Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 Review

It took us a billion years about a year and a half but my group finally finished Season 1 of Pandemic Legacy. We started off bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the halcyon days of January. By March, we were plague-hardened. By December, half the planet seemed like it was rioting and Chicago had burned to the ground.

Real World Time, that means we were playing from December 2015 to April 2017. So our game did an adequate job of paralleling a pretty awful year!

We joked that Trump got elected in November, courtesy of an October Surprise. Guess when our win streak ended.

I played Hiro Watanabe McCain Mercer Piper Mercer, the dispatcher who ended up with a Shady Background and a terminal grudge against the Powers That Be, along with at east four sketchy marriages including two to the same person. One of our players went through three (technically two) characters, including one that went Paranoid from the early game twist and was lost to us with the late game twist. She recycled the identity of her first one (Catherine Mercer) for her third.

Our Researcher, known only as Señorita Blanco, ran on the power of Bullshit.

Our Medic, Randy, was better known as Jesus.

Does this look like the poorly photographed face of mercy to you?

Things were a little rocky early on. We lost the first halves of January and February, then had a win streak from March to the first half of October. Since this was a Legacy version of a game, our successes and failures both haunted us.

North America and Europe became disaster zones following the first twist in the game and stayed that way until our second try at November. That win streak cost us any Funded Events – re: lucky breaks – for seven games straight. We won by the skin of our teeth and lost cities to rioting that we didn’t need to lose at all. Chicago in particular became a dumpster fire. I’m still boggling that Atlanta didn’t turn into a similar disaster area since Washington also popped multiple times, going all the way to a level 3 riot by the time we got North America under control.

Give it time.

All in all, it was a fun game. I’d recommend playing it.

Looking through the cards again, I’m pleased at how diverse the game’s cast is just at a glance – obviously you can name them anything and their histories are an irrelevant blank slate, but there’s a lot of women and minority representation in the artwork for this game. It also strays clear of the usual stereotypes by virtue of everyone being some kind of STEM professional. In a hobby range that desperately needs more people who don’t look like me, that’s pretty damn cool.

This game, along with its non-legacy counterpart, is also good for its representation of the CDC – they’re not just faceless healbots, they’re actual heroes ensconced in battles for lives, with resources diminishing every time they actually do their jobs. A lot of agencies, including the real world CDC and my favorite, the Coast Guard, get hit with that stick. The only way that could be more realistic at this point is if the resources diminished regardless of the outcome.

Donald Trump

Minor spoiler here but I was also pleasantly surprised to see a 90s/early 00s throwback in the game: The military as an obstacle for the civilian good guys.

It doesn’t pop up as often now, after sixteen years of the Pentagon funding blockbuster movie hits and politicians demanding that war critics separate soldiers from the conflicts assigned them, but the military used to be one of the go-to groups for Bad Guys With Power. Combat PTSD was, and often still is, the easiest (and most inaccurate) way to have someone Go Mad From The Revelation.

Ever watch the X-Files? There are whole episodes dedicated to showing how much of an asshole a senior officer could be or how barbaric the system is to the men and women serving in it, and they’re some of that series’ best. The Hunted is all about a civilian contractor having to fix a military screw-up. The Abyss famously includes a Navy SEAL going insane and trying to kill everyone. Dr. Strangelove was one long absurdist condemnation of the whole military-industrial complex. In the original Half-Life, the military shot you and every other civilian on sight just for being in Black Mesa.

And hey, sit down and watch The Siege sometime.

Point is: We don’t get the Military Is Evil trope all that often in American entertainment nowadays. It’s kind of refreshing anytime it pops up at all. Not because the military actually is evil – that’s a whole ‘nother chain of philosophic discussion – but because it’s variety and nuance. I’m a sucker for variety and nuance.

I’m also a sucker for Chicago not burning to the ground.

You can’t always get what you want.

ShushCon 2017 Post-Mortem, Part 3: Agents of Light and Darkness

                The Nightside is the sick, secret, magical heart of London, where gods and monsters go to make the deals and seek the pleasures they won’t find anywhere else.
                – Simon R. Green, Agents of Light and Darkness

I ran my scenario twice, once for a test about a week before ShushCon and then during the convention itself. There were some pretty big differences and some pretty fun moments in each.

