How the Keep on the Borderlands Taught Me About Racism and Hatred

250px-B2ModuleCoverI became a dungeon master in 1979 at the age of 7. My older brother was 10, and he and is friends decided they wanted to play, and of course wanted to be the heroes. They figured out they needed something called a Dungeon Master, and as the picked on nerdy kid brother, I was handed some books and informed I was going to be DM.

Yeah that went about as well as it sounds.

An adventure came with the basic DnD set called Keep on the Borderlands. You start at the keep, you hear about a cave system that has about a dozen tribes of humanoids living in caves cheek to jowl (which never really made any sense but hey) and then you go there, kill the bad guys get the treasure and go back to the keep as heroes. As DM, I had to read the adventure, and I quickly figured out that even though I was three years younger than the players, I had a lot of control on what they did even if not directly. As I read I tried to imagine what would happen in each room, and what I would steer my rambunctious players into doing there. All was going well until I came to this room.

10. COMMON ROOM: Here are quartered 12 male orcs (AC 7, HD I, hp 4 each, #AT I, D 1-6, Save F I, ML 8) and 18 females and 9 young (who do not fight). The males have 2d6 silver pieces each, the others have nothing of worth. The few furnishings in the room are likewise of no value.

That damn room, man. Do you see the problem? So I’m the DM. I’m imagining my brother and his friends, swords drawn, spells ready, charging into this room, slaughtering the twelve guy orcs. Their blades are dripping with blood, the air sizzles with burning orc flesh… and then…

Women and children orcs?

Um.

Wot?

This bothered me for at least six months as I tried to figure out what the players were supposed to do with the women and children. Before I could coax my idiot players to something approaching the right decision I had to decide what the right decision was, and I had a seven year old brain to figure it out. I was running headfirst into the (imaginary) horrors of war and racism and child killing and some serious shit here man.

That damn room.

I decided that the women could perhaps fight, but the children clearly couldn’t. What should the players do with a bunch of orc kids? Killing children was right out. I decided fast that leaving them in the room was also not an option. A bunch of orc kids in a dungeon full of the rotting corpses of their parents were going to die fast. So that’s an evil act right? Murder by inaction or something? Okay so not that. What should the players do?

The next most obvious choice was gathering up all the kid orcs and taking them back to the keep to be raised in an orphanage. That felt less psychotically evil, but even then, wouldn’t the orcs turn evil as adults and have to be killed in town? I looked at the rule book and right there it listed them as chaotic evil. So taking them to town as babies was just delaying the inevitable wasn’t it? Would it really be ‘good’ to take a young evil creature to a town full of innocents?37083f348a86e53c3ff67be54072efb0

You see the racism angle rearing its head here right?

I saw that Half Orcs were a player race. A half orc could be of good alignment, so it seemed plausible that these orc kids were not predestined to be evil. If taken to town, perhaps they could be raised to be not evil. Finally a solution! The only readily available not evil choice for the orc babies was take them to town, make sure they find a good home, and are raised virtuously! Huzzah! These are the problems that develop when you take a literary symbol of evil and try to put it in a game like D&D and flesh it out.

Unfortunately, I was a curious and inquisitive child, so my brain still wouldn’t let go of this whole orcs and good and evil thing. I kept thinking about those orc babies raised in a town to be not-evil. If they could turn out good, why couldn’t other orcs be good too? Why were they listed as evil? It wasn’t ‘tends to be evil’. It wasn’t ‘CAN be evil’. It was EVIL. If you’re an orc, you’re evil. The only good orc is a dead orc.

It slowly dawned on me, that this was racism. The game was replete with casual, fictional racism toward fictional species like the infamous antipathy between dwarves and elves.

I got the idea for a game I’ve never had the guts to actually run. My idea, at probably… eight? Nine? was to run a game based as closely as possible to the American Old West, only replace pistols and rifles with bows and swords, and replace photogenic Native Americans with Orcs, Goblins and Trolls. I was curious how long it would take the players to hesitate, to say ‘hey wait a second are we SURE its okay to slaughter each and every member of the Shattered Fist tribe?’

I’m glad I never ran that game, because making someone participate in something like that, make them be one small part of that atrocity, make them see that no, they wouldn’t be the one guy who stood against it, they’d probably have gone right along with it if they’d been there… I couldn’t inflict that on someone, even as I inflicted that sick realization upon myself. I would have gone along. I would have justified it to others and even to myself. It’s easy to see this behavior in others but it’s harder to look within ourselves.

My big takeaway was how easy it was to designate someone as EVIL, as an acceptable target, how good people felt about it, how readily we all go along with it as long as we have permission from a person in authority to hate and mistreat the target in question.

