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Friday, July 25, 2014


"Finally, an RPG for Rainbow gamers!"

The concept behind a Role Playing Game is that you play a "role" which is different from yourself.  You can play an elf or a wookie or a babylonian or a woman (if you're a guy) and so on.  It is a form of interactive, improvisational theater in which each player takes on a different role and plays them out in a variety of situations.
Although not the first, D&D published in 1977 is the game that set the standard and spread excitement in role playing games, turning it from a very minor hobby to a worldwide industry in just a few years.  From the very start, the principle was that when you played the game, the role you played as always whatever you chose to.
The only restrictions were what the GM preferred to allow (no, you can't play a dragon, no you can't play superman) and what your game setting contained.  In a fantasy setting, you usually couldn't play a science fiction character, for instance.  Other than that?  Anything goes.
Yet recently the new edition of D&D decided they were compelled to include this in the character creation section:
How very inclusive.
This has always been assumed in a game that allows you to play anything.  I'm not an elf, but I could play one.  I've played female characters before, a lot of RPGers have played off-gender characters.  The basic concept of role playing presumes that you play whatever you want.  In other words, this is redundant and unnecessary to include in the rules.
Naturally this has been welcomed with excitement and joy by the usual suspects.  But gamers, from what I've seen, are scratching their heads and saying "huh?"  Because this is pointless and has no bearing on the game.  Yeah, if you want to play a homosexual dwarf you can, that's always been true and always been assumed.  There were homosexual characters in the official modules and game materials for D&D back in the 70s, its not fresh and new.
And that begs the question: why include this?  Why was this put into the rules at all?  Some might argue that its just about informing players of their options, that gender roles and sexuality are flexible in character creation, but that's always been the case and understood.
After all, they didn't bother explaining your character can have an unnatural yen for unicorns or be attracted to children, which are both technically possible as well, if unpleasant.  They didn't tell everyone that your character can be unusually tall or short, or that your character can be fat or thin.  Why this specific inclusion?  The answers aren't hard to figure out.  Its giving them free publicity, and likely Hasbro is hoping they'll get some picketers and the Internet Outrage Machine will get all cranked up.  That helps sales and generates interest in the game.  After all its been years since anyone associated D&D with Satanism or witchcraft and they could use the controversy.
And then there's the usual tired worn out Political Correctness.  The "Social Justice" machine never sleeps, and it insists on being everywhere.  This was not necessary, but it is trendy and hip and makes a certain group of people happy, whereas its exclusion makes them very unhappy.  And further, now that D&D has done so, they have leverage to demand all games do so, or they're being h8ers.
If you're like me, you're just tired of this.  Its like someone who just stopped smoking and is in everyone's face all the time about it.  They won't shut up about it, every conservation is an opportunity to bring up the topic, and every situation is a chance to talk about their pet subject.  Just shut up already.
There's no victory for social justice here, just a another chance to beat people over the head for not agreeing strongly enough.  No one is better off for the inclusion of this in the rules, there was no bigotry against playing alternate lifestyles in role playing games.  There were no lesbian players who felt ostracized by D&D rules or shunned the game because it didn't have enough inclusive language.
All there is now is a pointless injection of trendy modern political language into a game system that honestly is more likely to annoy and push away players than gain new ones.  No one is going to now play D&D that wasn't before because of this, but there are at least a few that will avoid the new rules because of it.
But I guess that doesn't really matter to the grievance mongers and publicity hounds.  For them its never been about sales, success, or business.  Ultimately, it doesn't really matter to me in terms of sales.  I wasn't going to buy the new rules anyway; I didn't buy 4th edition, and don't care to play D&D in any case.  I found a better system decades ago in Hero.
Its just annoying to have some causehead force their way into yet another aspect of life, demanding attention with shrill cries and stamping of feet.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


"The truth about women is that you can do anything to them except bore them."

