For further comment–Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

Bio of a nerd

1977 was a good year for me. First, it’s the year that I was born, which makes it a banner year in my personal history. It’s also the year that the United States launched the two Voyager probes into deep space.

It’s also the year that Star Wars was released.

I grew up with Star Wars. I’m told that my parents saw it for the first time when I was six weeks old. They went to a drive-in theater, and I was asleep in the back seat. My earliest memory of going to a movie theater was seeing Star Wars. I also remember being scared of the Jawas, so much so that I started crying and my mom ended up taking me out of the theater. (I think that my younger brother has forgiven me for this….) We had Star Wars toys. Of course we pretended to fight with light sabers.

Of course, over time, the obsession with Star Wars faded. The trilogy was complete, and people moved on to other things. That’s right; there was a stretch of time during the late 1980s that Star Wars was largely dead as a brand. (Apparently West End Games’ Star Wars roleplaying game kept the flame alive. But I digress.)

The spark was reignited in 1991 with the release of Heir to the Empire, the beginning of a Star Wars novel trilogy by Timothy Zahn. I devoured that series and found myself reconnecting with the new flood of Star Wars material that began to be released.

And then, of course, the prequels.

My wife arranged for us to go to a midnight viewing of The Phantom Menace when it came out.

When Yoda drew his light saber in Attack of the Clones, I cheered with the rest of the theater.

And, I’ll be honest: when Amidala died in childbirth in Revenge of the Sith, I cried.

The mythology of Star Wars has been a central part of my life. And so, when I heard that a new sequel trilogy was coming out, I was thrilled.

We dodged spoilers. We watched The Force Awakens in 3D at the local big screen theater. It should have been awesome!

But it wasn’t. I really, really didn’t like it.

More recently, I rewatched it with the family, and I decided to give the movie another chance.

And I still didn’t like it.

I know I represent the minority, and it feels like questioning a geek sacrament of some sort, but I think that The Force Awakens is a fundamentally flawed film that betrays its legacy as a Star Wars movie.

Now, I could have just kept this opinion to myself, but I decided to admit this on social media. The response was interesting. Of course, some folk disagreed with me–I would expect nothing less–but I discovered a thread of agreement and support. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. So I figured that it would be good for me to outline my thinking on this matter. I won’t lie; some of this is probably just thinly disguised nerd rage, and I’m trying to keep that in mind to give this issue some needed perspective. But some of this also spills out into larger issues of social commentary, responsible storytelling, and even the business of geek culture. So, hopefully, somewhere in the midst of all of this discussion, you will find something valuable, even if you disagree.

Star Wars as myth making

Let me start by outlining one of my underlying assumptions: Star Wars isn’t science fiction. This isn’t an idea unique to me by any stretch. I’ve heard Star Wars called “galactic fantasy”, which seems closer to the truth. But I’m going to go all literary theorist here and argue that Star Wars is best understood as existing in the tradition of epic myth. When I say “epic”, I don’t mean the scale of the action–though there’s certainly that–but rather I’m referring to the subject material, Over here at Wikipedia, an epic poem is defined as “a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation.” The article goes on to note that “[c]lassical epic employs dactylic hexameter and recounts a journey, either physical (as typified by Odysseus in the Odyssey) or mental (as typified by Achilles in the Iliad) or both. Epics also tend to highlight cultural norms and to define or call into question cultural values, particularly as they pertain to heroism.”

This isn’t surprising. Anyone who has spent time around Star Wars knows that George Lucas relied heavily on Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth theory, first laid out in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, especially the idea of the “hero’s journey”. Campbell’s theory is not universally accepted, but it’s fair to say that the hero’s journey as he outlines it has deep roots, at least in Western culture, and taps certain fundamental storytelling archetypes.

Here’s where I admit something that I’ve secretly thought for a while: Star Wars is a terrible example of world-building, at least as an alternate reality. I cannot look at the world of Star Wars and envision “normal life” or the like happening outside the frame of the film. I don’t believe any of the planets that are shown (e.g. Tatooine or Hoth) being actual places.

But that’s fine, because Star Wars isn’t trying to set up an alternate reality. Instead, it is creating a collection of environments as different set dressings to bring vibrancy to the grand theater that it is creating for us. Hoth isn’t really a planet; it’s an environment for our characters to stand on. Viewed from this angle, Star Wars does a fabulous job of creating archetypal environments for its characters to inhabit.

The characters are also archetypes. Luke, Leia, and Han aren’t merely interesting characters in a clever setting. Each of them are resonant with fundamental Western storytelling archetypes. Han is the Rogue and Trickster–thus the whole brouhaha about Han shooting first. Leia isn’t just a princess; she is The Princess. And Luke is the Chosen One, who follows a classic arc: starting in obscurity, his destiny is revealed to him by an ancient wizard (Kenobi) who gives him his father’s sword and ushers him onto the pathway of destiny, where he rescues the princess from the evil fortress and conquers the villain…at least for now.

This isn’t just the sketch of A New Hope; it’s a sketch of one of the West’s core stories.

The complexity and nuance of this story only increases with the release of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, by tying in the themes of family, temptation, sacrifice, dedication, and redemption. By the end of the original trilogy, we have received a story that has highlighted and celebrated a variety of cultural values, especially around heroism. Star Wars is our culture’s epic.

I think that it’s valuable to consider the prequels through this lens. If the original trilogy was about redemption, the prequels were about corruption. They had to be, and we all knew it. Rather than being a heroic epic, they were a tragic epic, again using the Greek definition: a hero overcome by his fatal flaw.

Consider that there are two tragic heroes in the prequels: Anakin and Kenobi. Kenobi is tragic, because he allows his dedication to his dead master to blind him to the emerging problems with Anakin. Anakin is tragic because his desire to love ultimately leads him to betray the Jedi Order and bring about so much evil.

