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.

Incidentally

So I’m still alive.

I also quit my job of four years.

I also moved across three states.

I also got my first political thing published.

I’m also in grad school now.

I’m also querying a bucketload of agents, magazines, and even the occasional podcast or two.

I’m also trying to make sure I get at least one thing published every single month.

It’s a busy, fun, hectic, nightmarish, great, fantastic, awful, wonderful time to be alive. For all that’s going on right now, I haven’t been his productive or optimistic in years.

This blog will continue to be the dumping ground of my brain, but I’ll also be using it for School Things from time to time. The grad school-related posts will be less off-the-cuff, more formal and actually intended for intellectual discourse. They’ll even be formatted to meet academic standards. Feel free to read them even if that’s not your usual thing!

The non-grad school-related posts will remain an oddball mixture of talking shop, thinking about politics, poking at history, and rambling incoherently across a wide range of subjects. Sometimes you might even see all of these things in one post.

Like the next one.

I’ll hit the big fancy Publish button on it tomorrow.

okay
This is basically my response to everything right now.

Pondering Political Strategy

Fun fact for you: According to a study commissioned by the Palm Center back in 2014, there are (or were) somewhere around 15,000 transgendered people serving in the American military; another 134,000-ish veterans are also believed to be transgendered. According to that study, the overwhelming majority tend to be male-to-female. Even if you throw that out, it’s worth noting that at least one member of the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden is transgendered, as is one of the highest-ranking civilians dealing with energy issues for the military.

Courtesy of HB2, none of these people can use the right bathroom if they go to North Carolina.

Why Cat
This is the only picture here. Enjoy it.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? I don’t really have to go into detail on all the economic and social repercussions that North Carolina is facing right now; there’s a deluge of stories covering everything from Bruce Springsteen to PayPal and more. But what I can offer you is a possible long-view on why HB2 and bills like it keep getting pushed by state legislatures.

Put bluntly: The transgender bathroom issue is a smokescreen intended to move the Overton Window so that when one part of the bill is inevitably struck down, other parts will remain unchallenged, most likely because nobody will focus on anything but the transgendered bathroom issue.

Bear in mind that HB2 does not just target transgendered people – they’re simply the most vulnerable, visible population that it affects. The bill also goes so far as to effectively negate local laws on minimum wage. It also overturns existing local laws concerning discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, or race and prevents cities from making or extending new ones. The Charlotte Observer has a nice rundown if you’re interested.

This isn’t the first time that this sort of thing has happened. It’s just that prior instances of it were mainly aimed at gun laws instead of things like minimum wage or discrimination. Something similar arguably happened with Indiana’s infamous Religious Freedom Restoration Act (additional reading here)– it effectively obliterated local laws in favor of state-wide ones, setting a certain precedent that could one day trickle down elsewhere, if it hasn’t already, all while providing a neat social smokescreen in the process. Other examples of this could be seen with the Arkansas RFRA and the Mississippi RFRA.

Proposed bathroom bills in South Carolina and Tennessee are almost refreshingly narrow by comparison – they actually limit their targets to transgendered people, and don’t appear to have a ton of leeway to be used for other purposes. That’s probably one of the main reasons why both states’ governors are pushing back against them. It’s probably also why South Dakota’s governor vetoed a bathroom bill outright. There’s nothing new about being mean-spirited in politics, especially if you have an easy hot-button target that can’t fight back, but if it doesn’t serve an actual strategic point then why bother? Sure, you might shore up some support among the dwindling older segments of your base, but young conservatives are leaning more moderate, if not outright liberal on social issues. They’re already less likely to identify as Republicans than their parents, presumably out of embarrassment for things like this. Wanna make that dissociation worse with nothing to show for it?

