Saturday, April 20, 2013

Time to call it a day

Some personal stuff happened this week that made me realize that I don't want to be a GM any more.  For some thirty years or so it has been something I both enjoyed and hated.  I liked world building and leading players on adventures, and at the same time I could come to outright hate some of the people I called friends because they drove me batshit insane.  It was my love of storytelling that outweighed my frustration with my players, which is why I would come back to it.  And it is why I was able to successfully run my Vindicators PBEM for twelve years.

Twelve years.  That's quite an accomplishment, I think.  And a large part of it was due to the players I managed to recruit, great guys who gave me good reason to keep the ball rolling.  But, well, these past few months just felt like I was lurching from one crisis to another in an attempt to keep the game afloat.  Players quitting, others giving me trouble.  The game felt sort of like a television series that had lasted one season too long.  It was the Alias of PBEMs.

So after I had experienced some frustration with a couple of my players I came to realize I was just not having fun any more.  And this blog was not fun for me to write any more, either.  Granted, I felt as if I was running out of things to talk about but I figured after a few weeks something would come to mind. I was enjoying writing that series of super villain articles and it was going to lead up to me talking about this guy:

Scorpius is one of my favorite villains, due in large part to him having a wonderful story arc.  This was a guy who started out as Farscape's big bad, introduced late in season one.  And as the series progressed he became the heroes' reluctant ally because as bad as he was, the Scarrons were actually worse.  That was one of the great things about Farscape; there was no Federation like Star Trek.  Often it felt like you were stuck in a world where your only choices were Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany or Stalinist Soviet Union.

But every time I sat down to write the Scorpius article I got, I don't know, bored.  And I felt at least I had to refresh my memory regarding the Farscape series and I could not finish season four.  It's not a very good season, in my opinion.  There are filler episodes, or the guys are doing things we've already seen them do before.  And the writers' attempts to keep John and Aeryn apart just feel forced.  I know there is an awesome final story arc but wading through mediocrity is wearing.

So between me not wanting to be a GM and me not knowing what to write here any more, I am shutting down GM's Revenge.  Looking back over the three years I've been writing this...

Jesus Christ.  Three years?  That long?  Wow.  Anyway, I enjoyed writing this and I hope that, somehow, some time, somewhere, I may have helped a GM come up with an idea or two.  For those of you who followed the blog, thanks!


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Song of The Week

Static X.  Push It.  Outside of that, I got nothin' this week.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Song of The Week

Once there was a phenomena known as the Spice Girls.  They were an all-girl group that conquered the world with a big selling album, a stupid movie and...they pretty much went away.  One band member married a famous soccer (Football to you non-Americans.  Silly non-Americans; calling a game where you kick a ball around with your foot "football".  Don't you know football is that game where the ball is carried by your hands?) player and the rest had varying degrees of solo success.

What some of you might not know...or at least you here in the states, was there was another all-girl band that came out at about the same time called All Saints.  They didn't have quite the impact in the USA the Spice Girls did and I don't know why.  Maybe it was because they weren't as gimmicky as the Spice Girls and hence did not have the same sort of hook.  Maybe the market here in the states couldn't sustain two girl bands.  I don't know.  I do know is I liked the All Saints singles better than the Spice Girls.  One of them was Black Coffee:

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Song of the week

Well, not sure what to talk about next, honestly.  I am sort of wrapped up in my trying to get my first episode of Retrophilia finished.  I do have one more Study In Evil in me but that is going to be a ways off

In the mean time I still love doing my songs of the week.  And this week I thought I would choose a song from one of my favorite albums of all time: Styx, Pieces of Eight.  I give you....Lord of The Rings!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Song of The Week

I was checking out my list of what songs I had chosen in the past, and it amazed me to realize I had yet to choose Cake's The Distance.  So I went looking for a video and...well...

This is just too awesome for words.  For those of you fortunate enough to grow up with Speed Racer, this should be a treat for you:

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Song of the week

Way, way back in the day I used to game with a guy named Dave.  Different Dave.  This was the old Dungeons & Dragons days when Dave K was DM.  The other Dave, Dave M, was a massive Heart fan.  Heart was to him what Kate Bush is to me.  So I learned a great deal from him during that period and some of his heart fandom rubbed off on me.  At one time I think I owned every Heart album on cassette tape.

Yeah, this goes back that far.

Passionworks was Heart's seventh studio album, it was the first with new band members and came right out after Private Audition.  Private Audition, by the way, is a horrible album.  It's so bad I can't name a single song from it.  Passionworks, on the other hand, has some sweet, sweet tunes, among them this one, Sleep Alone.

To me, this is the beginning of what I feel is Heart's best era, the trio of their albums I like best; Passionworks, their title album, and Bad Animals.  After that they got too...poppy?  Is poppy a term?  Whatever.  I just thought crap like All I Want To Do Is Make Love To You was too syrupy.  Granted, The Night is a good tune but overall for me the album after Bad Animals, Brigade, is largely forgettable.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Study In Evil, part eight

So.  Avatar, The Last Airbender.