I think that the prequels were attempting to set this up, but they failed in execution. I think that Lucas focused too much on the idea that his audience was children and therefore watered down what he was doing. Jar Jar Binks is the obvious example, but even the use of slapstick robots as the enemy reduced the dramatic tension of the story. And, yeah, the romance between Anakin and Amidala just wasn’t handled well.

The ideas were there. It could have worked. Instead, the prequels represent a flawed attempt to tell another epic on the same stage. It should have worked, but it didn’t.

That all said, I do want to defend the prequels by noting that they felt like another epic story. They felt like Star Wars, even when they were tripping over their own feet.

And this is what I think was missing from The Force Awakens: epic storytelling. Unlike the original trilogy and, to a lesser extend, the prequels, the characters in The Force Awakens did not hearken back to culturally accepted archetypes, nor did the storytelling highlight particular cultural norms.

Or, maybe this is a more precise way of stating the point: the culture from which The Force Awakens drew its archetypes had changed. The previous movies were drawing on archetypes derived from classic storytelling.

The Force Awakens derived its archetypes from Star Wars.

So, for example, I’d argue that Rey is intended to be a new Luke Skywalker character. She is cut from the same cloth: mysterious parentage, desert upbringing, Force empowered. She even wears the same kinds of clothing as Luke does in A New Hope.

There are other correspondences. Poe is the new Han Solo. Finn is arguably the new Princess Leia. There’s even a new R2-D2 in BB-8. We are supposed to read their characters through the lens of prior Star Wars lore and make these connections.

There’s another term for this approach: nostalgia. The Force Awakens is not an epic film; it is a nostalgic film. It is an attempt to recapture the original feeling of watching A New Hope for the first time while introducing the new characters necessary to extend the brand into a new generation. All the trappings are present, but the mythic power of the original is gone. And that makes all the difference in the world.

More on The Force Awakens and nostalgia

Here’s my next objection to The Force Awakens. Not only did the movie trade mythic power for nostalgia, but then it did failed to do nostalgia well. Let me explain what I mean.

When A New Hope came out, the slate was blank. There were no previous films or stories that needed to be honored. This was the beginning. By the time that The Force Awakens hits the scene, though, this is no longer true. There are six movies’ worth of previous story that need to be honored. Okay, if you want to leave out the prequels, then there are still three movies’ of previous story that need to be honored. And I don’t believe that they were.

Before I proceed, let me admit a couple of things up front. First, this is definitely where the nerd rage is hitting. Second, some of this is surprisingly emotional for me. In fact, I will organize the following section along those lines.

First, some nerd rage.

I know that The Force Awakens is trying to replicate A New Hope. However, this ends up producing nonsensical results. For instance, consider the entire political situation sketched out in the opening crawl of The Force Awakens. We have the First Order, which is the heir to the old Empire, doubtless underfunded and reduced to guerilla action in the wake of the loss of leadership and resources in the decisive Battle of Endor. Oh wait. No, it’s not. The First Order is depicted as having the same reach, organization, and power as the old Empire…somehow.

But no matter! The Republic, seeing this threat emerging, masses its sizeable fleets and goes on the offensive, crushing the upstart First Order before it can become established…or maybe instead, it’ll set up a guerilla group with a secret base, equipped with only X-wing fighters because…um…I don’t really know.

No, really! Think about it! How does any of that make any sense at all. The Republic won, remember? They are the government now, not the First Order. That means that they don’t need to lead an insurgency. They have an army! So why don’t they use it?

For that matter, to get really picky here for a second, why does the Resistance only send X-wings after Starkiller Base? I’m thinking that some B-wing bombers or Y-wing torpedo fighters would have been pretty useful, especially in attacking a fixed position like that. I mean, if you’ve decided to leave all your MC80 star cruisers home for some reason.

The situation simply doesn’t make sense, given what has come before. We know that the Rebellion was able to field a substantive armada at the Battle of Endor, and that’s while it’s still an insurgency. The entire Resistance strategy makes no sense at all.

Furthermore, I object to the ongoing withholding of information that the movie trafficked in. Despite its unfortunate clickbait title, this video outlines the issue pretty well. None of the previous Star Wars movies created tension by withholding information. Certainly, we were surprised by revelations (“No, Luke. I am your father!”), but we were not teased with hints that would be paid off in a later installment. Why aren’t even we told who Snokes is? Or why are we teased with Rey’s backstory? To put it bluntly (and a little petulantly), Star Wars isn’t Lost. Yet The Force Awakens seems to delight in dangling information just out of reach.

Now, I’m going to pivot into more emotional space. But this is fair, I think. Nostalgia is an appeal to the emotions by drawing on treasured symbols. So, it’s only fair to ask: how did The Force Awakens do at handling treasured symbols? We did get to see many of the previous Star Wars characters. How did that go?

Now, remember my own history. I am squarely in the target audience for this movie. The Force Awakens is hearkening back to the stories of my childhood. Add to this my prior discussion of the archetypal aspects of the original characters. The Force Awakens is conjuring with powerful magic.

And, in my opinion, this is perhaps the most profound place that the movie fails.

The last time we saw all these characters was at the victory celebration on Endor after the destruction of the second Death Star. Luke has become a Jedi. Han and Leia have finally figured out their relationship. The Emperor is dead, and the Empire is defeated. All is right with the world.

Until the beginning of The Force Awakens, when each one of these items is systematically destroyed.

Every single one of the original characters are failures. Luke has failed as a Jedi Master, so badly, in fact, that he has fled into exile. The Empire is resurgent, and Snokes is functionally a new Emperor. The movie is particularly hard on Han. He’s really only had two loves in his life: the Millennium Falcon and Leia. And, at the beginning of the movie, he has lost both of them.