Just look at how we talk about each other. How we talk about people on the other side, whatever that other side is. Its okay to be awful to that person, he’s (x) and you know how all of THEM are. This isn’t getting better, its getting worse, and we all do it, every day. Its so easy to see Orcs, and so difficult to see the humanity lurking inside the person you’ve been given permission to despise.

Stop looking for Orcs.

They don’t exist.

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Sasquan Dealer’s Room Swag

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The Gods of the Dealer’s Room were merciful to us this year, but we came away with some very impressive swag. There were a lot of Alexander family favorites like Damsel in this Dress and Fae Built Inc and a lot we’d never seen before.

This year we were introduced to Steampunked Out. Their collection of clothing was impressive and had a polished practicality. Their stuff felt less like costumery and more like real clothes you’d actually wear all day. It was a pleasure talking to the woman at the booth whose name escapes me at the moment, she was very helpful and generous with her time. Our first purchase with them was a Map Case, but it almost certainly won’t be our last. I have my eye on a few things on their site. Steampunked Out was the standout booth this year, in my opinion. Honestly though it feels like the quality level of geekwear and cosplay items for sale just keeps increase every year. Everyone brought their A game.

I picked up a steampunkish vest at the B Coole Designs booth. The woman there was a delight and very fun to chat with. She helped us out with a few vests, and we ended up with a gorgeous one that’s a very light metallic shade of purple. She does custom embroidery and patch work, and has a lot of options to choose from. Give her a look if you need any custom work done.
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The item that we’ll probably get the most day to day use out of was a gorgeous caged d20 pendant from Silverthorne Crafts. We were lucky enough to pick this up on Tuesday, a day before Sasquan officially started. Moments later we were shooed out of there, so this was a lucky buy.

MkYwODkxMkQwMzczNUZBNUU2NkY6NGZhMDY4MjM1MjBlNjM3YWJmMTYxYTA1NjA5MjViOTM6Ojo6OjA=I just had to stop at the Cast in Stone Pewterworks booth. They had… get this… Bullet Dice! This seems like a must have for all true tabletop dorks like me out there. It rolls very well, though it can be a touch hard to read. These slight flaws do not at all detract from the fact that its a dice that looks like a fricking bullet. Click the link and order one now. Right now. Go.

 

Mom and Pop Books

I’m a capitalist. As such, I believe that ultimate power resides in the consumer and their ability to choose voluntarily where to spend their money. I tend to spend it on local, ‘mom and pop’ businesses and restaurants over chains. Often it costs a little more but you get more personalized service and there’s a straight line between you and the decision maker. Sometimes it lacks a little polish and professionalism, but usually they make up for it with their own unique charms. This year at Worldcon I decided to spend my money on ‘Mom and Pop Books’. I avoided some of the big names and picked up books by various indies that caught my eye. I expect that they’re going to be a little weird, a little bit lacking in the fine polish of the big names. Hopefully each will give me an entertaining journey into an interesting world.

AlexTwice

First up is TL Walker’s “Alex Twice Abducted”

Coming into Worldcon right in the registration area was this guy shouting, “Free books!” and getting few bites. Something about this hit me. Here’s a guy who comes all the way to Worldcon, offers up his books free of charge just to get some readers or some interest or something going, and still people just walk right by him.

The book is the shortest I picked up.  I’m guessing its more of a YA  story? It involves alien abduction and a boy named Alex dying from an undiagnosed disease. Apparently he and other ‘earthlings’ are trained by the aliens to save earth. There’s a dolphin on the cover, is that an alien, or one of the savior ‘earthlings’? Hard to say! I’m not sure which I prefer. A butt kicking dolphin super soldier sounds pretty cool. I’ll find out soon.

My wife pointed out the next author and I said, “Oh! Its the video guy!” Jay Swanson is the Video Guy in question, and did us a huge favor by making a video of some of the best spots in Spokane near the Convention Center. My stomach owes Jay a debt of gratitude. Nanten

Jay’s book, “Into the Nanten” shocked me within moments, and that shock has only increased as I’ve looked into him and his website and business. The production values are better than most traditionally published books. The art, provided by Nimit Malavia, is incredible and alluring. Its a bit of a ‘gimmick’ book, a 654 page (!) compilation of Jay’s real time fantasy blog about an exile’s journey within a jungle so deadly, its considered suicide to even set foot there. We’ll see if the writing compares with the rest of the packaging. They do say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but the cover and marketing package is damned impressive. I’d say this is the slickest, most professional looking indie title I’ve ever seen. As someone with a  marketing and graphics design background, this has my attention. Let’s see if Jay can hold it.

The next book, “Double Life” is by S. Usher Evans. Its Book 1 of the Razia Series.

Double

I bought this book because S. or Usher or… Evans. We’ll call her Evans. Evans hustled. She called out to me as my little group was passing and said something about girl space pirates. I’m fond of all three of those words, separately or together, so I stopped and had a look.

