The Letter for the King, early thoughts

I’ve only watched a few episodes, a little bit into number four at the time of this post. I don’t know whether I’ll get through the rest of it at this rate. I’ve been enjoying it, for the most part, but I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed it enough for it to hold my attention when I have so many other things to watch.

If you watch this show, you should be ready for YA fantasy tropes to hit you really hard. This is especially true of those classic questing YA fantasy adventure tropes, from stories full of knights and long journeys and all that jazz. These tropes will be all over, and they aren’t too carefully hidden. If you don’t like YA fantasy, I can’t recommend the show. If you do like it, well, keep reading.

What’s good about the show?

First, most obviously when you’re watching the show, it’s friggin’ gorgeous. Lots of pretty scenery and fabulous locations, solid costuming, the works. If you want attractive medieval fantasy vistas, this show will deliver. I think it’s intended to cash in on the present lack of Game of Thrones, and while it hasn’t yet hit any of the bonkers high notes that GoT did with its visuals, I will vouch for this show’s eye candy.

Second, something that I rather appreciate and feel is important: this show has more actors of color than most other medieval fantasies (or TV shows, period) that I’ve seen recently. Now, that isn’t particularly hard to do given the pasty complexion of so many TV shows and movies. It’s an admittedly low bar, and it’s one more shows should clear.

But I’m glad to say that the actors of color here aren’t simply set dressing, and aren’t (all) reduced to stereotypes—a higher proportion of them are main characters than I usually see. Even better, the focal character is a person of color. It’s refreshing! I like having a broader representation present on the screen, and I find it more interesting this way. 

Unfortunately, that brings me to a less-good detail.

The setting for the show still has fantasy racism, clothed in a thin skein of nationalist bluster. Yet that skein is see-through: the folks that most racist people in the show are racist against are still people of color. Mostly black. 

The show’s writing is clearly of the opinion that this racism is bad and/or wrong. The story is written to empathize with the main character, as he deals with other people being racist against him. Unfortunately, I feel like the show could be doing a better job with this, and could be teasing more out of this. The show’s handling of things feels more tame and settled than makes sense.

Certainly there are better examples of recent works interrogating racism and handling surrounding issues of systemic oppression (mostly not TV, I admit). If the show didn’t want to face all of that, I think they could have done a better job of presenting national animosity without tying it to skin tone. Overall, it feels more like a missed opportunity and a curiously unexamined blank spot in the larger whole of the story, like someone left a low-res artifact in the middle of a beautiful landscape photo.

Maybe the clumsy handling of racism comes from the fact that the source material is a Dutch fantasy novel from the 1960s? I haven’t read it. But browsing the novel’s wikipedia page leads me to think the original didn’t even attempt any such handling; the show has obviously already diverged a good deal from the book, and seems likely to diverge further.

That means the clumsy handling is new to the show, perhaps in an attempt to make the show more modern or current. I’m not sure how to feel about that (especially given that I’m simply guessing). On the one hand, it’s good that they are trying (I think)… but on the other, well, I wish they’d done it differently.

Still, I will say that the broader representation and vague attempt to critique racists is an improvement over many previous shows. Having a diverse group of actors is better than a homogeneously pale cast. Critiquing racism, even poorly, seems like a clear advance from not daring to mention it or (worse) simply including it without any comment or critique. So while I think the show could do better, I’m willing to give it a pass here for trying.

Am I the right person to be passing judgment here? No, not really. If you want to do proper diligence, you should probably read some less-pale person’s thoughts on the show. But I do think this show is contributing to shifting the mode of pop culture in a better direction.

Addendum: Alright, just finished the fourth episode after writing the above. I’m still not sure I like the way the show has handled everything I mentioned previously (also, goodness they’re bad at making a believable belowdecks set for a small ship)… but there does seem to be some more interesting side commentary implied in how the story handles magical power, white savior narratives, and attempts at cultural appropriation etc. So as I said before: I’m not sold on the whole thing, but the show is doing a better job of some of this than their predecessors have.

