T’skrang and Gender Politics (Part the Second)

This post took a bit more time to put together than I expected. This is largely because it sidles up alongside some issues that are, in one way or another, sensitive. There has been quite a bit of discussion about gender issues in the greater gaming community (and I include both tabletop and video games in that).

My intention with these posts is not to push a particular agenda, but instead to discuss a realization that came to me as I was doing some development for the new edition of Earthdawn, and how that can be extended for any kind of world-building. Here’s that realization, as best I can sum it up:

The awareness of issues and experiences outside my own can lead to a richer setting.

This may seem kind of “world building 101.” However, it can be good to look at the basics, because the obvious isn’t always… well… obvious. Part of this also plays into that “controversial” issue of privilege. It can be all too easy for a creator to make the assumption that their own experience is all there is — especially when that experience is the societal “default”.

Awareness of other perspectives, and the difficulties that can be faced by those who fall outside the norm (in one way or another) are valuable for multiple reasons. It allows a creator a more varied creative palette to draw on. It can expand the potential audience for a work by offering characters and perspectives that speak to a greater variety of individuals. It can also avoid the problem of tone-deaf treatment of sensitive issues — especially ones that are widespread among certain segments of the audience.

I want to go into this by way of example, largely driven by the question:

“What if the Shivalahala Syrtis expresses as male after kaissa?”

(Check out the first post for a bit of background if that question doesn’t make sense.)

There are a lot of consequences and knock-on effects of that question. T’skrang society is matriarchal, and has been for as long as anybody is aware. Setting aside the underlying magic of the ancestral memories that get passed down the leadership chain, how would this society react to having this traditionally female leadership position being held by a male?

The other thing is trying to avoid broad-brush ‘everybody reacts the same way’ stereotyping. People (even semi-aquatic saurian people) are varied, and different people will have different reactions.

That said, we are looking at a pretty significant potential change to the fabric of t’skrang society. There are those who will accept it without batting an eye, while others could have visceral reactions against it.

 

To draw a parallel from present day, one of the most visible cases of gender division is the “blue aisle” versus the “pink aisle” in toy stores. Back in August, Target stores took steps to remove gender-based signage in their toy department. The move brought both acclaim and anger.

Even issues beyond gender equality and representation can be looked at for insight into the way people behave. The political landscape here in the United States has been divisive, antagonistic, and fiercely tribal. Gun control. Gay marriage. Taxes and business regulation.

Understanding those with a different point of view can help enhance a setting. It allows you to create authentic, fleshed-out characters rather than two-dimensional cutouts. There is a place for those, but if that’s all you have your world will be flat.

One other advantage to this awareness and ability to appropriately present different points of view — especially if you’re looking to expand beyond the work you create for your own group — is a setting with multiple points of view allows for varied stories to be told, and doesn’t needlessly exclude people because they don’t see a way for them to fit.

There is one more aspect I want to address, which will wait for final part of this series. Hopefully it doesn’t take as long as this one.

T’skrang and gender politics (part the first)

I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks working on wrapping up the setting chapter for the Gamemaster’s Guide for Earthdawn, summarizing what has (and has not) changed with the time jump. Part of this has involved going back to material published for earlier editions, looking at the situation at that time, and deciding what might have changed on both a large and small scale.

This has actually been pretty fun, in a “What if?” sense.

In the course of this, I realized there was one decision I would need to make that if not handled appropriately could have… troublesome repercussions from a gender politics standpoint (especially with regard to issues around matters of trans identity and exclusion).

For the sake of the uninitiated, I’m going to give you a big ol’ data dump of setting information to set things up here.

The t’skrang are a race of semi-aquatic lizard folk in the Earthdawn setting, they are generally a boisterous and exuberant people, with a culture that revolves around feats of daring, courage, and storytelling (with a healthy dose of tall-tale exaggeration thrown in to enhance the teller’s role in the story).

T’skrang have a matriarchal society, led by a lahala, the eldest female in the clan/extended family. This is more than a ceremonial or political position. Through a magical ritual, the lahala is granted the collective memories and knowledge of all prior lahalas from the line. Of course, this has the potential for complications if the lahala dies before the ritual is performed (not passing on the memories), or is corrupted by a Horror (and therefore passes that taint along with the memories — a factor that will come into play shortly).