Any time you bring up film, TV, or writing, chances are someone will bring up the Bechdel Test.  Recently a chain of theaters in Sweden announced that they will be showing Bechdel Test ratings next to the show times and other information on films they show.
Created by a comic artist named Allison Bechdel, the test alleges to show how independent, complex, and strong a female character in fiction is.  The test is this; does your work of fiction:
a) have two named female characters
who b) talk to one another
about c) something other than a man.
That's it.  The intent of this test is to draw attention to works that have women only as props to talk about men or be victims (or scenery).  Too often, particularly in movies, women are there as objects for the man to chase, save, or be enhanced by rather than fully fleshed out individuals in their own right.  Often, romances end up being about the relationship to such an extent that the women are concerned about nothing else. 
So as far as it goes, the test addresses a valid concern.  Its no secret that good, interesting, deep parts for women are hard to come by in Hollywood.  There's a reason some directors can get the hottest, best women to work for them; they provide good roles in their films that are well directed. 
So the Bechdel Test is an attempt to bring attention to these weak roles, promote feminist ideals in film, and get better, more female-centric movies.  The problem is, the Test doesn't tell you much about how interesting, "strong" or independent the woman is in movies.  At the Telegraph, Robbie Collin writes:
A moment’s reflection reveals that all kinds of popular movies fail – Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter were three examples highlighted by the artistic director of one of the cinemas involved – and lo, we discover that mainstream Western cinema is an undulating snake-pit of sexism.

It’s all very simple – too simple, in fact, and on closer inspection, the Bechdel test turns out to be not only next-to-useless, but also damaging to the way we think about film.
Two women are walking past a cinema, and one of them says that she refuses to watch any film that doesn’t satisfy the three conditions detailed above. “Pretty strict, but a good idea,” replies her friend. “No kidding,” says the first. “Last movie I was able to see was Alien…the two women in it talk to each other about the monster.”
In fact, Sunny Bunch at the Free Beacon recently poked fun at the test by pointing out that it makes films such as Showgirls, Kick Ass 2, and Requiem for a Dream into feminist triumphs.  Other movies such as The Hottie and the Nottie, Bride Wars, and Bratz: The Movie all pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors.  Meanwhile, Gravity, which is all about a woman surviving inconceivable disaster through her ingenuity and training doesn't.
Bechdel-approved feminist triumph
In other words, the effort to highlight the quality of female roles and generate interest in more independent, "strong" female roles in fiction and cinema fails by its own rules.  The Bechdel Test is too simplistic and ultimately meaningless to be any help at all.
There is a whole online industry of feminist grievance.  No matter what topic you search for or examine, there is at least one person complaining that there aren't enough women in it, or the women in it aren't treated right, or that the women in it are held back by men and so on.
Even female-dominated fields have loads of internet pieces about how there needs to be more women in the industry (such as literary agents, book editing and publishing).  Of the last ten big names in book sales, women have dominated the scene.  There are still the established major male names, but female authors are hot now and selling faster and bigger numbers in recent years than men.
Yet its not hard to find articles about how sexist and male-dominated book sales are because guys like Steven King are out there selling so many books, the phallocrats.
And among this theme online is a growing concern in fiction about the "strong woman."  The concern of many is that women in books are too often there as props or victims instead of being strong, interesting and independent.  I've seen a good half dozen articles in the last few months alone expressing the concern that there aren't enough "strong women" in fantasy fiction.
They want women who kick as much ass as the men, who are as smart, independent, tough, and capable as the men.  They want women who are at least as good as the men in the story, preferably better.
Now, of all the different literary genres out there, sci fi and fantasy tends to have the most interesting and strong female characters, so the concern is a bit misplaced.  And in any case, a "strong" woman can be strong without fitting a feminist ideal or duplicating the men in the work.
Women are often strong in ways that are different than men.  Granted there is a lot of crossover - courage, honor, loyalty, virtue, etc.  But what makes a man a strong man is distinct from, if not separate from,  what makes a woman strong.  That's why I use the "scare quotes" around the word strong above so often: because the definition is often questionable.
Further, a dependent woman can make for a good role, well written, and fascinating to watch.  Just as a dependent man can, depending on the story.  A fully fleshed out, interesting character need not be strong or independent.  Grima Wormtongue is a memorable, well-written, and interesting character in The Lord of the Rings.  He's a sleazy little whispering scumbag, but interesting.  He's weak in every way that counts and reprehensible, but he's memorable and well-written.
Let me fill out that ballot for you
If the only woman in your book is a Wormtongue, she's still a great character, even though she's anything but "strong" as most people would define the term.  And ultimately, what we should want and expect from fiction in any format is good writing with interesting, well-crafted characters whatever they may be.  Male, female, neuter, robot, whatever you're writing about write them well and you have done your job.
This need for female characters to fit a certain feminist (and lesbian)-approved checklist of characteristics is actually destructive to creativity and writing.  I've read several articles recently bemoaning how minor so many female characters are in fiction and cinema.  Guess what: not every character has to be strong, interesting, and fully fleshed out.  All works of fiction will have characters of varying significance and importance.  Some are just the guy at the magazine stand your detective bums a light off of.  Some are the mastermind behind the entire plot.  Demanding every (female) character be deeply significant and important is ridiculous and destructive to writing.
That would mean the entire world would be populated with insignificant background characters all of whom would have to be male and the only women are the main characters.  Guess what the complaint would be then?
A good writer doesn't need this kind of junk.  They know that if the characters are written well, developed, and interesting, they've done their job, even if it doesn't fit someone's identity group checklist.

