Category Archives: Stories

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.


Stories and seasons

A long time ago, I told my children that we wouldn’t watch the Harry Potter movies until Isaac had read the books first. He didn’t have to finish them all, you should understand, but each movie would be watched only after Isaac had finished the relevant book. The goal was to encourage Isaac to dedicate himself to reading a longer book and to apply a bit of peer pressure. This was before we figured out that peer pressure doesn’t really work on Isaac (I’m so proud, and a little annoyed)….

Anyways, Isaac recently discovered audio books, and now we’re off to the races. All of this to say–

We watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the other day.

Alfonso Cuarón directed this installment, and I found it to be appropriately arty. I liked looking at this version of Hogwarts a bit more than the previous Chris Columbus renditions. And all this has me thinking about Harry Potter again.

Harry Potter is part of a resurgence in young adult literature. It might even have been the leading edge of that resurgence. (I don’t know enough to say for sure.) A common theme of these new young adult novels is the “coming of age”, the point where a person crosses over from childhood to adulthood. It’s a powerful theme and one that is obviously resonant with the target audience. The Harry Potter series is an especially good example of this theme, executed fairly skillfully. Each book in the seven-book series is a single school year, starting with Harry as an eleven-year old kid and moving through his teen years to his becoming an adult and shouldering those responsibilities in the final book. Additionally, there’s almost an assumption that the target audience of each book is the same age as Harry in that book. This means that the subject matter continues to grow and mature with each installment, becoming deeper and, honestly, harsher.

Part of how this manifests is the gradual emergence of a backstory that Harry and his friends are initially unaware of, a story in which Harry’s dead parents figure prominently. Over time, Harry and his friends come to understand the sacrifices made by their parents’ generation and rise up to take their place to finish the work that they started.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is where this backstory really begins to leak into Harry’s life. This is the point where Harry begins to be exposed to the history that shaped his life, as the players in that history return into his life. This is the point where Harry begins to understand that his life is shaped by the choices of those who came before him, choices made before he was even born.

It’s a powerful moment in the story, and it’s a powerful moment in every person’s life, when you begin to see how you fit into a larger whole. It’s a big part of growing up.

And it totally didn’t engage me.

As we were watching the movie, I realized that the story wasn’t speaking to me. Again, I’m not faulting the execution. The story is skillfully crafted, and the film was a joy to behold. But the story is aimed at people in a different season of life than mine.

I have been recently revisiting a couple novels by Tim Powers that I read in my youth. Last Call is about the battle to become the mystic Fisher King, played out through bizarre Poker games and post-modern vision quests in the wasteland of Las Vegas. Declare is a Le Carré-style Cold War spy novel about a Cold War era struggle between Britain and the Soviet Union to exploit the power of the djinn that inhabit the Middle East.

I’m not even sure that these brief descriptions do them justice. And I’m realizing that I had absolutely no frame of reference to appreciate these novels when I read them twenty years ago.

Both novels have middle-aged men as their protagonists. Both of them have lived long enough to have made poor choices or have traumatic events in their past. Their current lives are not shaped by their parents’ pasts. They are shaped by their own pasts, defined by the wounds and regrets that they have already experienced. And now, their current choices are defined by an ability (or lack thereof) to overcome their own regrets about their pasts.

They are novels for an older audience, not for children on the cusp of youth but adults who have lived long enough to wonder if they can undo the damage they have done.

I’m not a young man anymore. No, I’m not old, but I have enough life behind me to have my own personal history, my own wounds, my own regrets. And right now I wonder if I will be able to overcome those regrets, or if they have to define me forever. These stories I am reading resonate with me, because they hold out hope that there can be more than my past.

At the same time, my older children stand on the verge of adulthood. They are emerging into a larger world and finding their place in it. And for them, Harry Potter is an excellent story, helping them to understand their own lives as they move into their futures.

And for that, I am glad.


Rooksbridge

Or, perhaps I should say, Rooksbridge!

Um, so, a little backstory. First, let’s talk about me.

I am not an early adopter. It’s true. I am the person who reads reviews, contemplates options, weighs variables, and finally makes an informed decision. Also, for most of my life, I’ve not really had lots of money to spend on experimental purchases. So I’m fairly conservative when it comes to investing money or time into something new.

Now, a little about Josh Roby. I first really interacted with Josh when he was working on his game Sons of Liberty, which I playtested at GenCon 2007 and proceeded to blab about a lot.

Since then, I had the opportunity to meet Josh and Meghann at GenCon 2008. My only regret about that meeting is that they live in Los Angeles. I wish they lived closer. Say, in Peoria. Then we’d have more opportunities to get together and hang out. Josh and I would argue religion and politics loudly over a beer while Meghann and Crystal hovered in the other room, making sure we didn’t kill each other. And, of course, Prudence and Hope would be playing in the other room, watched by my other children. It would be good times.

(Consider that an invitation, guys! Moving to Peoria is a great idea!)

