Tuesday, June 27, 2017

This Sorrowful Life

Part six of our read-through of the collected volumes of The Walking Dead. Read the rest of the series here.

This Sorrowful Life begins with Rick, Glenn, and Michonne still imprisoned in Woodbury, but their imprisonment doesn't last long. Martinez, a former gym teacher and current citizen of Woodbury, helps Rick's crew escape--and they take along Dr. Stevens and Alice as well. The escape from Woodbury, and the Governor's clutches, is easy--too easy, in fact.

However, before we move away from Woodbury we get one last view of the way the Governor leverages the violence of his gladiatorial arena as part of his bread-and-circuses regime. After one of his usual arena combatants gets offed by another for smashing out the latter's teeth, the Governor approaches Michonne about "performing" in the arena for the populace's amusement. He sets the ground rules--they want to see a violent struggle, but no one is supposed to get seriously hurt. This is entertainment, and a way of channeling the citizens' violent impulses in a controllable direction instead of letting them coalesce into resistance to his rule.

But when it comes down to the arena fight, nothing can contain Michonne's deadly prowess; she kills her opponent, and destroys all the "biters" in the ring as well. This sequence illustrates Michonne's skill with a blade, but it also draws attention to the shaky dividing line between the kind of violence we're willing to accept as entertaining spectacle and the kind of violence we find gratuitous and wish to exclude where possible from our culture. 

The rules the Governor set before the "match" were meant to police that dividing line. He has a good sense of where the line is; after Michonne's massacre, one of the onlookers complains to him that the violence of the night's performance has overstepped the bounds--it went too far and wasn't the kind of violence acceptable for her children to see. Of course, the implicit critique troubles all sorts of arbitrary divisions we've erected regarding violence: is this a PG-13 movie or an R movie?; does this album or video game need an advisory label on it?; why are we more permissive about violence in general but puritanical about sex?; etc.

Although the rest of the group makes their departure from Woodbury, Michonne opts to stay behind to get payback on the Governor. At first, her confrontation with the Governor has the hallmarks of a classic standoff--which one of them will get to the katana first and kill the other?--but it quickly devolves into a torture-porn sequence in which Michonne uses pliers, a hammer, an acetylene torch, a spoon, and a power drill to exact revenge on the Governor for beating and raping her repeatedly. It's a deeply unpleasant sequence that leaves the Govenor maimed and dismembered.

And yet, despite its grotesquery, the Governor's torture rings a little hollow. It doesn't provide catharsis; the barbarism of the scene doesn't weigh itself against the brutality done to Michonne as a way of balancing the scales. Michonne realizes this herself--she vomits at the degradation she's inflicting and gains more trauma to deal with rather than purging the violation she suffered at the Governor's hands. If this scene is meant to emphasize the idea that people who are subjected to monstrous violence become violent monsters themselves, it's underscoring an idea the comic has already leaned on heavily in past issues. This particular depiction feels graphic for the sake of being graphic, like the comic is toying with the boundary between titillating its reader through ultraviolence while attempting to be critical of how, why, and on what terms we vicariously encounter violent media, but as much as that dovetails to the earlier questions raised about violence-as-entertainment in Woodbury (and Western culture in general), it also feels like it's raising questions it isn't really prepared to answer.

Back at the prison, Rick, Alice, Glenn, and Martinez arrive to discover that the safe haven has been overrun by zombies. (Dr. Stevens didn't make it there; we barely knew ye, Doc.) The zombies get pushed back, and it turns out everybody is okay. (Except Otis. Which one was he again? Oh, right, the racist one. We also hardly knew ye.) Once order is restored at the prison, Rick realizes why they had such an easy time escaping Woodbury: Martinez was helping them so that he could learn the location of the prison and then bring his people from Woodbury to it as well.

