On Spoilers (No Spoilers)

Another wild night for Game of Thrones last night (unless like me you're caught up on the books and enjoyed it mainly for the reaction of your significant other). Of course the ardent fanbase took to Twitter and Facebook, which set of a bunch of trending topics that let the cat out of the bag for anyone who hadn't watched on Sunday at 9 PM.

Cue outrage, angst, etc.

I think it's time for people to chill a little bit on the anti-spoiler rage. 

For the sake of argument let us divide the spoileriffic fans into two categories. The first group are the true jerks, those people who seem to extract joy by denying joy from others. They're the people who read the books / found the leaked script / saw an advance screening and just want to piss on everyone else's parade. Yeah, fuck those guys. But they are also the extreme minority.

The majority of people sharing "spoilers" are the truest fans of any series. They're not out to ruin your week or rob you of anything. Nay, they are reaching out across the void to other fans in an attempt to share in a mass cultural experience. So cut them some slack, ok?

Pre-VCR the concept of the spoiler didn't exist. If you didn't catch Dallas at its regularly scheduled time, then sorry Sally, you'll just have to ask someone else who shot JR. Nobody talked about someone "spoiling" the Great Gatsby or Moby Dick or Slaughterhouse Five, because you had to share these things person-to-person. The moment you went to share and someone said "Oh I haven't read it," the conversation was essentially over (unless you are in that minority of jerks, in which case get bent you a-hole).

People want to share their experiences. This is why we build entire events around an artificial culture that lets us all plug into a feeling. Most media facilitates this automatically. Nobody talks about "spoiling" the Superbowl or March Madness. You just tune in and share in the agonies and joys of your fellow humans.

But with VCR we got the first baby steps of "I'll get to it when I get to it" culture. I am a big fan of convenience. I like my On Demand and HBO Go and Netflix as much as the next person. But I'm not so egotistical to think that the train is going to stop running just because I want to catch a later one. Social media has allowed for an enormous and vibrant fan culture to grow organically around this new, awesome age of entertainment. I love that people like Patton Oswalt geek out over True Detective, or that I can follow Aaron Paul's live-tweeting of the Breaking Bad finale. But for that new cultural norm to exist, we have to let people share, to share those agonies and joys that we've been experiencing together since we all lived out under the stars. 

So if you want to have it at your convenience, unplug from social media. Yeah, it sucks. Yeah, I know Twitter is addictive. Yeah, I know some of you need it for your jobs. But get over it. Don't stand in the way of this new massive experience. When we tell each other to stop sharing stories, we're telling people to stop being human.

Anger is Poison

I’ve always been pretty excitable, but growing up I remember being angry all the time. But the funny thing was that none of the anger came from the times that were actually hard, like when my parents got divorced and my mom was flat broke or my biological father’s bankruptcy or his eventual abandonment of our relationship. No, the anger came from the teenage years, growing up in an affluent suburb so white that it made Wonderbread look diverse by comparison. I was angry even though I had whatever the latest video game system was, angry even though we always had at least one new-ish car, angry even though I always had a full belly and a warm bed to sleep in.

I wish I could even remember why.

What I do remember is sitting out on a cloudless day just full of rage over feeling like I didn’t matter. And of course I didn’t matter much in an absolute sense, given that I was a snot-nosed teen struggling to make it through geometry while hiding an inexplicable boner. In some weird twist of hormonal logic I figured that if I was angry enough, people would pay attention to me. I’d dealt with some bullies early in my high school career, but my hatred was a shield. I’m sure that if punches had been thrown the bigger kid would have prevailed, but nobody felt it was worth the effort to tangle with a kid who looked like he was trying to impersonate Mount Vesuvius every other Tuesday.

Now that I’m older, I look back on those years with regret. Not so much regret for lost youth. Being able to drive and buy beer is pretty sweet. I regret that I robbed myself of the opportunity for joy. The neighborhood I grew up in was out in the middle of a cornfield, but there was still a lot of beauty there. There were days of riding my bike over hills with the wind on my back and the sun in my face. There were hours spent on the soft grass staring up at the flawless sky. I had a good childhood. But I never took the time to appreciate it because I was just so damn angry all the time.

If there’s one thing I want to pass on to my son, it’s that anger isn’t worth it. There is a time and place for anger. It is right to be angry at injustice. It is right to be angry at the ugliness in our world. But it can’t be just about the anger. Spending as much time as I do on the Internet it is easy to see how anger becomes a swirling maelstrom, a ravenous maw that devours all other emotions only to amplify rage, hate, intolerance. Anger tears things down, and some things need to be torn down, but when the dust settles we don’t want to live in the ruins. In the end we must build, and for building to last it must be an act of love.

Organic Conflict

No, this isn't about Whole Foods. This is another storytelling ramble, so stick with me.

Fictional worlds require rules. Often there are way more rules in fiction than are required in the real world. Readers need to know why Jane goes into the haunted house. Jane's real world analogue might just be a dumbass, but fiction Jane needs a drive that a reader can believe - she works for a reality TV show about ghosts, she's looking for her little brother, etc. This can drive storytellers nuts because readers will scoff at things that actually happened to the writer, or the writer's friends and family. 

"But it really happened!" is the whine of storytellers throughout the ages. Sure, write what you know, but make sure it's something I know too. Those pesky readers.

So the natural shorthand is to revert to some gut-punch motivations that are near-universal. You killed my X. You're my X. You destroyed my hometown. 

And for the most part that works. Heck, I've used it more than I'd care to admit. But it's not the only way. 

Turning back to our pesky real world, you see that the biggest clashes and rivalries tend to not come from those very base sources. There's something more primal at work. Hitler and Churchill had one of the great struggles of the 20th century, but it wasn't because Hitler killed Churchill's dad or something. It was about two ambitious, highly-motivated and active people who wanted mutually exclusive goals.

