Spoileriffic first thoughts on The Last Jedi



In the same way that “This will begin to set things right” was the synecdoche line for The Force Awakens, “This is not going to go the way you think” encapsulates The Last Jedi almost too perfectly.

I’m writing this on Saturday morning, after first having seen the movie at a Friday afternoon matinee. So I’ve not had a lot of time to process it. And this is a movie that requires some processing. This will be a bit scattershot, but hopefully fun to look back on later.

Organization (playing with page jumps here, bear with while I sort them out, or just scroll down):

Admiral Holdo

Big stuff/random thoughts

The movie is not afraid to break new ground, both in terms of universe-building, and in subverting our expectations of what a Star Wars movie can be. That almost doesn’t need saying – every review I’ve seen, both pro and con, has mentioned that fact. Some people love it, others not so much. There was a lot of trepidation beforehand that TLJ was going to rehash ESB in the same way that TFA recalled ANH. And TLJ does echo ESB in some subtle and I think clever ways. But maybe it hews most closely to ESB in defying expectations based on what had come before.

I love it that Rey’s parents turn out to be nobodies (and I really hope future films don’t retcon that). I love it that Snoke dies one movie early, compared to expectations set up by the OT. I thought Admiral Holdo was going to survive to carry the torch so Leia (and more importantly, Carrie Fisher) could gracefully quit the stage. Nope. And of course, Rian Johnson and crew couldn’t have known that Carrie Fisher wouldn’t be around for Episode IX. But I think that’s okay – Poe was given enough of an arc in this movie that it won’t seem forced if he assumes military command of what’s left of the Resistance next time out.

The unexpected narrative directions play very well with the OT-like (and very un-prequel-like) “wrong place at the wrong time” nature of the protagonists. Both Rey and Finn are explicitly told that they come from nowhere in this movie. They’re not Important People with Grand Destinies, they’re nobodies to whom circumstances present a choice: become heroes and maybe die, or run away and hide and maybe live. After 7 movies of increasingly baked-in Skywalker destiny, that is beyond refreshing.

By the midpoint of the movie, it is clear that our expectations about what is going to happen are going on the trash heap. But simply because it is a middle movie with ESB-like bits, I was expecting a betrayal at some point. And given how the Canto Bight subplot established that arms dealers were supplying both the Resistance and the First Order, I was really worried that Admiral Holdo was leading the Resistance to their doom. And I was very happy to be wrong about that.

I am a little irked about the fact that Holdo wrecked Snoke’s flagship by hyper-jumping into it. I mean, it was flat-out awesome on-screen, with some of the most kickass visuals and sound effects ever, but it’s one of those things that kind of breaks the universe a bit. In the same way that Picard and crew should have just beamed a shitload of warheads onto the Borg cube in “The Best of Both Worlds”, since they could beam back and forth with impunity, now that we know that you can destroy capital ships in Star Wars by hypering into them, it’s not clear why the Rebels/Resistance don’t have robotic ships doing this all the time. The RPG neatly dodged that question by having hyperdrives fitted with mass detectors that would throw the ship out of lightspeed if such a jump was intended – that was even a plot point in one of the old EU books.


Star Wars movies and time

This could easily be a post of its own, but I’ll condense it so I can cram it in here and then springboard off it. The OT movies are not only a time abyss, and seem like things that could only have happened “a long time ago” – both of the past, and in the past, you might say – they also are strangely timeless in their telling. What I mean by that is that there are few to no on-screen clues about how long the events of each movie take. Except for eliding the night between the double sunset and Luke setting out to find the droids, ANH could almost be playing in real time. Or, depending on how long hyperspace travel takes, it might have been days, or even possibly weeks (but for Vader’s “This will be a day long remembered”, one of those few internal clues). Ditto for ESB. Turning to ROTJ, we know that at least one night passes while the Rebels are on Endor, but it possibly was only one night. So each of the OT movies could plausibly be taking place in as little as 2-3 days, or maybe, at the outside, as much as 2-3 weeks, assuming that almost all of the off-screen time is taken up with hyperjumps, Jedi training, and sneaking around in the woods.

I noticed this a long time ago (heh), and I think it’s one of the great strengths of the OT, because it contributes to their mythic feel. What matters in those movies is relative time – events and their causes and consequences – but not absolute time. Which puts them in a very different category of cinematic experience than a ticking time bomb thriller or spy movie scenario. The Star Wars movies aren’t technothrillers with a little magic sprinkled on top, they’re fairy tales with cool machines as set dressing.

TLJ breaks that tradition more than any previous Star Wars movie, with an explicit counting-down-the-hours time pressure. On one hand, I think that might have been a mistake. The time pressure could have been just as real and urgent if it had been presented without units. “The fleet doesn’t have much fuel left”, rather than “The fleet has 18 hours of fuel left”. That would have hewed more closely to the fairly tale aesthetic than the technothriller one. And it pretty unavoidably compresses Rey’s training on Ach-To to a very short window, a few days at most. But then, how much time do we think Luke had on Dagobah? Conceivably it was just as little.


Rey is not a Mary Sue

I think this is a lazy, stupid criticism, I always have, and I still do. After TFA, people asked, “Why was she such a great pilot right out of the gate?” Well, let’s look at the facts:

  1. She’s shown riding a speeder as part of her daily routine. So the basics of piloting are right there.
  2. One of the first things out of her mouth once the Millennium Falcon gets into space is, “I’ve flown before, but never off-planet.” Implying that she’s flown ships before, just not into space.
  3. The movie makes it pretty freaking obvious that she is not a great pilot right out of the gate, with easily the bumpiest lift-off ever committed to film. She and Finn survive what comes next, but clearly out of desperation, a little dumb luck, the resilience of the Falcon (which gets hit by the TIE fighters several times), and maybe a pinch of Force.

And of course there is the point that Luke is shown to be a kickass X-Wing pilot on his first time out, despite having only flown airspeeders before, and that only by verbal report (“my T-16 back home”). Rey gets more on-screen pilot-background-establishment than Luke did. So if people aren’t equally up in arms about Luke in ANH, I’m calling shenanigans – specifically, an ugly double standard.