So, last July, Josh announces a new project: Rooksbridge. This isn’t a game project; instead, it’s a serial fiction project. I look at it and even downloaded the free installment (“Dirty Work”). But, I never quite had the time to read it, and it slipped off my radar. Occasionally I’d see Josh talking about Rooksbridge on Twitter, but (not being an early adopter), I didn’t want to spend the money on something that I didn’t know about.

Then something wonderful happened.

Josh emailed me (among other folks) and offered me a copy of all five of the Rooksbridge stores that he has written so far. He said that he was needing to spread the word about Rooksbridge and that he was sending out these free copies to people he knew that might like Rooksbridge and would then be effective in talking about it. He was very clear that he wasn’t trying to buy good press or anything. He was just hoping that we’d like what he wrote and then talk about it.

Well, an appeal like that, coupled with free stuff, is hard to resist. So I figured I’d finally give Rooksbridge a chance. The price was right, and I was having a hard time focusing on longer works. And, as I say, I like Josh, and this was a chance to help him out.

So I read “Dirty Work”, the first chapbook of Rooksbridge.

I loved it.

Rooksbridge fits into the darker, grittier style of fantasy that has become popular over the last few years, such as A Song of Ice and Fire or The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone. Rooksbridge has a significant advantage over these works: it’s much shorter. Josh says, “Each chapbook tells its own story, but together, the chapbooks tell a much bigger story set in a place called Rooksbridge. It’s not unlike a television series that you can read.” Actually, a better comparison is to an issue of a comic book, such as Fell. And it’s true. Each story does stand alone, but I can’t imagine reading just one. “Dirty Work” is probably the best as a stand-alone, but that’s simply because there’s no prior story to refer to.

I’m also impressed by Josh’s choice of format for releasing these stories. In short, he’s chosen all of them. Want to read these stories on your smartphone or computer? He has a PDF format for that. Want an actual hardcopy? He can do that for you. More into audiobooks? Yep, he has that, too.

And they’re cheap! The electronic copies are just $2.

Now, personally, I’d love to see Josh release periodic collections of these stories in print. Say, one per year or something like that. After all, I prefer reading my comics in trade paperback collections, not month by month. But, you know what? I finished the latest chapbook “Where There Is Smoke” a couple nights ago. And now I want more. Now!

Because of my bad experience with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, I made myself a rule that I never start a series that isn’t already finished. Whenever I’ve violated this rule, I’ve regretted it.

For Rooksbridge, though, I think I’m going to break my rule.


Showdown actual play posts

A couple weeks ago, Gabrielle and Raquel played Showdown, my current game-in-development. They were so taken with the story they created that Gabrielle actually wrote it up and posted it on her blog. It’s in several parts, which you can find here:

Showdown Intro
Showdown Part 1
Showdown Part 2
Showdown Part 3
Showdown Part 4
Showdown Part 5
Showdown Part 6
Showdown Part 7
Showdown Part 8

The story doesn’t show the actual game mechanics in use, but it does give a sense of the kind of story that the game produces.

I still need beta testers. If you’re interested, leave a comment!


Jane Austen vs. David Simon

I recently finished reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I had read it back when I was in high school, but it’s been so long that I consider this to be the first time that I read it. (Kinda like being a first time home buyer on my house.)

While I was reading it, I bought Homicide by David Simon. I’ve also read this book before, and I have more recollection of what I previously read. However, since my last reading of this book, I’ve read Simon’s other book, The Corner, and watched The Wire, the TV series that he created. Last time, I read Homicide because I had watched the TV show based on it. This time, I was reading it to gather further insight into police, crime, and police work. Or something like that. Dunno. It’s a different thing this time around.

So, I found myself reading both books at the same time. I’d read the one for a bit, then I’d pick up the other one. Back and forth for a while. And, honestly, there were times when I’d choose to read the one because the other was too depressing. Indeed, it languished for several weeks, because I found it too depressing to persevere through the story.

Yeah, it’s a weird moment when the gritty details of murder police is a welcome escape from 19th-century society.

Not what you were expecting? Then consider this.

David Simon does a fine job of speaking honestly about the homicide detectives that he shadowed. And, really, they are out there on the streets, dealing with death and depravity on a daily basis. But, really, that’s not a world that touches close to mine emotionally. I don’t know anyone who was murdered. (Crystal does, but that’s a different story.) So, while murder is a terrible and tragic thing, it’s still somewhat at an emotional distance.

Everyone has a family, though. And only some of them are happy.

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen spins a complex story involving the romantic relationships of several couples. And, with few exceptions, they are unhappy matches. Mr. Bennett snipes at his wife, who is too stupid to realize that he is mocking her. In turn, she is still a silly girl at heart, encouraging her daughters to emulate her folly. Lydia Bennett ends up running off with a wastrel and is only married because of the intervention of Mr. Darcy. Even Mr. Bingley and Jane’s match is tainted a bit for me, because Mr. Bingley appears incapable of making decisions for himself; rather, he only marries Jane after Mr. Darcy tells him to do so.

But the saddest of all, it seems to me, is the match between the pompous Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas. Upon discovering that he is seeking a wife, she carefully pursues him and secures a marriage with him. Does she love him? No. She admits as much. Rather, she desires the security of marriage, and she is getting old (at age twenty-seven) and is rather plain. So, she figures, this is the best that she can hope for.