Much like Gargoyles, this was one of the best television series ever made.  That is not hyperbole, it is a fact.  It was wonderfully animated, had a strong voice cast, was very well written, with an epic three season storyline that did not disappoint in the slightest.  So with all that being said I want it understood up front that if you have not seen this series then stop reading this article.  It is going to be spoiler heavy and I do not want to ruin your opportunity to enjoy this show.  I am not kidding.  Netflix it, see if your local library has it.

But for God's sake do not see the live action movie.

From all accounts, it is shit.

Okay, if you have already seen the series, or if you have chosen not to and want to read this article anyway (And damn it, I am serious; watch this series!) then for the benefit of those who are ignorant of the plot I will try and be brief.  There are four nations: Earth, Air, Fire, Water.  Each nation has those who can manipulate one of the four elements.  These beings are known as Benders.  The Avatar is a being who can master all four elements and is seen as a powerful force for good.  The emperor of the Fire nation declares war on the others and takes out the Avatar, his friend.  The Avatar reincarnates in a cycle and the emperor knows he will be born in the Air nation next, so he destroys the air temple and wipes out all the benders.  Almost all; he fails to realize the Avatar, a young boy named Aang, escaped.  Aang fell into the ocean with his flying bison Appa and was frozen, much like Captain America.  About a hundred years later he is thawed out when he comes into contact with two members of the Southern Water tribe, sister and brother Katara and Sokka.  They realize what Aang is and they know that he is the last hope for bringing down the Fire nation.

Now, while this is going on the Emperor's son, Zuko, has been sent on a futile quest to find the Avatar.  It is just busy work to get him away from the Fire nation due to him being is disfavor with his father, Fire Lord Ozai.  Aided by his uncle Iroh, Zuko is nearby when Aang is thawed out and suddenly his futile quest is not quite so futile...

And now we come to the subject of this article: Prince Zuko.  Who is he?  What is his motivation?  Why is he to my mind the best character in the entire Avatar series?

When we first meet Zuko he is an angry young man obsessed with what he percieves is his personal shame and his quest to regain his honor and his father's approval.  He is young, hot-headed, irrational, willing to do anything and everything to achieve his aim, with is to capture Aang, The Avatar.  His motivations are very clear cut and if he had remained the same character as first appeared in the first episode, The Boy In The Iceberg, he would have been one of the most boring characters to have ever graced television.

Only as the series progressed the writers began to produce interesting wrinkles to Zuko's story.  Zuko's quest conflicts with that of the Fire nation's Admiral Zhao, who seeks to destroy the Avatar himself.  Zuko even disguises himself as the Blue Spirit to free Aang from Zhao's clutches.

In the wake of the events of season one, also known as Book One, Water, Zuko and his uncle are now fugitives, hunted by Admiral Zhao's forces as well as his utterly batshit insane sister, Princess Azula.


Azula is an okay villain, but crazy is boring.  During season two, also known as Book Two, Earth, Zuko and Iroh are on the run.  During this period we see Zuko experience ups and downs and we discover that like Katara and Sokka, he lost his mother early on (It is later discovered Azula secretly killed her.  I guess the writers really, really wanted you to hate her.).  Ultimately, Azula talks Zuko into working with her to capture Aang but all they succeed in doing is mortally wounding him and arresting Iroh.  Zuko returns to the Fire nation a hero.

In season three, Book Three, Fire, Zuko discovers just how Evil his father is and he undergoes his ultimate epiphany.  He seeks out Aang and his friends to join in their quest to stop the war and defeat Ozai before he can attain ultimate power.  Zuko and Katara fight Azula in a climactic battle while Aang takes on Ozai.  In the end Zuko becomes the new Fire Lord and swears to usher in a new era of peace and to restore his country's honor.

Now, all of that leaves out a ton of story.  There were sixty one episodes.  Were there bad ones? Sure, one or two.  Were there plot elements that did not make sense or were discarded?  I can think of maybe one.  It was very strong, tight storytelling and even if you read the above I think the thirty or so hours you invest in watching the series would be time well spent.

So, in watching Zuko what can you learn if you were a GM crafting such a character?

Teenagers should be written like teenagers: This is one of the series' strengths.  You get the feeling these are kids.  Mature kids, sure.  But they are still hormonally charged, irrational people who do stupid things not because they are idiots, but because they are passionate and inexperienced.  And during the course of the series we see them grow up and mature.  And no one matures more than Aang and Zuko; Their paths are parallel.

Now, that does not mean I did not like Katara and Sokka, or that we did not see some tremendous character development in them as well.  And Toft, the blind earth bender that  joins them in book two.  All of them are great characters that showed consistent and realistic growth along the way.

Not all villains share the same goals: During the course of the series we see Zuko come into conflict with Admiral Zhao and his crazy sister Azula.  What makes these conflicts interesting is these characters are supposed to be on the same side.  And yet all three factions have their own goals and motivations and sometimes they conflict with one another.  This made for very interesting storytelling because at one point as mentioned above, Zuko, when still a villain, found himself aiding Aang if only to thwart Zhao's ambitions.

As a GM it would be good to sometimes see some villains in conflict with one another.  Remember Destro and The Baroness?