Rick heads out to catch Martinez before he can bring word of the prison's location back to Woodbury. Rick runs Martinez down with the RV and then strangles him to death with his one remaining good hand. Later, Rick explains to Lori how effortless it was for him to kill Martinez, even though Martinez was probably being honest about wanting to provide a new start for the "good" citizens of Woodbury (rather than the Governor's psychopaths). 

Rick doesn't really care about Martinez's motives; as he says, he feels nothing at having murdered a man. All of this should be harder hitting stuff, but like all of the other "a violent world diminishes our sense of humanity" themes currently orbiting around Michonne's plotline, we've seen this all before--and often in ways that were more subtle, compelling, and gut-wrenching. I'm a little worried that the series is running out of gas at this point and recycling its central themes. Put it this way: the return of Nihilist Rick does not hit as hard as the introduction of Nihilist Rick.

From the hip:
  • There is no way that we've seen the last of the Governor, even though Michonne messed him up royally. I won't believe he's gone until we see the corpse.
  • When Rick runs off, leaving his family behind once again, Carl voices a question that the reader has likely been asking for a while now: if Rick is so concerned with protecting his family, why does he leave them alone and unguarded so often?
  • The first interaction One-Hand Rick has with Tyreese is Tyreese remarking that Rick is now less of an alpha male due to his disability. It's okay, though; they later make up and are bros again. But can they shake on it?
  • The introduction of Alice as a character who can help pregnant Lori give birth is a tad bit convenient.
  • Is Glenn looting dead bodies to find a wedding ring so he can propose to Maggie morbid or sweet? Jury's out.
  • Remember how I was talking about how all the references to the prison as a castle were priming the series for the introduction of a siege storyline? Called it! I mean, come on, it was like Chekov's gun.

Monday, June 26, 2017

That Spelljammer Belongs in a Museum!

Campaign: Scarabae Google Hangouts Open Table (5e D&D)

- Boddynock, gnome bard
- Belaros, goliath paladin
- Trom, dinosaurian fighter
- Viktor, dragonborn sorcerer
- Dr. Aleister Wiffle, human fighter

Objective: Loot a crashed spelljammer for alien artifacts.

A strange thing was seen in the sky on a Saturday night in Scarabae: a large dark sphere, festooned with prickly spikes, was being pulled from the firmament toward the city itself by a pair of massive, green spectral hands. From separate locations (including a literary cafe, two taverns, and a laboratory) the party observed the approach of this unusual object--save for Viktor, who instead felt a powerful magic drawing nearer. Come Sunday morning, the adventurers' slumbers were interrupted by messengers sent by Koska. Koska presented a job opportunity: the observed object was an alien craft that had crash-landed in Scarabae; the Magpie Museum was looking for a crew of ne'er-do-wells to venture inside and make off with any extraterrestrial artifacts they could add to their collection.

Koska provided the crew with healing potions, an advance on their pay, and tickets to ride a Kyuss Industries worm train to the crash site. The craft was approximately seventy-five feet long from its spherical main body to its rear tail, it appeared to be made of a wood-like substance, it was covered in spikes and also slits and small apertures, and at the tail was a metal-reinforced hatch next to a flagpole--a flag depicting a cracked moon fluttered in the breeze. The crash-landing had flatted a number of buildings underneath the ship and around where it had embedded itself in the city. Guards had been posted around the perimeter; according to one of the guards, residents of the neighborhood had approached the craft only to be repelled by gunfire coming from the apertures. Small bipeds with big round heads had been spotted emerging from the hatch to inspect the outside of their craft.

Duly warned, Trom, Belaros, and Dr. Wiffle used a piece of roofing from the surrounding debris as a makeshift shield to give the group cover as they approached the craft. Gunshots rang out as they approached, but their portable cover protected them until they reached the ship and began to clamber up to the hatch at the tail. The hatch proved to be locked from the inside; no one was able to wrench it off, so they began to hack at the wood surrounding the hatch so they might more easily pull it free. While working away at the hatch, Trom was stabbed by a spear that shot out from an aperture in the sphere's hull, but finally the hatch was pulled free, revealing a ladder descending into a corridor within the craft. The wooden interior walls were pulsating with red light.

