spent muskets for fresh ones. Zerisi said nothing.

More repeater bolts from the pursuing House agents tinked off nearby walls on either side of the alley, careening back toward the crew at odd and harmless angles. The return fire proved just as inaccurate, filling the air with the smoke and fire of empty threats.

Their pursuers’ horses foamed at the mouth, struggling at the bit, stamping closer with the clitter-clack of horseshoes on stone.

“Piss off!” Temas yelled, the blast of his musket swallowing the words whole. He gripped the weapon too tightly, braced in expectation of receiving a biting bolt like the one that had struck his friend. He tossed the spent firearm into the cart’s bed next to Nellen; the squat man’s lips moved with unheard curses as he fumbled with the matchcord of another arquebus.

Roran threw a quick glance to Aramo’s wound, gritting his teeth as if it were his own. Anger sped the next bark of his firearm. He cursed again as he traded with Nellen, another miss only driving home the impotence he felt.

The House agents proved adept riders, managing their mounts only with their legs, their arms aiming more pointed death.

The cart took a sudden turn down a side path. The passengers shifted and swayed to one side, Roran dropping the loaded musket over the side and grasping at the railing to keep his bulky Rukhosi body from toppling headfirst after it.

As soon as they’d steadied, Fontana returned her hand to the repeater bolt, this time yanking it quickly and without hesitation. Air burst through Aramo’s lips as blood spilled from the wound, the tourniquet struggling against the flow. She pulled a small phial from her belt, using her teeth to pull the cork free of the top before spitting it over the cart’s side.

She hesitated with a grimace, knowing what came next. They’d all been in Aramo’s position at one time or another. They’d always pulled through. But that thought didn’t ease the experience of it. Roran leaned over and pushed Aramo down against the cart’s rough boards, holding him steady. Before Aramo could object, Fontana poured the contents into Aramo’s wound.

He spasmed with the pain. Nellen and Temas left their other tasks to hold him down. Every nerve in the bloody crevice flared back to life at once, sending signals through his brain that carried every excruciating detail of the flesh knitting itself back together.

The ordeal concluded, Fontana unclipped the tourniquet. “Good as new,” she said.

Aramo forced a weak smile, beads of sweat gathered at his brow and cheeks. “Do we have it?”

Nellen smiled, pulling back his cloak with thin, long Ilmarin fingers. The flash of burnished metal peeked from his satchel. “We got it,” he said, triumphant. Aramo patted him on the leg, a feeble but fatherly motion.

“That was a lot of blood back there,” Temas warned. “Will they be able to track us?”

“I threw the powder you made where I could, just like you said. Between that and the wards, we should be fine, right?” Aramo said, feigning returning strength. The firing of matchlocks had subsided, and the pursuing House agents had exhausted their ammunition as well, making conversation easier. The crew trusted Zerisi to do her job, and to do it well—they had no other choice, anyway. Her daring turns and sudden sidestreets had lengthened the gap between them and their pursuers.

“It’s worked well enough in the past,” Temas admitted. “We’ll hope it keeps up. Finding someone by sympathy isn’t an easy thing to begin with.”

The cart bumped along on the Upper City streets, between nobles’ townhouses and merchant family compounds, minor bureaucratic offices, laudatory statutes to the long dead, and all the other gaudiness enjoyed by the wealthy.

Fontana pulled a length of bandage from one of her pouches, looking to a cut on Roran’s arm. He waved her off, saying, “It’s a scratch. Don’t worry about it.” The others had been bruised and battered during their fighting escape, but Aramo had taken the worst of the injuries,. Behind them, they could no longer see the House agents or their horses.

“We’re clear,” Aramo called softly to Zerisi, who nodded without looking back. The cart’s horses slowed from the breakneck pace, still moving briskly. The cobblestones came gentler now. Not gentle, but gentler.

Adrenaline faded as the danger subsided, and irrepressible grins shone on each of the crew’s faces. It hadn’t been as clean as they’d preferred, but they’d survived. A job against House Meradhvor’s embassy in Iliessa, no less. Silent, self-congratulatory stupor set in as Zerisi directed them to a quiet courtyard between lavish estates, where an enclosed carriage, not the slapdash cart they’d arrived in, awaited them.

