Thursday, November 5, 2015

Nothing is Sound, Fading West, and Good-bye for Now...

I feel it appropriate to end this blog with a post about Switchfoot. Their albums have been a part of my life for the past ten years and (at least in my opinion) tell of why I'm closing this blog out. So sit tight, I've got one last story for this blog before I stop posting on it regularly.

The story starts with a 16 year old kid, who had been forced to go back into highschool. He hated the idea: he'd done large schools before and they all seemed to end up with him being on the outskirts, hated for having the audacity to be himself.  He was done with groups of people, and probably people in general. But at the command of his parish priest his parents put him back into the highschool system. And he hated it. The kids were shallow and cruel still, but he found friends anyway. He  didn't really fit into any of the cliques, but found himself being friends with people from all over the school: cheerleaders, jocks, nerds, outcasts, and the legimitaley crazy. His temper was horrible: most people thougth he was on drugs and didn't want whatever they thought he was on.

But he had fun his first (and junior) year of highschool. Life was better with people in it, even if he couldn't stand most of them on a good day when the sun shone and he was happy as he was ever going to be. He found some Christians who he didn't outright despise and hung out with them as well and was astounded to find out that he was liked. He could be as weird as he wanted and people didn't seem to mind. For whatever reason they found him and his deathly serious view of life hilarious, which helped him let go just a little bit. He also had found a good friend; someone who was troubled too but just showed it a different way. The two of them hung out a lot, much to the confusion of the rest of the school, but they had a good time talking religion, DnD, and Magic.  Life was good, if a bit challenging at times: this friend had gotten himself into the occult and dragged everyone around him into a vortex of demonic activity, forcing the kid to learn more about the demonic world in a year than most people would find out first hand in a lifetime. In his journey that year he also met people who had sold their souls to the devil, said good-bye to their guardian angels, and were sad that they had done so. But it wasn't just darkness: there was nights of DnD and Bible study and way too much caffeine and so much more.

That all ended senior year. The friend's parents divorced and the friend, the one who stuck up for both sides, was screwed over by both sides for refusing to take a side. The kid watched and tried to do what he could, but couldn't stop his friend from going into places he couldn't follow. He would be woken up at all hours of the night as his friend came to crash and go goodness knows where, only to come back with bruises and sealed lips. At the same time his own paretns started having trouble as well, and the boy found out much more than he ever needed to about his parents, good and bad. And, somewhere in there most of his friends from junior year graduated and left him with a group that didn't know or care about him, who disapproved of his choice of friends outside of their circle, and thought there was no point in talking to him without conformity. At the same time the boy was trying out iconography, and finding that he wanted to be a different kind of artist than he originally thought.

And that's when the kid got lyme's disease again. While he'd had it as a kid this time was much harder, since it exacerbated a slight allergy to dairy and eggs that he didn't know he even had, throwing him into a cloud of confusion and pain that he had no idea how to end. Most days the boy was unable to sleep until 2 or 3 in the morning, and thus came to class as early as noon to try and make up the difference. He was exhausted, stretched, and overwhelmed.  The confusion and pain were so bad some days that the boy started to doubt he was in the real world anymore. There are three reasons why this kid didn't give up and fade. The first is that the kid didn't stop praying and made his Eastern Christian faith the bedrock of a world that otherwise was constantly shifting and becoming more confusing. He prayed and wrote as many icons as he could, churning out icons as fast as he could make them. The second reason was his discovery of the show Firefly. Something about the show convinced the kid that maybe, if he just kept plowing through it, it would all make sense somehow.

But the third reason was definitely the Switchfoot album "Nothing is Sound". The kid had listened to the rest of Switchfoot's discography and liked it, but something about "Nothing is Sound" clicked. I'm not sure what it was, but somewhere between Lonely Nation and Stars I had realized this was the album for me. The rest of the album was just confirmation of what I knew: Jon Foreman had stated what I had always believed in twelve tracks. Life sucked but was worth it, even if I didn't understand what the heck was going on. Which was most days, since the lyme's had woken up a dairy and eggs allergy from hell that caused horrendous headaches, paranoia, and depression. So most days were spent in a horrible fog that lasted for well over five years. "Nothing is Sound" was the album I would just put on repeat in my headphones and listen to it literally all day long, using it as a grounding mechanism.

College was the fallout, because I had no idea that what was going on was chemical, as opposed to just a component of the lyme's disease. It got so bad that eventually I stopped thinking that I was even awake anymore. Fortunately someone finally suggested that I cut certain foods out of my diet to see if the depression and paranoia was being caused by an outside. I listened and for the first time in five years I could think clearly. The world finally began to feel stable in my beleaguered head, and I began to do more than just survive.

But what does more than surviving mean? It's six years later and I still don't entirely know. You'd think I would have figured it out by now, right? And, to a certain degree, I have. All the things that I'd believed during those five years of chemical imbalance are still true. The world is ultimately a doomed place. We can't save it. Trying to do so will just drive us nuts, because the world is permanently broken. But there's a new world coming, one where the right things will happen and we'll finally find peace as a race. I believed it then as the desperate hope of a man who couldn't do much else but try. I believe it now as a man who knows it can happen, he just can't be the principle architect of it.

During this time I continued listening to Switchfoot, but I'd changed, and for the next few albums I felt removed. Don't get me wrong, the albums are good, but it wasn't "Nothing is Sound". And even that album didn't really connect with me the way it used to. How could it? The desperation that had driven me to those place in my mind was gone, and no one in their right mind just seeks out suffering in order to understand how the world works. "Where I Belong", on the album "Vice Verses", was the closest thing I'd gotten to actually synching up with the band in a very long time, but the album itself (while it's Switchfoot's best full length album) just didn't do it.

Then "Edge of the Earth" released, and it clicked. Finally, after ten years, I could own what was being said again. It's only seven tracks long, but if anyone were to hold a gun to my head and tell me to say what album summed up my beliefs about the world, I'd pick this album without hesitation.

At 27 I'm finally starting to calm down. The desperation that was present for most of my life is now gone, replaced by a determination to make it all make sense. At 27 I find that I have a tired soul. My wife and child are making me younger again every day, but for the moment I'm tired. The almost suicidal wish to go to Heaven so I could finally rest has been replaced by a need to see everything be made right. The blind need to see, the lame should walk, the jaded need to believe again. I want to go home. It's hard to say why I believe Heaven exists, but I can feel that it does. It's not wishful thinking or denial. I know there is a place beyond this one where suffering is non-existent, where all the tears are wiped away, and where we finally forgive each other for all the horrible things we've done to each other.

And that's what this album is about: fading into the sunset, walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, yearning for our actual home. This world sure ain't it, that's for sure. It's hard to sum up this album for me, especially since I haven't been listening to it all that long but, as I listen to it, I find that something has ended for me. Something has changed. As I look at the sunset that is my life I realize that I've had my back to the sun this whole time, watching the things running behind me, when I should have been running towards that setting sun like a bat out of hell, refusingo to stop running for even a second. After ten long years I can finally say it: I'm happier than I ever knew possible, and I'm just getting started. Maria and Micah and who knows who else are my traveling companions in a pilgrimage across time as we look for that beautiful moment when time, which is only the measure of change, will finally end, and we'll find ourselves, broken and bruised, finally being mended by a God that we've known our entire lives, even though we'll never understand Him.

I'd like to take this moment to thank you all for reading this blog. It was an attempt to capture who I am in a mirror so I could look at myself and figure out who I really am, who God is. I put everything I'm interested in in a shotgun and shot it out, week after week and year after year, trying to see what sticks. I've figured that out now. I'm still going to write, but The Kitchen Sink has served it's purpose, and so I must bid it good-bye. For all of you who read this blog, thank you so much for reading my thoughts! It's been a privilege and an honor to put my thoughts on the web.

For those of you who liked my stuff on RPGs and geekery: I'll still be doing that, but I'm not entirely sure what form that will look like. I'll link here on the blog when I know for certain where it's going to transition to.

For those of you who like my theological articles and such: I've reactivated my Pilgrim Studios blog, which is even now starting posts! I'll be putting up my iconography and discussing theological and spiritual stuff in the Eastern Christian tradition.

I would like to dedicate this blog to Switchfoot (geeky and stalker-ish as it sounds): y'all were the one who taught me that art was soul archeology. I'll never forget that. Thank you.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Spyder's Burner: Supporting PC's

About a month ago I wrote an article about how I found the structure of Beliefs were working in my Burning Wheel game Oasis. T'was a good article and a lot of people seemed to pass it around, but then Andy asked "what about Intra-Party Beliefs? How does this scheme involve anyone else?" I told him I'd think on it and played a session with my "new" ideas in mind, and found out a few things:

  1. Each character can really only have ONE goal Belief at a time. It just doesn't feel right to start on a new goal after all the work it takes just to get one off the ground.
  2. Only two goals at a time per party, please. Four goals to juggle together is way too bloody much for my poor head. Two, on the other hand, allows for convenient cut-aways without taking up too much time from the other players. 
  3. Players should look out for ways to include other players. Yeah, I know, this one's a no brainer, but when you're going on twenty (twenty!) sessions you sometimes build some bad habits.
So what happens with the characters who don't have the two driving goals per session? They swap out their goal Belief with a Party Belief. Find another one of characters that has a goal and write a Belief about him. Make sure it's how you're going to help or hinder that character and then throw it all into motion. The tentpoles make their move, and the supporters react. Switch roles next session. Rinse and repeat. Or something like that, haven't tried the last part yet. But Luke talks about it somewhat in the Burning Wheel: players taking turns switching between the active and supportive roles.