That's the iron core of conflict - active characters who want either a finite resource or have mutually exclusive goals. Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed are both sympathetic and likable characters, but only one can be the champ. 

So the next time you're playing around with the chess pieces of your story, ask yourself some basic questions. What does my protagonist want? Is the thing she wants a finite resource? That could be anything from a romantic relationship to a doomsday device. Now, who else wants that thing? Or, who wants an outcome that would prevent our protagonist from getting the thing she wants? 

Figure that out and you've got your story.

Baboon Fart Story v. The Scammy Scams that Scam

So I'm sure by now you've heard about all the craziness with Baboon Fart Story. If you haven't there are now many sources that can provide a much better recap. For my part, I thought Phronk's joke was funny. I even bought a copy for posterity's sake before the hammer came down. 

The reviews got me thinking though. They positively glowed. They were funny, of course - part of the joke of the whole thing. But were I a complete idiot, I might have been fooled by the average customer rating. Thankfully I'm not a complete idiot, leaving aside the moments where I wipe out on the sidewalk ice. And yet... we live in a digital world constructed by algorithms. I may not be dumb enough to pick out Baboon Fart Story as a genuine read, but Amazon doesn't care - they just see a highly rated new book in a category I've purchased before, so they send me an email to shove it down my throat, or have it pop up in the long list of books at the Kindle store whenever I fire it up.

I decided to check up on a book that I'd reviewed a while back. It was an indie thriller, a beast that allegedly does well in the KDP marketplace. I knew from its schlock cover and breathless description that it wasn't going to be winning the Man Booker Prize anytime soon, but the setting and genre were similar enough to a project I was working on that it seemed harmless to throw down a few bucks to get a sense of what other people were doing with the material. The book was a long list of what will not get you an agent in contemporary traditional publishing. I got through a few chapters before giving up, noticed that the average customer rating seemed deceptively high given its quality, and posted a review of my own. No big.

But this morning after seeing Baboon Fart Story play out, I decided to check up on that awful indie. My critical review had been downvoted to the bottom of the pack, pushed to the last page of over a dozen reviews. The book had a 4.5 star average rating, with roughly 75% of them being 5-star ratings. The next most critical review after mine was a lone 3-star that nonetheless extolled the book's praises to a ridiculous degree. And over half of the 5-star ratings, none of which even hinted at the enormous structural and narrative flaws of the book (not to mention an obvious lack of proofreading and copyediting), were written by self-described authors. And yes, when you click on their bios, they're all indie authors as well, with glowing 5-star reviews of their own.

This is complete and utter BS. It helps no one and hurts consumers to scramble the system. When I was in Iraq back in 2006, we relied heavily on MEDEVAC helicopter crews to get guys urgent care after an attack. I remember being on the verge of pulling out what little hair I have because MEDEVAC always seemed way too slow given the distance from the airfield. Being young and arrogant, I assumed they didn't know what they were doing. When I confronted one of them in the chow hall, the pilot just shrugged and said "When people stop calling in every injury as "urgent", we'll get there a hell of a lot faster."

And that's what the current review system is - plagued by a group (I won't speculate how large) who jam the frequency with shameless self-promotion scams. To put things in perspective, Steve Berry's "The King's Deception" currently scores a 4-star rating on Amazon. Steve Berry is a guest lecturer and instructor at writing conferences that focus specifically on the thriller genre. I've heard him speak, and he really knows the craft. You may not like the particular characters or plots he's put together, but there is an absolute understanding of the underlying structure of the narrative, not to mention the nuts and bolts of grammar, dialogue, pacing, etc. To say that a book completely lacking in editing that screams "published first draft" is better than Steve Berry's novel is absurd. Sure, there are some really good self-published novels out there, but how would I know where to find them? Not through Amazon reviews.

The Awful Wastelands of KDP

My wife stopped reading a novel last night. She didn't finish, mind you. She just stopped reading. And she is a woman who is fiercely determined to see things through, a woman who loves reading. Normally when it's time for bed I have to pry the Kindle from her hands to get the lights off. But last night she put it down, gave one of those defeated sighs, and rolled over into her pillow without a fight.

I can count on one hand the number of times that my wife hasn't finished a book. But what's troubling is that all of these instances happened in the past five months, and they all came from the exact same place.

Houston, we have a problem. It's a problem with the indie market, it's a problem that's hurting readers, and it's a problem with a solution so simple that nobody is going to implement it. 

The problem is that for the most part, Kindle Direct Publishing is a nuclear wasteland of literature. It's a toxic landscape that corrodes the soul of the reader and leeches the life out of everything around it.

Sure, some of it is the basic stuff. Crappy formatting, obvious typos, poor grammar. The strawman stuff that makes everyone look bad. Except, you know, KDP lets you publish with that junk in there anyway. But there are deeper problems, structural ones. Plots that ape the latest trends and bestsellers. Stale characters, worn-out tropes, dialogue that rings false. Narrative arcs with no hope of a satisfying (or even logical) resolution.

But who cares, right? It's a free market baby. I'm just out there making a name for myself, learning as I go, honing my craft one KDP novel at a time. Besides, it's not hurting anyone. My book costs less than the price of your wife's latte.

And to this I say, sir or madam: screw you. It's not about the price of the product. We live comfortably. I could buy hundreds of this marginal works without impacting my ability to pay the rent or keep the lights on. What matters is time. When my wife is in line at Starbucks, the process is clear: she's going to overpay for a sugary coffee and in exchange is going to be relatively assured of a consistent level of enjoyment. If the barista screws up her order, she's going to get a refund, or at least a new coffee. And it's going to take less than 15 minutes.