Monday, July 21, 2014

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: The Comics Code Authority

“Comics are a new kind of harm, a new kind of bacillus the present-day child is exposed to.”

You don't see it any more these days.  Every single comic for decades used to have a little seal on the cover announcing its compliance with a voluntary self-governing code.  This seal meant that the comic had been checked over by the CCA and contained nothing considered improper for youths to read.
The story behind how this started is somewhat familiar to most comic book fans.  During the 1950s as the old popular comics such as Superman became less popular, comic book publishers started looking for other kinds of stories to attract readers.  Horror and more pulp-focused stories of crime and suggestive, mildly sexy stories started to dominate comic books.
At the same time, there was a growing awareness of a newer phenomenon called "juvenile delinquency" in which teenagers were causing trouble in ways they had not before.  Young people, previously fairly well behaved, were starting to rebel and become involved in crime, gangs, drinking, and even drugs.
A psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent in which he postulated that popular culture, mainly movies, television and comic books, were responsible for corrupting youth.  Alarmed parents, looking for someone to blame, grasped this concept and it grew in popularity.
Wertham testified before congress in 1954 before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency chaired by Estes Kefauver (later responsible for anti-mafia hearings).  Wertham was a distinguished Psychiatrist who had opened a clinic to help black youths in Harlem, funded largely by voluntary donations.
Dr Wertham's testimony was that comics of the time period were fixated on sex, violence, drugs, and sadism.  He noted (accurately) that Wonder Woman had bondage themes, then speculated that she was a lesbian.  He argued that comic book imagery, often lurid and suggestive at the time period, was having a negative effect on youths.  He was the first to publicly suggest that Robin was a homosexual victim of Batman's predation - that all sidekicks were likely such a relationship.
Dr Wertham pointed out what he considered 'hidden sexual imagery' in drawings such as tree bark and shading on costumes. He then went on to say that  that 95% of children in reform school read comics, and this was proof that it contributed to juvenile delinquency.
Dr Wertham also was very critical of television, calling it "a school for violence", and said "If I should meet an unruly youngster in a dark alley, I prefer it to be one who has not seen Bonnie and Clyde."
Comic book companies saw a trend in the mood of the public and congress.  Either they made a public display of dialing back the more extreme blood, gore, violence, suggestive material and unethical activity in comics, or they'd be forced to by law.  Already parents were having bonfires to destroy comic books and protesting their publication.  Some businesses were starting to refuse to carry comics, nervous about the mood of the country.
So the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) created a board that would check their comics, called the Comics Code Authority.  Among the requirements were that good should triumph over evil, and that police should not be depicted as corrupt or being killed.  Restrictions on the portrayal of concealed weapons and kidnapping were implemented.  Forbidden was any depiction of "excessive violence," "lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations."  Also banned were vampires, werewolves, ghouls and zombies, and the word "Crime" in the title.
Anything that seemed too sexual such as cleavage on women, bare midriff costumes, any depiction of "sexual perversion" and most "good girl" art were all banned.  Love scenes were to promote the "sanctity of marriage," and scenes of seduction, rape, sadism, and masochism were all prohibited.  The Comics Code Authority was very similar to the Hollywood Production Code implemented much earlier.
Eventually, comic books moved away from the code, starting with Marvel Comics in 1971 in a Spider-Man story specifically requested by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.  They asked Stan Lee to write a story showing how bad drug use is to kids, but the CCA rejected the story.  So Marvel ran it without the code approval and seal, and nobody seemed to notice.  Gradually, publishers began skipping the code, and by the late 1980s it had been dropped entirely from comics.
The general consensus, unstated or not, is that this entire episode was the result of right wing radicals and religious extremists oppressing art and freedom and trying to impose a rigid conservative ideology on the culture.  But was it?
Fredric Wertham himself was not right wing religious extremist.  His writings were used in the support of the Brown vs Board of Education decision, he fought for and was influential in the desegregation of schools.  Wertham was a disciple of Sigmund Freud who testified in defense of child rapist and cannibal Albert Fish, arguing that his fixation on religion was the cause of his madness (saying that Fish viewed his murder of boys to be sacrifices ala Isaac in the Bible and cannibalism was communion).  Influenced by Marxist cultural theorist Theodor Adorno Wertham, Wertham's efforts were continually for social reform, as defined by the latest progressive theories.