Friday, October 16, 2015

These Are Some of My Favorite Things

RPG: Burning Wheel
People struggling to become something more in a dark, but hopeful, world. The mechanics are complicated and deep.Consequences really hurt. There's a million skills that could be all put down to thirty. Fight! is long and painful And characters will be changed.

Oh dear sweet Lord I love this game. Where was this game my whole life? I've been playing this game for awhile, and I've written several reviews on it, but I keep finding something new to love. Even character creation is starting to become something  I look forward to. And the rest of the games based off this one are amazing as well. I could probably just play this family of games and be happy for the rest of my life, no joke.

Movie: Schindler's List 
This movie has the distinct honor of being one of the very few movies to reduce me to tears (Toy Story 3 also has that honor). Watching Schindler's reaction to saving all the people that he did was one of the most genuinely humbling events of my life, to say nothing about the rest of that movie, which is a tour-de-force on everything that could be said about mankind.

There are very few movies I would say constitute real and actual art. Ostrov is one of them, and deserves an honorable mention on this list for being so amazing. Children of Men is another movie that I can say is without peer. But this movie is, without a doubt, the best movie I have ever seen. You don't get better than Schindler's List. You just don't. The journey from being a sinner to a righteous man has never been better expressed.

Smash Character: Red Link

You see a slow but powerful character with projectile attacks? I see someone with a bunch of different ways to give you hell. Bombs stun you, that bloody boomerang messes with your plans, and the arrows can kill you when you least expect it. And that's before we meet the mighty Foot of Destiny and the jump attack that kills at 90%, not to mention an up smash that's really come into it's own. While this sometimes makes me a turtle if I'm feeling lazy (those arrows with the sniping...) I find I have the most fun if I'm running right at you, bomb in hand. That lovely stun...

Oh, why red Link? It's my favorite tunic from Ocarina of Time. That and the red makes me a better fighter. No, really. Faster, too. Yup.

Nostalgic Series: The Chronicles of Narnia
No, not the awful modern series that spits on Lewis's work. No, I mean that other cheesy series that's faithful to Lewis, but not much else. But man, how children eat up cheese, myself particularly. I loved the heck out of these movies, particularly The Silver Chair, The effects were awful, although you have to admire them for trying.

Like I said, The Silver Chair was my favorite movie in the series. I loved the ending challenge of making the protagonists doubt reality itself. That and the effects were less obtrusive than the other movies, stupid snake at the end nonwithstanding. I also found Puddleglum pretty endearing and well acted. Great, that makes me afraid to watch it and find out he doesn't hold up. So glad the Nostalgia Critic probably won't review it, that would be earth shattering. Now if only I could find the series so I can indoctrinate Micah and drive my poor wife even more insane. Long as we don't find the film adaptation of Little House on the Prairie...

Alright, nevermind! We'll find it!
Iconography Book: Iconostasis
If you ever get a hankering to understand Orthodox sacred art and are ready for a trip down the rabbit hole, Iconostasis is perfect. Starting off as a philosophical treatise on dreaming Iconostasis segues through it's topics with a meandering but direct method. The book builds the case that icons are essentially the dreams of the faithful as they progress toward God, with the iconostasis, a screen separating the sanctuary and nave in and Orthodox church, being the prime example. The iconostasis hides the sanctuary and yet reveals who is in it and what goes on in there, revealing it and concealing it in a logic that can only work if one is obeying dream logic. The book effortlessly weaves between all the topics without a seeming rhyme or reason until the end of the book, sorta like how a dream really doesn't make all that much sense until you get to the end and realize what you've been doing all along.

I learned a lot from this book, but if I had to pick one thing at gun point it would be that church is the place to go and dream about being God and that the icons are us dreaming of being like God. Which is totally different from sleeping through the service, by the way. Nowhere in this blog post do I condone that, so please don't try referencing this thing to your pastor as proof as to why you should be sleeping during services!

Star Wars Movie: Return of the Jedi
Yeah yeah yeah, this is the worst of the original trilogy as far as standalone movies go. The Ewoks are annoying and the extended scenes add absolutely nothing to the movie. But this has the most of what I liked about the Star Wars trilogy: internal struggle leading to outer victory. Luke's enlightenment tied into the Galactic Civil War and he contributed without being directly involved.

Another contributing factor to me loving this movie was my childhood fear of Darth Vader. I ain't kidding, Darth Vader scared the holy crap out of me. Just hearing that breathing creeped me out. So seeing Darth Vader's mask being taken off to see an old and dying man brought closure to my shattered child psyche.

Death Battle: Solid Snake vs. Sam Fisher

Just 'cause Solid Snake is awesome.

Prince of Persia Game: Warrior Within
Oh man. this game... is it glitchy? Yup. Is it unfair? Yup. And does it feature an awesome open world dungeon with amazing platforming? Oh hell yes. Yes, the original game has a charm that is most definitely not in it's successors and the third game really is the best game of the previous two, but I can't help but love the hell out of it anyway. If you haven't played it give it a shot. You just might like it.

Russian Circles Song: Schiphol
This was one of the songs I never stopped listening to my year in Atchison. I would listen to this, the album This Will Destroy You by This Will Destroy You, and the album The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky, on repeat and as loud as I could get my headphones to allow. I'm surprised I'm not half deaf by the experience. I probably am and never noticed.

Seriously, though, this song has an amazing build up. I showed it to my sister Anna who, after listening to the song, declared that if all rock was like this song she'd be happy. I'm inclined to agree with her, but then again I hate most lyrics these days. Not only can I not shut them out, no matter how hard I try, but the lyrics are usually so banal and poorly thought out that I really would wish they would stop polluting the air and my mind with their trash. Which is why instrumental is so good. I don't have to put up with that crap and just listen to what I wanted to in the first place: the music...

Favorite Switchfoot Album: Nothing is Sound
This album was senior year of highschool. When this sucker came out my best friend's parents were going through a horrific divorce and I was starting to come down with Lyme's Disease, which left me in a haze for the next four or five years of my life. Throughout it all I kept coming back to these songs and leaning on them for support and comfort. Yes, life sucked, but there was hope at the end of the tunnel, even if I couldn't see it. We Are One Tonight, the second to last song on the album, is a song that I appreciate more and more each time I hear it. Which actually reflects my experiences with the album itself, come to think of it. The older I get the more this album becomes understandable. Instead of liking it for the angst and "life sucks" angle, I find that I appreciate it more for it's honest commentary on life: sex is nice and easy but love is hard, hoping is the only way to stay sane, and while life is hard it's achingly beautiful, so who could want anything different?

That wasn't too bad of a Favorite Things post, was it? I might make more, we'll see.

Friday, October 9, 2015

God and Nature

The other day I was assigned to a detail that took me way out into the boonies of the military base where I am stationed. It wasn't a very glamorous detail. It had me near the big wigs of my installation, which meant I really had to be extra careful about how I presented myself. So that day was a bit more stressful than a normal day at my job is. At the end of the detail they released my buddy and I to walk around and look at the scenery, which is mostly untouched on military bases so that way training can happen in wild areas. This is sort of what I was staring at (scenery changed so as to protect national security and all that, I'm sure the COMSEC people would appreciate it)

I love being out in nature. While I'm no great outdoorsman I find the solitude and peace of nature to be refreshing. As I stared out, into the great plains, I took out my prayer rope and began praying the Jesus Prayer. As I did so it occurred to me how perfectly everything was organized. The grass held down the soil, which fed the grass. The sky let down rain on the soil and the soil returned the water back up to the sky. This great cycle worked, without fail, day in and day out without the slightest bit of help from man. If anything we depend on this order and harmony to work without even realizing it and certainly aren't as thankful as we could be that the whole world works the way it does. Either way, I was struck by the sheer order and creativity of creation. Without doing anything but being itself it was good.

I continued to look and pondered how somebody could look at something this beautiful and not see God in it. Systems left to themselves decay and die and yet here this stood, unchanging in it's ways. In my mind that suggested someone who tended it and cared for it, because I've never experience a system that just worked on it's own without help. The very existence of the plains as they are suggest a God. Peace, which is perfect order and harmony, is a sign of God. The plains radiated peace. They radiated  God.

My thoughts continued to wander and it occurred to me that I had felt this sort of radiance before, this incredible stillness that was out here. I had met it in holy men and women. For anyone who hasn't met this sort of person before there's a stillness to a person who's holy. They can be laughing, talking, crying, it doesn't matter, it radiates an otherness about it. They are not like us by being more human than we are. They are so like us they are other. Looking at this beauty of the plains I realized that they were radiating the same peace and contentment as the holy men and women I had met. God shone out of them both.

But then the moment arrived when I felt my own soul in relation to this calm and peace and realized I was very far from it. I was not at peace, I was not in harmony, there was no great order to my soul like there was out here in the plains or the holy men and women I'd met. I was a profound mess, profoundly fallen in a way that I'd never felt before. It wasn't that I felt judged or even guilty. Sin has very little to do with guilt, I knew that at in that moment. I simply wasn't in sync with God and everything He had made. At that moment the Jesus Prayer made sense in a way that I'd never experience before.