One of the things that made GI Joe interesting was the fact that there were factions within the organization, that not everyone was on the same page, goal wise.  So sometimes it might be in a bad guy's best interest if the good guys won.

Character evolution is a wonderful thing: Over the course of three seasons Zuko goes from a boy obsessed with regaining his father's love, affection and respect to a man who comes to realize that his father is the worst villain on the planet and must be stopped at all costs.  This reminds me a bit of Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series-

-who one days wakes up and realizes that, holy shit, he is a super villain!  His father is a bad guy and he is a bad guy as well.  And at that point such characters have to make a choice; do you play the loyal son and follow the father regardless of your own morals, or do you become a man and think for yourself and do what you feel is right?  Zuko chooses the latter path.  This series was more than just about watching Aang and company fight hopeless odds.  It was about watching Zuko's evolution from lackey to hero.  And this finally brings me to...

Bad guys can become good guys: Like Xanatos mentioned in my last Study In Evil post, what we saw here with Zuko was the evolution of a character from full-on bad guy to something else.  Only in this case rather than Zuko becoming a neutral, the prince becomes Aang's fully committed ally.  Zuko has become a hero in every sense of the word, abandoning all he thought was most important in his old life, risking all in order to do what is right.

Think about it; let's say Aang had defeated Ozai.  What then?  With no Zuko to take over as emperor then Azula might have become queen and the war would have gone on.  Or some general would have taken over.  Point is, the war would have still gone on.  With Zuko becoming emperor the war ended, right then.  Zuko's transformation into a hero was as important as Aang defeating Ozai.

Well, I hope my observations were entertaining and/or helpful.  Now go watch Avatar, The Last Airbender.  There may be a quiz next week.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Song of The Week, other stuff

Don't have much to say about todays SOTW.  I checked out the Girls soundtrack and this was on it.  Never saw the series and I thought most of the songs weren't for me, but Icona Pop's I Don't Care and this one I liked.

As for the other stuff, I have planned a different project other than my Star Trek, TAS recaps.  More details below:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Song of the week

If you listen to any classic rock radio station then likely you heard Loverboy's Working For The Weekend a time or two.  I love the hell out of that song; to me it is one of the best rock and roll tunes ever recorded.  However, I think that there was more to Loverboy than just that one hit.  Case in point, another song from the album Get Lucky, Lucky Ones:

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Taboo Subjects part 3: Religion

I own a lot of comic books.  Too many comic books, to be honest.  And out of this large collection there are only a few I re-read on a regular basis.  One is Alan Moore's Watchmen.

  Another is Warren Ellis' Planetary.

  And the third is Jim Starlin's Dreadstar.

The gist of the series, at least the run during the Epic Comics era, is about Vanth Dreadstar, the (almost) last survivor of the destruction of the Milky Way galaxy.  He arrives in another and is thrown into an intergalactic war between two empires.  One is a corrupt monarchy controlled by corporate forces who profit off of the endless war and do not wish to end it, the other (and this is why I bring this up) is a theocratic state out to convert the galaxy to their religion.  Dreadstar wishes to stop the war, to bring down both sides.  It is a pretty awesome series.  It could be argued the monarchy's side is a bit of an indictment on the American military industrial complex, although if it is Starlin does not focus overly much on it at all.  You do not see evil corporate bigwigs standing around plotting; that element of the series is just there in the distant background.  The real bad guys are the Church of The Instrumentality; they are seen in almost every issue or at least talked about, they are the primary force to be brought down.  The Instrumentality is obviously based on the Catholic church; it has Cardinals, inquisitors, the head of the church is called the Lord High Papal.

Jim Starlin is not the only guy who has done something like this.  Sci-fi author David Weber also used it for his series, the premise of which is way too complicated here to explain.  Essentially the humans are controlled by a church that has been designed to deliberately prevent them from creating or using a majority of technologies.  These are just two examples off the top of my head of the Catholic church being used as a model, I am certain there are others.

So, are these anti-Catholic?  Maybe.  I don’t know these men so I can’t speak for them.  And let’s be real, here.  The Catholic church does have a pretty infamous reputation.  If you look at the institution’s history they are guilty of some pretty gruesome crimes.  The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are just two examples of atrocities carried out in God’s name.  And if you look at recent history there are quite a few disturbing instances of priests (and in some cases, nuns) doing terrible things to children and the church in some cases either covering it up or protecting their people.  Then you add to that the church’s unwillingness to create female priests, its hardline stance on birth control, abortion, gay marriage.  Never mind that a great many mainstream religions hold the same attitudes; the Catholic church is the most visible.  In the face of all that the Catholic church looks like a pretty demented organization.  And hence it is easy to demonize them.

It is so easy, in fact, that a great many people forget the amount of good the church has done over the centuries.  I think like most things people more easily see the bad than the good in anything, be it a religion or country or even a person.  How many Americans mock France for surrendering to Germany in WWII?  Never mind how many other countries also surrendered.  Never mind how the United States pretty much were incapable of successfully prosecuting a war in a little country called Viet Nam and had to throw up their hands in frustration and walk away.

It was a draw!

Credit to those of you who get the above reference.