LARP Camp in the time of Covid

I work at a LARP camp. I love the community there, and my coworkers are some of my favorite people. And when it comes to making magic happen, I would be hard pressed to find a better group of collaborators. I think we do an excellent job giving kids both awesome experiences and tools to change their lives for the better.

Obviously, this spring and summer have been a little complicated because of Covid. We run day camps and overnight camps, we have one-day events, we organize games of capture the flag with swords. All those things happen in-person.

But I’m happy to say that Covid hasn’t stopped us. With some quick thinking on the part of our community, we’ve adapted. One of my friends threw together a discord server for our community as soon as the shutdown started (J. Dragon, the creator of indie horror RPG Sleepaway). Folks have stepped up to run games on our server, and there’s a good feeling of warmth and engagement there.

Better yet, we’re running digital camps this summer. I’d been worried about them at first; they clearly won’t be exactly the same as being together in person, and I’d feared that they wouldn’t capture enough of what makes our camps really sing. But after playtesting our first game last weekend, I’m happy to say that I think we’ve got something really cool to offer.

I was right that these digital camps won’t be exactly the same as our in-person ones. That’s inevitable. But our game writers have put together a really cool set of games for this summer, and I’m really excited about them. I’ll be working the first of them, from July 13th to 17th.

I’ve been playing RPGs since before I could read and write. I’ve played more LARPs than I can remember. And I’ve taught improv theater and LARP for years. These games are good.

Part of what has me so excited is that the games know what they are. They know their constraints, and they’ve embraced those constraints instead of trying to pretend they don’t exist. Because of that, the technological interfaces for our first game actually added to immersion instead of feeling like a barrier.

I love it when a game’s systems and fiction fit together and support each other. That’s a big part of what I like about Monsterhearts, for example. But having the underlying means of interacting with the game world be part of the fiction too is even more exciting. It offers the deep immersion that so many ARGs have sought to offer, blurring the lines between fiction and reality in a way that makes the whole experience far better.

Anyway, I’m excited about all of this. If you happen to be of age to be a camper, I suggest you check out the site.

World Building: Ancient history of the Fell Met Sea

First off, if you’re playing in my Fell Met Sea game please don’t read this yet. It’s 100% full of spoilers for my current thoughts on setting background that you haven’t learned yet. If you’re not playing Fell Met Sea, I’ve put together some ideas about how the previous civilization(s) that preceded my PCs’ present world fell apart. Check out the consequences of sacrificial blood magic!

Continue reading

Highwoodshire

Highwoodshire sits atop the hills, overlooking the fertile farming and grazing land below to the south and east. The land rises from river valleys to high meadows, edged by gentle slopes or crumbling cliffs. Several small forests grace the hilltops, along with a patchwork of farmsteads and villages scattered about amongst the fields, pastures, and groves. There are several productive mines in the area, with a long history of moderate use, but most notably Highwoodshire is home to an old set of forts, small temples, and watchtowers, fallen into variable disrepair.

The shire was once the seat of a knightly order, home to skilled soldiers and a strong fighting levy, held closely by the knights for many years against encroachment from the north and west by the pale people known as the Hungry Ones. The knightly order was eventually disbanded in disgrace, and their primary seat in the shire was sieged and burned when they refused to surrender to their ostensible liege. But their holdings were well built and many remain to this day. Their northwesternmost watchtower still stands strong, watching over the wide, dry grasslands of the northwest, never taken by any sieging force. It was only lost after the order was disbanded, when the small garrison finally starved to death holding off a mass of Hungry People, never receiving the support they had expected.

