Friday, January 29, 2021

The Plague Pyramid

A new cult has arisen, worshipping death by plague and its locus is somewhere in the hinterlands, centered around a bizarre structure. Whether the plague pyramid is the result of a mad necromancer’s experiments with the mcguffin or whether the magic inside simply a response from a traumatized plague-ridden land itself is unclear. Either way, thousands of refugees have abandoned the cities and staggered mesmerized toward the infested pyramid, where a Plague Jester urges them on to the most debased and degrading acts.

 5 bucks, details in The Store.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Old School Gamer's Guide to Short-Selling

 Ok, so my players accidentally summoned Cthulhu and next week they have to fight him. Luckily I have the 1st printing of Deities and Demigods, with Cthulhu in it...

So I'm all ready to play on Friday.

Then a podcaster calls me up...

Podcaster: "Hey man, can I borrow your Deities and Demigods?"

Me: "Why would I do that? Your podcast is terrible."

Podcaster: "I'll give you a dollar!"

Me: "Ok, fine, as long as you get it back before my game on Friday. Because: on Friday, I am running a game."

Podcaster: "Perfect!"

So, The Podcaster gets my copy of Deities and Demigods. In fact, The Podcaster has quietly been doing this all over town, and now has thousands of copies of Deities and Demigods. They then sell them for 10$ each.

The Podcaster has 10$ (per customer). However, they still need to get my book back to me before game time and they don't have it.

However however, The Podcaster knows that their friends have been saying that Old School D&D eats babies. So they have them on the podcast.

Podcast Guest: "First of all, Old School D&D eats babies, also I hear that The Podcast is selling hundreds of copies of Deities and Demigods so it's pretty easy to get them, they're a dime a dozen."

After hearing this, many people no longer want their copies of Deities and Demigods.

They want to recoup their losses, so they want to sell them back to The Podcast.

The Podcast's like "Sure, we'll buy them back...for 4$".

Everyone's like "Look, that's not a great deal, but I don't want to have to sell this book later when it's worth even less, so fine."

Now The Podcaster no longer has 10$ (per book) but they do have 6$ per book (they made 10$, bought it back for 4$) plus the book.

They have a nonzero profit from selling, plus they still have the original merch. They then give it back to me, having made a profit. This works because to the supplier (me) the main interest in the book is the book whereas Podcaster was mainly interested in buying and selling it. It's value to me is static, its value to him goes up and down based on what other people do or don't want.


So, now, what would happen if, once all those copies were bought, instead of accepting that the OSR eats babies, people just kept buying those copies of Deities and Demigods, kept wanting them?

Well, the price would go up instead of down, because they're in demand. Suddenly:

And the Podcast still needs to get my book back to me by Friday. We have a contract. That's the law. So not only is the price high, but they are obligated to pay it.

I get my book back, my players meet Cthulhu, they establish a psychic link using Psionic Ability I and decide to be friends instead of fight him. They're all happy.

So: everyone who bought a copy of Demigods off the podcast will get rich, I get my book back, and the only loser is the Podcaster who was trying to trade on the book declining in popularity.




Monday, January 25, 2021

Unseelie Fae Race, for Old School D&D

Dad, where do new character races come from?

Well, sometimes a gamemaster gets a text from a goth girl who is also a game master...


character race (part fae / part tiefling)

Fly: 30’/round (half of human ground speed)

Infravision: 60 feet

+1 Dex

+1 Cha

Pick size: 6 inches, Halfling size, Normal

Pick one (pointy ears are free): Horns, antennae, hoofs, double-length fingers with extra joint, thorns all over body, devil tail, active webs all over body or just in hair, fires burning in pupils

-2 Con

-1 Str

Roll hit points twice and pick the lowest at every level

Double damage from iron weapons (most weapons are steel, iron weapons are primitve) d4 damage from just touching iron

Ordinary people will not talk to you—peasants, most commoners, etc are terrified of faeries

Spells /bonus spells (Pick two)

(use each once per day--twice per day or pick a third at 5th level, three times or pick a fourth at 10th, at-will or pick a 5th at 15th level)


Detect Magic 


Shrink (opposite of Enlarge)


Unseelie Fae owe allegiance to Queen Nyctalis of Broceliande. She may call upon them for a service.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Donna Brazile Kills A Duck

Inauguration day. This is only a little political but trust me, it'll be worth it.

Ok, so:

Over on the left of this inauguration photo there's Donna Brazile, former chair of the Democratic National Committee. She wrote a book a little while ago that mainly got press for revealing how, when she took over the DNC after an emergency, she realized the party may have been in the tank for Hillary all along in the primary against Bernie. While that's all interesting and important, what's been criminally overlooked is her book is well-written and fucking hilarious.

This is from during the campaign, while Brazile's staying with philanthropist Glenn Hutchins in Martha's Vineyard and working with Obama's team on disaster response in Louisiana.

So while I was supposed to be relaxing in the comfortable rocking chairs on Glenn's porch on Martha's Vineyard, I was on my phone and iPad communicating with FEMA and with the president's staff about the record flooding in Baton Rouge, making sure that resources were going to the places where they were needed, and fielding calls and messages from hundreds of people in my extended circle who were trapped or displaced by the flooding of ten rivers. And into the middle of all this walked the Damn Duck. 

Evidently someone in a Donald Duck costume kept showing up at Donald Trump's campaign rallies calling him out for ducking the release of his taxes. Ha ha. With all the noise and confusion and flat-out fear of this campaign, the duck did not surface to the level of my other concerns until one of my bosses at ABC emailed me. The message was titled, "I hate to bother you on your time off…" and it read: "BUT—Richard Bates of the Walt Disney Company is trying to reach you about the DNC's using Donald Duck. He is desperate." Then the phone rang, and it was Robin Sproul, the DC bureau chief from ABC News. 

