Category Archives: Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts
This is the miscellaneous category, covering whatever happens to be prancing about in my mind at the time.
Since the fairly cringe-worthy Hugo Awards ceremony a few days back, there’s been a big argument in the SFF world going on about the Science Fiction Canon, such as it is. What is it? How much is it worth? Do you have to read it? So on, so forth.
I waded into this debate and, admittedly, stepped in it a bit when I was having a discussion with a friend of mine regarding whether writers need to read the classics of the genre in order to write good work today. My response was this:
“Yup! My thing about the classics is that you should read them if you want to, but they aren’t strictly relevant to what is happening now. In fact, I would ascribe *zero* relevance to anything published before 1980/1982 or so. Then it incrementally increases as you go.”
Now, this was interpreted (and understandably so, if taken out of context) to mean that no work prior to 1980 has relevance for readers or worth as literature prior to 1980, which is not my point at all. My point is, rather, that the current milieu of science fiction and fantasy as it exists in the market today begins in the early 1980s and if your intention is to publish inside of that milieu, reading stuff published prior to that time is not essential. You, as a writer, need to know what is going on now in the field, not what was going on in the field in 1965.
I had a number of productive discussions about this online with a couple intelligent people. I had a lot of retweets accusing me of ignoring history or suggesting works like 1984 and Brave New World aren’t relevant for modern readers.
Now, I would insist that many (in fact the majority) of pre-contemporary works (defined broadly as the early 1980s, where we moved away from cold war paranoia and into a more cyberpunk/environmental catastrophe/corporate capitalist villain era) do not really resonate as well with a modern audience. The sexism of Bester and Asimov and Niven and Pournelle really shows their works’ age. The writers from the 30s and 40s still hope to find canals on Mars and wonder about the jungles of Venus. Everybody thinks atomic power is the cat’s pajamas. The amount of racism and Orientalism and colonialist underpinnings is overwhelming when examined with a modern sensibility. We can learn a lot about what people thought then about the world, but how it affects our world now is less clear.
Furthermore, much of what was done back in those days had begun a trend that has carried along to this very day! If somebody asked me whether they should read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigades, it’s a no-brainer that I’d suggest Hurley. Why? Well, because it’s still military scifi and it’s still got the first person perspective and thrilling fights and cool tech, but Hurley’s book is about now and Heinlein’s book is firmly rooted in the mid-20th century Cold War (and this is above and beyond the latent fascism contained in that specific book, but that’s a topic I’ve explored before and don’t care to repeat here). You don’t have to read 1984 to understand dystopia – the modern authors who have written about it, at length and with great skill, are numerous. Can you read it? Can a modern reader still glean important and interesting lessons from reading it? Yes, of course. Go ahead and read both!
That, though, not the question I’m seeking to answer. The question I’m trying to tackle is to what extent do modern authors owe fealty to the writers of the distant past to the point where those distant works are essential for their ability to tell compelling stories in the present day. I would argue that once you go past 40 years ago, there really isn’t any requirement because the publishing universe of that era bears no similarity to the one today. They were not writing to the same kind of audience, they were not dealing with the same kind of editors, and they were not facing the same kind of marketplace. Even the ideas they pioneered have been re-imagined and re-imagined again, so that you are entering a dialogue among authors that is a half-century old by now. You don’t need to read that original foray to join that conversation, but you must read the latest entry or you won’t make any sense.
The thing about lionizing the traditional canon (in any genre) is that you are centering the voices of people who lived in worlds alien to our own and then demanding that they be paid homage, when really what they have to say can be taken or left depending on our own interests. None of it is required. It can certainly have value for the right person at the right time, but we ought not ascribe these works more importance than the ones that have followed and, most especially, by those being produced today.
Now, as is the case with all list-building and hard lines in the sand, there are plenty of works from the 70s and earlier that still stand up just as well today as they did then – people like Le Guin and Philip K Dick and so on. But those folks are the exception, not the rule.
In short, if you intend to study the field of science fiction or are just a huge fan of classic books, by all means read the classic fiction of the mid to early 20th century – you will enjoy a lot of it, for sure. However, if you plan to write science fiction or fantasy novels, you don’t owe those old novels your time if you don’t want to give it. You can do it without them, just by reading on your own without any pre-set requirements. The canon is not a law, it’s simply a recommendation list. Feel free to ignore it. Read something else. There are a lot of good books out there, and you’ll never have time to read all of them, anyway.
But hey, that’s just one white dude’s opinion.
People have wondered how my writing is going. So, here it is:
I’ve been stuck inside my house since mid-March.
I’ve got three kids, two cats, and a dog, all trapped in said house with me.
I’ve been teaching a 7yo to read, potty training a 2yo, soothing a 10yo’s anxieties about missing a Zoom meeting and getting in trouble. There has been a lot of crying.
I’ve been making lunch for everybody, especially for my wife, who has spent about 9-10 hours a day, every day trying to make sure my state’s transportation systems are safe, funded, and provided with all the PPE necessary to save lives.