What’s worse, these failures are off-screen. We don’t experience them as the story unfolds. No, we are just informed that all of these characters’ previous victories have been negated. Instead, we find the original cast as broken shells of what they once were. Even the droids are not immune, as R2-D2 has shut down in apparent mourning after Luke disappeared.

Everything fell apart in the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

Yes, I know that there needs to be conflict for the story to exist. But the conflict could have built on the characters’ successes as they try to wage the peace. However, in their zeal to remake A New Hope, the filmmakers essentially undid all the previous characters’ successes.

Just think of that victory scene at the end of Return of the Jedi. Then think, “Meaningless. It didn’t matter.”

Because, remember, these aren’t “realistic” characters. They are archetypes. Negating their victories is like negating the “happily ever after” at the end of a fairy tale.

Or, for certain, that’s what it felt like to me. As I’m writing this, I’m discovering (a little uncomfortably, to be honest) how much this story is tied up in my identity. These characters have been a really big deal to me for a really long time. And, rooted deeply in these stories, is the simple idea that good prevails over evil through acts of love and courage.

But, according to The Force Awakens, apparently not. It was all futile. Which means that love and courage in the face of evil are futile.

I need to put in a particular word here about Han and Leia’s divorce, because this hit me particularly hard. In classic storytelling, a happy ending often includes a marriage. And that’s what you see at the end of Return of the Jedi. Sure, the marriage happens off-screen, but you know it will happen. And they all lived happily ever after.

Except that no one believes in that anymore, especially about marriage.

Divorce is endemic in our society. It’s gotten to the point that we’ve grown accustomed to it, like marriage is a long-term lease instead of a lifelong commitment. Broken families are becoming the norm, and the fallout is apparent in the children.

But still, our myths point towards something better. Towards lifelong fidelity and the beauty of family and childrearing. And yes, we all know that “happily ever after” takes a lot of work, but the stories hold up the ideal as something to be embraced, pursued, and achieved.

Even Star Wars adopted this view. I know that the Extended Universe has been ruled non-canonical, but it was really neat seeing Han and Leia try to work out how to be married and be parents. It wasn’t always easy, but they worked hard at being married.

But The Force Awakens destroyed that. No “happily ever after” for Han and Leia. And that hurt me deeply. It felt like a denial, at a fundamental level, of the possibility of wedded bliss for anyone. Because if the hero and the princess can’t stay married, what hope do the rest of us have?

Some thoughts from the real world

Okay. That got pretty heavy. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I consider The Force Awakens to be a conscious assault on my childhood. But that’s not actually fair to Disney. I understand that all of this is actually about brand management.

Here’s the deal. Despite everything I outlined above, Star Wars is not a cultural treasure held in the public domain, like The Odyssey or Shakespeare’s plays. Star Wars is an intellectual property, owned by a corporation, that intends on leveraging its IP for profit.

As an outsider observer, here’s what I see. Star Wars still has a lot of power as an IP. However, the perception is that brand loyalty took a serious hit after the prequels. So, in order to revitalize the brand, Disney needed to restore fan confidence. Making a seventh Star Wars movie makes all kinds of sense. There were always hints that there was supposed to be a trilogy after the original trilogy. By making this trilogy, Disney leverages this expectation, drawing a lot of fan attention. Then, by successfully executing on the first release, they lay the foundations for a host of other movies, including, of course, all the attendant merchandizing and the like.

However, the original cast members are getting old. So, for this all to work, Disney needs to introduce new characters for a new generation of Star Wars stories. Thus Rey, Finn, Poe, and the others.

Furthermore, Disney has already seen a lot of success with a shared cinematic universe in its Marvel superhero films. (Remember that Disney also owns Marvel.) So, they are executing the same strategy here. For example, there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out in December 2016: Rogue One. It’s not actually part of any trilogy. Instead, it’s a standalone story set in the Rebellion era of the Star Wars continuity, focusing on the spies that stole the plans for the original Death Star. There’s also a forthcoming movie starring a young Han Solo. (See this article for more details on Disney’s strategy.)

But it all hinges on the first movie out of the gate being solid. Have to get it right, or everything else collapses. So, given all the money that’s at stake, best to play it safe. A functional soft reboot of the franchise is a great way to get everything going. And, yeah, be sure to include a trench run, just like in A New Hope. The audience will love it.

I know that J.J. Abrams wasn’t trying to ruin my childhood. It’s just a series of business decisions that led to this approach to the story.

Which brings me to my last thought. I’ll admit that this is a bit unformed, but I think it’s worth consideration.

A while ago, I came across the article “On Geek Culture”. In it, the author argues that geek culture has become just another form of brand loyalty. Here’s an extended quote from the article:

Most alarming is that, almost exclusively, the media being so strongly identified with is corporate and ruthlessly capitalist in nature. Star Trek might present an optimistic and inspiring vision of the future, which any American liberal would like to see, but it’s a vision wholly owned and operated by CBS. Star Wars is now held by Disney and all of their attendant copyright shenanigans. So, too, is Marvel Comics — a company recently focused to an alarming degree on denying ownership rights to its content creators (watching comic book fans contorting themselves in order to justify continuing to support Marvel while admitting their favorite creators are left destitute by the company’s practices is depressing). Even Dungeons and Dragons — market leader in a dwindling cottage industry — is run by a subsidiary of toy behemoth Hasbro.

As a thought experiment, imagine brand loyalty that doesn’t have people nearly coming to blows over Doctor Who and Star Wars; think, instead, of the argument in question being over Disney and BBC. Or, for a starker contrast, instead of people dressed as Marvel characters at ComicCon, imagine Geico geckos or Progressive Insurance Flos. This is essentially already happening: what is Superman in the twenty-first century but a corporate mascot, albeit one with a lavish backstory? It’s no wonder that non-geeky media desperately tries to cultivate geek cred in the form of viral commercials or a presence at conventions. Having brand loyalty so intense that it can incite real or simulated violence would be a remarkable windfall for any company able to harness it.