While Zerisi untethered the horses from the cart and transferred them to the carriage’s yokes, Roran and Temas collected jars of lamp oil they’d left behind some old shipping crates, dousing the cart with the odoriferous liquid inside. Nellen wrapped a length of matchcord around the cart’s railing, clenching a striker until the sparks lit the dangling fuse.

Zerisi turned her cloak inside out, a dark navy replacing the mottled brown on the other side. She wrapped it about herself and climbed onto the carriage’s driver’s bench. Aramo knocked on the wagon’s side when the rest of the crew had taken their seats; the driver clicked at her sweaty horses, urging them into a begrudging walk.

As the vehicle left by a side alleyway, a pillar of grey-black smoke rose behind them. From any distance, it seemed just another fireplace in a neighborhood of homes full of such comforts. Blocked by the surrounding buildings, each of them three stories tall at least, no Meradhvor agent would be alerted to the burning cart’s location.

Now came the true test. The carriage’s occupants leaned back, let the shadows of the interior corners conceal them. By now, Meradhvor had raised the hue and cry. Not only had they dispatched those agents and guardsmen they had available to scour the Upper City for fleeing bandits, but they’d no doubt recruited the watch to search out the shadowmen as well.

Tension returned to the crew as the wagon slowly made its way to one of the lifts between the Upper and Lower Cities of Iliessa. Once they’d returned from these lofty bastions, they’d have the huddling masses of the working classes to mask them, the haphazard and crowded pathways of the City Below to hide them. Until then, any wayward eye, any suspicious glance, could be enough to renew the chase. They could not afford the attire that would mark them as ones who belonged to the Upper City—Roran and Nellen would stand out as unlikely inhabitants anyway. And then there was the small matter of the sundry weapons they’d festooned themselves with: matchlock or wheelock pistols, blades of all size and manner, the occasional mace or hammer for dealing with armored House guards, grenadoes and those alchemical concoctions they could source and afford. No disguising the ill intent on them. Even in the Lower City they’d draw attention and suspicion arrayed as they were.

But their Wyrgeas proved good this night, and they made their way to the lifts without incident. Zerisi slid a swan into the liftworker’s palm, far more than the cost of the journey, and he nodded his understanding. His family would eat well that month; he’d never had a magnate of the City tip so handsomely.

The other attendants hastily hammered wedges underneath the carriage’s wheels to keep them from moving during the long descent. The initial lurch of the lift, really a short, sharp fall of a few inches, pushed the crew’s stomachs toward their throats. But the sensation subsided quickly, and the steady downward crawl of the lift became pleasant. From the carriage, Aramo examined the side of Cloudcatcher Tor as it scrolled upward, scrutinizing every patch of weathered Aenyr stone or more recent patchwork that he could before it disappeared, wondering who the now faceless figures carved into the niches and alcoves of the structure had once signified.

His fellows passed a bottle of rotgut, artificially calming their nerves. They complemented one another for their meritorious actions during the heist, when one saved the other from certain doom or another’s quick thinking prevented disaster for the lot of them. Laughing and smiles had seized them, and for this moment, nothing outside the carriage existed. You can’t stare down the cold ruthlessness of the Artificer Houses and not come to love the ones who stand with you. And this wasn’t their first job. Far from it.

Finally, the platform settled upon the Avar with a bump, like a stair met more quickly than expected. The lower lift attendants removed the wheel-blocks and Zerisi set the carriage moving without hesitation.

The crew traveled more slowly through the Lower City, both out of a sense of newfound safety and out of necessity—the alleyways of the Upper City were as broad thoroughfares in the Lower. Some of the narrower passages obliged Zerisi to stop the horses and wait for pedestrians to duck into the doorways of homes or any other alcove at hand to avoid the carriage crushing them as it passed.

The crew made their way into the heart of The Scraps and its piles of dilapidated tenement buildings, each four or five stories high, many of them leaning against one another like comrades after a night of heavy drinking, framing timbers always somehow damp. Wastewater and piss moistened the cobbles below. Shallow stone trenches had once run on either side of the street, directing such filth away from passersby’s feet, but that had been centuries past, when people of means lived in this place, waiting for the towers to be restored and the Upper City to welcome them to a grandeur separated from the rough folk below. Nightsoil had filled those drainage runs long since, and little weeds, defiant in their very existence amongst the cobbles, grew from the nutrients left behind. It reminded Zerisi of her crew: born in shit but still green with life, beautiful in an oft-ignored way.