But she spends all day wrangling a toddler and trying not to go insane. When she fires up her Kindle after the tiny tyrant has gone to bed, she wants to engage in another world. She wants to be swept away, to forget life and be absorbed in a story. So when she puts down your book halfway through, that represents a major opportunity cost to her precious slices of free time. Time she could have spent watching a movie, or playing a game, or reading a book that was properly formatted and edited.

And when you steal my wife's time, when you convince her that it isn't worth it to continue, you sap a little joy out of reading. You, in some small way, poison something that she loves.

So enough with your awful books. Enough with your gaming of the review system, of your relentless self-promotion, of your narcissism. Enough.

Learn your craft. Edit your stuff. Then publish.

Or else one day you'll wake up and find that nobody is left in the wasteland but you.

Super Bowl, Fandom and Haters

I am a big football fan. I am also a gamer. I am a huge consumer of fantasy fiction, horror, comics, and all things nerdy. I know many flavors of tabletop RPG and can wax poetic about the structural differences between WarMachine and Warhammer. And I've never really struggled to reconcile those aspects of my life. I enjoy what I enjoy, and for the most part invite others to do the same.

Which is why I was puzzled at the outpouring of disdain on Twitter for the Super Bowl. Part of it is based on a skewed sample - I follow a lot of artsy-fartsy folks, so there aren't a lot of hardcore sports fans showing up on my feed. But it was weirdly off-putting to have people brag about their ignorance of the game or get annoyed at the trending topics. 

It got me thinking about why we feel the need to do this. There is a strong impulse to push away the other, to define ourselves by negation: I may not know exactly what I am, but I know what I am not, and I am certainly not anyone who likes what you like.

Except of course that is a profoundly stupid way of viewing the world. Defining by negation is convenient for rejecting something, but it doesn't really give any better view of who you are, what you believe, other than showing that you are someone who rejects. And really, rejecting popular culture in this day and age isn't an act of bold independence. As the Onion AV Club pointed out, it's petty. There is no need to preemptively attack the world. You can exist in harmony with people who like other things. Embrace it.

 

State of the... What, Exactly?

I was compelled to watch the State of the Union address earlier this week for work-related reasons, and my reaction is probably quite similar to yours. But how can that be, you ask? A fair question, given that I know absolutely nothing about your politics or beliefs. Yet the answer is simple: I wasn't very impressed. The words failed to move me. I didn't see any broad vision for where we are or where we are going.

To be fair, this isn't entirely the president's fault: there's a toxic political environment and partisan gridlock and yadda yadda yadda. But for someone who built his reputation as a great orator, having an event where words fail to move is a pivotal event.

Words are powerful. There is a magic buried in there, a permanence, a resonance, a transcendence. But words can only get you so far. 

I also find the use of a wounded soldier as a prop to be a bit on the ghoulish side. I know plenty of people like Cory Remsburg. I can certainly say that I have been humbled by the struggles of fellow veterans who bear the wounds of war, but I'm not sure that I find them inspirational. Tragic, certainly. So how do we bring the metaphor of Cory as America to its logical conclusion? That we dutifully returned to overseas conflict again and again, for little tangible gain, and are now permanently hobbled? 

There are many more words to be spoken, wiser words than I write or the president used, but we must be careful about applying the power of language to the world around us. Saying the wrong thing can have some very unsettling implications, and once the words are used they are out of our power forever.

Stop Bullying. Now.

I have a lot of sympathy for Jonathan Martin, the Miami Dolphins player who left the team after being viciously bullied by a fellow player.

I too have been bullied by a 300-lbs NFL lineman.

Now to be fair he wasn’t in the NFL at the time, though the hushed whisper around the school was that he was destined for greatness. But we all knew he was a different, a huge kid who towered over everyone else in the halls, who made even the other football players seem small. I’ll never be sure why he targeted me, but I don’t think it was through some rigorous selection process. I happened to be a small, bookish kid with few friends. I was an introvert way before the internet made it cool. I wasn’t an obvious target, like the school’s one black kid or the school’s one (openly) gay kid. I was just the slow gazelle in the herd when the lion came prowling.

If you’ve ever been bullied then this next part will seem obvious to you, but this guy made every moment in the halls a waking nightmare. It was like reenacting a Jaws movie ever period between classes, looking furtively over my shoulder for any sign of his dorsal fin poking through the crowd towards me. Nothing that this guy did ever raised a flag with the administrators. Sure, I’d get pushed into the occasional locker or shoved down the stairs, get called faggot and homo and be propositioned to suck his cock (which seemed a hypocritical insult even at the time, though I didn’t point that out for obvious reasons). But that was “just part of growing up”, it “wasn’t a big deal” and besides, he was an all-state football player who was going to help us make the playoffs. I had to put things in perspective and not be such a pussy about it.

I also spent a good portion of sophomore year contemplating suicide, but what’s one dead kid in the grand scheme of things?

Things eventually got better, but not for the right reasons. One day he cornered me and I snapped, making a ruckus loud enough for a responsible adult to step in, realize something was wrong, and separate us. Nothing official ever came down on the star football player, but I think he realized it wasn’t going to be as fun anymore if I stopped putting up with his harassment, so he found a new target.

It was just one sad high school story and it all worked out for me. But something changed. I started noticing this behavior more and more around me and realized early on that it had nothing to do with physical size and everything to do with consent. Just a year later I saw a Hispanic kid (one of maybe three in my totally white-bread school) get picked on by a kid who associated with white supremacists. The Hispanic kid was the starting center on the football team and physically huge, but that didn’t matter – what mattered was his fear of this other guy and all the million little ways that this jerk made him miserable. In what is surely my proudest high school moment, I did the uncoolest thing possible and told a teacher about it, someone I knew would intervene, and they came down on the white supremacist kid like a pile of bricks. I spent the rest of that summer being scorned by local neo-Nazis, but if we can be measured by the quality of our enemies I take that as a pretty high compliment.