I’m of the opinion that the Wage and Hour Act – the part of HB2 that authorizes all of this – is intended to serve as a test bed for future legislative pushes in other states. If anything, HB2 is more honest in its actual intent than the RFRAs and its equivalents in other states – it actually includes the real long-term goal right there in the bill’s text, sandwiched between assorted slabs of nonsense aimed at hurting transgendered people. It’s not that different from how certain investment firms will propose absolutely ludicrous stuff to distract from attempts at splitting a company’s land ownership from their actual business, thereby forcing them to pay rent to themselves and increasing the firm’s profits in the process.

In horribly simple, probably not very accurate story terms, it’s a form of flaw exploitation. You know your opponents will focus on this one thing. Why the hell wouldn’t you try to make use of that to do something else?

And to be fair, it is within a state’s rights as a governing entity to overturn local laws for pretty much any reason. However, it’s worth noting that while most state legislatures right now are dominated by conservatives, a fair number of cities have been getting more and more liberal lately, oftentimes leading the way on certain social issues (see the many pushes for $15-an-hour minimum wage laws, especially in places like New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC; success there pretty much guarantees a measure of success elsewhere).

Now let’s look at this and say I’m a conservative political strategist and I can’t make headway in these major cities for whatever reason. I’m in this for the long haul so my next best bet is to stymie my urban rivals via state legislatures. Since a lot of my base voters don’t actually care about, or even stand to benefit from, minimum wage increases, I’ll wrap my actual goals up in something else, like pro-gun laws or religious freedom.

Odds are pretty good I’ll chant states’ rights and yell really loud about federal encroachment while I do it.

Batman vs. Superman Review

It took me about a week but I finally got around to seeing Batman vs. Superman.

I gotta say it was alright. Perhaps even terminally Alright. I wouldn’t call it a critical meh, but it wasn’t without its flaws. To paraphrase a review I gave it on Facebook: Go see it if you’re a DC fan. If you’re more into Marvel, specifically Marvel’s cinematic universe (with or without the Sony/Fox stuff), skip it.

There’ll be some spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned. I’m also a pretty gentle reviewer on comic book movies, so consider yourself warned there as well.

Spoiler
Just pausing to say this was a better Batgirl than Barbara Gordon. Fight me.

Ben Affleck was downright good as Bruce Wayne/Batman, thereby finally earning my forgiveness for the dumpster fire that was his Daredevil movie. He was actually one of the best parts of the movie and did a really good job carrying it overall, even with the bits that weren’t so good. They did something positively revolutionary this day and age by not blowing half the damn film on his freaking backstory, which allowed him to do so much more than he otherwise would have. The on-the-ground depiction of Bruce trying to keep up with Superman v. Zod from the first film was some of the best storytelling I’ve seen in a super hero flick; all that helpless anger was perfectly conveyed. The fact that he was willing to straight-up obliterate people was oddly refreshing, and drew a nice contrast to Superman’s freakout over killing Zod in the first movie.

Gal Gadot, though her screen time was sadly limited and her role was a little tacked on at times, radiated Wonder Woman when she was finally given the chance to throw down near movie’s end. She was okay before that, but when she started hacking bits off the Final Bad, getting chucked through buildings and grinning at the thrill of battle, I actually believed it. She fit. She was Diana, exiled Princess of the Amazons. I’d gladly support her starring in a Wonder Woman movie and hope she gets one.

BvS probably had one of the best Alfreds in the character’s history. He really sold the guy as Bruce Wayne’s grumpy surrogate father, up to and including the harping on Bruce’s life choices. I was pleasantly surprised by Lex Luthor – in no small part because he arguably wasn’t Lex Luthor. Alexander Luthor is a completely different character from the Lex that most people know and feel emotions about, and he really played the Magnificent Bastard aspects of his character to the hilt. Mega points for straight-up deducing Superman’s identity and hitting Clark right in the Kents. He slipped some towards the end, being reduced to a frothy, crazy, Hollywood atheist shadow of his earlier greatness, but I didn’t hold that against him. Luthor always has flimsy motivations when you peel enough layers off. It’s a core aspect of who he is.