The author’s premise wasn’t universally accepted. Indeed, there were a couple of responses (here and here) which are worth reading.

But it did get me thinking. Something seems a bit off in our current relationship with stories, if the primary influences that shape them are profit motive and not a desire to tell the truth.

In addition, are my fellow nerds and I being exploited for corporate gain? This is a subculture that has traditionally had a serious inferiority complex. Witness this music video to get an idea of what I’m talking about. But now, our interests have become mainstream. In our thrill of being accepted, are we being taken for a ride?

Or am I overthinking this one? “Corporate” doesn’t have to equal “evil”, right? And certainly, without a large bankroll, the quality and production values of movies would be less. I do still love a good spectacle.

Yet still, I’m left wondering if we’ve allowed ourselves to become merely consumers of stories and not producers. Surely our own communities, be they local or interest-based, could benefit from stories created for our benefit, and not merely for an outsider’s profit. Is it time to strike out on our own and make our own stories? And what would that look like?

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! I appreciate your willingness to read through my thoughts. I don’t know if I’ve managed to persuade you, but I hope you can understand my perspective on this matter. Honestly, now that I’ve finished writing this article, perhaps I can consider the matter properly exorcised from my mind, letting me move on to other things.

I do know one thing, though.

They should have just made Timothy Zahn’s “Thrawn” trilogy into the new Star Wars trilogy. That would have been so much better!

Thanks for reading.


A review of Kodama: The Tree Spirits

Introduction

In 2014, Daniel Solis released another of his POD card games. I’d been looking forward to this one for a while. It had the aesthetic feel I like, both in game design and actual graphic design. In this game, you are all using cards to create little ink drawings of trees and scoring points based on the flowers, dragonflies, and the like that inhabit the various branches.

It’s called Kigi.

So, when I heard that Action Phase Games was planning on redeveloping Kigi into a new game, I was intrigued. I won’t lie; I was debating what my interest level was. Did I really need a mere variant of Kigi if I already owned Kigi?

But then, as I saw the game art, I realized that my daughter Hope (who turns 7 today!) would love it. And as I heard about the changes that Action Phase made to the gameplay, I became more interested. So I backed the Kickstarter for Kodama.

I’m really glad that I did.

Gameplay

In Kodama, you’re trying to grow the best tree for the little tree spirits to inhabit. You each start with a trunk with one of six features on it: a caterpillar, a star, a cloud, a mushroom, a firefly, or a flower. Then, on your turn, you take a branch card from a display of four cards and adding it to your tree. The end of the branch must touch the bark on a previous card, and you can only touch one other card. However, to be clear, you do not have to play on a grid or anything. So your tree tends to grow in semi-organic ways.

These branches have one or more of the same features that are on the trunks, and those control how you score points. For each feature on the branch you just played, score one point for each matching feature in a contiguous line down the branch until you reach a branch without that feature or you reach the trunk. You’re not allowed to play a branch card that scores more than ten points, which also encourages you to diversify your branches, spreading out in a few directions. This might sound complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple once you see it. Again, Hope has this figured out, so it can’t be that tricky.

Four turns comprises a season, of which there are three in a game. (There’s no winter, because trees don’t grow in winter. Savvy?) At the end of each season, each player plays one of the four Kodama cards that they were dealt at the beginning of the game. These represent the tree spirits judging your work and are essentially special scoring cards, such as “Score two points for each feature on branch cards that touch your trunk card” or “Score four points for each branch card with your trunk’s feature that is within two cards of your trunk card” or “Score two points for each cloud or flower on your tree, whichever is fewer”.

Oh yes, there are also the Decrees. These are special laws dictated by the spirits for the duration of a season. Each season has its own deck of Decrees. In the basic game, each season has five possible Decrees, of which you’ll only use one per game. (That’s 125 possible combinations, for those keeping track.) My deluxe Kickstarter version actually includes nine of each, which is 729 possible combinations. These are little effects like “After placing a branch card that touches your trunk card, gain three points”, “At the end of this season, choose an end branch card on your tree and score it again”, or “Score one point when placing a branch card with a firefly or a star on it”. These provide additional opportunities to be considered while playing the game while keeping gameplay fresh.

After three seasons (aka 12 turns) the game is over. Whoever has the most points wins!

Some Clever Marketing

Here I must discuss briefly the genius of the winner card. I don’t know if the winner card exists in the base game, but it was certainly included in my Kickstarter edition. Here’s how this works: whoever wins gets the winner card. That means they get to decorate their finished tree with the little cardboard Kodama that came with the game. Then, you’re supposed to take a picture of the winner with the winning tree and post it on social media with the hashtag #kodama.

In other words, this game provides a built-in victory ceremony which naturally turns into free advertising for the game.

As I say: genius. Really, I tip my hat to Action Phase Games for coming up with this idea. It feels like such a natural part of the game while improving the marketing of the game at the same time. Everyone wins!

Playing with Hope

Daniel Solis, the designer of Kodama, has commented that he has stumbled into designing a number of games that gamer parents can play with their children. Kodama is no exception. As I mentioned, I primarily backed Kodama to have a game to play especially with Hope, and that seems to have worked out well.

There are a few reasons for this. The graphic design and basic gameplay certainly help. There’s something satisfying about growing a little tree, even if you don’t win. Also, the math that the game requires is essentially just counting, which makes it easier for Hope to engage with. The Decrees are also pretty simple to get, and in our last game Hope was considering the bonuses from Decrees and reminding me to score them.