 "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

 I wasn't condemned, I was simply someone out of touch and asking to be put back into good and working order. I simply wanted to fit and found that, while I didn't right then and there, I could if I wanted to. Y'know, with a lot of time and practice. As I stood there, praying in the breeze and watching the grass sway, I realized I wanted nothing more than to be like that prairie. I wanted to be in complete working order. I wanted to be  in communion with God, who was radiating in that prairie so strongly that I could barely see anything else. God is in everything, even myself.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Friday, October 2, 2015

What Hell on Wheels Taught Me About Being a GM

I blame my mom for this one. We had gone over to my parents' house for vacation and had a blast. Having family around to take Micah when Maria and I were tired was a godsend, particularly after that grueling 22 hour trip where we discovered that Micah doesn't sleep in cars, not voluntarily at any rate. So we were tired and I was feeling only slightly homicidal after having a screaming offspring in the car for that amount of time. So I asked my mom if she had seen any good TV recently and she immediately started talking about Hell on Wheels.

Now, part of her love of the show is undoubtedly cause she's a Southerner at heart. I mean, she was a bayou rat for criminy's sake, you don't just get that out of someone! And there's the music, of course: good Western, not that crappy stuff y'all call Country. But the take away was that the characters were really well developed. It was a character drama, through and through. I like character dramas a lot, so I decided to give it a shot. And I'm really enjoying it! We're in the middle of the second season as of writing this blog post (which you probably won't see for another month) and Hell on Wheels has a lot going for it. Watching the show has made me start taking mental notes on how to incorporate some of it's techniques into my own Burning Wheel game. Here's what I've seen so far.

A Slow Burn is Just Fine. I'm a very impatient man by nature. If something's going to happen I want it NOW. Hell on Wheels has managed to keep the narrative going by being patient and building the groundwork. The Swede isn't a major villain in season one so much as he's an annoyance. Well, one major thing happens and then guess what? He changed his outlook and all of a sudden he's a big problem. Let the people in the background develop, because eventually it's all going to bleed together and someone's gonna get hurt. And that's good for story.

In Oasis, my current Burning Wheel campaign I decided I was going to introduce the Children of Lilith, an all-male race of Lilith's children, into the campaign before the players had adequately defeated the werewolf threat that had been bubbling up for about ten sessions.  And before they solved the mystery of the Red Death, a plague that's been decimating the Iron Kingdoms. Now I have to tie the three threats together and make them one super threat. That's going to be a headache. Yay me.

When in Doubt, Conserve. It's pretty simple, actually: make your player's plans your plans. Want to introduce a death cult? Make sure at least one or two of the players' relationships are in the cult. Yes, I said in the cult. They might be fooled, they might not be, but that's not the point. You want people to have something at stake that's personal. It's always a better idea to use something that the players already know and have invested in than not, unless you're intentionally expanding the players' field of vision. Just make sure you actually need to introduce new elements, cause if you throw in too much you can get swamped very easily....

In Oasis this happened entirely by accident. The game had started with a riot. The lord of the city, Watcher Constantine, was a relationship of Vincent Durant, a slimy PC. A few sessions into the game and Vincent decided he was going to poison Watcher Constantine and take over the city. He decided he was going to do this with red zombie flesh. He wanted it done immediately so he did it himself and... Watcher Constantine became a blood lich. Instead of hating Vincent for poisoning him Constantine thanked Vincent for making him superior and opening up to Rahbarl, the archdemon beneath the city. Constantine then went on to further the riot that had been going on by murdering his way through the city, infecting people at a high rate. It took Joel with the Sword of Uriel to stop Constantine. I had a completely different idea in mind but, when Vincent's player handed me this low hanging branch, how could I not grab?

A Well Fleshed Out Setting Makes All the Difference. This doesn't really mean if you know the grand history of the setting, although that might help. The following things seem to be the most important, going by Hell on Wheels: what's happened in the last five years, the sensate aspects of your immediate setting, and what the common class looks like. Because, if you have all three of those things down, you know what everyone around you has experienced recently, how it's impacted their immediate surroundings, and what they think about it. That alone will make the place feel real.

Yeah, I'm terrible at this aspect. More on that as I develop it more.

Most of being a GM seems to involve sitting back, taking what your players want, combining it with what you want, and allowing the dice to make it unpredictable. I definitely recommend gathering as much of your stuff from your players as possible and only adding things when you need to get stuff moving. Players provide really good raw material, it's up to you to kick them in the balls and make them choose a direction. You don't choose what they do for them, you just give them a good enough sting in the rear to make them jump. But the better you conserve, the more patient (but not sluggish!) you are, and the better you flesh out the immediate setting the easier it'll get for players to make a decision.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Modern Spidey is... What?

The first time I saw the red and blue costume I was hooked. The wall crawling, the jumping, the swinging on webs high above the city streets... t'was amazing to even think about for my four year old self. As I grew older I found that the character I'd attached to had a surprising amount of depth. Peter was someone who was committed to being a normal man and a hero. He didn't care about saving the world, the world seemed to be doing very fine on it's own. He just wanted to get a job, marry Gwen, and settle down, saving the people around him as he could. Peter Parker just wanted to live.

Well, then One More Day happened, and Marvel sold Spidey's soul to Joe Quesada. I stopped reading immediately. This was not Spider-Man. I'm sorry, but Spidey doesn't make deals with the Devil, particularly when most of the arc that Straczynski had been running about been about Spidey's questioning of the mystical! How's a guy who has issues with the concept of God going to make a deal with the Devil? Not that Quesada cared.

Yes, this is still a sore point for me, deal with it or stop reading. I really don't care.

Anyway, I refused to read after that until I heard about Slott's run from a friend of mine. I was told that the stories were really good and that I was missing out. This friend of mine has good taste, so I decided to give it a shot. And y'know what? They were really good stories. Peter was finding his feet as a scientist and hero and he was knocking it out of the park. No, it wasn't my Peter. Peter is married to Mary Jane in my 90's kid memory. But it was a good facsimile of Peter and that was good enough for the moment. Heck, my hopes were raised with "Renew Your Vows", where we see Peter and Mary Jane married again with a daughter, Annie May.

But now Slott has come out and said  that the new volume of Amazing Spider-Man will focus on Peter Parker as a billionaire gallavanting around the world with a Spider-Mobile.

No, I did not just make that up. Peter Parker, the guy who just wanted a normal life, all of a sudden a billionaire and globetrotter, with a friggin' Spider-Mobile??

I have never seen a more drastic mistake on what makes a character tick. Spider-Man, contrary to popular opinion, is not a coming of age tale. It's the story of a man who tries to be a hero for the people right around him. The early issues work because they reflect where Peter is at at the time: he's a lonely teenager who's way too friggin' smart for his own good and trying not to turn into the crazy villains that he keeps running into. He's meeting twisted funhouse mirrors of himself and learning how to be a better person from it. The reason why the marriage was done is because Peter, being the Everyman, is logically going to get married, since it's the most common thing we do. Marriage is the bedrock of humanity, and since Spidey is explicitly stated as the Everyman it makes sense for him to be married and evolve in that way. The villains naturally would need to change to suit and mirror Peter's struggle like they did at the beginning of his career, which would bring new variety and allow for the title to grow instead of stagnating like it has been.

But, instead, we're getting Spidey globe trotting as a billionaire with a Spider-Mobile. This is not right. This is not my Spider-Man. It hasn't been ever since One More Day and, no matter how hard I wished for Big Time Spidey to be the hero that I had missed, Slott doesn't seem to understand the character anymore than Marvel does.

So, what would my Spider-Man look like?

Well, Peter being married to MJ again would be a no-brainer and they'd have their child. Aunt May would be dead, and so would Harry. So, for starters, J.M. Matteis's beautiful work wouldn't have been undone. But it would be more than that. Peter's too good a guy to not try to take care of New York however he can. Being a schoolteacher made a lot of sense for a man who never wanted to look away from trouble ever again and it would begin Peter's transformation into his father figure, Uncle Ben. The left over villains from Spidey's earlier times would then begin to try to form families of their own. Vulture with his little Vulture-lings, Doc Ock trying to form a nation out of Manhattan that would worship him in the way he always wanted, Alyosha Kravinoff trying to figure out who his father was (by means of torturing those who knew him like Chameleon and Spider-Man), things like that. On the home front Peter would be trying to adjust to having a baby and all that requires: do they use formula? Cosleep? Does MJ want more help with the baby, which cuts into Peter's night-time patrols, thus raising the crime rate and triggering Peter's guilt complex? What about the days when MJ just wants a a day off and Peter's already so exhausted he can't give her one, or doesn't want to?

See how I, a blogger sitting up at 11:30 at night with a computer, came up with all that in a few seconds? I literally just rattled that off the top of my head. That's good character based drama right there, all within the Spidey mythos. It would be amazing to see. But instead we're getting a Spider-Mobile. It almost makes me wanna write the thing myself, just so everyone could see what I'm talking about. Spidey isn't about riches, fame, or glory. That's Iron Man's M.O. Instead, Spidey is about the little man doing the little things that mean the world to the people around him, who happens to have the ability to stop a rampaging Rhino and does so because none of the Avengers are around to do it. That's my hero. That's my Spidey.