A squat, sprawling tavern building, constructed of fieldstone rather than wood—though as poorly maintained as the rest of the neighborhood—had been erected in the ruins of several apartment buildings that burnt several decades past. The Proud Pig, refuge of the Scraps. Here, Zerisi brought the carriage to a stop.

The tavern had no stables, but neither did a stolen carriage need to be left in one place for too long. A man in a wide-brimmed hat, chair leaned back against the tavern wall in the shadow of its larger upper story, looked up from his drink to the new arrivals. He caught Aramo’s eye and ran his finger along the brim of his hat. The shadowman responded by touching a finger to his temple, not particularly returning the fence’s gaze.

The other man nodded; Aramo and his crew returned to the narrow street to make the rest of the way home on foot. The man in the hat, or his lackeys, would sell the horses, repaint the carriage, and press it into service elsewhere in the city, splitting the income from the transactions with the crew.

Avoiding any inopportune run-in with the city guard by keeping to lesser-used snickelways in the poorer districts, the crew made the long journey to their safehouse in Bywater, a brick building once used as a warehouse and nestled in the shadow of the Great Aqueduct. Only once they had crossed the threshold into that place did they truly let down their guard.

Each member of the crew first went to his or her own personal space, sorting and putting away weapons, removing pieces of concealed armor, changing into more comfortable clothes. One by one, they reconvened at the uneven wooden table where they planned their heists, shared their meals, played their games, drank and sang.

Fontana lit the planks waiting quietly in what had once been a small forge; they’d converted it into a cooktop by suspending a sheet of heavy iron over it on chains. As the flames grew, she placed a pot of water on the slab to boil, grabbing a handful of coffee beans and throwing them in a mortar. She turned to the center of the building, idly grinding the beans into powder with the pestle.

Temas carefully inspected the obfuscatory wards, the crew’s sole defense against scrying eyes. He took his time, checking for any smudge, and alterations in the carefully-painted mixture of ash and oil. Satisfied, he, too, joined the others.

Nellen pulled the Artifact from his satchel and placed it delicately in the center of the table for all to see.

A sphere, bronze in color and elaborately etched in clean, sharp lines forming unfamiliar symbols and miniature scenes that could not be deciphered at distance, rolled across the planks before settling into a gap between two of them.

“What is it?” Roran asked.

“Does it have a sympathy?” Aramo followed, pulling back the scraps of cloth that served as curtains for one of the building’s few windows and checking the street outside.

Temas stepped forward and lifted the Artifact to his face. His eyes glazed over as he invoked the Sight, searching their prize for signs of arcane tracking. After only a few seconds, he stumbled backward, Roran catching him with a powerful arm and Fontana nimbly seizing the Artifact from the air before it clattered to the dirt floor.

Shaking his head, Temas recovered his feet, bracing himself against the table’s edge. “No sympathies,” he said. “It’s not House Artifice. It’s older…Aenyr.”

Nellen stepped closer, cocking his head at an angle as he examined the sphere cupped in Fontana’s hands. “What’s it for?” he asked.

“No idea,” Temas responded, using both hands, fingers and thumbs formed into pincers, to take the object from Fontana and return it to the gap between the table’s boards so that all could see its glory. “But it’s got to be worth a fortune. Way more than we’re being paid for this job.”

“You thinking we sell it to someone else?” Zerisi asked, crossing her arms below a relaxed expression.

“Nellen, you know anyone in the Grey Markets who could find us a buyer?” Temas asked.

The short man shook a long finger at his compatriot. “What? Because I’m Ilmarin, you think I know every Grey Artificer in the city? You’re natural born; do you know every slovenly beggar in the Twists? Every whore in Gracaellas? Don’t be an asshole.”

“I just thought that, being a burglar by trade, you might know a well-connected fence,” Temas sputtered.

“Oh.”

