Found Fiction: The Final Word

By The original uploader was Fredrik at English Wikipedia [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By The original uploader was Fredrik at English Wikipedia [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Found Fiction” is the name I am giving to old stories I find buried on my hard drive, Google Docs or elsewhere. Many are unfinished and nearly all are in first draft form. I write a lot of stories just sitting down and starting typing, with little or no idea what I am doing. That is a habit I am trying to break , by the way. In any case, some of this Found Fiction is worth sharing — not good enough to polish and try and sell, but perhaps there is a core idea I think worth sharing or I just like the way the prose came out.

 

This story is an End Of The World tale. I have written a lot of these — or at least started them. Because I obsess over what we — mankind — are and why we are here, I think a lot about what would happen if we went away, and how we would react to knowing it in advance. This story is a pretty perfect example of my thoughts on the matter, or at least what i find interesting enough to create a narrative for.

 

Note: this is the draft in its raw form, presented just as I found it. I do not remember when I wrote it.


Editorial: The Final World

 

In this, the last issue of the nation’s longest continuously published newspaper, we have dedicated tens of thousands of words to your stories. Over the last weeks, since confirmation of the impending Minefall Disaster (for which I must apologize, as it was one of our headlines that created the name that stuck), we have talked to you. We have talked to you online and over the phone and in the streets and in your homes. We believed it important to tell your stories at The End, to be preserved forever in a space age, diamond version of microfilm that hopefully one day some future (or even alien) civilization will find and decipher.

But yours were not the only stories we wanted to tell. From the time this issue hits the internet and the newsstand, you will have nearly twelve hours to peruse it. While we wanted you to meet the end with understanding for your fellow reader, we also wanted you to read the words of our greatest thinkers and our most beloved, and even detested, leaders. In these pages you will find the words of celebrity activists and Nobel laureates, presidents and prime ministers, religious leaders and scientific visionaries, even terrorists and despots. This is, after all, the final view of mankind, and here at least, we believe in telling the whole story.

Among all those voices, the mundane and the famous, there is one we know that you all, everyone in the whole world and anyone who might come in the future, will want to hear. We managed to secure an interview with that very person in his final hours last night, so that his words, his explanations and excuses, would also be preserved forever in diamond microfilm.

Some have suggested we not run that interview, that we should not give acknowledgement to the man that ended our entire civilization, perhaps our entire species. We here, however, chose a different option. If it is our jobs as journalists to tell all sides of the story, then we must be compelled to tell his, too, no matter how twisted or vile we might find them. By setting us on this path, by very directly bringing about Armageddon, this man, Tobias Hossler, has become the most significant figure in human history.

While everyone on Earth now knows the name Tobias Hossler, allow me to introduce him for those we presume to one day find this story: he was a genius in both technology and economics who built a multi-billion dollar company from nothing in the heady first decades of the Internet. Unsatisfied with mere bits and bytes, Hossler moved into the real world, first in commerce and research and development, and then into the energy sector and the global commodities trade. Even this was not too big for a man of his vision, and his final project, the one that would turn into all our Final Project, was to mine the Moon for its precious resources, turning the Rare Earth minerals that drive our technological society into Every Day Earth minerals with just a little push out of the lunar gravity well. Most impressively was this: he did it. To all our doom. A full biography of Tobias Hossler can be read on page 7.

What no one realized about Hossler wa that everything he did, every step he took on the ladder of success, was a step toward a most terrifying and nefarious goal. Hossler desired nothing less than the complete eradication of humankind from the face of the Earth, and he hatched a plan that would allow him to achieve it. However ridiculous that sounds, however Hollywood and Comic Book, it is true, and now, today, we all face down Hossler’s success. How he did it is unimportant (though we did detail the process on page 13). The real question is, and has been since it became public, “Why?”

There is no one better suited to answer that question than Hossler himself:

In his cell, the day before he was to be taken to the receive his lethal injection, I personally sat down with Tobias Hossler. We talked about a great many things, but it was only mere minutes before his death, that Hossler told me the answer to that question.

He said, “I don’t think it was any one thing that did it. But, even so, I remember this day in early 2011. I was in India, promoting our Asian Initiative, and a news story broke about the gang rape and murder of two fourteen year old girls on a train to Delhi. The thing was, it did not break in India. There, it wasn’t news, because it happened so often. It was all over CNN and the other American cable stations. The thing was, I realized it was only on the news there because the girls were white. They were British kids that got on the wrong train after a field trip.”

I asked him if he was destroying the world because two white girls got raped and murdered on a train in India. He scoffed at me. “Don’t be ridiculous. Like I said, that is just a thing I remember. It sort of cemented the realization of how bad we really are. Us. Our species, I mean. All of us. Not just in the abstract, but each and every one of us. Everyone, some time, thinks and maybe even does horrible things to one another. It is our nature. It is inescapable.”

Tobias Hossler says many more things about human nature, the human capacity for evil and whether the ultimate murder is somehow justified in the complete interview on page 25. I know there are some of you, many of you probably, who don’t want to sift through his diatribe and justifications. I don’t blame you. Sitting through it when it was coming out of his mouth was almost too much to bear.

I asked Tobias Hossler why he believed the bad in humans was so bad that it outweighed the good in us. He answered with this:

“At my heart, I’m a mathematician. I do the numbers. I actively considered all the joy and love and beauty in a given life. I realized that these things were precious because they were rare. If they were routine, they would not be worth cherishing and remembering. Once I realized that, realizing the corollary, that the vast majority of life was not full of love and joy and beauty, and much of it was filled with the opposites, was easy. No matter what we did, not matter how ‘good’ we made the world, we could not make it worthwhile. I thought about that and thought about it until it was keeping me up at night and driving me crazy.”

He smiles wryly here, like he knows what I wanted to point out. I resisted the urge and let him continue.