The end of the corridor seemed to make a u-turn at its extremity. Belaros and Trom pursued them, and both were peppered by darts from a trap in the wall. Once around the bend, the party found themselves in a chamber. Against the far wall was a small wooden chair or throne that seemed to grow out of the craft's wooden floor; the throne was decorated with metal banding inscribed with glowing, electric blue runes. There were also a number of bedrolls against the walls of the chamber and another metal hatch in the floor. Surrounding the throne were a group of goblins, carrying pistols and crystalline spears, and wearing rubbery suits and fishbowl-shaped glass helmets. 

Attempts to parlay with the goblins went well at first; the party learned that the goblins were on a space-faring pilgrimage to the Mind of Tiamat when some magical force in Scarabae pulled them off course and caused them to crash land in the city. The goblins repeatedly told the adventurers to leave their ship so they could finish repairs and return to their pilgrimage. Inevitably, communications broke down and the party found themselves in melee with space goblins. The goblins put up a good fight; their leader had a personal forcefield that made him difficult to wound, but Boddynock kept his side alive while Dr. Wiffle, Trom, Belaros, and Viktor hacked away with spear, sword, and spell. Once dispatched, the goblins and their bedrolls were searched; the party found a number of copper, silver, and gold coins that bore alien markings, and Viktor took the captain's forcefield belt.

Like this but with a goblin in a retro space
helmet instead of a person 
Being approximately goblin-sized meant that Boddynock was volunteered to sit on the throne. He found that the armrests had several divots that he could fit his fingers into. He also discovered that when he said directions, the ship would attempt to move in that direction, even though it was still held fast by its impact into the city. After monkeying with the throne, the party proceeded down the hatch into the belly of the craft. Things they found:

- An image of a goblin sitting in an ornate throne-chair operating arcane controls. The image was clearly aspirational, as the depicted throne was far more ornate and fancy than the one discovered previously.

- A series of interconnecting corridors, some normal-sized, others so narrow they would have to be crawled down on all fours. Viktor cast a light spell on a bag of shot and rolled it down one of the narrow corridors; about halfway down, the rolling shot triggered a pit trap to open.

- A table laden with bread and cheese on crystal plates; the food had obviously been left when the alert when up that there were intruders on board.

- A curving corridor that ended in a chamber holding a large crystalline tank of yellowish liquid. Floating within the liquid was a large insectoid creature. When Belaros put his hand to the glass, the creature pressed its clawed hand in the same spot. Belaros wanted to set the creature free, but the others were nervous about that course of action.

- Another curved corridor ended in a similar tank, but this one held a number of floating black globules...somewhat like the boba in bubble tea. Viktor conjured a mage hand inside the tank to nudge the globules, causing them to unfurl bat-like wings and try to engulf the magical appendage.

- A crashing sound was heard down another corridor. When the party went to explore the source of the commotion they found the broken remains of a crystalline canister. The yellow fluid was puddled on the floor among the crystal shards, but whatever creature or creatures were inside were missing. Dr. Wiffle and Viktor recognized the runes and sigils upon the floor and walls in this chamber--it looked as though the Children of Fimbul had entered the ship magically and made off with whatever was held in that tank.

The party also perceived the sound of murmured conversation. Crawling down a narrow tunnel toward the sound brought them to a chamber used for worship. There were prayer rugs and more bedrolls strewn about, and there was a crystal statue of Tiamat--with each of her heads crafted from a different chromatic color of crystal--at the center of the room. Along the walls were shelves containing crystalline jars filled with red jelly. Whoever had been in this chamber had obviously fled at the party's noisy approach. 

Trom tracked down the rest of the goblins by thundering down a corridor and greeting them with a sonic blast. These goblins were not dressed in the same style as those who had been previously encountered; these goblins wore sand-colored robes and their eyes were glowing with blue light. One of their number appeared to be the spiritual leader of the group; she wore a number of charms and brandished a crystal rod. Another bore a spear and shield, while the remaining two were simply fanatics armed with crystal daggers.

