Tower of Peng, revisited

A concept thumbnail for The Tower of Peng the Unprepared.

The Tower of Peng is growing.

My friend is making art for it. I’m editing the piece I wrote and making it more accessible, in more contexts, for other storytellers. The Tower of Peng the Unprepared will become something more people can use to inspire their own games.

I am, simultaneously, moving. So while this project is the proof of concept for a much larger set of offerings, it may be slow to be released. I will continue posting about it here, and eventually elsewhere too.

If this is something you’re excited about, please let me know. If you’d like to see other locations I’ve already posted on this site, I’d love to know which intrigue you most. For now, I hope you enjoy the early concept thumbnail my friend made.

Flexibility in RPGs’ platforms

One of the biggest things I’ve gained through years (decades) of playing roleplaying games is the flexibility to play them in a variety of contexts, via a variety of means. If I had only just started playing RPGs recently, and were I stuck playing them entirely online without the experience of playing them in-person, I am not sure I’d be nearly as committed to them. Nor would I feel capable in them, like I had any reason to believe in my own ability to play and enjoy roleplaying games across the internet.

The biggest impact on my comfort playing RPGs online came from a truly goofy game I played over AIM and some other IM clients, using a home-brewed system to play a dino-loving sorcerer in an alternate history Rome. Yes, I made the “dinosaurcerer” pun repeatedly. It was an incredibly fun game, despite being a clunky system with no verbal interaction and lots and lots of typing.

I loved that game. And it taught me that—with the right group of friends and some good turn-taking dynamics—I could make wonderful fun happen in truly bizarre contexts. We played at a time when video calls were just new, demanding, and unusual enough that we didn’t bother trying to make a multi-person call work. We were absolutely better off for it. We were patient with one another (or at least that’s how I remember it), and we worked together.

If I hadn’t played that game then, I wouldn’t be so comfortable running games for kids over Discord now.

So here’s to practice, and expanding our comfort zones, and finding new ways to explore the things we love together.

Don’t Die For Your Cause

Human life is worth more than a moving epitaph.

Narratives of self-sacrifice, martyrdom by any other name, for the pursuit of some noble cause… they’re commonplace. They’re often stirring, certainly, and I at least have been raised to look up to them and see them as good stories, good narratives. They’re often held up as something to emulate.

This is especially true in military stories—read nearly any posthumous Medal of Honor citation—but it’s pervasive. This theme of martyrdom for a greater cause runs through many movement narratives. It’s present any time there’s a question of some greater struggle in the name of social change (or other change). And any time that we commemorate those who’ve given their lives to some movement, intentionally or not, we run the risk of continuing to promote a martyr-cult.

This does everyone a disservice.

It ignores the people who are serving a movement by operating behind the scenes in support roles. It ignores the people who were there beside the one who died but who did not lose their own lives. It plays into all the same narrative structures that fill warrior-fetishizing hero worship. It encourages brinksmanship. It does not teach us to counter our detractors as effectively as we might.

It blinds us to the virtues of living for a cause instead.

I’m guilty of writing stories and narratives that follow this pattern. I’m guilty of writing pieces that dwell on self-sacrifice to the exclusion of finding some other way forward. I still like them, they still hit some note in my chest that twinges in just the right rewarding way.

But I want to add stories that feature people working together to seek something good without sacrificing themselves. And when people we care for die, I want to include the deaths of those we love in ways that celebrate how they lived rather than how they died. Perhaps because of the shape of my own struggle with suicidal ideation and thoughts of self-harm, I want people to find strength in ideals that preserve them rather than in ideals for which they may sacrifice themselves.

Extraction (2020), quick thoughts

You ever have the thought, a few scenes into a movie, that you’ve seen the movie before?

I wrestled with that feeling for all of a few minutes. Extraction feels like a reimagining of 2004’s Man on Fire, but with Chris Hemsworth instead of Denzel Washington.