"Donna, you have got to stop using the duck," she said. 

"What do you mean?" 

"Well, the Clinton campaign and the DNC are using Donald Duck at these Trump events," Robin said. 

"No we're not. I didn't approve that," I said. 

I looked online to see what she was referring to and suddenly I was seeing that duck everywhere: in Los Angeles, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and even one going down the escalator in Trump Tower, just as the other Donald had to announce his candidacy. This duck got around! The Damn Duck was even issuing press releases, questioning if Trump was not releasing his tax returns because he was not as rich as he was claiming to be, or didn't really donate to charity, or didn't pay any taxes. And press reports said that Donald Duck was from the DNC, intending to follow Trump wherever he appeared to heckle him for not releasing his taxes. 

I sat on the porch at Glenn's looking out toward Katama Bay, stunned by the idiocy of whoever thought this was a good idea. I have never been a big fan of people dressing up in animal costumes to make a political point. This was not the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and it was not Mardi Gras, either. I'd been chair for less than a month, but I thought I'd taken control of all these different factions and finally calmed things down. Here was evidence that I still had to resolve many ongoing things lest the party continue to be embarrassed by these amateur stunts. Donald Duck is owned by Disney, which owns ABC. In addition to all the other trouble the party was in, we just might have a trademark infringement case on our hands. I had to stop the Damn Duck. 

"A duck?" I said to Glenn Hutchins. "How the hell did a duck get past me?" 

So I called Patrice at the office. She said she would have someone from the press office call me, because they had been coordinating it. 

"You mean we have a duck?" I asked. "We have a duck! Why do we have a duck?" 

I hate the duck. When I was a kid people used to call me Daffy because my name was Donna. I don't want no damned duck, and now Richard Bates, the ABC vice president of government affairs is calling me. I called the DC office again. 

"Kill the damn duck!" I said. "Kill the fucking duck, G-ddammit! 

"Why are you worrying about the duck?" 

"I hate the duck!" 

The idea that the campaign—and as far as I knew it was not the DNC—was paying someone to follow Donald Trump around in a duck costume struck me as the opposite of what we should be doing to keep the focus on Hillary's strengths as a candidate. And, by the way, was this not proof of paid protestors? Every time Donald Trump made the claim that we were paying people to protest his rallies, we denied it furiously. That was just not something that the Democrats would ever do, and then here was the Damn Duck. I started emailing up the ladder at the campaign to get to someone in a decision-making role to fix this, but the first person to respond was Brandon. 

Brandon said this was no problem. The campaign and DNC lawyers had signed off on it and besides we had not heard anything from Disney. 

The reason I was emailing was because we had heard from Disney. 

I was sitting on the porch of this beautiful home hearing the soothing sound of the ocean just a few hundred feet away but I was spending all my energy on this duck. Glenn was part owner of the Boston Celtics, and inside the house in the kitchen were three very fine-looking basketball players making me breakfast, and I was out here where the WiFi signal was best, trying to get someone to pay attention to the risk posed by this Damn Duck. I was supposed to appear on that panel about the presidential race in a few hours, but I could not settle in and focus on the comments I was going to make. Who could I get to kill the Damn Duck? 

By the afternoon I had made some progress in convincing some of the campaign leaders and lawyers that the duck had to go, so I could concentrate on making my case for Hillary at the panel, but the duck was always in the back of my mind. I sat at the front of the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, my iPad on the table in front of me so I could follow the updates the Obama administration was sending me about its response to the storm. I was in touch with the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of Baton Rouge as well as with FEMA. In between notifications from them, I was getting distracted by messages about the Damn Duck. 

By the next morning I got a call from Charlie Baker wanting to know why I was worried about the duck. 

"Charlie, because I'm still—I'm on leave from Walt Disney, which owns ABC. I'm an ABC contributor, and it's their duck. Not my duck. Not the DNC's duck. It's their duck and they do not want us to use the duck. Please stop using the fucking duck." 

I hung up the phone and looked online where I saw they were using the duck at a noon Trump event. 

I'm slow to anger, very slow, but once I am angry, get out of Delores's way ("Delores" is Brazile's nickname for herself when she's angry -Z.). I called Marc Elias, the lawyer for the Hillary campaign, and told him that I had heard from ABC and Disney about the duck and he had to kill it. 

"The duck is the intellectual property of Disney. They could sue us, okay? Do you want that story out there? Hillary's about to go to California to raise money and she's going to see Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, who is holding this fund-raiser, and this is coming from him. What do you want to do? Have him cancel the fund-raiser? I know you all want that money. So get rid of the fucking duck!" 

"Donna, this was Hillary's decision to use the duck," he said. He explained a close friend had suggested it to Hillary and she thought it was a great idea. Apparently someone wanted to use Uncle Sam but Hillary's friend vetoed that, saying a duck was a lot funnier. 

Was he kidding? He was not. What a brilliant decision! Can someone get this message to her? Is she the only one who can kill the Damn Duck?

Marc Elias was the man to call. By noon he had killed the duck once and for all, and the next morning I was able to enjoy my breakfast with the NBA. I enjoyed it very much, in fact.    

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Game Design Isn't Engineering It's Biology

One thing you notice if you pay attention to critical indie game designer circles is: jesus christ these people play a lot of D&D. I mean, even the ones who have a critique D&D or hate the company or say they're permanently emotionally scarred by it or whatever. Last time I was in a game store the counter guy said Fate was what everyone should play instead of D&D--that isn't what the co-founder of Fate thinks because what he's playing in the pandemic is D&D. People like D&D. They like Vampire. They even liked Shadowrun. They play games that they are sure they can do better than.