The leader of this group of goblins nearly did Dr. Wiffle a mischief with a chromatic orb spell, but luckily he was able to use his own magic to shield himself from the crackling orb of lightning. Viktor fired back a fiery orb of his own, which immolated the devotee of Tiamat. Boddyock was terrified by a mystical vision of a draconic behemoth slowly beating its wings through the void of the astral sea. The goblin with the spear proved to be a tough customer, but he too eventually fell beneath the party's onslaught. One of the fanatics was easily dispatched, the other was wounded, fell prostrate and hoped for mercy.

The remaining fanatic, Reznik the Believer, explained that his group thought that the party had broken open the crystal canister and released the "monster" therein. When asked if there were any other goblins on board, Reznik guided the crew to a chamber where the goblins kept the "abominations" chained to the walls--these were goblins who had become horribly mutated and driven insane by consuming too much of the red jelly. Belaros put the abominations to the sword--which caused Reznik to go a little bit sheepish as he expected that he may be next on the chopping block. To make himself helpful, he found some tools for Dr. Wiffle so the doctor could remove the throne and sell it to the Magpie Museum, and in the process also showed the party where to find a pair of odd crystal swords that were formed in the shape of bladed feathers. 

Having cleared the spelljammer craft of hostile, Tiamat-worshiping, drug-addicted space goblins, the party decided which items they would keep for themselves and which they would turn over to the Magpie Museum for a profit. They did not kill Reznik; rather, he was turned over to the museum as well so that he might help curate an exhibit of his people's items and their culture. 

As the last of the recovered artifacts were loaded onto the museum's wagons, the party spotted the approach of a number of carriages--all black, all bearing black flags emblazoned with white scarabs, the flag of Scarabae's government! Not wishing to have a conversation with government agents about helping the museum make away with items from a crashed spelljammer on Scarabaen soil, the party soon dispersed into the alleys, shadows, and side streets. One last glance back gave them a glimpse of an imperious, black-haired woman in a green gown step from a carriage to survey the now-looted spelljammer; Mayor Iggwilv was not going to be pleased to discover that the prize had already been rifled!

XP - 246 each.

Coin - 523 each from the assorted goods turned over to the museum's agents, including eight jars of red jelly, a crystal statue of Tiamat, twelves crystal plates, a crystal rod, four pistols of alien manufacture, the helm from a goblin Porcupine spelljammer, a crystal dagger, a number of alien coinage, a cloth star map, six crystal spears, three glass goblin helmets.

Other - A couple of the party took pistols, Viktor took a crystal dagger.

Magic Items - Viktor took slippers of spider climbing from the priestess of Tiamat, and a personal Force Field (it has two charges left, each charge lasts 1 minute and grants a 17 AC for the duration) from the ship's captain; Belaros and Trom both took a feathersword, which is functionally a longsword +1. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Gilded Needles

Michael McDowell's Gilded Needles is a captivating tale of two families from dramatically different circumstances, engaged in a bitter feud set against the backdrop of late 19th Century New York City. This grimy vision of the metropolis, populated by opium addicts, thieves, and lesbian brawlers, could easily have earned the moniker Fear City long before the first stag reels flickered onto the screen of a Times Square grindhouse. Get to know the Stallworths, a family with wealth and political ambitions, and the Shanks, a clan of criminal women who have found their place in lower Manhattan's Black Triangle. How do these families' lives overlap, why do they loathe each other, and what are the consequences of their battle?
Jack and Kate have kept this episode spoiler-free in an effort to encourage others to seek out McDowell's under-appreciated thriller.
Intro/Outro music: "How We Quit the Forest" by Rasputina
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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Beguiled, My Cousin Rachel, The Alienist

2017 isn't doing a great job getting me excited to go to the theater. I was looking forward to XX, but it was a disappointment. I was excited for a good Dark Tower movie, but the trailer looks like garbage.