The president is a fascist traitor. No, that’s not a political opinion.
Cops are tear-gassing and beating people protesting police violence all over my homeland.
The fireworks – always prevalent – have been going off all night, every night since early May.
A global pandemic has killed 115,000 of my countrymen at this point, with only more on the way.
And during all of this, I have managed to write two short stories, a rough draft of a novel, and a textbook chapter.
So, the question is: HOW?
Let’s first recognize my privilege: I am still employed and I don’t need to worry about food or paying my mortgage or anything. My family is supportive of my writing – especially my wife. My 10yo daughter has been crucially helpful in wrangling my toddler, allowing me to spend about 4 hours any given day (in 2-hour spurts) at “work” up in my office. Oh, yeah – I live in a house large enough to have a room to myself I can call an office. I also do not suffer from any particular mental illness I am aware of – I do not battle depression or anxiety, I am not a victim of trauma. I am extremely fortunate.
Beyond this, though, I find that the global catastrophes are motivating me to write rather than preventing it. For one thing, writing is an escape for me – I crawl inside my book or my stories and live there for a while and forget about everything in the world. It isn’t that I’m not worried about the world outside, but I have found that pretty much the only thing I can do is to sit down and write through it all. I sort of need to, in order to feel normal.
I say all this not as a kind of humblebrag, mind you. If anything, doing this has made me feel strange and almost disconnected. The vast majority of people I know are having trouble staying motivated, distracted too much by the outside world to focus. It sort of makes me wonder if my capacity for empathy is broken or if I’m being unusually selfish by locking myself away as I am (to the extent that I am). But…I can’t help it. I have to write to feel normal. I have to tell stories.
And furthermore: remember that this isn’t a race. I am writing well right now, fine, but soon enough you’ll be writing better than I am. And what does better/worse even mean in this context? We are all doing what we can. Me? I’m huddled up with my laptop in my office writing as much as I can – that’s how I’m coping. You? You might be coping some other way. Regardless of how, though, we are going to make it through this. We are all going to have stories to tell. And we are all going to have the time to tell them one day.
So, don’t measure how you’re writing against how anybody else is. As somebody who can’t write at any other time than the summer months (because of my day job), I keenly feel that sensation of falling behind, of not being able to keep up, of losing your focus. That’s me, eight months of the year. How do I deal with it then? I do a little work here, a little work there. I plug along at a snail’s pace. I focus on short fiction and editing and keep my expectations low. It’s frustrating, but I get there. You will too.
Good luck, my writing friends. It’s nuts out there. Keep dealing as best you can. You have my admiration and my support, always.
I come downstairs to find a stranger in my house. He is uninvited. He stands in the kitchen, poking through my cabinets.
“Information wants to be free, you know,” he says. He picks up my wallet, weighs it in one hand.
“This is a service,” he says, slipping a crisp dollar bill from inside and sliding it in his pocket. “For the poor. You understand.”
He takes another dollar. And then one more. But only that much. “What’s unfortunate,” he says, opening the fridge, “is that we have a system that makes this necessary.”
He selects a beer. I, of course, do not drink, but I say, “that’s for guests.”
“So you’re going to take their side?” He says. “You’re only helping the corporations.” He opens my beer. He drinks it.
“Who are you?”
“You know what your problem is,” he says. “You’re selfish. Greedy, even.” He opens a box of cereal from the cabinet, pours some in a mug.
“Do you ever ask for things?” I say. It’s all I can muster at the moment. I’m confused. Angry.
“Oh, you’re angry now?” He dumps the cereal in the trash. “I’ve been doing this for years, and you’re angry only now, when you’ve noticed? Typical.”
“Get out!” I open the door for him.
He shakes his head. “This could have been a revolution. Now see what you’ve done.”
As he leaves, he slides his hand into my pocket and pulls out a fresh, new ballpoint pen. “Thanks for nothing, asshole.”
There’s a kind of surrealism in the US these days. Our president is a fascist monster and hopeless incompetent, half our government are complicit toadies, the other half are arguing over the rulebook after the table has been flipped over. Then, in the fringes, you’ve got the revolutionaries who offer stirring visions of the future but no plan to achieve them that much of anybody really believes. Gangs of government-supported paramilitary groups shoot and gas unarmed civilians. Gangs of independent paramilitary groups parade around with assault weapons, threatening violence. Innocents are killed. Buildings burn. And then there’s the Plague: invisible, insidious, it sickens and kills tens of thousands all while the regional governments struggle to contain the damage and implore the ignorant and the selfish to stay home.
For those of us lucky enough to still have a job and to have thus-far avoided the violence and the disease, we sit at home and grip our coffee mugs a bit too hard as we listen to the news each day. “Damage Report, Mr. Scott” is the mood. One friend of mine observes: “I feel like I’m standing on a trap door every day, just waiting for it to open.”