Here's what I think: everybody needs to stop pretending they know how games work. We don't. You know what Gary Gygax did? He made a game with no dungeons, based on a wargame, it was ok, and then Dave Arneson added dungeons and messed with it and both of them were probably influenced by Braunsteins--which, like, the guy who made that didn't have any idea that it was a whole pandora's box to go, in the middle of a wargame, "Yeah, sure, you can drop leaflets on the island to try to start a revolution, that's part of war I guess"--and then somehow this combination produced the game that makes people want to play games or make games or never shut up about games.

And then--none of them ever made anything that good ever again. Lejendary Adventures anyone?

In the '90s, Vampire: The Masquerade came out and completely changed the industry--Call of Cthulhu was already out, Chill 2nd Ed was already out--also a game with slick art about modern horror, and yet neither were a patch on Vampire. And then there was Werewolf and a series of other games which were fine, sure, but that were exactly as less-popular-than-vampire as the monsters they were named after were.

And then the people involved never made anything that popular ever again.


I could go on: Sandy Petersen on Call of Cthulhu, Pondsmith with Cyberpunk, any number of indie darlings, this industry is littered with not just one-hit wonders but also Clever Game Theorists who never produce anything that catches on. 

I think there's a reason for this: nobody really fucking knows what makes games work.


So that's where the title of this post comes in. Engineering is about what humans make--you understand a principle, you understand the physics behind a simple machine, you build bigger and bigger machines based on these understood things. Nearly everyone in the industry talks about games this way--as built bit by bit from knowable parts that they can explain to you.

But it's not like that--making a game involves spinning a metastatic cotton candy web of fictions and then making the rules key off every part of those fictions (often in chaotic ways you didn't expect to have to do when designing the project) and it becomes much less like building a car and more like when a novelist tells you the characters start telling them what they have to do next.

A game isn't a machine you build--it's an animal that you find living next to the mouth of a volcano and you didn't know anything could live there and then you study it.

Engineering is starting with nothing and creating something, biology is starting with something and going ok what the fuck?

People have real trouble with the idea that some beardy paternalistic Christian '70s insurance guy is smarter than them and so they think game design can't be that hard. Well it is, but not for the reason they think--they're not trying to compete with the people who made D&D because the people who made D&D are right next to them on the ground watching their creation stomp around Tokyo smashing buildings breathing fire and they don't know why either.

A successful game is like a platypus. You're probably doing less useful game design when you point out all the things about D&D or another mainstream game that shouldn't work (It's poison! It's got an electromagnetic beak!) than when you're trying to figure out why it does work anyway despite all the other competitors that don't.

Just as, on paper, a bunch of random electrochemical reactions should not have resulted in self-replicating cells which should not have resulted in a tyrannosaurus which in turn should not have eventually evolved into a cornish game hen, no adult should be so attached to sitting around a table playing pretend with way more paper and accoutrements than necessary with no audience for four hours. That shouldn't work.

Like biology, game design must be understood as the study of the workings of things that should not work.

This requires a humbleness in the face of unknowing which is wholly uncharacteristic of nerds. It requires a letting-go of the comforting nerdwords of predictive science like "will" and "should" and "always". It also requires knowing (this is very difficult) that all the things you know you got right weren't necessarily the important thing.




Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Best Saint George

Lancing point-first from horseback is the hardest way to hit a dragon. By the Renaissance—with its humanism—St George had graduated to a sword and was taking slashing blows at it. But Bernat Martorell, painting his George in the International Gothic style of the mid-15th century, was still holding to the Medieval ideal—the one in all the best paintings: take the creature at spearpoint.

You can see the reason—keeping the dragon very far away. It was said to have plague. If you like metaphors, you might say it was the plague. St George’s dragon specifically is always curiously small and at the bottom of the painting. This seems to be an allegory of poisonousness—it is not a great beast that rips your head off but a thing low and insidious, that nevertheless is dangerous enough to require a sheep a day and that—when you are out of sheep—will take your virgins. Also: harder to hit.

Regardless of the numerous delusions and myths involved, there is a kind of real success here: for humans, for art. 

You and I know more about the world and science than Bernat Martorell and that audience of victims crowding that zigzag fortified city ever will. You might even say we know more about art—we know what perspective is, for example. They thought pelicans had tits and squirted blood from them, and almost all of them were very unfair to people in ways that we now know are barbaric, they were scared and religious and every kind of -ist. But they were capable: they knew about horses, they knew about the weather, they could handle shit-stained terror you will never know, and they survived the fifteenth century—and you didn’t. They didn’t die or crack up. And, importantly: they resulted in you. We need them.

And we can all agree: the fifteenth century was terrible. Even a normal day would kill us all five times over. Nearly everything you’ve ever complained about was for the lack of something they hadn’t even invented yet. But they kept going—and that is real. That is why you can read this now.

They had ideas and one idea was St George. St George the man is unimportant here, what’s important is what idea they wanted out of him.

He’s a saint doing something interesting for once—pictorially and philosophically. He’s not just getting burned alive for being extremely Christian or pointing at some wheat and then the wheat grows, he’s taking an action we can look at in a painting. And he came prepared: he wore armor, he brought his charger. He knows he needs a weapon. God will not protect him—he didn’t protect the sheep.

Take a moment to appreciate this image not as an emanation of an all-encompassing faith but as a series of choices that were not like the previous ones. So much of early Christian legend is about the heroism of being martyred for being Christian—boiled in oil, poked by sticks. The stakes of those tales are: getting to be Christian. This isn’t that. The stakes here are people in a town getting eaten. 