Chuckling at the exchange, Aramo leaned forward, hands stretched across the table to his sides, resting on the edge. “We’re not selling the Artifact to someone else. We took a job and we’re going to finish it. Where’s your sense of honor? Reputation?”

Roran stepped back from the table, recoiling with a belly laugh that bared all of his teeth—but especially the dagger-like canines. Even without gear, he cut an intimidating figure, just over six feet of pure muscle wrapped in greyish flesh. “Honor? Are you kidding me? We’re shadowmen, god dammit! The whole point is that no one knows who we are. If they don’t know who we are, how can we have any reputation, much less honor?”

“We’re not common criminals,” Aramo retorted, leaning farther over the table toward Roran. “We have to have a code.”

“Fuck off with that shit, ‘Mo! We have to survive is all, maybe make enough coin to live better off than we started, not have to risk our necks day after day for our next meal. Leave the honor and the reputation to the fucking halfwit nobles who have the luxury of such airy concerns. It’s us against them, ain’t it?”

Aramo’s face hardened. “Of course you don’t understand, Rory. You’ve never known anything else. You scraped your way up through the street gangs to working for the Coin Lords. I guess there really is no honor among thieves.”

Roran smiled in retort, malice in the tips of his teeth and scorn in his lips. “You were a mercenary before you became a shadowman. You killed people for money, same as me. Don’t think we’re different, or that you’re better than me. Hypocrite.”

“I—” Aramo started, face softening from the blow. It wasn’t the first time they fought like brothers; it wouldn’t be the last.

Fontana stepped between the two men, table betwixt her and Aramo. “No single haul is worth our status as shadowmen,” she said.

“This one is,” Temas said, matter-of-factly.

“He’s right,” Nellen added, “We could all retire. I know a guy in the Markets, he could give us a better idea of exactly how much we could get.”

Temas threw his hands up and turned away from the table. “’I know a guy,’ he says,” he muttered. The Ilmarin shrugged with a sly smile and the others laughed, the tension ebbing away for a fleeting moment.

“Of course you say this haul is worth giving up our livelihood, Temas,” Zerisi returned. “You could go back to practicing thaumaturgy if you weren’t a shadowman. The rest of us don’t have that luxury.”

Temas turned back, swiftly. “You know that’s not true, Z. I can barely manage the simplest of workings. My master deemed me unworthy of even training as an aspected practitioner. I left because the other option was a lifetime of servitude to some magister somewhere. If I’d wanted to be a servant, I could have done that anywhere; I wouldn’t have ended up here. Did you think that this was a game for me? That I came to this life on a whim? We’re all here for the same reason: we don’t fit elsewhere. Maybe that choice was made for us, maybe we made it for ourselves. But we’re all in it together because we’re the same.”

“Family,” Fontana said, eyes examining her feet.

“Besides,” Aramo returned to the fray, “If we reneged on a job, the Coin Lords would have our heads. That’s how it works. You might have the money, but you wouldn’t live to spend it. Not without always looking over your shoulder, at least.”

“But they only know you,” Roran objected. “You’re the one they approved. They don’t know the rest of us and don’t want to. That’s how it works, Mo.”

Aramo took a step back from the table. “You’d do that to me?” he asked. His voice remained calm and even, as if it were the sort of question you might ask anyone under any circumstances. Even so, the sense of betrayal and desperation was palpable.

“I’m just saying, cos,” Roran returned. “We’re just talking, right? Looking at the angles.”

“Well, if we gave Aramo an extra share or two to compensate, it could work, right?” Nellen asked. “He’d have enough to set himself up somewhere in anonymous grandeur and we’d still have enough to live comfortably here. Maybe not in the Upper City, but one of the better places to live down here. And maybe the Upper City. It’s worth a lot, after all.”

“I can’t believe we’re talking about this!” Zerisi bellowed. “We’re not seriously thinking about doing this, are we?”

Temas lifted a hand to silence her. “We’re just looking at the options. Shouldn’t we at least consider the opportunities as we find them? That’s why we got into this damned business in the first place isn’t it? To seize opportunities for ourselves instead of helping some other bastard get richer than he already is?”

“I thought we joined to belong to something,” Fontana said, almost a whisper.