The only area that could be difficult is the actual Kodama cards. And this is where Action Phase Games had their other stroke of genius in developing the game. They included three sets of special Kodama cards called Sprouts which are specifically intended to be used by children. Each set is comprised of three little Kodama, each labeled for the season they are intended for. Taken together, each set of Sprouts essentially rewards collecting two features. For example, one set has these scoring conditions: “Score five points for each branch card with a firefly or flower on it that touches your trunk” for Spring, “Score 3 points for each branch card on your tree with a firefly or flower on it” for Summer, and “Score 1 point for each firefly or flower on your tree” for Fall. So, when Hope has this set of Sprouts, all she needs to focus on is collecting lots of fireflies and flowers. That’s a much simpler initial heuristic than trying to understand a hand of Kodama cards.

Oh, and last game, she scored about 20 points per Kodama card, which gave her the game in a five-player game.

In essence, the Sprouts represent an elegant handicapping system allowing young children to play Kodama with older children or parents and actually be competitive. I won’t lie; this might be my favorite part of the game.

Differences from Kigi

For those of you curious, here are some of the ways that Kigi is different from Kodama.

First, in Kigi, you can play on anyone’s tree to score points, not just your own. In addition, instead of there being a rule against branch placements that score more than ten points, in Kigi this triggers a pruning that cuts that entire branch back to the trunk, thus resetting that scoring opportunity.

Also, In Kigi, the bonus scoring cards are shuffled into the deck with the branch cards and must be chosen from the display instead of taking a branch card. These bonus cards (called Commissions) represent end game goals that can now be scored by anyone, like “have the fewest flowers on your tree” or “have the most pruned cards” or the like. At the end of the game, each Commission is worth ten points to the player who fulfills it. If you took the action to choose the Commission, you win ties. If the display ever fills up with Commissions, then it clears and refills from the deck. So, it’s not a given that any particular Commission with end up in play. Unless, you know, you make sure that it enters play.

These factors aren’t the only differences, but they are probably the most significant. They make Kigi a potentially more confrontational game, as players can sabotage other players’ trees through triggering pruning or by adjusting feature count to skew Commission scoring.

Conclusion

I was really happy with Kigi when it came out. It slotted into a neat place in my collection, being able to play with a wide range of players, including relatively young players like Hope.

But I can’t lie. I think that Kodama has fired Kigi. Here’s why.

First, removing the competitive card play and, therefore, the pruning, allows the game to be about building up. At the end of a game of Kigi, you’d frequently have several players with only stumps of trees, due to particularly brutal pruning. Kodama fulfills the promise of Kigi by giving each player a beautiful, unique tree at the end of each game. Win or lose, you walk away being able to feel proud of yourself for having accomplished something, which also fits the comtemplative feel that Kigi presented but didn’t necessarily provide.

Also, being dealt a hand of Kodama at the beginning of the game provides strategic direction beyond merely lining up the most features. Ideally, you want to consider your hand of Kodama at the beginning of the game and plan which one will be played in which season–and therefore which one will not be played–and grow your tree accordingly. Kigi was purely tactical, but Kodama actually introduces strategy into the gameplay.

The Decrees are another pleasant addition that further diversify gameplay, which should help keep the game fresh for many plays.

And, I have to admit, the Kodama are all so darned cute!

Kodama should be available from your local gaming store starting April 24. Pick yourself up a copy!


Quote of the moment

From “The Return to the Bible” by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

From the moment that philosophy was given the place of revelation in our studies and in our pulpits, things really began to go wrong. Of course, for a time, people continued to attend church and chapel in fairly large numbers, partly out of mere habit and custom, without realizing exactly what was happening, but we can be perfectly certain that the Church lost her authority and power from the moment that she ceased to believe firmly in the authority of the Word of God, and when she became doubtful and hesitant in her presentation of its doctrines to the people.

From the moment that the idea began to gain currency that the Bible was the history of the quest of mankind for God, rather than God’s revelation of Himself and the only way of salvation to mankind, the Church began to decline and to wane in her influence and in her power. From the time the Church threw overboard the great evangelical doctrines, and substituted for them a belief in the moral and spiritual evolution of mankind, and began to preach a social gospel rather than a personal salvation — from that moment church attendance really became a mere matter of form, or a merely pleasant way of gratifying one’s appetite for ceremony, ritual, oratory, and music.

HT: John D. (though he doesn’t know it yet)


Unknown Armies 3e and loving people

The third edition of Unknown Armies is currently on Kickstarter. This was one of the more significant roleplaying games in my past, so I was positively required to back this one. This got me access to the Gamma edition of the rules, so I’ve been reading.

Oh my.

The second edition of Unknown Armies came out in 2002, which means that it’s been 14 years since it was published. In the interim, there’s been both a lot of history and a lot of development in RPG game mechanics. Both of these have been rolled into this new edition.

Last time I was rhapsodizing about Unknown Armies on this blog, I talked a lot about the Madness Meters. Now they are called Shock Gauges, and Greg Stolze has doubled down on their inclusion. Without going into too many details, the Shock Gauges are now the mechanical core of your character. Not only do they define your psychological profile, they set your core skills, which are the basis for the relationships and identities (e.g. player-defined skill sets). Everything radiates from your core psychological state.

Add to this rules to manage a sandbox approach to play (the Objective system), collaborative character creation, and GM advice which seems like the MC advice from Apocalypse World filtered through UA glasses (a really good thing, from my perspective), and you are left with a modernized version of a classic. Folks, I want to play this so hard.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to talk about how Unknown Armies loves people.

That’s kind of a weird assertion to make. After all, Unknown Armies is known for horrible things happening to–and being done by–its characters. How could a game like this be accused of actually being warm towards humanity?

Unknown Armies has always been humanocentric horror. It’s almost the exact opposite of Lovecraftian horror, in fact. Lovecraftian horror is all about the cold, uncaring cosmos and the lack of human meaning. In the Unknown Armies universe, everything is humanity’s fault: the good and the bad alike. The world is a cosmic democracy; we make it what it is. Thus the “you did it” slogan from bygone days.