After the destruction of the knight’s order and several further waves of conflict, the Hungry People and the folk of Highwoodshire co-mingled and settled in peace on the hills overlooking the river valleys beyond. The temples of the order were mostly either neglected or rebuilt for the new beliefs of the mixed folk, though a few smaller ones still retained followers who held to older ways. Much of the knowledge and wealth accrued by the knights was looted or destroyed in the sacking of their forts after they were disbanded, but it is said by many that there were still more treasures and tomes hidden deep within their forts and temples that were never found. The locals are proud of their stories of the knights, even those who are conspicuously pale, and they relish telling stories of the obstinacy of that order… even as they disavow their more reviled practices.

Those in the know doubt the locals’ claims of religious and cultural propriety. There is some evidence that the practices publicly reviled by the folk of Highwoodshire are in fact maintained in secret. Some even say that the knights never partook of those practices, despite their reputation to the contrary, and that they instead were vilified for the practices of the people under their protection. There are scholarly disagreements among those who maintain the knights’ innocence as to whether the knights were aware of the practices and intentionally sheltered the people in their lands, or whether they were unaware of the habits of those they protected. Of course, most people simply lump the knights in with the rest, and say good riddance to the whole lot—ignoring the rumors of people going missing on the high hills, or the odd habits of those who live there still.

Highwoodshire remains strategically valuable as a geographic strongpoint with many remnant structures, but it has been some time since any group was permitted to maintain fortifications in the area. Instead, it is a fairly quiet place these days. Its quiet is only marred by the rumors of old treasures, secrets, and shames hidden deep in the old ruins, and by the whispers of forbidden rituals and almost-forgotten ways maintained by ancient sects in the wooded hills overlooking the peaceful farmland below.

The Cenote of Tetlekcheh

The Cenote of Tetlekcheh drops from the jungle floor deep into the rock below. Far below the surface, dark water glimmers in the noon sun, patinated by streams of leaf-filtered sunlight. The ruins above have long since been worn away or overgrown, but within the cenote it is different; an entire city remains there, etched and built into the walls of the broad cavern’s mouth.

Though all (or almost all) agree that the original inhabitants left long ago, few agree as to why. What is known for sure is that the cenote still holds great importance to many despite its relative neglect. Some see the cenote as a religious site, and a brave few force themselves through the jungles around the cenote in order to make their pilgrimage and pay homage. Others claim that the cenote is in fact an entrance to far more important and extensive networks of caves and waterways, which were (they claim) the reason that the city within it was built in the first place. Everyone agrees that the remnants of those who once lived there are valuable, even though most of the remaining artifacts lie below the water deep within the pit.

The buildings which line the wall of the pit all open onto a spiraling thoroughfare which runs, like a screw’s thread, up and down the pit’s edge in one long line. Here and there steeper, faster routes up and down exist: ancient stone stairways, carved ladder rungs slick with condensation, even what must be carved eyelets for rope and pulleys to maneuver loads up and down the cenote’s walls. Most who visit do not venture within, instead staying safe as they pay their respects above.

There are those who claim to have traded with dwellers below, and those who have ventured in who say that they have been chased out by the things still there inside. Certainly some have thrown valuable goods into the cenote, usually gold or other precious metals and gems, explaining that they do so to propitiate the things that dwell below. Others have thrown goods into the cenote in apparent expectation that they will receive goods in return, or perhaps have their wishes granted. It is not clear to what extent they have received either goods or fulfilled wishes.

The few who do venture down into the cenote quickly learn that centuries of neglect and the constant dripping of water will make nearly any surface perilously slippery.

The cenote smells of wet stone, dirt, mellow old rot, and moss and other greenery. It echoes with birdcalls from above, croaking frogs from below, and the chirrups of peepers and other small insects. The jungle’s regular storms resound in the confined space, the sound of rainfall drowning out all other noise as it reverberates from the water below like a massive buzzing drum.