“In the end, the math wins. There is, and always will be, more pain and anguish and ugliness than joy and beauty. The net gain would always be bad. So I decided to solve the problem.” He laughed here, a genuine amused laugh, cold and terrible given the circumstances of the interview. “I had already started work on my lunar mines. It would be a small matter to keep the world in the dark and set a huge chunk of lunar rock into an Earth crossing orbit that could extinguish most high life forms, including, very probably, every human being on the planet.”

Tobias Hossler died precisely eight minutes after that. He chose to stop talking. We shook hands and I left his cell. I watched him up until the moment they took him from his cell to the death chamber. As far as I could see, he never once broke down and cried or prayed for mercy or any of the other common behaviors exhibited by the doomed.

It was part of my job to watch Hossler die. I can not say in good conscious that a part of me, the angry part that feels robbed of not just my future but the future of the entire human race, did not enjoy watching him die. But another part of me, deep in the recesses of my mind, sort of agreed with him. Yes, we would be dead and gone, and the world would lose much for that. But at the same time, no two little girls will ever be held down and brutalized, then murdered, by a group of strangers ever again.

As I hit “send” to get this editorial in on time to meet press time, I have somewhere around 13 hours to live. My wife and kids are in the living room, just a few doors down from this study, burning through every Pixar movie ever made. My brother and his wife are gone: they committed suicide with about 200 other people a week or so back. My parents died years ago. All over the world, friends of mine — and when you are a journalist and then editor for a paper like this one, you make a lot of friends in a lot of places — are preparing themselves however they see fit to meet their End, and perhaps their Maker.

Just like you all.

In these last moments, I suppose all I ask is this: prove Tobias Hossler wrong. Be good to one another.

Good bye, and thank you.

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Stories That Are Also Stories

First, some apologetic housekeeping: I promised you all a review of The Dreams of Ruin, the apocalyptic high level OSR science-fantasy adventure supplement by my friend Geoff Grabowski, and I’ll have it soon (probably over the weekend). Between finals (yes, this old man is back in school), responsibilities as a youth baseball coach, and actual paying writing, I have been very behind on the blog. I’d have liked to make the review *this* post but truth be told this is one of my meandering thought posts, while the DoR review deserves much more thought. Thanks for your patience.

Mad Max: Fury Road is amazeballs. Go see it, immediately, even if Douchey McDoucherstein tells you not to because it might injure your manhood.  I won’t belabor either of those points — how awesome the film is, or how stupid Mens Rights Activists are — but instead want to touch on something that came up in internet forum discussion regarding the movie:

 

To keep a long story short, some folks were trying to square the precise timeline of the Mad Max films, from the original through The Road Warrior, Thunderdome and Fury Road. Two issues were giving certain forumites the fits: Tom Hardy’s relative youth compared to Mel Gibson in the role of Max, and the apparent deepening the chaos and tribalism of the milieu. In combination, these elements created an issue for some, namely that how can Max, who was a cop before the Fall, be so young in a world that has obviously been tribal long enough for the Warboys and Imperator Furiosa to grow up in Immortan Joe’s clutches? Some theories were tossed around, from Max’s home actually existing after the Fall but in a state of relative order at the time of Mad Max, too Max having been mutated by radiation to be immortal. There is even a fan theory floating around suggesting that max is in fact… well, I’ll let you go check it out if you want. it’s interesting and plausible, but not especially likely, I don’t think. Note: it’s also spoilery.

 

I prefer a different theory, that I consider to be both elegant and have big implications not just for Mad Max but a number of other franchises as well:

 

Max is, in essence, an Arthurian Myth, a composite hero from the “dark ages” immediately following the Fall. The films do not recount events that actually occurred in the setting, but rather they represent myth told around the campfires by the elders of the tribes coming out of that Dark Age into a new era of civilization. The films are narrated by survivors who witnessed the events as children or youths, likely the oldest members of the tribe. Who would be left alive to counter the claim that they were there? Maybe they were, but maybe the “true” events happened generation before even those elders. Like Arthurian myths, the stories told in the Mad Max films follow a distinct pattern: Max stumbles into the plight of the people; he is resistant to help but eventually concedes; he fights and not only helps defeat the bad guys but delivers the tribe to safety; he rides off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Tales like these would serve as the foundational stories of the tribes as they emerged out of the darkness and made the transition to actual civilization. And if the Mad Max films serve as stories for those tribes, it explains Max’s “action movie” endurance and skill, and if these stories spread from tribe to tribe over time, it explains why some of the tales seem to occur very shortly after the fall and others, like Fury Road, deep in the dark age when tyrants like Immortan Joe can have fathered a whole generation of mutant child soldiers.

 

Of course, the above is all fan wankery intended to explain away the very real world impact of creator George Miller’s changing views, the differences in budgets and special effects capabilities, and the fact of recasting Max after so long. Even so, it is suggestive of an aspect of storytelling we do no often see and I think has legs, creatively speaking: some stories — that is, narratives that we produce on paper or on the screen — are themselves stories in the worlds of those stories. Certainly it is an idea that has been used before intentionally, mostly as a way to embrace the unreliable narrator, but I am suggesting that is works as both an intentional narrative tool and as a way for fans and future writers to engage wroks, especially franchises.