The criticism that Rey can do Force stuff so quickly and easily in TFA is even stupider. Every thing that she does, she’s seen Kylo Ren do before. She’s not a miracle, she’s a quick study – which is exactly why Kylo and Snoke are so interested in her!

Now with this movie, people are asking why she’s such a good fighter. Uh duuuh – she’s been fighting with a stick for years, and a lot of that previous fight training ports over to using a lightsaber. I mean, we should be able to figure this out on our own, given that we see her fighting very effectively with a staff in TFA, but the movie goes ahead and makes it explicit in her solo practice session. This isn’t her first time using telekinesis or telepathy or calming her mind and letting the Force guide her actions – all of those things happened on screen in TFA.

So in sum, can we please let this dumb, lazy, sexist idea die?


Echoes of Empire

I’m sure I’ll think of many more as time goes on, but here’s my growing tally of ways that TLJ recalls ESB:

  1. Rebels/Resistance pilots fight a delaying action at the beginning of the movie, in a woefully undergunned and outclassed David-vs-Goliath scenario, to buy time for everyone else to escape their doomed base.
  2. Speeders vs walkers on a white planet, in another woefully outclassed, David-vs-Goliath, buying-time-to-escape scenario.
  3. Luke left Yoda, who wanted to train him, to go try and save his friends, putting his feelings ahead of what is best for the galaxy (Yoda says this to his face). Rey leaves Luke, who doesn’t really want to train her, to go try and save her enemy, putting what’s best for the galaxy ahead of her personal feelings. Also recalls Luke going to try and turn Vader in ROTJ. Anyway, it’s interesting and rather satisfying that in ESB Luke leaves because he’s less mature than Yoda, but in TLJ Rey leaves because she’s more mature, or at least more morally driven, than Luke – not just ESB-Luke, but also TLJ-Luke, at least until he comes around.
  4. I see a lot of people complaining about the Finn/Rose/codebreaker subplot as a red herring that goes nowhere. Um, it’s also pretty much exactly what Luke does in ESB – go off on an ill-advised rescue mission that ends up not only failing, but leading into a trap. But in both cases, we learn a lot about the characters and a lot about the galaxy. And both of these emotionally-driven would-be rescues lead to important confrontations, Luke with Vader and Finn with Phasma.
  5. In both ESB and TLJ, a man-woman team on the run is delivered into Imperial/First Order hands by a scoundrel. The major difference being that Lando does eventually break away, free Leia, and try to rescue Han, whereas DJ just makes a run for it. Will be interesting to see if he turns up in Ep IX.
  6. Kylo vs Luke in TLJ in some ways recalls Luke vs Vader in ESB. It’s interesting that in both cases, all of the logistical advantages are on the Imperial/First Order side. In both cases, the younger fighter survives, while learning something about how badly he is outmatched by the older.


Institutions versus ideas

It’s interesting how skeptical this movie is about institutions, even – or maybe especially – the supposedly good ones. There’s the obvious deconstruction, in every sense of the word, of the Jedi. (Side note: man was it satisfying to have Luke just come out and admit what a bunch of blinded morons the Old Republic Jedi turned out to be.) But there’s also DJ’s cynical take on the Resistance, voiced both on Canto Bight and on the ship he steals (the TLJ books inform me this ship is called the Libertine).

It’s furthermore surprising, to me at least, how much the movie makes good on that skepticism, by doing a LOT of table-clearing. By the end of the movie Snoke is dead and Luke has transcended, leaving the future of the Force in the hands of Kylo and Rey. The Resistance is whittled down from a few hundred folks – I believe the number 400 is thrown out at one point while they’re fleeing on the Mon Cal cruiser – to just a handful that can all fit on the Millennium Falcon.

[Update, 2 days later: On reflection, the (inevitable?) failure of masters – Luke, Snoke, maybe even the Resistance leadership – emerges as a pretty solid theme, which ties in nicely with the institutional skepticism mentioned above. The movie seems to be saying, “Don’t put your faith in your leaders or their institutions. Put it in ideals and let those ideals lead to actions.”]

But then there’s that divisive closing scene, which makes good on the line – repeated twice in the movie – “We are the spark that will light the fire that will burn the First Order down.” It’s not the Resistance as an entity that will win, it’s the act of resisting. That is a pretty darned interesting message, one year into the Trump presidency.


Parting shot – for now

It is by now well-trod ground – particularly here on this blog, between Mike and me in various posts and comment threads – that Star Wars started out with Alan Dean Foster’s line from the novelization, “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so naturally they became heroes”, and then progressively destroyed that illusion over the next five movies, by showing Luke to be a pawn in a decades-long ploy by the last two Jedi to revenge themselves and the galaxy on Vader and the Emperor.

The Last Jedi is a thorough volte-face. Decades-long plans end in disaster. The powerful are struck down unexpectedly. The downtrodden rise from nothing to shape the fate of the galaxy. This isn’t what Star Wars is always about. It’s not what it’s been about since 1977. But here we are, 40 years later, returning to the original and most hopeful message of the first movie. I dig it.

Posted in sequels, Star Wars, The Last Jedi | 1 Comment

High attribute bonuses for old-school Star Wars: The RPG

Since the last post I’ve been thinking more about having little in-game bonuses available to characters that have an attribute at 4D or higher. The reasoning being that at that point, they have so many dice invested in that one stat that one or more other attributes are going to suck at least a little to compensate (in WEG Star Wars, all characters start with 18D to distribute among the six attributes). Also, 4D is about the level where an attribute goes from “okay, pretty good” to “wow, impressive”, and it would be nice to have some way to recognize that in the game.

Here’s what I have so far: for each attribute, a choice of two (or, for Technical, three) things that the character can do once per session if they have the relevant attribute at 4D or higher.

DEXTERITY – (1) a shot or blow that seemed to miss (by the dice rolls) actually hit, but the target didn’t notice right away, or (2) a shot or blow that should have hit you (by the dice rolls) actually missed, but your adversary thinks it hit, giving you the option of seeming indestructible or playing possum.

