Haiku to Fight Mass Surveillance

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In accordance with the use of the words featured on the NSA Haiku Generator, which randomly generates haiku using words that are red-flagged by the NSA and mark you as a “potential terrorist,” I have written some proper haiku that accurately describe me and my use of many of these words:

Competitor nerd
Writes plots about warfare
Phishing for spy finks

I like TIE-fighters
So, peering and eavesdropping,
Illuminati spy

“Underground basement”
Are keywords that trigger
Military spying

Emergency preparedness is a sign of possible terror?

Now I wave at the government spooks of the Western world who have found their way to my site:

Wave and shit-eating grin

Really, I’m harmless.  I’m a writer who likes to tell stories that remind people that war is awful, and I’m a sci-fi nerd.  But that’s really none of your business, and I resent you violating my privacy, so that’s why I’m writing these haiku.

Today is an initiative to fight Mass Surveillance.  Join the fight!

February 11

How Wizards of the Coast Almost Killed Their Company . . . and How They’re Saving It

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The Search for More Money

I’ve been sitting on this thought for many months, and today I am finally inspired to put fingers to keyboard.

I am an old school gamer; I think those of you who have been following my blog for some time are aware of this.  I was ten when someone bought me the Big Red Box; I was sixteen when I started DMing for 2nd edition.  I fell in love with Spelljammer and I and first my boyfriend, then my husband, created a well-developed campaign world with a history that has become deep and complex over more than twenty years worth of gaming.  To this day, gaming is still my primary social activity – I do this instead of watching TV, spending money at the bar, or even playing most video games – and I love it.

There was all kind of resistance to 3rd edition when it came out, and I was no exception, especially since my favourite character at the time, one Spelljamming elf by the name of Shaundar Sunfall, did not convert at all easily or well from a 2nd edition fighter/mage/thief (my choice was lose all kinds of fighting ability or lose spells and SR, very annoying.)  But over time I grew to love it.  The d20 System (3.5, technically) is intelligently designed and a lot less clunky than the 2nd edition rules.  It is intelligent and easily customizable.  It lends itself to as little or as much roleplay as you want.  Eventually I became quite an enthusiastic supporter of 3rd edition, especially when the Open Game License came out and other people began producing intelligent and useful third-party publications, such as the Book of Erotic Fantasy (which, of course, had its own controversy, as for some reason the Wizards guys didn’t want to be associated with anything that might have sex in it I guess, but for us mature gamers who have been at this for a long time, it was invaluable.  Sooner or later, the heroes are going to want to have sex; it’s what grown-ups do.  But each to their own I guess.)  Some gamers never did convert and never will, and I can see their point, but I liked it ultimately.

Not so 4th edition.

As Wizards had absorbed what was then TSR, the original Dungeons & Dragons publisher, so Hasbro absorbed Wizards.  And motivated by economics (since sales traditionally are boosted when a new edition is released,) they produced a new edition.  Why not?  It had worked for Wizards.

I’ll tell you why not.  Because unlike Wizards, Hasbro’s direction lost complete touch with their primary demographic.

Some wit in the marketing department was looking at the trends around MMORPGs, I think.  The biggest video game on the market was World of Warcraft, and lots of people were starting to spend their time questing with the keyboard instead of fighting monsters by rolling dice.  Said wit presented an idea.  He (I mean this in general terms, could have just as easily been “she”) thought that since tabletop RPG fans were being lured by the MMORPG, he figured that if they made a system that was basically identical to the MMORPG systems out there, they would lure fans the other way as well.  He probably made a pretty Power Point presentation, showing graphs of market trends and consumer surveys.  He impressed his bosses, who are entirely businessmen at the top of the Hasbro pyramid and probably have no idea at all about what actually goes on aside from what their marketing consultants tell them.  It even sounds sensible when you present it as a theory.

Here’s the problem: why on earth would you play a tabletop system that imitates the limited, strictly combat-based system of MMORPGs, when you can play the same system on your PC or console and have the immediate gratification of flashing lights and the screams of dying bad guys?  When you can have prettier gear to fight bigger monsters to get prettier gear, and impress your friends with the size of your shoulders in real time?

I was appalled when 4th edition came out.  In my opinion, it makes it impossible to engage in the deep, story-telling style roleplay elements that are staples to my twenty-year running D&D game.  And I was not alone.  The problem is that most D&D fans – at least the ones who invest heavily in the product line – do not run simple one-off scenarios that are completed in a night.  They tell ongoing sagas about the history of great heroes who suffer many travails and dedicate their lives to righting wrongs.  Some are more complex than others, but that’s the essentials of it.  How can you a run a long-term magical infiltration campaign when polymorph, which used to be effective for hours, is now only usable for brief combat turns?  How can you describe the long, arduous process of your character painstakingly constructing a magical sword when you can only have a handful of skills?  Long term D&D fans were reduced to arguing “it’s not so bad” when people like me went off on a rant.