I’ve been in her position trying to get someone to stop and give a book a try. Smiling, being positive and engaging with the customers does wonders, writers. Don’t be afraid to make some conversation.

So what’s this book about? Razia is the name of a space pirate bounty hunter girl, and apparently she collects bounties on other pirates. Razia languishes on probation though and can’t get any bounty assignments from her pirate bosses above purse snatchers and the like. The titular double life involves her space ‘day job’ of collecting and selling planetary data. Evans’ author bio lists her as a ‘witty banter afficionado’. Skimming the book for about twenty seconds in front of her booth, this seems to be true. There was indeed some witty banter on the random pages I landed on, enough that I was sold on a fun, engaging and dare I say witty writing style. Also the book cover is purple and that’s my favorite color. So what the hell. Double Life.

Last but certainly not least is The Quest by Dani Hoots, book one of the Sanshlian series. Quest

I bought this book because of the cover by Marcy Rachel. She’s one of those cover designer people, so… money well spent Dani! This worked on me. Looking up Marcy Rachel leads to a lot of dead ends and expired websites. Hopefully all is well with her. I do wonder if this is one of those premade covers, or if it was made for the book. I’ve thought of buying a cool looking premade cover and then writing a story based around it.

Anyway, The Quest! We’re looking at a sci fi book involving multiple planets. Space Opera? Not sure. The main character is Arcadia, and she was taken from her family, put into something called the Kamps, and then trained as a killing machine. She became the Emperor’s Shadow, so she must have done well in that training! She becomes fanatically loyal to the Emperor, until she’s kidnapped by her brother and taken on a Quest (get it? Get it! okay I’ll shut up) to find the planet Sanshli, which has unusual properties which will help to topple the Emperor. The back of the book talks about her divided loyalty, and how she slowly begins to realize the Emperor has been deceiving her. Immediately I’m hoping this Emperor dude has some good points, and is not a two dimensional villain. The last lines are, ‘But I can’t turn my back on him, or can I?’ I find myself wishing for a scene where she actually sticks with the Emperor and throws a jerkwad brother down a mine shaft or something. A more realistic hope is that she struggles with the decision and the Emperor has some kind of good argument in there somewhere. We’ll see. Skimming the book, I didn’t get a good read on Dani’s writing style, but nothing leaped out at me as bad. She has a lot of books under her belt, a lot more than me certainly, so we’ll see what the Quest has in store for us!

Burning Down The House

So how about those Hugo Awards huh? I don’t want to delve into the fireworks inside the halls, except to say that swords were everywhere, and not an olive branch was in sight. No, this post is talking about the fires that were outside the hall. So, the satellite picture looks pretty awful.

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Yeah. Look at that huh! So what does it look like in that blue dot over Spokane? Well the Spokane Convention Center looked like this:

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The smell of smoke was everywhere, the light was orange, and the oddest thing, the sun was Red. And you could look at it without it hurting your eyes. Weird. Getting away from the convention center didn’t improve things. Spokane itself looked like this:

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Our hotel room actually smelled of smoke! We had to head out early so we drove through most of that fire. About midway through, the highway was still quite smoke clogged:

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Finally though, we broke through the smoke and ash, and reached a bright sunlit sky:

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Hopefully this is a metaphor for the SFF community. We’ll see if anyone goes for those dusty and cobweb-lined olive branches any time soon.

Car Games: Pirate Fluxx

Pirate Fluxx

My wife and I are gamers. We game. We met in not one but two different games (Second Life and World of Warcraft), in a guild that was, more or less, formed from SL designers and their friends and family. Gaming is in our blood. Because of this we like to have what we call ‘car games’, easily portable two to four player games we can take to a coffee shop or restaurant and play without hassling people around us overly much.

We picked up one such game at the 2014 Emerald City Comic Con at the suggestion of one of the vendors in the gaming section. He pulled out a copy of the basic no-frills Fluxx game, handed it to us and we and another couple joined in for our first game of Fluxx. About fifteen minutes later, we bought Pirate Fluxx, because pirates are awesome and so is Fluxx.

Fluxx is named appropriately, as every card played has a dramatic effect on not just the other players, but the rules and goals of the game itself. The basic rules, however, are very simple. Each round you have to draw one card and play one card. How do you win? By playing a Goal card, and having the cards it displays on the table in front of you. Sounds simple right? Well. Things can change quickly in Fluxx!

There are a few types of cards, each following that game’s theme, in this case, pirates:

Goals let you win the game and show two or more Keepers or Creepers.
Sample Goals: Yo Ho Ho & a Bottle of Rum (Jolly Roger and Rum), Privateers (Royal Colors & Jolly Roger)

Keepers are usually played in front of you. They can be stolen so playing them can be a little risky! Some have special rules, like the Captain’s Hat, but in Pirate Fluxx, most don’t. They just sit there.
Sample Keepers: Monkey, Pieces of Eight, Frigate, Limes

So far so good. Now to the cards that start shaking things up.