Folks, we’re living inside a storybook. Maybe it’s a technothriller, maybe it’s a fantasy or a scifi epic, but it shouldn’t be lost on us that what is happening is the stuff epics are made of. Star Wars, Dune, Game of Thrones and a dozen other properties have imagined similar worlds, all of them based, at least loosely, off of reality.
I don’t say this to somehow trivialize our collective experiences, but only to contextualize how we understand these stories. The worlds depicted by these stories are terrifying. They are awful and chaotic and violent, and maybe we don’t notice it so much because of the heroes we follow along with. I mean, Han Solo’s adventures seem pretty romantic, right? Wouldn’t it be cool to live in the Star Wars world?
Well, now we know the answer: no. No, it would not.
Some of us out there – some special, courageous people – are rising to this occasion. They are fighting the disease and trying to fix the government and trying to stop the violence. They are putting their bodies in harm’s way or testing their endurance and their sanity by remaining engaged and active during this traumatic time.
For the rest of us? Well, we…aren’t. We feel useless, sidelined, helpless. We keep looking into the wings, awaiting Luke Skywalker’s entrance or the coming of Daenerys. But, we are reminded, this is the real world and things don’t really work that way, no matter what the storybooks say.
I, personally, feel paralyzed. I have three small children at home who need me, a wife who is working constantly to try and keep regional transportation systems working in a pandemic, and I’ve got a job that requires my constant attention. I can’t contribute in any way that feels meaningful. I donate what I can to the bail funds (which you should do, as well). I teach my students about social justice and ethics and help them hone their ability to express themselves. I share and I like and I read the articles. And yet it all erodes at my sense of equilibrium and undercuts my sense of self worth. I feel miserable and isolated, weak and afraid.
I have known for some time that I’m no hero, at least not in the Skywalker or Solo sense of the word. It’s quite a thing, though, to see the dramatic sweep of history happening and to watch it rumble by and find yourself powerless before it.
So I, and millions like me, sit here and try to stay calm and make lunch for my kids and help them with their homework and try and distract myself from that overwhelming sense that another shoe has yet to fall, and bring the remaining structure of my country down with it.
It’s quite a feeling, let me tell you.
Paul Atreides kneels before the Reverend Mother.
“Put your hand in the box,” she says.
“What is in there?” Paul asks.
Dune has been on my mind lately, and not only because Denis Villeneuve’s version of the book is destined for theaters sometime after we are released from our coronavirus isolation. Indeed, my thoughts on this have been circling around Dune because of the virus itself.
In the book, Paul Atreides is tested by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim. She places a poison needle at his neck (the gom jabbar) and Paul is required to keep his hand inside a pain-inducing box until such time as she tells him to remove it. If he removes it before permitted, he dies. The test, she says, is to see whether he is a human. In other words, is he capable of overcoming instinct and impulse (to remove his hand from pain) by being aware of consequences (death). Since permanent death is obviously worse than temporary pain, the rational human being will endure the latter to evade the former.
Which brings me to our present moment:
If you do not have the virus, it can seem like the virus is not real. If Paul is never pricked by the needle, do we really know that the poison is ever there? The discomfort we are experiencing – social isolation, economic uncertainty, lack of haircuts – grows steadily by the day. Are we sure it’s necessary? As it gets worse, our instincts kick in – you’ve been to Baskin Robbins tons of times and lived! Why should this time be any different? For Christ’s sake, it’s only a haircut and the barber isn’t even sneezing! Isn’t this just like the flu? I’ve had the flu before and been fine, thankyouverymuch! LET ME GO TO TARGET!
Left and right and all over, people are failing the gom jabbar. They are proving that their impulses are greater than their reason. I suppose we should not be surprised – even Herbert made it clear that few could conceivably pass the gom jabbar, and that it would be unusual for a male to be able to do so at all (which, honestly, I find a pretty fair assessment: if there’s anyone in our society able to endure discomfort for – hopefully – long-term gain, it’s women. Want proof? Find a mother. Literally any mother.).
We are all of us sitting there with our hand inside the box, the poison needle poised at our necks. Needle may strike, it may not, but one thing is certain: it has struck down already some 90,000 of us. The great tragedy is, of course, that many of those who have died did keep their hand in the box and did prove themselves more than an animal. They were likely done in by the animals around them – who did not wear their mask, who did not keep their distance, who did not stay home.
Yes, I called these people animals.
Frank Herbert calls these people animals, too. For what is somebody ruled by impulse and crude desire but an animal? They certainly aren’t using their higher reasoning functions, are they?
Time plays funny tricks on you when you are in pain or uncomfortable. The minutes stretch into hours and weirdly also the days run together, until it is hard to tell where you are or when it is or what you had planned to do. The world outside becomes unreal, ephemeral. In the normal world, we act as aggressively as we can to stop the pain or avoid the discomfort – this is instinct. But we’re being tested in a different way, now. We are not being tested for how quick we can move or how decisvely we can act. We are being asked to endure.
