Saturday, July 19, 2014

Latest Podcast: Super-Villainy. (Is that even a word?)

This week I was a guest on Mike Lafferty's BAMF podcast, along with Chris McGlothlin (just nominated for his 8th Ennie, this time for work on the Emerald City sourcebook for Mutants & Masterminds), Walt Robillard (author of the SUPERS RPG and Zenith Comics), Chuck Rice (distinguished game designer and author of Too Many Things To Mention) and Ade Smith, whose accent needs no introduction.

Our topic was super-villains: good ones, bad ones, how they differ between companies, and so on. I talked a lot about by current writing project, the Super Villain Handbook, and Chuck's new zombie apocalypse RPG got me into a conversation about The Walking Dead.

As always, I learned a lot, and it was a real pleasure to be invited.

You can listen to us here.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

We Need To Talk About The Ape Movies


Last night I went to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with a group of perfect strangers, and I had a good time. The film is technically awesome and well-performed. There are sincerely touching and affecting moments. But as I sat surrounded by a boisterous crowd who hooted and howled every time an explosion sent chimpanzees flying through the air, I knew that there was a conversation we would all need to have, and it's not going to be pleasant.

The original Planet of the Apes came out in 1968, the same year MLK was shot. Its sequels spooled out over the years that followed, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act. The new Planet of the Apes movies have been made in the years of our first black President. People, this is not a coincidence. The Planet of the Apes movies are about race.

Most of you know this already, but we have chosen not to talk about it because talking about race makes Americans very uncomfortable. And sometimes very smart people will pretend something is not true because they don't want to talk about it. So if you're one of the people insisting that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is just a summer blockbuster action flick about monkeys who ride horses, and can't we just pass the popcorn and enjoy it -- why do I have to ruin it! -- my only answer is that this movie is art, good art poses questions, and I'm just trying to answer the questions this movie has asked me.

One of the oldest insults leveled against blacks -- whether in America or elsewhere -- is to compare them to monkeys. And the makers of these pictures are not shy about their metaphor either. There is precisely one gorilla in 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes; his name is Buck. Now, they could have named that gorilla anything. Kong, Magilla, or maybe Bob. But they named him Buck, which is a derogatory term for a young black man.

These movies are not just "about race," they are absolutely grounded in our current conversation about race and President Obama. One of the most remarkable things about the criticism of Obama which comes from the right is that it seems to hold two drastically opposing viewpoints: on the one hand, President Obama is a fascist dictator with a cunning plan to overthrow America. But on the other hand, he is an impotent idiot, unable to accomplish anything. These contradictory stances are held at the same time. I hate to soil Ken Hite's wonderful gaming term "biassociation" with political usage (SEE NOTE 3), but it seems appropriate here. Rise of the Planet of the Apes solves the problem of this conflicting interpretation of the President by splitting him off into two people, a tactic that was old when Spenser used it four centuries ago in the Faerie Queene. In Rise, the fascist dictator black man is represented by Caesar -- who is not just named after a dictator, but who straight-up explains fascism to Maurice the orangutan using the fascia, the symbol of Rome, a bundle of sticks tied together in order to go unbroken. And the impotent idiot-in-chief black man is represented by the well-groomed and handsome David Oyelowo, who prods James Franco's character into unethical research that ends up wiping out everything that walks on two legs but which isn't black.

But Rise of the Planet of the Apes was three years ago; let's get back to the present. Dawn depicts a war, a war between apes and man. And, once we acknowledge that these are movies about race, that means that what we are watching is a movie about race war. There are some ugly truths about America that this film is pandering to. There are millions of Americans who see that the white majority in this country is shrinking, who see a black President and a rising Latino population, and they are afraid. They say things like, "This isn't my country anymore," or "This isn't the America I used to know." And what these sentences mean -- and this can be very difficult to admit -- is that "This country isn't as white as it used to be." These people are afraid, afraid of change and a racial uprising, an America in which their position of privilege is gone. They may even be afraid of a role reversal, in which white Americans are the minority, oppressed and discriminated against by the angry young bucks who want revenge.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes all these horrifying, irrational, and ugly fears and puts them on the biggest screens in America. Those chimpanzees in war paint? That's a metaphor for African primitivism and all the trappings of African culture which black Americans maintain. (Yes, Annalee, it's African. It was just too uncomfortable for you to go there in public.) When a chimpanzee tricks a couple of white rednecks by pretending to be a stupid monkey, he's performing a minstrel show. When an ape is shown carrying a white woman over his shoulder, her calves pumping as she kicks, that is a miscegenation rape image. When the human beings in this movie, traumatized by the "Simian Flu," experience a primal revulsion whenever they see an ape, that is the trained reaction of the bigot himself, who sees a black man and recoils in unspoken loathing. When apes put human beings in cages, that's white folks being made into slaves. When an ape is walking on the American flag, that's the blacks, "taking over the goddamn country."