A note to Dan Slott should he find this: I know what you'll tell me should you read this. You'll tell me to wait and read. Which I might do, depending on my budget. However, please don't miss my point: Spider-Man is about a normal dude who is a hero to those immediately around him. I know you reference as much as you can from the Lee/Ditko/Romita era as you can, but that part-the most important part!- seems to have been left out. It's what made Spider-Island so great: Peter impacted those around them and made them all heroes, right along with him.

It's another sleepless night guys! I lay next to my lovely wife and son, listening to them breathe, for about twenty minutes and realized that I had more to say about this subject. Well, more of an announcement to make.

I'm gonna start writing the Spider-Man I wanna see, right here on this blog. Here's the skinny on that.

  1. That it'll be any good. Don't get me wrong, I'll try my darndest, but I'm not Matteis, Slott, or Lee. Not by a long shot. 
  2. That it'll last forever. It most probably won't, cause at some point I'll have said whatever I wanted to say about Peter Parker and then I'll be done. It'll be one more project talked about on this blog.
  3. It will start shortly before Mary-Jane gives birth to her and Peter's kid. Aunt May is dead. So is Norman and Harry Osborn. So is the Jackal. Ben Reilly is around, only recently having returned from his wanderings. No sign of Kaine, although I can't guarantee that'll be a permanent thing or that he'll be like what we're used to in the comics. Doc Ock is still alive and has no idea Peter is Spider-Man. 
  4. Dead is friggin' dead. 
  5. While I may borrow some elements from modern comics I will change anything about character's backstories that I so wish. I will not be sticking with preconceived notions of the characters, not by any means. So just cause it's been done in the comics does not make it canon for this little fanfic.
I have no idea how long each individual chapter will be, but you will hopefully get a chapter once a month. Chapters will be divvied up into books, which will last one year at a time. So, starting in October or November, you'll see the first chapter for my take on Spider-Man. What'll this new part of the blog be called?

The Amazing Spider-Family, of course! Stay tuned sometime in October!

Friday, September 18, 2015

13th Age Paladin

13th Age is an amazing game. Combining bits of indie story-telling with kick-ass action from the other d20 games 13th Age is easily the best of the modern d20 games (in this humble blogger's opinion). Each of the classes to fit around a different theme. They fit together pretty well...except that blood paladin. What is with d20 game and their inability to get how a paladin operates?

Out of all the d20 games I've played I've felt that 4th got the paladin the best, warts and all. The paladin in 4th edition was the rockstar of the figher classes, taking on crowds and laughing with impunity as the hordes crashed against him like waves against a rock. Sometimes I'd leave my DM speechless with how much damage I'd soaked up for the rest of the party. I would usually take double my full HP a battle and would not need to heal afterwards! Things like a critical hit would make me wince, sure, but it was only a flesh wound and my paladin could (and did) walk it off. Not that the paladin didn't have any weaknesses. A radiant-resistant enemy could laugh off my mark and my paladins went through healing surges (the recovery method in 4th) like a Russian did with vodka. The adventuring day would end because my paladin had run out of surges and could no longer block for anyone, nevermind protect himself in the midst of battle. Paladins also require a very competent healer to back them up as they play front man because, unlike the other defenders, paladins would pick fights with whole swarms of bad guys and needed the group to make sure he wouldn't fall flat on his face. It took a lot of trust to play a paladin, because if your teammates didn't back you up you were dead very quickly. Fortunately that was never a problem, as the other players were relieved to not need to spend more than two healing surges after each battle.

I don't get that feel in 13th Age. I just run in and smite things. The impression I've gotten from the online 13th Age community is that they're just as unimpressed as I am. So I decided to hack it. After talking with Andy and having some frank discussions about the state  of the Negative Zone this is what was cooked up. The following is a class feature:

Divine Challenge: Whenever you engage or are engaged by an opponent you gain temporary hit points equal to your Charisma modifier plus your level. Apply the double and triple rules for the Charisma modifier as normal. Temp hp gained this way stacks with itself. This caps at half your HP.

In addition, Smite has been renamed to Channel Divinity. You can either gain the bonus to damage as stated in the class feature or your can use it to burn a recovery. The feats that increase damage also increase healing by the same amount.

The class feature was designed with a meta in mind. Paladin players will be looking at this class feature and thinking "MOOKS!". Good. The intent is for paladins to throw themselves into battle against their enemies, shrugging off damage and tying up their foes while healing off wounds that should kill them and killing them as fast as possible.

Obviously, this is not playtested. I haven't gotten the math crimped down, nor do I know for sure how this will affect paladin play. If anyone reading this blog does try it out on their paladin please let me know, because it might be a while before I get around to testing it!

Remember, if you ain't charging into battle with the brazen faith that your god will protect you you ain't a paladin.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Spyder's Burner: Beliefs

So the other day my Burning Wheel group finally got back together to play. Most of the players did alright by themselves, around two or three fate and persona which isn't half bad. One of the players, however, managed to get four fate and four persona. One of my players looked at the session and commented that the session had been designed around this person. Which, to a certain degree, was true. The player had had a really specific situation handed to him on a platter at the end of last session... but then I looked at it again, and noticed his Beliefs. Every single one of them was organized around one of his Beliefs. It's not an exaggeration that his entire character was wrapped around one central Belief: become the king.

As I contemplated my player's actions my mind drifted to the other Burning Wheel games. Now, I know that the Adventure Burner says not to borrow rules from the other  Burning games, since they were designed with a different emphasis in mind, but that doesn't mean I can't look at the other games to see commonalities. And there are more than a few. However, the greatest philosophical commonality of the Burning Games, aside from the base dice rolling mechanics, is the importance of the session. Goals, when made in the other Burning Wheel games, are to be accomplishable in the session you make them. The rest of the mechanics work around making that a reality. Why wouldn't it be any different in Burning Wheel? The mechanics support that style of play the best from my understanding.

So, here's my thoughts on what that means. Beliefs are very hard things to nail down, but if I had my druthers (and with my players I do :P ) I would recommend trying this out:

  1. Your first Belief is the Vector (goal) Belief. This is something you mean to accomplish this session. Yeah, right now. This absolutely has to happen now. Go do it, now. This is the thing you're doing tests over and bleeding for. I call this the vector Belief: pick a direction and go.
  2. Your second Belief is the anti-Vector. Your character has some doubts on whether what he's doing is the right thing or not. Or maybe what he's trying to do grinds against him somehow. Cullen Bohannon's first arc in Hell on Wheels is the epitome of this. He's actually a very honorable man, but the death of his wife had filled him with so much rage that he couldn't see straight. So his better nature would call out to him, eventually leading to his redemption. I'm not saying everyone has to do exactly what Hell on Wheels did, but there needs to be something to grind against. Character growth is uncomfortable in real life and it's just as uncomfortable for your character. There is something he must do, but is it really the right thing to do? If given the chance will he abandon his post? I suggest very heavily tying this Belief into a Character Trait, it will make play a bit more organic.
  3. The third Belief is your compass. The tried and true thing that has always gotten you through every trial. This is your fall-back. When in doubt consult this Belief. 
  4. Have a Fourth Slot? This functions as per the Trait.
I'm thinking on my next Burning Wheel session I'll be playing with Andy (if that ever happens, thanks to bad work schedules). What should my character Tomar do? Now, at this point there's this dude called the Westlord destroying the kingdom Tomar lives in. Tomar, the bastard son of a local lord, has found out that he and his half brother share the blood of the true king. He also knows that the Westlord is taking over his city. Here's tentative Beliefs for the next session:

  1. The Westlord is destroying everything and, while I approve of his methods, I can't approve of his actions. I will find the general leading his campaign against my city and kill him.
  2. Nothing in the world is as disgusting and dishonorable as sneaking around.
  3. **** the government, I'll do things myself. 
That's a very clear picture I've given Andy to work with as far as challenge Beliefs go. Tomar believes himself to be a monster like the Westlord but wants to stop him. However, he doesn't want to sneak in but fight his way through. By himself. If that's not a series of hooks for Andy to challenge I don't know what is. Assuming I keep these (and why not?) it should be a very entertaining session of Andy trying to get Tomar to not only sneak into the camp but to do it with the government's help. A good session is in the makings right there.

Let's have another example, shall we? Let's say we have another campaign with a duke and I'm playing his brother who hates his guts cause he's a jerk and does all the poor folk my character's grown up with. So I decide I need to write some Beliefs.

  1. I will topple my brother the duke no matter the cost.
  2. Kurim, my contact in the court, is a noble man. I owe him much for all the kindness he's shown me and I will repay the debt.
  3. Assassins are the lowest scum of the earth. They took my mother.
Again, you've set your bait for the GM to chase after. The duke needs to go down, no matter what. He's such an evil bastard he needs takin' out, NOW. However, there's a man in the duke's court that's a good buddy and my character hates assassins because they killed his mother, probably at the purview of my brother. Now that's something the GM can really bate.

Now, one of the things you should do as a good player is to try to get the other players involved somehow. Write them into your goals if you can, get them mixed up in your business, or make Beliefs about they need to stay out of yours. The GM should do his level best to make everyone's business go together. Somehow. That's part of what makes being a GM fun...