I liked Man on Fire when I watched it over a decade ago. I have no idea how I’d like it now, but I imagine it stands up as a kidnapping-rescue-revenge action flick. Better than Taken, I suspect. Having Denzel Washington as your lead actor helps.

I can’t say that Extraction is going to stand the passage of time as well as Man on Fire, at least not in my head.

I don’t think that’s an indictment of Chris Hemsworth. I just don’t think this movie is as interesting or original as I thought Man on Fire was when I first saw it. For better or worse, my first impression will matter. 

It’s funny, honestly, thinking about it this way. I’m not pretending to offer any kind of objective verdict; I haven’t seen Man on Fire in ages, and I suspect I’d be more critical of it now. I wonder how it would actually match up with Extraction, side by side.

The element I most appreciated from Extraction (hey look it’s *SPOILERS*) was the parallelism between Ovi and Tyler, established most clearly in the last moments of the movie as Ovi rises from the bottom of the pool (paralleling Tyler’s sitting on the bottom of a river at the beginning) and sees what I can only assume is a phantom of Tyler (the blurry camera here only previously used to show memories of the dead). I liked the way in which this passed on Tyler’s mantle of trauma and loss, showing a little more of the impact the entire experience had on Ovi—but I also wished that Saju had been there too. By only showing one figure (who I assume is Tyler based on costume), I felt like it devalued the painful and tense relationship between Ovi and Saju. I can see why they might have chosen not to do that, especially if they wanted to leave some space in the audience’s mind for Tyler to have survived, but I feel pretty confident from the other choices (that blurry camera, Ovi’s time on the bottom of the pool) that Tyler died. Anyway. I’m just being an armchair director (or editor) at this point, so I’ll stop. *END OF SPOILERS*

If you want to watch a violent kidnapping-rescue-revenge action movie, Extraction is fine. It has good moments. It has a bunch of actors I like, most of whom don’t get as much narrative focus or development for their characters as I’d like. I don’t think it opens any fundamentally new narratives… but it certainly makes things go boom and has some impressive camera work alongside really solid combat choreography.

Tamsyn Muir’s Sword-wielding Lesbian Space Necromancers

This isn’t anything in-depth about Gideon the Ninth or Harrow the Ninth. It’s much faster than that.

If “lesbian swords and necromancy in space” doesn’t sound appealing, I guess you should look elsewhere. I thought it was great. Gideon the Ninth has plenty of drama, channels anime in places and ways that I found very satisfying, and delivers convoluted mystery alongside swordplay, violence, and necro-magic. Tamsyn Muir (Tor page, Tumblr, homepage) has my attention.

I’m also enjoying the separate in-universe story The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex, which takes place before the opening of Gideon the Ninth.

For those who don’t like starting a series until it’s finished… first, that’s silly, it’s not how publishing works. If you want a series to exist, you should damn well read the first book and recommend it to others. Secondly, I don’t think you need to worry as much about that here: while Gideon the Ninth is obviously the first of multiple books, the ending ties the story up neatly and resolves things while still leaving room for a satisfying next story.

I read Gideon the Ninth last year and loved it. I took a little while to really sink into it, but once I had been caught I was stuck in it and couldn’t put the book down. It juked and weaved all over the narrative space; I never felt like it was letting me down by breaking narrative rules, but always felt like I should have seen the next twist coming and was instead surprised by it. I realize that might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it delightful.

I also loved the deeply anchored first person perspective that carried the narration throughout. I took a while to tease out where Gideon’s perspective was reliable and where it wasn’t, but honestly that only made the whole book more fun for me. The generally grisly nature of the story, the YA drama undertones (or just tones sometimes), and the excellent adventure / mystery plot were only made better by Gideon’s grumbling, scathing commentary.

I haven’t started Harrow the Ninth yet.

I’m really looking forward to it.