This edition of Unknown Armies does the best job of all the editions of capturing this humanocentric approach within its mechanics. You’re not creating a power fantasy with which you will be awesome. Rather, the rules guide you into making an emotionally real character who is still obsessed enough to chase something and pay the price. And you will pay the price. Both the rules text and the game mechanics enforce this. First, obviously, there are the Shock Gauges that will track the mental and emotional impact of what you have done and what has been done to you. Also, violence is brutal. In Unknown Armies, the characters’ “hit points” are tracked by the GM. The player isn’t allowed to track them or know what they are. Instead, they have to rely on the narrative description of their injuries provided by the GM. Gimmicky? Not really. Instead, by introducing uncertainty, the players respond towards the violence in more reasonable ways. They don’t know how hard they can push without suddenly dying. Combat in Unknown Armies tends to involve a lot of taking cover and scurrying from one location to another. Even magickal adepts can go down to a gunshot to the head.

The rules text amps this up, too. Here’s the quote from the beginning of the combat chapter in both the second and third editions:

Somewhere out there is someone who had loving parents, watched clouds on a summer’s day, fell in love, lost a friend, is kind to small animals, and knows how to say “please” and “thank you,” and yet somehow the two of you are going to end up in a dirty little room with one knife between you and you are going to have to kill that human being.

It’s a terrible thing. Not just because he’s come to the same realization and wants to survive just as much as you do, meaning he’s going to try and puncture your internal organs to set off a cascading trauma effect that ends with you voiding your bowels dying alone and removed from everything you’ve ever loved. No, it’s a terrible thing because somewhere along the way you could have made a different choice. You could have avoided that knife, that room, and maybe even found some kind of common ground between the two of you. Or at least, you might have divvied up some turf and left each other alone. That would have been a lot smarter, wouldn’t it? Even dogs are smart enough to do that. Now you’re staring into the eyes of a fellow human and in a couple minutes one of you is going to be vomiting blood to the rhythm of a fading heartbeat. The survivor is going to remember this night for the rest of his or her life.

Then the text proceeds to discuss ways to avoid a fight. The game treats violence as horrible because humans–real humans with loves and fears and dreams–are destroyed by it.

And, maybe even these things are justified. After all, the brutality of the combat doesn’t stop it from being a tool. So apparently, at least this time, what you wanted was worth inflicting that kind of harm on someone…or receiving that harm yourself.

This approach makes the horror of Unknown Armies work. It’s not about cosmically horrific monsters, as much as I love that sort of thing. No, in Unknown Armies, the horror is that the worst things being done in the world are being done by people. Real people, with real loves and desires and history. People who are understandable. Maybe even you.

That’s what I love about Unknown Armies: the intersection of real people, real desires, and real price. The magick and everything is just the setting.

Sound interesting to you? Consider backing the Kickstarter campaign!


For Further Comment: BATMAN V SUPERMAN Review: Zack Snyder’s Doomsday

A few days ago, I posted a link to this article about the new Batman vs. Superman movie. Based on a response or two, I wrote about the connection between Superman, father hunger, and the rise of American demagoguery. I was pleased with how it turned out, so I’m posting it here, slightly edited.

First, a disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie Batman vs. Superman, never intended on seeing it, and probably never will. Also, Christopher Nolan’s run on Batman has spoiled me for any other Batman.

That said, I posted this review because it seemed well-written, especially regarding our ongoing inability to “get” Superman. I’ll totally allow that I find Superman to be a boring character, but trying to make him into a brooding character seems like a symptom of our cynical age. It’s like we can’t believe that someone that powerful could genuinely be good. Power must corrupt, right?

I would connect all of this with father hunger. So many of us learned early on that their dad couldn’t be trusted. And why should he be trusted? After all, he was a brute, or violent, or gone. That void festers in the soul, leading us to a fundamental distrust (or even active violence) against authority figures of any sort.

This seems to be what happened in Man of Steel (another movie I’ll admit I’ve not seen). Rather than Superman being a loving authority figure (i.e. not one of us), he’s remade into a wandering orphan (i.e. one of us). I think this is why a lot of the Superman fans I saw online really hated this movie; they understand that Superman is supposed to fill the void of father hunger, not be afflicted by it.

(As an aside, if you want to understand what Superman fans like about him, this comic seems like a good thing to check out.)

This whole issue spills over into our relationship with government and church. Sure, let’s allow that both institutions have managed in various ways to earn that reputation. Yet still, our adolescent kicking against any authority leaves us vulnerable to predators and demagogues, who fill that void in ways that are dangerous to us.

(Did I just draw a line from our handling of Superman to Trump and Sanders? I think so!)

Deep down, I think that we all struggle with two warring impulses. The first is the savage howl of victory, as we cast off our fathers in triumph, asserting that we will stand alone. The second is the plaintive cry of a child, wondering if Daddy is ever coming home. For some of us, the abandonment came first. For others, the bitter anger. But these two emotions swirl in our hearts, and they rush out at the oddest times.

Like, say, the release of a superhero film.


On the occasion of my grandmother’s birthday

For those of you who don’t know, today is my Grandma Anderson’s birthday. She would have been 91 today, but she died last summer.

When you’re a child, you don’t really realize the awesomeness of the adults in your life. It’s only sometimes, when you can look back on your memories, that you begin to recognize what was always in front of you. It’s been that way with my grandmother. As I reflect on the commonplace memories of her, I begin to realize what an amazing person she was.

Honestly, I feel a bit like I missed out on interacting with my grandmother as an adult. We moved to Peoria when I was 25, and soon thereafter she moved to Pittsburgh to be closer to her daughter (my Aunt Laurie). Because of this, I rarely saw her. One of our visits back to Erie, we planned to travel down to Pittsburgh and see her. Instead, Crystal and I both were violently ill. I recovered enough to travel, but she shivered in the back of the van with a fever as we headed back to Peoria, bypassing Pittsburgh. We didn’t want my grandmother to catch whatever we had.

