I’m usually running at least one RPG campaign at any given time. The precise game varies widely, I write up my own settings and rules sometimes, and I even mock up my own game systems. The last few years, however, have been devoted to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, which I think is the best version of the game to date. I originally had plans to run three campaigns, all set in the world of Greyhawk immediately following the end of the Greyhawk Wars. The first two are over and now I’m on the third. This campaign follows not new heroes, not young up-and-comers, not ambitious rookies – this game is about old, war-scarred veterans getting together to save the world one last time.
In other words, it’s a high level campaign. Players begin play at 12th level and I expect them to go as high as 18th, maybe even 19th level.
I wanted to do this simply because this so rarely happens. Most of us start play at 1st (maaybe 2nd or 3rd level) scrabble our way to 10th, maybe 12th, and by that time (after years of gameplay has gone by), everybody gets tired and all the PCs get retired and you either start over or play a whole new game in some other system/setting. This time, though, I wanted to focus exclusively on the craziness that can be a high-level campaign. To get it to work, however, required some planning.
These People Are Not New
The first thing I decided was important was to make sure the characters’ in-game history was in place. These are not people coming from nowhere and encountering a totally new world – these are mighty heroes who once walked these very lands, probably shaping them into what they are now. That needed to be represented. Accordingly, character creation was a 4 session process (yes – 4 sessions) wherein I had the players go around and describe to one another their early adventures, how they met up, what kinds of successes and failures they had, and how they ultimately broke up as a group before the game began.
The purpose of this was to build-in history for the players to riff off of. There is rarely a village they’re going to go to that they haven’t been before, there is no king who doesn’t know their names – all of that needs to be ingrained in the players’ minds. It takes a lot of work to get players in a place where they feel comfortable in the world they’re inhabiting, and all that backstory helped us build it.
This leads to how I handled Character Traits/Flaws/Ideals and so on: titles. For each stage of life, the PC’s actions earned them a title which has followed them for the rest of their lives. So, we have Severus Manhunter, whom the elves call “the Mortal Fool” for his decades-long romance with a forbidden elf maid and also Miles Maywater the Ungrateful, the Hound of Veluna – the world’s most famous “noble” assassin/monk. This kind of texture, I think, has gone a long way to making this game cool.
The PCs Can Take It
There really isn’t that much I can’t sic on my players that they can’t handle, and that’s fun. The amount of damage they can dish out (and take) is really impressive. Their first encounter? 50 orcs, 10 orogs, an ork shaman, a merrow, and a succubus all catching them in an ambush on a river boat. There were four players – a ranger, an assassin, a warlock, and a bard. They should be screwed, right?
Wrong! They slaughtered just about every single one of those jokers and only one of their own was hurt enough to require significant healing magic.
Hell, I had them take on an adult Black Dragon in her lair and they won (if barely)! This campaign has been worth the time if only for that one encounter!
Indeed, suddenly the entire Monster Manual is open to me (well…not the Tarrasque) – this party can drop dice with the best of them, freeing up what happens on a grand scale. In fact, part of the premise of the whole campaign is that they need to kill a demigod.
The Conflict Is Not From the Monsters
The fact that these PCs are all such powerhouses, however, means that the conflict isn’t just “can we survive the Fire Giant’s Castle,” because it’s very clear that they can. Conflicts suddenly involve not killing things as often as killing things. As major regional players, they have influence and reputations to safeguard, they have decades of history (and old feuds) to make them squabble, and they have old enemies that know them as well as they know themselves. While this campaign is certainly not going to become Game of Thrones, it is really fun that survival isn’t the primary driving force – it is success, and the argument over what constitutes success is the central conflict. One of their old friends – their dearest confidant – has gone missing and they have been left a note by her to not seek to save her, but instead complete her last mission. Will they do it? Can they? Predictably, two of the party want to complete the mission, the other two want to find their friend. When will the conflict come to a head?
A Seat At the Table
As mighty heroes, the PCs are also now peers with most of the people in campaigns that spend their time bossing lesser PCs around. That king wants you to do something? Tell him no. Is he seriously going to come for a dragonslayer? Nope. No he isn’t.
And that, in and of itself, is freeing for the PCs! They don’t need to be second banana. They don’t need to go find Gandalf to save their asses – they are Gandalf! They’re the big fish and they get to chart their own destiny, whatever that is. So, when it comes time to save the world, they don’t need to have the cavalry swoop in and defeat the grand evil at the last minute (as so many campaigns have done in the past) – they strike the deathblow, they create the ritual to close the hellmouth, they are the ones holding all the cards and distributing all the secrets.
Pretty cool, right?
Of course, doing this requires me to be very flexible and willing to allow the players to break things. It means putting them in a position of power and really letting them exercise that power. Not all DMs are comfortable with that, but I think it can be a really exciting experience for both players and DMs to try out.
I’ve been entirely too negative lately. Granted, there is much to be negative about (waves towards the tire-fire that will soon engulf the US), but I need a break. So, instead of growling about the world, I want to spend some time with something I find completely good: the character of Bilbo Baggins.
