Monday, November 20, 2017

Here We Remain

The Walking Dead, Volume 9: Here We Remain
At this point in the Walking Dead's run the comic is firmly revolving around the same set of themes, with only minor variations to add to the title's profluence. This volume, taking place after the catastrophic fall of the prison stronghold, finds Rick and Carl dealing with the trauma of losing Lori and Judith. Rick begins to have telephone conversations with the representative of a mysterious group of survivors, but it is eventually revealed that these phone calls are coming from Rick's deceased wife--which means, of course, that the phone calls are symptomatic of Rick's mental breakdown. There is a spectrality to these phone calls; Lori's voice is a present non-presence reminding Rick of how his failures in the past shape the failures yet to come.

Humans are pack animals, and it isn't long before Rick and Carl are reunited with what remains of their group: Glenn, Maggie, Dale, Andrea, Ben, Billy, Sophia, and Michonne. This reunion serves to underline the tension between the need for group survival and the individual's need to deal with trauma. Rick's use of the telephone to continue dredging up the past--as well as Michonne's conversations with her dead boyfriend--are contrasted against Sophia's obliteration of the past. Sophia has simply erased the memory of her birth mother from her personal experience, refusing to believe that such a person ever existed. Neither way of grappling with trauma--keeping the past in too close proximity versus denying the existence of the past--is functional or healing.

The real problem with unresolved trauma is that it weakens the group's chances of survival and threatens the bonds that allow groups to flourish. It's trauma that has yet to be dealt with that gets in the way of the group's growth with the introduction of Abraham, Rosita, and Eugene. Fatality looms in the background during the mistrustful confrontation between Andrea and Abraham, and it applies the whip hand in the power-struggle relationship between Abraham and Rick. 

Though hardly a panacea, what bridges the gaps left by trauma is a sense of purpose. In this case, Eugene's insistence that he knows the cause of the zombie plague and can help stop it if they can get him to Washington D.C. is enough to pull the band together and get them on their feet. Movement, then, is the best medicine, a fact hinted at by the title of the volume. To remain mired in trauma is the suicidal option.

It's obvious o the reader that Eugene does not have any special knowledge of the cause of the zombie epidemic and that the trip to D.C. is a fool's errand. The fact that the comic does so little to present this journey as a sound idea isn't a narrative problem; I think we're supposed to see how hollow a gesture it is, but also recognize that the gesture is important and necessary for the characters within the narrative arc. They're willing to believe in it because they require belief to make survival an option worth effort and exertion. That's what a thin hope looks like, isn't it? People grasp at straws not out of a self-defeating impulse, but rather because it's a viable survival mechanism.

Previous Installments
Days Gone Bye
Miles Behind Us
Safety Behind Bars
The Heart's Desire
The Best Defense
This Sorrowful Life
The Calm Before
Made to Suffer

Friday, November 17, 2017

They Were Nearly Killed by a Percy Shelley Poem

Image by Odobenus
Campaign: Scarabae (open table, Google Hangouts).

Characters: Traviata (human artificer), Crumb (kenku artificer), Khajj (minotaur cleric), Dr. Aleister (human fighter), Viktor (dragonborn sorcerer).

Objective: Enter the jungles of Hygea and rescue Yuriko from the Children of Fimbul cult.

Events: The party arrived at the city of Zarubad via steamship, in hot pursuit of the Fimbul cultists who had abducted Yuriko in the last adventure. Before setting off into the jungle, the party bought provisions, including a barrel of water, additional rations, insect repellent, fishing tackle, and a canoe. 

They also learned as much as they could about the jungle: it is rife with disease and insects, undead servants of a fallen paladin prowl within it, there is a fabled "lost city" somewhere therein that is a likely location for the Children of Fimbul's ritual involving Yuriko. 

Finally, they hired a woman named Salome to be their guide; Salome told them that the other guides were either incompetent or charlatans, and that they she knew paths through the jungle unknown to anyone else.

The group departed Zarubad, choosing to canoe down the westernmost river to navigate their way more quickly through the jungle in hopes of finding the basin where the lost city was said to be located. The first noteworthy site they encountered was a camp at the foot of a massive statue of a man carrying a crocodile on his back. The camp was in ruins; there was evidence of both a fire and claw marks on the shredded tents.

The statue had an entrance built between its feet that was a passageway that led to a stone door within the statue. The group managed to guile their way past a pit trap and a scything blade trap, but when the stone door was pulled open it cause a magical explosion to erupt. The party all managed to flatten themselves against the wall and avoid the explosion...except for Salome, who was thrown through the air and nearly killed.

There were piles of large bones inside the revealed chamber that seemed to belong to giant lizards, as well as a carved central pillar with a set of stone stairs wrapping around it. Fearing that the bones would animate, Viktor conducted a magical detection ritual; the bones were not magical, but several of the stairs were enchanted with abjuration spells. Those stairs were avoided, and the safer stairs were traversed. 