So I hate bullies and bullying. I hate it with a passion that resonates deep within me, a primal core that loathes the stupid random cruelty of it. But most of all I hate how it never really goes away. I hate how people who have been working at some place longer than somebody else will take it upon themselves to “initiate” the rookie into their culture by making their lives awful. I hate how anonymous Twitter accounts can spew venomous threats with nary a thought about how it might feel to be on the other end. I hate reading stories about kids who do what I had only considered in a moment of pain and cut their own lives short.

Bullying isn’t schoolyard bullshit. Bullying isn’t harmless, or a necessary part of growing up. It’s not good-natured or funny, though like all predators bullies try to wear those mantles to disguise their actions. Bullying is wrong, deeply wrong, on the same level of all wrongs that attempt to force someone against their will into a lower, less-worthy category of human being.

It’s easy for certain people to mock Jonathan Martin, a big strong guy who makes millions of dollars playing a game. But look through that same frame from the other side – can you imagine how awful something must be to drive a physically huge millionaire to tears? How emotionally and psychologically traumatic that must be to get him to snap like he did? And while I applaud Martin for speaking out, he is an obvious anomaly. The shy fifteen-year-old girl who uploaded a naked selfie in a moment of poor judgment doesn’t have those sort of resources to fall back on.

There’s a lot of injustice in our world. A lot of it is baked into the system – in a free market there have to be losers for there to be winners. Most governments are run by cabals of rich straight guys of the dominant local ethnicity. Most evil goes unpunished; most good goes unrewarded. And while we should continue to fight against those injustices, there is no excuse to tolerate something as odious as bullying. It’s not systematic, it’s not an inherent part of the social structure, and it’s not inevitable. It’s a malicious activity conducted by individuals who can be confronted by those with the courage to do so.

So this isn’t a call to action. This isn’t a rally cry to raise a banner or blast a trumpet or call a crusade. This is a simple request: when you see someone trying to degrade another person, stop it. As a morally functioning human being, get angry when someone is trying to lessen someone else’s humanity. Put your finger in their face and refuse to accept it.

You might just save someone’s life.

 

My Love-Hate Relationship with Miniatures

I love me some geek hobbies. Not content to play obscure computer games or waste my life away on kooky MMOs, I've always been vulnerable to the siren song of tabletop gaming.  

Part of this is my driving professional interest. When you are turned upside-down and dipped into the military world, I suppose it is only natural that you find yourself engaged in some militaristic hobbies. Paintball is fun but hurts like the dickens when you get shot. Likewise I enjoy the occasional shooting-type video game, but they tend to be pretty short and I have no great urge to subject myself to the lunacy one might find in that multiplayer crowd.

But oh, those tabletop games. With their delightful little figurines and turn-based strategy that allows me to perfectly align my plans and schemes until the moment when the dice betray me and I am trounced by a middle-schooler at the local hobby store. 

Ahem. 

This is something that I've always really wanted to get into, and have dabbled in on more than one occasion. I've tried the Warhammer and 40K circuit, the Warmachine/Hordes thing, a few weirder and quirkier things here and there. I find myself daydreaming about the fantastic armies I could be leading to glorious victory, if only for... well, a lot of things.

1. Crystal Meth is Cheaper (and Probably Better for You)

First, money. Now as a privileged white person with steady employment I am at liberty to do pretty much anything I like in our economy that doesn't involve copious amounts of precious metals. Yet even by that silly metric these hobbies seem really, really expensive. I get that is by design, but when the economic barriers to entry are so high you're really limiting yourself. Let's do some basic math. I want to embark on a campaign to build a mighty force of SPESH MAREENS. Rather than subject myself to the questionable man in a trenchcoat that is eBay, I go straight to the source over at the Games Workshop website where I am sure to see the latest in stock. My first step is to buy the rulebook, which helpfully comes with a low-cost, no-frills, black-and-white option that is 168 pages and sells for the low low price of $49.50. That's right, a tome whose length Amazon would be ashamed to sell for more than $4 runs about the same price as a slightly discounted Xbox game at Target. Right-o. I can also snag a "starter set" hobby kit for only $60. I can then buy two squads of basic Space Marines for $40 each and then a commander for $22.50... of wait, I forgot to get my army's codex, which is $58 and smaller than your average issue of Foreign Affairs. Total cost: $270. Just to compare, a Kindle Fire HD is $140. The Xbox Kinect Holiday Bundle is $250. 

I'd also like to point out that up to this point nothing I have done has been "fun", unless you find it really fun to spend a bunch of money (in which case I need to send you the link to my PayPal account). I have two obtuse rulebooks, some paints and a bunch of unassembled plastic dudes. Even once I slap them together this force, which meets the bare minimum requirements for legal play, is so laughably inadequate that most opponents would find it a waste of time to even face me.  We now see that the person willing to invest more money into their force will have many more options, giving them a decided advantage against a less-funded opponent. It's not quite so severe as in Magic the Gathering, where some rich bastard could cultivate an almost unbeatable deck, but it's still pretty bad. I mean yes yes, I get it, rich people have all sorts of advantages over less-rich people, but that's not something I want to heavily influence my leisure time. After all, if we sit down to play a game of Risk the result will hinge on our luck and skill, not our respective bank accounts.