I would be remiss, also, if I didn’t make a mention of privilege here, as well. Some of us can stay inside and guard ourselves in relative comfort. There are a lot out there who cannot – first line responders and essential employees, the poor and homeless, those with chronic illnesses or disabilities that require constant care. For them especially should we endure this test. It is also deeply ironic that those who have the most privilege are the ones least able to do as they are asked.
Unlike in Herbert’s story, all of us have the means by which to evade the needle. We only need to keep going. Someday the needle will be removed and we will have passed our test.
Today is not that day.
I’d like to talk about two science fiction properties today, one of which I like quite a bit and the other which I actively despise. These properties are the Netflix Lost in Space reboot and the abysmal, frenetically empty Rise of Skywalker. In an effort to keep this from becoming a rant on RoS (because that could go on for a while), I’m going to try and focus the conversation here and use the comparison to Lost in Space to draw out certain elemental weaknesses in Episode IX that make it, very basically, a terrible movie and a story poorly told. Spoiler alert, of course, but honestly it’s really hard to spoil a movie that’s about nothing. So, mostly spoiler alert for Lost in Space.
The reason I think this comparison should work pretty well is that Lost in Space has a lot of the same weaknesses that Rise of Skywalker has. Namely, the technical details of the story don’t make
any sense and the pacing is frequently breathless and frenetic. For example:
In Rise of Skywalker
- The idea that the Sith planet is hidden and yet hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of people need to have traveled there to build the secret fleet makes no sense.
- The idea that a fleet of Star Destroyers could just be hidden underwater while being built makes no sense.
- Lightspeed Jumping makes no sense
- The whole thing with the Sith Dagger makes no sense.
- The fact that Poe’s helmeted friend from that rainy planet gave him the Only Way Off The Planet and then managed to get off the planet anyway later on makes no sense.
- Palpatine’s plan to have Kylo kill Rey only to have him not kill Rey so that Palpatine could not kill Rey only so that later on he could kill Rey MAKES NO SENSE.
In Lost in Space
- Sailboats don’t work like that.
- Re-entry doesn’t work like that.
- Ice doesn’t freeze that way.
- What the hell did the horse eat on the space station for 7 months?
- You mean to tell me nobody thought to look for the kid on that space station for SEVEN MONTHS?
- Everybody’s got computers on their wrists collecting all kinds of data about them but not BIOMETRIC DATA?
- What did the raptors on the desert planet eat before humans showed up?
- So that whole forest is, like a year old? WHAT?!
Both properties have the characters in near-constant peril, sometimes arbitrarily. There is always somebody yelling something at somebody else, such as “GET BACK TO THE SHIP!” or “HURRY UP!” or “RUN!”
And yet, Lost in Space is a hundred thousand times better than Rise of Skywalker. When watching LoS, I am usually at the edge of my seat, holding my breath, cheering, and so on. In Episode IX, I was laughing at the movie, throwing my hands up in frustration, and rolling my eyes. The big question, then, is why?
In Lost in Space the peril is always character oriented and the moments of downtime are spent setting up character relationships. In Rise of Skywalker the peril has very little to do with any of the characters and the downtime is spent setting up the next set-piece or maguffin-related errand.
Look, we all know that none of the Robinsons are going to die (well, I’m pretty sure – not all the way through Season 2 yet) just like we ALL know that Rey, Poe, and Finn are going to live. We all know the good guys are going to win in the end – it’s light space opera, so it’s basically guaranteed. When that’s the case, the trick to getting the audience invested in the peril that you’ve devised is getting you to hook into the emotional state of the characters themselves. You, sitting on your couch at home, are well aware that the Robinsons live through this, but because you are so connected to the Robinsons on an emotional level, you are still anxious for them. You have empathy for their situation. It builds this empathy with flashbacks to the kids’ relationships with their parents back on Earth, with tender moments among the family or even by themselves (the Christmas celebration! Penny’s book! Will’s toy robot! Don and his pet chicken!). The “clever” plans that save the day? They come up with them in seconds and implement them through montage and then whammo, we’ve turned a spaceship into a sailboat and (hand waving) it works or something.
See, we (the audience) don’t ACTUALLY care about the technical details of a story that much. I know, I know – right now you’re trying to marshal arguments to the contrary, about how this or that science fiction movie or book or whatever had crappy science and it knocked you completely out of the book. And here I am, calling you a liar.
That’s right, I said it.
You know what beloved scifi franchise has shitty science and NOBODY CARES? Firefly. Garbage, guys – just straight up crappy world-building on several intersecting levels. Do you care? No.
You know what else has garbage technical details? Star Trek. YES, STAR TREK. The holodeck? C’mon now.
You know what else? EVERY SINGLE STAR WARS MOVIE, YES EVEN THE GOOD ONES!
Even The Martian hand-waved away crucial details to make the plot work!
The reason technical details knock you out of the story is not because the technical details were bad – you’ve forgiven those before and you will again – it’s because you didn’t connect or engage with the emotional content of the story or the characters’ conflicts.