France gets a bum rap because people think it is funny to take the darkest chapter in their recent history and make it the only thing that matters.  Of course, I’m sure a lot of non-Americans do the same thing regarding the United States, ignoring all the charitable work my country does, the billions in economic aid given to dozens of countries annually or how swiftly we send relief to countries that suffer natural disasters.  I'm not saying my country or it's leaders are without flaws.  I'm just saying that like a great many other institutions it is easier to focus on the bad than the good.

Okay, this is getting really political and I apologize.  The point is, we tend to look for the worst and when writers are creating a fake religion perhaps it is just easy to pick an institution that many people are eager to see the worst in.  It is a literary shortcut.  Turning The Pope into a white skinned, nose-less monstrosity worshiping alien gods?

Yeah, a lot of people can get behind that.

But I think the other reason writers might use the Catholic church is it’s organizational structure.  The church is based on a very clear-cut hierarchy.  You have priests, bishops, cardinals, pope.  Everyone is assigned to a specific region.  This is not unlike how a kingdom might be parceled out, with knights, barons, dukes, king/queen.  So when making a church an evil organization you already have this structure already in place.

How is the Lutheran church organized?  I have no clue.  Seriously, I have none.  We have pastors.  Beyond that, I could not begin to tell you who they answer to or how they are assigned to churches.  The same goes for the Muslim religion.  How does a guy become a Mullah or Ayatollah?  I guess I could do some research and look into it, but that’s the thing; I would have to study.  Where the Catholic church is concerned it is pretty common knowledge how they are organized.  You wear black?  You’re at the low end.  Red, you are important.  Wear white and gold?  You’re The Man.

I was entertaining writing a fantasy novel and I wanted to create this new fictional religion.  And I was thinking that the different divisions were represented by colors.  Red denoted holy knights.  White were messengers/ambassadors, orange archivists/teachers, gold the treasurers.  And man, was it hard to do!  Trying to create a religion from scratch is tough work.  I kept looking at the Catholic structure longingly at times like that.

So those are two reasons why a writer might use the Catholics.  And it works.  If you are writing a book.  Because when you are writing a book you have potentially millions of readers and you can afford to offend a certain percentage of them.  Because honestly, you are always going to offend a certain percentage of readers when you are a writer; it comes with the territory.  But it doesn’t work if you are running a game because at most you will have double digit players.  And those players may be Catholics, and they might take offense to seeing their religion denigrated.  And the same goes for potential Muslims as well.  Is the principle bad guy a psychotic suicide bombing Jihadist?  Think twice about that.  Take a step back and reconsider how that might offend any potential Muslims in your game.  Does your plot involve religious extremists bombing abortion clinics?  Congratulations, you just combined both political and religious themes and will likely alienate at least two players, if not start a huge argument that will poison your game.

Years back in my super hero game, The Vindicators, I had Earth attacked by this extra-dimensional empire known as The Tandians.  And part of the Tandian coalition was a group known as The Golden Papacy.  They were essentially a corrupt version of the Catholic church; I had the nuns wearing makeup and sexy habits, for example, and I think a couple priests were smoking a joint.  No one complained, no one objected, but looking back at that now I sometimes wonder if perhaps some of my players had been offended.  I should have given the religion a different name.  Sure, I could have used the word “nun” because Catholics aren’t the only ones who have them.  But instead of priests I could have used “pastor” or “minister”, terms more commonly ascribed to “protestant” religions, a term some people take offense to, by the way*.   And I certainly could have given the church a different name!  That church made only one appearance in my game, I never used it again.

So, what’s the solution if you want to have evil religious baddies in your game?  Simple: make a cult.  Really, cults are awesome for this sort of thing.  Cults are usually based around a single individual and they have a reputation for crazy.  Heck, there are two television series on the air right now, The Following and Cult, which are about crazy people inducing psychotics or sociopaths into doing bad things, or brainwashing others via a television broadcast.  During his Fantastic Four run Jonathan Hickman had a bad guy who was a cult leader working with Annihilus.  When it comes to bad guys everyone can get behind in regards to hating, cults are it.

But what if you are creating a sci-fi or fantasy religion and want some sort of structure?  Well, that is a bit tougher.  I think Star Trek, DS9 handled it pretty well with the Bajoran religion.  Only two ranks were ever featured; the vedeks, which were the priests, and the leader, the kai.  It did not feel at all Catholic.  Oh sure, you had a central authority figure, but overall the religion was, well, streamlined.  And yes, the colors red and orange were used in the costumes (which are both used in Catholic robes), but the costume designs themselves were alien.  In fact, there were little things that lent a nice air to the religion, like the fact the ear rings the Bajorans wore were actually part of their religion.  It was a nice little touch.

So you can go that route, make the religion simple and straightforward.  The other way to go is to make it horrifically complex and, well, alien.  Create religious artifacts, taboos, ceremonies that would confuse an outsider.  Heck, pick and choose elements from religions world wide.  Have the aliens pray towards the galactic core three times daily in much the way Muslims pray towards Mecca.  Have them literally practice cannibalism rather than in a figurative sense as Catholics do during communion.  It doesn't matter if you are borrowing from established religions as long as you are careful not to borrow too much from any one, that you cannot be accused of creating space Muslims or something. There are a great many faiths you can sample from world wide: Hindu, Hebrew, Shintoism.  Then there are ancient religions you can look at, like the Roman Vestal Virgins.