“Just Kidding”, quick political thoughts

Trump can waffle and correct himself and scrawl little words into the heaving blank spaces he left to carry his message all he likes. What remains is the fact that he is casting doubt on the American electoral system, casting doubt on voting by mail (which has staggeringly low rates of fraud, even lower than the already low American norm), and trying to use funding to support a piece of critical election infrastructure as a bargaining chip during a pandemic.

He’s said before that he thinks having more people vote is bad for him, and for Republicans in general. He said that back in March.

Now he’s withholding resources for allowing people to vote. It honestly doesn’t matter if it’s serious or “just a tactic.” It’s dangerous, and it’s bad for the republic. It’s bad for America, and for everyone in it, and, fuck, it’s bad for people outside it too because we can’t pretend America doesn’t influence the rest of the world.

I’m fucking upset. I’m angry. I’m… not surprised. Not especially surprised, anyway. Trump’s been saying—for a while now—that he doesn’t believe in voting by mail (despite voting by mail himself). He’s suggested (“joked”?) postponing the election. This is more of the same, but…

But withholding funding for the USPS so that it will be harder for mail-in voting to happen, during a pandemic, is abominable. It’s abominable from the perspective of public health, from the perspective of the continued health of our democratic republic…

It’s something that I feared, and something that I didn’t think he’d actually say out loud.

If knowingly suppressing the vote and eroding elections isn’t criminal, it really ought to be.

Watching Trump do these things, say these things, feeds the fears I’ve felt for years. I’ve told myself I’m paranoid, or at least that I’m catastrophizing, when I worry about Trump’s next steps, but time and again he does the thing that I feared.

The next step, the next thing I (and others I know) fear, is a large scale repeat of the Ballot Security Task Force which, in New Jersey in 1981, effectively suppressed minority voters (here’s the wikipedia article). Until 2017, the RNC was limited by consent decree because their actions in 1981 were so egregious. That consent decree expired (here’s Politico on the expiration of the limiting consent decree), and the RNC is working on recruiting and training election observers (Washington Post on the topic, note about observers is a little ways in) while Trump foments fear about fraud.

I’m not afraid that my vote won’t be counted, not really. I’m voting in Massachusetts, and I’m voting Democratic. If anything, my vote will barely matter for entirely different reasons. That’s okay. I’d rather not use first-past-the-post elections, but I’ll nerd out about election systems another day.

No, I’m worried about the chilling effect on participation throughout the rest of the country, and especially in those places where a small margin might make a big difference for Trump. I’ve been angry with the Republican Party’s elections strategies for a long time now, but if they manage to pull this one off—fuck.

Look, John Scalzi is a generally good person and has lots of other words, including plenty about voting, here.

He also has links to important voting resources there.

In case you’re too lazy, here: REGISTER TO VOTE and CHECK YOUR REGISTRATION STATUS

Election Day is November 3rd, 2020.

Draws, Dangers, and One-Shots, quick thoughts

When I’m building my own one-shot scenarios, I focus particularly on draws and dangers.

Draws are anything that compel people to be somewhere, preferably of their own volition. I want my players, and their characters (the PCs), to *want* to be where they are. I write about this in Be Hungry, a post about making characters, but here I’m thinking of it from the storyteller’s perspective. I want players to feel engaged, for their characters to actively pursue things in the course of play. If they don’t want to be there (player or PC), they have few reasons to stay involved with anything in a scenario. It’s possible to trap characters in a situation they don’t want to be in, but that’s usually more stressful for players. In fact, it’s so uncomfortable that it’s a frequent trope of horror stories. More on that later.

Dangers are just that; a danger is anything that might threaten the well-being of a character, or which presents a potentially harmful obstacle between a character and what they desire. A danger’s potential harm could operate on any of several levels: physical peril, social or emotional threat, or jeopardizing other things a character values. The severity of the danger is critical, and needs to be calibrated against both the draws of the scenario and the other dangers present.

Dangers must be calibrated against each other because they shape how PCs react to the world around them. If a danger is sufficiently scary, PCs will do whatever they can to avoid it. This could include facing other dangers which seem less scary, or simply turning tail and fleeing.