And so we see them later. Mr. Collins is still pompous and does not realize that his wife despises him. She has organized the house so that she does not need to be near him, and she encourages him to garden so that he is out of the house frequently.

And this will be her life. Until she dies. Trapped in a loveless marriage that she pursued.

Proverbs 30:21-23 says:

Under three things the earth trembles;
under four it cannot bear up:
a slave when he becomes king,
and a fool when he is filled with food;
an unloved woman when she gets a husband,
and a maidservant when she displaces her mistress.

I’ve been around long enough to see relationships like this, or, worse, relationships that blow up or fall apart. At least the Collins were without children. But how long could that last? And would you want to grow up in a cold, lifeless household like that?

Or maybe you did.

Murder…murder is a reality that is far from most of us. But these damaged relationships cut close to home. Very close to home.


House of Flying Daggers and face-stabby narrativism

Having recently playing Mist-Robed Gate, I remembered that there were a number of wuxia films that had come out recently that I hadn’t seen. So, last night I finally got around to watching House of Flying Daggers.

I liked it. I liked it a lot. The martial arts wasn’t quite as over-the-top as it was in Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it still had the poetic cinematography, expository combat choreography, and raw emotional intensity that I’ve come to appreciate from my small forays into the genre.

And, because I was watching the movie partly for roleplaying purposes, I realized that the story slotted perfectly into face-stabby narrativism. Shreyas defines face-stabby as “…having to do with that cluster of emotionally violent things like inescapably compressing situations, ethical dilemmas, etc.” which seems like a good definition to me. And there’s a certain vibe that goes with this style of play. Characters tend to be a bit larger than life, while simultaneously being very human in their emotional bonds and confusions. There is this ongoing escalation during the story, where the stakes just seem to keep increasing, forcing increasingly desperate actions by the characters. Finally, there’s some incredible confrontation, where all the pent-up energy of the conflicting agendas explodes in a violent confrontation of some kind. Then, the audience picks up the pieces and goes home.

In recent days, it seems like face-stabby play has been getting short shrift in the world of roleplaying. We want to make “serious” stories and the like. Now, sure, I think that there’s plenty of room for experimentation and expansion in roleplaying. And, when I was setting up A Flower for Mara at GenCon, I stressed that it was not intended for face-stabby play.

At the same time, I also stressed that I really like face-stabby play. And, honestly, I think that a chunk of our literature would essentially be considered “face-stabby”. I’m thinking here of certain of Shakespeare’s plays, like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. I’m also thinking about Silver Age superheros.

I think that the sort of play/story that we class under “face-stabby” is appealing because it is universal. Its strength rests in issues that are common to all people of all times. Love, hate, revenge, conflicting loyalties: we all understand these things. The travails of the drug war or the Iraq war just simply don’t have the same broad appeal.

So, this is a simple request from a simple guy. In our desire to expand the reach of roleplaying, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. There’s still plenty of strength in face-stabby stories; let’s not discard them prematurely.

And now, I have to figure out where to put Curse of the Golden Flower in my Netflix queue.


Kryos noir

Judd, of the Sons of Kryos, talks about crime comics. Personally, I recommend Fell highly, if you’re into that sort of thing. The first issue is available online. It’s pretty bleak, though, just so you’re aware.

Click here to listen


The Theology of Stephen King

This is why I read Leithart: an analysis of the theology of the novels of Stephen King.

Yep, that one.

For King, “God isn’t a well-meaning weakling, holding our hands and hoping things turn out OK; rather, he’s so far above the various adversaries . . . that the possibility of their winning passing victories concerns him not at all. The demons are a means to chastise and test a struggling humanity, not a threat to God himself; they are the potter’s wheel on which King’s characters can be broken without placing God’s providence in doubt.”


On stories and imagination

From Paul Tripp:

“With all the explanation in the world, you will never ever successfully remove mystery and confusion from your life.”

Imagination is “not the ability to conjure up what is unreal…rather the ability to see what is real but unseen.”

“What fills the eyes of your imagination will determine how you deal with the world of seen realities.”

From Daniel Dennett (via Matt Snyder):

Sometimes when people are learning a new card game they are advised by their teacher to lay all their cards faceup on the table, so everybody can see what the others are holding. This is an excellent way of teaching the tactics of the game. It provides a temporary crutch for the imagination — you actually get to see what each person would normally be hiding, so you get to base yoru reasoning on the facts. You don’t have to keep track of them in your head, since you can just look down on the table whenever you need a reminder. This helps you build up skill in visualizing where the cards must be when they are hidden. What works at the card table can’t be done in real life. We can’t get people to divulge all their secrets during a practice session of life, but we can get practice “off line” by telling and listening to stories, narrated by an agent who sees all the cards of the fictional or historic characters.

I found these thoughts to be interesting. In particular, I appreciated the idea that stories are like practice sessions for life. Of course, that means that a good story-teller is a wise one….


Because a story like this should be shared….

My sister Adiel writes about too much irony. I was quite amused.