untitled, 10/22/20

My thesis dealt with political speech by the President of the United States (POTUS). My original topic was ‘enemies,’ and how they were constructed by the POTUS in political speech. I ultimately had to change and narrow my topic to the use of the word ‘government’ by the POTUS in the State of the Union address, because I didn’t have a clear enough consistent and comparable body of data.

I wish Trump hadn’t changed that so much.

No other POTUS has so relied on creating and using “us vs them” relationships in their speech. It’s like he doesn’t know how *not* to. Like he doesn’t know how to say anything without bringing “us vs them” into it.

It’s infuriating.

I hope that our political speech can change. I hope that we can spend more time building each other up instead of driving wedges between us.

I don’t expect that any time soon. Seems likely we have more trouble to get through first.

Picking Players: Fun vs Creativity, Quick Thoughts

When making a group of players for your RPGs you want people you like playing with, and you want people who will contribute creatively. The first is more important than the second. Honestly, I think that’s true in nearly any group you’re part of; you’d best be able to get along with them if you’re going to spend so much time together. If you’re spending time together for fun, that’s doubly true. I don’t mean there can’t be friction, but I do mean that you should feel comfortable with them, able to ask for what you want and have them honor those requests and talk with you about it.

Those two factors—whether you like spending time with someone, and whether that someone contributes creatively—aren’t entirely separate from each other. Someone that you like playing with, and who likes playing with you, will have an easier time falling into a collaborative creative rhythm over time. Someone who contributes creatively is likely to add things to your game that make it better, and which make playing with them more fun. But.

I don’t think it matters how much creative material someone adds to your game / story / group if they are not fun to play with or be around. Spending time with someone who contributes creatively while being fundamentally not fun to be around is honestly miserable. If they keep adding new ideas but can’t play well with others, or if they aren’t willing to engage with your time together *as play,* you have a recipe for trouble. When I’ve faced this before, I’ve felt stuck: the player’s contributions are excellent, and feel good, but I’m constantly reminded that the player themselves is just not quite right as a fit for the group.

Without outside requirements to include a negative player, there’s no reason to keep them. Until something changes, their creative contributions aren’t worth the added stress of working around their presence. That doesn’t mean that people can’t change, but it helps to have a certain level of shared trust and context before encouraging someone to shift their way of being in a group. Whether you want to put in the work to help them change their behavior is entirely up to you, and that work is *not* required of you. In the long run it may be helpful for them if you tell them why you don’t want to play with them, but you don’t have to engage in that potential drama if you don’t want to.

Relatedly, paying attention to how other people in your group feel about each other is worthwhile. Your experience, obviously, isn’t the only one in your group. If someone in your group is making another person miserable, that should be resolved too.

Also, just because you like spending time with someone in other situations doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily be a good match to play RPGs with. It helps, but it’s no guarantee.

The Heart Garden

The Heart Garden, as it is called in rumors and legend, is said to lie deep within the brambled thickets of a vast wild… possibly within several different wilds if the stories are true. Those stories say that, no matter from whence one arrived, it is always warm there, and it is lit from within by a softly pulsing glow that rises from the black earth itself. This pulse is always a heart beat, a quiet lub-dub that can be felt through the soles of one’s boots. It suffuses the land and the Garden, and the fruit which grow within that dense thicket are said to pulse in time with it. Those fruit, the heart-fruit, hang at the center of the legends told of the place: glistening dark red, dripping with their juice, all beating in time. They’re said to be the size of a large clenched fist, fibrous, dense, and chewy. But their properties, the stories told of what comes to those who can eat an entire fruit still fresh and warm from the vine, drive the otherwise sane and sensible to unconscionable risk in their pursuit.

The heart-fruit are said to offer many different things, if one knows how to choose wisely.

Some gift the eater with a true vision—though whether prophecy, the ability to see through all lies and misdirection, or ancient knowledge is unclear.

Other heart-fruit are said to beat with the land’s pulse within the chest of the one who eats them, sharing the vitality of the earth itself. There are tales of those so gifted who have ventured into the wilderness to find refuge from the depredations of civilization, or who have gathered up their strength to oust those who twist the earth against itself… or even those who’ve gathered others around them to teach them to hear the land’s heartbeat themselves.

Legends speak of the foolish, those who chose their fruit poorly and so grew a new vine in the Garden from their fertile chest. They also speak of the brave—who sought the heart-fruit for others and thereby returned them from the brink of death—and the kind, who planted seeds of their own gifts in the Garden so that others might benefit from them. There is no one story, no one fate of one who eats that fruit.

Nor is the Garden untended, for the Garden’s keepers are spoken of in hushed tones and are known to linger in the brambles and watch those who seek the Garden’s depths. Most claim that the keepers are robed and retiring, reluctant to speak with others or to engage with the world beyond their Garden. They are sworn to tend the place they protect, and to train the vines together until some greater pattern emerges and the heartbeat may be heard loud and clear. These keepers may be approached and questioned, but they are not bound to help any who trespass within their thicket.

Indeed, it’s claimed that some keepers have set the Garden itself against interlopers. Beasts roam the thicket and may pursue for sport or hunger. Strange mushrooms grow amongst the rich loam, with spores that bring sweet sleep and more rich nourishment for the spreading mycelia. The vines constrict and cluster, choke and grasp. Many who seek the Heart Garden are never again seen.

But yet there are stories which tell how to reach the Garden, and while many fail to reach it those few who succeed all hold the same lesson. The Garden is not bound. It is not a place as other places may be. If it is sought, and if the seeker holds the Heart Garden’s path in their own heart, they will pursue the Garden through the depths of the thickest wilds they can find. Only when they are lost within the deepest reaches, when the growth around them blocks out all light, will they find the brambles drawing closer and tighter until they give way to the warm black earth and the crawling sensation up the back of one’s spine. Then it is up to the seeker to find their way into the center of the Heart Garden, following the beat of the earth and the hints of light which lead them on.

That is the only way in. But no matter what route one took in, the journey out is never the same.

Choosing Democracy, Peacefully

It’s important to understand that we (the US) are in a tricky place right now. I doubt anyone reading this will be surprised by my saying that. But part of what’s tricky about our current political situation is that—categorically speaking—nonviolent protest is far more effective at achieving its aims than violent protest, and it’s relatively easy for violent instigators to cast doubt on nonviolent protests by engaging in violence around the edges.

If the President refuses to follow the process, it is vital that Americans partake in nonviolent protest and demand that the process be followed. This might be necessary, especially in light of this reporting (there’s far more than just this quote):

“According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority. With a justification based on claims of rampant fraud, Trump would ask state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly. The longer Trump succeeds in keeping the vote count in doubt, the more pressure legislators will feel to act before the safe-harbor deadline expires.”

The stories we tell about this, before, during, and after, are critical. Our efforts here are to preserve our democracy, and to keep our democratic republic (to paraphrase the apocryphal words of Benjamin Franklin to Philadelphia’s political doyen Elizabeth Willing Powel). If there are calls to cease counting votes, or to ignore votes, we should call it what it is: an attempted coup, and a violation of the processes our elections rely on to maintain their legitimacy and the consent of the governed.

If we wish to keep our democratic republic, we can speak out and engage in nonviolent protest. We can engage with others, and call on them to protect American democracy alongside us. No matter how personal this may seem, this isn’t about an individual; this is about preserving the agreements and values which are the foundation of our democracy. This is something that anyone who believes in a democratic republic should support.

I suggest that you read about the Choose Democracy project, and plan to advocate for our democratic values and process.

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.