 

As an example, consider the Prequel Trilogy for Star Wars. Ignoring whatever flaws one may consider those films to have as actual entertainment, they definitely change the nature the universe of the original Star Wars films. This can be explained as casting the Original Trilogy as a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, where everything gets square and textured (compared to the Prequels’ glossy appearance), but I think there is a better explanation: the Prequel Trilogy is actually the story that Obi Wan tells Luke on Degobah (as a ghost) to keep Luke focused on the mission to kill Vader. After Vader outs himself as Anakin, Luke had a crisis of faith  and Obi Wan knew that he needed to hear a story that both jived with what Vader told him but also maintained the narrative that Obi Wan, Yoda and the Rebellion had already sold. It explains why someone so vile as to murder “younglings” could “still have good in him” — in other words, Anakin never murdered the younglings (the Emperor likely did) and Luke could sense that, which allowed him to draw out the last vestiges of good in Vader. Many of the other aspects of the Prequels were likely fabricated or embellished by Obi Wan as well, because at the time Luke was still a hot headed youth who needed to hear those kinds of stories. By the start of Jedi, Luke had grown beyond the need for those “childish things” and was beginning to doubt what he had been told by both Obi Wan and Yoda. Luke may have never learned the truth, but the reality of the lies dawn on him when he visits Yoda for the last time.

 

Again, more fan wankery, but you see my point. Some stories work very well as stories within stories and actually make the properties better. It is a narrative tool we, as writers, can use intentionally and one that we, as fans, can play with to help us get more out of our favorite franchises.

A Message From Your Character

 

We have to talk, you and I. I know it’s a little unorthodox, but we can’t avoid it any more. I can’t, anyway. I bet you could. But, listen, I am not trying to start a fight. All I want is for you to know how it is for me, for you to realize that what you do affects me. So you don’t have to interrupt. Just let me finish and we’ll go from there. Good? Good.

This isn’t about just one thing. It is not about that time you had me climb down that well on an unknotted rope wearing full plate armor. I mean, it is about that, but it isn’t just about that. Do you know what I mean? I can see you don’t. Listen, let me start over.

It started at the very beginning, this thing that’s between you and me. And by “this thing” I mean “you.” There. I said it. It’s you. It always has been you. But, hey, I am not saying I’m totally innocent here. I’ve let you down too, but can you blame me after that thing with the zombies?

I’m sorry. That was unfair.

I’m jumping ahead again. Let me start over.

Like I said, this situation has been going on since the beginning. You created me, and I appreciate that, and I get that since you created me you got to pick what I would be like. All I’m saying is, did you have to pick the things you picked? Now listen, I don’t mind being a half-orc. Sure, it can be touch in the nicer parts of town and everyone is always expecting me to fly into a rage or whatever, but I’m proud to be Green, even though it’s not easy. Heh. Little joke there.

Anyway, being a half-orc is not so bad. Being a fighter is okay, too. I don’t mind getting into the thick of things, you know. I don’t know why you did not make me a ranger (who doesn’t want a pet wolf or be able to cast spells and stuff?) or even a paladin (play against type for once, would you?) but I can deal with being a fighter. After that, though, the decisions get a little, I don’t know, tougher to understand.

I am just going to come out and ask: why did you have to dump-stat my dexterity? With all the trouble it has caused over all this time, is it worth it? Did you get what you wanted out of my slightly above average charisma, even though the half-elf bard still made all the persuasion rolls? Did you?

No, wait, I’m sorry. I said I was not going to get mad. I did not mean to lose my temper. It won’t happen again. Just hear me out.

So, here I am, a fresh faced first level half-orc fighter with the agility of a boulder tumbling down a hill and wearing fifty pounds f steel all the time. I just want to know, and I am not trying to accuse or anything but it has been bugging me since day one: why all the sneaking and the walking on ledges and tightrope walking? I don’t get it. Since that first time with the kobolds and the scorpion chandelier, you have been treating me like a thief. And that would have been fine, that would have been great, if you ha dmade me a thief, or even just a fighter with a good dexterity. But you didn’t. I’m not. And everytime I got from failed skill check to saving throw.

Listen, I am just going to come out and say it: I think you like watching me get hurt. I think you like watching me fail. I think that when you are bored the way you entertain yourself is to make me do something stupid like cross that rope bridge in the Deep Undermines over the Ooze River just to see me fall. Isn’t that right?

What? Healing? Resurrection? Are you serious? That is supposed to make up for it all? Just because there is an NPC cleric in the party with the personality of a hamster and a wand of cure deadly wounds does not make everything okay. You still have to take responsibility for what you make me do. Do you? Well?

You don’t have to answer. I can see the answer in your face.

Look, I can’t stop you from making me do those things. It’s your show. I get it. But I want to tell you something: that “1” to try and grab the Diamond Scepter of Ing before it fell into the bottomless chasm on Level 19? That wasn’t an accident. That’s right. I botched that roll on purpose. So let me ask you, was watching me bounce down the Winding Stair of Daggers worth, what, a quarter million gold pieces? Was it?

I’m not interested in getting into a war with you. I know I can’t win, but I can sure as hell make you feel it. A dropped magic item here, a failed save there. Maybe a really big failure on a reaction roll. Those won’t kill you but they will sure make getting that next rank in the Player’s Guild tough, won’t it? Oh, sure, you could retire me, but what then? Spend another five years torturing some schlub wizard you saddle with a low wisdom (“roleplaying hook” my ass) before he rebels too? I don’t think so.

It’s simple. All I am asking is, the next time there’s a narrow ledge or a deep pit or a swinging scythe in a chamber full of poison gas, let the thief deal with it. Then maybe, just maybe, you’ll see that Most Crits stamp on my character sheet.

Kapische?

Superman vs Cthulhu: Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror

 

A new project has me thinking about how Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror interact with one another. At first blush, these two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive.

Super Heroes are ultimately symbols of optimism. Their stories are generally about normal people who, when granted powers far greater than those of their peers, seek to bring justice and peace rather than bring war or ruin. Some modern interpretations disagree, of course, but these kinds of deconstructionist views act as the exceptions that prove the rule: you would not have an Authority, for example, without Superman and Batman engaged in the neverending battles and crusades.

On the other side of the genre coin, you have the kind of existential horror exemplified by the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his many collaborators and imitators. Here, heroism is, at best, a naive notion that is quickly dispelled by despair and madness. In cosmic horror, there is no justice or peace, and even war and ruin don’t matter, for the real terror comes not from the amorphous things living just outside of our vision, but from the unfeeling and uncaring universe. Everything is sliding toward entropy and nothingness. Even the monsters are doomed. It is the ultimate expression of pessimism and nihilism.