In one of my Lit classes, I currently have assigned a paper in which my students need to select a hero (of any kind from anywhere, so long as it is a fictional person) and analyze the reasons they are considered heroic – what do they symbolize, to whom, and why? It usually generates a really interesting batch of papers (some good, some bad) that ideally gets my students to consider the underlying cultural and psychological forces behind the idea of heroism.
Now, if I were to write that paper myself, the hero I’d probably pick is Tolkien’s (and Jackson’s) Bilbo Baggins.
Bilbo Baggins is the hero with whom I most identify in all of literature. He is, at heart, a man who craves adventure while, at the same time, realizing how insane that is. He knows what is really important – what really, ultimately matters – is a good home and good food, a warm bed, and one or two good friends. Adventure is inimical to these things. And yet he needs it anyway.
In this way, I see Bilbo as being the spiritual standard bearer of all of Geek Culture. Geeks are, of course, obsessed with adventure and excitement: they love stories of spaceships and dragons and daring do, and they spend hours pretending to be this hero or that heroine, battling the forces of evil. However, the vast, vast majority of them, if asked to give up the comforts of home to go traveling into the wilderness with a bunch of gung-ho survivalist types, would have a hard time agreeing.
And who can blame them, right? You can just imagine the conversation. This guy shows up at your door, possibly in the middle of the night. He claims to be an agent of some secret international organization. He has with him a bunch of bearded mountain men. He shows you a map. And he says this:
We need your help, (insert your name here), to overthrow a brutal Third World dictator and reclaim the resources he has pillaged from my friends here. We believe you have the skills. Sign here.
That’s crazy, guys. I wouldn’t sign that paper. But you know what? Just like Bilbo, I’d wake up the next day after the mountain men threw their rager and think to myself “did I dodge a bullet, or miss the greatest opportunity of my life?”
Because the thing that makes Bilbo a hero – the thing that separates him from me and you and just about every geek and homebody on the planet – is that he goes. He says yes (late, of course, but still yes). He goes for the whole damned way. What’s more, he becomes more and more important to the dwarves survival. Why? Because he’s a thinking man (err…hobbit). He’s clever. He retreats when he ought to and talks his way out of trouble. He’s smart. And for once, the smart guy – the good, ordinary guy without the bulging muscles – actually comes out on top. Because he’s good at riddles (a geeky pastime outside of some Anglo Saxon hall), because he’s friendly, and because he uses his head.
Bilbo doesn’t slay the dragon. Bilbo doesn’t smite the goblin army. Bilbo doesn’t become some incredible warrior. But he’s an essential part of the adventuring party – he saves their lives several times over – and he comes back having, just for once, lived the adventures he’s always dreamed about. And then, to kick it all off, he writes a book about it – you just don’t get much more nerdy than that. This is what makes Bilbo the quintessential geek-hero – the Sir Gawain of GenCon, the Paradigm of PAX.
Then, to top it all off, he goes on to be an awesome old guy. The guy who tells the stories at parties that enthrall all the kids. The guy who has mysterious sacks of gold in his cellar. The guy who everybody thinks is just a bit off. This, too, is a geek fantasy.
Every nerd wants to end up the mysterious elder statesman – the man who knows mysteries. The guy who can casually discuss that time he looked death in the eye but who, at the same time, isn’t some wacko down by the river. Not a soldier, not a prince or king or leader – just your friendly neighborhood bookworm with secret depths. The guy who stages the best parties at which he manages a prank they will talk about for the rest of time, all so he can go off and retire with his super-awesome friends in the distant mountains.
Everybody talks about how they want their letter from Hogwarts or their development of mutant powers and a visit from Professor X – both cool, granted – but I feel Bilbo’s life is the one I’d actually want. A guy who lives in what amounts to the world’s most comfortable book-nook and who, once long ago, was dragged off to adventure by his ears, had the time of his life, and lived the rest of his days in comfort, surrounded by friends. That’s the life, guys. That’s the goal.
Let’s all go forth and be Bilbos.
Watched Doctor Strange this weekend. It was very enjoyable, and if you’re a fan of superhero movies, I’d recommend it. If you aren’t, well, you’ve seen it before (more or less) and shouldn’t trouble yourself.
Superhero movies, and most notably the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), tend to be repeated retellings of the same basic stories. There is a reluctant hero of some kind, he (or, much more rarely, she) is granted the mantle of power, sent forth by will or necessity to battle evil, receives wisdom at the foot of a wise elder (who often dies), and at last vanquishes evil and assumes their responsibility as champion of the defenseless. There you go – just about every superhero movie in history, boiled down to a few plot points. If that structure looks familiar, that shouldn’t surprise you – it’s all classic Joseph Campbell, the ancient monomyth reborn and retold in the guise in the modern world.
Now, this often gets held up as a point of criticism: comic book movies, they say, are all the same. Well, first of all, you have to admit that they’re right – they totally are the same. If you’ve seen Iron Man, you’ve also seen Doctor Strange and Thor. The movies – in terms of theme, plot, pacing, and character – just aren’t all that different. There is, however, something that the critics also have to admit: different doesn’t automatically mean “better.” Consider this: how many pizzas have you eaten throughout your lifetime? Probably tons of them, if you’re anything like me, but even if not you don’t need to use pizza – try “bottles of wine” or “blue jeans” or “shoes.” There are lots and lots of things we value and enjoy and crave that are, basically, broadly the same every time we consume or use them. Of course, nobody would ever say that all pizzas are created equal (or all wines, or all jeans, etc.) but also the fact that we’ve experienced “pizza” before does not invalidate future interactions with “pizza.” It’s still pizza; I still like it.