Lois Lane was forgettable. I poke at government enough to have found her arc completely unbelievable, and not in an enthralling way. The continuity nods were nice though, and the actress tried to do her best with what she was given, but she was there to serve as an Achilles’ Heel and emotional enabler, not much else. Martha Kent getting dragged in was the real shocker, and one that I as a very jaded viewer did not see coming at all. Kudos to them for going after Superman’s mom and, at least briefly, seeming like they were going to kill her; that almost got me as much as the neckbreak from Man of Steel.

Henry Cavill, sadly, was the weakest member of the cast. He had a bad case of Hayden Christensen Syndrome: The guy is pretty much perfect for the role – he has the look, the presence, the body language, and the silent acting skills to give a stellar performance under the right circumstances – but the dialogue they gave him felt bad and Cavill himself felt like he knew it and had given up on trying to do better with it. At times, this made sense (re: Superman threatening Batman in their first meeting – of course it’d be lame, the guy’s a freaking boy scout trying to intimidate a back alley crank who burns his logo into people’s skin). Most of the time, not so much. He shined the most when he was allowed to be vulnerable, with the sole, glaring exception of when he went 1993 on Doomsday’s ass with the spear. They didn’t do a good enough job building up to that.

They didn’t do a good enough job building up to a lot of things. And I expected as much. I just didn’t expect how.

I said early on – about the same time I heard they were bringing in Luthor and Wonder Woman – that DC and Warner Brothers were trying to do too much with this film. And they were. It would have worked as either a Superman film (exploring his personality, weaknesses, failures, etc) or as a Batman film (which it mostly was; exploring an angry, desperate mortal trying to bring down a living god) or as both, but not with the add-ons. Luthor and Doomsday are headlining acts. You can’t just stick them on the sidelines until you need Clark and Bruce to be buddy-buddy. Wonder Woman felt somewhat tacked on at times, but might or might not have fit in a different movie; jury’s out on that. Trying to cram all that and then throw in build-up to the Justice League (Flash’s time travel, the meta human videos, etc) was just too much.

DC is trying to replicate Marvel’s success without putting in the footwork, and without generating movies that can absolutely stand on their own even without a huge blob of continuity behind them. That might work in the very long run – they’re doing arc-welding a helluva lot more tightly than Marvel did, for better or worse – but it’s going to make for weaker individual films that might threaten the whole project.

In a lot of ways, this almost mirrors the difference between Marvel and DC in comics. DC’s issues are often individually weaker, but if you read them all in grand arcs, they blow Marvel out the water. They’re written for the trade paperback, not the monthly. Marvel does it differently. Their individual issues are often better in one way or another, but their grand arcs have a sad habit of falling flat far more often than DC’s do. There are, of course, exceptions on both sides.

The other big flaw was that they just made up in an instant and Bruce’s after-combat guilt wasn’t really explored at all. I get why, but they didn’t really spend any time on it. It felt rushed, and not in a good oh-shit-we-all-might-die-if-we-don’t-team-up way.

Aside from that, yeah. Plot holes, real or imagined, ran a little rampant (like what the heck happened to Batman’s cyber-suit, for starters), but I’m willing to forgive them. As continuity-heavy as DC is compared to Marvel, some of them will probably come back to be explained in future movies.

And the very ending, with the coffin, was just way off, dude. If you wanna put that much effort into a downer finale, you don’t blow it in the final second of the film like that. You save it, you build up dramatic tension in a sequel, and you have Luthor play god by reviving god to kill something worse.

Either way, I’m looking forward to the next one. Hopefully they’ll do better with it, hopefully they won’t go Super Jesus again, and hopefully they’ll give Batfleck and Gadot Woman movies of their own in the meantime.

ShushCon Post-Mortem #2: Neutral Grounds

The big thing I took away from my second running of Neutral Grounds was this: Don’t run a game with more than five players.