Do you have to do it exactly like this? No, not at all, but I really do think the best way to make Beliefs work is to make sure they can all be activated in one session. The best sessions I've had in Burning Wheel so far have followed this pattern. Have different experiences? Please post and comment, cause I'd love to hear it!

Friday, September 4, 2015

East and West: The Liturgical New Year and the Theology of Mary

Welcome to yet another intermittent column as I compare Eastern and Western Catholic and Orthodox theological stuff. I'll look at things from liturgical celebration to theology to private devotions and go compare and contrast them.  Sometimes things'll look different, and sometimes they'll be much more similar than anyone who believes we shouldn't be reunited would like to think. Up first: the Liturgical New Year!

Everyone say Happy New Year to the Byzantines and Orthodox who are on the New Calendar! September 1st is the first day of the year liturgically. The beginning of the Eastern New Year is linked with the seasons: much as the beginning of the day is the setting of the sun so the beginning of the year is the end of summer and the preparation for winter. 

Sorry, couldn't resist. For those of you who don't like mixing theology and humor I am truly sorry for you.

The Gospel reading of the feast is Christ standing before the synagogue declaring that He, the Messiah, has come and the work of God has begun.

"On Mount Sinai You gave the stone tablets
Today in Nazareth You read the prophecy
O Christ our God in the flesh.
You took and opened the scroll
to teach the people that the Scriptures were fulfilled in Yourself"
(Stichera from Vespers)

We are to pay attention to Christ, Who is the center of all Scripture that we are to read for the year. The year is dedicated to God. The East also shows us St. Symeon the Stylite, a great ascetic who spent his life on a pillar, away from everyone. The year is to be dedicated to God for His kingdom is outside and inside our hearts. 

This contrasts with the Roman Calendar, where the New Year is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the fast (Put the eggnog down!) of Advent, which focuses on the parousia of Christ in all three year's readings as well as the Liturgy of the Hours. The West looks to the two comings of Christ with eagerness and hope.

"We do not preach only one coming of Christ, but a second as well, much more glorious than the first. The first coming was marked by patience; the second will bring the crown of a divine kingdom."
-Saint Cyril of Jersualem, from a catechical instruction quoted in the Office of the Readings

Another thing I noticed when I looked at both halves is the context that the liturgical New Years are placed around. In the East you have the Birth of the Theotokos on September 8, followed by the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14th. In the West you have the Immaculate Conception on December 8 followed by Christmas on December 25th. In fact, come to think of it, September and December are the only months of the year that begin with a Marian feast and end with a Christological one, East and West (meaning January, which has the feast of Mary followed by the Epiphany, doesn't count, although the fact that  it marks the start of our secular new year reinforces the theme even more strongly). It's almost like they're saying that this is the start of salvation history or something. 

"By Your Nativity, O Most Pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness;
Adam and Eve, from the corruption of death.
And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you:
The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the nourisher of our life!"
-Kontakion of the Birth of the Theotokos

"Through the fullness of the grace that was given you, dead things rejoice in their freedom, and those in heaven are glad to be made new. Through the Son who was the glorious fruit of your virgin womb, just souls who died before his life-giving death rejoice as they are freed from captivity, and the angels are glad at the restoration of their shattered domain."
- Saint Anselm, from the Office of the Readings

Huh, how 'bout that.

It's interesting how it all lines up, isn't it? To the Church the beginning of Christ's salvation is with His Mother who, because of her yes, made all that followed possible. The whole world is indebted to Mary and so should celebrate her existence. To the East it's in her birth, that meeting of Joachim and Anna and Mary for the first time. To the West, it's the lovemaking of Joachim and Anna and God's favoring of it. Both are starts and, as a new parent, I can finally see why the East might prefer the birth over the conception. But there's something special about the conception as well that's amazing; the secret beginning that can only be known by you, your spouse, and God. Both are beginnings in their own right. The beatific vision of a child's face or the whispered secret that heralds the dawn.

But the Marian event is not the only special thing that goes on in both months. You also have the Exaltation of the Cross and the Nativity, both of which are 1st class feasts in the Eastern Church. The West doesn't emphasize the finding of the true cross quite as much, which is odd considering their emphasis on the Crucifixion, although they have Corpus Christi already, so I suppose they emphasize the Cross another time of the year with gusto. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross can be considered a type of the Incarnation: after all, who could possibly doubt Christ's life if we actually found the cross that He died on? The concreteness of the Faith is the most important element. After all, if we didn't have proof that God became man then what's the point of being a Christian? The East does this by saying: "Here's the cross, centuries later! How much more proof do you need?" and the West answers with a just as pertinent Feast Day that proves the historicity of Christ. God became a baby. A perfect little baby, literally. Both feast days are proofs of the reality of our Faith.

Ultimately, then, the Christian faith, East and West, begins with the following statements: God is man. He had a mother. He was here, He is historical. Christ is real, and He is coming into our hearts. It's the same doctrine but different ways of expressing it. It's almost like we were commenting on the same reality but in different ways, like men and women.  And, to be even less subtle about it, it's almost like both ways really are just a matter of preference: you're still celebrating Mary and Christ. I'm not saying the differences don't matter but it's the similarity between East and West that needs to emphasized, now more than ever.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Why I Prefer Marvel Movies to DC Movies...So Far (With an Ant Man Review Too!)

I saw Ant Man the other day, and, while waiting for yet another superior Marvel film to play, I saw the trailer for Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.

What was that crap? It's the only trailer I've ever seen that I felt an innate need to flip off. Well, until I saw this one:

Dark, boring, brooding... yuck.

Now, anyone who's been in any RPG campaign with me knows I don't shy away from dark. Hell, I dive in head first with a gusto that alienates people from time to time. Because who wants to play in a game where the main villain is an aborted god who wants to rape his half (non god) sister so he can take over the baby's body so he can have another shot at the life he was so unjustly denied? Amiright? So what's so different here?

Part of it has to do with the inability of the producers to get what the characters are about. Superman is about God among us. Pure and simple. He's a man who has the powers of a god who believes in us more than we know how to believe in ourselves. He doesn't feel loneliness from being an outsider, because to him all people have a common good that needs protecting, himself included. He doesn't see the differences so much as he sees the similarities, even in the face of overwhelming evil.

Where was any of that in the Man of Steel? Where was Superman?

Sure, he saved people, because it was the right thing to do. But there's a basic satisfaction in doing good for it's own sake that's simply ignored by Snyder and co. Don't get me wrong, some people do respond to being saved by being untrusting and bitter, but that's only one part of the picture. There's a basic commonality we all have that Snyder, in his infinite wisdom, ignored for the "gritty for it's own sake" feel. If you're going to be dark actually be friggin' dark! Do something that requires the darkness be felt! Threaten things and people the characters care about, not this "I'm brooding for it's own sake" crap we got in Man of Steel.

Guess what we got more of in that bloody trailer?

"It's man versus god, night versus day."

Who talks like that? Someone in the theatre asked if that character (Lex Luthor) was the Joker. I almost told her it was. I mean, Luthor may as well have been the Joker. All DC movies apparently think heroes and villains are the same. It's just a mess of gray. And don't even get me started on the Suicide Squad. Monsters doing monstrous work is such a spirit of the age thing it isn't even funny. I guess I could go all Valley Girl and say "That's so 20th Century guys!" because it really is. Yes, I get it, producers: World Wars I and II sucked and we found out that progress for it's own sake creates monsters, and that it takes monstrous acts to sustain our civilization. Thank you for the revelation, the blood of millions of aborted children is heard already, let's move on.

I guess when I think of dark things I think of something like Children of Men or, more aptly, the Nolan Batman films. Now those are dark films that deserve the title! Their protagonists actually have interior and exterior problems. Theo is living in a world where all the women have become infertile and lost one of his babies to illness. That's not brooding for it's own sake, that's plain old depressing. Bruce Wayne lost his parents as a child due to his fear and now refuses to do the same thing with Gotham. He's got a guilt and inferiority complex miles long and the movie reflects his failings as he attempts to be a hero. He accomplishes the impossible, interiorly and exteriorly, and that makes him mighty. He actually does stuff that makes us wonder, whether it be fight ninjas or shut the lights off in Gotham or face down the League of Assassins not once but twice!

That segues pretty nicely into my review of Ant Man. Boy, DC, if you want us to root for your movies don't put your trailers in front of a superior product, particularly Ant Man. Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a modern day Robin Hood who got caught, chosen to be the Ant Man by Hank Pym, a hero of WW II. The whole film asks "why this dude?" and then answers the question. Scott Lang is a man who acts because he must, not because he wants to. Everyone in the movie keeps asking the Scott the same question: "What makes you worthy of being the Ant Man?"

The fact is that it's love. Scott wants to be with his daughter who has been separated from him because of his failed Robin Hood antics and he just wants to be near her again. Scott is extremely human in his motivations and is nothing if not rootable. He actually gets something out of his heroism, it's something he actually needs. Being a hero makes Scott a better person, thus completing the heroic cycle that all the Marvel movies have set up.