As additional bit of necessary detail, t’skrang are born (hatched, actually) without a biological sex. It is not until puberty — which the t’skrang call kaissa, that the child’s biological sex is expressed.

All of this is lead-up to a bit of setting detail in the Earthdawn game. Many t’skrang settlements are part of a larger community called an aropagoi, or “Great House”, led by a shivalahala (“lahala of lahalas”) with the same sort of racial memory tradition. The shivalahala of House Syrtis — one of these aropagoi — is known as “The Prophetess” and provides guidance to those who undergo a pilgrimage to meet with her.

One of the prior holders of the title was affected by a Horror’s curse, and the subsequent shivalahala’s have all been unstable and gradually gone insane. In a radical break from tradition, the most recent t’skrang granted the honor was a seven-year-old child. It appears that the change has stabilized the mental health issues otherwise plaguing the position, as the child has displayed a wisdom and restraint that had been lacking for a while. However, there are those (in setting) who wonder what will happen when if the child expresses as male after kaissa.

For the fourth edition of Earthdawn, I decided to advance the timeline by a few years. As I said earlier, this means I need to look at the way things were, and decide how (or if) they would change. I was working on the aropagoi and realized — after doing some math — that the shivalahala Syrtis would undergo kaissa in the time between the prior edition and the new one.

So a decision needs to be made. Thinking about the matter, it turns out not to be straightforward, if I want to be aware of and sensitive to matters of real-world gender politics and social issues.

Let me be clear, I am not upset by this in the least, or cursing the “evil conspiracy of social justice warriors” for making this a question with interesting implications. As a straight white male, the increased awareness of social justice issues (especially in the RPG industry) has brought to light things that I would likely have been blind to just a few short years ago.

That is a good thing.

This post is already longer than I intended, so I’m going to close it out here for now and do a follow-up to explore some of the issues and implications that have come to mind over the last few days this thing has been bouncing around in my head.

Well that’s annoying…

So there was an update to WordPress, and it broke the old theme I was using.

I’ve patched this together in the meantime, but I don’t know how long the site will stay looking like this.

Today had been going pretty well. And then… just kind of slid downhill.

On the plus side, I did put some more reviews up.

Some new content

I’ve started working on something I’ve been meaning to do ever since I launched this new version of the site, namely migrating content from the old version over to the new one.

You should notice a new category up at the top of the page, where I will be posting reviews of RPG products that I wrote several years ago.

There’s a lot to migrate, so this is likely something that will go in fits and starts over the course of the next several weeks, but I plan to restore a lot of the content originally available through this site, including episode reviews and other commentary about Xena: Warrior Princess, some of my early fiction, and the adventuring journals from my old Earthdawn campaigns.

A life half-lived…

As has been my habit lately, I haven’t been posting much of anything to this blog. Last time I posted was back in early October. It is now the tail end of March. That’s six months. Half a year.

Also, as is my habit, I’m writing this in the wee hours of the morning as I am gripped with a case of insomnia and self-reflection.

We went on strike. The strike lasted about four months, from mid-October until the end of February. It was a long, difficult, frustrating process. I had my birthday on the picket line.

That’s kind of what inspired the title of this post. I mean, it’s kind of a play on a thought — I turned 40. About halfway through the typical life expectancy of a person. It’s also one of those lovely round numbers that we humans are so enamored with, the kind that makes you all introspective and shit.

And by you, of course, I mean me.

Going back to work four weeks go made me realize something. I do not like my job, and I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing it. Front line customer service is a draining, often thankless, annoying pain in the ass. It saps my energy. It makes me unhappy and short-tempered.

I’ve started looking for a new job, but my options are kind of limited. I had a very short college career — only completing one semester (that is a long story that I may get to one of these days). I never went back, for a couple of reasons. One, I could never decide what it is I actually wanted to do. Two, I am a generally lazy sack of crap that prefers to coast along as things are.

Now, with my family and financial situation, going back to school seems to be right out. Not that I know any better what I want to do now than I did twenty years ago when I first came up to this wattle on the neck of the east coast.

I really think I need to get out of Maine, or at least out of Bangor. This past winter was rough, and I don’t think that hanging around this area would be the best for me.

As usual, I don’t have the foggiest fucking idea what I’m going to do. Half my life is behind me, and I have no idea where the second half is going.

