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.

Hello Sasquan!

Greetings Sasquan Attendees and other assorted passersby!

Its been an honor attending Worldcon this year and meeting so many of this community. I have a few postcards and bookmarks in the Worldcon freebie area there so I thought I’d introduce myself and my work to anyone who graciously followed those links or found their way here through other means.

I’m Thomas Alexander, a fantasy author with one book under my belt, Mistress of the Dancing Bones. The sequel, Mistress of the Midnight Sky, is coming out soon. These are the first two novels in the Sang Noir series set in the world of Avenesse. I have plans for another Sang Noir book and if all goes well, other series and standalone novels that expand the Avenesse setting and characters in bold new directions!

I wrote a pitch for Dancing Bones just for Sasquan that I’d like to share with you here:

Mistress of the Dancing Bones is the story of Ashia, a young woman with necromantic powers in an empire ruled by vampires. That empire borders the Deathlands, ruled by even worse undead that don’t just want to drink mortals’ blood, but to exterminate them. Ashia’s father is the vampire lord who protects the Empire and its mortals from the Deathlords. With the help of a gunslinging witch hunter, his mischievous changeling familiar and a laconic demon horse, Ashia must uncover the secrets of a deadly conspiracy that threatens the fragile peace between mortal and vampire. In this land, blood is currency, and Ashia’s is more valuable and dangerous than any.

You can read an excerpt here.

I’ve been fortunate enough to get some positive reviews, most notably from Black Gate’s Donald Crankshaw.

Readers have been very generous with their praise, which I appreciate, scan the amazon reviews.

I did some pinterest boards with images and brickabrack that reminds me of my books and characters.

As for me I’m a lifelong geek. I served as a Nuke in the Navy, I started game mastering DnD at 7 years old, mostly because my older brother forced me. I play video games, I write stories, I go to conventions, and I get to be unironically enthustiastic about stuff. Please take a moment to poke around this blog and check out some of the stuff and stories I love. With any luck, you’ll find something to love here too. Enjoy.