Caesar is, of course, at the heart of this, but the debate is now over whether or not he is, himself, a racist. His vengeance-crazed right hand man Koba(ma) (SEE NOTE 1 BELOW) accuses him of loving humans more than apes, pointing out Caesar's mixed-race heritage as a chimp raised by a white dude. But it is Caesar himself who answers the question of his own racism at the end of the film when he admits that, yes, he thought all apes were better than all humans. Yes, the black super-smart dictator thinks his own kind are better than All Of You.

Okay, so, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes the fear of race war which millions of American hide deep inside them, and puts it on the big screen. But what does it say about this war? Yes, it's about race, but what does it say about race?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes says racial war is inevitable and destructive. (SEE NOTE 2) It says that there are basically three kinds of people: violent bigots who will stop at nothing, naive idealists who are doomed to be overwhelmed by events, and the sheeple, who go where they are told to go and do what they are told to do, largely out of fear. The idealists are sympathetic and kind, even brilliant, but intelligence is not what gets shit done in these movies. It's the violent bigots who get shit done in these movies, and the rest of us are just going to be drug under. It's a very depressing message. This is not a film which outright encourages the racial war it has chosen to depict in eye-popping digital glory -- it never claims that race war is a Good Thing -- but it is a film which over-indulges in racist imagery. It is race porn; something you watch so that the silent screaming of your threatened id can be released, and your fears about the collapsing nation can all be confirmed.


I appear to have suddenly gotten a lot of traffic, almost entirely from people who disagree with me (which is cool) and who think I am a "raving nutter" (which is not cool). These comments have been Anonymous and are difficult to reply to on my blog, but I'll use this column to do what I can.

1) One Anonymous writer took issue with my "Koba(ma)" reference. I did not expand on this idea because I was not sure what to make of it. This poster thought it was ridiculous, and also noted that Koba was a nickname for Stalin. I did not know that! That is very useful, and I thank you for the tip. This anonymous poster also argued that Koba acted a lot like Stalin in the film, but I see Koba as a pretty one-dimensional hate-filled bad guy.

2) Other writers have noted -- and they are absolutely right -- that the portrayal of the apes in this movie is sympathetic. Yes, it is. So is the portrayal of most of the human beings. Yes, we are "rooting for the apes", but we are also rooting for the humans. We're rooting for the smart, kind, sympathetic people regardless of race in this movie. And those people -- Man or Ape -- all lose. An anonymous poster said, "The apes win." No, they do not. No one wins. Because Caesar's goal, and the goal of the apes, is to avoid war. But they are forced into it by radicals on both sides. This is one of the complicated aspects of this film, and that's why I call this film depressing.

3) Ken Hite helpfully corrected me, that "bisociation" (which I apparently spelled wrong) originally comes from Arthur Koestler, and perhaps "doublethink" would be more workable in this case. Thanks, Ken.

I've had to enable comment screening to filter out anonymous and hateful posts, but I want to thank the people who wrote constructively. You have made my argument better and I am grateful for that.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Return of D&D

As friend of the blog Tommy Brownell pointed out last week, you can tell that a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons is dropping because the nerd-rage and the Edition Wars have hit a fever pitch.

I've played every version of D&D, and I've always had fun. I was introduced to AD&D in junior high before the DMG had even been published. I brought my copy of Unearthed Arcana to college with me, more out of sentimental reasons than anything else, because by then I'd discovered Champions and GURPS. When the Player's Handbook for 3.0 came out, I remember driving through the Wisconsin snow to be at the game store when it opened. And when 4e arrived, even though I'd sworn off D&D, I ended up DMing a wonderful group of players all the way to level 24 over two years. It was the game everyone wanted to play.

This has always been D&D's great power. Sure, fantasy has been done to death, and there are foundational design elements that are not to everyone's taste (classes, hit points, alignment), but when a gamer is looking for a group, the easiest way to find one is to play D&D. Love it, hate it, or shrug your shoulders in a resounding "meh", it is the lingua franca of RPGs.

I picked up the Starter Set last week, I've already DM'd about a third of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, I've got a full group waiting to play through the whole thing starting this weekend, so I thought I'd give my initial thoughts on the latest iteration of the World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game.

The Tactical Board Game Is Gone

While optional rules for miniatures and tactical movement are included, gone are flanking, combat advantage, measuring everything in squares, spell area templates, and most of the rules for monster size and reach. Personally, I think this was a financially-driven decision based on the fact that Hasbro and Wizards has gotten out of the miniatures business, licensing it out to Wizkids. But even if that's true, the results are largely positive. Yes, we are losing the fun that comes from moving your cool mini around on the board, and the tactical players out there are going to have a lot less fun. (An old grognard asked me if I wanted to borrow his minis on launch day. "I've got four hundred of them!" "Thanks, but we don't need them," I replied. And I genuinely felt sorry for him. I felt like I'd kicked his dog.) But 3rd and 4th edition D&D was chained to the map in a way that dominated play. Encounters became set pieces that commanded too much time, dominating the session. We counted how many encounters you could work through in a session, considering four to be a strong showing. Roleplay had to fight for oxygen with the battlemat. No longer.