Please please please let these be good...

The Beguiled

My Cousin Rachel

The Alienist

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Your Problem is Not My Problem

"Your problem is not my problem" sounds more flippant that I really intend it to be, but one thing I've noticed in talking to people online about D&D is that a lot of people have concerns that just wouldn't have ever occurred to me on my own. In the examples below, I'm specifically talking about problems that some DMs encounter that don't factor into how I run games; some of these I understand, and some of these are just plain alien to how I approach gaming.

The Character Information Problem
Recently I was in a thread on G+ where several people expressed that they have difficulty keeping track of all the player characters' powers, spells, and abilities in medium-to-heavy complexity games. This one baffles me; when I'm running a game I don't focus at all on what the player characters can do--that's the job of the player of the character because I've got enough on my plate as it is when I'm busy being everything else besides the players' characters.

If I need to adjudicate a rule in play regarding a character's ability, I ask the player to tell me what it does or I have them read me the text of the ability from the book if we've got a question about how it works. It's their responsibility to keep track of it because it is an aspect of the game attached to their particular character. I think of it like this: if someone is playing chess, and they don't know how the knight moves so they never move it, well, that's on them. 

The Cleric Problem
This one I understand: D&D's archetypal cleric just doesn't fit into the campaign settings some DMs want to play in. As a character class, the cleric is such a D&Dism; it doesn't really have much in the way of antecedents in the literature that inspired the game, or even in fantasy in general until the fantasy began to respond to D&D's cultural and aesthetic influence. For example, if you want to run a game that is true to the sword & sorcery genre, the cleric fits badly. 

The most obvious "solution," simply taking the cleric out of the game, presents some mechanical difficulties; in many editions of the game, healing magic is mainly sequestered in the cleric's hands, and without it the game's balance can be thrown off. Luckily for me, the cleric class tends to fit my settings pretty well. In my Krevborna setting, for example, the idea of a divinely-empowered inquisitor, a fanatical exorcist, or a vampire-hunting priest hits the aesthetic conventions I'm going for. 

The Game With No Players Problem
Offering up a game is a way of putting yourself out there; I have sympathy for people who are trying to get a game together but are struggling to find players because if people aren't interested in your game, that probably feels like rejection. My sympathy ends, however, when that feeling of rejection becomes a jealous hostility toward people running games that have no problems attracting players who want to play in them. Instead of moaning "My game is more fun than that guy's game, why aren't people playing in my campaign instead of theirs?" consider what the people who are running successful, beloved games are doing to make their games attractive and figure out how to incorporate that into your own games.

Part of this problem is that a lot of DMs construct their philosophy of what makes a "good game" from bad sources. Instead of thinking about the things they could do to get the game experience they want, they default to theories and perspectives that have more ideological value when arguing about games on forums than they have in utility value for games being played. Not all advice about how to run a game is equal. I have my own opinion on this. Mathematically speaking: Advice from DMs who frequently and currently run games that people are excited about is greater than:

  • Advice from DMs who maybe ran some games "back in the day." 
  • Advice from "game designers" who don't actually seem to run games. 
  • Advice from people who design games that few people are interested in.
  • Grognard consensus about the "right" way to play D&D.

So instead of deciding to die alone on a lonely hill of bitterness because other people are running games that people want in on, consider asking them what they're doing and what is working for them. Maybe people aren't interested in your game because you're presenting limited player options, maybe you're so invested in the metaphysics or history of your setting players feel like they're just along for the ride--but you might not figure that out until you honestly compare your techniques and ideas against those of people who are getting the kind of results you want.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Martyr's Kiss

† The Howling Void, The Womb Beyond the World
† Funeral, From the Orchestral Grave
† Evoken, Where Ghosts Fall Silent
† Skepticism, Pendulum
† Rise of Avernus, Disenchanted
† Lychgate, Letter XIX
† Myrkur, Skadi
† Peccatum, Parasite My Heart