Dangers must also be calibrated against the scenario’s draws, because those dangers may scare off PCs or cause them to despair. As a concrete example, if PCs seek a unique treasure but discover that it lies on the far side of a vast pit full of demons, they may decide that the treasure isn’t worth the trouble. If there’s a secret route to the treasure and the PCs don’t find it, the PCs will probably just shrug and move on, marking that treasure as something to come back for later. This is perfectly normal and fine in most games, and such juxtapositions of draws and dangers have their place in stories, but it’s not going to deliver a triumphant story experience in that game session.

“We came, we saw, we turned around and went home because demons are scary.” As a story, it’s a little anticlimactic. Keep in mind, because this post is focused on one-shots, I’m not as interested in foreshadowing large challenges for later sessions… which is where that anticlimactic story may have a larger role.

To tell a dramatic and triumphant story—a frequent goal of one-shot scenarios—PCs should engage with dangers, resolve them, and reach the draw they sought. Ideally those dangers are scary enough to unsettle the players and make players feel good about resolving or bypassing them, but not bad enough to convince the PCs to give up and go home. It’s a careful balancing act. And it’s a balancing act that you can build into the scenario from the very beginning, both by making sure that the draws pulling PCs in are sufficiently exciting, and by making sure that the dangers don’t seem that bad at the start.

Notice the “seem” in there. It’s entirely possible to reveal that dangers are worse than the PCs expected part way through a scenario. Revealing that the danger’s threat is worse than previously realized is a very traditional way of increasing the tension of any story. It’s possible to do poorly, or to wear out the trope by doing it too reliably, but when done well it’s delightful.

Finally, one quick note on how horror scenarios work with draws and dangers.

Horror stories, which I mentioned near the beginning when talking about trapping PCs, can be different. Some horror stories thrive on the PCs’ sense of helplessness, their feeling stuck with a danger that is too great for them to defeat unscathed, or to overcome without losing in the process. In these horror scenarios, overwhelming dangers lie between the PCs and whatever the scenario’s draw may be (usually escape, or resolving the danger without overwhelming sacrifice). Classic movie examples could include anything involving being trapped in a space with something hunting you: Alien, any number of serial killer movies, various murder-puzzle movies like the Saw series, etc.

This doesn’t describe all horror stories though, and the topic is big enough that I’m going to leave the rest of it for another time.

The Babysitters Club (Netflix)

Netflix’s version of The Babysitters Club is quite good, and I wonder whether I would have enjoyed the books as a kid as much as I like the show now. I haven’t finished it yet (or gotten very far in) but it’s good. I recall avoiding the books as a kid in part because the branding on the kids’ books was extremely gendered. That makes sense (both for concept and for marketing) but I feel kind of sad about it, because that’s a silly barrier to have between any young reader and some good storytelling. Honestly, the name of the series would probably have been enough to scare me away as a kid even if the covers hadn’t been as gendered, simply because I was raised in a pretty heavily gendered (and gender-policed) time and place.

I don’t mean that boys and girls (because there were only boys and girls in my world there and then) weren’t able to play together or be friends or whatever… but the times and places where that was possible were absolutely constrained. As a boy, I couldn’t be friends with most girls at school, at least not reliably. School was where all the toxic masculinity peer socialization was. And those peers very strongly enforced a social code in which it wasn’t okay for me to play with or enjoy girly things. Dolls, sparkly toys, dresses, colorful clothing, whatever… pink things, or maybe even any bright colors, were not safe to wear or have as an accessory. I remember getting shit from one of my friends in 4th or 5th grade about my yellow rain jacket being a girly color. I avoided bright colors for years afterwards, and was very concerned with maintaining a male gender presentation.

Now, despite this, I did actually play with dolls when I was playing with my friends who were girls. We would make up stories and play out scenes, and I remember delighting one of my friends by some particularly funny interaction between our two dolls (no, I don’t remember what that was). But I, like a fool, stopped playing and spending time with her, because other boys at school teased me about being friends with her. I feel bad about that.