There's also a significant fixed cost problem, since once you invest in one army it is not easy to switch factions without spending a lot more dinero. Sure the core rulebook remains the same, but now you're shelling out money for a new codex and all new figurines. Heck, you probably need to buy new paints, which brings up the next gripe:

2. Paintin' Ain't Easy

This may seem petty, but stick with me on this one. Part of the appeal of having physical miniatures instead of, say, a digital army in a video game, is that they are visually pleasing. Go to hobby store and look at the displays. They look cool, don't they? And the box art makes this little buggers look fantastic.

But most actual player armies look like sparkly turds.

Part of it is surely skill. As someone who is highly caffeinated and has the patience of a squirrel, I admit that manipulating a fine-tip paintbrush is not one of my core competencies. But I defy you to really care about detail when you are on your sixth or twelfth or twenty-eighth miniature representation of cannon fodder. It takes an absolutely stupid amount of time to do right. Which brings up the biggest problem. 

3. Time is Not on Your Side

While the monetary cost of these games is frightfully silly, their real cost is that they require an enormous investment of time. Time to read the silly rulebooks, time to assemble and paint an army, time to find an opponent, time to play a match that will probably run several hours long. 

And time is, in its own weird way, very expensive.

There is a strange American notion that poor people are in their lot because they're incredibly lazy. If they would just get off the couch then they'd find jobs and money and we'd all be better for it. Except in almost every real case I have seen, being poor is incredibly time consuming. The hardest-working person I know is the homeless guy who pushes a grocery cart up and down the Charles River trail collecting bottles that he can donate for spare change. He walks more in one morning than I do in a week just so that he can scrounge up enough to buy some awful sandwich at McDonald's.  Being poor means you probably use public transit (or walk), which takes a lot more time than driving or hailing a cab. It also means you have to budget in order to get those creature comforts like food and electricity and heat, which takes time. It means you probably can't afford higher education, which means you have to take a lower-wage job, and wouldn't you just know that taking lower wages means you have to work longer in order to make ends meets. 

Conversely, having money allows me to enjoy leisure time since my survival isn't dependent on my individual economic efficiency. If we're busy and don't feel like cooking we order out. I don't need overtime pay, so I can spend those hours at home.  

So what's the point Dave? The point is that not only do these games cost a lot of money, they cost a lot of time. That creates a double-barrier to entry into the hobby. Even if I can afford all these little pieces and am so enamored with them that only tabletop wargaming can fill the tiny plastic man-shaped hole in my heart, I may just not have enough time to engage in the hobby. This distorts the target market by narrowing it to people who have significant disposable income and enormous amounts of time on their hands, which basically leaves the game in the hands of children with very indulgent parents and well-off twats who really, really, really love Warhammer. I find this sad, because while I would love to geek out over a fake battlefield, I am not willing to do so at the expense of all my other hobbies, or my family, or my writing.

4. Miniature Creep

But what really bugs me is seeing this diabolical market seep into the roleplaying industry, where I do have a long history and vested interest.  The two biggest fish in the pond, Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, are now both using miniature-based combat systems. While I suppose this allows for a certain tactical granularity that people addle-brained enough to like Pathfinder might crave, it sucks because now you are significantly raising the costs of play. I get that the parent companies want to make profit, but making profit at the expense of narrowing your market seems like a not-so-great long term strategy. 

If I can play Apocalypse World or FATE or Burning Wheel with some dice I pocketed from the local casino, why should I now plunk down hundreds of dollars on miniatures for your system? Is it really that much more fun? And yes, I know that you can use stand-ins like pennies or counters or whatever, but that looks silly and jars me out of the game narrative. At least Warhammer has the common decency to restrict their army lists to a few dozen or so figurines each, whereas in Pathfinder you suddenly find yourself fighting dozens of ghouls because the DM just bought a ghoul figurine and feels obligated to get her money's worth.  

Miniatures are great for helping to ground a game in tactical specificity, but who gives a hoot about that in a roleplaying game? Can't you just make it up? I don't get it.

Keep it pure, friends. If you are one of the blessed few who can get a beautiful tabletop army then good for you, but roleplaying is about the story. Miniatures aren't story. They're a distraction. 

Protect the story.  

So You Want To Be An Ally...

So you’ve just learned that there is an incredible amount of injustice in the world and you want to do something about it. Congratulations kid, you just joined the resistance.

But before you raise the black flag or staging a protest or posting in the comments section of your favorite website, take a moment to think about what it means to be an ally. I’m assuming right now that you’re one of my tribe, a relatively well-to-do white person with a sense of social justice. As well-intentioned as we are, our involvement in social movements can be problematic. Let’s explore how we can be most effective in helping the cause while avoiding the pitfalls that make us look like asshats.

Don’t be the Last Samurai

There is an enormous temptation when you have your first run-in with real injustice to raise a torch and try to lead a mob to burn the whole damn thing down. Look, I get it. The scales have fallen from your eyes, you've taken the red pill, you want to make a difference right now. But chances are that there are people in your movement of choice who are considerably more aggrieved than you are and have been involved in social activism longer than you. So before you load up on ammunition, stop to educate yourself about who these people are, what they believe, and what they are doing. Acknowledge and celebrate their agency.

 There is an insidious process used by the establishment to rob these people of their victories by using people just like you.  They want to re-write history and replace it with a version that re-affirms the status quo. The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t about African Americans standing up for their own rights and forcing America to engage in its own hypocrisy; no, of course not! It was about righteous white liberals convincing those mean white conservatives to be nicer to all those black folk. Take a look back through popular history to see this in action: more people remember that Woodrow Wilson “allowed” women to vote than the Seneca Falls Convention.

Don’t fall into this trap. As someone whose traits overlap in a Venn diagram with those of the establishment, it is easy for your voice to drown out those who are more disenfranchised than you and take over the argument. Be aware of this and use your resources to amplify those other voices. Justice is about bringing the disempowered to the bargaining table, not having you advocate on their behalf.