Historian and Wertham expert Bart Beaty wrote a book about the man, praising his efforts in the budding communications field, his progressive liberal ideas, and his fight for social reform.  Wertham was a strong defender of the Soviet Spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and wanted to write a book reconciling Freud and Marx.  He was consistently anti-business and anti-freedom of the press when it came to children.  When he opened his clinic in Harlem, Wertham named it after Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law who translated portions of Das Kapital into French.
Wertham never called for the burning of comic books, and in fact was not concerned with their content aimed at older readers.  He wanted laws to "protect" children younger than 15 from the more lurid and violent content, not understanding that they effectively were already.  Kids younger than 15 were not interested in the monsters and pulpy content of EC and the heavy text and wordy comics that he condemned were just not read by kids.
Its easy to see why, with modern eyes, Wertham is viewed as a prude and a right wing religious type. 
He was prudish and seemed shocked by sexual content.  But that was (and still is) not inconsistent with leftist political viewpoints.  Being concerned about children's exposure to sexual and violence content is hardly unique to right wingers, particularly violence.  It is the left, not the right, primarily fighting to get violence in games, movies, and television reduced.  It is the left that fought to get Saturday Morning Cartoons to be less violent.
Wertham's crusade seems quaint and silly today, but it was not at the time. Psychiatry at the time believed almost exclusively in nurture; that bad people were bad because of influences, not nature.  That juvenile delinquency was caused by exposure to bad things and corrupting influence, and that criminals were only that way because they were taught to be.  Prison became about reforming and socializing, not punishing.  
Wertham himself was a senior staffer at New York's Bellevue Mental Hygiene Clinic and before that the lead psychiatrist at Maryland's Johns Hopkins Hospital.  He was very well respected and his ideas not ridiculed or considered absurd at all.  There was testimony pointing out the poor research and shoddy work in his book and testimony, but his positions were not unusual at the time.
Ultimately the whole comics crusade was just one more effort by frightened and concerned parents to find something, anything to blame for their kids instead of themselves and the changing culture.  It was easier to blame movies, television, rock music, and comic books.  Disengaged parents, loosening cultural values, an inability to answer and deal with children's questions, increasing leftist influence in education, and a trend toward rejecting tradition and past ethical absolutes were unacceptable blame.  Better to find an easy to identify bad guy.
And ultimately, the whole thing fell apart.  Few really thought comics were corrupting children, because even the most gory ones never actually showed gore, only hinted, threatened, and suggested it.  Even a particularly shocking (and effective) tale of Dr Frankenstein building a woman from body parts he harvested from victims he killed had all the killing and dismembering, then rebuilding, happen off panel, undepicted in the comics.
But the result was comics became incredibly bland, choked off, and uncreative to the point of absurdity.  Those wanton temptresses Betty and Veronica from Archie comics were put in baggier outfits.  Images that remotely suggested anything adult were excised, cleavages were covered up, and so on.
Of course, these days comics have gone berserk the opposite direction, as the pendulum swings.  Now sexual content, horrific gore, nudity, drug use, foul language, and all sorts of perversity are shown in comics.  Homosexual main characters are trumpeted as some sort of great leap forward in progress, alleged heroes mangle and murder their enemies, and even Batman shrugs when his son decapitates a villain and brings the head home to show off to daddy.
Is this having a negative effect on teenagers and kids?  I doubt its having any effect at all - comics are more focused on late teens up to readers in their thirties.  They've pretty well abandoned the kids market and are losing readers pretty steadily to other media and entertainment options.
While comic book movies are making huge money, that's not translating into greater sales for comics overall.  People seem content to just watch a film rather than lay out 4-5 bucks for a comic once a month.
But the general belief that the Comic Book Crusade was some kind of right wing fanaticism, possibly tied in to the red scare which happened not long before, is without merit.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