All well and good, you may say.  But what about players who want to run religious characters?  In Dungeons and Dragons this is almost always going to happen; what party is complete without a cleric, the magical field medic?  I was always playing a cleric in part because no one else wanted to.  So, where D & D is concerned religious characters are sort of a given.  But what about other games?  Can a religious character work in a modern or sci-fi setting?  Why not?  One of my players ran a character called Paladin, a holy knight taking orders straight from The Vatican, tasked with destroying supernatural evil.  The key is to insure the player understands that in running this character he is not being given free rein to spout some personal philosophy through his character.

And a character can be spiritual without being specifically religious.  Remember this guy?

Thoughtful, philosophical, reserved, willing to dispense wisdom to those prepared to listen, always taking the less violent route whenever possible, Obi Wan Kenobi is a warrior monk.  That doesn't stop him from being able to kick serious ass when the situation demands; it is just in his nature to look for nonviolent solutions to problems.  This is the right way to role play a spiritual character.

But if you are looking for the wrong way...

"Among my people there is a saying..." Gah.  I hate Chakotay, and by the last season of Star Trek, Voyager, so did actor Robert Beltran.  Chakotay was the generic native American, a mish-mash of beliefs culled from a dozen different unique cultures.  He was always dispensing folksy native American wisdom either through sayings or stories, pulling rituals out of his ass like animal spirit guides and prayer wheels.  Chakotay was offensive.  So, don't be that guy.  If you are going to play a character with deep seated beliefs from some culture then 1) know something about that culture and 2) don't throw it in people's faces all the time.

And this does bring me to Star Trek.  It fascinates me how the more widely spread religions are verboten, and yet it is okay to pretty much make up generic native American or alien ones.  Why aren't there Jews in space?  Or Muslims, or Hindus or Shintoists?  Why not a Baptist or Lutheran or a member of the Church of England?  It doesn't have to be a big thing with the character, but at the same time if a player would like it noted their character practices an Earth religion, by all means let them, provided they don't make it a big deal.  Why not have a ship's counselor a member of some faith?  Many of our modern military institutions have priests and pastors who are trained counselors who are on hand to aid soldiers in coping with various forms of stress.

So to sum up, religion is not something to be feared either as the source of villainy, a plot device or as a facet of a player's character, as long as players and GM alike are aware of the potential pitfalls.  Religion can be used to add an element of realism to a game, to help flesh out that third dimension.

*A quick side note: my Dad pointedly insisted “Lutheran” be etched on his Naval dog tags, pointing out he was protesting nothing other than the fact he was being called protestant.  That was a pretty gutsy move for an eighteen year old man to be making.  And The United States Navy acceded to his demand.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Song of the week

Hopefully I will have an actual article up this Saturday.  In the mean time, I give you...Saga!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Song of the week

I am watching a new series on FX called The Americans, it is about KGB deep cover agents in Washington DC circa 1981.  I'm loving the series so far, although I think part of that is due to a strong feeling of nostalgia.  I won't lie; the eighties was my favorite time.  I was a teenager and some of the best movies came out during the eighties (Star Trek II, Raiders of The Lost Ark, a host of others), professional wrestling was gloriously cartoonish, and the music was awesome.

And speaking of music, the producers of the series have made good use of the songs of the era (although using Quarterflash was a mistake; Harden My Heart came out in '82.  Do your homework, producers).  I especially loved how they used the Fleetwood Mac song Tusk:

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Song of the week

Jesus Christ, this song is three years old already?  Where do the time go...

Oh.  It's Pink, the song is U + Ur Hand.  Funny titles using letters and symbols in place of words got old right after Prince did it, Pink.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Taboo Subjects Part Two: Politics

Wow, it took forever to get this article together.  I hope that at the very least it will prove to be at least informative.  Let me begin by saying there is something you must keep in mind from the start, and it might seem obvious but it is amazing how easily it is forgotten:

Your players do not always share the same opinions as you.  Crazy, I know.  But it is true.  You could know a person for years and yet you might never know they are gay, or they did time in prison or they are closet anarchists.  It all depends upon the level of intimacy the two of you have chosen to operate on.  I have a friend I dine with almost every Thursday but I know next to nothing about how he feels about a great many political subjects.  By unspoken mutual agreement we have chosen to avoid speaking about such things, or sex, or religion, except in the broadest terms.  I feel that has been the secret to our long standing friendship.  That and his infinite, Zen-like patience.

So when you are dealing with these subjects it is important to bear this simple truth in mind.  Your players might disagree with you on some or all things political; it is important to avoid the more controversial ones or to take a neutral stance.  Your players are in your game to be entertained, not to be swayed by your political rhetoric, either gross or subtle.

But what about satire?  You may ask.  A while back I wrote an article about humor and the fact is most people aren’t very good at writing funny.  I think I have gotten better at it through my Star Trek recaps at The Agony Booth* but even so I would never, ever attempt political satire.  Besides, highly political people can be notoriously thin skinned and might not get the joke.