Sub-Zero eyes

But let’s rewind first.

Neutral Grounds is a one-shot scenario that’s one part murder mystery, two parts kidnapped best friend/community pillar, three parts Oh God What Do We Do Now. Having run it twice, it generally focuses on a non-player character called Diane Bassett – a kitchen witch operating a magical hipster coffee house in Baltimore called Neutral Grounds. She gets kidnapped and two of her baristas get murdered. You’ve got up to seven player characters to remedy the situation: a heavy metal werewolf (Sean), a retired psychic detective (Martin), a lawbreaking mage (Maria), a newbie wizard (Zack), a fake psychic (Astra), a short changeling (Dania), and a despair-eating vampire-in-progress (Nate).

A few things stayed similar in both sessions. Sean had the hots for Diane – the first time around, he was flat-out stalking her. Martin and Sean were curmudgeonly buddies – the first session had Sean’s day job as a bounty hunter and they worked together in the past, while the second had Martin being a complete nihilist who regarded the thuggish Sean as no different from any cop.

What was drastically different was just about everything else. There are two suggested villains for the scenario, Eric McCulloch (Diane’s ex) and Damocles Ravenborn (vampiric Matrix fanboy). Eric was the villain in the first one and the players really made an objective bastard out of him. He broke the minds of about two-dozen people and went stark raving mad from over-exposure to the supernatural. In the second, he was nothing more than a picture perfect background detail – one of the players outright described him as being the nicest, blandest, most eerily perfect guy ever. Damocles ended up being the villain the second time around – he got a throwaway mention for the first session, but he ended up being a creepy Sean-stalking weirdo for the second. Eric relied on minions but Damocles was a one-man wrecking crew that took most of the characters to put down.

And he was put down. But we’ll get to that later.

Sub-Zero He Can Wait
He’ll wait.

Also different: Maria. In the first session she was a refugee-turned-police cadet, straight-laced and by-the-book with a side of Oh God I’m Paranoid. In the second, she was That Girl – unfocused, borderline disruptive, but funny as hell so we all just rolled with it. By the end of it, Martin had deliberately blown out one of her eardrums and fried off an eyebrow with a close proximity gunshot just to get her out of the way.

The other four characters were only played in the second session. Astra didn’t get enough play because I had so many people to juggle, but when she did it was great – she awakened latent magical powers and became the group’s healbot. Nate took himself out of play for most of the final battle, only to run in, steal Damocles’ sword, and literally hop, skip, and run away. Zack was good, but definitely got drowned out by Maria, and his player wasn’t clear on how effective his powers could be in an apartment complex (my bad, not the player’s). He still set up Nate’s crowning moment of funny, and served as the resident Sane Man for much of the scenario.

Dania didn’t get to do much, but when she did it was glorious.

Sub-Zero Aw Yeah
“WHOOP-TEE!”

Her player was the one behind Chris Stein in Faerie’s Bargain. She basically spent most of both sessions sidelined and supporting others, until the crew was going up against Damocles on the tenth floor of a sketchy rust belt apartment building. Martin was emptying his gun into Damocles to little effect. Sean had taken him head-on without much success. Zack briefly whacked him and tried to get the sword to no avail. Damocles was in full giant man-bat form, slowly trundling towards Martin and a wounded Maria, when Dania finally said Screw It and made the Choice.

In the Dresden Files, changelings like Chris and Dania usually have one human parent and one faerie parent. Sooner or later they have to choose which side they embrace – do they become pure mortals or do they become pure faeries?

Dania became a pure faerie, shedding her humanity like so much dead weight. She strolled out into the hallway and took off running at Damocles. Martin was stunned to inaction by the sheer glory of her. Damocles went to smack her down like he did Sean and Zack. Dania got in close and went right for his stomach.

Her player rolled a critical success.

She wound up getting shoulder-deep in his guts and grabbed his spine. Guess what happened next.

Sub-Zero Friendship
It was totally this.