 

Insomnia

I don’t know where this one is going to go.

I’m sitting in bed, shortly after midnight, unable to sleep.

I’m not sure how much to talk about, or what to talk about.

Some things aren’t going well. The combined stresses of life, the universe, and everything are really weighing on me.

A couple of weeks ago, we learned (during our annual furnace tune-up) that we need to get the furnace replaced. This is a not-insignificant expense, and our financial situation was already tenuous enough.

The Earthdawn books are behind schedule. Part of this was an inability on my part to judge how much work was involved, as well as an almost pathological need for perfection. At this point, the Player’s Guide is waiting on art to be finalized, but the GM’s Guide is not anywhere near the shape I want it to be.

I am afraid. Of so many things.

The 9-to-5 is going okay. Not great. We’ve been working without a contract since the beginning of August, and there is a good chance that we will be going out on strike sooner rather than later. I don’t really like the job, and I really wish there was an alternative available that would provide for my family and not leave me waking up in the morning with bleak, fading hopes that things will turn around.

We are moving into fall and winter. Hopefully the anti-depressants and vitamin D supplements will stave off the worst of the winter doldrums.

I love my family so much. I can’t help feeling like I am letting them down, that I’m not strong enough, or good enough to deserve them. I’m scrabbling hard to keep us from sliding downhill too quickly, but I am having a hard time seeing any kind of positive direction at the moment.

I don’t know. I really don’t.

Hell, this whole post feels like some adolescent call for attention, a self-indulgent whine in the dark that things are hard, and I want them to be easier.

Some things never leave you. I can’t shake the feeling of that inadequate teenage dork who doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, and is terrified of being found out as a fraud and banished to the outer darkness. But that was half a lifetime ago — I’m pushing 40.

Seriously, does anybody ever really figure it out? Intellectually I understand that on some level, nearly everyone is stumbling blindly in the dark, doing the best they can to keep their heads above water. But why does it have to be that way? The universe is a vast, dark, unfeeling place when it comes to the greater scheme of humanity, but why does our own balance seem so askew? I think that the cosmos has whatever meaning we give it, and right now there are so many of us on this speck of dust that know something is off, some sense of justice or decency or empathy that just seems to be lacking…

Is this a cultural thing? I don’t think so, as there certainly seems to be enough of this sentiment going around in the world at large — though American cultural dominance makes it hard to tell how much is universal and how much is exported.

I believe in the inherent nobility and decency of the human spirit. It is just very hard to see at times.

Fuck if I know. Another sunrise tomorrow, and another one after that. Keep moving forward, and try to bring a little bit of light and decency to the world.

Phoenix arise! Arise from the ashes!

This blog has come back more often than Jean Grey. When was the last time I actually posted anything here?

September?!?

Sheesh.

Admittedly, I have been rather busy. You know, putting together the new edition of Earthdawn. Managing a successful Kickstarter (with the aid of several wonderful people). Dealing with press and questions and project management… all while learning the ropes as I go, and balancing all that with a regular 9 to 5 job and family life.

What I’m saying is, some things have slipped by the wayside.

Part of it is not really knowing what to talk about here. I have been doing a developer’s blog over at fasagames.com, talking about the new edition and stuff we’re working on with that (but as deadline crunch looms, that has faded a little bit). I haven’t been getting into as much media stuff lately, because time spent on that is time spent away from working on the game. Heck, I haven’t really even gamed much because I’ve had so much going on and only so much creative energy.

Still, the Earthdawn Player’s Guide is locked down and in layout. The Gamemaster’s Guide is still in the works (behind schedule) and a couple of other books are in the wings waiting for me to tackle them. I’m hoping that when the GM guide is locked down things will level out a bit.

But we all know how things like that go, don’t we?

If I’m totally honest, this past winter was rough. I ended up with a major case of Seasonal Affective Disorder this past February, with my Vitamin D levels at really low levels. It took me out of commission for a week, aggravating the depressive tendencies that crop up in my life from time to time (usually stress related).

This isn’t intended as a woe-is-me type of post, by the way. It’s just something that I want to be honest about — stress knocks you on your ass, slows down your output, puts you behind schedule, and makes you feel worse because you’re not meeting some kind of idealized objective you set for yourself.

Blah. I feel like I’m rambling. I suppose that will do for now.