We all know what it is like to cower behind our battlements, hoping to not be the next to die.

Not new stakes in the history of human myth but positively pagan by the standards of Medieval philosophy and that’s the point: St George was not theologically important (or even consistent)—he was popular. The people would take a miracle, sure, but what they imagined was a person who would show up and offer practical help. This was more comforting than the hope a hippie would offer waving his hand and hey food, or hey the dragon is nice now. This was a compromise that faith, hope, and charity made with the life of people, as lived: brutality, everywhere, and nobody doing anything about it. They didn’t hope for a miracle, just some guy would do.

People always want a hero, of course, but style tells us how they wanted it, or expected it. St George is not carrying a boar-spear: thick-bladed, stout, with a cross-piece to keep the boar from getting at you as you puncture it. St George isn’t in hunting-gear—he is dressed for war—he is dressed to kill people. The dragon isn’t just an animal, it’s a philosophical terror from the other team—it is all philosophical terrors. Nature, bad behavior, the unknown, whatever.

It’s easy to condescend to medieval people and the typical analysis of this would focus on how we have an oppressive armed class trying to present itself as noble and helpful and pious but there are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides that of evil. One of the nice things about art is that—even at its most propagandistic—it has to pass through the hands of an artist, who has to translate from the desires of the patron to the impact on an audience. People have to want to look at it. And the artist can only speak to what is human: art only ever works on a person if it speaks to real feelings people have while avoiding the easy stuff—the buttons every other artist knows how to push. And every other artist did push them—there are remarkable St Georges by Paolo Uccello, Vittore Carpaccio, Raphael, Rogier van der Weyden, as well as thousands of more obscure and totally unknown artists. Painting a St George that stood out was like trying to do a triple-A FPS. Yes, its all very exciting and violent, Bernat, why should we care about yours?

There are always these Medieval faces—they barely react—any expressions they have seem like they might be accidents. But the very ordinariness of that trope or limitation carries a meaning. Bernat Martorell has very closely observed a great many things and he knows that people have facial expressions—and he has decided that he doesn’t care. He is eminent in his profession, he has brought to the field of painting a great many technical, compositional, and observational innovations, he has looked very closely at the faces of people and animals, closer than most people in his lifetime. And, he has accepted the wisdom of the age: fuck facial expressions. The knight looks positively drugged.

The monster gets to have a facial expression—everyone else: you just do it. This is life: horror, jawbones littering the ground, watching from the parapets of a walled city (the cities needed walls—that was normal) and what you feel about it? Not the important thing, to Bernat Martorell, finest painter of his nation and his age. Women and men and even the innocent sheep are stoic. Goodness is stoic, facial expressions are for villains. Who has emotion in medieval art? The laughing skeletons of the danse macabre, ferocious beasts. Passion, immoderation, indicates a problem. Which, y’know, in a world where the guy with the bigger stick than you is almost always also the person with more rights than you and all doctors suck, is understandable. So: what does Martorell offer in the way of hope and counterforce?

Precision. The opulent precision of every detail, eminently D&Dable:

Three dark and jagged shapes: saint, beast, cave-mouth. Three white shapes: horse, cape and breastplate, the virgin's ermine. Gold on the knight but far more gold on the dragon. Then all the rest: outer works of walled fields with a grape arbor, moat with swans and ducks—two definitely mallards, embankment with a wandering path on the far side, walls 30-40 feet, 4 towers, one balcony, battlements, arrow slits, three alternate entrances, a towered bridge with two openings where the moat splits, king in brown, queen in blue, exquisite jewels for the virgin, three local salamanders, a clever horned sheep which has somehow worked the line so she’s still alive even when the virgin’s supposedly next, armor flared at the side wing and gauntlet, misericorde with gold pommel, horse with gold rosettes at bit and browband (worth at least 450gp), white leather saddle matching the coat of the courser, sheep skull, human skull, jawbone, section of spine, and the dragon, you might now notice, is collaged from batwing, peacock-feather, lizard and crocodile, and all these people in their hats, leaning out to see how it ends.

A comparison: Carpaccio's St George (one of three) is also very precise, and full of ornament and gore, and wonderful, but it doesn't have near the balance and clarity of Martorell. It's almost Games Workshoppy in all its self-annihilating, protobaroque detail:

The soil we've grow in is so much more scientific than they ever were—but they had to wrestle what order and understanding they had from a morass of ignorance—everything incomplete, inaccurate, provincial, poorly-communicated, shipped by donkey, suboptimal, and translated from latin by drunks with scabies—and yet look at Martorell's canal, tunnel, swans swimming, the magnificent painted armor: these were achievements not to be measured against how much better we could do now but against a daily saga of mud and misery and guesswork and repetition we can’t even imagine. There is no real religion here: this painting is a human achievement which celebrates human achievement. Saddlery, metalwork, architecture, orderly and protected fields. A humanism not of human feeling but of human doing.

The painting has so many of the limitations of its context—that horse’s head is just too small—but it’s so much better than Masaccio’s Holy Trinity with its perspectivally accurate barrel vault. Just as the lance is a tactical gamble—minus to hit, plus to initiative—it's an artistic one as well: the whole painting has to build off the tension of that one loooong diagonal. And it does. (This is hard, most contemporary fantasy illustrators don't try it. When Wayne Reynolds gives you a big-action diagonal, he usually gives you four or five other cris-crossing angles to support it.) The painting takes what technology it has and makes a marvel from it, which is all anyone can do. We are ignorant and insufficient, but we are necessary. This is what we have and we do our best. This is how you kill a dragon.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Dear Daniel Fox / Zweihander Guy,


First, let's get this out of the way you can skip til after the picture of your game if you want: 

We're not friends, I'm not defending you, I don't like you, I think you're a monster, you supported fake allegations, that's terrible, you should've called for an investigation, you burned books and that's weird symbolism, etc.