And I guess that's the thing that Marvel gets right that DC still hasn't figured out: being a hero can actually make you happy. Is it easy? Is the burden light? Will things go smoothly? No. But, in the end, there is happiness. It's what they were meant to do. And, in DC's just randomly awful universe, power has no good use. It's just something you're burdened with until it either drives you insane or you die from it or you run away from it, giving it to the next poor sap. And yes, that can be true. But someone as powerful as Superman has a reason for saving the human race instead of destroying it, and I'll be darned if Snyder and Co. know what it is. I'm fairly certain they don't, and never will. That would require them knowing what a hero's about.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

St. George and the Dragon, ISIS, Planned Parenthood, and Why I Might be Turning Into a Pacifist

When I was a kid one of my favorite books was St. George and the Dragon. Beautifully written, gripping, and I suppose it shaped a lot of how I expected wrong things were to be dealt with: head on, with God's help, and a whole lot of blood. My poor action figures never made it past a year they were manhandled so roughly. But that was the price of fighting evil in my little five year old mind. You generally got broke doing it. Not that divine help wouldn't come. In my childish wisdom I'd tape the action figures back up and send them back out into the fight, where they fought just as hard as they did before. It wasn't until every last bit of that action figure was useless that I threw the thing away, and even then I'd probably hang onto it.

Yeah, I was a weird little kid.

Now, sometime in my childhood one of my friends molested me. I didn't know what I was doing, who does at the age of eight? But that's what had happened. Once I realized that something was wrong with what we were doing I stopped it and the "friend" turned around and helped start up a neighborhood-wide five year stint get-Nathan-campaign. For five years they tormented me and my siblings and for four years I tried to get them to stop. These had been my friends, after all, and I wasn't quite ready to give up on them. Somewhere along that way I finally put two and two together and realized that not all dragons look draconic but wear human suits. By that point I'd had training in Muay Thai and used my abilities to my advantage. By the end of my time there I stalked my neighborhood, not the other way around.

It was one of the most profoundly hollow experiences I've ever had. What did I gain by hurting, cajoling, and threatening the people who had hurt me and mine? After that quick satisfaction anyone gets from righting a wrong there really wasn't much to be satisfied over. I had become someone who could scare a neighborhood. Wonderful. Some Saint George I'd turned out to be.

Sometime after that I finally (after three tries!) read The Brother's Karamazov, which answered a lot of the questions I'd had for awhile. They weren't new answers, just repackaged in a way that I could get: we're all one family and the response to wrong doing has to be love and forgiveness, for everyone's sake; judgment and violence really get us nowhere. It's not a pill I've swallowed the whole way, it still needs a lot of water to wash it down, but it's stuck in my throat somewhere, uncomfortably.

That's when this whole thing with ISIS started happening, and women and children started getting raped on massive levels. Oh, I won't pretend to know the depth of despair that they're going through but, as a sexual abuse carrier who still grieves the event, I feel desperately sorry for them. If the pain and anguish I feel some days over what happened is any indication of what they're feeling, any indication at all, I don't blame them for wanting to commit suicide. I don't blame them for losing hope because what's more hopeless than having your own sexual autonomy destroyed? There ain't much. And yes, I'll admit it, a part of me wants to go over there personally and blow those ISIS animals to hell and back. Who deserves death more than a sexual molester? Particularly a whole army of them?

Sometime after ISIS started it's terror campaign (that our fearless leader ignores) we had Micah. My goodness, I can't believe how amazing it is to have a baby! Every day he's just happy that I'm bloody there in his life. Me. His dad. There's something profoundly humbling in that all he cares about is if I'm happy and if I love him. The lack of symbols to distract him from that love is incredibly disarming, because I can't talk useless words with him. All I can do is show him that he's loved. And he knows when he's being lied to, so I'd better mean my smile from the bottom of my heart. Nothing has changed my life more than becoming a father.

And THEN the Planned Parenthood videos came out. I will admit it flat: I haven't watched them. I've read transcripts, reactions on both sides, and got sick just from doing that. As a Catholic I believe that abortion is wrong. I have prayed in front of abortion clinics, held up the signs of bloody dismembered babies on Good Friday on the highway, and attended two Pro-Life Marches on Washington D.C. So don't get me wrong, I've done something. It ain't much, but it's something. In the face of those videos it became a whole load of bunk. Every image and account I read I saw Micah's face and it prevented me from getting all the information that I, an adult, should get. But I really don't care. That's a step I can't take, not yet.

What led to this blog post isn't the first six videos, but the seventh, where a baby's face is hacked into to get at a brain and the heart is still beating. Yeah, I'm glad my stomach was empty, because just reading about it makes me nauseous. Such a profound disregard, which looks so familiar... what makes them any better than ISIS again? As Christians we're supposed to defend the weak and some of us believe in Just War theory. Forty years of dead children and why haven't we leveled every abortion clinic in America? We don't believe we can convince those ISIS monsters to change their ways, why do we somehow think the abortionists are any different? And why do we still teach our kids about St. George if we're not going to do anything about it?

(For anyone from the U.S. government reading my post and looking up my unit to let them know they have an extremist in their ranks, please put down the phone. I'm not finished yet. Cause I know someone from the government's reading this going "And we have an abortion clinic bomber in the making!" No you don't. Put the phone down and leave my bloody unit alone. Finish the blog post.)

I've been wondering how on earth to reconcile all this in my heart. This is a level of evil I find so staggering I can barely comprehend it, nevermind do something about it.  The fact that things are going on to stop it is irrelevant to me at the moment, because I think I actually have a much larger decision to make. Does violence solve anything? I have to answer a cautious yes. Defending the weak can literally mean just turning aside the blade ad nauseum. Shattering a limb is not the same as taking a life. Kneecapping may have a use. But killing? Revenge? I've never killed anyone, but there was a time I profoundly wanted and thought I needed to. And, from everything I've learned since then, I'm glad I didn't. It wouldn't have taken those awful experiences away, just given me a new one to deal with.

Besides, dragons aren't in human suits, they're much worse. We do have an Enemy and we can't kill him. Do I pray for him? I know some do. But do I? That's a completely different question. I'll ponder that at some point.

I guess that makes me a pacifist then. Those people who are murdering babies in the womb and then dismembering them and selling their body parts so they can get cars out of the deal are my brethren. They're in need of saving just as much as me. So's the kid who molested me. He needs saving too. Prayer does work, clinics have closed and hearts have been opened. Abortion was already being attacked on a massive level before these videos. I'll do what I can to make sure it ends and help those who have suffered from it, regardless of the blood. It wasn't too long ago that I wanted blood on my hands too, so it's not like I can judge.

Yup, that makes me a pacifist. Heh, my mom's gonna kill me. The irony of that previous statement is not lost on me, either. Good thing I'm twenty seven, long out of the womb, so now it counts as a murder in this barbaric nation. Now please excuse me, my wonderful son is awake and wants to munch on my prayer rope. If anyone's looking for a toy for their children Eastern Christian prayer ropes make the best toys. They're nice and soft with a tassel that you can use to tickle your child's nose. Micah adores it.

Friday, August 14, 2015

My Approach to Making Tabletop Campaigns

How my players see me.

 Designing a tabletop RPG campaign is one of the most rewarding things I've ever done and it's something that's devoted a bunch of my time over the last eleven years. After fumbling around for about eight years I found something that works really well for me. Always remember that, if your players don't have fun with my approach that's OK. Different people have different priorities, so you really have to cater to their tastes. My method's pretty simple: I decide what type of story I want to experience with my players, find a song that gets the feel that I want to experience with my players, pick a game that make that type of story work the easiest, decide what the major themes of the game are, design a world that reinforces those themes, and come up with an opening scenario that'll kick-start the group into the adventure. These steps aren't necessarily in order, although I like to believe that I work in this order, more or less.

When I first start making a campaign I ask myself  what sort of story I would like to experience with the players. Contrary to popular belief a huge load of pre-session prep work does not help all that much if you don't know what you want the game to be about. Decide what it is about your concept that grabs you. This is what we will call the theme of the game. Make sure it's something specific so you know what you want to go for. "Trying to make the best out of a bad situation" is better than "hope", since with one you now know you'll be throwing really crappy situations at the players that they'll be unable to completely solve, whereas with the other you're a bit unfocused. And while that meandering sense may be fine for some players and games it's not really what I like to GM. I like to get right to the point and hammer it in as hard as I can.

The concept for campaign number one is pretty simple: the players are in a sequel to a previous campaign we'd played through, living in a city that was built to imprison an arch-demon. My twist on this idea was very simple: what if the arch-demon they thought they were imprisoning was free and there was a completely different demon they were guarding? That's a pretty horrible situation, so I figured that the game would be about coming to grips that they had the wrong dude and needed to adapt if they needed the save the city. I thought about it being sort of like the first season of Arrow or Eden of the East: how do you save a city? What actions must you do to save a city? What must you become to save others?

This is example number two. In this example the game comes first, not the concept: I really wanted to DM a 4eMOD game. DnD games have always been a very difficult thing to nail down: character classes make character creation much a more individual than group activity and it's always been one of the challenges of the d20 system. So this time I wanted to make a game where that was the strength of the story: disparate characters finding a common cause. 

My next step is to pick a game that mechanically reinforces the theme I just outlined. This usually means that I start with a game that I own  and, if it generally fits, modify it to until it gives me what I want. I modify with extreme conservatism unless I'm very familiar with the system. And, if I am familiar and need to hack it to bits, I do so. I never ever pick a game that doesn't have what I need at the core, however.