KNOWLEDGE – (1) discern an important clue or one of your adversary’s secrets, or (2) spend a preparation point to have brought along something useful. (No good if everyone gets preparation points – if I did it this way, this would be the only way to get preparation points.)

MECHANICAL – (1) fancy maneuvering puts you either farther ahead, or farther behind, than anyone expected, or (2) fancy shooting gets you an unexpected critical hit against an enemy ship or vehicle.

PERCEPTION – (1) talk somebody into something they wouldn’t otherwise do, or (2) talk somebody out of something they wouldn’t otherwise part with. Single target only, but it can be a person of influence. Doesn’t work on targets with equal or higher Perception. There are limits – the Dark Jedi isn’t going to let you out of your cell, but one of his henchmen might take a bribe to smuggle something small and seemingly innocuous in or out on your behalf.

STRENGTH – (1) perform an impressive feat of strength, or (2) shrug off one hit that would otherwise have caused damage.

TECHNICAL – (1) have a useful gadget along, (2) repair basic functionality to something that otherwise seemed beyond fixing, or (3) crack a lock or code.

A case could be made that since the game already has Force points, these high attribute bonuses aren’t necessary. I think they might be cool to play with, though. None of them seem game-breakingly powerful, and each one comes at the cost of having roughly 1D of suck distributed across the remaining attributes. I’ve always loved lopsided characters that are awesome at some things and complete butt at others, and this system would probably push players toward using such characters.

Relevant: Mike Taylor‘s son Dan plays a D&D wizard – named ‘Dandalf’, natch – with a naturally-rolled Intelligence of 18 and Wisdom of 3. The combination of fearsome intellect hitched to a completely feckless worldview has been a hoot in play. And it ports over to the real world; Mike and Dan now refer to smart, irresponsible people as 18-3s. As is often the case, what is often disastrous in the real world – and therefore tragic – is also calamitous in the gameworld – and therefore awesome. As I concluded in a previous post, what would be wise for the PCs to do is often the opposite of what would be fun for the PCs to do. But that’s okay. I don’t roll so I can play a smart, responsible person. I have to ‘run’ that character the other 165 hours each week.

Posted in homebrew, roleplaying, rules hacks, Star Wars | Leave a comment

3 simple rules hacks for old-school Star Wars: The RPG

Stashing these here so I don’t forget them.

1. Preparation Points

I’ve been running WEG Star Wars for a little over 25 years now, and for the vast majority of players I’ve encountered, the Knowledge attribute has been a dump stat. I actively counter that as GM by having players make a lot of Knowledge rolls. Sneaking around an Imperial base? Make a Knowledge: Technology roll, maybe you’ll figure out what that weird thing does. Overhear something interesting in a cantina? Roll Knowledge: Alien Races or Knowledge: Planetary Systems, maybe you just picked up some lucrative gossip, instead of meaningless jargon. But it might be useful or at least interesting to go even further.

One of the things I dig about the GUMSHOE system (used in Trail of Cthulhu, among others) is the idea of preparation points – PCs have a certain limited number of these, which they can spend mid-adventure to have brought something useful along (holy water in a fight against vampires would be the canonical example). And IME players love these things, because they are basically save-your-ass points. If they sound like a bad idea, go read the post linked two sentences back, or just play a GUMSHOE game.

If I was to incorporate these into my Star Wars game, I’d have them tied to the Knowledge attribute, in the same way that Jeff Reints tied them to WIS in his D&D game (details here). Not Perception, because to me Perception is more thinking-on-your-feet and fast-talking to get out of trouble, whereas Knowledge is more deliberate preparation. As far as I can tell, in Jeff’s game the get-a-free-useful-thing mechanic is a limited number and once they’re gone, they’re gone. I’d probably find some way to limit them in Star Wars, too – either set a post-char-gen time limit, or make them hard to obtain.

(Also, note to future self: the very next post by Jeff has maybe the best short-short into to roleplaying for new players that I’ve ever read. Steal it.)

The two possibilities I’ve thought up so far are, first, have the preparation points tied to the Knowledge attribute, but only at the D breaks. So, at 2D you get either 1 useful thing or none, at 3D you get 2 (or 1, if 2D gets none), and at 4D you get 3 (or 2). Alternatively, have them tied to pips, but you have to roll to get the prep point, like so:

  • 2D or lower: roll doubles on 2D
  • 2D+1: roll a 1 on 1D
  • 2D+2: roll 1-2 on 1D
  • 3D: roll 1-3 on 1D
  • 3D+1: roll 1-4 on 1D
  • 3D+2: roll 1-5 on 1D
  • 4D or higher: roll anything but doubles on 2D

That way there’s an ascending probability of getting something good with every pip spent on Knowledge, but it’s never out of reach and never completely a sure thing.

I think I’d use the former system if it was a definite thing happening only once, in the intro adventure, and the latter system if PCs got a chance at a fresh prep point every session.

Not sure if Star Wars really needs preparation points – they seem more like a useful filler for crunch-lite games like the GUMSHOE titles – but probably worth at least trying to see what happens. Still thinking about this, and open to suggestions.

2. Hit Points

This one isn’t theoretical, I’ve been doing it for a while now. After playing D&D with the firm reassurance of countable hit points, going back to the more loosey-goosey strength and health system of WEG Star Wars felt weird. So here’s my fast and easy bolt-on hit point system: a PC has hit points equal to pips of Stamina under the Strength attribute (with 3 pips per D6, for those not familiar with the system). So if PC 1 has 3D+1 Stamina, she has 10 HP.

This is handy for tracking damage in combat. PC 1 gets hit by a blaster doing 4D damage. She rolls Strength plus any armor bonuses, GM rolls blaster damage. If she rolls higher, no effect – the armor took the hit. If the blaster damage is higher, she loses HP equal to the difference, and I think we can all take it from there. Or, for a more lethal game, don’t subtract the Strength+armor roll from the weapon damage. (Either way, some minimum damage per hit is probably a good idea, otherwise it’s mechanically almost impossible to stab a 5D STR dude to death with a knife that does 3D damage.)