Injustice Has Many Masks

Chances are if you live in a Western society, your world was shaped by an establishment dominated by rich white straight cisgender Christian men. One of the perils of social movements is that it is incredibly easy to fixate on one aspect of that establishment at the expense of all others: Occupy focuses on the rich, feminism focuses on the men, etc. A very successful tactic used by the establishment to stay in power is to play these movements off of each other. Don’t let them do it. None of these elements of social justice is more “important” than the other because they are all horribly intermingled in a big vat of shittiness. Rather than getting into a debate on whether rape-culture is worse than poverty or racism, embrace the passions and causes of other people and build alliances based on a shared common interest: more equal and just societies.

Similarly, it’s easy to fall into factional rivalries within movements. There are fierce debates on the relationship between pornography and feminism, rap music and racism, and other issues that inflame intense passions within movements but leave people on the sidelines scratching their heads. You may have seen the recent blow-up between two writers on Slate on whether telling young women not to binge drink was appropriately feminist or not. It caused a pretty good stink, though as an outsider both sides seemed to have reasonable points at times and at other times seemed to be talking past each other. Please take this advice: if you’re not a member of the aggrieved group, stay the hell out of these arguments. If you’re a man, getting into a debate on whether or not you’re a sex positive feminist just adds chum to the water. Just say that you’re a feminist and redirect to the debate. Let the people on the front lines be on the front lines. You’re not at the party for tactics. You’re here for logistics: amplifying voices, spreading the message, and raising awareness not just of the issues but also of their advocates.

So What Is To Be Done?

Be involved. Promote the causes that you care about while being self-aware enough to not co-opt the argument. Defend those who are being oppressed but don’t stop there; hand over the megaphone to those people so that they can exercise their own agency and defend their basic rights. It’s hard to deny someone their dignity when they refuse to give it up.

I’m Dave, and I believe in social justice. My job is to listen to brave voices, because the brave voices are the ones that can change the world.

 

The Creepshow

After a small-group simulation a student approached the teaching team complaining about another student's behavior. This student, a young and physically unimposing woman, claimed that the other student, a slightly older man with a military resume, bragged about doing a background check on her. This set off all sorts of alarm bells, and when I read through his debrief form from the exercise it turned out that lo and behold, he bragged in the debrief about the background check and what a "scary guy" he was, before degenerating into an odd political rant. Not good.

This morning the teaching team contacted the administration about this student's behavior. I was pretty riled up about the incident, since the classroom is supposed to be a safe space and I take that very seriously, but I was shocked when the program coordinator revealed that she was already aware about this person. It seems that he has made similar outbursts in other classes, making various claims about having been under house arrest, smuggling ammunition, having supervised visitation with his kids and planning to harm his ex-wife. So yay. 

The upside is that because one woman was courageous enough to step forward, and because this individual was stupid enough to write something down, and because we presented a forceful case to the administration, things are actually happening to protect her and contain this person. But Christ on the cross, what if she hadn't said anything? What if the first public acknowledgment of this guy was a sexual assault or a school shooting? 

People, there are warning signs when someone is not quite wired correctly. There is a moral obligation for responsible adults to report those signs. I know that it is uncomfortable to confront these things, but ensuring the safety of others trumps my personal comfort. 

If you see something, do something. Say something. The greatest enabler of evil is silence. 

Why Haven't You Seen Gravity Yet?

In case you missed it, a little movie by Alfonso Cuaron dominated the box office over the weekend. Savor this moment people and robots, for this is one of those rare occasions where popular taste and critical opinion overlap in a gorgeous Venn diagram of jaw-dropping awesome.

 

Gravity movie poster, courtesy Warner Bros.

Gravity movie poster, courtesy Warner Bros.

So what's it all about? Depends on how deeply you want to dive into the themes of the film, and for a 93 minute jaunt it has an awful lot of depth. On its surface this is about a survival story. The opening crawl reminds us how brutally inhospitable outer space is. Its kind of ironic that in the same week that NASA gets shut down by pettiness and short-sighted policies, a movie comes out that reminds us of how much planning and technical mastery is needed to make even a routine trip beyond the horizon. Gravity also has all the elements of a thriller, though one of those odd permutations of the genre that is absent a human antagonist. You could also slap it with the sci-fi label, as the inciting incident is the beginning of a catastrophic Kessler syndrome event, though all of the technology in play is readily available in the present day.  But Gravity isn't any of these things are its core. Not really.

 

Gravity movie poster, courtesy Warner Bros.

Gravity movie poster, courtesy Warner Bros.

Gravity is a movie about birth, rebirth, and life. It reinforces this through powerful imagery: astronauts tethered to their vehicles by umbilical cord-like ropes, fumbling through space like clumsy toddlers, curling themselves into the fetal position after an exhausting ordeal. It's a movie about a woman deciding to live, even when that choice is an enormous struggle, even when it isn't clear she has anything to live for. At its core is a powerful philosophical question - if you could choose to be born now, knowing all of life's pain and disappointments, would you choose to fight for existence?  

 

It's no wonder that Sandra Bullock is generating a lot of Oscar buzz in this role. She is the continuous thread of the movie, and while George Clooney has a few shining moments this is a story that fixates relentlessly on a female protagonists, her flaws, her strengths, and her choices. Her humanity centers the movie amidst all of the sound and fury and represents yet another powerful argument in favor of taking more risks in terms of telling female-centric stories and stretching beyond the action heroine protagonist. 

 

Gravity movie poster, courtesy Warner Bros.

Gravity movie poster, courtesy Warner Bros.

So, if you haven't seen it already, see it (preferably in a cushy theater that takes full advantage of the beautiful cinematography). If you've seen it, try seeing it again - like a great short novel, the more you think about it the more masterful it feels. I'm still looking forward to 12 Years a Slave, but Gravity is my Oscar favorite to beat.