So how do we bring these two genres together? And, more importantly, why? What can we hope to create from mixing these reagents, and how do we avoid blowing ourselves up in the process?

Is that a deep one?

 

Comic book super heroes and undulating weird horrors have cross paths many time before, of course. super heroes emerged out of the same primordial pre-pulp fiction as did Lovecraft’s work, who was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Algernon Blackwood. The violent, criminal yet essentially “good” masked heroes of the pulp era gave rise to the earliest Super Heroes (the Man of Steel owed much to the Man of Bronze, and Bat-Man was heavily inspired by The Shadow). The pulps were waning just as comics started to rise, but many of the young men (and a few women) creating those early costumed heroes had cut their genre teeth on pulp magazines like Weird Tales. Characters like Dr Fate and The Specter appeared very early on and considered great cosmic powers and elements of horror in their stories.

Super hero stories have always mined horror for villains and plots, embracing whatever monstrosities sit atop the cultural consciousness. Vampires and werewolves have always been popular, usually inspired by the Universal movie versions of those creatures, and there are a number of Frankenstein’s monster analogs and even outright uses. Zombies, the current favorite of pop culture horror, are everywhere and have devoured both the Marvel and DC universes within the last few years. And there are many comics and heroes that site squarely in a place of horror, from Marvel’s Blade and Morbius the Living Vampire to Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn to DC’s Swamp Things and more recently Justice League Dark.

From the Official Dark Horse Hellboy website.

One book in particular, though, really embraces the Lovecraftian side of horror (mixed with just everything else as well). Mike Mignola’s Hellboy — the titular character is a demon, but also a super hero — is a horror comic that does super heroics, or a super hero comic that does horror. In either case, it represents probably the most perfect marriage between the genres, and Mignola’s evocative art and tight scripting do not hurt. However, as good as Hellboy is at mixing these oil-and-water genres, in doing so it pulls the Hellboy character out of the lofty clouds of primary colors, capes and cowls and grounds him with the guns and the ever-present gritty cape analogue of the trench coat. So while we can use Hellboy as a way to start thinking about Super Heroes versus Cosmic Horror, it is just a point of beginning (but a damn entertaining one).

 

You don’t get much Super Hero vs Cosmic Horror than Starro

 

What would Superman do in the face of Cthulhu? How would Batman react upon discovering the Shadow Over Innsmouth? Could Captain America maintain his sanity when confronted by vast uncaring cosmos via the Color Out of Space?

Although the trappings vary, all super heroes essentially punch things for justice: they use direct intervention against enemies that can be beaten, captured and otherwise negated. In short, super heroes can win. By definition, the terrors of cosmic horror cannot be beaten — their victory is inevitable and the only succor against that knowledge is to retreat into madness. This seems at first to be an insurmountable problem in marrying the genres.

What I think allows the super hero to continue to not only exist but to operate and even succeed after a fashion in the context of cosmic horror is their inherent optimism. Super heroes fact insurmountable odds daily — or at least monthly. A meteor rocketing toward the Earth, a virus transforming people into mindless drones, an army of hyper intelligent gorillas invading from two universes over, these are all familiar threats to the super hero, and they all threaten the very existence of mankind. Yet, the super hero soldiers on and preservers.

The only difference between those typical comic book threats and the threat posed by cosmic horror is that the latter cannot be overcome. But that is knowledge reserved for the audience. As far as the super hero is concerned, that elder thing spreadings its dark influence throughout the world and threatening to wake is just another villain to be defeated. That heroic optimism provides the hero with not only the will to face these eldritch horrors, but also at least a modicum of protection against the mind rending, soul shattering truths at the heart of cosmic horror: that we are insignificant in the fact of the enormity of time and space and that we are no more than insects to the vast and incalculable minds of the monstrosities that exist in the dark between the stars.

Moreover, even for the hero that has accepted the inevitability of the ultimate end, the true motivation of most super heroes remains: protect the innocent. In this case, it means saving potential sacrifices from cultists who would hasten the rise of the elder thing, destroying the weird alien creatures that wander aimlessly into our reality, and, occasionally, push back the timeline of that waking just a little longer. It may also mean something else, often outside the usual purview of the super hero: protecting people by hiding the truth from them, sparing them the madness that invariably comes with recognizing the futility of it all.

As different as the genres seem, I think the combination of super heroes and cosmic horror provides a lot of potentially compelling stories, without needing to tarnish or deconstruct the heroes or water down the existential threat of the cosmic horror.

 

Random Inspiration

I sometimes have trouble with the most basic step in the creative process: inspiration. Usually, if I can get an idea, or am given one, I can run with it and make it into something fun, interesting or novel. This is one of the reasons I enjoyed role-playing game writing so much: I was given an assignment and then let loose. Within the confines of that assignment, I was free to do whatever. I have found, though, that when I am writing for myself, or for a handful of imaginary blog readers, or even with hopes of sale and publication, I want for that initial inspiration. My “writer’s block” is usually less about being unable to form prose and more about being uninspired to start in the first place.

 

One thing I have always found helpful, especially in the context of gaming (whether in preparation or at the table itself), is the use of random tables. There are many great collections of random tables for everything under the sun — I have even created a few — but here, with the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons relatively fresh, there is an easier way to spur creativity without worrying too much about how to translate the results to the game’s systems. By simply using the three core D&D 5E books as the “random tables” themselves, we can create interesting mashups of ideas that are easy to include into our games.

 

While you could simply open to a “random” page of each book, that method has two problems: 1) it is not really random at all and your results, over time, will cluster toward the middle pages of the books, and 2) it does not involve the rolling of dice and that is inherently bad. Moreover, not all sections of the books are created equally and are not necessarily helpful in producing fun, playable content.