3. A Simple Insanity System

After playing Cthulhu games I thought it would fun and interesting to have an insanity system for WEG Star Wars. As is commonly the case in RPGs, the goal is not to realistically simulate real-world mental conditions, but to provide inspiration for roleplaying a temporarily unhinged character. But I didn’t want another table to cart around. Random skills thrown into inappropriate situations ought to do the trick.

So here’s the deal: roll 1D6 to get an attribute (Dex – Kno – Mech – Per – Str – Tech), then roll 1D6 again and count down under the chosen attribute to get a skill. That skill is how the (hopefully) temporarily insane PC is going to try to solve the situation. Like, the PCs are at a fancy dinner being thrown by the Grand Vizier of the Thorian Cluster and one of them notices that the Vizier has a Dark Side emblem woven into his robes, just like the one worn by the Dark Jedi that abducted the PC back when. Roll for whatever to determine if an insanity occurs (probably Perception, vs some reasonable difficulty), and if one does, use the above system to find a skill. A roll of 6 then 5 gets Technical: Repulsorlift Repair, and suddenly the PC thinks that the Grand Vizier is a speeder bike that needs its acceleration compensator retuned. That ought to make for a memorable dinner party. Roll a 3-2 and its Mechanical: Beast Riding, and now the PC will attempt to ride out of the dining hall on the back of the majordomo. And so on.

Posted in homebrew, roleplaying, Star Wars | 3 Comments

Home-Museum.com, specimen boxes, Joseph Cornell

Some posts have a lot going on. This one doesn’t. For now, it’s just a dumping ground for links I don’t want to lose, but don’t necessarily want on the sidebar (at least not yet).

If anyone knows of good sources for small (under 4″) specimen boxes, I’d be grateful for a heads up. For some reason, I’ve started accumulating a lot of weird stuff in that size, and I’d like to have better options for displaying it.


How to be an armchair voyager like Cornell

UPDATE: found some.




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RPG combat as a carrot

About to have serious fun getting mutilated by a tyrannosaur.

This is a follow-on to the last post, about RPG rulesets. Here I’m pondering why some rulesets are better for some kinds of games than others.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the argument that “the game is about what the games has rules about”. On one hand, it’s been explained why that’s not always true, and counterexamples abound. As Zak Smith pointed out about Call of Cthulhu: “the insanities (the defining feature of the game) are on a barely-described chart that take up a quarter-page” in a 200-page book.

But on the other hand, a game can guide play in the direction of what it has rules about simply by giving players more toys to interact with, with combat being the obvious focus of a lot of rules crunch. Here are three examples of games that do or don’t pull players toward combat:

(1) In the one Trail of Cthulhu game I have run to date, we spent a lot of time roleplaying and big chunks of the afternoon went by with no dice rolling at all. ToC is fairly rules-light, especially my slightly hacked version, and the skills cover a wide range of interactions so there’s no pull in any given direction. And since it’s a Cthulhu game, players go into it expecting their characters to go insane or die eventually, so advancement is not much of a motivation. The sense that time is running out for the PCs means that life itself is a limited resource to be carefully managed and strategically deployed. If anything, this will push players away from combat.

(2) In WEG Star Wars there typically is a fair amount of combat, but also a fair amount of running around being sneaky and trying to con people, just as in the movies. Combat isn’t privileged mechanically – the game has a universal resolution mechanic and you can roll just as many dice trying to get what you want during a social interaction as you can during a shootout. And XP is usually tied to goals accomplished rather than to enemies killed. Now, most Star Wars sessions are combat heavy, but that’s part and parcel of the setting, not because combat gives the players more to do with their characters. In three-fold model terms, combat in a Star Wars is a simulationist expectation, not a gamist this-is-how-you-get-ahead mechanism.

So in my experience, Trail of Cthulhu and WEG Star Wars are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of dice-rolly-ness. In ToC you can get a lot of mileage out of description, interactions with NPCs that aren’t antagonistic and either don’t require opposed rolls, or require only an occasional investigative skill roll, and giving the players room to scare themselves by seeing threats around every corner. In Star Wars, players are usually going to be rolling dice all the time, but a lot of those may be knowledge and physical ability checks or social interaction rolls. In my experience, neither system mechanically pulls players toward combat, and ToC may actively dissuade players from it depending on how they’ve allocated their points during character creation.

(3) In contrast to those two systems, D&D is split: for combat the rules are pretty well-developed, and the rules for everything else are less specified. You can do knowledge checks, opposed rolls for social interaction, and so on, but mechanically those things are set apart from combat in terms of the level of detail, number of potential modifiers, and so on. And XP is usually tied to killing things.

Now, I have to immediately point out three things:

  • Some DMs tie XP to treasure, whether obtained by killing things and taking their stuff or by more sneaky means, or to accomplishing goals, and either path can provide significant non-combat enticements to players.
  • Some DMs, especially in old-school play, run very unforgiving combats, which forces players to either be more clever in how they screw adversaries, or to roll up new characters a lot because they die a lot. This can dissuade players from “straight fights”, both with the carrot of “you can get more XP faster if you figure out some more clever way to kill the monster than simply hitting it repeatedly” and the stick of “if you don’t think of something more clever than repeatedly hitting on the monster, it’s going to kill you first”.
  • I like combat in D&D, even when it’s horribly asymmetric, like a bunch of low-level schmucks versus a tyrannosaur. Sometimes a straight fight where the party simply fights a war of hit point attrition against some baddies is satisfying, in much the same way that a brutal slugfest in BattleTech can be satisfying. I don’t think the combat rules in D&D are bad – subjectively, I personally enjoy them, and objectively, plenty of other people do as well – and I don’t think D&D is a bad game because it encourages combat, because that is a perfectly fun and satisfying mode of play (again, both for myself and for lots of other folks).