To give you a quick, semi-spoiler free rundown of the book this was all adapted from: Agents opens in an ancient church with the main character delivering a teddy bear to an eldritch abomination. After that he gets a job to find the Unholy Grail, the cup that Judas drank at the last supper. He hooks up with his prospective love interest, whose nickname is literally Oh God It’s Her Run, and together they go on an off-and-on rampage through the Nightside, digging for clues and wrecking people’s day. In the background, from start to finish, angels tear the Nightside down to the ground, warring with the natives and each other over possession of the grail.

Rule #1 of this book: You don’t mess with angels. Rule #1 of the scenario: You don’t mess with angels.

What do my players do?


In both runs, players made a go of it versus the divine. In the first one, Julien Advent’s character challenged one to fisticuffs and scared it off – a social victory over something I literally gave an infinite social stat to. Later on, Suzie Shooter and John Taylor dragged another angel down and Suzie strangled the damn thing with plot device-tier piano wire.

In the second run, the players had a healthy fear of them but that didn’t stop Dead Boy’s car from flat-out eating an angel. It was set up that the car could eat things. The intro vignette had it snacking on a hobo when Dead Boy looked away. But when the crew visited a former Nazi holdout, the car bowled over an angel three times, harpooned it, and ate the damn thing. It ran over three others, courtesy of the player burning up most of his fate points, keelhauling one of them through the Nightside before breaking it in half on a street lamp.

Tommy Oblivion’s character, who isn’t actually in the book the scenario is based on, stood out in both games. His whole schtick is convincing reality to be something that it isn’t. In the first run, the Existential Detective talked the crew’s bartered van out of a high-speed collision, talked it out of being half-destroyed by an angel, and talked Suzie and John out of being blown to smithereens after the fact. They reappeared, healthy and hale, in his closet during the epilogue, the result of Tommy pioneering a whole new branch of necromancy. I’m pretty sure their former corpses, the result of a Spirited Disagreement™, were still lying on the road when they were resurrected.

In the second run, Tommy proceeded to fall in love with the eldritch abomination from the prologue, used a silver-plated mace to slowly, methodically chip his way through a concrete wall less than six feet from an open door, asked questions so bafflingly stupid that they stunned multiple opponents and set that angel up to get eaten by Dead Boy’s car, and ultimately defeated the Collector by taking control of gravity and destroying the inside of his moon base warehouse. The scenario ended with Tommy going full meta, complete with the player looking at me like he wanted to smack me as I described him sitting there at a gaming convention in South Carolina (running joke, long story).

It has nothing to do with this guy.

One of the biggest differences was how each scenario ended. Last post I mentioned the need to improvise on the fly? I had to do that here. Spoilers below.

In the book, John and Suzie ultimately find the Unholy Grail in the possession of a character called the Collector. It’s in his moon base. Because of course it is. They then bring the grail back to John’s client, who turns out to be none other than Judas Iscariot looking to destroy the grail’s power as part of his eternal atonement.

In the first run, the Collector was more of a background menace; he sent lackeys to interfere with the party and they raided one of his warehouses (and burned it to the ground), but he never showed up on screen. Instead they found the grail in the hands of Nasty Jack Starlight. He’s a bit character in the book; a schlub who entertains the undead with a one-man theater act. An angel kills the bajesus out of him after John and Suzie wreck one of his performances. In the test run, he appeared as a psychotic drag racer fueling his car with the Unholy Grail. The crew took him out, stole the grail, and booked it to the church from the prologue. They handed it over, got the Big Shocking Twist, cue epilogue vignettes.

In the second run, Shotgun Suzie wasn’t present and Dead Boy neatly skipped the scene where the Collector’s lackeys try to attack the group; he had almost no presence at all until the group broke into his moon base. He tried to attack them for that but Tommy had some fate points he was looking to get rid of. He talked his way into controlling local gravity and then crushed everything in the base. The loss of so much of his namesake collection broke the Collector completely; he was a sobbing, hysterical mess who surrendered the grail without a fight. The gang teleported back to the Nightside, ran over a couple more angels, and delivered the grail to their client at Strange Fellows.

In both cases, neither group actually predicted the Judas twist until it happened. The best part, for me, was John’s second player unintentionally re-enacting a scene straight out of the book: he greets Judas in his cover identity with Hey, Jude. The player did that without ever having read the book or hearing of the series. The second best part also came from that run: Judas needed to drink something out of the cup but the group had all pissed off Alex, Strange Fellows’ owner and bar tender, and all they had to drink was Angel’s Urine.