That's not what this is about. 

Zweihander is a retroclone of Warhammer
if anyone needs context.

What this is about is I am letting you know that a bunch of people who I also do not like are about to try very hard to cancel you and they will do it for a long time.

Prepare for an oblique reference to this very post from this guy
with a lot of in-jokes underneath from his friends.

Why They'll Do It

Basically, in their mind: you're up next.

The reason they're going to try to cancel you is that you're doing well with your game or they think you are. Most of them want to be in your position, or at least want to stop being reminded that a person can be successful being like you instead of like them.

It's true they have other grievances (legitimate or not, it's not important right now for this post) but anyone whose tweets are read by over 10,000 people in this tiny crab-bucket of a community will be magnified enough for people to find grievances if they're motivated. They are motivated because: 1) you're big and 2) you didn't hire them and 3) you are still on social media and thus within reach.

It irritates them that you are a relentless marketer, it irritates them that you (like me and them and everyone else in the part of RPGs reading this) espouse progressive values but that you do it while not being their personal friend, it irritates them that you are making probably-ethically-dicey decisions about working with large companies that they do not have the opportunity to be tempted by, it irritates them that you work with Zoe Quinn and the Swordsfall guy and thus can burnish (legitimately or not) your progressive credentials. But really everyone else in RPGs has as many things someone could complain about, it's just--you're in front of them in line so they care. 


"They" is not vague and not a conspiracy--conspiracies are secret and this is not secret. The core of it is the cloud of Old School Renaissance people who hang out around the Troika/Melsonian Arts/SWORDDREAM clique and the OSR discord and OSR 4chan.  These guys love harassing designers, they've been doing it for years, and they hate talking to people outside their bubble.

Probably lots of other people also don't like you, but these folks see you as in their space and are particularly organized when they decide to do harm. They treat each other like a support group that can only protect its members by attacking people outside of it. It's depressing to say but they've become a sort of homegrown OSR version of Something Awful: inside jokes, dadaist tweets, bad faith assumptions, and a complete terror about changing their minds in response to new information.

They've talked shit about you for years because of your relentless self-promotion but the most important thing is the list of possible targets has shrunk:

Mike Mearls is off twitter, Adam Koebel is cancelled, Raggi only hangs out in his own Facebook group, Frog God is quieter after their scandal, all the really right-wing people like Pundit were never taken seriously, James Maliszewski finished his walk of shame so long ago most of them probably don't remember and everyone else is either not in their lane (storygamers, cthulhu guys), doesn't promote their work with their own name (Mork Borg), too big (Mercer) or has some clear claim to marginalization that makes them a harder target for people pretending to have progressive values.

So, basically they're targeting you by default. When they think of "we make indie swords-killing-goblins but not THAT way" they think of you. In ten years this will seem quaint: everyone who produces indie RPG content will be anonymous to avoid this kind of thing. But you're not so you're next.

"I'mma do a thread".


The inciting incident for this open letter, and what makes it a good object lesson is:

Ok, so recently we've all been talking about politics because of the Capitol terrorists. (Yes, I myself trotted out my footage of cops aiming guns at me for Black Live Mattering two blocks from city hall and then taking me to county and I asked why they weren't doing the same to these chuds at the Capitol.)

So, in your string of basically unremarkable progressive political tweets--the same ones pretty much everyone reading this makes--you "liked" some right wing guy complaining about losing his book deal. Maybe you suddenly meant, out of nowhere, to reverse polarity and become a right-wing media mogul, maybe you were liking it mockingly as in "I like that this guy lost his book deal". 

No matter which, anyone in the community who is upset by this and wants to say anything about it in public has exactly one reasonable course of action: talk to you and ask lots of questions, engage. There's other things to do if that doesn't go well or if they don't believe you after, but that's the first thing any responsible person does. (Gee Zak why don't you talk to these people? Because they blocked me long ago.).

That, of course, is not how the crab-bucket works: somebody assumed the worst, tweeted it out, got lots of retweets, saw you apologize/clarify, but no matter, now very many of them are busy subtweeting about how you're still evil because, well, that's what they do:


How They Will Do It

1. This is not your cancellation moment. 

This is just an early scuffle. However: every single time they vent any other grievance with you, they will refer back to this moment. They will do it so often that it will be taken as an article of faith among the less clever that it was somehow proven that you supported whatshisface right wing guy. Any attempt to explain yourself will be dismissed as "getting into the weeds".

2. This will happen over and over.

They say one thing and even if it's debunked half of them won't remember, and then a few months later there'll be another and the people who believed the last one will believe this one twice as much because of the last one, then maybe that gets debunked but then there's another--and on and on until one sticks because (all together now) the RPG community offers no social punishment for spreading misinformation.

3. Most of them probably don't believe it...

...but they already have decided to dislike you enough that they don't really care. The way most of us don't care whether David Cameron fucked a pig's head, we just think "Hey he did worse things, why investigate? Sure." So many of them have already put you in the category of people who don't get to have fairness

4. Some of them will believe it. 

Several sacred crackpots are part of the OSR-As-Group-Therapy clique. Sooner or later someone like that will interact with you, or see something you've done that seems harmful to them, won't contact you, won't investigate and will say you're a monster all over the internet. At least three influential trolls have already decided you're the next bad man they will never shut up about. Some will spread it out of malice, some will spread it out of the naive assumption that anything earnest sad people post is true, many will spread it just because they are apathetic to you and you're kind of in their way (like what you did to me).