Friday, July 18, 2014


Do not disturb, author at work

I got back my current book (WIP as some put it, work in progress) from my editor and I'm going through it with rewrites and editing.  He said he didn't have to edit as much this time and found himself being pulled into the work because there was much less to scrutinize than my previous two works.  That's a good sign, I would hope I'm getting better as a writer as time goes on but its always nice to get some support for that hope.
This next novel, Life Unworthy, should be out by fall this year, and I'm considering a Kickstarter campaign to get money to pay my editor, generate publicity, and perhaps pay for a cover designer, although I have a good idea for a cover in my mind and am learning better how to make them.
In my other writing, the gaming books I've written for Hero Games have been selling pretty well, and I got my first quarterly check.  Unfortunately that first quarter is also likely to be the biggest sales; everyone bought a copy that was aware of and wanted one and now its a matter of hoping word spreads to more and reaches more customers.  It wasn't a huge amount of money, but it was pretty good for me.
Work is ongoing for my fantasy Bestiary, full of strange and wonderful creatures such as these:
I'm hoping to get it out by this fall as well, to keep up interest in my gaming books and add to the library.  These books are actually up in the Hero Games catalog and they take a chunk of the sales, but I get the majority of it.
Just a reminder, I have a writer's blog now, focusing on the craft of writing and thoughts on work there.
I still haven't gotten tired of Skyrim, partly due to the abundance of addons and player-created content which about doubles the size of the game for free.  There are real problems with the game but the addons and amazing game play and world setting more than make up for them.
No trip to Salishan this year.  My aunt who gets the beach house once a year had surgery on her rotator cuff and just isn't up to carrying luggage and extra trips so no vacation for me.  But really, its not like I work a hard day every day and need a vacation anyway.  My life is pretty easy and calm not by choice but by necessity.
Keep your loved ones close and enjoy the summer, and I'll keep trying to get good content and interesting thoughts posted regularly here on Word Around the Net.  I'm a bit distracted with editing right now, so content might be a bit light but I'll do what I can.