Since the previous game was a Burning Wheel game and since this one centers around character development and growth the obvious go-to is Burning Wheel again. This means that Burning Wheel is the defacto game to go to. I usually use every single bloody optional rule in Burning Wheel, so that's pretty much all the thinking I need to do about that. 

In the second pitch I hit a snag: all the stuff that I really wanted to do story-wise just couldn't be done in any version of 4th Edition. Heartbreaking as it was to do, I realized that I couldn't get the cooperative story-telling that I demand as a part of my games and play 4th, not without a whole lot of extra work that really turned 4th into 13th Age. So that's what I decided to do: play 13th Age instead. The good news is that anything from 4th that I really want mechanics-wise is very easy to port over to 13th Age, as opposed to the other way around, where 4th (even 4eMOD) would be unrecognizable to me. 

Now that I have actions that I want my players to do and a game that'll give them the ability to do those actions to the fullest extent I go and find songs for an interior soundtrack to help me keep the mood of those actions going. This is pretty loosey-goosey, but generally I'm starting to find that the song I start with is rarely the song I'll finish with.

For the Burning Wheel game I found a song that really inspired me in ways that I'd never even counted on: Falling Down by Oasis. It was so influential that I even named the campaign after the band! The game really fell into focus here: this was a tale of the miseries of trying to be a savior when you yourself needed saving. And that feel has stuck with the campaign ever since.

In the 13th Age example I've only just begun to think about the concept, but the song Politicians by Switchfoot really strikes me. It's not so much a case of finding something that "fits" as it is about finding something that inspires me to process the game more. And who couldn't get fired up from this song, really? I think I'll name the game "C'mon and Break Me". Certainly captures the feel that I want!

This is when I start working up a world that will facilitate the actions that I want to have the group do. To make players do the actions you want you need to create a universal need for that action in the world around them. Want a game of intrigue? Make the problems more subtle, harder to suss out without going into serious information delving and thus doing a lot of talking and politicking. Want high falutin' action? Blowing up stuff frequently and often, while introducing villains who don't want to talk, and you're on the right track.

In Oasis the setting is a long-running project that I've been working on for years: it's set in your "typical" pseudo-medieval world, but the catch is that there is a giant blue flame in the center of the planet keeping all good things alive.  Other flames exist that for various reasons, but the Flame is the reason why everyone gets to stay sane for another day. I decide that, in order to drive home the idea of interior corruption, to design a "zombie plague" that, as the players progress, find out really isn't necromancy, but is something much more sinister and terrifying. The central conceit of the setting is how to save a city, and thus yourself. So the threats need to be more centered around how to save people. Obviously the characters are gonna need some friends to save.

In "C'mon and Break Me" I decide that  I want to pick the 4e Forgotten Realms Setting, a vastly under-appreciated gem in 4e's crown that lets me screw around while sticking this story inside of the same universe as Oasis (the blue flame from the Spellplague ain't a coincidence). Threats don't care about salvation, they have a goal to accomplish that means everyone's death. Enemies are then nameless entities that you can knock over.

The opening scenario is the hardest part of this whole process for me. You have to make something that'll kick it off in the right direction. This sometimes means taking the time to set up a good situation, even more than what you spent prepping the rest of the game!

Prepping the opening situation for Oasis took a very long time! I had a lot of ideas but couldn't figure out how to best set up the situation. Eventually I decided to go with the grenade approach: threaten everyone and everything all at once. The town the campaign's set in riots after taking in so many zombie survivor refugees that the locals have had enough.

The 13th Age game is a bit easier to gauge: it's a combat game, therefore it should probably open up with a fight! I'd want the nature of the threat showing pretty quickly, so I'd just open it up with a fight with ghosts from the Shadowfell, intent on fulfilling their evil schemes. Right out in the daylight. Yeah, shades in the daylight. That'll work.

The last thing you have to do? Be ready to change your plans on the turn of a dime. No campaign scheme survives contact with the players, and frankly their plans combined with your plans makes for more fun than just one or the other. Learn to incorporate their actions and reactions into your long term plans, because you'll seriously enrich everyone there for doing so. Do not forget: you are not the writer of the story but the director. You take what the players do, add your own vision to it, and make it all one cohesive whole. Never, ever, ever, go against the players for the sake of story unless they're trying to destroy everything out of spite. Then you have a different problem altogether. But that's for another blog post.

Friday, August 7, 2015

4eMOD: The Terror Track and Escalation Die

Surprise! This column's back! It's been awhile, but I wanted to put forth one of the best elements from 4eMOD that my buddy Marty came up with. I didn't design this particular mechanic, but I made it a part of 4eMOD and kindly thank Marty for designing it.

When I was ten I played Ocarina of Time for the first time. I went into the Deku Tree and all was going well when Gohma showed up. That's when I froze. I couldn't hurt her with my sword! Why couldn't I? What was going on? As my Uncle Peter told me over and over again to calm down and think I jumped in and got my butt handed to me. The next time I faced Gohma, 8 years later, I almost did it again, but this time I stopped, thought, and avoided Gohma's attacks until I analyzed her weaknessness and devised a plan.

That's the essence of the Terror Track, to put the fear of God into players of solos in 4th Edition. You'd think they'd be terrifying as they are, but solos are actually a pretty tame breed in the game. Out-actioned and out-damaged, solos are usually just bags of hitpoints that take way too long to kill to remain interesting. So Marty proposed a solution: at the beginning of a combat with a solo it gets a +5 to attack, defense, and damage. Each round and successful attack the bonus decreases by 1 until it dissipates.

I can guarantee you from experience that this houserule changes everything. Now, instead of rushing at the solo, the players are forced to go into defensive mode and try to survive. Maybe they'll start looking around the battlefield, trying to find an advantage, any advantage, that can be exploited against the solo. Because for all intents and purposes the solo is unhittable, will hit you every time, and will mess you up big time.

Another suggestion is to steal the Escalation Die from 13th Age and throw it into your 4th Edition battles. It's really simple: put a d6 on it's 1 face on round 2, and march it up every round that the players make headway against their opponent, all the way up to 6. In a solo battle don't give them the escalation die until the Terror Track has run out and allow the solo monster access to the Escalation Die as well. This creates a natural ebb and flow to the battle. The solo comes out big and bad and forces the characters to strategize and examine the solo, looking for weaknesses. Right when the players begin to catch their wind the solo gets his second win and the battle begins in earnest.

Just the Terror Track alone makes for exhilarating solo battles. I know 4th Edition isn't exactly "in favor" anymore, but honestly? I don't care. I'll finish putting out 4eMOD and if people use it then that's great. If not, at least I continued working on something that I love.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why the Novus Ordo is Great plus a Long Ramble plus Power Rangers

To hear conservative American Catholics talk it sounds like the Catholic Church ended after Vatican II, with the introduction of the Novus Ordo. While most will just politely say they prefer the Extraordinary Rite some are less.... kind. I mean, Bugnini (the chief architect of the Novus Ordo) had to be a Freemason! He just had to be, despite the fact that there is no evidence, even for the most uncharitable. Why else would the Catholic Church dump the most beautiful liturgy ever created? This requires a bit of a history lesson, because while the Church has not "dumped"  the Extraordinary Form it certainly has very good reasons for wanting a new liturgy drawn up.

Before I start, a caveat: I'm not a huge fan of the TLM.  The fact that they have a special option for the lay people (y'know, the people who are actually supposed to be celebrating the liturgy) to respond to the priest and that it's something they had to put in as a matter of renewal is... disconcerting. It goes against every last current in my Byzantine soul to such an extent that, if not for the sheer beauty of the TLM, I'd just chuck it out the window and tell the Traddies to weep. Nothing that beautiful deserves to be destroyed and forgotten, even if I dislike it on a genetic level.

The Church's missionary efforts post-Trent (with those Jesuits we keep hearing about) ran the gamut, from being perfectly intentioned to dubious to outright spiteful. Going into other people's cultures they tried to uproot the culture and put their Western culture in. Nevermind the fact that Western culture is no more enlightened than any other, the arrogance inherent in some of these missionary efforts was overwhelming. And it got worse when the Jesuits encountered other Apostolic Churches not in communion with them! They'd try to uproot that brand of Christianity and put their oh-so-superior Latin rite in its place. This had predictably violent results and the Jesuits were usually thrown out of these countries relatively quickly. Some countries still have statues of the people who threw the Jesuits out enshrined proudly.

While the intentions of the Jesuits and other similar missionaries were good, they'd forgotten something very important: there is more than one way to be Catholic. The Orthodox and the long-suffering Byzantine Catholics have expressed the same mysteries of Christ for just as long (if not longer, if you want to go with who kept their liturgy the longest) without any approval of Rome. This fact had been forgotten by Trent, however, and instead of trying to preach Christianity to the natives the Latins tried to preach Latin Christianity to the natives, with predictable results.

Then the World Wars happened. I cannot overemphasize how impactful these wars were on the rest of the world. While America prospered after World War II the rest of the world was going through a huge crisis. Vatican II may have appeared to have come out of the blue for us Americans but the rest of the world, tired from two wars, was in sore need of some of some renewal. And there's a fair bit of compelling evidence that the Tridentine Mass was not the Mass for the world.

Because, ultimately, the purpose of missionary work is not to spread Latin, Byzantine, Maronite, or any other *insert adjective here* Christianity. We spread the news of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is what we are to spread. Not our brand of it, not our take, not our boasting in our flawed but redeemable culture. No, we are to spread the Good News and to boast in the cross of Christ. No more, no less.