Just so with comic book movies. They all operate in the same basic sphere and run according to the same basic forumla. Even across sequels, a kind of pattern tends to play out. First there’s the “Origin Story” (frequently featuring a Macguffin), then there’s the “Coping with Hero Life” story, then we’ve got the “Everything Falls Apart” sequel, and so on and so forth. We all know the steps. We still like the dance, though.
Now, I’ve lamented the fact that superhero movies rarely break conventions, and I do stand by that – there is substantial room for innovation in the cinematic realm, at least. That said, there is some appreciation to be gleaned from watching talented people polish the old standard to a healthy gleam. Telling a story well is every bit as important as telling a new story. In recent years, this story has been mastered by the folks behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, without rival. Yeah, they all tell the same basic story, but discussing how well each of them does the same task is still worthwhile. We watch sports, remember, and those feature the same exact game with the same basic rules over and over again and yet nothing diminishes our enthusiasm.
Anyway, after getting out of Doctor Strange, my friends and I had a discussion of where the movie ranks in the hierarchy of MCU films. We generally considered it to be in the “top half.” We then had to discuss what was the median – which MCU movie ranks in the exact middle? My friends said Ant-Man, which is actually the only MCU film I haven’t seen. Given that, and given that Ant-Man may just be the exact center of the MCU, I’ve decided to rank all the other existing MCU movies, from best to worst (in my opinion). Here we go:
13: The Incredible Hulk
12: Iron Man 3
11: Iron Man 2
10: Avengers: Age of Ultron
8: Captain America: The First Avenger
7: Thor: The Dark World
6: Marvel’s The Avengers
5: Doctor Strange
4: Iron Man
3: Guardians of the Galaxy
2: Captain America: Winter Soldier
1: Captain America: Civil War
Now, a few of these I’m open to moving around a little. You could swap the Iron Man sequels, if you like. GoTG could be below Iron Man 1, but generally I’m satisfied, here. Notably, few of these movies are actively bad (well, some come close), but clearly some serve up the same dish with a bit more flair. I’ve no idea where Ant Man fits, but currently the median film is Thor: The Dark World, which seems mostly fair.
Well, what do you think?
Dear Doctor Monstrosity,
This is an important notice regarding your Hero liability coverage in your FOUL Insurance Policy. You must read this document immediately and in its entirety, or our coven of witches currently on retainer will place a hex upon you that will result in you no longer being able to absorb fluid without vomiting, which means a painful and grotesque death by dehydration will await you. Feel free to take notes. Please eat the message when you are done, as that will guard against the curse. As usual, please understand this is meant as a safety measure to ensure your privacy, our privacy, and the privacy of our other customers.
Notification of Policy Change
As of this writing, FOUL will no longer cover the costs of heroic interventions against your operation that are perpetrated by orphans of your former enemies.
Furthermore, any pre-existing coverage offered for orphans created by accident or negligence are likewise null and void.
FOUL will also be increasing premiums by 50% on any liability coverage for heroic acts of revenge stemming from the loss of even ONE parent to your actions.
Finally, FOUL will disallow any further coverage against liability as a result of actions by those persons who believed they were orphans until they discovered you were, in fact, their only surviving parent.
Statistics have shown that those who have left the progeny of their foes to live have a 65% greater chance of being undone by those self-same offspring, even after an intervening period of apparent calm for decades. It seems apparent that the loss of parents is in some way traumatic (we are as surprised as you) and stands to create a kind of manic obsession with revenge which has proven costly. The claims FOUL has been forced to bear as a result of our clients’ own sloppiness has seriously tested our financial security as an organization.
So, some quick do’s and don’ts:
-DO NOT abandon your enemies’ offspring in a wasteland or in the midst of a storm and expect them to perish.
-DO NOT expect the power of love to crumble before your overwhelming might and grandeur.
-DO NOT, under any circumstances, sell your victims’ progeny into slavery of any kind.
-DO NOT gloat over the child of an enemy or underling or endeavor to teach them any kind of lesson whatsoever.
-DO encourage your underlings to bring any and all errant children to you for re-education.
We at FOUL are happy to serve you for any of your evil financial needs and hope to do business with you in the future. Just try not to create orphans anymore.
This is something of a gaming post, but also a writing post, and also something about politics. Been thinking about that debate coming up tonight (and who hasn’t been?) and whether I want to watch or not and why. To a large extent, I feel like most people have already made up their minds about Trump and Clinton. I mean, how could they not? What on earth could either of them say to change anybody’s mind at this point? Now, I don’t actually know how many people are undecided – maybe it’s a lot – but even in that case, I have a hard time imagining that this debate is going to sway them. One wonders why we have the debate at all, if everything is all pretty well set in the public imagination.
I think a lot of it is because there’s gonna be a fight, and we’re invited to watch.