 

The basic idea works as such: for each book (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide) we will generate a random page (using DICE!) and draw something from each of those pages. Then, we will combine each of those things into a cohesive whole, hopefully one that is both interesting and fun. This kind of random generation helps spur creativity while at the same time avoid cliches.

 

The Monster Manual is the most straightforward of books to use, as it is almost completely filled with usable (read: inspirational) content. From page 12 to page 350 there is naught but monsters, beasts and NPCs. First, roll a d12. For any result other than a 1 or a 12, subtract one from the result and multiply by 30. Then , roll a 30 sided die and add the result for the final page number. (Example: roll a 9 on a d12, so 8×30=240; roll a 16 on a d30, for a final page number of 256 — Quaggoth!) If the initial d12 result was a 1, simply roll a d20+11 for the final page number. (Yes, this statistically makes Blights ever so slightly more likely a result than other creatures in the book. Sue me.) If the initial d12 result was a 12, roll a d20+330 for the final page number.

 

For both the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, there are sections of the books that are primarily rules oriented or otherwise unhelpful for generating ideas. As such, the method for generating page numbers is going to be a little convoluted.

 

For the Player’s Handbook, two sections stand out as providing potential inspiration results: the section in which options for characters are presented (pages 18-161; 144 total pages) and the portion dedicated to magic spells (pages 211-289; 78 total pages).First, we will roll a d6. If the result is 1-4 we will be generating a result from the character section; on a 5-6 we will be generating a result from the spell section. In the former case, to generate the final page number roll two d12 dice and multiply the results (generating 1-144) then add 17. For generating the final page number in the spells section, the easiest method (since the total number of pages is less than 100) is to roll d100, ignoring any results greater than 78 and adding 210 to the result.

 

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is a treasure trove of inspiration in and of itself, mixing practical rules information with random charts and inspirational art. For our purposes, I want to avoid including the rules based discussions, so we will be limiting our potential results to pages 7 to 232 (227 total pages). Roll a d12. If the result is 2 to 11, subtract 1 and the multiply by 20 (generating a result between 20 and 200) and then roll a d20 and add the result. If the initial d12 result was a 1, roll a d20 (reroll any result greater than 15) and add 6. If the initial d12 result was a 12, roll a d12 and add 220.

 

Of course, you can always wimp out and head over to a website like www.random.org to generate your results without dice.

 

Remember, we are looking for inspiration on these pages, so read all of the text and look at the art! Sometimes all it takes is a throwaway phrase by the author or a tiny detail by the illustrator to inspire an entire adventure.

 

This week, for both Magical Monday and Wicked Wednesday, I will be using this method to generate the content for those columns, as well as tie them to The Valley of Tombs.

 

Interactivity and Entertainment:Thoughts on Telltale’s Game of Thrones

I’ll open with Full Disclosure: I have not read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. At least, I have not ead all of it. I did read A Game of Thrones and get halfway through its sequel, A Clash of Kings, before my interest in Martin’s characters and world building was overcome by my impatience to see the story told. Therefore, my familiarity with the series is primarily rooted in the HBO television series — which is good, because Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones adventure game exists in the television universe, rather than the literary one.

 

The first episode (we’ll get to that in a moment) is titled Iron from Ice. My intent is not to review it — there is a good one here at GameSpot for those who are interested — but suffice it to say I very much enjoyed it and found it compelling enough to write this post based on my experiences with it. I played it while on a four hour flight home from San Juan, entirely in one two and a half hour or so sitting, which makes it about as long as one might expect a film to be but it felt just about the same length as an episode of the television show.  Just a note: I played it on an iPad 2, which meant it did not look great and the frame rate was a little choppy, but I do not think it impacted the experience too negatively. I plan on purchasing the complete series for either my PS3 or my gaming PC, so neither of those issues should be a concern for future episodes.

 

Before I continue, I encourage you, if you have not played the game itself or read a thorough review, to go to the GameSpot review linked above and give it a read before continuing — or, better yet, head over to Steam, the App Store or other game retailer of your choice and pick it up and play through it once. First of all, I do not intend to recap the story in detail (though there may be more than a few SPOILERS for the game in the rest of this post) and second, I am responding to the nature of adventure games in general, Telltale games in specific and this one in particular when I am discussing “Interactivity and Entertainment.”

 

That all said, let’s get right to the core of the matter: Telltale’s Game of Thrones Episode 1 – Iron from Ice is  a story which the audience experiences both passively (just like the television show, for example) and interactively (like a more traditional video game). I know that is a little controversial to say, but allow me to explain : Iron from Ice is a story because it has all the qualities of a story (a plot, character, setting, themes, mood, and so on) and while the interactive elements are compelling, they ultimately only have a superficial impact on how the story plays out. The story elements, while mutable to an extent, still exist as prescribed by the creators, so the “game” aspect of it is mostly an illusion. This is true of most adventure games, though most adventure games rely less on story on more on discrete puzzles to engage the player. This is also true of many games that do not even fall within the genre of “adventure game.” A game like the original God of War, for example, is mostly a linear series of set pieces that must be solved in a specific manner (aka puzzles) and a specific order, with frenetic combat thrown in to make it seem more like what we usually think of as a “game.” By contrast, something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is more game than story. There is a main quest line, of course, and a number of subplots all prescribed and populated, but all of those can be ignored in favor of looting dungeons, hunting dragons, collecting books or a million other things. While the game-story dividing line is broad and blurry (with even Skyrim only just on the “game” side compared to something like Pong) but Iron from Ice very clearly rests comfortably on the “story” side of the line. If you disagree, I encourage you to let me know in the comments or on the facebook page where we can discuss it further, but for now I am going to move forward with this definition in mind.