It is exactly what you think it is.

Judas commented that it tasted a bit salty, then gave it over to Tommy to finish. Tommy slowly, disgustedly poured it out over his shoulder.

One thing I think I could’ve done better in the second session was Julien Advent.

In the test run he was plucky comedy relief who had The Best Moment when he challenged an angel to fisticuffs. In the second run, his player kept hitting brick walls after the introductory vignette – which actually ended up being stronger than the first player’s vignette. Julien’s second vignette was so strong, in fact, that it had everyone primed for vampires instead of angels. I should’ve done more with that, possibly had a couple vampires lurking around as peripheral threats, or had them as flat-out rivals to the angels.

One huge difference from the book and both sessions was the presence of a character named Squid. No rundown of this scenario is complete without Squid.

Mark Hennion, who played Suzie Shooter as Bull Thompson, a crazy-ass demon-seducing grenade-lobbing violence addict with a shotgun slug for every occasion, outlined Squid a couple times in his intro and during the scene where the gang was trying to pin down Lead #1. Other players, including Donald Dennis and Stephanie Frey, pitched in, more or less describing him as a creepy dude with a beard selling guns and info out the back of a van.

By session two, Squid had developed into a full-blown Character. His was the sole black vehicle in a lot brimming with windowless white vans that had things like FREE CANDY, INQUIRE WITHIN painted on the sides. Its interior was as big as a Walmart, complete with deadbeat customers crucified along walls full of every kind of gun or bullet you could imagine. The man himself had morphed from being a merely pathetic arms dealer to a white powder snorting lunatic; Cheech and Chong distilled into an occult arm dealer with a TARDIS. He had more beard than face and the beard was mostly made out of grease. His jacket was held together with biker patches and stolen boy scout honors.

He would’ve been right at home in the books.

Squid actually ended up being a better lead for the players than the Demon Lordz from the original book. He’s also easier to adapt than the Lordz could ever be – they’re grotesquely sexualized monsters running a bondage dungeon without any concept of safe words. He’s comedy relief with an edge to it.

Sufficed to say, I’m keeping Squid on for any future Nightside games. The guy’s just too fun to let go.

I’ll probably adapt the scenario away from the Dresden Files RPG and more to Fate itself. I’m pretty sure one of the Supplements has a smattering of extra stats and if not, I could always just crib the Cheat Sheet off of Dresden and re-tool the rest of it accordingly.

Overall though, I’m happy with how both sessions went.

Fate Collection
Something something crit yay.

ShushCon 2017 Post-Mortem, Part 2: Of Dice and Men

We interrupt this regularly scheduled series of posts to blather on about the minutiae of running actual games.

Since I mainly run conventions and one-shots right now, I do a lot of pregenerated characters just to save time.

A big part of the trick to using pregens is leaving enough room for the player to take over, especially in any system based on Fate. I often leave out or minimize the actual details of backstory and I usually don’t include names or specific personal details on the sheet. These days I let the players fill almost all of that stuff in, usually by having each one star in a little one-person vignette at both the start and end of the session.

DG Cover.jpg
I stole the vignette idea from Delta Green. Go buy it.

The vignettes are my favorite part of a session, give or take the mid-game shit show. They put everyone on equal footing and help to get buy-in even if the player isn’t all that interested in the game starting out.

In a lot of my older scenarios, I got the same effect with questionnaires, which is what some of the official Evil Hat scenarios do, but I find that tends to slow things down too much. The vignettes work better because Fate, overall, is a narrative system: everyone’s telling a story. If you give everyone the chance to actually star in their own little side-story, it helps get them hooked in for the rest of the session. It also does wonders to frame everything that happens between each set  of vignettes – you can do foreshadowing, you can get the players to give you ideas to fill in any gaps the scenario might have, and they get to define their character through play rather than sitting around jotting things down with a pencil.

And you’ll notice I said “Fate, overall, is a narrative system.”

That’s because you can basically run it as anything from Dungeons and Dragons with a few extra gimmicks and alternative dice to Fiasco with a GM. It’s probably the most robust, versatile system I’ve ever dealt with. You can augment it or lobotomize it at will and it works just fine regardless.