Those storms constantly refill the cenote, though its water level varies more than the casual observer might anticipate. Many floors of buildings remain un-flooded, eroded by plants and the constant drip of water, but there are several floors which are only sometimes inundated, and a few more below the usual waterline that sometimes drain. Without any warning, the cenote has been known to fill rapidly on a sunny day, or to drain suddenly during a storm. Those who pay careful attention have their theories, but a few of them are quite able to forecast reliably when the cenote will lose more of its water and reveal some of its usually sodden secrets.

The recovery of those secrets is a remarkably rewarding exercise, even if it is a dangerous one. There are many who would like to have something from within the cenote, but who are not willing to venture in there for themselves—and there are some who would like to have trustworthy company for such a quest. The removal of those secrets, be they artifacts, ancient valuables, or even simply knowledge of those who once dwelled there, is strongly opposed by some others, and it’s possible that there have been murders committed both for and against the recovery of such things.

All who would venture in do so at their own risk. Even during the height of the day, little effective sunlight reaches into the cenote’s depths. Those who would bring their own light are well advised to make sure that it will withstand constant dripping water from above. Those who would bring anything that might soak through, rot, or otherwise be destroyed by moisture are best advised to abandon their attempt, or come to terms with the temporary nature of such things. Furthermore, the constant gentle passage of water (and the occasional violent passage of it) has left much of the cenote’s architecture unstable. The thoroughfare crumbles and collapses in places, and nearly all of it is slick.

There are many rumors told of the things that still live within the cenote. Some claim that they are little more than monsters, others say that they are people, others even claim that they were the original inhabitants of the cenote and have merely been changed. Yet other people claim that all the rumors are no more than that, and should be ignored. But those disbelievers struggle to explain the vociferous choruses which rise from deep within the cenote at odd hours, instead falling back on the tired claim that it is a natural phenomenon. Few agree, and the cenote remains an only half-known piece of the landscape, calling to those with more bravery, curiosity, or greed than sense.

Boston Protest March, May 31st

I marched in Boston on Sunday.

I left after standing at the State House for a little while, before the police went into the crowd. Before I left, the crowd was loud but peaceful—as they had been for the entire march.

I had been heartened by the people around me on the march. People were more considerate of each other than a typical Boston crowd, with lots of attention paid to those around them and none of those pockets of oblivious assholes that so often crop up. While social distancing was basically impossible, I think I saw fewer than ten people without masks.

For perspective, that was ten in this crowd:

If I felt so positive about it, why did I leave?

I spoke mid-march with someone who was helping to organize the crowd, keeping it on the route. They noted the profound lack of police managing the boundaries of the route. That was an accurate assessment, as far as I could tell—the march was almost entirely self-managed. I saw only one cluster of cops off to the side along the whole march (2.4 miles from 2343 Washington Street in Roxbury to the State House on the Commons, at a slow pace over one and a half hours). I’m not sure why the police felt they shouldn’t be present along the route. That was a change from what I’ve seen before. The person managing the crowd speculated that the police were all waiting at the State House, and they worried about what that might imply about the police’s plans.

That resonated with my existing fears. It was also prescient.

I know enough people who’ve been hurt by police while peacefully protesting.

I have at least one family member who’s been hurt by police before. They were protesting peacefully. I trust and believe them when they say this; they’ve done martial arts most of their life and are trained in deescalation and crisis management. We’ve worked security together at large festivals. They were backing away from the police and not offering resistance, but the police attacked them anyway.

I’ve watched police attack other people in front of me, outside of protests, when those people were doing nothing more than being loud. I’ve heard stories of other close friends being pepper sprayed or tear gassed without offering any resistance to police officers.

That had weighed heavily on me while I planned to go to Sunday’s march. Because of that, I’d never intended to stay long enough to be around large numbers of police. Even before hearing that crowd-shepherding person’s speculation, I was hyper-aware of what might happen to me if I stayed.

I’m frustrated that this might be seen as a feature by those who support more violent policing, and by those who don’t support protests (or don’t support protests except when a certain President supports them, as was the case with various armed white protestors this April).