The duel – facing your foe mano a mano – is an ancient and hallowed tradition not only in history, but in mythology and story as well. Beowulf against Grendel, David against Goliath, Gandalf against the Balrog, Miyamoto Musashi against Sasaki Kojiro – two opponents doing battle for honor, glory, revenge, or even simply survival is old as the hills and universal as song. It is an inherently dramatic scene; it stirs the imagination effortlessly. Each combatant, representing their ideals and their supporters, facing one another in a defining conflict that can only end in a new understanding, either of the world, themselves, or each other. The duel is the symbolic manifestation of change itself.
And yet role-playing games are so often diametrically opposed to them. One of my biggest complaints about D&D (and about the systems derived from its lineage) is that there is seldom any good way to have a one-on-one battle that is interesting. It takes a lot of gymnastics to get those things to work, since D&D is inherently an ensemble game and no fool would go into battle alone when they could have a cleric there to boost them back up to normal. Thing is, though, without duels, beating the villain just becomes a kind of curb-stomping mob scene. Six mighty “heroes” surround the giant, pull it to the ground, and stab it until its dead and there isn’t a damned thing the giant can do. Kinda underwhelming, guys.
In this sense, though, there’s a fair amount of reality in RPGs: in real life, why the hell would you fight somebody one-on-one outside of foolish notions of manhood and honor? Bring five of your friends to the hill at dawn and beat the crap out of that jerk who challenged you and go home alive, right? Historically speaking, this is one of the things the Romans figured out (borrowed from Alexander) that screwed over the Celts and other “barbaric” tribes in their way: the Roman legions operated as one cohesive fighting group, whereas many of these tribes were just groups of warriors out for individual glory. The legions just ground them down and marched over them – not perhaps personally glorious, but victory itself was glory enough for Rome.
In fiction, the author has to jump through hoops to set up their one-on-one battles. They just don’t happen by themselves, you know? No cop in real life says to his unit “leave Mendoza for me!” No soldier on the front is going to stand back while his sergeant engages in a knife fight with an enemy combatant. Notions of “honor” and “good form” are fun and all, but in the broad history of the world, they aren’t precisely “real.” And, in particular, the person who is willing to bring a gun to that knife-fight, the person who sees nothing wrong in ganging up on the lone warrior to destroy him, well, they’re the ones who usually win. Because duels are pretty foolish.
However, we hang such importance on them in our popular imagination. We crave that moment when Vader challenges Skywalker, when Inigo finally catches up with Count Rugen. We love it because we want to know that our heroes are real – that these champions of ours can walk out there and smite evil all by themselves, without us backing them up. It makes us feel good, to know our heroes are the genuine article. Never mind that such knowledge is an illusion, an orchestrated sham – our heroes in real life don’t stand by themselves, but exist as a representative of a network of people devoted to our welfare. The firefighter who carries you out of the burning building gets the glory, but the 911 dispatcher and his fellow firefighters and the engineers who designed his gear got him there. We see the individual, but we forget the legion that made victory possible.
Nowhere is this irony more pronounced than in a “debate” between two people who, while potent individuals in their own right, are standing on a stage doing battle in the most coached, stilted, and artificial of circumstances. When Clinton or Trump speak, they are not speaking as one person – they are speaking as the heads of a movement, of a political party, of an electorate whose support they seek. They have very little power of their own to shape events – not without the millions of people who they hope will vote them into office, where they will again serve as the capstone of an administrative structure that is as collective and collaborative as their campaign is now. But does any of that really matter to us on an emotional level? Not at all.
We want our duel. We want to see our champion victorious. We want to believe in heroes, no matter how we manipulate the world to make them seem real.
Have you seen the teaser for Rogue One yet? No?! Well, sit back my friend and watch this:
Is that cool, or what? I just looove this line:
This is a rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel.
This teaser is firing on all channels for me – the Dirty Dozen meets Star Wars. I mean, sure, it means that we have another movie with a Death Star in it (3 out of 8, if you’re counting) and, sure, is it really plausible that the crime “aggravated assault” (which, as a friend has pointed out, has a bit of a fiddly legal definition) would show up in a Galaxy Far Far Away? Maybe not, but I don’t really care. It looks raucously awesome and I just can’t wait.
And yet, there are a contingent of creeps and jackholes out there who are whining and moaning things along the lines of “what, another female lead?” and then follow it with a load of idiotic MRA chauvinist garbage. Now, these nimrods are being appropriately shouted down by…well…just about everybody and I suppose I could spend this post ranting and raving about why they’re miserable slugs. Instead of talking about how bad they are, though, I’d like to spend some time talking about why I, a man, really love kick-ass female lead characters.
Let’s see, where to begin…oh yeah…
My Mother Kicks Ass
I could tell stories about how incredibly badass my mother is for a while (hell, I could tell stories about how badass all the women in my family are), but that would make this post a bit long and (checking watch) I’ve got about 700 more words before most of you lose interest. I will, however, give you this small taste:
Before I was born, my parents were driving in a van late at night with a friend. My father was asleep in the back seat and the friend was driving. The highway had the whole right lane closed, marked off with those big orange-and-white cans every thirty or forty feet. There wasn’t much room on the road – no shoulder to speak of, just a big ditch right off the side.