In my own games, I like to toss out the stress tracks as anything other than a vague reminder of what a character can cope with, and I go fast-and-loose on aspect invocations. A lot of players don’t get either of these things and it bogs the game down trying to ‘do it right.’ Speaking as both a player and a GM, ‘doing it right’ is one of the most annoying things you can focus on in any system.

Rule Zero of roleplaying games, and games in general, is that you’re there to have fun. If rules get in the way of that, rules are expendable.

Eclipse Phase
Stole that one from Eclipse Phase.

Another thing I do is emphasize player agency. Fate, as written, is really focused on compelling people to do things. Sometimes I’ll do that but I hate to feel like I’m railroading my players and most of them don’t need me to do that anyway. My formal/informal replacement system for dishing out fate points is as follows:

  • Roleplay according to aspects.
  • Make me laugh.
  • Do something awesome.

This is not unique to me. Some of it’s hard-baked into the system, some of it I shamelessly ripped off of the guys at Roleplaying Public Radio.

Sensing a pattern here…

I make it easy to get fate points until a player has at least five of them. After that, #2 doesn’t award so many and you have to actually work a little bit at #1. There’s nothing stopping them from getting more. This way they’re not afraid to spend points, and some of the quieter players tend to bank fate points up, turning into MVPs when everyone else runs out. It also really heightens the drama whenever someone runs out of points all together and has to do something awesome without them.

I also keep a cheapo white board handy for writing down temporary aspects and consequences. I now feel like it’s common sense, but I didn’t actually think to start doing this until my friend, Donald, of the Inverse Genius family of podcasts, recommended it to me.

Another thing I do in my games is to incorporate conventional dice – the ol’ D20 and its friends.

My big thing there is to make people roll Common Sense. This isn’t an actual stat anywhere in the Dresden Files; it’s me giving players an out if I think they’re gonna do something incredibly stupid. It’s usually played for laughs, but every now and then it works really well for heightening the tension and fear.

In actual games of the Dresden Files, D20s are also my main way of forcing Soul Gazes. My players have almost always tried to avoid those, so I make it into a matter of random chance any time they deal with a major spellcaster. On a 5 or lower, hilarity ensues.

Tom Cruise
Picture unrelated.

My third use for D-whatevers is in how some of the aspects are laid out.

I usually design aspects to get players a flat +3 bonus to one or more stats when invoked – it simplifies things and lets them have a framework for how and where to use their aspects, but it doesn’t force them into doing so. Sometimes I’ll give the player a full-on plot device tied to an aspect (the Occult Detective in a recent session had the aspect, And I Can Do A Similar Trick To Your Organs – a once-per-scene trick to empty all enemy firearms while doing an Intimidate roll).

Sometimes though, I’ll give them multiple plot devices, tying it to a D-whatever. One character in a game had a chart’s worth of random items in a bag of holding; statless items they had to make up powers and uses for. Another had a bunch of crazy contacts and favors they could call in; everything from a Congressional librarian to a CIA drone strike. A character in my recently concluded Dresden Files campaign had a D6 summoning chart. She could burn an extra fate point to skip the roll, but often went with the D6 just because it was more amusing and/or dramatic.

I also have a couple things I do with the fudge dice that Fate is actually supposed to run on.

If the dice come up all positive, it’s a critical success and will almost certainly do whatever the player sets out to accomplish in grand fashion. If they come up all negative, I have a field day at some poor bastard’s expense. If they come up all blank, I call it a critical meh. A crit meh can be a success or a failure, but it’s always done in the most boring way possible. Players often get a kick out of just how boring it is, especially if they roll crit mehs multiple times in a single session.

Aside from all that, running a roleplaying game is a huge exercise in understanding the social dynamics of a group, even if it’s a bunch of people you’ve never met before.

You have to learn and account for everyone’s quirks and you have to be able to wing it. This is especially true for any game involving a mystery. If you stick with a rigid setup, your players are going to hit a wall and they’re going to feel like dumbasses and it’s not gonna take long for them to disengage from the game afterwards. This happened to me the first time I tried running Eclipse Phase, it happens to me a lot as I try to figure out Shadowrun, and it happened a couple times when I was starting out in Fate. It’s one thing to have a checklist of people and/or clues to find. It’s another to insist that they be found in a certain order through certain means with no flexibility about the how or when.