BUT I do think that D&D encourages combat, in that if I play D&D for a while and don’t get to hit anything, I get antsy. Even if the XP reward has been tinkered with to make it possible to advance my character without murdering things, I can’t stop thinking about how most of the stuff on my character sheet is fighting-relevant, and eventually I feel like I’m missing out by not using it. I’m like a dog with a treat balanced on its nose – I may do non-combat stuff because I’m supposed to (the scenario calls for it, it may even be the best way to for my character to get what they want), but what I really want to do is eat that yummy treat (hit stuff until it dies), because the game gives me more fun bits to interact with during combat.

That’s pretty interesting, because it means that what’s fun for me as a player (getting into fights) may be different from what’s best for my character (avoiding fights, at least in some scenarios or circumstances). And that can potentially be an engine for in-game drama – often in RPGs it would be a smart move on the character’s part to just go away or call the cops, but it’s usually a more fun decision on the part of the player to grab a sword or a gun and march into the jaws of hell.

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Why do I have so many RPGs?

Copied verbatim, and with permission, from an email exchange with Mike Taylor, with some relevant links added in post. Mike and I have been talking a lot lately about how seemingly random the hit counts are for our posts at SV-POW! A post we really like and think is important and interesting may sink without a trace, while something seemingly unexceptional can rack up tens of thousands of hits in no time.

Me: We’re not the only ones that get them:

Iiiincidentally, while you are over there you might find this interesting:

Mike: “The thing about games based on licences is that they really need to capture the atmosphere of the work they are based on.”

Nailed it.

Me: Man, I need to get to bed, but I got sucked into reading that guy’s posts. I’m a hardcore system nerd – there’s a crate 1.2 meters from me right now with books for, let’s see, 9 different game systems, only 3 of which I have actually played, and only 1 of which I play regularly. And this is my ‘active’ RPG crate! So his style of taking a game and really breaking down its mechanical guts is like crack for me.

I tend to be much more laissez faire about what happens in play – I’m definitely in the “play to find out what happens” camp, and I expect themes and complexities to arise organically just because it’s humans rather than robots making the decisions and rolling the dice. So I was very taken by this bit:

Whilst I can concede that addressing theme is often what distinguishes a highbrow story from a lowbrow story – the key ingredient necessary to any storytelling effort which wants to consist of more than a series of flashy crowd-pleasing set pieces – where is the Creative Agenda for participants who want to go into a game with the intention of making a trashy story full of stunts and violence without any elevated moral or theme?

from this post: https://refereeingandreflection.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/remembering-the-forge/

“A trashy story full of stunts and violence” sounds like a damn fine RPG session to me – in fact, it sounds like all of the most memorable ones I’ve ever played. And those decidedly lowbrow elements are certainly not incompatible with tough ethical decisions and moments of noble self-sacrifice (see, e.g., Star Wars).

Mike: I don’t get your obsession with rules, especially when they don’t seem to have much influence over your actual gaming. To me, the WHOLE point of D&D is that it’s human-moderated with all the creativity and flexibility that implies, which means that you only need pretty minimal rules to give you a framework to improvise on. Otherwise, you may as well play Skyrim and get all the gorgeous graphics and explorability.

Me: Ah, that was an excellent question, because it made me stop and think.

You are correct, I am no respecter of rules. I have run a lot of systems and although different rulesets have distinctly different flavors and some do some things better than others, basically they all solve the same problem.

But that’s an oversimplification. It’s sort of like saying that every telescope solves the same problem of gathering light and enlarging the image. That’s true, and for a lot of people one scope might be enough. But if you’re a hardcore observer, you’re probably going to want a range of tools to fit different observing settings and different targets. And you may want to try out loads of scopes, on the chance that the next one will surprise you with something different, or land a little closer to your unrealized ideal.

The analogy goes further. I may spend a lot of time reading reviews of scopes and otherwise obsessing about them, but I also firmly believe that what one sees in the night sky is much more dependent on determination than on equipment, in the same way that fun around the game table depends much more on the creativity and sociability of the people present than on the particular ruleset they roll with. I still hack on RPG rulesets and tinker with them in the same way that I hack on my scopes.

To sum up this part, https://refereeingandreflection.wordpress.com/ is to RPGs what http://scopereviews.com/ is to telescopes.

That’s only part of it, though.

The other part is that RPG rulesets usually come hitched to settings, and a fair amount of my rulebook collecting is really setting reconnaissance, and looking for bits from other settings that I can port over to whatever I’m playing at the moment (mostly Star Wars and D&D) or thinking about playing. Of the books in the aforementioned crate, only 4 or so are full rulebooks; the rest are sourcebooks, setting guides, or published adventures. I’m pretty omnivorous, and if I’m a ruleset tinkerer, I’m like a cross between Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau when it comes to adventures. In the one Trail of Cthulhu adventure I’ve run so far, the monster’s MO was swiped from a third-party D&D adventure that I’ve never actually run using D&D, and it worked out wonderfully.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

That’s as far as we’ve gotten. It’s given me a lot to think about. In particular my assertion that, “although different rulesets have distinctly different flavors and some do some things better than others, basically they all solve the same problem”. That’s true to a point, but only so far. Some rulesets do some things so much better than others that they’re a better fit for certain types of stories or scenarios. That will be the subject of the next post.


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Fiction: Lying Low

Let’s start with mountain lions. Maybe that will make the next part easier.

Here’s the thing: there are more mountain lions around than most folks know about. People see them, from time to time. But usually not a good look. Just a flash of grey-brown fur and a long tail flying across the road and vanishing into the brush. By the time it’s even registered in your brain, it’s gone—you’re slamming on the brakes, but for no good reason. It’s over. I remember seeing their tracks down at the creek when I was a kid. Big cat-prints the size of my hand. My cousins didn’t believe me, said the tracks belonged to the neighbors’ Great Dane. But they were wrong. I knew the difference. And I knew they were too big to be bobcat, although we have those around here, too.