Consider Rise of Skywalker, then. For the first 45 minutes of the movie, almost no one gets to finish talking without being interrupted (I timed it). Any character relationship building that is established is rushed, hasty, and clearly playing second fiddle to the external conflicts. Christ, look at poor Finn – he’s gone something important to tell Rey and the movie literally never gives him the opportunity to say it. What the fuck is that about? We want to hear what he has to say! No, we need to hear what he has to say or we’ll NEVER CARE ABOUT IT! And caring about what happens to the characters is literally the only thing that matters in any story, or, if not the only thing, the thing that needs to happen first before anything else will work.
Much like in the initial Abrams Star Trek reboot, any sympathy or connection we have with the characters in Rise of Skywalker is largely residual – we like them because we already know them from previous properties. There is just about no character building that occurs in the movie itself, with the possible exception of Rey and Kylo (and even that was inhibited by all the planet hopping and macguffin chasing, rather than aided by it). To make matters worse, the few moments where something happens that might affect how the characters think and behave are all erased by the film shortly thereafter. Chewie? Alive. 3-PO? Gets his memory back. Poe’s old flame? Makes it off the planet. Finn’s secret? Doesn’t matter. Hux’s betrayal? Not only nonsensical but discarded arbitrarily in the next scene. That kiss? What the fuck was that about?
Peril, danger, external conflict does not work if the audience has not invested in the characters on the screen. And that is an investment you need to keep investing in. You can’t do in once and expect it to ride for the next three films or six episodes or whatever. The audience is a fickle beast, sitting there in their comfy chair eating Raisinettes and popcorn, and looking for any opportunity to check out of your nonsensical thrill ride. However, once you hook them, suddenly you can violate the laws of physics (or even your own world-building) and almost nobody will care because, like it or not, we are creatures of the heart more than we have ever been creatures of the mind.
Great news! My short story “Three Gowns for Clara” (the tale of Cinderella from the POV of a local seamstress) is out now in the January/February issue of F&SF. I’m very proud of this story – I think it is some of my best work yet – and I encourage you all to check it out! You can subscribe to F&SF via the link I just put there or find the issue on newsstands (assuming newsstands are still a thing somewhere).
In other news, I’m going to be attending Boskone this February 14th-16th in Boston. I’m going to be on a lot of panels on Friday and Saturday and I’ll have a reading somewhere in there, too, and I’d love to see you! Come and check it out – Boskone is a great con and I look forward to it every year. You can see a mini-interview with me on their website here and see what my opinions are on Inspector Gadget’s hat (spoiler: they are unreservedly positive).
Finally, I continue pressing on with the novel writing, and hopefully I’ll have a draft of one to my agent by the end of the week. Short fiction writing also continues at its typical slow, slow pace. If I have any further news, you’ll be hearing it here first!
I now return you to your regularly scheduled Monday.
Yes, yes – I’m still alive. Been over a month since I posted on this blog, but that’s been because life has a way of keeping me busy. I hope you haven’t missed me.
No, that’s not true – I hope you’ve missed me terribly and this blog post comes and an enormous relief.
I’ve only got a spare few minutes, so naturally what I want to talk about is something larger than can be contained in so short a post, because that’s how I roll.
I want to talk about character.
The other day, I was being interviewed by a grad student who asked me, essentially, how do I create characters in my stories/novels. This is a good question – a significantly better question than the usual “where do you get your ideas” thing – and part of what made it good is that I hadn’t really thought through it in any kind of concrete way and this question forced me to, all at once.
My answer went like this: at the start, every character is built around a core concept (or high concept, if you like). This is the central, fundamental trait that defines most of their behavior. So, by way of example, I used Fred Rodgers (who is a real person, not a character, but bear with me). Mr. Rodgers’s core concept is that he wishes to see the best in all people and wishes to be kind and understanding to all, and so create a more compassionate and loving world. This desire to be compassionate and kind drove every aspect of what he did – it is central and indispensable. To use another example, Tyvian Reldamar is fundamentally selfish and cynical – he does not believe that true “goodness” exists, and therefore he sees no reason to aspire to it.
The core concept is important, but it is only the starting point. You must then layer a character’s experiences around that concept. What happened to them to make them that way? Once that way, what actions did they take in accordance with their core concept and how did that shape them further. If the core concept is the mold (or the outline), the experiences give that outline depth and contour. Fred Rodgers created his show; Tyvian abandoned his family to become a pirate. Because Mr. Rodgers created his show, he became a beloved personage and found himself an essential part of millions of children’s lives; because Tyvian became a pirate, he became part of a criminal underworld which he later mastered.