If someone’s disengaging, you have to reel them back in. For me, vignettes and fate point banking do a good job of that, but I also like to just zero in on people from time to time. “[Player name]! What’re you doing?” is a good go to.

If someone’s trying to hog the spotlight, you have to give them just enough of the attention they crave without making it all about them. Ultimately, we’re all attention-starved creatives wanting people to look at our stuff and be awed by it. GMs are especially vulnerable to that urge, but we lucky (and foolhardy) few have a stage from the minute anyone signs up for our game. Players don’t have that same spotlight unless you give it to them. The big challenge is just being equitable about it.

If you’re running with a loved one in the group, you have to make sure that person isn’t privileged over other players and you have to make sure you’re not shortchanging them. I’ve run into the latter problem a couple times because my fiancée often plays in my games. She is, frankly speaking, better than me in every damn way when it comes to games in general. She’s better than most people for that matter. Couple this with not wanting to focus on any one player to the exclusion of others and I sometimes forget to give her fate points, expecting her to do just fine without them. And she does, but that’s still a dick move on my part.

As dense as this post is, a lot of the stuff I’ve talked about becomes instinctive over the course of running a couple games.

The End Result
Pretty much this.

ShushCon 2017 Post-Mortem, Part 1: Welcome to the Nightside

“A macabre and thoroughly entertaining world.” – Jim Butcher

So there’s this British guy who penned one of my favorite guilty pleasure reads. His name’s Simon R. Green. His story’s called The Nightside and it revolves around a magical private eye who wouldn’t know a clue if it bit him, a blizzard’s worth of memorably special snowflakes, and the gaudy, grand, grimy secret heart of London – a square mile of Hell that’s so much bigger than it should be.

I could write a whole series of posts on the Nightside alone.

I got into it before the Dresden Files and, honestly, I kinda miss it more than I anticipate the next Dresden book.

I’m sorry, Jim. Please don’t hate me.

It’s a devilishly clever, fast-paced series riddled with interesting characters, quintessentially British humor, and more cultural references than you can shake a stick at. I actually gave it most of its TVTropes page back in the day. Two of my all-time favorite books – Agents of Light and Darkness and Just Another Judgment Day – come from the Nightside, as do three of my favorite scenes in all of literature. The earliest of those scenes, which takes place in Agents, I read while blasting Nightwish’s End of All Hope.

It’s a series practically Taylor-made (hyuck hyuck) for the Fate roleplaying system.

I’m a pretty obsessive game master. I’ve got core books and supplements for Eclipse Phase, Nights Black Agents and Delta Green, and a bevy of .pdfs collected over the years. I’m tentatively poking Shadowrun with a stick. I don’t branch out much.

What I’m saying is I took the Nightside and crammed it into the Dresden Files RPG. It’s based on Fate. Close enough, right?

Like chocolate and peanut butter.

In the process, I mostly shucked off the actual background fluff of the system, ditched a couple mechanics, and basically just kept its stats and character sheets. Because I’m a bad person.

The end result played pretty well though. I’ll probably re-tool it for actual Fate play, give or take whatever I can scrape from the supplements (I like having more stats than standard Fate seems to allow).

I basically took Agents of Light and Darkness and broke up John Taylor and Shotgun Suzie’s roles to include Tommy Oblivion, Dead Boy, and Julien Advent; all major characters introduced later on in the series. I would’ve included Razor Eddie and Ms. Fate, but that seemed like it was a bridge too far. Eddie is a walking Plot Device and I don’t know how well Ms. Fate would’ve gone over Down South (although I’m thinking of statting her up anyway just to use her if I ever run the game elsewhere). I also thought about including Chandra Singh, the Indian paladin from Just Another Judgment Day, but I couldn’t think of a good way to include him that didn’t horn in on Julien Advent’s territory.

The translations from named characters to anonymous high concepts and aspects were pretty easy.

  • John Taylor = The Occult Detective
  • Shotgun Suzie = Shotgun-Toting Bounty Hunter (could stand to re-title this one)
  • Tommy Oblivion = The Existential Detective
  • Dead Boy = Revenant with a Really Cool Car
  • Julien Advent = Superpowered Victorian Adventurer
  • Fate = Non-Binary Superhero (that or Transgender Batman; I’m still mulling it over)

I’m curious as to how the Superhero would’ve worked, but maybe if and when I run it again I’ll have more to say there.