As if that weren’t bad enough, they stopped supporting the good roleplaying system that worked entirely.  (Thankfully, though, Pathfinder bought the rights and they’re a good company with a good game, worth checking out!)  And as if THAT weren’t bad enough, they totally screwed their most popular setting, the Forgotten Realms.  I mean, I recognize their thought-process.  FR had become very static, and was so full of powerful characters that it became impossible to do anything epic without either running afoul of or working with those characters.  But why transform it so completely that it is no longer recognizable?  The best developed culture and history of the Realms was that of the elves.  They screwed with that so utterly that they even changed the essential nature of what it is to be an elf, making them and their culture completely unrecognizable.  Also like every edition, once again they shortened elven lifespan, making their history entirely inconsistent.  Why not just make a whole new world and retire the Realms with dignity and grace?  (Ed Greenwood is why, I’m sure; and I would also like to say for the record, Ed – not fair killing off Mystra and all the Sisters and Khelben Blackstaff, and then not wasting Elminster as well.  It stretches whatever was left of the Realms’ credibility to the point of complete bullshit.  Sorry to tell you this.)

I, and many others like me, refused to have anything to do with “D&D for Dummies” or “D&D 4th Edition: the Search for More Money,” or “D&D of Warcraft.”  And Wizards saw this.  And they said, “Oh.  Oops.”

So what did they do?  They stopped producing more than a small, steady line of 4th edition products (just enough to keep the newbies interested.)  They asked, “Where did we go wrong?”

And they figured it out.  Someone realized that they had failed because they had not been listening to their primary demographic.  So you know what?  They did a very clever thing.  They crowdsourced.

They came up with an idea for a 5th edition.  They called it “D&D Next.”  They released it to their fans, who could sign up to playtest it (I’m a playtester.)  They talked to people at conventions and in forums.  They asked, “What do you want to see?”  If you watch some of the stuff Wizards has been producing on their YouTube channel over the past couple of years, I think you’ll see their answer.  Old school people want the stuff back that we joined the game for in the first place.  We want deeds of heroism that we direct and enact.  We want great quests.  We want roleplay around characters that we’ve come to give a damn about, not a series of min-maxed stats on a sheet of paper.  We can do that shit in WoW (and a lot of other great, newer MMORPGs too.)  We don’t really want to be bogged down in systems (good riddance to THAC0s!) but we want characters to be versatile and customizable.

D&D Next just released its last playtest module.  There’s elements of the system I don’t like, but mostly it seems like a good compromise between ease of play and storytelling.  I am a little more leery about their new series of Forgotten Realms novels, “The Sundering,” which is somehow going to explain what happens to undo some of the horrid damage to the setting’s nature caused by the Spellplague, through the eyes of some of the Realm’s most iconic characters, but the writers are tried and true so I’m willing to give them a go.  Though I suspect the Realms may have lost all their luster for me and I might be sticking with my home brewed world, Draconia.  And Spelljammer, of course.  Speaking of which, that same crowdsourcing mentality has produced a promise that Spelljammer would return eventually, which makes me happy.

So in summary: Wizards just about killed D&D by failing to listen to their customers.  They are saving it by asking them what it is that they want and listening to the answer.  And good on them!

Respect and Rape in the Gaming World

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Respect and Rape in the Gaming World

I think this essay is going to start by confusing people. But please read the whole thing before you start throwing tomatoes. I was inspired to write this after a whole series of stuff appeared in my news feed about rape, and monsters that perpetuate rape, being in cartoons and gaming products, and the enormous hullabaloo this caused.

I’m going to start by saying this: I think it’s perfectly fine to have rape happen in your tabletop RPG.

Yes I do.

Rape happens. It’s a horrible experience that evil people inflict upon good people. It’s an excellent way to illustrate alignment, because the kind of callousness that it takes to rape another human being is exactly what the D&D evil alignments are all about. In my game, which is played by adults for adults, the bad guys kidnap the kids, torture the spouses of the heroes, raise villages, and so forth all the time. Those are acts of horror and violence, and rape has happened for those same reasons.

I think, however, some conditions need to be met. The first is that only adult players should be participating. This is not a kid’s story. Let’s save some of our children’s innocence somewhere if we can.

The second is that everybody has to be okay with this being part of the game. The possibility of it coming up should never be a surprise. My games, that I play with my husband and an adult group, are rated R. We fade to black in the more graphic violence or sex scenes, but we let people know they might come up and we make sure we have permission and nobody is uncomfortable, and the minute anyone is too uncomfortable to continue, that’s the end of it, period.

The third is that it is never funny! Rape is not funny, guys. Rape is an act of torture and violence. The experiences of POWs is not funny, the experience of concentration camp survivors is not funny, and the experience of rape survivors is not funny. If you can laugh at rape, you can laugh at the torture of children. You are a bad person and you lack human empathy.