But of course we are not done. The next thing – and this is possible the strangest step of all – is to ask yourself under what circumstances will that character violate their core concept. Because, you see, none of us wholly live up to who we think we are. Smart people do dumb things, angry people can be kind, and the cruel and hateful can still love. Mr. Rodgers, for instance, sued the KKK when they aired ads using his his image. It actually made him – him – mad. You can watch the interview where he talks about this: there he is, the King of Kind, his lips pressed tightly together and his syllables clipped, because nothing (nothing) makes Fred Rodgers angry except hatred. Likewise, there is Tyvian, the world exploding around him at the start of The Oldest Trick, and what does he do? Takes a second to save the life of a worthless street kid. Why? Even he doesn’t know. In fact, it take the guy a full four books to figure out the answer to that question.
This moments – what I will term the character’s moral limitations – are super important to making a character that people love and one that resonates with readers. These moments are immensely illuminating as character building moments, since all the best and most interesting characters must be capable of change, and we crave that particular quality in every character we encounter.
I’d also, as a brief gaming aside, that the same exact thing goes for Alignments in D&D and other such character-building tools in other RPGs. People aren’t robots – they can and do violate their core beliefs all the time. It’s the circumstances under which they do so and why that make them human and, therefore, relatable and interesting.
Anyway, that’s my .02. Keep watching the Mandalorian everyone. I’m sure I’ll get Disney+ soon enough and then I’ll see what all the fuss is about.
Dungeons and Dragons has been around a long time. I’ve been playing it pretty close to 30 years myself, and in that time the game has changed a lot. So have I, as it happens.
Recently I got into something of a Twitter argument with a few people who started throwing around comments that implied that they believed that there was one, “true” Dungeons and Dragons – the D&D of their youth, unsurprisingly enough – and that more (ahem) modern adherents to the game were some kind of fallen, degenerate subspecies. The word “pretentious” was bandied about, I was accused of being a genius (presumably as an insult somehow) and my players accused of being “method actors.” One of my favorite comments was that anyone who engages in a “Session 0” (i.e. a session wherein everyone makes characters and discusses how the game is going to run) doesn’t actually want to play D&D.
Now, I didn’t really “argue” with these people, as very few of them were engaging in good faith discussion anyway. I did exchange comments with those that seemed interested in sharing their experiences, and most of these centered around a “session 0” as a concept. The precise nature of their specific critiques is not really the point of this post, though. What I mostly took away from the “conversation” at large is that these people have a vested interest in defining and controlling who gets to play D&D and how. Bereft of this control (and, indeed, feeling abandoned by the designers of the game itself), they play gatekeeper with all the toxic enthusiasm of a dude at ComicCon challenging every woman they see on the minutiae of their cosplay. Not a good look.
But okay, let’s play the game they set out. Let’s define what Dungeons and Dragons ought to be – in other words, what a game like this really does best and what uses the rules and design of the game to its fullest potential. Now, before we begin, I hasten to point out that one of the things this game does better than almost any other is the fact that it can be just about anything you want it to – play it your way, and hang the critics – but if you insist on sneering at people who do it differently than you do, well…
The game, as it was originally designed by Gygax, was intended to be a kind of tactical, resource management exercise. This it has in common with a lot of hyper-complicated wargames of the era (the 1970s) and, as this, it is pretty close to unplayably dense and non-user friendly. There wasn’t a lot of player agency in a lot of areas of the game, the gameplay was wildly (almost improbably) unbalanced, and the whole thing was an organizational mess.
There was something there, though. Not the tactics or the gameplay – those were generally pretty awful, palatable only to those willing to hack and slash their way through Gygax’s dense rulebooks – but the idea of players inhabiting characters set loose in a fanciful world. That idea, more than anything else, had legs. It is, I would argue, the entire reason D&D didn’t vanish in a puff of obscurity, but found a small audience (ones willing to sweat the ceaseless fiddly details of the game system) that kept it alive.
It wasn’t the dice (lots of games used dice), it wasn’t the tactics (lots of games did that, too, and often better). It was character.
AD&D, 2nd Edition
I entered the gaming scene at the tail-end of 1st edition’s tenure. I owned a copy of 2nd Ed’s first printing (still do, in fact – it’s on a shelf behind me as I write this) and was running games as early as 7th grade (1990, for those of you keeping score). I loved 2nd Ed with all my heart back then. I owned every rulebook, every expansion. I could quote those pages to you by heart and can still calculate THAC0 in my head to this day.
But guys, this game – as a game – sucked.
The rules, while more streamlined, were still impenetrable and pointlessly detailed. For example, the Strength attribute, for no reason whatsoever other than the terrible balance of the game as a whole, did not just have the regular range of 3-18 for PCs, but a whole other sub-range of 18s, based on a percentile system, accessible only to fighting classes. So, you didn’t just have an 18 Strength, no, you had an 18/63! Yes, this is exactly as stupid as this sounds.
Crap like that was everywhere in the game; d100 tables were a dime a dozen in that book, the classes were wildly unbalanced still, 1st level characters were impotent dweebs, whereas a 7th level mage (thanks to a little spell called Stoneskin) became virtually unkillable by anything that couldn’t hit them a hundred times before they ran out of spell slots.