And then let us address the subject of context.  This may blow your mind, but not everyone on the internet is from the same place as you.  Some are actually from (gasp!) other countries.  Some political figures, incidents and issues might be beyond them because they have their own political figures, incidents and issues to worry about back home.

If all of this sounds blindingly obvious I apologize, but there are some people out there who just might not get it.

So where does that leave you if you want to involve real world personages in your game?  Simple answer: play it safe.  In my Vindicators game I wrote Barak Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron and I wrote them as being competent.  They weren’t idiots, but neither were they statesmen.  There was a crisis and they handled it, end of story.  Sure, I think I jabbed a bit at Hilary Clinton but it was nothing big; she flared up at something one of my NPCs said.  It was there more to give an element of depth to the scene than me picking on the Secretary of State…and it was to make my NPC look good at Clinton's expense.

As to political issues, you need to follow the same route.  Gun control, illegal immigration, drug legalization, abortion, gay marriage?  All are political hot buttons and should be avoided because while to some, or even you, the answers are obvious, a great many issues do have shades of gray to them.  If you are going to choose a political element you had best find one that everyone can agree on, and the only one that comes to mind to me off the top of my head is the horrific plight of child soldiers world wide, kids forcibly drafted into the armies of African warlords.  And let's be honest here; any exploration of that is going to be terminally depressing.

The same goes for tragic events.  I never once mentioned 9/11 in my game, nor did I mention natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.  The reason is often these tragedies become politicized in some way, shape or form.  It is better to create your own natural disaster or inhuman tragedy and try not to copy something that happened in the real world.

So moving away from real world politics, let us discuss politics in an unrealistic setting, such as fantasy or sci-fi.  Star Trek was always doing this, using real world events as plot hooks.  In the Star Trek, The Next Generation episode The Hunted the Angosians have created super soldiers to fight their wars.  Only what do you do with these soldiers once the war is over?

This story reflects the plight of Viet Nam war veterans who, once their war was over, came home to scorn and ridicule.  Considered the veterans of a war America had pretty much lost, no one gave them the respect that was heaped upon the veterans of World War II.  Never mind that a great many Viet Nam veterans had been drafted, that they had not asked to go.  To a public at large they were an embarrassment.

The TNG writers and producers did they chose a political subject that by the time of the episodes airing was some fifteen years old, and while Viet Nam is still a debated topic people by a large realized by then the veterans had been unjustly maligned.  It was safe. So using an older political issue works.  What about dressing up a modern one, like Voyager did with their episode, Critical Care?  This episode was about The Doctor being stolen and used in a hospital where patients are treated in a caste-like system.

Patients were afforded a level of care based on their wealth/status.  The problem is this feels more like an indictment  of the American health care system than anything else and so the story feels overly preachy. The lesson learned here, to my mind, is to use historical political elements rather than modern ones.  And except for exceptions like the one I just mentioned, Star Trek usually made good use of this.  Look at The Original Series' two principle villains, the Romulans:

and the Klingons:

 Both races were meant to be fictional counterparts to the Soviets and Chinese, Communist super powers that threatened the United States during the sixties.  But instead of trying to create Space Russians or the like, Gene used historical civilizations as a basis for both races.  Look at the Klingons; there is this sort of Mongol horde air about them:

And in the first Romulan appearance Balance of Terror there are many references to their politics that hearken back to the Roman Empire. So while the Klingons are expansionist, like the Soviets were in their occupation of various European countries and their efforts world wide to spread Communism, and while the Romulans are mysterious and largely insular much like the West viewed mainland China, there is plenty of wiggle room for the writers to ascribe whatever traits they like on these species and societies.  The idea was to use a couple traits as a starting point, but not to be enslaved by the concept.

Science fiction writers often use this as well.  In his Honor Harrington series science fiction demigod David Weber created The People's Republic of Haven and the Star Kingdom of Manticore.  While Weber might get a bit preachy where the their crippling welfare state is concerned, it is obvious Haven represents expansionist France during the Napoleonic era and Manticore is the plucky British Empire spearheading the resistance.


Heck, later on in the series the Havenite government topples and is replaced by an authoritarian government much like you saw with the French revolution.  Political officers could now be found on ships (much like Soviet Union's naval vessels had political officers on board their ships.).  David Drake, another sci-fi deity,  uses history as a template for his novels.  Quite often the historical settings are unknown to all but those who live in the countries concerned and hardcore students of history.

Of course, you are going to get players who might read unintentional subtext in whatever you present, it is sometimes unavoidable.  Let me give you an example.  On Star Trek, DS9, the two principle aliens (at least the two before the show's rating slipped and they had to prop it up by relying on Klingons, Romulans and a host of aliens from the other side of the wormhole because DS9 was, you know, boring as all hell those first three seasons) were the Cardassians:

and Bajorans:

The Cardassians were a race that had been beaten down and decided to become more militant to resist what they perceived were numerous threats on all their borders.  Ultimately they took over the planet Bajor and subjugated it's people while stripping it's resources, treating them like second class citizens.  After years of terrorist acts the Cardassians ultimately gave the Bajorans their freedom.  You know what this sounds like on the surface?  You know what one interpretation could be?  Cardassia is Israel, Bajor is Palestine.  You see how offensive that might be to some Jews?  Personally I do not think this is the inspiration for the Cardassia/Bajor relationship, but I can see some parallels here.