At the top of the pillar was an enchanted earthenware jug. When Viktor removed the jug, pieces of the statue began to rain down upon the party; the statute was crumbling with the adventurers within it! A mad scramble to escape ensued, and it was a particularly fraught exit as several members of the party were knocked unconscious by the falling debris. Khajj's healing magic and everybody still ambulatory dragging their knocked-out compatriots to safety managed to avoid fatalities by a hair's breadth. As the unconscious party members were revived by Traviata's healing draughts, Khajj's holy magic, and Aleister's medical training, the statue was reduced to nothing but a pair of feet upon a rocky dais. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

The party made camp and explored the rest of the surrounding carnage. Crumb was lowered into a horrible latrine because the corpse of a mercenary was discovered down in the pit; he retrieved a bag of gemstones from the body. A hatchling axe beak was found in the camp's animal pens; it was made friendly with some fish and kind treatment--now the party has a (dangerous) pet named Halberd.

After resting and recuperating in the remains of the camp, the party once again began traveling by canoe. The "river" they were on emptied out into a swampy basin rumored to be the home of lobsterfolk. (In truth, Salome had made a wrong turn down a tributary of the river instead of the main branch.) Beyond the basin was a plateau with a sheer cliff-face that rose above the jungle canopy. Using his magical slippers, Viktor was able to walk up the cliff with ease. He discovered rotten doors set into the cliff with a ledge running along it like a porch. Viktor attempted to use magic to open the doors, but they crumbled...and aroused someone from their slumber within.

A wizened, hunchbacked, and blind-looking old woman emerged asking who was at her door. Viktor introduced himself and the old woman wondered if this was the Viktor who used to deliver the bread. The old woman couldn't remember her own name and preferred to be called "Nanny." The rest of the party had arrived by this point, and Nanny was ranting about the "god-damn birdmen" in a nest on the cliff that were bothering her (she said this within earshot of Crumb, a kenku) and may have dropped some not-so-nice comments about "beasts" in front of Khajj (a minotaur). But she's blind and couldn't possibly be racist on purpose, right?

Well. 

Nanny also talked about her days as a young hellion practicing "dark magic," and when the group asked for any help she could provide finding the missing child she began to lick her lips hungrily. She offered to give the party a map to the where Yuriko was being kept if they agreed to bring her back some of the child to eat. The party agreed, Nanny went back into her cliff-side home to scry, and Traviata hatched a plan to poison her after she handed over the map.

Nanny eagerly drank the vial that Traviata claimed was wine and was duly poisoned...but the poison didn't kill her. It soon became apparent that Nanny could see just fine, as she attacked the party. It also turned out that her wizened old hide was as tough as iron; even Aleister had trouble piercing her flesh with his singing spear. Khajj leaned that she was incredibly strong; she easily broke the minotaur's attempt to catch her in a bear hug. Nanny put up a tough fight, but ultimately it was Salome, the guide the party had largely discounted, who executed a perfect spinning slash that sent Nanny's head tumbling down the cliff. "And that's how the sausage gets made," she said, feeling that she had proved her worth to these naive city-folk. 

The party decided to make camp and heal up from the hideous wounds inflicted by the hag. Next time they may ransack her home and get on with the map Nanny had drawn for them.

Treasure: One 10 gp eye agate each. Alchemy jug.

XP: 1033 each.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Borne


Jeff VanderMeer, Borne
Borne is a post-apocalyptic novel about a scavenger named Rachel who finds a strange pod nestled in the fur of the giant, flying, mutant bear named Mord who terrorizes the ruined city in which she lives. The pod is Borne, an organism that grows wildly, changes mercurially, adapts precisely, and forms an emotional bond with Rachel amid a backdrop of the ominous biotech-meddling Company, the rogue Magician and her roving bands of horrifically altered children, and her hiding-something lover Wick. 

Borne ambiguously straddles the lines dividing apocalypse fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy. The novel never fully explains itself or resolves all the questions posed by its world building, which is ultimately one of the novel's greatest strengths. Critics have tended to name the fantastical ambivalence of the book as a tendency toward "fairy tale," but I see as essentially absurdist in quality instead; to my mind the admixture of elements that could be taken as silly (a massive flying bear!) with elements either richly emotional (Rachel's role in nurturing Borne) or grotty (the hardscrabble existence in a world riven by a man-made ecological catastrophe) feels more Max Ernst than Hans Christian Andersen.

I've yet to read a novel by VanderMeer that wasn't strongly constructed, imaginative, lyrical, and inventive, and Borne is no different. Nevertheless, despite how good the novel is, I'm confused by the critical lauding the book has gotten--not because it doesn't deserve it (it does) but rather because the reviews often evidence a real ignorance of how many great "weird fiction" books are out there. Take, for example, this starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "What’s even more remarkable is the reservoirs of feeling that VanderMeer is able to tap into throughout Rachel and Wick’s postapocalyptic journey into the Company’s warped ruins, resulting in something more than just weird fiction: weird literature." 