So, yeah, the game part of this RPG was still a garbage dump. However, this edition of the game was much, much more successful than its predecessor. What made it so?
This was the edition where we got all the glorious settings that still fire the imagination today. We had Greyhawk’s From the Ashes setting, which is one of the best ever. There was Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Dragonlance, Spelljammer (medieval combat in SPACE!), Planescape, and on and on. Every one of them was jam-packed full of story leads, adventure plots, characters, and wild setting concepts (the Sea of Silt, anyone? Wildspace?). There were tie-in novels that fleshed out the universe and made kids want to live in them. There was some seriously, seriously badass art from guys like Jeff Easley and Larry Elmore that sucked you right in.
And again, like the editions before, kids like me put up with the bad rules to play in the places with the cool storylines, where we could embody the characters of our dreams and do cool, cool stuff. And yeah, it often fell short of our imagination, but so what? We kept trying – we (a lot of us anyway) saw something beyond what the game was offering and we tried to make it real.
D&D, 3rd Edition
3rd Ed represented a massive leap forward in gameplay. The rules, for once, made a kind of unified sense. A lot of the silly tables and sub-tables and sub-sub-tables went away. The classes remained pretty terribly unbalanced, but a conscientious effort was made to take out the silly stuff and replace it with normal, usable rules.
The game was also terrifically boring.
See, the other thing they lost by stripping out the loose wiring in 2nd Ed was all the quirkiness that made it interesting. Chief among those things was a lot of the story. All those cool settings I mentioned? They almost entirely disappeared. Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk kept cooking, but the novel tie-ins vanished even from those (not that there ever were too many Greyhawk novels). They made the game generic for the sake of streamlining which, by itself, wasn’t really enough to keep D&D solvent.
This is so much the case that TSR actually went belly-up in this edition. They weren’t the only RPG on the shelves these days, and competition from games with more evocative settings and more story-friendly rule-sets gradually killed them in a shrinking market. See, if all you wanted out of a game was a tactical resource management enterprise, video games could do that for you by the 1990s and often way better than D&D could. Most hack-and-slashers drifted away from the game, drawn by the shiny vistas of Everquest of a romp through Neverwinter Nights.
What kept D&D going through these years was that it remained (and indeed was) incredibly flexible and could be molded to work with almost any setting or story. Then, as before, the real magic wasn’t in how the dice were rolled or the stats on the sheet, but how those tools could be leveraged to telling cool stories and imagining fantastic adventures.
D&D, 4th Edition
Wizards of the Coast, riding a wave made by the success of their collectible card game Magic: The Gathering (itself a superior tactical experience to anything D&D has ever done), bought the rights to D&D in 1997 and spent some time designing their own take on the game. They released a kind of “patch” to 3rd (3.5) designed to inject some vibrancy and renewed balance to the game which, to some extent, worked. Spellcasters, long at the bottom of the heap, got better. Things worked pretty well. It was still dull, though.
So WoTC released 4th Edition in 2008. It had the distinction of being the most balanced and most tactically interesting version of D&D ever. It involved a grid-map and miniatures and clear and easy-to-understand rules that were also tactically complex. The game had depth as a sort of small-party wargame.
It was also a complete flop.
It just wasn’t that popular. It didn’t catch on. And why?
The game was completely linear in design. It was almost impossible to make it work in the same loose framework of “theater of mind meets dice” that it had used since its inception. You just couldn’t tell the kind of stories you wanted to and, what’s more, the rigid nature of the combat system made encounters difficult to improvise – if not impossibly so! Players, simply put, didn’t want that.
WoTC, cognizant of this, didn’t support 4th very much and very quickly got to developing the latest edition:
D&D 5th Edition
5th Edition takes what 2nd Ed did right (intense setting details, story-focused gameplay) and replaced a better, even more accessible version of 3rd Edition’s mechanics. It has better balance than any other edition since 4th, but it has none of that editions board-game sensibilities. The game is the first one actively designed to encourage storytelling and emotional engagement with characters. It does so in simple, basic ways that are easy to grasp and play with. 5th, while not perfect of course, is the closest the game has ever gotten to the game we all thought it could be when we were teenagers. How do I know this?
Well, it is now explosively popular. Barriers to entry are lower than ever before. The rules are vastly easier to grasp and the general de-emphasis on unforgiving tactical play has made the game much more accessible to people who don’t really want to study a rule manual all the time, but very much would like to pretend to be a dwarf and slay goblins for a few hours every week or so. It’s fun!
Even for those who sneer at it, 5th also makes it fairly easy to modify (the DMG is pretty much a book full of nothing but that) and it certainly can simulate the soulless 10-hour dungeoneering sessions of your youth where a half dozen of you die and everyone goes home happy having never engaged in anything resembling a plot.