This is where Penny Arcade went wrong with their Dickwolves. Though honestly, I would have let the first joke pass.  They weren’t making fun of rape per se.  They were making fun of the stupidity of quest lines in video games in which you only rescue a handful of the people who are suffering and leave the rest of them to die.  Yeah, that is kind of bizarre when you think of it that way.  It’s their response when somebody complained that is the problem, as was explained in the article I reblogged.  That’s exactly right.  Okay, so you didn’t see why rape survivors would have taken that joke so personally.  So what?  Apologize and move on.  Don’t use it as some bizarre anti-censorship rally.  It’s not censorship.  People thought you were being assholes, and your response proved it.  I bet it generated all kinds of views for your lame cartoon that you’d never had before, either.   You’re a bunch of jerks.  And if people don’t want to carry your products, I think that’s awesome.  I believe in voting with your dollars.

The fourth is that rape should never be part of any official game product.  Ever.  The reason why is that it prevents people from being able to “opt out” if that’s something they don’t want to get into.  The makers of a game in the spirit of the D&D Al’Qadim setting, which they call “Promised Sands,” had a monster called an Uzmek, a type of ogre, which was all about rape.  The makers have pulled this monster and have also decided not to make it available as internet content, even though there was a significant group of fans who wanted them to do so.  Kudos, guys.  I hope your Kickstarter campaign is successful.

It can be a grey area.  For instance, the latest Tomb Raider game has received a great deal of criticism because in the plotline, which is the prequel to the other games, Lara Croft is forced to kill a man who’s trying to rape her, and this is the first time she has killed a person.  I think this is fine, even thought-provoking.  For one thing, he appears to be unsuccessful.  The second is that obviously, we as a culture believe that shooting a person for trying to rape you is perfectly okay on a moral level.  That’s a good thing.  And you know you’re going to shoot people in this game, and you know it’s going to be bloody.

If we don’t talk about rape at all, the world will never know what a horrible thing it is.  One of the beautiful things about RPGs is they let you imagine “what if” scenarios and practice making different decisions.  I like stories about survivors who overcome incredible odds and terrible experiences to become genuinely heroic people.  To me, the Tomb Raider plotline gives Lara Croft depth and dignity.  But it’s just not funny, and it should never be forced on anyone in an RPG.  I think D&D’s “Book of Vile Darkness” has the right idea.  You can read the implications of rape, torture and sexual abuse between the lines of their exceptionally nasty villains, but they never get into the gory details.  And that means you can opt out if you want to.

My two cents.

Welcome, Brother and Sister Geeks!

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Real Geeks Only! Welcome to my new blog! I’m Sable Aradia, and I’m a metaphysical store proprietress, writer, singer/songwriter, composer, artist, and professional Witch. I’m a sci-fi, fantasy, historical adventure and war novel fan from early childhood. I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons® since it was originally just called that, and went on to do all the stereotypical geeky activities of playing Vampire: the Masquerade® LARP, joining the Society for Creative Anachronism, and playing World of Warcrack (World of Warcraft®). At one time I was one of the major contributors to Fantaseum, which was the largest Dungeons & Dragons Core Rules® website, and at one time I was the Assistant Editor for What’s Brewin’ e-magazine. My first published book in print format, “The Witch’s Eight Paths of Power,” will be published by Weiser/Red Wheel books and hitting shelves in Fall of 2013. I rarely have time for the SCA these days, but I still go to all kinds of Pagan festivals where I sell wares from my shop and teach workshops on Wicca and magick, and I still play our long-running, free-form D&D® game almost every day, though I have switched over to SWTOR® instead of WoW®. I also write D&D® fan-fiction for the Spelljammer® setting, I’m playtesting D&D Next® and I am a connoisseur of epic music.

I already have a blog on Witchcraft and Paganism and a YouTube channel (which features a lot of this type of stuff,) but I realized that not everything I want to say falls under that heading. I created this blog so that I could talk about things in the World of Geekdom. What you will see here: rants and reviews of RPGs, MMORPGs, Star Wars®, science fiction and fantasy books and media, superhero flicks and comics, links to epic music mixes and book trailers I have made or that I like, historical articles, re-enactment groups and cosplay, issues of concern to geeks such as leftest politics, green living, disabilities and social anxiety, and general geekdom. There are two areas of geekery in which I am deficient. One is in anime; I’m sorry, I just can’t get into the genre because I just can’t overlook the sexism and bad writing/acting, though some of the Old School stuff I’m familiar with. The other is first person shooters and related video games, because I’m kinda uncoordinated and I don’t play them.

I don’t promise how frequently I’ll post, but check it out, and feel free to send me stuff to share as well that you think the World of Geekdom might want to know! I’m willing to post even about fields I’m not skilled in if it’s passed on and I make it clear the opinion is not my own. Thanks!

Throm-Ka!

Sable, the Geek Queen