So about once a year someone in the area—”the area” here meaning the roughly 10-mile diameter circle around Bison Creek, population 441—someone sees a mountain lion. Usually a farmer, because that’s who lives around here, and farmers are outdoors a lot. Usually at dusk, at a distance, and not for long. Just a streak of movement, a breath on the wind, and then it’s gone.

The mountain lions have learned, see? A century of human-driven extermination has had a powerful selective effect. The dumb ones, the incautious ones, the ones that turned from venison and pheasant to beef, they all got shot. The only ones left are the definition of stealth and cunning. We made them what they are now, as surely as we made Holsteins and St. Bernards.

I think the county fish and game guys know. If you ask them, they deny that there are any mountain lions at all in Jackson County, or the rest of the state for that matter. But that’s clearly bull, too many people have seen them. So I think it’s a cover. As long as the official policy is that there aren’t any mountain lions, the county guys don’t have to do anything about them. “No, sir, must’ve been coyotes killed your calf. No mountain lions around here for a hundred miles.” I don’t know if that’s an off-the-books policy to protect the mountain lions, or for the county guys to protect themselves. The mountain lions pop up for about one sighting a year at best—how the hell are you going to track and kill that?

* * *

I started thinking hard about mountain lions after I found what I found in that coyote den.

Have you ever been all alone out in a big pasture in the middle of the afternoon? Not a soul around for miles. It’s better on windy days, then there’s some noise. On the still days, it’s really still. I mean, nearly silent. The only sounds at all are your feet pushing through the grass and the almost subliminal drone of cicadas in the trees. And the sun is out, but somehow that just makes it worse. It’s the horizon, it’s too low, and the sky is too big, and there you are in the middle of a sea of grass, with the sun pinning you down like a bug.

Part of me hated it. But part of me loved it, getting away from everything. Chores. Responsibilities. People. It was better when I went out in the morning, when there was still a trace of dew and you might catch a turtle out sunning itself. Or in the evening. Then I would go climb this bluff where the creek bends west, and watch the sun set. From up there you were high enough to see a few of the neighboring farms and the grain elevators in town. You could watch the sun go down and people’s lights come on and it seemed like the world closed down to a little bowl holding the town and the farms and the happy people inside of both.

Afternoons were worse, when I was down in the grass and couldn’t see any farms, couldn’t see any sign of humans at all besides the distant fences and the wheat. That’s when all that emptiness would weigh on me. But I went out anyway. Like I said, sometimes I just needed to get away. And I had a perverse streak, too, when I was a teenager: if something was difficult or uncomfortable I’d do it, just to personally extend a middle finger at the universe.

So there was this coyote den. Abandoned several years—I remembered when the coyote hunters had come through when I was kid. They didn’t get all the coyotes, not nearly, for coyotes have gotten to be almost as careful as mountain lions. But they cleaned out that den, and for some reason no other coyotes had come back to take it over. And I got to wondering if there were any bones down in there. Back then I was always picking up bones wherever I went, still had ambitions of being a paleontologist someday.

I’d better explain about this pasture. It was only a little over half a mile across, east to west, with wheat fields on either side. But north-south it went all the way from one section road to the next, the full mile, with the creek winding through it. Belonged to the Tanners, good friends of my folks, and they never minded if we boys went down there to play around, as long we didn’t bother the cattle. Not that there were cattle all the time, sometimes they had the cattle out on the wheat fields and sometimes in other pastures.

There was an old barb wire fence about halfway down that cut the pasture in two across its narrow point. That fence was not in great shape but some brush had grown up around it and the cattle wouldn’t usually go through. So it was two pastures, really, one on the north and one on the south, but the Tanners pretty nearly always ran the cattle on the south side, because that’s where the old loading chute was, and the gate for getting trucks in and out.

The north side was better for stomping around. Cattle play merry hell with a creek, coming down as a herd and churning the creekbed to mud and crapping everywhere. A few years of that and a nice sandy creek with fish and turtles and birds turns into a muddy little piss-stream with just a few bullfrogs holding out. So the north side, upstream, was nicer, and I preferred to go to there on my rambles. And that’s where the coyote den was.

The funny thing is, the den is just not that remote. You can see it from the high point on the county line road, if you look south from the bridge over the creek. It’s a good way off, nearly half a mile south of the road, but clearly visible. It’s in one of the little hillocks—I hesitate to call anything so modest a bluff or a butte—at the edge of the creek’s miniature floodplain. Just a hump of sandy earth about eight feet tall, twelve or fifteen feet across, with four or five good-sized holes scattered around on the sides. But the north side of the pasture wasn’t used hardly at all and the coyote den was on the side of the creek opposite the truck gate, so nobody with a vehicle had been over there in probably 50 years or more. I know the coyote hunters just parked and walked in, because I had seen their trucks by the side of the road from my upstairs window. Mom was pretty unhappy that day—she didn’t like alcoholics with guns wandering around shooting things within rifle range of the house, so she kept us all inside until they were gone. We were little, then, and the idea of hunters coming from somewhere else to ‘our’ pasture was rather exciting. As if they were famous big-game hunters instead of poor folks from two towns over.

So anyway, despite being in the middle of long-settled farming country, and despite being in a pasture where it was at least theoretically visible from the road, this coyote den didn’t get much traffic. I might well have been the first person to visit since the coyote hunters, and that had been almost a decade back.

It was one of those hot, still afternoons that I halfway hated but put up with anyway. Usually in the north pasture I could find something worth the hike. A scissortail flycatcher flitting across my path, or maybe a box turtle or fence lizard. But not that day. Too damn hot, everything with a lick of sense was holed up somewhere waiting out the heat. Everything except me, I guess. And I remembered about that coyote den and wondered if there were any bones left inside.

The previous month my brother had found some owl pellets on the ground under the big nest in the tree by the road, and we’d picked them apart and found teeth and bones from field mice and voles, and one tiny jaw I thought came from a shrew. And I figured the coyotes had probably brought prey back to the den, and maybe there were some bones in there I could identify and add to my collection. So I walked around the den to see if one of the holes was big enough for me to fit through.