Looking back, I wonder where all that toxic stuff was coming from. There were strong and strange lines drawn, and while I don’t think I questioned them at the time I sure as hell question them now. How was it decided that one girl was okay to hang out with at school, while hanging out with another would get you teased for “having a girlfriend”? Heck, how did “having a girlfriend” become a bad thing? Cooties, gender essentialism, and other reductive nonsense were pervasive.

All of which brings me back to The Babysitters Club. I’m not very far in yet, but I already love it. The first few beats of the first episode don’t bother to wait; they hammer in the unfairness of unequal gendered expectations and permissions, and that first episode’s lingering assignment of an essay on decorum is a perfect example of the struggle writ small *and* large. It’s great.

I admire the way that the characters’ internal perspectives leak into their episodes and tint the world they see through their own concerns. I love the consistency of the characters between episodes, and how we have a chance to see people from both the inside and the outside… it’s magical, having that perspective shifting so readily available. The contrast, from one person’s view to the next, is excellent. It’s written and delivered beautifully. I love seeing work do this, and I’m excited every time I see quality like this in work for kids.

The show doesn’t try to make itself accessible to boys, or try to bury its focus on the lives of young girls, and it doesn’t have to. It’s good just the way it is. I hope that there are young folks of all genders watching and enjoying it, because it’s worth having more people see beyond social boundaries and empathize with people who might be a little different from themselves.

I haven’t finished the season yet, and I understand that it may be a little underwhelming. That’s too bad. But I’d have to be really underwhelmed to be soured on this show.

This is a show worth watching, for a variety of reasons, and I hope there’s more of it. 

Green Hornet (2011) should have been about Kato and Lenore

I watched this movie totally ready to have fun and enjoy it.

I grew up with a collection of comics from my older sibs, just another of the many good things about being at least a decade younger than them. Those comics were part of what convinced me to read. Among that collection were a few Green Hornet comics, and I loved them. The comic collection wasn’t especially organized, and little-me hunted through them repeatedly for more Green Hornet, overjoyed every time I found another. I don’t have strong memories of what those Green Hornet comics were about, but the imagery—and my enthusiasm—stuck with me.

I was excited every time I heard of, or thought about, 2011’s Green Hornet movie. That excitement changed, waned as years went by without me watching it or hearing anything about it, but some of it remained.

My excitement for this movie didn’t last through the movie’s middle.

Honestly, I almost paused it and stopped watching. The only reason I didn’t was because I am some mixture of stubborn and slow; I took too long to decide whether I’d ditch the movie, and I wanted to see whether it would save itself. As you might have guessed by now, it didn’t really manage the trick.

That’s a damn shame, because with the cast this movie had it could have been truly awesome. It wasn’t. Not even having Cameron Diaz, Edward James Olmos, Christoph Waltz, Tom Wilkinson, and David Harbour as support could manage to rescue this.

Honestly, I think it’s because I never came to like Seth Rogen’s Britt Reid (the eponymous Green Hornet), and because I never felt like Jay Chou’s Kato was allowed to be more than a caricature.

Rogen’s Reid starts off with few redeeming qualities beyond the desire (at some deep-seated childhood level) to be a hero and help others. But over the course of the movie, he never really resolves any of the things that I didn’t like about him. A wannabe Don Juan and endless flirt who won’t take no for an answer is a pretty hard sell, especially when there’s basically no heroic transformation. He’s like a worse version of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man.

All of which means that the person who’s supposedly at the center of the story was consistently infantile and awful, and never discovered his redeeming qualities. I started the movie thinking that I’d be able to enjoy watching him become a better person—he’s an ass at the start—but the few ways in which he changes were insufficient to improve my opinion of him and didn’t feel like they carried the narrative or emotional weight I’d want to see to make him actually sympathetic—he’s still an ass at the end, and not in a “shucks I guess that’s cute” way.