Is Borne the first of its kind to ascend to the vaulted plane of "literature"? No. It's funny, the claim made by the Publisher's Weekly reviewer is meant as a compliment, but it does a disservice to VanderMeer's work in toto. He's been opening the door to the "literary weird" for quite a while. If Borne was your entry point, and you like what VanderMeer does in the novel, consider checking out Annihilation or a book in his Ambergris series. Alternately, you might want to look at a couple anthologies he's edited with Ann VanderMeer, such as The Weird or The New Weird, either of which may open your eyes as to the variety, depth, and quality "the weird" has always possessed.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Pretty Deadly

Kate and Jack explore one of the creator-owned titles from the current Golden Age of Comics, the action-packed yet poignant Weird Western Pretty Deadly. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, artist Emma Rios, and colorist Jordie Bellaire create an immersive new mythology around the American frontier that features characters who are under-seen in traditional Western stories. Readers who like their operatic action served up with an emotional wallop, take note!
What is the Venn Diagram overlap between comics fans and midnight cinema maniacs? Can American creators take some lessons from manga? Who are the worst comic shop owners in the world? These questions and more will be answered in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People!
Intro/outro music: "Desert Ceremony" by Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats
Find us at BadBooksBadPeople.com, on Twitter @badbooksbadppl, Instagram @badbooksbadpeople and on Facebook. You can discover where to get all the books featured on Bad Books for Bad People on our reading list.

Listen here!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Great Expectations

Ah, Dickens. 

Look, I know that high school trains you to dislike Dickens because you're busy being a hormonal teenager who is totally cynical about this Old Man's sentiments, but come back to Dickens as an adult. 

It doesn't have to be Great Expectations, though that is a great place to start. If you're really cynical about Dickens, start with Our Mutual Friend instead.

Once you've truly lived, you'll recognize what Dickens wants to tell us about the beauty of forgiveness, what he needs us to know about the real duties one person owes another, and what he'd like us to take away on the possibility of having a finer nature in the face of a difficult world. This isn't schmaltz; it's real because one day you will feel it to be real, and will know it to be real. If you don't feel the sharp sting of disappointment when Pip grasps onto the wrong ideal, the wondrous melancholy of Pip's unfolding relationships, or laugh out loud at the absurd world Pip learns to navigate, you need to read the book again until you do, or, perhaps, live a little bit more.

Monday, November 6, 2017

How to Finish Your Projects

It turns out that over the years I've done a lot of indie and small press projects. I've had people ask me how I manage to get these things finished; what follows is my best advice for cleaning your plate when you've got a creative project in mind. I make no promises that it will work for you, but this is what works for me:

You Have to Want to Do the Work
You have a great idea for a game, setting, adventure, or supplement. It is a shining, perfect idea. But it will remain an idea unless you actually want to do the work to make it an actual thing that exists in the world.

I know a guy who has been talking about the great movie he's going to make for over a decade, and he hasn't filmed a second of it. He's never going to make that movie. He likes talking about his plot, the themes, and how great the casting will be. But he doesn't want to do the work, so that movie is never getting made.

Don't be that guy. 

Before you start talking about your great idea, before you start making plans about where you're going to publish it and how you're going to market it, do a little reflection and make sure you actually want to do the work necessary to keep at it until it is done.

Survey the Field
Okay, you want to do the work, congratulations! But before you roll up your sleeves and grind it out, I think you should really dig into what other people have done that might be similar to your project. Surveying the field will help you find models of how to approach your project, and also give you ideas about how you can make your project stand out from the pack.

When you're surveying the field, do yourself a favor and look at products outside your comfort zone. If you're an old-school D&D fan, look at what's happening in the "storygames" community too, and vice versa. Look at everything. See what is out there and learn from it. If you have an informed idea of what format will work best, what design decisions will need to made, and what you want to include or exclude going into your project, you'll have already cleared one of your project's major hurdles.

Bite Off What You Can Chew
Break your project into small, bite-sized chunks that you easily accomplish. No, even smaller than you're thinking right now. Give yourself assignments like "I'm going to write up three NPCs a day" or "I will finish one random table a day." One "one NPC" a day is fine, really.

Make each task small enough that you can complete it and will have time and energy left over to do more than what you scheduled for. The feeling of going past your allotted goal will make you feel like a champion and feeling like a champion will keep you motivated to keep working because you will see yourself making progress.

Small, incremental goals are also easier to "make up" if you miss a day's goal. 

Make Your Lonely Fun a Little Less Lonely
Have your smart and talented friends give you feedback on your work while it is in process. Resist the urge to only show them a "polished draft"; let them see the warty, horrible thing that you are semi-embarrassed by. The feedback and suggestions they give you in the earlier stages is crucial; they will tell you useful things that help you right the ship before it's already on a collision course.