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.