 

 

Book Review: Happy Hour in Hell

So it's been a week since the latest from Tad Williams came out, and now that I have thoroughly sucked the marrow from its bones and finished digestion, I think I have a good sense of its merits. Well, at least good enough to share on the internet, which is an admittedly low threshold. 

Some spoilers follow. I'll try not to give up anything that would ruin it for you. 

Happy Hour in Hell is the second book in Tad's Bobby Dollar series, an urban fantasy exploration of the war between heaven, hell, and a mysterious "Third Way" faction. Bobby is a snarky but resilient angel trying to rescue his girlfriend, the demon Caz, from the clutches of Hell's royalty.

Confession time: I wasn't crazy about the first book, Dirty Streets of Heaven. It's not that it's bad. Tad Williams is far too solid of a writer to trip up with this material. But it felt... unambitious. The fictional city of San Judas didn't stand out as a setting. Too much of it seemed like Jim Butcher trying to rewrite The Screwtape Letters. I mean come on, this is Tad freakin' Williams, the guy who breaks tropes apart with a 20-lb hammer, the guy whose writing inspired George R.R. Martin to revisit fantasy as a genre. The first book was disappointing not because it was bad, but because he wasn't playing to all of his strengths. It was a lot like going to Chipotle and ordering the salad: you'll be fed, but you won't be satisfied.

But let me tell you friends, that is not the case with Happy Hour in Hell. Nosiree. 

Here Williams is taking a deep, evocative, can't-look-away exploration of an absolutely insane and imaginative version of Dante's Inferno. The change of setting bolsters the narrative like a shot of horse steroids into Alex Rodriguez. We also get a much deeper exploration of Bobby's motivations, which rounds him out as a protagonist in a way that was missing in the first book.

One of the stand-out additions of Dirty Streets of Heaven was the ghallu, a demon from ancient Mesopotamia that couldn't be stopped even by angelic powers. The ghallu was flat-out cool, classic Williams fare, and I was worried that without that sort of visceral threat in the second book it would feel a little tame. Boy, was I wrong. The latest villain, the Smyler, has all the ghallu's alien awesomeness with an extra special side of creepy. Every scene with the Smyler crackles with energy. 

I want to gush more about some of the awful aspects of the underworld and the fun twists and turns that Bobby endures (it's not a spoiler to say he endures, since the next book is already in the works) but I owe it to you to keep this one under wraps. Read Dirty Streets of Heaven for some context (it's a quick read for a weekend) and then dive straight into this awful, bloody, amazing mess. You won't regret it. 

Please Stop Selling Me Shit

You're trudging through yet another day. Let's make it a Tuesday, since it doesn't even have the predictable awfulness of Monday. Just another dreary Tuesday. Add some light rain for flavor if you so desire.

And yet as you turn the corner someone catches your eye. You know the kind of someone I'm talking about. It's hard to pinpoint what it is about them exactly that separates them from the rest of the crowd; there's just a passing moment where the light hits them and they seem more alive, more real, than anything else in the world right now. You start to get that little blush of embarrassment, scold yourself a little for having these thoughts long after you were supposed to have matured.  

But what's this? They're turning towards you, and now that certain play of light in their features is brought into even sharper contrast. They smile, and of course they're not smiling at you, but wait, they are. They're walking towards you now, taking a direct path that seems both interminably long and perilously short. They want to talk to you. Shit, do you even have anything clever to say? Your mouth feels dry. What's the last book you read? Should you open with a joke? Maybe try hello?

And then after a self-contained universe of moments they speak: 

"Would you like to know five easy ways to market yourself on social media?" 

Now don't you see how quickly all the sexy just drains out of that scene. You couldn't kill the interest faster if you dropped a truckload of grandmothers into the mix (sorry Grandma). 

Regardless of what anyone tells you, regardless of how many Mad Men episodes you've seen, salesmanship is unsexy. Terribly so. The moment that you wind up into a sales pitch I feel like a sucker, a rube. Call me naive, but I didn't follow you or friend you or whatever so that you could pour marketing strategy down my gullet. I thought you had something to say. I wanted to learn more about you. Hear a few jokes. Get a sense of your inner world.  

So why does some social media seem to really help people? Here's the trick: it's because they're actually people. I hadn't read a Tad Williams book in almost 20 years, but I bought his last one, and I'm going to buy the next one. Why? Because Tad has a secret weapon: his wife is totally awesome on Twitter [edit: her name is Deborah. I am fairly sure she doesn't go around introducing herself as Tad Williams' wife]. She sends out cool articles, shares jokes, has honest opinions on real issues. And she posts about Tad's books. So when I am perusing my Kindle about to make an impulse purchase, I remember that cool person I follow on Twitter and pick up the book associated with that person.

Ditto Chuck Wendig. I don't have the statistics in front of me (note to self: renew Stata account), but if I had to guess I would say that 90% of his posts have nothing to do with trying to sell anyone anything. Most of them are (inappropriate) jokes. Lots of them are conversations with friends. I've never met the guy, probably will never meet the guy, but he seems like a real person in the real world doing real things. So when he says he has a new book he's nervous about because it is uncharted territory for him, I'm gonna check it out, even if I don't normally read YA. Why? Because I can envision my $3.99 going to a real person, and not some faceless PayPal account. 

Likewise, look over at Kristin McFarland and Emmie Mears. Both of them are pre-published. I have only the vaguest inkling of what their current manuscripts are about. But I guarantee that the moment they are set to print I will buy them. Why? Because they're both real people, actively promoting issues that I care about. They talk about their lives, their hopes, their funny observations about work. 