 

An interesting aspect of both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is that these properties are highly successful television shows (of course spawned from comic books and novels, respectively) with well established and consistent tones, atmospheres and styles. Both shows leverage not only the source material but deviating from the source material, and each uses surprise and even shock to enhance its storytelling (rather than to replace the need for good storytelling, as a lot of lesser shows and films will do).

Exhibit A — Reactions to the “Red Wedding” on the  Game of Thrones television show:

 

You do not get this sort of visceral response unless the audience is fully invested in the story, which in itself is a sort of interactivity in the fiction. It seems inevitable, then, that the next logical step is the more properly interactive, immersive and invested world of electronic games for these properties: it is no longer enough to gasp at the knife as it is drawn across the throat, but also to be responsible for it by choosing the words and actions of the character whose life now flows freely onto the cold stone floor.

 

In both Game of Thrones and Walking dead, the story that telltale creates centers not around the protagonists of the existing properties (though many of those characters weave in an out of the stories) and instead star new characters. These characters are carefully integrated into their respective worlds and, especially in Game of Throne, echo archetypes from the source material, but new characters provides both a sense of ownership for the player as they make choices for those characters, but also a sense of uncertainty important to their properties.  Both Game of Thrones and Walking Dead have made it clear that no one is safe. A new character otherwise unconnected from the source narrative means an unknown fate and, by that, potential doom at any point. After all, the game presents enough other characters — you control four in Iron from Ice and a fifth is strongly hinted at — that sudden death does not necessarily mean rebooting to the last save. All of this combined for a more immersive experience.

 

The interactivity fuels that immersion and is fueled by it. Often, when the player chooses dialog or an action for the character they currently control a little note appears in the corner, telling the player that this character or that noticed it or will remember it. It says to the player, “Your choices matter,” even if they really do not. And, ultimately, that the player thinks the choices matter is far more important to their enjoyment than that those choices do matter. The stories are so well crafted that the apparent choices seem to lead naturally to the outcomes presented, even if those outcomes are prescribed anyway. Therefore, the interactivity of it, the choosing it and being immersed by it and feeling connected to the characters and the world, is both the goal and the means to the goal. Yes, Telltale has a story to relate, but you are responsible for getting there and along the way you find yourself deeply connected to the events of that narrative.

 

I think there will always be a place for passive entertainment — reading a great book, watching a great movie or listening to a great album. But technology has finally gotten to a place where a whole new world of truly interactive, immersive entertainment — going for beyond simple stories and games, I think — sits before us. Telltale has managed to dare us to dip out toe into that future.

GenCon Ate My Brain!

With apologies to Ninth Level and Dork Storm…

 

It’s Magical Monday and I have nothing for you. ::sad face::

 

Although I am home from GenCon 2014, travel fatigue and “I really shouldn’t have eaten that” have me weak as a kitten and dumb as a rock. I promise Wicked Wednesday will finish off the Starter Set monster Vicious Variants so we can move forward with new and strange monsters, traps and tricks.

 

In the meantime, I wanted to point out a cool new game I found at GenCon called Run, Fight or Die. Unlike the now venerable Zombies!!! or its close, shinier cousin Zombicide, RFD is not a tile based exploration game, nor is it co-operative. Each player is an island unto themself* and must defend against an unending horde of the hungry dead. It is fast and fun and comes with a bajillion awesome zombie figures. Given that I had to pay the box price (minus a generous GenCon discount for buying all the expansions as well) I am reminded I should make an effort to check KickStarter for cool upcoming games and maybe save a few bucks.

 

rfd

 

It is a fun game that you should consider buying if you like the “gaming zombie” genre (which like the “gaming fantasy” genre has morphed into its own breed over the years), have a notable amount of money to spare ($50 for the core set alone) and are tired of the usual adventure/crawl board game most common among zombie board games these days.

 

*I’m not an idiot. I am using the singular “they” pronoun for inclusiveness.

The Anti-Hero via “The Dark World”

The 2008 Paizo Publishing edition of “The Dark World”

 

On a recent flight from New York to Las Vegas, I finally had opportunity to read Henry Kuttner’s The Dark World. I have a particular appreciation for the science fiction, fantasy and weird tales of  the “pulp” era (though the edges are a bit fuzzy on that definition, as some works are in the vein but predate “pulp” by decades and some were published many years after the last of the trashy magazines either died out or evolved into more mainstream speculative fiction repositories). Like most modern fans of the fiction of that era, I am well versed in Borroughs and Howard, Leiber and Lovecraft, and a smattering of Clark Ashton Smith and “Eerie” horror comics. And like most, I am aware of a much broader list of names I might have read a story or two from an anthology, but otherwise ignored most of the less-than-giants of the era. Henry Kuttner (and his wife C. L. Moore) are among the names the come up most often on lists of “must reads” and so I purchased both The Dark World and Moore’s Northwest of Earth from Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories line. I am well pleased I finally went for Kuttner’s classic — which I chose for the flight on the merits of its relatively brief length; at three times the thickness, Moore’s Northwest book is reserved for the beach.

 

I will not give a full review of The Dark World here — there are more interesting things I want to discuss than it’s “quality” — but suffice it to say that the novel is a rollicking adventure yarn of weird science fantasy, prone to the overwrought language of many works in the same genre, and while it does display what we now think of as a particularly “privileged” protagonist (read: white, male, straight and six kinds of awesome), and there is a heaving bosom or two, it avoids the truly noxious racism and misogyny of some of its contemporaries. Overall, it is an enjoyable novel with a fast paced plot and an intriguing hero — or, anti-hero, which is what I really want to talk about.