Dania took her new trophy, ripped a hole in reality and disappeared through it. She shut the door behind her and everybody pretty much crapped a brick. Astra healed folks of their wounds. Cut to Nate, strolling down a sidewalk twirling his newfound katana. There are cop cars headed for the apartment. Everyone hears the sirens. End game.

All in all, Neutral Grounds was fun. I used the stats provided straight out of the book for everyone; it worked pretty well for the most part but I definitely had to coach people through adding things to their character sheets. I also had trouble working Astra into things, which was unusual for me. Astra has a lot of Fate points and that usually translates into being the most dangerous character, but she kinda just fell flat until she got healing powers. The Random Number God wasn’t helping much though, so the jury’s out on how much more I could’ve done to engage her.

My biggest takeaway was that I had a much easier time running it when it was just three players. It probably would’ve been perfect with five, which is only one more than what I’m used to. Seven was just way too much. I’m also used to having relatively compliant players who don’t actively try to get themselves killed – Maria’s wasn’t bad but it was my first time handling anyone that off the wall in how they did things. I also feel like I could have done more to keep Dania and Nate’s players engaged, but I’m not sure how.

It’s also probably worth noting that I was tired by the time Neutral Grounds rolled around. I had already run Faerie’s Bargain just an hour or two beforehand. An Iron GM I ain’t.

Yet.

Sub-Zero Better Luck Next Time
Sub-Zero probably unrelated.

ShushCon Post-Mortem: Faerie’s Bargain

So I journeyed back to South Carolina this weekend and volunteered at a library convention. Sleep-deprived and running on a diet of sugar and well-hidden misanthropy, I ran two games for the Dresden Files Roleplaying Game: Faerie’s Bargain and Neutral Grounds.

For those not in the know: The Dresden Files is an urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher. First-person detective story moving, ultimately, to high-stakes action/adventure. The main series stands at fifteen book as of this blog post and while I’m not sure I like where I think it’s headed in the long run, it’s still absolutely worth a read. Also I probably owe my current romantic entanglement to it. No joke.

mikablackfield_teamdresden2015_by_mika_blackfield-d9ivlnv
Credit to Mika Blackfield, whose artwork is gorgeous.

Love it or leave it, the world of the Dresden Files is big and interesting and inviting. You’ll want to go romp around in it. And courtesy of Evil Hat Games, you can. The Dresden Files RPG uses a version of their Fate system, which can be broken down like so: You get four six-sided die, each with two faces that have pluses (Yay!), minuses (No!), and blanks (Meh.). You make rolls based on a skill and then add or subtract your roll from your skill to determine how well (or how poorly) you did. It can be run as anything from Fiasco with a gamemaster to Dungeons and Dragons or D20 Modern with some extra bells and whistles (Aspects and Fate points). Aspects are phrases that summarize some key part of your character and can be invoked or compelled in-game. Fate points have a variety of different uses.

I often make players roll D20s for everything from the chance of mind-blasting soul-to-soul contact to random events just sort of happening for fun. I try not to be stingy with dishing out the Fate points. I also run it closer to DnD or D20 Modern, give or take a couple of other house rules (like all pluses, minuses, or blanks being critical successes, failures, or mehs).

critical meh
It is indeed possible to have a Critical Meh.

I’m still a bit of a newbie as a GM, so I figure it’s worth it to do a post-mortem on my sessions. It’ll help me learn, sure, but it might help some other schmoe do better too. This post will cover Faerie’s Bargain. The next will cover Neutral Grounds.

I modified Faerie’s Bargain from the Paranet Papers, the third volume/first supplement of the game. It’s basically a big ol’ grab bag of settings, side characters, and story hooks, with Faerie’s Bargain being pitched as a way to tie together a bunch of otherwise unconnected one-shots. The basic gist of it is that your players are on the run from a real asshole of a pixie – one of them made a bargain with him, then reneged on it, and now he’s calling up his boys and prepping the boxcutters.

you messed with the wrong pixie bro
Like ya do.