The first thing that struck me as off was the smell. First, that there was a smell at all. There hadn’t been any coyotes in that den in years. I knew that much because at dusk you could hear the next pack over howling, but they were northeast of the house. This den was southwest, and we hadn’t heard any coyotes from this direction since the hunters came through.

Then there was the smell itself. There’s a different smell when an animal rots in a confined space, than when it goes off in the open. Something to do with airflow and what insects get it at it and when. Once this opossum got up into the attic and died, and even after Dad had cleared out the carcass, the stench was so thick that I had to sleep downstairs for a couple of nights. The upstairs had been permeated by this sickly sweet funk that seemed to crowd out all other sensations, like the high point of an invisible tide going over your head, leaving you underneath it. That same smell was coming out of the den.

At first I wondered if maybe a badger had set up shop. But that didn’t ring true. I’d seen badger holes and they’re small. I couldn’t see a badger living anywhere with so many big open doors. And, more importantly, badger holes don’t stink. I don’t know if they eat their prey outside or bury the indigestible bits or what, but their holes don’t have a noticeable smell. And this coyote den did.

But, hell, I was young and I thought I knew all of the local fauna and the sun was out, so I was more curious than anything. I figured something had crawled into the old coyote den and died – a raccoon, maybe even an armadillo. I was hoping for an armadillo. It’s almost impossible to get one with the shell intact, since all the dead armadillos I’d found had either been splattered on the road or killed at close range with a shotgun. So I got down on my hands and knees and wiggled up to the biggest hole.

Well, right away I could see it was going to be uncomfortable to get far enough in there to see anything, because the hole was so small. I’d have to stick my arms in first, to make my shoulders smaller, and push in on my chest. But discomfort is relative, and I was already hot and sweaty and dirty, and by now I was getting excited. I had been afraid that I might not be able to get into that coyote den at all, and now it looked like I could, and as bad as the smell was, it suggested that there was something worth crawling in there to see.

The particular hole I was crawling into stayed pretty narrow for a little over two feet, just far enough that I had to do some serious chest-sliding and got a good handful of dust and dirt down my t-shirt. But after that it widened out some, and I could get my hands out on either side and sort of pull myself in. I might not have, if I could have seen what was ahead, but that damned hole was so tight I had my face smashed down between my arms, eyes closed against the dust, and for those few minutes all I could smell was earth and sweat.

Eventually I did get far enough in there to raise my head a little. It was pretty dark inside. I mean, there was some light coming in through the other holes, but they were all smaller and more twisting than the one I’d crawled through, and they didn’t let in much light. But my eyes had been shut against the dirt while I was pushing in, so they were already partly dark-adapted.

At first I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. I mean, there were bones, clearly, lots of bones, in a pile in the center of the open space, a sort of communal room in the center of the den. But there wasn’t anything I could identify at first. No armadillo shell, that was for sure. Just lots of little bones. And that dead-animal-in-the-attic stench, so strong it made my eyes water.

You ever have one of those moments when it takes your brain a second to catch up with your eyes? And you’re thinking, “What the hell!?” until you get a second glance and realize that the giant spider in the corner is a just crumpled-up dress sock? This was something like that. After a few seconds my brain reoriented and I realized that I wasn’t looking at a pile of little bones, I was looking at a pile of big bones that had been smashed. Some of them were clearly deer. I saw the end of one of the cannon bones—the long skinny bones just above the feet—sticking out on the edge of the pile, and some fragments of vertebrae, and something that might have been a scapula.

Understand, I was just at the basic level of trying to work out what I was looking at. I was just taking it in. I hadn’t even started to think about how those bones got in there, or how they’d gotten into the condition they were in. If I had, I would have backed out of that hole a lot sooner, and you wouldn’t be reading this.

So there I was, wedged halfway through this little hole in the wall of an abandoned coyote den, looking at this big pile of smashed bones. Deer, I thought, and I was mostly right about that. But not entirely.

Damn science magazines. All the time back then they were running stories on fossil hominids from Africa. I’d read enough of those articles that the profile of an australopithecine skull was fixed in my memory. Especially the brow ridge, the way it flared around the eye sockets and then dipped back down behind, with a big trough before the avocado-like swelling of the braincase.

Well, that’s what I saw. Or, that’s what I thought I saw, sticking out of the edge of that pile of bones. “No way,” I thought after a moment, “I wonder what it really is.” So—God forgive me—I scooted in there just a little further, until I could reach that piece of bone between my first and second fingers and fetch it back.

I almost dropped it, it was so greasy. I wish like hell I had. Because it was what I thought it was, after all: a good chunk of brow ridge, going from maybe mid-forehead around to the side, with a potato-chip-sized piece of the braincase still attached behind. I wasn’t really sure until I turned it over and saw the blood vessel tracks on the inside. I’d seen those before, on the human skull in the science lab at school, with the top of the head on a hinge so you could open it up and look inside. Inside our skulls the blood vessels run in channels in the bone, like rivers, with deltas and tributaries and everything. And that’s what I had in my hand, a little arterial meander inscribed into a bone that should not – could not – be there.

I don’t know if I yelled or not. But I started backing out of that hole as fast as I could. Or trying to, anyway. You ever have to back out of a narrow hole when your hands don’t have much of anything to push on and your legs are flat in the dirt? I must have gotten a good start nevertheless, because I forgot about the face-in-the-dirt thing and banged the back of my head on the inside of the hole. So for a few frantic seconds I was seeing stars, breathing dirt, and using most of my muscles in ways that they weren’t meant to be used.

Well, I got out of that hole. And I still had that chunk of brow ridge in my hand. I didn’t mean to, really, just sort of made a fist around it when I started trying to back out.

My first thought was to get the hell away from there. And my second thought was to tell someone. Anyone. I mean, maybe I was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t a piece of skull from…something that had no right to be there. I had the distinct gut-punched feeling that I was not wrong, though. And whoever I did tell, I wanted them to believe me. So I held onto that piece of bone, for all the good it did me.