Suddenly, barrelling up the road and laying on its horn, is a runaway semitruck. He’s flashing his lights, he’s honking – basically screaming “Can’t stop! Look Out!”
The guy driving the van freezes – the truck is going to overtake them, and either run them off the road into a ditch or smash them flat. Leaping into action, my mother leans across the center console, grabs the wheel with one hand, and proceeds to pilot the car from the passenger seat into the lane marked off by traffic cans. Not only does she do this, but she slaloms in and out of the cans, allowing the semi to move over just enough to they aren’t crushed and yet not so far over into the work zone that they hit the abandoned road-repair equipment, piles of gravel, etc..
All from the passenger seat while the driver screams.
So, yeah, my mom is badass. Hell, mothers in general are badasses and all of us men should be at least tangentially aware of this fact. Having been raised by the terrestrial equivalent of Ellen Ripley, I kinda dig characters that channel that primal emotive force that is the “protective mother.” Can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t. It’s awesome!
And even beyond this relatively narrow role of “mother,” kick-ass female leads represent a fresh perspective on the tired old trope of the muscle-bound, grim male protagonist. We have, as a culture, been limiting ourselves for a very, very long time with this “boys only” nonsense. I mean, come on – don’t you get just a little bored of only seeing men defeat the bad guys, over and over again? And sure, the misogynists of the world are apt to yelp “but it isn’t realistic, a girl beating up men!”
First off, fuck you – my mom could kick your ass. So could probably hundreds of women. To quote Germaine Greer
here for a second:
Only a minute proportion of males will ever come within reach of an Olympic record, but the achievements of male record-holders empower all men. The implication that the weakest man must be stronger and faster than any woman whatsoever is obviously absurd.
In the context of fiction, there is simply no excuse for using the idea that “most” men are physically stronger than “most” women to deny women the spotlight. I mean, sure, that’s technically true, but most women are not Imperator Furiosa just like most men are not Mad Max.
Women can and do and have competed with men on all manner of fields and won. That is unequivocal truth. Women such as that deserve to have their stories told not because they are women, but because they represent and entire new set of experiences and ideas and stories that just haven’t been sufficiently explored.
Strength Isn’t All About Punching!
And furthermore, the idea that we should deny women the lead in adventure films because they aren’t able to bench press the same amount as the guys is really, really stupid. “Strength” does not always translate directly into being kick-ass and such is a very narrow and, again, boring view to ascribe to. Take Leia, for instance – sure, she knows her way around a blaster, fine – but I would argue her most heroic moments aren’t physical ones at all. The way she stares death in the face while captive on the Death Star and doesn’t bat an eyelash. The way she takes charge in Hoth and, with her guidance, saves the lives of hundreds of rebels. She’s there while the base is falling around her ears and has to literally be dragged away from her post by Han. That is courage and heroism equal to any character, male or female. It’s inspiring, its interesting, and it is unequivocally badass.
In short, I love kickass female leads! They inspire me, they remind me of the women I love, and they are every bit as exciting (if not more so) than the male leads we’re all used to. There aren’t enough of them out there, frankly, and I am very pleased that the Star Wars franchise is stepping up and introducing us to more of them.
I can’t wait.
By The Way…
The Oldest Trick is still on sale, but not for long! If you like kickass female characters, this book won’t disappoint – just wait until you meet Hool! And Tyvian’s mom! And Myreon Alafarr! Go get it now!
Happy Monday, folks! While I’m digging myself out from underneath a pile of term papers, I have a guest post for you from my friend, Teresa Frohock. Enjoy, and be sure to pick up her newest installment in the Los Nephilim series, Without Light or Guide.
Every time I think about heroes, I hear Brad and Janet from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, singing in my head. I am completely aware of how strange this sounds. Unfortunately, there is no cure. I’ve just learned to live with it and pass the earworm along at every available opportunity.
The song I’m talking about is entitled … wait for it … Super Heroes, and the pertinent lyrics go like this:
Brad: I’ve done a lot / God knows I’ve tried / To find the truth / I’ve even lied / But all I know / Is down inside I’m
Janet: And super heroes / Come to feast / To taste the flesh / Not yet deceased / And all I know / Is still the beast is
Of course, if you can’t see why those lines excite my imagination, you haven’t been paying attention to my stories.
Also, for the record, I never really had any heroes like Brad and Janet. I just wanted to give you that earworm before proceeding to the post.
I used to have this thing about heroes, that they all should be like Superman (the one from the 1950s and 1960s–not grimdark Superman, and screw whoever thought that up). Heroes should be good. They should be strong. Their moral compass should never waver.
And so on and so forth and so on.
I thought about heroes a lot while working on Los Nefilim. For a bit of context: my “angels” are really invaders from another realm – they are another species completely separate from the daimons, which are earth spirits, and the mortals. The angels start out good and wholesome with the mortals’ best interests at heart, but by the time In Midnight’s Silence begins, some of the angels have spent so much time in the flesh, they have become corrupted by the very creatures they think they’re trying to save.
And the super heroes the angels have created – the Nephilim – are beginning to hemorrhage emotionally from being involved in a continual war.