5. There won't be a working defense

...because you are seen as having power and the person they will trot out to attack you will be seen as not having power, so no argumentation or logic or attempt to be nice will fix it. And if you ignore it, they will just begin to campaign to professional gatekeepers like conventions and book outlets and publishers that you be kept out of various spaces.

6. Having allies helps them attack you

You now have fanatics! You know what that means: people can pretend to take literally any preference you state as a threat. Why? Because if they disagree they might hear from the fanatics! And you know you have them--and so all your conversation is coded messages to this fanatical Zwei-army! And this person planning on attacking you? They aren't the aggressor--they are a victim of your fanatics. These fanatics have already stopped them from attacking you--silenced them even. Literally having fans makes you guilty.

7. Angry, meet Dishonest and Gullible

Once they get a certain critical mass of shares going for whatever they're hating on you about, they'll get the Something Awful refugees like Kai Tave in on it (because they will hate on anything) and then the Story Gamers (because they will believe anything). At that point people who control things will be like "We're getting a lot of complaints" and...that's all they need. Just to sense that there's more money in hurting you than being neutral. And you'll be done.

8. You are not allowed to do nothing

If you're thinking "Well I just won't do anything controversial" that won't work. Once you're targeted by people like this, they never let it go--people who worry about whether a guy who produced a clone of a game from the '80s that was tabletop who didn't do anything to them personally but advertises his stuff a lot and annoys them and has a beard is woke enough do not have other things to do with their lives.

The only thing you can hope for is an equally juicy target shows up and it divides their attention. They will keep sniping at you for years until they find something that gets traction. Why not? If they snipe and miss there's literally no downside and a good chance it earns them followers because you're bigger than them and thus a more interesting subject to followers than whatever their indie game is.

9. Apologies might work, but not forever.

Apologizing will only create a demand for you to acknowledge and be responsible for more and more of their own baggage. Once they see they can get someone with more juice to do things, it's "Why aren't you attacking this target for us with All Your Power?""Why didn't you ever do this thing we never brought up until now and never heard of?""Why are you friends with this guy instead of that one?" Even if you can convince some of them to trust you, they will be allied to-, and feel more kinship with-, the people who joined them in complaining about you in the first place who don't trust you. You will always be disposable to them--plus they're all scared of being cancelled as well if you fuck up again.

There's this sense that somehow, in some way, the only way to honor the feels that their vulnerable community has is to tend the tree of liberty with the blood of Slightly More Successful Artists. You're worth more to them as a sacrifice than as a henchman.

Maybe maybe you'll read this and do something to stop it before it happens. I don't know.  I don't know if that would be good or bad, in the end, but I'm generally pro-information.

This nerd is literally talking about bullying you into a locker

Why Do I Care?

Like I said at the top: I don't like you. I don't like them either. I mainly just want everyone else reading to understand what's going on when they watch them try to take you out in 6 months or two years, and I don't want anyone to fall into the temptation to pick sides or assume either side has a point or that this is about ideas or politics or empathy or free speech or whatever y'all pretend it's about. It's about: in a community you either follow quaint little ground rules for disagreements or there's an endless power struggle. And you both chose the endless power struggle.

Y'all deserve each other, but that doesn't mean everyone else does. 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Frazetta Says There's Gonna Be A Fight

Sword & Sorcery is Frank

Sword and sorcery is very Conan, by which we mean to say it's very Frazetta. Unless your Conan looks like this...

The Conan of heavy brow, long dark hair, aswarm with muscle--the one in Marvel Comics, the one Schwarzenegger played, the one Jason Momoa played--is Frazetta's.

As the graph shows, people kinda had stopped talking about Conan until he showed up and started doing covers:

A thing I notice more than I expected to notice once I started gameblogging was how much images and illustration shape our ideas of what genre stories are going to be like. And I don't know about you but I've seen way more barbarians than I ever read about.

So, the question I want to talk about now is: what stories is Frazetta telling us about the genre he paints? 

Frank Frazetta grew up on comics, he started out as a comic book artist, he worked for years doing nothing else (including ghost-work forever on Lil' Abner), his work appeals to comic book fans, the comic pages he produced with his mature style were amazing, the originals of his paintings are sold on websites that also sell comics, but I don't think Frank would have achieved the status he did or would have had the impact he did on a public that did not--up until that point--give a rat's ass about who made fantasy art if his paintings were basically just "great comic book panel, but on a longer deadline". This is not to say Frank was better than any given great comic cover artist, but that he was giving us something subtly different than the great comics cover artists, supplying some until-then-unmet demand.

Which Was What?

Here's a thing you can do with a painting, to see what story is being told: List what you notice about it, in order.

Red beard on right.
Foreground guy's extreme pose.
Blood on the sword.
High axe on the left.
(Left beard guy's pose isn't great.)
The modulation of the snow.
The reddish foreground and vague intimation of rocks.
Everybody's white.
The right beardo's brow is kinda wormcolored.
He's losing his helmet.
Snow sprays.
What is going on with right hand beardo's non-axe arm?
The way their ankles sink in snow.
The gray in all their muscles.
Their belts and armor are so thick.
Lots of circles in this composition.