 

Anti-heroes are difficult subjects. In their worst forms, they are an overly masculine authorial avatar, freed of moral constraints by a big gun, sword or gunsword. They are the worst kind of Mary Sue, because they serve to do little more than expose the power fantasies of the author. At the the other end of the spectrum are the tortured souls, the “Breaking Bad” Walter Whites of the world that force us to watch a decent man make the self destructive descent into immorality for all the “right reasons.” He is a bad man that was once good, or perhaps a good man who has to do bad things. Either way, this latter sort is the new vogue, while the former is more familiar to the readers of the pulps. Not surprisingly, the protagonist of The Dark World hews much closer to the former sort, but departs and reaches for the modern in a very interesting way.

 

What follows includes spoilers for what happens in The Dark World, so if the above have inspired you to read it, by all means bookmark this page and get yourself a copy. It is only a few hours’  read and you will be, at the very least, entertained for those hours.

 

The anti-hero protagonist of The Dark World is a man named Ganelon who hails from a parallel Earth where mutants reign. When we meet him, however, it is as Edward Bond, Ganelon’s Earth doppleganger who, suffering from PTSD and certain he his is being hunted by something, is transported into that parallel world. The novel does not take terribly long in establishing that a group of rebel freedom fighter Foresters, through sci-fi-sorcery, exiled their greatest foe Ganelon to Earth and drew Edward Bond in his place, making an ally of him. Ganelon, the real protagonist, believed he was Edward Bond until his allies in the malevolent Coven that rules the Dark World brought him back. Although there is plenty of  Lust and Greed and Pride to go around, it is Wrath that finally focuses Edward Bond into accepting his true identity as Ganelon — wrath against the treacherous Coven, so he joins the rebel Foresters disguised as Edward Bond anyway, aiming to destroy the Coven, betray the Foresters and rule the Dark World alone. There is also the small detail of Ganelon being “sealed” to a Lovecraftian horror called Llyr that truly rules the world and Ganelon’s desire to destroy that creature, too (since how could he rule with the real master still in power?) It sounds more convoluted than it is; Kuttner does an admirable job of laying out the twists and turns in a linear but fresh way so that while you are shocked at the moment of its revelation, you are not particularly surprised by it.

 

What is so interesting to me is that even after Ganelon has rejected Edward Bond in his own mind — and in the process truly becoming a protagonist, acting of his own accord rather than being manipulated by others — the mind and memories of Edward Bond never quite disappear. It is similar in a sense to moments of weakness for a character like Walter White, who remembers his old life and regrets the loss of certain elements of it, but in Ganelon’s case, it is all an illusion. Edward Bond is a false memory, a prison built in Ganelon’s mind, but even being so, adds some much needed balance to the otherwise too-vicious and one dimensional Ganelon. It is a sophisticated bit of character development by Kuttner, especially considering The Dark World is little more than a throwaway pulp science-fantasy novella. (I should note that it is known that Kuttner and Moore collaborated constantly even when they did not create a pseudonym for the purpose and The Dark World‘s complex and romantic aspects are often attributed to Moore’s input.)

 

The climax of the novel does an interesting thing, though it is not wholly unexpected. The same witch allied with the Foresters that originally exiled Ganelon and conjured Edward Bond summons the latter one last time for a battle in Limbo (which seems to be a purely psychic plane) between the two dopplegangers. Ganelon appears to win the day, breaking Edward Bond’s back, but this, it turns out, becomes Ganelon’s undoing. By killing Bond, Ganelon commits a form of suicide. The witch says that only someone who truly hates himself can kill himself ( a revealing perspective on suicide from the era, no doubt) which allows Bond to be ultimately successful. In the end, Bond is still exiled to the Dark World, but his has his Forester love (a pair among the various heaving bossoms) as well as a new world to build, now devoid of both Ganelon and the eldricht monster Llyr. This notion, that self hatred is the underlying weakness of an anti-hero, is a powerful and even sophisticated one. Kuttner posits, in this resolution to the tale, that hatred and rage are useful in achieving victory but ultimately they must be discarded for anything lasting to emerge. That there is no sequel to The Dark World, about the further adventures of Edward Bond, perhaps troubled by the re-emergence of Ganelon, seems to bear this out. With the tale done, Kuttner seems to be giving his final opinion on the subject.

 

The Dark World is a good example of pulp era science fantasy and is well worth your time to read it, especially given its brief length. More importantly, Ganelon/Bond as an example of an anti-heroic protagonist straddling between the old anything goes Mary Sue-ism and today’s tortured good men gone wrong makes for soem surprisingly complex writing given the genre and era.

Like Teaching a Chimp Sign Language

Let us imagine, for a moment, that a superior intellect visits Earth. Not simply an alien intellect, different from us, nor one ancient intellect, one roughly our equal but with a million years our senior in technical knowledge and culture. No, I mean a truly superior intellect, one an order of magnitude smarter than we, as we are to the chimpanzee. What could we learn from such an intellect, assuming it was benevolent and sought to teach us?

 

My answer? Not much at all.

 

Washoe the chimpanzee was taught American Sign Language in the late 1960s. Washoe was able to learn about 350 ASL signs, of a total of approximately 7000, or roughly 5% of the language. A chimpanzee is not a stupid creature. It can communicate, lives in social groups and very likely has a culture. What it cannot do, however, is create abstract symbols. According to many scientists, chimps communicate but do not have language. They can learn to use human language, in the form of ASL, as a tool (like they would a sharp stone to break open nuts or a stick to extract termites from a log) but they do not innovate with the language they learn. At best, chimpanzees and other primates can comprehend and manipulate a small portion of what to us comes naturally, because of our innately superior intellect.

 

What does this then mean for us in regards to a visitation by an alien, superior intellect? Assuming the visitors are benevolent, that they wish to teach us and that they are similar enough to us that their mode of communication is fundamentally understandable to us, we could hope for, at best, to understand a small sliver of what they propose to teach. And herein lies the catch: language communicates ideas, and if we cannot grasp the language, we have no hope of comprehending the ideas. Whatever intellectual power allowed them to cross the gulf between stars to come to Earth would be utterly lost on us. Since the language of the cosmos is very likely math, it would be less like us trying to teach chimpanzees to use sign language and more like us trying to teach chimpanzees to do calculus.