So that is something you are going to have to keep in mind if you are using any political elements in your game; no matter how hard you try you might wind up offending someone.  It happens.  People, if they try hard enough, can read almost anything in what you write if they try hard enough.  It reminds me of Eddie Murphy's character in Bowfinger, who counts the number of times the letter "K" is used in a script he just read.  He is convinced there is a hidden Klu Klux Klan message there. And when his agent says "It isn't Shakespeare" Murphy takes the words "shake" and "spear" and assumes his agent is calling him a spear chucker.  Murphy is awesome in that scene as the insecure, pampered actor completely divorced from reality.

So there is nothing wrong with employing politics provided you play it safe and use history as a template more than modern day references.  Next month...some time...I will finish up the trio of articles with my discussion of religion in role playing games. 

*Yes, I know, it is a shameless plug.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Song of the week, other stuff

Man, writing part two of my Sex, Religion and Politics trilogy of articles has proven to be a monumental pain in the ass.  If writing about politics without alienating anyone is this tough I hate to think what discussing religion is going to be like.

I will admit when it comes to picking up on stuff I am usually the last one to know.  Case in point: Archer.
Archer is an animated series on FX about a spy organization called ISIS and it's most notable agent, Sterling Archer.  Who is a womanizing alcoholic and who just happens to be the son of ISIS' owner.  While some of the humor is a little gross I find the stories to be pretty damn funny. And I am impressed by the way the writers are able to insure the characters skirt the line between insufferable and likeable.  I checked season two out of the library and have been watching season 4 on FX.

Another series my friend Dave turned me on to is Danger 5.

Danger 5 is about an elite group of agents fighting the Nazis during WWII...At least I think it is during WWII.  There is this sixties vibe coming off the series, from the soundtrack to the way things are shot.  So...are the producers suggesting in this world WWII has lasted until the sixties?  Are they just shooting the series to make it feel like a sixties television series?  Am I over analyzing it?

I suggest you check it out.  You can watch Danger 5 on Hulu for free.

So...Song of the week.  I am in a nostalgic mood this week and I was thinking about songs I just don't hear on the radio any more, not even on classic rock stations.  There was a band called Rainbow, or Ritchie Blackmoor's Rainbow.  Blackmoor had been a guitarist with Deep Purple and Rainbow was very much his project.  He hired and fired maybe a dozen people or more and the band had four front men: Ronnie James Dio, Graham Bonnet, Joe Lynn Turner, and Doogie White.  While the band saw their greatest success with Turner as the front man, my favorite Rainbow song is Bonnet's Since You Been Gone:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Song of The Week

I am a huge fan of The Beatles, and the only reason I have yet to put them up on Song of The Week is my difficulty in picking out which Beatle song.  After giving it some thought the answer became obvious.  Working third shift at hours in which most sane people are sleeping, there is one song that obviously fits me.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you A Hard Day's Night:

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Taboo Subjects part one: Sex

There are three subjects that can potentially kill a game or a friendship: sex, religion and politics.  And yet if you want a game with any semblance of reality these three elements in some way, shape or form have to be involved.  Oh sure, you might say.  Star Trek avoids religion so I can avoid it there.  And yet Star Trek doesn't; Star Trek often addresses alien religious beliefs.  It is when they try to deal with human religion/spiritualism that they fail so miserably.

This is the first of three articles where I am going to address these three issues and I will endeavor to 1) keep some semblance of maturity and 2) not offend/alienate anyone.  Today we will discuss sex, and while I realize sex, love and romance are all three different things and you do not need two to get the third, for the purposes of this article I will discuss all three because while it might be okay to discuss romance and love with some people, in games it can be as poisonous as sex.

Before I get seriously into it, this article will have little or no bearing on those games which are focused on romance or sex.  I realize those games exist. I also realize that I am not qualified to discuss them in any great detail.

A while back I wrote an article concerning a Star Trek game I was briefly involved in.  In it I jumped in without doing any homework and I discovered I was on the Love Boat.  Romance was rampant and the adventuring and problem solving was secondary to the relationships.  The GM decided I should not be left out and created an NPC which was supposed to be my character's obvious love interest.  Without talking to me about it.  Combined with the overwhelming flurry of posts between players about how much in love their characters were with one another, I quit.

So I learned a few things from this experience, among them how bad an idea it is to not give potential players all the details regarding a game; players have a right to know what sort of game they are joining.  But other than that I learned a few things, and other facts I was already aware were reinforced.

First of all, and this is the most important.  If your game is going to have a strong romantic/sexual element to it, then warn your prospective players ahead of time!