Which finally brings me to my point: the Novus Ordo is an example of the Mass that the world needs right now. Not because the Tridentine and Byzantine rites aren't good, far from it! But there are as many ways to be an Apostolic Christian as there are nations and cultures. Pentecost did not make us all speak the same language, it made our all our languages understandable. That wasn't done so there could be one sacred language, one sacred rite. It was done so that all languages and rites could be made sacred.

Yes, the Novus Ordo is "incomplete", the way mustard seeds are when first planted. On their own they're really not much but, given enough sunshine, rain, and good soil and they'll turn into the largest of bushes. And by stripping  the Mass down to it's bare essentials and writing the most flexible General Instruction ever seen Rome has begun to address the needs of its Churches, which need to be able to decide for themselves how they will express the Tradition handed on to them. The uniformity that Rome thinks of as it's greatest strength can really be a horrible weakness because not all cultures are going to think like Rome.

Don't believe me? Look at Africa. The whole continent is bursting with Catholics who are full of life and love and who have made the Novus Ordo their own. They've put in their own chant and have edited parts of the Mass to fit more with their understanding of how to pray and worship and it's worked wonders for them. For the first time in the history of the post-Schism Church we have real and actual growth in an area that we couldn't get before, and all because the Church stripped all the Latin out of the Mass and presented it humbly to a culture, asking for them to do what they could.  Missionary friends of mine who have gone to Africa come back inspired by the incredible things they've seen there, by the up to 2 HOUR long Novus Ordo Masses that happen there, all filled with love, reverence, and 100% African worship. Do they know Latin or Greek or Old Church Slavonic? Not a lick, but if the key to good liturgy was language then the Church of Africa would have died and withered a long time ago.

So yes, go to the Tridentine Mass and the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint James and Saint Basil and Saint Mark! Express it all. But please don't take our rebellious, dying, and evil culture for being the only way the Novus Ordo is being celebrated. That does all the people who have found it, recognized it for what it is, and have used it to full effect a huge disservice. If Africa and our monasteries can do something beautiful with the Novus Ordo there is no reason the rest of the nation can't.

Christianity is more than Latin and Byzantine and Coptic and Maronite and all the rest. And it is our God-given duty to make it so. The Novus Ordo, our first true missionary Mass, is our key to that.


I was going to leave this blog post alone. I really was. But, the thing is that I did a lot of soul searching afterwards and found that it was incomplete for me, because I can hardly claim to want complete unity with the West and profess a genetic dislike for the TLM, now can I? As a Byzantine Catholic I've moved beyond the silly notion that we must have exactly the same theology to be a united Church, because the last time I checked men and women have different ideas of how to live life all the way to the grave and they still get married and live to a ripe old age together. If a man and a woman can do it why can't the rest of us?

So after I wrote the first part of this blog post I started digging around in earnest. I've linked to Fisheaters before because that's where I first started to dig. But nothing they said about the TLM really got to me, because I've heard that mumbo jumbo before except with the serial numbers changed to say "Divine Liturgy". While I'm partial to Eastern Triumphalism (seriously, how can you NOT be? We made monasticism, Thomas Aquinas based a lot of his stuff on Pseudo-Dionysius and Chrysostom, and things like the Responsorial Psalm were stolen right from the East and put into Western Liturgy to make it less somber!) I know this isn't all there is to the story. Saints have come from the West, honest-to-goodness saints that I love and respect. Any rite that helps shape someone as awesome as Saint Francis of Assissi, one of my favorite saints of all time, deserves my respect.

So I kept reading. I asked questions. I didn't like a single answer, because it all smacked of the same bullcrap that I've heard every single religion say time and time again. "We're the best because of.... (insert overused reasoning about what the world actually is and how your religion explains it)". 

No, your religion does not have the most beautiful rites ever. Stop saying that. Cut it the hell out, cause it's pissing me off because it's simply not true. My brand of Christianity converted all of Russia based off of the beauty of its Liturgy alone and I don't think it's the most beautiful thing ever. That privilege belongs to God, the one who makes all these things beautiful in the first place.

And all I found in support of  the TLM, which did not give it any points in my book. If I wanted half-baked points about the superiority of one religion over another I'd go read Russian Orthodox Anti-Catholic literature because that stuff is hilarious. Of all the branches of the Orthodox Church they claim Rome is the devil? Two centuries ago they were seriously latinized, they were the lapdogs of the Communists and now Putin and they want to get on their high horse about staying pure? That makes for good entertainment.

I guess you could call me jaded then. Oh well.

Another thing you may have gathered from my blog posts is that I'm not exactly a logical person. If you were to give me a Myers-Briggs right now you'd find that I was either an ENFP or ENFJ, depending on the minute you caught me (the ENFP is when I"m having a good day and... just don't catch me in a judgmental mood, OK?). The thing is that, according to that test, the Feeling aspect of my personality is almost off the chart. I do not process things through cold hard logic. I do it with my gut. I feel out the truth. You can tell me all your rationalizations for doing something but the thing is that I"m not listening to your words at all. I listen to the emotion behind the words. Are you OK with what you're saying? Do you believe it? Are you at peace? Because if you are then I'll listen to you. I might not agree, but I'll listen and try to respect your words to the best of my ability because I"m sure they come from you, the dude/tte talking to me.

This makes things like reasoned debate very difficult.

So, after reading all this stuff about the TLM (and rereading my 1960 Daily Missal of the Mystical Body by the Maryknoll Fathers several time) I ran out of patience and I just decided to ask my Traddy friends what the hell they found so enticing about a Liturgy that thinks that congregational response is innovative. I got more lines that I knew would help a rational human being but, unfortunately, didn't do as much for me as I'd like, until one of my buddies posted the following (yes, you were quoted. Yes, I hid your name. You're welcome)

"I have only been to one Divine Liturgy, but it did seem to me that your description there is right on. However, in a lot of vernacular OF masses, that is not at all how things end up. Honestly, and call me a traddy, but I think that our liturgy is built in such a way as to support a liturgical language. Not that the vernacular is bad, but that Latin is better. It took me, a Latin teacher who speaks the language, 5 or 6 TLMs to get the hang of it, but now it is way more powerful to me than the OF which I grew up with (I didn't go to a TLM until I was nearly 20).

 I guess what I am saying is that it takes getting used to, but is worth it in the end. I don't know anyone who went to 5 or 6 and then said "No, this is still too difficult/distant." If we in the West had all had this growing up, it would not be new to us as Catholics. I know this is barely touching on the issue though, as there are an enormous number of variables and personal experiences that change this experience dramatically."

While I've known some people who grew up with the TLM and never adjusted to it what my friend had written hit me particularly hard, and I'll explain why, assuming you're still reading this rambly thing.

As I've mentioned time and time again on this blog, I'm Byzantine Catholic, among a group of Orthodox who think that, while salvation does not hinge upon the Pope, to not be united is scandalous in and of itself and so we unite ourselves to Papa Rome, hoping to God that he doesn't trample on us again (Newsflash to all Roman Catholics: it's happened a lot. Yes, I'm bitter about it on bad days). But I was not raised so. I was raised Roman Catholic until the age of thirteen. I did the whole first communion thing and got to swing my streamer and sing "This is the Day the Lord Has Made. Let Us Rejoice and Be Glad in It" and not understand a bloody thing I was doing. The point is, I didn't see my first Divine Liturgy until I was thirteen years old.

I hated it the first two times I went. I could not figure out what the hell was going on. It was an incomprehensible mess. 

But my family continued to go and I found that I was falling in love with the East. That I wasn't converting to the East so much as finding out that I was never Western to begin with and never could have faked it past a certain point. The more I learned the more eager I became to realize my identity in this most ancient of Churches.

So when my friend said that it took him, a Latin professor, 5 to 6 times to get the TLM it finally clicked for me. As a matter of fact, Catholicism in general clicked for me. There is a learning curve. Period. You can't not genuine apostolic Christianity without this learning curve because Christianity does not make sense according to the world's thinking. I mean, why would you get up on a perfectly good Sunday morning to either go pray with some celibate man for an hour and a half or sing at the top of your lungs for an equally long amount of time? Because you have seen Christ and you want nothing more than to dump this shitty little world behind you and go become something that you can actually be proud of. Because the way of least resistance gets you least results.

Because, deep deep down, we were all made wanting to be gods. And being a god is hard friggin' work. And anything that tells you can come just as you are and that no change is necessary is telling you horrific lies. 

So grow up. Life is difficult, and so is religion, and Catholicism is about as hard as it gets without being immoral. There are as many ways of being Catholic as there are cultures and people. And, no matter what you may think, there is no one best way to get to heaven once you believe in the Faith of the Apostles. 

Go Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. Go Novus Ordo not celebrated with crappy modernist leanings. Go Dialogue TLM (sorry, couldn't resist). Show the world that being Christ doesn't make us little Latin or Byzantine clones and confound the rest of us by your fruits. Go.

And just because I kept saying "Go (whatever)" here, I must put this in. Don't hate me too much. Or jam out and glory in the nostalgia and un/intentional thematic links between this blog post and song.

Or just shake your head and wonder if I'll grow up when I hit 30. A lot can happen in 3 years!