And so this last summer, we made plans to drive out to Erie and Pittsburgh, specifically to visit her.

We were just a couple weeks too late.

But, you know what….

My grandmother was my first inspiration to write. She was the first published author that I knew. I remember reading articles by her in various magazines. Even more so, she was the first independent author that I knew to self-publish her own work. She wrote a book called Through a Parsonage Window which was a memoir of her time being a pastor’s wife. For me, it was a window into my family’s history. My birth even figured in part of the book! Nowadays, with print-on-demand technology and the like, this is relatively easy. In her day, this was a significant undertaking.

Now, as I write and publish, I find a part of her in what I do.

My grandmother was also a resilient woman. She was married and had three daughters. She also buried her husband and two of her daughters. Yet I never heard her complain. Instead, I saw her constantly entrusting herself to your beloved Lord. And, even at the end of her life, while she may have been fading, she still had the firm faithfulness that she had at the beginning. She finished strong, and now she is with her Lord Whom she loved. Also, she is with her husband and two of her daughters, never to be separated again. Her faithfulness has been rewarded, a hundredfold.

That’s who I want to be. I want to have been the kind of man who loves his grandchildren liked she loved us. I want to be resilient, like she was. I want to finish strong, like she did.

When I grow up, I want to be like my grandmother.


O Come, O Come Emmanuel (redux)

From http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0374.html:

According to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” Therefore, the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for in Advent and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to us, “Tomorrow, I will come.” So the “O Antiphons” not only bring intensity to our Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion.

Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. (Revelation 22:12)

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Amen.


O Antiphon (December 23)—O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, God with us,
Our King and Lawgiver,
the expected of the nations and their Saviour:

Come

to save us, O Lord our God. Amen.

O Emmanuel,
Rex et legisfer noster,
expectatio gentium, et Salvator erum:

veni

ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster.


Kaldolmar night

This post is dedicated to my Aunt Laurie, for reasons that I hope will become clear.

“Food should be prepared with butter and love.”— Swedish Proverb

Tonight was kaldolmar night. This is the night that Crystal and I make the main dish of our Christmas Eve dinner: Swedish cabbage rolls. It’s an event, with its own traditions and weirdnesses. And tonight, I felt like I needed to write about it.

***

Kaldolmar aren’t particularly easy to make. It’s rather a process. First, you need cabbages, which you boil to convince the leaves to release from their tight grip around the cabbage head. Or, honestly, at least to cooperate once you cut them free from the central stem of the cabbage. Those large leaves become the outer wrapping of the kaldolmar.

Then you need a mix of rice and meat. Apparently the traditional meat is pork, but we usually use beef. Well, this year we’re including the leftover meat from making korv, but you get the idea. The rice is cooked. The beef is cooked. Mix. Then add allspice and salt until it tastes right.

What you do then is wrap the rice and meat mixture in the cabbage leaves. They won’t stay shut by themselves, so you tie them shut with string. Then you fry them in butter. Then you put them in a baking pan, cover them in brown sugar and more butter, and bake them until they are hot. Then you serve them. If you’re compassionate, you’ll cut the string first. Otherwise, the person eating one is on his own.

My grandmother once commented that she liked kaldolmar so much that she didn’t know why we didn’t have them more than once a year. Then she made them again and remembered why. They are a lot of work.

***

I don’t remember a Christmas without kaldolmar.

No, really. I’m thirty-eight years old, and I cannot remember a single Christmas Eve that wasn’t our traditional Swedish dinner. Kaldolmar. Korv. Fruktsoppa. Lingonberry. Sill, if you must, though I’ll admit that this is an aspect of the tradition that has conveniently slipped out of our observance.

It’s entirely possible that my memory is faulty, but, in my mind, this is what Christmas Eve looks like. This is what Christmas Eve has always looked like. A church service, carols sung, a fancy meal by candlelight.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without these things.

***

My grandfather’s favorite carol was “O Come O Come Emmanuel”. I guess I got it from him, really. It’s part of what was handed down to me. So, every Christmas Eve, it would be one of the carols that we’d sing.

I remember the year that my grandfather blessed Christmas Eve dinner in Swedish. It was a simple prayer, which he translated for us. But there was an air of tradition about it that I still remember.

I remember when he played one of the wise men in the living Nativity scene that closed out the Journey to Bethlehem event at the church that he was pastoring.

I remember when he stepped down, because the cancer was going to make him too sick to be able to continue.

I remember the first Christmas season after he was gone, when singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” somehow was an act of deep grieving and yet, somehow, of hope. The words of this verse suddenly meant so much more:

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

***

At first, my grandmother made Christmas Eve dinner. But life and age began to intervene, and my mother took over.

As I’ve said, making kaldolmar is hard. In particular, when you have to wrap the cabbage roll and tie it shut, it can be more than a single pair of hands can accomplish. And so, one Christmas season, my mother asked for my help. She needed my finger to hold the thread tight long enough for her to tie it.

Traditions have been forged from less.

And so, due to this accident of history, I became Mom’s official kaldolmar helper. Each year I would donate my finger to the cause, helping to tie the silly cabbage rolls shut. Then, one fateful year, I was promoted to the role of frying the kaldolmar.

***

My grandmother’s favorite carol was “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. I won’t lie and say that this has become one of my favorite carols, though I do love how it can be sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”. But it was her carol. So, every Christmas Eve, it would be one of the carols that we’d sing.

I remember her cookies, with the chocolate chips and the nuts.

I remember her as the first writer that I knew, who actually wrote her own book and self-published it.