Second, it is up to the GM to make players aware somehow of their game's maturity level.  In my game I have a rules page, showing the Vindicators game is PG-13.  This means sex is implied, it is not written about.  Any sexual contact results in a fade to black sort of situation. If your game is rated R or NC-17 then it is the job of the GM to make players aware of what they are getting into.  Even so, when it comes to PBEMs it is almost always implied games will not contain adult content unless specified.  Still, it doesn't hurt to drive that point home.

Third, do not create NPCs specifically for the purpose of creating romance for player characters.  Instead, NPCs should be created for the purpose of propelling the plot forward in some way.  They should fill a skill/knowledge/power gap the GM judges needs filling, or they should act as a foil for the PCs.  Or they should act in a supporting manner or be the source of a sub plot.  Creating an NPC you think would be a great romantic sub plot for a PC without discussing it with the player before hand is a very bad idea.

But wait, Tom, you might say.  If you discuss it with the player beforehand doesn't that remove the sense of adventure and surprise?  Sure, a bit.  Part of the GM's job is to provide surprises and excitement.  But when it comes to sex and love no one wants an unpleasant surprise.  What if the PC had different ideas regarding their character's love life?  What if the player thought of their character as being gay and you, the GM, assumed the PC was heterosexual?  You see how things might get awkward?

But Tom, you might say.  Shouldn't the player tell the GM his character is gay?  Why?  It's the twenty first century, people.  If someone wants to play a gay character they should be allowed to. Similarly, if they want to keep that character's sexuality in the closet that's their right, too.

It is best if the players pursue the NPCs, looking for romantic involvement themselves.  Follow their lead.  This does not always mean their efforts should be successful, however.  In the pursuit of love and romance there are no sure things.  Later on, after a considerable time playing with people, when they have become your friends, then perhaps you can dare to produce romantic sub plots for them.

Next, there may be situations where players may decide between themselves they wish for their characters to pursue a romantic subplot.  Let them.  If the two players consent and they seem to be handling it in an adult manner, and if they work within the confine of the game's rules then they should have every opportunity to role play it out.  It is when one player's advances are unwelcome that there may be trouble.  Like the situation between PCs and NPCs, players should really be discussing this sort of thing in advance.  Again, yes, this takes some of the fun of the unknown out of the equation.  It also prevents a player from quitting because they feel uncomfortable.  In one of my games I had two players actively pursue sub plots like this and it made for years of good story telling.  In one case the relationship ended in tears, in the other the PC and NPC got married.  And in both cases the players never, ever made the relationships the primary focus of their characters; they were just one of many facets.

Which brings me to the issue regarding how much such romantic sub plots should impact the game.  In that Star Trek game I was overwhelmed with e-mails focusing on characters saying virtually nothing outside of how much they loved one another.  It was like a Stephanie Meyer book, it was so bad.  It was nauseating for me to have to read that crap.  And then two of those players did the same thing in my game.  Oh sure, some of the posts contained relevant content but a majority of it was insipid dialogue a person had to wade through.

So, what is the solution?  First of all, if two players are writing a post involving a purely romantic scene they should submit it in the form of a joint post.  A joint post produces a minimum of space in the mailing list and if someone doesn't care about it they can skim the e-mail.  If the scene is actually necessary to the plot as a whole then it is up to the romantic interests to reign it in.  They should be aware that not everyone likes that stuff and they should tone it down.  Not every single post should have a character citing an endearment or a statement of how full of love their eyes are or some romantic nonsense like that.  Players should have the good sense to realize their romance might not be to everyone's liking.

Finally, I want to address an issue that came up in a Star Trek game years ago.  A guy wrote a post flashing back to an incident in his character's past.  This incident involved a relationship his male character had with an under aged male NPC of his creation, of how they had been lovers and they had been forced apart.  The player had no idea why some people took offense to this.  This player was an idiot.  When writing such a thing it is important to gauge the mood of player and GM alike.  Consult them, damn it!  Do not assume just because you don't have a problem with sensitive subjects like this your peers share your views.  There is a good reason why this sort of thing is a taboo subject in Hollywood; it disturbs most people.  You remember Indiana Jones?

Marion Ravenwood claimed "she was just a child" when she and Indy had their affair.  It turns out she was not exaggerating.  I read the book adaptation and Jones slept with Marion when she was only thirteen or fourteen years old.  Indy claimed "she knew what she was doing".  Not the point, Indy.  This was glossed over in the movie, Marion's age during the affair never specified.  What was also cut, what was in the book adaptation, was the fact that Jones had a habit of sleeping with his students.  One slipped out the back door when Marcus stopped by Indy's house to tell him he had the go-ahead to get the Ark.

Adding these elements into the movie would have made Indy considerably less likeable, less heroic, wouldn't they?  So yeah, stuff like this does have an impact on your character and you should really think twice before adding them for fear of alienating your fellow players.  When that guy submitted this flashback it started a storm of posts that caused people to quit, because the GM should have booted the player right then and there, no question.  There should have been absolutely no debate.  A player that stupid, that irresponsible does not belong in your game.  And a player who writes that stuff in a mainstream game should expect other players to forever see him in an unpleasant light and not wish to play with him.  Yes, this Star Trek game was going to have adult content.  There is a difference between writing about adult content and criminal content.