As a creature who is half angel and half mortal, Guillermo wonders about his place in this cosmic dynamic. He has served as a general in the angels’ army for centuries. He has not always been content with this role, but he has always been duty-bound to do what is right. When he was young, he went out and performed great deeds, but now he has settled down with a wife and a daughter of his own. One day, his daughter, Ysabel, will succeed him as the leader of Los Nefilim, and Guillermo is beginning to wonder what kind of legacy he will leave for her.
Likewise, Diago’s life changes dramatically when he is faced with the discovery of his young son, Rafael. Living unmoored to either angel or daimon is no longer a choice. He must choose a side and learn to fit in for Rafael’s sake.
And all the while, the angels and the daimons continue to feed, like a beast that is never sated.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the old Superman, the one who never had any doubts. I need heroes like that. I need them because when my moral compass goes south, I want a clear indication of the right thing – the good thing – that should be done.
The reality is that life and choices aren’t so clear cut. That is one the themes I wanted to explore with Los Nefilim. How super heroes are just like us. They want to have all the things: to be safe, to be a good person, to do what is right. Yet in spite of their best intentions, they sometimes do the cowardly thing. And sometimes, the thing that makes them feel safe turns out to be just an illusion of safety, just as it so often is with us.
However, I don’t believe that one kind of hero should supplant the other. That is one of the things that bothers me when people start arguing about grimdark vs. other forms of fantasy. The implication is often that a hero must be one way or the other, and I’ve never felt that to be necessarily true.
I need both kinds of super heroes: the good ones like Superman, and the reluctant ones like Diago. Occasionally, I read stories with no heroes at all. Yet each story is important, because they all show me something about myself.
I aspire to act with Superman’s integrity; although, most often I am more like Diago – a little lost and afraid in the world. However, seeing a variety of characters portrayed, I am able to find balance, and within all of this beautiful fiction we’re making, I find bits and pieces of myself – both the person I aspire to be, and the person that I am.
T. Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. She lives in North Carolina where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.
She is the author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale and numerous short stories. Her newest series, Los Nefilim, is from Harper Voyager Impulse, and consists of the novellas In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death.
Been kicking this around for a while. What has me posting it now is partly from a Q&A my publisher hosted on Twitter revolving around their open call, in which one person asked if there was room in fantasy beyond what is grim and dark and grimdark (Harper Voyager responded in the affirmative, and held up my book as an example of such). The other part is from my friend Teresa Frohock’s lovely post over on Tor.com regarding defining grimdark as opposed to horror (that post hasn’t much to do with this one other than the title; I just wanted to give Teresa a shout-out – buy her new book!).
When Shireen Baratheon was strapped to that stake, my stomach turned. I felt sick. All those memes shooting around on Facebook the week afterwards—the ones about how Stannis wasn’t going to win Father of the Year or whatever—were not funny. It was a horrible, horrible scene, gut-wrenching and soul-draining all at once. My compliments to the actors, the writers, and everybody involved with that scene. Holy crap, guys, did that ever work.
I find myself thinking a lot about Shireen Baratheon lately. She isn’t real and what happened to her didn’t really happen, but I find myself thinking about her anyway. I look at a horrible picture of a little boy drowned in the ocean, washed up on the beach, and my stomach turns. I see a picture of a Nazi soldier pointing his submachine gun at a Jewish family, the father throwing his body in front of his children, and I get sick inside. I feel just as horrible. And I think of Shireen.
Fantasy has been getting pretty dark lately. Have you noticed that? Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like picking up a fantasy novel these days is more likely going to bring you down than bring you up. George RR Martin has, of course, said that he draws much of his inspiration from history and, as it happens, history is pretty dark and miserable territory. No doubt, the darkness of Game of Thrones and other “grimdark” fantasy stories out there are more “realistic” in the sense that the things happening in them are not any more extreme or horrifying than the things that actually happen out here, in the real world.
In response to this assertion of realism, though, I am forced to ask a question: why am I reading a genre called fantasy, then?
My late father-in-law did not read fiction, as a rule. He didn’t understand why you would read anything made up when history was so stuffed with great stories that actually happened. He read biography after biography, history after history, and possessed a breadth and depth of historical knowledge that, frankly, blew me away (and I’m no slouch at my history, myself). His refusal to read fiction I found curious, but he had a good point. I mean, why read about something made up when you can have the same experience and learn about something real at the same time?
Those two questions: “why read fantasy if it’s going to be so realistic” and “why read fiction when history is full of interesting stories” are dovetailed. The answer to either question is the answer to both, and the answer is this:
We read fiction to believe in the implausible and unrealistic.
That’s it. That’s the whole point of fiction—to believe that which is inherently false. Because my father-in-law had a really, really good point. If realism is what I’m after, then I read history. I watch the news. I study the facts. I wallow in the real world, with all its tragedies and imperfections and rough edges.
But fiction is something different. I’m not reading it because I want it to be real. I’m reading it to make the real into something transcendent. I want the unsolvable to be solved (at least partially), I want the evil to be vanquished (most of the time), I want my story to do what the real world can’t do for me—get me to believe in magic, get me to dream about faraway places and wonderful things and heroes and dragons and swords with names. In fantasy, there is no reason we have to be miserable. The world can do that for us.