But what it comes down to, really, is that I don’t trust the police.

I don’t trust police to deescalate a situation. I don’t trust police to engage peacefully with anyone they don’t like or empathize with. I don’t believe that they’ll avoid hurting people who don’t offer any resistance. I especially don’t trust police to engage peacefully with crowds. Honestly—and I say this as someone with all the benefits of being seen as a white man—I don’t trust police to empathize with anyone who isn’t visibly and vocally supporting them.

On top of that, I don’t trust most people to believe or support peaceful protestors who’ve been hurt by the police. I believe that those hurt will be blamed, instead of the police. As best as I can see, there’s little accountability to that motto “to serve and protect.”

I’m sad about all of that.

Consider, just for a moment, the standards we hold protestors to when we judge whether or not they’re behaving acceptably. Now, what behavior will we permit or excuse among police officers? Police aren’t punished when they use disproportionate force to subdue people, or when they react to provocations. But if protestors are attacked, we gasp and complain when they respond with anything other than nonviolent forbearance. And we accept that people who’ve done nothing wrong, whose very rights to speech and assembly are enshrined in our Constitution, suffer when the police use indiscriminate force to control people.

When one person in a large crowd throws something, the whole crowd is suspect and a legitimate target. When one officer kills someone, they’re “just one bad apple.” Never mind the fact that the idiom about bad apples says that one bad apple spoils the bunch.

I think I’m only not angry about this all the time because I’ve nearly given up on the police being better. That in itself is sad and stupid; I’ve been on security teams that were better, and I know Community Safety Officers more dedicated to (and who do a better job of) serving and protecting their communities. I know it’s possible to have people do similar work that supports and grows the public trust instead of corroding it.

I fear the impact these protests will have, both through violent policing and through Covid-19’s spread, especially in communities of color. Mattias talks eloquently about both of these things in his thread that starts here:

I can only conclude is that it’s vital for these protests to continue. I don’t see another way to make things change.

Using 3 Pillar XP in D&D as 5 Questions

I posted in February last year about using XP awards to train your players, and the problems of various methods of XP accounting. I mentioned in that post that I would experiment with rewarding players for telling me more explicitly where they wanted to go in their next session. It turns out, that particular group of players never developed the habit of telling me explicitly what their characters’ goals were despite my repeated encouragement.

I also mentioned the reddit thread about Improved 3 Pillar XP, and said that I didn’t want to use it. I didn’t want to use it because it seemed like it would require more accounting than I was interested in doing. But since Covid-19 has moved all my gaming online and I’ve made more quick reference materials for myself in google docs, I decided that I’d try building a spreadsheet to run the Improved 3 Pillar XP calculations for me.

I think the golden moment for me—the moment that convinced me to throw together the basics of the Improved 3 Pillar XP categories in a spreadsheet—was seeing that I could simplify all XP gain into a series of questions at the end of a session. Those questions:

  • Did the PCs recover any notable treasure?
  • Did the PCs explore, defend (suggested by my sibs), or takeover an important location?
  • Did the PCs ally an important NPC, or align them towards PC’s causes / away from foes’?
  • Did the players interact with each other in character?
  • Did the PCs circumvent or defeat any foes?

When I shared my quick and dirty first notes with my sibs, they rapidly made a separate interface that I’m actually quite happy with.

Now I have a spreadsheet that will take direct input from me about how much I want to reward my PCs as a proportion of their next level, with input categories spread across exploration, social interaction, and combat. The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is that this is also flexible and easy to expand.

If I want to try adding other categories of behavior that I wish to reward, I can either include those as expanded qualifying cases for the above questions (by changing an existing question) or I can add another question and reward category. As someone who enjoys tinkering with spreadsheets, that isn’t a scary prospect… though I can understand it not being your cup of tea. Ideally, I’ll have all this put together in a good-looking easily-read format at some point. For now though, I’m trying it out and seeing how well it works. Do it bad quickly first, etc.