For my practice scenario, I went with the three core characters as the book has them: Robert Aiello, the Tree-Hugging Seer; Emily Harris, his reformed-ish eco terrorist of a girlfriend; and Ian Harris, Emily’s ex-marine brother who has PTSD and hates Robert. I tried running it straight from the book with no real prep whatsoever aside from printing character sheets.

I would not recommend doing that.

It ended up being a fun game, but my players struggled for direction and we hit Point Bunny Man – that part of a game where I’m desperate enough for something to throw at them that I’ll whip out everybody’s favorite axe-wielding urban legend and do my best Bozo the Clown on Crack voice just to freak people out. The players started off by abruptly teleporting from Georgia to Oregon, idled around a really creepy mining town in the shadow of Mount Hood, neatly dodged what few plot hooks I threw at them, then made a clean-ish getaway. I teleported them again to a bar in Parts Unknown, where they promptly had to deal with a crazy meth-dealing rage-possessed biker she-bitch who was chucking dudes through walls, windows, and anything else she felt like destroying with a human body.

Ian downed her with a headshot. The bartender, previously neutral with a side of totally apathetic, finally flipped out and yelled about it being the fourth time this month; the players headed for the hills and that’s when they ran into the bunny man and some other urban legends. Session ended with the Bunny Man getting run over by a station wagon. Which backed up and hit him again to confirm it.

bunnyman massacre
Can’t be too thorough when disposing of an urban legend. Or a B-movie monster.

Knowing what I learned from the test session, I jiggered the smack out of everything for the actual convention session. I re-tooled the core player characters, downplaying their relationships in favor of fleshing them out apart from one another. Among other things: Robert and Emily’s relationship disappeared from the aspect list, Ian’s PTSD became the more generic Scars of War, all their respective tensions were removed and they were instead bound together with the Aspect, Part of the Windsnap Pact. I also adapted three characters from Evil Hat’s Night Fears scenario: Andy Drabyk, the potential jock now aged up to a potential football superstar; Chris Stein, the half-fae changeling now aged up a theatrical prankster with difficulty holding on to his humanity; and Melissa Ng (a composite of Mike Ng and Jaimie Collins) as the relatively well-adjusted bookwork who chats up dead people.

I also took the time to rig together an actual intro and setup, mapping it out to three possible plotlines. If the players went to town, they’d deal with a crazy cult and/or the demon of the mines. If they skipped town, they’d have the ‘option’ of choosing between running out of gas and crashing in the guest house of a weird but amicable couple under siege from faerie spiders. If they tried to run from both, they’d suffer a breakdown on a haunted bridge and have to deal with the spiders in another dimension, followed by a last second throwdown with The Killer in the Back Seat.

This time the game worked like a charm.

I had five players, including two newbies and several people who knew absolutely zilch about the setting or the system. I gave them questionnaires to fill out so that they could get into the heads of their characters. Amusingly, nobody picked Andy.

Football Player Sitting on Bench
Sorry Andy.

I opened up with the same Georgia->Oregon intro, this time with more emphasis on the lost time and the lack of gas. The players initially skipped the Pauleys (re: house under siege) and went straight for the fictional Town of Aberforth, population 1,500. Located in the shadow of Mount Hood, Aberfoth was founded in the 1950s or so by a mining magnate named Thomas Aberforth, who cut a deal with the bound-demon Bright Eyes in order to get a perpetual supply of gold in exchange for human sacrifices. His son, Daniel, opted to continue the family legacy. Bright Eyes himself was sealed beneath the town in ages past by a native tribe completely wiped out by settlers and disease in the 1800s; he’s constantly struggling to get free and every sacrifice makes him that little bit stronger, brings him just a hair closer to making it happen.