The Occult Detective was a social dynamo and manipulator in the test run but ended up being an intimidating Sight-wielder with a family obsession in the actual con. The Bounty Hunter helped make the test run but nobody wanted it at the con. The Existential Detective was a wild card in both sessions, the Victorian Adventurer was always the first one to stand up to the angels, and the Revenant was defined by their car. More on all that later.


Rogue What

So the fiancée and I decided to go out and see Rogue One for our engagement anniversary. I’ll preface this whole review by saying: It had its flaws, but it was still worth the money. Go see it.

That said, I still had a pretty lukewarm reaction to it.

Probably minor spoilers ahead; I don’t think I give anything away about the plot, but consider yourself warned anyway.

I think the biggest flaw overall was the movie’s inability to commit to itself; it could’ve been either a good Star Wars movie or a good not-Star Wars movie, but it couldn’t do both. It felt like they were trying to go full grimdark, be super mature, and then chickened out halfway. It was like a dime-a-dozen dystopia. And it didn’t help that the soundtrack – while full of the classic Star Wars goodness – felt out of place with the movie itself. Another thing I noticed was the dissonance of the main character.

To be clear here, I fucking love a good female protagonist. I’ve gotten into many a long nerd fight over how awesome Rey is.

This remains one of my happiest moments as a geek and a movie goer.

Jyn Erso ain’t Rey.

Rey got down in the dirt, was established from the beginning as a scrapper, had a steady – and good – character arc throughout The Force Awakens. She was in tune with the environment around her, getting banged up and sweaty and just plain grimy like everyone else. Jyn Erso had none of that. The movie felt like it was trying to make her into an epic-level badass but she came up short on every single front. She radiated a kind of juvenile vulnerability any time the scene called for strength – and this was the big, continuous argh I had with her. Every single scene where she’s supposed to be awesome, she just plain isn’t. Anytime I’m supposed to care about her, I don’t.

She felt like a knockoff Katniss Everdeen; the dime-a-dozen protagonist of that dime-a-dozen young adult dystopia.

She isn’t the only one I had this problem with. It was just more obvious with her because she had more screen time. Cassian Andor was similarly dissonant on just about every font. He’s introduced in the manner of a grimmer, darker Han Solo, but he never follows through on any of the expectations established in his introduction. His big moment of doubt and introspection falls flat, becoming totally inconsequential five seconds after he has it for reasons I don’t want to spoil. Everything about him feels like the dime-a-dozen protagonist’s dime-a-dozen romantic interest in that aforementioned dime-a-dozen young adult dystopia. The only thing I really liked about the guy was the fact that he spoke a different accent from the Space British.

Other than that, there were just too many little nods to continuity. One or two would’ve been great. When it gets to the point where I want to make a drinking game out of it, you need to stop and reassess which of those nods is actually worth keeping. In that respect, the movie felt kind of like a reasonably well done piece of fan fiction; it filled in the gaps on a tiny part of canon, and was pretty creative about doing so, but ultimately it doesn’t mean much and you’re just fine without ever knowing it exists.

Now, with all that griping out of the way, there were things I really, really, really freaking loved.

The big one was Donnie Yen.

This tells you everything you need to know about Donnie Yen. He’s basically the next Jet Li, except he has more crossover appeal and he goes above and beyond traditional wushu in his choreography. His fight scenes, in general, are just a joy to watch. On top of all that, he’s also a pretty decent actor even when he’s not suplexing people on naked concrete.

He and Jiang Wen freaking carry any scene they’re in – not just for action sequences, but as actual characters. You can tell that they have lives outside of Jyn Erso’s story, you can tell that they’re bona fide people. I honestly want to see the Chinese version of this film just because they’ll probably get more screen time in it, hopefully with a full-on arc of their own. If Rogue One had been about Yen and Wen’s characters, Baze and Chirrut, it would’ve been ten times better right out the gate.

I can’t help but wonder if Yen’s creative control over Chirrut is the main reason he ended up being such a good, lively character compared to the main pair. It reminds me of Harrison Ford and Han Solo, except nicer than Ford telling Lucas he can’t write his way out of a paper bag.