Ok, so let's look at somebody else (Ian Miller):
Wait is it a machine or an animal?
Wait is this zigzag thing a border or is this a machine?
Wait does he have a lighthouse on his head?
Is the fish moving or rotating? If he was how come the lighthouse is straight up and down?
Hey there's a little guy.
Does he know the fish is there?
The fish's expression is mournful.
Is this a metaphor?
He is part-machine but he has feelings.
Also he's old. Like: this is some janky old technology?
Look at how those scales are done. 
Hanging over those shadow areas.
Yeah this is a weird little world.

So what are the important differences here? Well for one--Frank has no question marks. You always know where you are in a Frank Frazetta painting. Frazetta's fantasy world is not enigmatic. We don't go "Oh what's this?" We know exactly what this is. It's frost giants. And we definitely know why it's there: so we can watch them fight. Where did those shields come from, what culture? The store where you buy fighty shields. 

That's not an automatic or even usual thing in art: we are in another world and yet we know exactly what's up.

Frazetta saves all depth and subtlety for rendering alone. The axes, poses, mountain shadow, these are Vermeer-Velasquez-tier attempts. The light falls where it will be most beneficial. It is magnificently rendered. In service of? Showing you that it's magnificently rendered. This is not as common as you might think--especially among illustrators, who are allegedly supposed to be telling you a story about the thing the illustration wants you to buy.

This painting's for the cover of "At The Earth's Core":

Never has any fantasy illustrator--nay, perhaps anyone in any way involved in fantasy as a genre--ever given less of a shit what is at the earth's core. What's there? A monster and a babe. Why? So we can see the monster be black and green and coiling from purple mist and we can see the babe be hot and fleshy. What layeth within the veins of this pullulating Earth, oh Frank? Uh...brown. Not even a stalactite, Frank? Nah.

Frazetta's backgrounds are gorgeous but they don't ever make us go "What's up with that place?" What is up with that place is the painter painted it with subtle colors in a way that makes it look cool. It's like Frazetta has a little bottle of Gaspar David Friedrich that he squeezes into the back of the painting...
Friedrich (1800s, German romantic) cares about ice. You see the ice, you see its complexity...then you see a boat. We've just been told a story by this painting:

Once upon a time ice, which I bet you thought was boring and static, got all crazy and spiky and killed some people. And now it's terribly quiet and lonely again at the north pole. Isn't nature wild?

Frazetta's paintings tell a story, too, but it is a remarkably simple and consistent story: There was this cool ____ who met this cool ____ in this beautiful, faraway place and they fought:

And, yes, there are ones that aren't fights, like the ones where somebody's just won a fight or is looking for a fight. Some of his best ones have no fights:
But I've never seen The Reassembled Man on the side of a van.

Just as Michaelangelo had the Medicis and popes, Frazetta's biggest career-peak patrons were Clint Eastwood (who got Frazetta to do a poster for The Gauntlet) and Sylvester Stallone (who wanted him to do a poster for Paradise Alley).

Who are these guys? Actors--that is: artists, who took acting classes and had to read plays and sometimes learn to dance and sing--who play tough guys. This is a nerd-jock overlap, where the question posed is often: What do I, a jock, want with a story about ancient civilizations and monsters? Fights. 

Ok, so it's maybe not an amazing insight that Frazetta paintings have a lot of fights, but let's look at how Frazetta paintings interact with the narratives that are attached to them.

Your Story Vs Frank Frazetta

You ever see From Dusk Til Dawn? Here's what I remember: Salma Hayek is in it and not nearly enough. That's pretty much it. That is also what Frank remembers:

Robert Rodriguez got interviewed about the poster:

That's why when Frank Frazetta saw the movie originally he called me and said “Where did you find this gal? I wish I was painting her when I was painting these things!” I said, “She's based on your paintings, that's why she looks like your paintings!” He said, “Oh, okay.” The whole costume design and headdress was all based on that painting....His whole comment on the poster is “That's all you need on the poster. You don't need anybody else but her and that snake.” I said, “Well, we kind of have to put in the other actors, too, because it's George Clooney and Harvey Keitel...” He said, “Alright, alright.” But if you look at the painting it's 90% Salma and at the very bottom is George Clooney. He didn't even bother to put Harvey Keitel on the poster! It's just George Clooney, Richie and he didn't even draw in the vampires, he just [put in] the monkey guys he usually does. Quentin and I thought that was the best. Alright! He didn't even bother with our vampires, he put his own creatures that he always has in his paintings! It's so fantastic.

Frank decided the only good thing about the movie was Selma Hayek with snakes and then he took it out of the movie and put it on the poster and now the movie is boring.

Have you every read this book?

I have. It sucks. I mean, ok: Edgar Rice Burroughs is a visionary, yes. He invented 4-armed apes and those martians and decided to have a story set on Mars before most anyone else did. These are all good ideas--but the execution is like: Jon Carter is good at everything! Then he gets to Mars and, guess what? Earth men are better than everyone on Mars and are super-strong and can jump like whoa. Then he meets someone who looks like a human on Mars. Guess what? She is super hot and loves him. Also a princess. He gets in a lot of fights, and you know what? He wins. 

What did Frazetta do? He put everything good about the book on the cover. Mars! Alien flowers! Alien building! 4 -armed apes! A weird alien! Heroism! Fights! Ok but where's the hot babe?

Ah, there she is. On the back. Along with a cool building.

Here's Edgar Rice Burroughs' description of the first building Jon Carter ever sees on Mars. That's a big deal, right? First evidence of an alien civilization. Time for some awe and wonder, right?

I was determined, however, to explore the low structure which was the only evidence of habitation in sight, and so I hit upon the unique plan of reverting to first principles in locomotion, creeping. I did fairly well at this and in a few moments had reached the low, encircling wall of the enclosure.