Action cards allow you to do interesting things. You can steal keepers. You can take a card from the discard pile. You can force everyone else to discard cards. There are a lot of strange Action cards in the deck with a lot of very weird effects.
Sample Action Card: Walk the Plank! (The chosen player must discard their entire hand of cards)

Rules cards are like action cards from hell. First, they stay in play until someone plays a card that gets rid of them. second, they can really shake things up. There are rules that make you draw five cards a round, or two. There are cards that can force you to play 3 cards a round, which if you only have a hand of three cards means you have to play that godawful card you really would rather not play. There are Keeper limits, hand limits, and even stranger things. Rules cards mean just about every game of Fluxx is different.
Sample Rules Card: Talk like a pirate! If you speak with an outrageous pirate accent during your turn, Draw 1 extra card. Draw 2 extra cards if you’ve been continuing to use your accent since your previous turn.

Surprise! Cards help to counteract Actions and Rules. Mostly they let you react to another card play and either steal it, cancel it, or do something completely off the wall.
Sample Surprise! Card: Avast! Halt! (Cancel an Action a player has just played)

Finally, there are Creeper Cards. These are like evil anti Keepers. You have to immediately play one if you get it, and you can’t win the game as long as you have one, UNLESS the goal card played specifies you need that Creeper to win. Creepers suck. Playing a tricky combo and getting your creeper switched to another player’s hand is pretty awesome though.
Sample Creeper Card: Scurvy! (If you have Oranges or Limes on the table, discard Scurvy immediately)

We found the basic Fluxx game a little too simple for us, so we went with Pirate Fluxx. It added Creepers, something not found in the base game, and a few gameplay mechanics to a few Keepers. The weird humor and oddball cards shook things up nicely.

So how does it play? Its a little insane at first, especially if you’re playing with someone who’s never played before. Once you’ve gotten a few games under your belt, you quickly learn there are cards that you just never really want to play, and you establish a little bit of a detente with the other players. Its fun with two people, but really comes into its own with four, as it becomes difficult to predict what everyone will do or what kind of plays you’re going to have to defend against. Fluxx is a chaotic, madcap, play by the seat of your pants kind of game. Strategy will have to be done on the fly, if at all, but skill can and often does trump luck.

Pirate Fluxx was our favored, go to game for quite a long time. We stopped playing it simply because we burned ourselves out. That’s the sure sign of a good game to me. The downsides are that blind luck can trump rock solid strategy, and it can be difficult to really plan anything beyond a few moves ahead. This seems like a sweet spot game. Its got enough twists and turns to keep gamers interested, but the rules are simple enough that non gamers can join in without too much trouble.

In Praise of Smaller Conventions

Damsel in this Dress is going to be in Seattle!” my wife exclaimed.

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A week later, we attended the Seattle Mythic Worlds convention with no knowledge of the attendees or events other than the wonderful woman from Salt Lake City who makes the corsets would be there, and the one day pass was reasonably priced.

Mythic Worlds was definitely smaller and more intimate than the mega-cons I’ve been attending recently, like Emerald City Comic Con. ECCC in particular is so packed that I liken attending to being squeezed through a toothpaste tube. By comparison, Mythic Worlds was a joy to attend. My wife and I spent a fair amount of time in the Damsel booth browsing for new corsetry and getting personal attention from Michelle and the others in the booth. It was something that would have been impossible or at the very least very difficult at larger conventions.

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We browsed through what the rest of the convention had to offer and found a lot of cosplay gear and tchotchkes in the booths, and some great writing guest speakers. The pricing was astounding… this stuff was priced to move! The people were friendly, the crowd was manageable enough that I never felt hemmed in or that I should rush so that I made space for the people behind me. It was one of the most positive and welcoming convention experiences I’ve ever had. Besides Damsel, we made some great new connections with Fae Built Inc, Elysian Pearl, Harry Caldwell IV, Faerie Crowns, and a lot of others!

As an attendee, the experience was so positive it makes me question whether I want to attend the big cons anymore, unless I’m going as a vendor. I’ll be keeping my eye open for more small cons in the future.

Midnight Sky Nears

Midnight-Sky-Cover

I’d like to offer an update on the second novel in the Avenesse series, Mistress of the Midnight Sky. Its in the hands of my amazingly talented editor, Casondra Brewster, and should be back in my hands in the near future. Look for its release sometime in the next few months!

I have about 82k words done on the still nameless book three. This was originally supposed to be the second book before I realized the outline needed a bit of a revamp which resulted in book two. I hope you all enjoy it.