The first idea I had about expanding this was to try rewarding players for telling me about their characters’ plans and then having the PCs act on those. I realize that this doesn’t necessarily work with PCs who are too in-the-moment to plan ahead, nor does it work as well when the PCs are too busy reacting to every new garbage fire to forge their own path… but I think it could be useful in a more sandbox game, especially one with a more relaxed pace.

If you want to try building your own, I suggest copying all the various tables in the Improved 3 Pillar XP post into a spreadsheet first so that you know what you’re working with. If you’d like to try using what I’ve got so far, tell me so and I’ll look into sharing something that you might be able to use.

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

CBB+Book+CoverShit Children of Blood and Bone is good. Tomi Adeyemi deserves more than praise for this.

The end of the book was all that I could have wanted and more, and I loved it. I finished it in tears, big warm heartfelt and healing ones, the kind I like. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone looking for fantasy YA, and I’d add it to the reading list I’ve made of works by Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, and Alaya Dawn Johnson (all of whose work you should also try if you haven’t yet).

Now, as often happens with YA these days, I did bounce several times nearly two-thirds through. My dislike of YA star-crossed romance tropes—and my fear and anticipation of the next guessed-at story beat—got the better of me. But each time, what Adeyemi actually wrought was so much better than what I’d feared. She did conform closely enough to the tropes for the story beats to be recognizable as those tropes, but she wrote them well. Better, she wrote them differently enough that I, as someone who struggles through those pieces of YA novels, enjoyed it. Tomi Adeyemi is skillful and capable, and she twists characters around and makes them suffer, and she does it brilliantly.

This book is beautiful and powerful and magnificent, it is evocative and compelling, I love it. And I absolutely admire it as craft and as message. Children of Blood and Bone calls out brutal truths about our own world. I fervently hope it reaches more people… and that we change our world.

Thank you, Tomi Adeyemi, for making this and sharing it.

I’ve already picked up Children of Virtue and Vengeance, the sequel.

Worldbuilding: The Mad Libs Approach

Building a setting piecemeal is sometimes difficult, but often fun and rewarding. By playing mad libs with your setting, you’re able to cram together a wild group of ideas that fill out your underlying concepts and give the whole thing its own distinct flavor. My favorite example of this was Continue reading

Blending Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots with D&D

Call of Cthulhu—for all it’s other Lovecraft-inherited flaws—has traditionally done a good job of building expectations of death and insanity into the core of the game. Furthermore, it has done this in a way that builds tension for longer campaigns without (usually) compromising the characters central to those campaigns. CoC does this best by blending one-shots with longer campaigns.

D&D can make use of this! I plan to do this in a game I’m starting soon.

The way that Call of Cthulhu usually handles this is by using a one-shot to set the scene and tone of a longer campaign. Characters in those one-shots are sacrificial, and their survival is a surprise rather than a given.

While similar assumptions of character death underlie old school B/X D&D, those assumptions are less present in most 5th edition D&D games that I’ve been in (or run) recently. Many players have more heroic narrative expectations of their characters. But I want to use Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots in a longer D&D game to give the players a better sense of the tensions and threats that await them.

My hope is to let players experience the fates of other characters (who are not their primary campaign ones). By uncovering the setting’s past, through magical archaeology or some other information gathering, I would let them play one-shots as characters other than their PCs. The players would know beforehand some of the conclusions to be reached in the scenes they played out, but they would otherwise be free to play those snapshots however they saw fit, and could have a chance to learn more about the setting in ways that fed into their main PCs’ decision making and views of the world.

Given that I expect to have some inexperienced players, my hopes with this are manifold; I wish to create spaces within the game for my players to come to terms with character death, to give them information about the setting which would otherwise require hefty info dumps, and to let them cut loose and experiment with decision making that doesn’t hamper their narrative goals or visions for their main characters. We’ll see how I do.