I think the joke here is supposed to be that Kato is the real hero. And I get that. It’s obviously true. But while the movie winks and nods at this, it never *does* much of anything with it. Worse, the time and space given to Jay Chou’s Kato, the narrative room for him to be more than a quirky cardboard cutout, is insufficient. The few times that we can see deeper into Kato’s life, or his experiences, he’s cut whole cloth from the background of a perfect Golden Age comic book hero: orphaned, grew up fending for himself, autodidact and genius polymath. But he’s so perfectly stuck in Green Hornet’s shadow that not even a movie that’s hinting at and pointing at these things is willing to give him room to grow. It’s painful, really. And it makes me wonder just how bad the comics I read and loved as a kid were.

Honestly, Cameron Diaz’s Lenore Case isn’t in a much better situation. Never mind the fact that she winds up as the brains of the Green Hornet (thank goodness, because Britt Reid seems to have none); she’s forced to constantly fend off or suffer under Britt’s harassment without him suffering any repercussion. Which, like, okay—sure maybe this movie is doing realism now, but DAMN, if I’m going to watch something that is already divorced from reality does it have to keep that?

Which brings me to the writing and directing credits for the movie. Michel Gondry directed (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind), and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have writing credits. Movies aren’t made by only three people, so presumably there were other folks involved. Maybe studio execs had a hand in it. I don’t honestly care. They made a very run-of-the-mill movie that doesn’t stand up well to the passage of time.

Someone decided that this was what they were going to ship. I honestly feel kind of sorry for them. Looking at this movie in the context of 2011 films, I guess I can understand why they might think it was fine… but it wasn’t anything more than that. And while my childhood love of Green Hornet is still somewhere inside me, it’s not thanks to this movie.

Watch it for dumb shit, I guess, maybe while in an altered state. Maybe Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg thought they were making another Superbad / Pineapple Express? I don’t know. All I know is that that isn’t what I wanted from a Green Hornet movie. I can’t really recommend this movie. Just watch The Old Guard again instead.

The Old Guard, quick thoughts

I love The Old Guard because it upends so many of the constraints of its genre, even as it faithfully delivers exactly what the genre demands. The Old Guard is a modern action adventure story with fantastical elements. In movies (and other media) “action adventure with fantastical elements” usually means straight white male protagonists and lots of male gaze… and that’s thrown out the window here.

There’s no doubt that is partially due to the influence of the comic’s writer (Greg Rucka, who also wrote the screenplay)—but I want to draw attention to director Gina Prince-Bythewood. The movie was a hell of a lot of fun, and I quite honestly appreciate the eye, the connections, and the humanizing focus she brings. It didn’t matter that the movie’s plot was straightforward enough for my partner and I to call the twists in the first fifteen minutes, because the movie was a delight.

This will be a strange comparison, but… I watched The Old Guard the same day that I saw Beautiful Boy (a serious drama about mental illness, drug abuse, addiction). They’re so wildly different that I doubt anyone would put them together unless forced to by the fact of their shared medium. I didn’t know how Beautiful Boy would end, it left tears in my eyes and wound my chest up tight, and while I appreciate it I absolutely don’t want to watch it again right now. The Old Guard is the opposite. I felt freer, lighter, and unlike other stories in its genre I never felt like the film was a guilty pleasure.

Look, there were multiple points where my partner and I paused, rewound, and giggled in delight as we rewatched a scene from The Old Guard. Having already seen some of the movie repeatedly, I would happily watch the whole thing again. Why? It’s so DAMN refreshing for both leads of an action adventure to be women, one of whom is black. Even better (thank you Gina Prince-Bythewood) those leads both feel like they’re played and filmed as human beings rather than eye-candy. The delicious garnish? The side-character scene stealing lovers are an adorable gay couple who’ve been together for a millennium.

This might not be your kind of movie. That’s fine. All I have to say is: it’s delightful and I absolutely recommend it to anyone who enjoys action adventure but can’t stomach how those stories are usually written.