There appeared to be no doors or windows upon the side nearest me, but as the wall was but about four feet high I cautiously gained my feet and peered over the top upon the strangest sight it had ever been given me to see.

The roof of the enclosure was of solid glass about four or five inches in thickness, and beneath this were several hundred large eggs, perfectly round and snowy white. 

That's it. am I being unfair to the ur-titan of sword-and-planet sci-fi? Maybe, let's try to find a more impressive building. Let's see what else he's got:

A word from the leader of the party stilled their clamor, and we proceeded at a trot across the plaza to the entrance of as magnificent an edifice as mortal eye has rested upon.

Oh shit, this is going to be good... 

The building was low, but covered an enormous area. It was constructed of gleaming white marble inlaid with gold and brilliant stones which sparkled and scintillated in the sunlight. The main entrance was some hundred feet in width and projected from the building proper to form a huge canopy above the entrance hall. There was no stairway, but a gentle incline to the first floor of the building opened into an enormous chamber encircled by galleries.

I mean...ok? Now look again at Frazetta's building. It's wonderful--especially from a guy who never draws right angles, hates painting architecture and--as noted--doesn't start you off with mystery.

In a million ways, Frazetta is far more of a poet than Burroughs: his Mars has fights and monsters and babes but it also is a place of weird, looming, colored light, picturesque while it is brutal. It's all in the rendering. The Burroughs books best use is to simply: let you pretend you are in this painting for a few hours.

I had a job to work on a Conan-influenced RPG once and the publisher sent the Conan book he wanted me to use as a model. I was reading it at my girlfriends' Airbnb while she was falling asleep--

"The girl on the cover is so cool I want to be her"

"Oh yeah?"

"Will you read to me the part you're reading while I try to sleep?"


Four sentences in...

"Oh it's so bad. Ok stop."

And this is a non-native-english speaker. Now, Howard's not for everyone but the point is: at least for her, Frazetta sold the book and the rest is details. Worse details.

So what is sword and sorcery according to Frank? Beautiful. The women are beautiful, the men are beautiful, the monsters are beautiful, the jungles and animals and plants and (rare) buildings are beautiful, the horses are beautiful, the backdrop planet that hangs like a moon too-big and in the wrong colors is beautiful, the violence is beautiful. Everything is a paragon of its class, nothing is undercut by being a lackluster example of itself.

Ok, fine, what artist doesn't like beautiful? But consider some side effects: since everything is a paragon, almost everyone is the same in Frazetta:

The two guys? They're heroes. What are they like? They seem to expect some danger but otherwise--one's blonde and one isn't. The woman? She's like them only wearing less clothes. 

It's not just that Frazetta makes things beautiful, it's that the beauty of the things is his story.

Just because a painting is beautiful and a genre illustration doesn't mean it has to tell that story:

That's Bob Pepper. He's telling a story about danger and conflict and monsters's saying something else. Also, Pepper has achieved something Frazetta never has--he makes the book look like it might be good.

Frazetta tells us only this story: These people fought and it was beautiful. Because it is not just a beautiful painting but part of its beauty is based in everything in it being very good at being itself. Some artists find beauty in ugliness, humbleness, quietness, not Frazetta. He finds beauty in beauty. Or, as anyone who has tried to photograph the Grand Canyon and failed can attest, he does a harder thing: he shows us a painting which makes the beautiful thing beautiful even after its been reduced to two dimensions. 

Frazetta and the Sword and Sorcery Narrative (or lack thereof)


Ok, I do have some questions about the Egyptian Queen: Is she, like, supposed to be there? Is she a captive? Is she scared of the leopard? What is that column made of? But something about how she's lit--like a stripper at the beginning of her stage time--tells me no-one involved cares or will tell me.  They're there so the painting will be there. Frank serves no god, not even the narrator. The column is made of those colors because that is the most beautiful thing. She is smooshed against it because it is the most fetching pose. The leopard looks hungry because Frazetta finds the beast at its most beautiful when its stalking. 

The genius of Frazetta as a sword and sorcery illustrator was that he told you not so much why you'd want to read that book but rather why you'd want to read sword and sorcery at all. This world is beautiful that's why. The flipside is: not a single fucking plot detail. Sometimes he didn't even read the books.

Think of a really good sword and sorcery tale--as soon as you get into details you get away from the Frazettian vision. That Fritz Leiber story where the Snow Women are waging cold war on their husbands? Too satirical for Frazetta. Jack Vance? Too clever by half. Clark Ashton Smith's 7 Geases? What kind of hero just shows up and gets immediately cursed?  Frazetta would fight you and all of nine nations before he put a trap or make a picture that showed how a magic item worked or painted an evil king next to an advisor maybe he didn't get along with.

It's hard to make an engrossing time-based entertainment that's just a string of superlatives. You can watch seven seasons of Game of Thrones because it has politics and treachery and characters that aren't all the best fighter in Westeros, you can read Tolkien because there's a riddle game and Frodo and Bilbo aren't sure they are heroes, and Boromir is maybe bad and there's an invisibility ring and...details details.

But there is no time in a painting--you get it all at once. So Frank doesn't care. There doesn't need to be a plot. All that shit they tell you in screenwriting class about setting the stakes before the fight? Don't need to: everyone in the fight looks cool and they're fighting in a cool place. That should be enough for you jamokes. Fuck stakes.

That Frazetta movie, Fire and Ice? It should've just been like John Wick with skeletons. Just 120 minutes of axes forged by a generic non-culture smashing skeletons.

I don't know if this makes Frazetta the best or worst possible tutelary deity for game masters and game designers. It is beautiful to be in a dungeon, it is beautiful to fight a dragon, who cares about anything else?