The players stopped for gas and had a variety of establishing moments. Robert got trash-talked and sexually harassed by a creepy bush and then told to faff off by a tree. Melissa got a friendly ambush-warning from the ghost of a miner, which apparently did a good job of actually unnerving the players as a group. Ian chilled and filled up the van. Chris and Emily kept distracting each other with assorted shinies and such. The ground started shaking and, eventually, the players fled for their lives rather than face whatever was coming.

This time, they actually did stop at the Pauleys, getting some much-needed information on everything in the process. The Pauleys were a married couple who had moved out to Oregon and built their house in the middle of futt-bucking nowhere at the behest of Archangel Gabriel. Random groups of people – adventurers – routinely popped up in and around their home for reasons unknown, starting with a carful Japanese salarymen way back when they first built the house. They have the safest house anywhere near the whole West Coast (counting North, Central, and South America), and apparently get sweet stock advice and occasional souvenirs out of the whole exchange. Bright Eyes is a perpetual threat that a few of their visitors have tried to deal with, none successfully.

With some cajoling from every plant in earshot, along with a road splitting open and briefly vomiting up a wave of spider silk, the players decide to bump off Daniel and void the family contract with Bright Eyes. They head back into town, enter a Very Creepy Church, and proceed to be player characters. Really.

player characters
This should be the image that phrase conjures up.

Emily starts searching for secret passages, Chris finds his inner calling as a demagogue, and Robert helps him to incite a literal pitchfork-wielding mob. Ian just scares people the entire time. Melissa chills out and chats up dead miners in the church, who eventually reveal that the church is intended as a bona fide lunch box for Bright Eyes – there’s nothing holy about it at all (which Robert and Melissa noticed when they crossed its threshold). Chris turns the mob loose on the Aberforth residence just as Emily opens a hidden stairwell. The mob leaves the church, Chris stays behind, Ian decides to go down, and circumstances basically force the rest of the party to follow. Chris hides them beneath an invisibility spell.

They arrive in a secret chamber with a massive demonic statue bound up in an ancient circle of power. There’s camping equipment all over; sleeping bag, changes of clothes, and so on. Emily leaves the veil to go check for things worth looting. She finds the original contract carved into Thomas Aberforth’s back flesh and can’t even bring herself to take it back to the group. Daniel, by the way, chucks a ghostly fireball at her from one of the tunnels. She dodges it and becomes the bait.

Daniel runs up.

Ian’s player finally gets to do what they’re best at.

It was a natural critical success. With Ian’s skill in Guns, it jumped up to a legendary success.

Ian basically one-shots Daniel right out the gate. He never knows what hit him. He gets shot through a spell, a hand, and his head, drops on the spot, and promptly has his soul more or less obliterated by a combo attack from Melissa and Robert. Emily sidles up to the body afterward and checks the wallet to confirm the kill. The contract is broken.

Chris, wanting a shiny souvenir, wanders into the circle of power and plucks a gem out of the statue’s compound eyes.

Hello, Chris, I tell her, Would you like to make a contract?

Game ends with a round of cringing laughter and applause and a far-too-late HELL NO from Chris’ player.

PlayersHandbook
I giggled a little.

All in all, Faerie’s Bargain was fun to GM. I was amused at how differently Robert was played in both games. In the first one, he was a Starbucks-loving, Trade Joe’s-frequenting hipster vegan who kept having to make virtual will saves against bacon; his player kept rolling the ol’ D20 to see if they could find properly hipster items and places wherever they went. In the second, he was a good-natured schlub who got trash talked by plants and had a serious addiction to Skittles (it was so bad his freaking pact with a faerie may have been about Skittles). Emily played much better in the second game – her original write-up borderlines on shrinking violet and the first player had some trouble getting her into the fray until she ran over the Bunny Man. The second time around, she was still a non-combat character but she was more active and her player had a much easier time contributing. Ian was effectively the same, up to and including one-shotting the Big Bad in both sessions.

And I really, really enjoyed messing with my players.

a horrible demon