So please, please please please stop trying to sell me your stuff. If you are cool I will probably buy it anyway. 

Observations on the Generational Divide

So lots of people want to start a conversation about a generation gap, but it usually breaks down into "what the heck is wrong with Millenials" somewhere along the line. This exploration of cultural nuance would be interesting if it didn't seem so one-sided. I don't mind Boomers and Gen-Xers asking these sorts of things, but a lot of their questions could be answered by checking the mirror. 

My boss is a Boomer. He makes six figures and lives comfortably. He's a nice enough guy but doesn't seem particularly introspective (which is a sadly common trait in American academia). He likes to vent his frustrations about my colleagues to me, maybe because I'm an oldish Millenial, maybe because of my military background, I dunno. But he keeps going on and on about how things have changed with young Americans, how they frustrate him, and how it impacts his job satisfaction.

Well then. 

I don't know what you do all day. The common charge laid at Millenials is that we're lazy and self-absorbed. I don't have much of a frame of reference for the self-absorbed thing, other than self-interest being a driving aspect of human nature in every country I have visited. I do take umbrage with the lazy charge though, because I get a lot of shit done. As do my peers. And we seem to get it done a lot faster than you. But you seem to place an inherent value on long hours, time spent in the office, total dedication to one aspect of your life. That seems completely flipping crazy to me, especially when it becomes painfully obvious in casual conversation that you are out of touch with the broader culture all around you. You treat work-life balance as a joke (more on that later) which really makes it hard for me to take it seriously when you want a menial task done. Even more so when you have a legion of minions on hand to do these menial tasks.

I am pretty sure I could do your job. I'm not saying that you're bad at your job; you're actually great at it. But you're not so great as to be irreplaceable. And when I watch you make the same presentation, the same joke, the same teaching point over and over again, I start to suspect that there isn't some magic fairy dust that entitles you to power and privilege, but rather that you've created a sort of occupational Groundhog Day where you've done it so long that you're on autopilot all day. Well here's the thing: now I know the routine too. I've done all of your grunt work. I know the super secret grading rubric, and case studies, and if you got hit by a bus on the way to the office I am pretty sure that everything would go fine. Again, it's not that I'm wishing you ill, I'm just not that impressed with you after getting a closer look. Which leads into another thing.

You're not fooling us as well as you think you are. We see the wink-wink nudge-nudge of the awful system your generation built for us. We aren't fooled when you shake your finger at us for being overweight when you train us to eat pre-packaged food-like products and sit at a desk for 14 hours a day. We aren't chastised when you deride us for our inability to find the jobs that you've been sitting in for decades. We don't appreciate your snide remarks about work-life balance when we've lived through divorces and bankruptcies. I remember three years ago being shocked when my dad broke down crying on Father's Day because I bought him some concert tickets. I found out later that he'd lost his job the day before. I remember feeling numb when the sensible mutual fund I'd been investing in since I was 18 melted away in the second half of September 2008. My grandfather, who took 3 sick days in over 40 years of work, now lives alone in an empty house. According to the IRS he's rich. You know what his only regret is? That he didn't spend the money taking my grandmother on vacation before she died.

So don't ask if our priorities are in order, or what's wrong with us, or ask why we act this way. Ask if this is really the best you can do with the time you've been given, because if it's not, get out of the way so that we can have a shot. 

Book Review: Under the Empyrean Sky

So, new book out by Chuck Wendig! Also his first YA novel, which is something intriguing in and of itself.  

How does it play in Peoria? Let's dive in fellow robots!

The Skinny 

The book is the first of a trilogy and takes place in the Heartland, a sort of dystopian nightmare version of the American Midwest. I'm not sure how well this will resonate with people who grew up outside of the corn belt, but as someone with a young spent amongst the stalks I can say that it hit home. Folks, corn is effin' creepy. There's a reason nobody is afraid of the Children of the Soy Beans. Endless fields of corn have an alien, elemental feel to them: we know that this is unnatural, something that would not be without the interference of man. So the notion of Hiram's Golden Prolific, a monster corn out of some Monsanto engineer's wet dream that consumes everything in its path, is something that scares the bejeezus out of me.

Navigating this crazy world is young Cael MacAvoy, captain of the Big Sky Scavengers. Cael's doing the typical teenage stuff. You know, avoid a loveless arranged marriage, search the ruins of civilization for scrap, discover the origins of a mysterious and forbidden garden. Without coming under scrutiny from the all-seeing forces of the mighty Empyrean flotilla floating over his dilapidated town. 

One of Chuck Wendig's signatures is that you crave the world-building exposition parts that make most spec-fic unbearable. His imagination is a fierce, wild thing out of a crazy Animal Planet documentary. He's the Dungeon Master you wish you had freshman year. 

The book also features some great diversity from a story set in an alternative Midwest. One of Cael's best friends is a (very believably written) closeted gay man, while the other is a chubby Hispanic kid from a broken home. Some of the other locals feature in surprising and sympathetic ways. You always get the nagging feeling that these would be great NPCs in your own game.

Some of the pre-release buzz was that it was getting negative reviews due to language. For the most part that is a gross exaggeration. While there are a few coarse moments, there's nothing that would shock a reader who was actually Cael's age (especially  when real-life 12-year-olds are calling each other faggots on Facebook).  

There's only one kernel of doubt in this otherwise fine crop, and it's a problem most authors would kill to have. The world feels so real and the supporting cast has such depth that Cael comes off as a little unsurprising. Chances are you knew kids just like him in school, or were one yourself. It's not that this is a bad thing, but when Lane and Rigo and Gwennie have such vivid inner lives you kinda wish you got to spend more time in their headspace.

Thank Lord and Lady there's two more books yet to come. Pick this up now so you can look all smug when they make it into a movie.