I also really liked K-2SO. He had the best introduction out of anyone, and provided most of the movie’s actual humor, even if some of it got a little overboard at times. I can’t really say too much else about him since his best moments are all spoilers. The only time he really fell flat was when he had positive interactions with Jyn. And to be fair to K-2SO, that happened to everyone but Chirrut.

The CGI in general was top notch, but they might want to cool it with the makeovers and the resurrected actors. Tarkin was good until I saw his face. The other character given that treatment was straight-up uncanny valley after the first couple of seconds. I get that Disney is testing this technology for the long game (thereby making it possible to give us Robert Downey Junior as perfectly middle-aged Iron Man forty years from now), but the tech isn’t quite there yet and it takes more away than it adds.

So, yes.

Go see it but don’t expect a masterpiece. If somebody held my feet to the fire, I’d give it a solid 7.5 or 8 out of 10.


The Fault in our Strats

As I mentioned on a web board I’m pretty fond of, I’m starting to think the Trump’s Ego argument is faulty, along with any strategy aimed at exploiting it.

The basic idea is that Trump is so egotistical it’ll lead to missteps and errors that a savvy enough opponent could exploit. It’s predicated on the assumption that Trump himself is completely un-self-aware; that the man is so completely lost in his own narcissism that he probably can’t find his way to the bathroom each morning. Nearly every assumption I’ve seen written based on it has fallen flat, especially those that assume he’ll come into conflict with the Republican Party.

Or, to put this another way:

Donald Trump had to agree to this.

Stop and think about that. Pro-wrestling is fake, as any three-year-old or above will tell you. The character of Stone Cold Steve Austin is built from the ground up as a raging redneck anti-authoritarian. Trump has spent his entire career, and probably most of his life in general, building himself up to be an authority figure. You can stop here and say, “But he was paid to do this!” and you’d almost certainly be right, even if Trump is pretty friendly with the McMahon family et al (he did, after all, appoint Linda McMahon to head the Small Business Administration – one of his few genuinely good appointments, in my opinion).

Here’s the thing though: According to Austin himself, that whole thing was not planned in advance. According to a Men’s Journal interview from earlier this year, Vince McMahon asked Trump to go through with it at the very last second. Trump went over his own advisor and said yes. In other words, he volunteered for this. He volunteered to be humiliated in front of a screaming crowd of 80,000 people that ate it up.

That is not the action of a man so egomaniacal that you can count on it for strategic purposes, as Hillary Clinton did. There’s almost certainly something wrong with him, sure; it takes a special kind of crazy to run for president, let alone to go against a field of nearly thirty other candidates between both parties, to subvert longstanding conservative movement traditions and icons, to (probably) collaborate with a rival nation, and to pander to the most unpleasant elements of his base while selling a false bill of goods to the rest. That’s frickin’ insane no matter how you slice it.

But I don’t think I buy into the idea of Trump being the narcissistic blowhard he plays on TV and social media. Whatever he really is, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s someone cynical and smart enough to employ smokescreen tactics almost 24/7 – every single offensive comment on Twitter, for instance – while everyone else is dumb enough to think they can use him for their own ends.

As I’ve written before, kayfabe is a thing and Trump’s done a bang-up job of figuring out how to use it.

Hat tip to Robin D. Laws and Kenneth Hite for the realization that everyone is trying to use Trump for their own ends; I can’t recommend their election takes highly enough. Added kudos to Hite for being an American conservative who opposes Trump, and to both of them for having a good podcast in general.

Things You Can Get Away With When You’re Old

Disclaimer: This isn’t actual, full-bore academic writing. Yet. This is a transitional start-to-tone-it-down, shake-the-cobwebs-off post. I still ramble a fair bit.

Picture this: A murder surreal and a work of words blurring the lines between dueling narratives. It takes about 635 words – a man sits down to read a novel and opens himself up to assassination from an unknown malefactor operating in concert with an illicit lover. You, the reader, never realize what’s actually happening until the knife is about to go in.

In a nutshell, that’s what happens in Julio Cortázar’s Continuity of the Parks. Originally published in 1967 as part of an anthology called Blow Up and Other Stories, or La Casa Tomada y Otros Cuentros for those inclined to find it in Spanish. It reads like an early example of modern-day flash fiction. I had the pleasure of going over this one for my first class as a graduate student and, for all that it’s a short, easy read, it was a doozy. Let’s get right to the point.