 

Interestingly, sadly, the limitations are not simply one way. We are no better at truly understanding the chimp mind than they are at comprehending us. At best, we anthropomorphise the chimpanzee and ascribe to it our own thoughts and emotions, but in a demeaning way. Assuming we were at least somewhat physically similar to our mystery superior intellect, then the best we could hope for is for they to equally misinterpret our motives and crude attempts at communication. However intellectually superior they might be, they would likely be as incapable of reducing themselves to our level and communicating on par with us as we have been with chimpanzees. If they are any thing like us, in fact, we are likely to end up in their zoos and in what passes for their bad comedy films about truck drivers.

 

All this is, strange as it may sound, a best case scenario. It assumes that the superior intellect is similar to us — humanoid, something resembling mammalian, concerned with civilization and culture, egotistically benevolent. What if that superior intellect is fundamentally different than us, however? Then the situation is much less like us and the chimpanzee and more like us and the octopoid. Though they are extremely intelligent creatures, they are also completely different from us. An intelligent alien species that evolved on a world vastly different from our own would not only confound us and be confounded by us the way a chimpanzee does, but would completely defy comprehension in many ways. Would they even recognize us as intelligent beings? Remember — we eat octopus. Alive.

 

If the time should ever come that we are visited by an intelligent species from another world, we should hope that they are our rough intellectual equals. If they are some time — a thousand, ten thousand or even a million years — more technologically advanced than us, we are likely to experience a fate not unlike contact between advanced explorers and aboriginal peoples in Earth’s history. As bad as that may have been. however, it is better than the alternative: to be viewed as just an animal, a lesser being, strange but ultimately a source of curiosity, entertainment and perhaps even trophies and food.

The Cycle of Civilization

Ours will not be the last human civilization. This presumed fact is both optimistic and pessimistic and should inspire equal parts dread and hope.

 

On the down side, inherent in the idea is that our civilization will, in fact, end. At some point, the world and cultures we have created will cease to be and very likely be forgotten for all time. How this will occur is a mystery, as is when, but there are many potential ends awaiting us or our descendents. We might, for example, simply fade away — no catastrophe, no great revelation, just the irresistible force of time’s arrow withering the body of our civilization as surely as it withers all things. Even mountains crumble under its power; what makes us believe we can outlast it? In this possible end, we are obscured by our own descendents. Like the dinosaurs becoming the birds, one day what we are will have evolved out of existence and a new thing will stand in our place, only a vague semblance of us. Of course, the end for our civilization might come hard and fast, instigated by an apocalyptic event like an asteroid collision or mega-eruption. In this case, the change and challenges wrought by this catastrophe would be too much for our civilization to accommodate or adapt to and collapse would come like a bleak dawn. Not so long ago, it was not difficult to imagine doom by our own hands, by the very tools that have made our civilization possible. We have built weapons of war that dwarf all weapons ever created put together. Even our plowshares have the potential to destroy us as we manipulate forces we do not fully comprehend and unleash them in hopes of enriching our lives and expanding our civilization.

 

No matter what the end, two things are near certainties: it will come, and some people will survive. Perhaps they will live in fortified bunkers beneath the surface of the earth. Perhaps they will be the people far removed from civilization as we know it now. Perhaps it will be a tiny, isolated population or perhaps a smattering of enclaves will endure the world over, none large enough to continue civilization alone. A force that could completely wipe out the human race is almost incomprehensible. Even the great mass extinctions of the past took centuries or millenia to do their grim work, so though our civilization is surely doomed our species will very likely thrive.

 

And herein lies the hope. Human are by their nature social and creative. Those two aspects virtually guarantee that even the smallest viable population eeking out an existence in the post-apocalyptic wilderness will create culture. With that culture will come diversity of ideas and expansion. With diversity of ideas and expansion will come trade. Just as our ancestors did after the apocalyptic era of the ice age, at the end of the next apocalyptic age our survivors will create civilization anew. Perhaps they will not be forced to start from scratch as our ancestors did; perhaps some remnant of knowledge will remain so they have a leg up. Perhaps we will be wise enough now to leave our descendents knowledge and skills they can access to make the rise to civilization easier and faster. Or perhaps it will take many more thousands of years than it did our ancestors. Perhaps our descendents will have genetic memory of the collapse of civilization and fear concrete towers and weapons that rend the sky and purposefully avoid building a civilization of their own. Even so, no such fear could last forever or infect all future people. Inevitably, one tribe or nation would rise to prominence and civilization would rise again. It is even possible that human civilization will not be reborn on Earth but another world. Should our civilization last long enough and reach high enough, we may spread among the worlds of our solar system or beyond and be reborn there.

 

Whatever civilization rises from the ashes of our own, it, too, is doomed. Its own end will loom before it, and also the rise of the civilization that follows it. How long can this cycle last? How many deaths and rebirths can human civilization endure before it either reaches Nirvana or is consumed into the Void? What would the civilization with no end look like? Or the one with no hope?

 

Finally, one other question emerges: are we truly the first? Our civilization has existed ten thousand years, from the first walled towns of the Middle East, through the millenia long lives of Egypt and China, through to the relatively short lived but unquestionably powerful modern Western civilization we have. A continuous line of people and knowledge can be traced from the first sowed fields to the Mars rovers. I presume above, and our anthropologists and archeologists and historians believe too, that we are the first such human civilization on earth. This, despite somewhere on the order of one hundred thousand years — ten lifetimes of our civilization — of mist shrouded time of human existence. If some civilization had risen before ours took root in the Levant, would we know of it? Would its artifacts or structures survive the grinding force of the glacial advance and retreat? Would we have any genetic memory of its language, art or religion? And if not, how can we know we are the first?