That was a long walk home, through the pasture, all alone under that horrible empty sky. For the first time in my life I got acquainted with the reality of putting something out of my mind. That expression had never made sense to me before—how do you just decide not to think about something? But I didn’t think about a lot of things on the way home. Didn’t think about all the times I’d been out on a ramble and I’d felt like something was watching me. Especially didn’t think about how many times I’d caught a fleeting glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye and had written it off as a bobcat or raccoon disappearing behind some bushes.

What I thought about instead was how best to proceed. I wasn’t going to show the bone to my folks. They didn’t believe in evolution, thought all the fossils from Olduvai were forgeries or over-interpreted chimp bones. My science teacher, though, he might be sympathetic. Mr. Gibson was something of an amateur paleontologist himself—had gotten his picture in the paper a couple of times for finding mammoth tusks on the edges of wheat fields. I decided I’d take the bone to him, and start there. Maybe if it was what I thought it was, he could get it to someone at a college or museum, like he had with the mammoth tusks.

But it was Saturday and school wasn’t for two days, and I certainly wasn’t going to call Mr. Gibson and say anything about it. Not a word until he could hold the bone in his hands and tell me for sure whether it was just a weird bit of deer pelvis or turtle shell. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring the bone into the house. For one thing, it stunk. For another, it might have raised questions.

I started feeling safer once I crossed the road and got onto our property. The propane tank, the clawfoot tub Mom had turned into a flower planter, the old tractor rusting by the fence—these were blessed touchstones of normalcy. Instead of going to the house, I went on down the long driveway to the barn. We used it as a garage, had ever since Dad got a job in town and we got rid of the last of our livestock. The hayloft hadn’t been used in years. There was a shelf up there with some old coffee cans and such, full of spare bolts and used oil filters and all of the mechanical odds and ends one finds on a farm. I wrapped the bone in a red shop rag and stuffed it into one of the coffee cans—and not one on the top row, either.

By that time it was getting on toward dinner so I went into the house, washed up, and got on with my evening. I couldn’t stop thinking about the bone, and I was probably pretty poor company. But I was a teenager, and I reckon I was distracted often enough that my folks thought nothing of it. And my brothers thought I was a moody jerk anyway.

The next day we had church and then a fellowship lunch at the community center, and after that I went over to Chad’s place to play video games and sneak a couple of beers out of his dad’s fridge. By the time I got home, the sun had just set, but it was still plenty light out. The gloaming, they call it, but I think that’s an awfully ugly word for such a beautiful time of day. I went out to the barn to check on the bone, so I could grab it the next morning before I went to school.

Everything looked fine at first. The cans were all stacked just as I’d left them. I took a couple off the top until I could get down to the one where I’d stashed the bone. I pulled out the shop rag and it felt wrong even before I’d opened it. The chunk of bone I’d taken from the coyote den had been broad and sort of Y-shaped, with the side of the brow ridge curving away from the braincase fragment. But whatever was in the rag now was longer and narrower.

I’m reconstructing a bit here, you understand. I didn’t stop and think about all of that at the time, I was going too fast. But sure enough, when I finished unrolling the rag there was something different inside. At first I thought it was a stick, but when I got it uncovered I could see that it was a cannon bone from a deer. A fragment of one, anyway. Cannon bones are strong, you could beat someone to death with one if you had to. But this one was shattered just a few inches from the end. And not just shattered—the end had clearly been gnawed on by something strong.

At first I thought one of my brothers had done it, playing a prank. But the bite marks did not match those of a dog or coyote or mountain lion. I had studied those. And although the dust was pretty thick up in the hayloft, the only prints on the floorboards matched my tennis shoes. That’s when I looked up, and saw how the rafters came down to the wall right over that shelf.

I found the print on the top shelf. It was a hand print, and it was facing the wrong way: fingers pointed out away from the wall, opposite the direction a person’s hand would fall if they were standing in front of the shelf. Like something had crawled down the rafters from above, so as not to leave any prints on the floor. So careful. And the print was the wrong shape—too small, palm too long, too heavily creased. I knew it had been left by no person, as sure as I knew the mountain lion tracks down at the creek weren’t made by any dog.

There was only the one print, and when my heart had settled down enough I grabbed a rag and wiped it away. It was getting late for a Sunday evening and I don’t remember what excuse I told my folks, but I borrowed the truck. I drove down to where the bridge goes over the creek as it flows into the north pasture, and I flung that chunk of cannon bone as far as I could. It fell into the water and I never saw it again.

* * *

I never went to that pasture again, either. Stopped going on rambles. Spent more time indoors, watching games with Dad or helping Mom with her little projects. The next year I went off to college. Didn’t care for bones anymore, so I went into computers. Moved halfway across the country. Like seemingly everyone from my generation, now I’m a sysadmin living in Baltimore. I like amusement parks and movie theaters. I drive places. I don’t even own a pair of hiking boots.

But I can’t stop thinking about mountain lions. How they’re there, but we never see them. I grew up in mountain lion country, 18 years there, and never heard of anyone finding any mountain lion remains. They’re careful, you see. They have to be, to live alongside us. Most people don’t even know that they’re around. They’re denied by the authorities. In Jackson County, mountain lions are essentially cryptozoological phenomena.

I think about what a mountain lion might do if it was even smarter. Like live in abandoned coyote dens where no-one ever went. Eat deer and pheasants that no-one would ever miss. Go down to the creek right where the cattle do, so they’ll trample out its footprints the next morning. Use rocks to smash the bones of its kind after they died, so no one would ever be able to identify them. And most of all, watch. Watch us. Learn what it needed to do to survive the temporary plague of Homo sapiens.

And if someone did find something, a bone from one of its kind, and took it away, maybe go and retrieve it, and leave a warning behind. No footprints, nothing too overt. Maybe just one handprint, where it might not be found but could not be misinterpreted if noticed. A very specific kind of warning, from something older and stronger and more agile than…well, than we are. I think that strategy might work. I think it might work very well indeed.

So I’m like one of the county guys now. No mountain lions around here, no sirree. Must have been coyotes. Sorry about that calf.

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