I’ll try not to have another eight or nine months go by without a post.

All the Faces of the Moon

Just a quick note here. A friend of mine has set out on a crazy mad quest. Over the course of 29 nights, he is telling an epic tale of modern magic — each night a new monologue. Working from an outline he performs a mostly extemporaneous story, and is giving shape to a narrative that is very Unknown Armies in its feel.

If you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or American Gods, or enjoy the work of Tim Powers or Chuck Wendig, this should be right up your alley. Each show has been recorded and posted as a podcast so you can follow the whole thing.

Here’s a link to the podcast on itunes.

Check it out.

Success and Failure (GenCon After Action Report — Part 3)

So I wrapped up my last entry in this series saying that I was gong to look at success and failure in convention games.

On reflection, I’m finding it hard to get a handle on this topic. To begin with, how do we define success and failure? Is it a success if the characters fail at their assigned task, but the players have a good time? What about the reverse, where the characters achieve their goal but the players ended up with a mediocre experience?

Clearly this is a subject where we need to define our terms and narrow our focus.

I think, first and foremost, the enjoyment of the players needs to be a high priority. This is true with RPGs in general, but I think it is especially true at a convention game. You have a limited time, and it isn’t unusual to be an ambassador for the game you’re running; many people use conventions as an opportunity to play new games. A bad experience at the table can turn somebody off a game for a long time.

With that goal in mind, how do you ensure the players enjoy themselves? This is a murky area, since everybody enjoys different things when it comes to RPGs. At your home table, you generally have the luxury of knowing your players and knowing what scratches their itch (so to speak). At a convention, not so much. Your scenario should, in general, have elements that appeal to a broad spectrum of play styles. There have been thousands of words dedicated to different play styles, and I’m not going to rehash them here, but generally speaking you want to have a mix of combat, role-playing, and exploration scenes. You should also be prepared and flexible enough to expand and improvise scenes based on what the players are responding to.

Personally, I view tabletop RPGs more as interactive fiction, with the player characters as the protagonists and heroes of the story. Given the type of fiction I prefer, I want the PCs to succeed. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or that there won’t be setbacks, or that they won’t need to pay some price for success. But ultimately I would much rather see the heroes succeed than feel.

No doubt there is some amount of transference going on because success is one of the largest factors that determine my enjoyment when I am playing.

I find, however, that I approach convention games a little bit differently. Failure — overall, actual failure is an option I am willing to have on the table. Two of the three scenarios I ran at GenCon — Pilgrimage and Into the Deeps — end with a climactic fight that could, if things go badly, result in the death of all the player characters. In fact, one of the sessions of Pilgrimage all but one of the PCs did end up dead. The last retreated so that he could let others know what was going on and, perhaps, bring back reinforcements. So… success, but at a pretty high cost, and failure was a real possibility.

But this kind of ending can work and result in an enjoyable experience for the players — as long as it doesn’t feel cheap. In a one-shot there is not the same level of investment in the character as a player avatar. It is a more… singular experience, and much more traditional narrative forms like movies or books can have a kind of catharsis.

So that’s the large scale. What about the smaller scale — success or failure of an individual scene or encounter? I talked about this a little bit in my earlier posts, where each scene should have different ways to resolve the primary conflict. Personally, I hate having an early encounter short circuits a scenario. It isn’t fun for me as a player, and isn’t much fun for me as a gamemaster. Multiple exit routes from an encounter can help keep this from happening. But just as the large scale can have degrees of success, so can the individual encounters.

I think, perhaps, the best way to approach the notion of success or failure is to adopt an idea I have come across in relation to writing more traditional fiction (and improv theatre). Don’t set things up so that failure shuts down your scenario. Instead, failure should introduce complications that make it more difficult to complete the mission, increase the stakes, or make things more complicated in interesting ways. If the characters fail but the players feel that they could have succeeded if things had fallen a bit more in their favor — accumulated failure instead of instant failure — then I think you’ve hit the mark.

Quick news update!

We take a break from our current series to make an announcement. This actually happened at GenCon, but I could only talk about it now.

I have been offered, and I accepted, the Line Developer position for Earthdawn.

This means that I will be in charge of the direction and development of the game line, creative and otherwise. I will also be the public face of the Earthdawn game line on web fora and the like.

This is a big deal. I am excited, and a little nervous.