Fancy Dagger
This is probably my last visual pun for the semester so I’m making it count.

There were three major interpretations I noticed in today’s discussion.

  • The events happened exactly as written, all in the real world (I was a part of this particular group).
  • It was a case of freaky metatextual murder and/or…
  • It was a case of freaky metatextual suicide (which, I think, ended up being the majority by a landslide).

I read Cortázar’s story as a straightforward murder, possibly even a suicide by romantic rival, driven by the killer’s passion for the unnamed female character. In this instance, Cortázar got to use something I’ve never been able to get away with, and which I generally discourage other writers from using as a consequence: He doesn’t break the action up.

As of this writing, the .pdf file includes a single paragraph break which may or may not be present in the original print; I did a bit of searching for both the English and Spanish versions and both of them provided versions with the break. In any event, it’s basically one or two big blocks of text. The end result is a seamless narrative that offers no chance to disengage, no ability to easily stop and reorient yourself when the scenery changes. You don’t get to step out of the action and form a new thought.

In a longer novel, I don’t think this would work. Even for a conventional ~1500-3000 word short story it’d probably be very iffy at best. Cortázar’s nascent flash fiction hits a sweet spot at 635 words, and the credibility he has as a published author from what’s now a bygone era means he can basically get away with anything he wants regardless.

This may sound petty, but if I or another unpublished writer tried this today, the trick would probably go right over the head of anyone likely to read it – I’ve actually had something like this happen before where I swapped certain characters and points of view around in a novel or short story and none of my readers caught it or liked it. Another of my writer friends has a treasured short story with a twist that she can’t reveal until the end, similar in scope and execution to Cortázar here, but virtually every reader she’s had outside of a single captive audience has disliked it.

Perhaps that’s a function of the wording that Cortázar uses, much of which is poetic in translation and intensely focused on sensuality and imagery, but I honestly don’t think so. I think it’s more a function of credibility. Older artwork, including the written word, has a sort of instant credibility to it. We’ll give it the benefit of the doubt even if we normally wouldn’t. Stepping outside of the literary box, this almost seems to be an inherent feature of our species – we defer to our elders on certain things, especially if it yields us any kind of advantage, real or imagined.

Sure, you might say, we go through our rebellious years. But at the end of the day we often fall back on rationales of tradition to justify everything from the quality of a work or philosophy to the continuation of a law. See Aristotle, who was flat-out wrong on so many things, yet he’s still held in astonishingly high regard as a bedrock of Western Philosophy – and rightfully so, if you’ve got any sense of history. See Adam Smith, whose Invisible Hand theory of economics gets discredited into oblivion every other generation only to sneak back in under a new name. A lot of the time, it helps that most people don’t actually read or listen to the so-called classics; they may have only a token exposure to them and generally have no opinion beyond It’s great and all but it’s really boring. This is probably not an accident. In many ways, academic veneration of old works reminds me of recent controversies involving modern-day fandoms – it’s sort of like a gatekeeping mechanism, an easy way of saying This is more cultured than That; I know more about This than You; therefore I am more cultured than You; listen to me.

Swap some words around and you’ve got Gamergate or white male nerds griping about the influx of female and minority characters in comics and games. Squint and shuffle the goal posts a bit and you’ve got the essence of many complaints about Black Lives Matter.

Miles Morales
Here’s your new Odysseus. Or Job. Pick one.

What I’m trying to say is that Cortázar, and all of the other previously published writers and musicians and artists; all the venerable creators of yesteryear are not inherently better or worse than you or I. They get away with things we can’t not because of any superlative qualities of their work, but because they did it before most of us were born. Their work endures because the manuscripts survived and they got lucky enough for someone in the right time and place to evangelize them.

Tens of millions of others didn’t get those opportunities. I’d wager that we’ve lost or overlooked unfathomable talents over the ages; men and women whose works would make Shakespeare and Beethoven, Aristotle and Smith look like a bunch of lousy amateurs. Now that we’ve arrived in an age of easy creativity, mass media, and mass consumption, I’d also wager that number’s going to skyrocket.

Hopefully at least a few of the talents who do get recognized will be able to get away with intentionally neglecting to insert a paragraph break every now and then, as Cortázar does. And when they do, hopefully they’ll be recognized for doing something clever and unconventional, as opposed to being griped at for deviating from the norm.