Now, this is going to be a tough thing for players to get past; after all, D&D has required minis and a grid for fifteen years. War gamers are used to flexing their muscles on the map, and minis just look cool. On launch day, the table next to me dutifully drew out every encounter and pushed minis around, carefully ensuring flanking on every goblin... For absolutely no mechanical benefit. It took them three times as long to play through the adventure as it took my group, and that wasn't because they were engaging in sustained roleplay. Old habits just die hard.

Simple Rules But Less Homogenization

The new edition is just simpler to learn and play. There are fewer "fiddly bits." Remember in 3rd edition when players would cast a bunch of buff spells on themselves before combat? Yeah, gone. Because most of those modifiers have been rolled into simple "advantage" or "disadvantage" which you either have or you don't. We don't have to add up modifiers any more. And because most buff spells require the caster to concentrate on them (which does not impede actions but which does prevent other concentration spells), you'll seldom need to bother with more than one such buff at a time. Attack bonuses and AC do rise as you level, but at a fraction of the speed. That means less math, monster which remain useful over a broader level range, and faster play.

If any of you DM'd epic level play, you know exactly what I'm talking about: level 20+ monsters with hundreds of hit points each, each managing a dozen powers at once, players using calculators to figure out the damage of their own attacks... The game was a slow-moving train wreck. All of that's gone now. Small numbers and far fewer modifiers means more fun.

And yet, at the same time, a lot of the homogeneity which was imposed on the rules in 3rd and 4th edition is gone. Spells no longer have the same three ranges and durations (a 3.0 innovation). Advancing in level doesn't grant the same power selection to every class (a famous 4e development). The rules are simple, but not at the expense of customization and uniqueness.

The Magic Item Economy Is Gone

3rd edition introduced the idea that buying a magic item was like buying a car. They were expensive but ubiquitous, and if you were willing to shop around long enough in a big enough city, you could be pretty sure of finding exactly what you wanted. At the same time, the idea of "magic item slots" on the body was reinforced. Before, there might have been a limit to the number of items you could use, but now you were expected to use as many items as possible. You could wear two rings, for example, one on each hand, and anyone who wasn't wearing two rings was underperforming. There was an expectation that, as characters leveled, they would gradually fill in every magic item slot they had, and then upgrade them. 4e reinforced all this. In both editions, player characters walked around with a "net gold piece value" attached to them, a sticker price for all their magic items, and this was a factor -- indeed, second only to character level -- in balancing encounters and adventures.

All that is gone. You can still buy potions and scrolls and so on, but all the important magic items are not for sale. The magic item slots keyed to the human body -- boot slot, arms slot, and so on -- all gone. Instead, magic items either need to be attuned or they don't need to be. If they don't, you can carry as many as you want, but if they do, you can only have three. Magic items have become rarer, impossible to buy, and although you are no longer expected to be a walking Bazaar of the Bizarre, magic items have also become more character defining.

What Edition Does This "Feel Like"?

If you were involved in the D&D playtest for this edition, you know Wizards was obsessed with player surveys and the question of comparing the new rules to previous editions. Players are doing this too, insisting that the new edition "feels like 3rd edition" with the implication that 4e was a giant boondoggle and Wizards has recanted, or that the new rules "still have all of 4e's problems," implying that the game still sucks so why bother playing it? Both of these analyses are incorrect.

By removing the tactical game and the magic item economy, the new D&D is fundamentally different than either 3rd or 4th edition. Encounters play out like they did pre-3.0 and characters are no longer the sum total of the crap they're carrying. The numbers have been flattened out to a degree not seen since 2nd edition, though it's not as flat as 1st. (We're not going to see Asmodeus back at 66 hp any time soon.) What you're seeing here is the influence of people like Friend of the Blog Kirin Robinson and many, many other people who are part of the Old School movement. The new D&D is a simpler game, but it's also incorporating flexibility and roleplaying. This is the first ruleset of D&D to include a mechanical benefit for good roleplay (the "inspiration" mechanic). That alone makes it feel different than previous versions of the game.

I'm easy to please when it comes to D&D. As I've said many times before, if I can swing my +1 flaming sword at an Owlbear and roll a 20, I'm playing D&D. The specifics have never really gotten in my way. But this is a good ruleset. I can do a lot with it. And it's simplicity makes it attractive to new players. It's not going to win over the haters, who -- let's face it -- gotta hate. But if you sit down and play the thing, you're going to see its eminently workable and in many ways a deep improvement on the game we've been playing for fifteen years.

I am going to miss Minions though.