For the majority of the rest of us, though, we are having so much damned fun talking about our character relationships and casting Prestidigitation just for giggles that we honestly don’t miss the days where the rules were awkward and our characters prepared to die at any fickle swing of chance. If we wanted that, we’d be playing Gloomhaven, which for my money is vastly, vastly superior to D&D for that kind of gameplay and it doesn’t even require a GM and zero (zero) time required to make characters.
What I’m ultimately saying here is this: D&D is for anyone who wants to play, however they want to play it. If you want to run around saying there’s one true D&D, though, it’s the storytellers who win that contest. I would contend that those who insist the dungeon crawls of 1st Edition were the “true” D&D basically missed the room for the wallpaper – it could and was always supposed to be so much more than that. The success and failure of every edition since then has shown that to be true.
To crow and bleat about how much you hate “pretentious” “storygamers” is like being the guy who goes into a steakhouse and complains his chicken is dry. “This used to be a chicken place!” he yells, banging his fists on the table. Meanwhile the rest of us are eating ribeyes and wondering what the hell that guy’s problem is.
One of my kids is in a youth soccer league. She…isn’t good. She doesn’t pay attention, she rarely bothers kicking the ball, and while she can run with the best of them, she doesn’t really have any plan regarding what she should do when she gets to where she’s running. She is six years old, though, so none of this should really be a surprise. Her “skills” put her on par with about two-thirds of her teammates, most of whom run around the field in a loose pack and look for an opportunity to kick the ball in a direction (any direction), but don’t really want to get to close to anybody else or do anything too aggressive. Because of course they don’t – they’re little children.
This season, her coach is a guy who takes all this a bit too seriously. I mean, he isn’t hurling abuse at his players or anything truly unsportsmanlike, but you can tell he is genuinely distressed at the “level of play” (and I use that term well aware of how absurd it is) he’s seeing out there on the field. The other day, he gave me advice for improving my daughter’s “skills” for “home practice.”
“She needs to talk less and hustle more,” he said to me. “She needs to pay better attention.”
My answer was something along the lines of “my daughter is a bit of a daydreamer, so she doesn’t always pay attention.” I said it with a shrug and a chuckle, trying to make clear that I was unconcerned with the fact my kid sucks at soccer and that my interest in arranging “home practice” was effectively zero. I mean, if my six year old expressed any interest in practicing soccer at home, sure, sure – but she does not. Honestly, my wife and I were mystified that she wanted to play at all this season.
Picking up on my implications, the soccer coach grimaced and said, “Yeah, well, it’s all just fun at this age.”
That has stuck with me the last few weeks. Particularly the last part: at this age. I wanted to ask him at what age does soccer cease to be fun. When does this game stop being about enjoying yourself with friends and rivals as you kick a ball around a field on a sunny day and start being about something else? And what else is that? Money? Prestige? Fame? And even supposing soccer begins being about those things at some point, why should it ever stop being fun?
There are things in this world that are not necessarily enjoyable but are worthwhile in and of themselves. Nobody likes much of the work they need to do on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean you should stop grocery shopping or going to the doctor or bathing your kids. I don’t think there’s anybody out there saying you absolutely have to enjoy working out or dieting, but those things have results that we find satisfactory regardless of what we had to do achieve them.
But games? Games aren’t like that. There is nothing (nothing) so important about any sport or game that would mean you should continue to pursue it despite hating every second of it. I’d even go so far as to include art in this category. If you don’t enjoy some kind of art? Don’t consume it. If you hate a particular kind of story? Don’t write it. Unlike eating and sleeping and earning your daily wage, you don’t have do this.
The arts and entertainment world (of which sports are part) are important to our lives, but we get to choose how and when and in what proportion we consume them. We also get to choose how and when and if we participate in or create them. The experience itself should be enriching, not some ancillary benefit that comes after the fact. The proportion of people who make a full living off of the arts is approximately the same as those who make a living playing sports: the merest fraction of those who do it. You shouldn’t write stories because you think you will be rich or respected one day. Nor should you attend grueling double basketball practices because you think someday you’ll be in the Hall of Fame and it will all be worth it then. No. It has to be worth it now.
If you hate playing baseball, you should quit. If you despise painting, stop. If you are bored by poetry, find something else to read. Don’t let somebody (anybody) brow-beat you into believing your skill at this particular form of art/entertainment is essential for your self-worth or identity, because it isn’t. And anyway, the annals of people who hate playing a sport who then go on to become champions of that sport is a vanishingly small list – even smaller than that sliver of a percentage that go pro. You can’t hate-write a novel (or at least not a good one) because writing requires a kind of self-authenticity that weeds out the posers. When someone says to you “do what you love,” it’s not some kind of aspirational mantra, it’s practical advice.
So, no, my kid isn’t any good at soccer, but as long as she says she has fun doing it, I’ll keep signing her up for this little no-try-out local league. Likewise, so long as I like writing stories and novels, I’ll keep doing that too, no matter how much I suck.
Because where we end up should matter less than how fulfilling we find the journey. It should never stop being something we fundamentally love. If it does, then we are truly lost.