Now I’m not saying I need pat, happy endings all the time, nor do I particularly enjoy the same thing over and over and over. What I wonder at is this wish to have our real-world cynicism encroach upon our fantastical playgrounds. So much these days seems to be another version of apocalypse, another bonfire of heroics. While George RR Martin’s brilliant work is perhaps the most obvious example of this mood, it is hardly exclusive to him.
“Heroes,” a friend of mine told me once, “must tread carefully in the world of Westeros.” That’s true. Jon Snow’s heroics got him nowhere, just like his brother and his father’s nobility doomed them. And, again, that is much the same as history—history doesn’t treat many of its heroes well. So, I suppose we can all nod sagely at Jon Snow’s untimely end and say “yeah—figures. What a dummy.”
See, the thing is, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to find myself scoffing the hero just to assuage my own pain over their fall. I don’t want to shake my head at (yet another) rape scene and say “that’s just how awful this place is.” This is fantasy, friends! We don’t have to make it that bleak and, even if we do, we can have our heroes win. We can have them overcome the horrible nature of their world and, by doing so, inspire us to do the same.
I guess you can call that naive if you want, but my response to you is that a little naiveté is good for us. Because, contrary to what so many of us believe, the world—the real, actual world—doesn’t have to be such an awful place. It can change. We have to believe that, don’t we? I worry when even our fantasies become grim, bleak landscapes of suffering and degradation. What does it say about us that we aren’t even willing to imagine a world where good triumphs over evil and the heroes save the day?
So that brings me back to how we read fiction to believe in the implausible and unrealistic. For us—for our society, our world—I think the most implausible and unrealistic thing we can imagine is the idea of redemption and the ability for people to change. In fantasy, we have a unique lens through which to view our own world and, yes, we can certainly make it dark and horrible if we want. Indeed, a utopian story of happiness and light would be difficult to connect with, I guess. That said, there is no reason that in the darkness and the horror someone can’t stand up and say “no.” Some guard who cuts the little girl free from the burning stake and runs off into the wilderness. Some man in a fishing boat defying fate to save some drowning child. And then—get this—that person gets away with it. They are the hero for that moment in time, when all hope seemed lost. They are the person we all hope we can be, doing the right thing when it is hard. Sounds crazy, right? Some of you are shaking your heads, maybe. Some of you think that sounds lame or that I’m a pie-in-the-sky crackpot.
But I’m not. And for me, that’s what fantasy and science fiction are there to prove—not how weak we are or how terrible, but how wonderful we can be and how noble, no matter how awful we were in the past. It’s our world, folks. Let’s make it a beautiful one for a change.
Today we’ve got a special treat. Here is fellow author A.F.E. Smith, author of Darkhaven, to talk about fights and protagonists in fantasy novels, something fans of the Saga of the Redeemed are no doubt used to. Enjoy!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the hero of a fantasy novel must be outnumbered at least three to one before the reader even begins to worry that he’s in danger.
Most fantasy fans enjoy a good battle, whether between individuals, groups or armies. And we also like seeing our heroes overcome the odds. But by now, most of us have read enough gratuitously unequal fights that overcoming the odds has become an expectation. In real life, a duel between two people of roughly equal skill and experience – or a war between two evenly matched armies – would be loaded with tension for all concerned, because there’d be no way to predict the outcome. Instead, it would be clear that the battle ahead was going to be long, drawn-out and take a significant toll on all involved, quite possibly without ever resulting in an outright winner. But in fiction, where narrative conventions dictate that the protagonist is going to punch above his weight, evenly matched isn’t enough. Evenly matched means an obvious win for the protagonist. And obvious is boring.
Fantasy novels therefore face the challenge of loading the odds against the protagonist in order to make him the underdog – because everyone loves an underdog – while still making it plausible that he should win. Taken too far, it becomes ridiculous: hey, my mortally wounded and exhausted hero just fought off an entire army with a rusty spoon, isn’t he awesome? Yet not far enough, and it’s just dull: some guy dueled a slightly more skilled guy and beat him. Yay. There’s no tension in the second option, no edge. But the first option can be equally tedious, particularly if it keeps on happening – because someone who can defeat that many people under those conditions is clearly invincible. Every time David successfully overcomes Goliath, there has to be a believable reason for it. And because the plot requires it is not a believable reason.
Tolkien (of course) does this very well in The Lord of the Rings. In every battle, the tide is turned by the fulfillment of a slender hope – and those hopes keep on getting more slender as the book progresses. It wouldn’t have been at all the same if the mighty hordes of Gondor had been facing Sauron’s tiny ragtag army. But nor would it have been the same if Aragorn had single-handedly slaughtered the hordes of Mordor with his kingliness. The plot walks the fine line between too easy and too implausible without setting a foot wrong. Every challenge is overcome, but only just. And that’s what keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Of course, many books since Tolkien have subverted the expectations that we have of our protagonists. Most of us probably got near the end of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and thought, Aha! This is a classic unequal fight situation! Ned’s in a pretty tricky position now, but I just bet he’s going to overcome the odds at the last minute. After all, he is the protagonist!
And we all know how that turned out.
Still, I love an unequal fight, and I didn’t hesitate to put one into my own novel. Here’s a tiny snippet from Darkhaven in which my stubborn sort-of hero, Tomas Caraway, is faced with the prospect of getting past a whole group of warriors just when the stakes are at their highest …
‘Just give it up, Caraway,’ one of the women said. ‘Go home.’