“Then you and Aramo can be naïve together,” Roran spat. “It’s easy to have a family and be poor; you can do it practically anywhere. But to live on your own terms, to climb out of the muck through your own sweat, blood and ingenuity, to live in wealth you earned for yourself. That is far rarer. You want my advice? Take the money and then find a family.”

“I didn’t ask,” Fontana retorted, a tear in the corner of her eye.

Roran shrugged.

Aramo sighed heavily as he returned to the table. “Do we need to take a vote?”

“No,” Fontana said, voice now firm. “There will be no vote.”

“Now wait a goddamned minute,” Roran roared amongst the general clamor in response to Fontana’s edict.

Holding up both hands like some master of ceremonies on a Gracaellas stage seeking to quell the audience, Aramo brought them back to calm. He looked to Fontana, all eyes following, and asked, “Why shouldn’t we vote, Fontana? That’s how we do things when we don’t agree.”

“I—” she began, but he could see the answer from the look on her face before she said another word. He’d seen that expression before, a face riddled with guilt enough to follow like a vengeful spirit, but powerless to stop the thing that had created it. Too many in the Lower City had been branded with that face, the broken face of a betrayer, torn between loyalty and ambition.

“You’ve already sold it,” their leader said, his voice heavy with despairing resignation.

Just then, the door and ceiling to the warehouse exploded inward sending shrapnel flying. The concussive blast deafened them all, leaving ears bleeding and ringing.

Cloaked men, hooded and armed with short blades well-suited to close quarters, descended from the hole above and the yawning gap where the door had been. The assault took only a minute, maybe less.

Roran threw the table at the assailants, knocked several of them over, attempting to shield Nellen with his body. The attackers slashed him relentlessly as he howled in pain. Temas threw himself between Zerisi and their murderers, feebly defending them both against stabbing blades with his empty hands. Aramo hobbled to his personal space to retrieve his matched wheelock pistols. He managed to fire them both, filling the room with a smoke that conspired to conceal from him the effect of his shots. He felt the firearms bark without hearing them, more noise in a world rendered silent. Except for that damn ringing.

A blade thrust into his back. More sharp stings followed. Aramo staggered. He collapsed onto the dirt floor. He could feel the warmth seeping into a puddle around his body, mingling with growing pools of his companions’ lifeblood. His mind raced through the past hours and days, searching out signs of Fontana’s betrayal that should have led him to prepare for this ambush. He could think of none; he’d loved Fontana as a daughter. It had made him blind.

Two thoughts followed: gratefulness that he’d not been able to hear or see his companions being cut down, regret that he’d escaped seeing the result of his failings.

Where he lay, slowly bleeding to death, too injured to move, he could see Fontana’s boots. His sense of hearing was returning, and he could make out some conversation, though it seemed muffled and distanced despite its proximity.

“Your reward,” a man’s voice said, followed by the clink of a bag heavy with coin dropping lightly into Fontana’s hands. “May you spend it in pleasure and health. Our House appreciates your service, and has a place for you should you wish it.”

“No. Thank you,” Fontana returned. “If it’s all the same, I’d like to be done with the whole business.”

“I understand,” the man said graciously. “Then this is where we part ways.”

The House agents retreated, undoubtedly with the Artifact, in near silence. Professionals, through and through. At least I haven’t been killed by amateurs, Aramo thought.

A moment later, Fontana had stepped back away from him enough that he could see her face. She looked at his for a moment, but when she saw him blink, she stepped back, swallowing hard, and turned away, fleeing into the night.

Aramo could hear the alarums raised by neighboring tenants, but he knew that the city’s guardsman would take their time in responding to any hue and cry in this district. That’s part of why they’d chosen a safehouse here. Safehouse, he thought. That’s a useless word. And then the darkness took him.

[A PDF copy of this story can be found on the “My Writing” page.]

A First

I’m currently thirty-seven. In my early thirties, around an impending new year, I decided that I wasn’t very interested in making New Year’s Resolutions, but that I did want to set some goals for this decade of my life. One of those was to be published by the time I’m forty. For several years after that, my progress toward the goal was lackluster, at best.