I remember her quiet perseverance after Grandpa died, and her ongoing cheer and flexibility and devotion to God, when others might have become embittered.

I remember wanting to visit her once more this last summer, and being just a couple weeks too late.

And so, when I sing these words, I remember her:

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

***

Frying anything is actually fairly hazardous. Oil splashes are a big deal, especially if they get in your eyes. I’m pretty sure that’s where the tradition of safety goggles started. Wearing gloves on my feet…I don’t even remember. I’m pretty sure that it started before the tradition of drinking wine during kaldolmar night, but I can’t be positive.

The point is that there’s proper garb for kaldolmar night. It’s tradition. That means it’s required. And so, every year, I gear up by wearing safety goggles on my face and gloves on my feet. Because it wouldn’t be kaldolmar night without them. And then, together, Mom and I would make the kaldolmar.

***

I don’t remember my mother’s favorite carol. Part of me feels like I should remember, somehow, but none of them really stand out. But that’s okay, because I know that she believed them all.

I remember her insistence that tradition needed to be humanized, that tradition needed to serve the people and not the other way around.

I remember her love of celebration and fierce insistence that all be included.

I remember her being hit in the eye with a marshmallow one Christmas Eve night, as a food fight broke out.

I remember the phone ringing on a bright summer morning, and a burial in summer rain.

***

When Crystal and I moved our family out to Illinois, Christmas Eve changed again. We were far from family, and so we needed to pick up the traditions and carry them. In particular, Crystal embraced this dinner as her own. Especially after Mom died only a year after we moved, she felt the weight of obligation to ensure that this tradition be carried on. And so she set herself to learning how to make all the traditional food. It’s entirely possible that she knows more about the history and tradition of these foods than me. I have the oral tradition of my family, but she’s done all the research.

And now, we make the kaldolmar together.

Over the thirteen years that we’ve been making kaldolmar together, additional traditions have emerged. There is, of course, the consumption of alcoholic beverages. There are traditional pictures that we take. There’s traditional music that we play, like “The 12 Pains of Christmas”, “I am Santa Claus”, “Fruitcakes for Christmas”, and others. I still assist in wrapping the kaldolmar by giving Crystal the finger, and then I fry the kaldolmar in butter, all the while wearing the appropriate gear.

It’s part of how I know who I am.

***

A couple of months ago, my Aunt Laurie mailed me an old Christmas letter that my mother had written. When I say “old”, I mean “written in 1977, written a few months after I was born.” In this letter was a picture of me at one week old.

When I got this letter, I stared at this picture of myself, fascinated by who I once was.

It’s not been an easy year for me. For various reasons, I feel like I’ve struggled with deep questions of identity. Who am I? Why am I even here? What’s the shape of my life supposed to be?

Have I even accomplished anything at all? What’s it all been about?

And as I looked at this picture of myself, I could feel the entirety of my life so far, measured in how far I’ve come from that little baby, staring out at the camera. And, in some small way that I can’t totally enunciate, I could see that, yes, I’ve actually made forward progress. Somehow.

I feel like I’m rediscovering who I am. It’s a slow process, coming in bits and pieces. And, honestly, some of it is rediscovering the new me, if that makes sense. A new me, built out of the best of what the person I once was had to offer and the bits that I’m still becoming.

But a lot of it is returning to my past, to remember who I used to be, who God made me to be. There feels like much I’ve lost along the way, and maybe I’m supposed to pick up those things again, to find myself again in what I have received from those who came before me.

***

I had a crisis of faith earlier this year.

I can tell you exactly when it was. October 30, 2015. All day long, I was being pulled down by voices questioning the faith that I had received. And I was starting to slip. “What if I’ve been wrong all these years?” I found myself saying. “What if I’ve believed all these things about God and Jesus and the Bible in vain?” The crushing weight of despair pressed down on my shoulders. Have I been a fool? Have I sacrificed so much in vain?

We were going to a Halloween costume party at a friend’s house, though we knew very few of the people there. And so, as I often do, I looked at the books on display in the living room.

And look! A book by Ken Gentry, a professor of mine from college. And I thought, “Ken Gentry believes the same things as I do about God and Jesus and the Bible.” And then I saw a book by Thomas Watson, a Puritan from the 17th century. And I thought, “Thomas Watson believed the same things as I do about God and Jesus and the Bible.” And I had Greg Bahnsen’s voice echoing in my head, speaking about a belief in God rooted in the impossibility of the contrary.

That night, the past saved me. The hands of my forerunners in the faith reached out to me. They grabbed hold of me as I was sinking.

They held me upright.

***

It would be inappropriate to say that our Christmas Eve dinner is haunted. I didn’t write about the beloved dead to summon their spirits to overshadow our joy with grief.

No, rather, I wanted to commemorate some of those who have gone before me, who trod the pathway of faith even when it grew dark, who honored their God even in dire straits. And it’s in traditions like this that they still speak.

They remind me that I am part of something larger than myself, a lineage of faith handed down, one generation at a time.

They remind me that our Father is honest and trustworthy, and that His revelation is sure.

They remind me that what I have been handed is worth preserving and protecting.

They remind me of the core of the faith that was handed down to us: our Lord Jesus Christ, come into this world to save sinners like me.

They remind me that there’s further to go, but that, if I’m faithful to Jesus, He will be faithful in return.

They remind me that I haven’t wasted my life.

***

Tonight was kaldolmar night. This is the night that Crystal and I make the main dish of our Christmas Eve dinner: Swedish cabbage rolls. It’s an event, with its own traditions and weirdnesses. And tonight, I felt like I needed to write about it.


O Antiphon (December 22)—O Rex Gentium

O King of the Gentiles and their desired One,
the Cornerstone that makes both one:

Come,

and deliver man,
whom you formed out of the dust of the earth. Amen.

O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unem:

veni,

et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.