He shook his head. ‘I can’t.’
‘Fine.’ Her face showed no hint of sympathy. ‘Then you accept what’s coming to you.’ She glanced around the circle. ‘Weapons away, lads.’
The sound of steel being sheathed rang through the air. Caraway scanned their grim faces and understood what was about to happen. They wouldn’t afford him the dignity of swordplay, with its attendant rules and courtesies. How could they? He had no blade to speak of; it wouldn’t be fair.
So instead, they would maintain their code of practice by beating him up with their bare hands. The fact that there were twenty of them and just one of him had no bearing on the matter.
It’s probably fair to say that he doesn’t stand much chance of triumphing in this encounter. Yet for all that, I think the outcome is realistic. See what you think.
Ayla Nightshade never wanted to rule Darkhaven. But her half-brother Myrren – true heir to the throne – hasn’t inherited their family gift, forcing her to take his place.
When this gift leads to Ayla being accused of killing her father, Myrren is the only one to believe her innocent. Does something more sinister than the power to shapeshift lie at the heart of the Nightshade family line?
Now on the run, Ayla must fight to clear her name if she is ever to wear the crown she never wanted and be allowed to return to the home she has always loved.
A.F.E. Smith is an editor of academic texts by day and a fantasy writer by night. So far, she hasn’t mixed up the two. She lives with her husband and their two young children in a house that someone built to be as creaky as possible – getting to bed without waking the baby is like crossing a nightingale floor. Though she doesn’t have much spare time, she makes space for reading, mainly by not getting enough sleep (she’s powered by chocolate). Her physical bookshelves were stacked two deep long ago, so now she’s busy filling up her e-reader.
What A.F.E. stands for is a closely guarded secret, but you might get it out of her if you offer her enough snacks.
This semester in my lit survey course, I decided to focus the theme of our readings around the idea of heroism, the hero’s journey, and the various and complicated ways heroics are played out in prose, poetry, and on screen. As it’s the first time I’m teaching the course in this way, there will be some wrinkles to iron out for the next time around, but thus far it has been fairly effective. My students have a working understanding of Campbell’s Monomyth and we’ve finally moved away from the stereotypical image of the hero as he (note the gender) who protects the weak and innocent from the wicked and powerful. There’s a lot more to it than that, as a cursory investigation into heroic figures will quickly show.
To wrap up the semester, we’re taking a look at two deconstructionist approaches to the heroic myth. First is Watchmen, the iconic graphic novel by Moore and Gibson. The second is The Big Lebowski by the Cohen brothers. Both stories feature ‘heroic’ characters in a certain sense – they solve the mystery, they save the world, they do justice to the unjust. However, there is an issue of intent and nature at play in both stories that holds the heroic acts (the external heroism, if you will) as suspect and hollow when taken in context of the personal intent of the heroes (the internal heroism of the characters). I don’t wish to ruin the ending of either tale, but it is hard to say that either the Dude or Rorschach are internally heroic or intend to do what is ‘right’ for the sake of it. If good comes of their behavior, it is primarily accidental or derivative.
So, that begs the question: Does a hero need intent? If you go out one morning and, purely by accident, foil a bank robbery by slipping on a banana peel and save the lives of seven people, are you a hero? Most of us would say no. Let me provide a different example: if you are forced, at gunpoint, to save a child from a burning house, are you a hero? The answer becomes less clear. Final example: If you are compelled by a psychological or social disorder to run around each evening beating up muggers and dragging them to jail, does that make you heroic? This last instance is where we so commonly come down on the side of ‘yes’, though we seldom have the question put to us so succinctly. Batman (and Rorschach) are compelled by trauma to do what they do in order to feel sane or whole. It can be convincingly argued that they don’t do it because of philosophical ideals any moreso than the guy who slips on the banana peel. If the outcome of the behavior in question is negative (the ‘hero’ does not run around bringing crooks to justice but rather assaults women in an attempt to steal their underwear), the insanity defense will readily and often successfully be deployed in their trial: “They are not responsible for their actions, your honor – this man is out of his freaking mind and needs intense psychiatric care.”
The issue of intent pivots around the long-standing debate over the existence of free will. Not to delve too deeply into philosophy and neuroscience, but in brief it goes like this: It is debatable that you make decisions based upon some concept of independent will. It can be argued that all of us are amalgams of environmental influence and genetic predisposition that dictates our behavior and that, outside of additional outside influence, we cannot change ourselves. Yes, yes – I know a lot of you disagree, and the argument in favor of free will is also robust, so this matter is very far from settled. The question, though, has a significant impact on how we identify heroism. Can you be a bad person but do good things and then be considered good? If I grudgingly agree to save the world, complaining about it the entire time, do I deserve the accolades of the masses for their salvation?
Furnishing answers to this question is far from easy. It is a concept I explore with my character, Tyvian Reldamar, in The Iron Ring. Like me, Tyvian doesn’t know either. Part of telling a story, though, is the exploration of our world, no matter of you set your tale in Alandar or alternate 1985 New York City or even in the City of Angels in the early 90s.