If you follow my blog, you know that I have a tendency to take on a lot of creative projects and to jump back and forth between them, so that progress is being made, but bringing anything to completion takes much longer than it would if I’d just focus on one thing at a time. To this point I’ve: written semi-regularly for the blog, worked on a number of different roleplaying projects, started a novel during NaNoWriMo that I eventually need to return to, finished the first draft of a different novel (which is posted to the blog and is currently in the early stages of significant rewrites), and started collating and expanding the setting information for my fantasy setting Avar Narn.

I’m optimistic about rewriting my novel (Things Unseen) and expect that I’ll have it in a condition I’m much prouder of once the process is complete. I also expect that to take many months at a minimum.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on some short stories set in Avar Narn. This morning, I sent one of these to a fiction magazine for consideration. Other than a short short story contest I entered I few years back, this is the first piece of my fiction that I’ve submitted for professional publication.

As such, I’m realistic about the likelihood of publishing this story: it’s very low–especially on its first submission to the first magazine I’ve decided to attempt. Nevertheless, the step feels like a significant one in actually making progress towards the goals I’ve set for myself. At the very least, I’m trying instead of only dreaming! I’m currently working on a second short story–this one involving the main character of Things Unseen, and I’m excited about its prospects as well.

For everyone, it’s been a rough year, and I’m right there with you. As a small business owner, I continue to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the economy and my fate therein. Last week’s Texas winter debacle has only deepened my weariness for these times–and, whether or not you live in Texas, I know many of you are right there with me.

So, for me, this endeavor, this step forward toward achieving the goals about which I am most passionate, is a much-needed respite from the world-weariness we’re all constantly fighting against–however brief that respite may be. The fiction publishing market is a brutal one, and my eyes are wide open. But at least I’m officially on a path now that will take me away from the question “What if?”

More to come, and soon.

Well…That Didn’t Work

My Patreon launch was a bust, which I knew was a distinct possibility. Strangely, I’ve not really taken this as a significant blow like I thought I might. In fact, I wonder how much of a setback it really is. Yes, it would have been nice to have some supporters who chipped in a little monetary symbol of their enthusiasm for my work, but maybe I’m just not there yet. I’m okay with that.

They say that money ruins everything (at least I often do!), and we live in times that are economically difficult for many of us, so it’s completely understandable that people may want to contribute but just not be able to justify even small amounts of extraneous spending in their budget right now. Certainly, I experienced a good deal of moral support and interest in the idea–this didn’t manifest into patrons on Patreon, but I’m more interested in the support for the writing than the patronage. And, there’s something to be said for retaining freedom in creation that isn’t beholden to anyone.

I never expected to generate much income from the Patreon page, and not having picked up any patrons over the first few days had me thinking about what I really want from other people with regards to my writing. I came to the following conclusions:

(1) I’m going to be writing this stuff regardless, and I can develop the discipline to do so more regularly without needing deadlines to other people to do it.
(2) I am more interested in developing a community of people who are interested in, moved by, and want to engage with my worldbuilding and writing than I am about making money off of it. Put a different way, I want my writing to matter more than I want it to make money.
(3) It’s very possible that I simply haven’t put out enough content yet to give people enough information about whether they’re ready to “invest” in more.
(4) I’m by nature not a marketing person, and I don’t generally like asking people for money, so when I kept getting notices from Patreon about things I could do to try to get patrons, my first thought was, “I’d rather spend the time writing than selling myself.” That’s certainly counter to the mainstream advice for creatives making their living off of the democratization of the internet, but it’s also who I am.

So, with all of that in mind, I’ve decided to do things differently. I’m going to continue to meet my espoused worldbuilding and writing goals that I’d developed for the Patreon launch, but I’m going to do it without the Patreon angle. To that end, the Avar Narn material on WorldAnvil has been made public for everyone. You can find the world by going to https://www.worldanvil.com/w/avar-narn-jmflint. You may need to set up an account with WorldAnvil for access.

Once there, you’ll be able to click on a button to join the Discord server for discussion and community-building around the setting.

With money out of the way, I hope you’ll join me as I continue to develop the world and write stories within it!

And it Begins (Patreon Now Live!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Patreon Info

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Queen’s Gambit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poems

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

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

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

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