Luke Cage

First of all, I am legitimately not, in any way, an expert on the greater contextual and cultural significance of Luke Cage, the series, as it pertains to blackness in America. I am no expert, nor am I even in a position to be an expert. If you’d like to read a take about blackness in Luke Cage and its first four episodes, check out these pieces on Women Write About Comics: They are better informed and better aware than anything I have to say. They do touch on something that I see in the other Marvel series, but we’ll get onto that when we get there.

I’m not only not black, I’m not only not black but in a culture that has dominated and oppressed black people. I’m not only not black and part of a culture that dominated and oppressed black people, I’m not even in the right culture that’s dominated and oppressed the black people that Luke Cage is all about. I am, simply put, nobody on that topic. Go read those posts, they taught me stuff, and crystallised some realisations. I do not think Luke Cage is a work that should be looked to as an example of How To Write Blackness.

As best I can see, Luke Cage is a work of media that wants its blackness to be palatable to whiteness and is willing to simplify things to do that. I don’t hold it against anyone in the show on that front, I just see that as a byproduct of being made by businesses that ultimately don’t want to piss off white people too much. Yet, that’s not a perspective I’d have come to on my own.

Nonetheless, no work is a single expression; while the greater throughline and message of Luke Cage can ring hollow, while it is a show that has as said, forgotten the face of its father there are still things, I’d say smaller things, in this series that I think are good ideas, good things for storytellers to reach out and learn from. Telling stories is hard, telling great stories is incredibly hard – you take whatever tools you can get from whatever source you can get ’em.

However, that stuff is more… fiddly. So let’s put it after a jump.

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Bad Balance: Paralysing Potential

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Paralysing Potential

Did you play a spellcaster back in 3.5? Did you play a Cleric? A Druid? A Wizard? God help you, did you play an Archivist?

The 3.5 spell list is an absolute swamp of bullshit, a completely festering mire of options that include procedurally generated X damage over Y area with Z range math-up messes that really form the basis for what you can probably handle, balance wise,  to spells which are unimpressive with one basic form, and totally busted if you think about them innovatively, spells designed to be worse versions of the former, multiple spells designed to fill the same space by designers working on different books, grandfathered together, spells designed to duplicate other spells just with a different flavour to try and keep the spell schools reasonably balanced, then some complete out-of-context nonsense that didn’t have any combat-or-existing mechanical application but suddenly changed the context of how combat even happened. Feel tired at the end of that sentence? Good, because it’s worse than that.

Spellcasters 3.5 were broken and it was easy to get a modest amount of broken just by paying attention to a few exploitable spells, but if you wanted to go deep, if you were the kind of player who was willing to marinate deep in the dank shit of supplemental sourcebooks or even just read through the ramifications of everything in the player’s handbook, if you were the person who bothered to use Scribe Scroll and stockpile every level 1 spell you didn’t wind up using in any given day until you had literally a library of the dang things, then you knew how broad, how busted, and how blinding your potential was.

There’s no surprise that players – despite the weakness – really appreciated Sorcerers. All sorcerers needed to know was a small handful of useful spells, rather than try to learn all of the spells present in the entire danging game.

The way I coped with it, myself, was to opt away from the full-bore spellcasters. My few times playing Cleric or Druid were times that DMs quickly started nerfing things on the fly. If you instead limited yourself to doing a smaller handful of things really well, you might be less powerful, but you’ll at least be able to make a choice on your turn without ever being stymied by the thousands of things you could do. Levelling up and building your character was still a long, agonising process, but at least that concentrated the wait.

These older editions would sometimes present you with complicated puzzles in the form of a combat arena and expect you to answer that question with a spell template; a line, a point, a single target, a circular template or maybe a chain. But then, the Wizard didn’t have to do that, they could answer it by teleporting away, by charming something, by becoming invisible, by summoning thirty tons of stone directly above the enemy, by becoming something else, by making someone else into something else, and all of these options were presented to you.

Now it’s your turn.

Pick something.

Go go go.

Ixalan In Review

Ixalan has now been fully spoiled! New cards! New deck potential! Things!

As always, I’m only going to really focus on the things I want to talk about and that means most cards get ignored because so what. The majority of cards are for people who aren’t me, like all the limited cards.

I’ll be looking at cards in terms of if I want to play with it or get a set or copy of them, and that means cards that I can see using in a multiple different decks or in one deck a few different ways, or, crucially, cards I expect will be pretty cheap.

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Robin Hood’s Canon

Robin Hood was one of those few story sources that could slip through the cracks of our tight ideological filter and land in my personal space as a kid. Disney’s Robin Hood was acceptable, for example, or old golden-book tellings of the stories of the man. There were anthologies and retellings and, of course, dozens of Christian versions of the same basic idea of a good person doing good in the woods dealing with an oppressing, wicked government, often with a queer-coded mincing villain.

Now imagine that you’re doing this from the perspective of a kid who mostly knows Biblical scholarship and doesn’t actually know that movies and TV shows are made by people, that they are stories. I actually thought for the longest time literally every single song was a literal, real experience of the person who had written it, that there was always an origin story for everything that was created.

Yes, that is weird.

The thing that I never quite put my finger on was what the story of Robin Hood actually was. I mean, we all know there are story beats about where the story ends up, and enough of things showed up in two or three of these overlapping stories that I knew there had to be something to it, but these things actually worked to reinforce in my mind that Robin Hood really existed. After all, there were all these stories about him splitting an arrow during a competition – they couldn’t all have made that up, right? It’d be impossible for them to all make it up and get the details so similar.

I guess what I’m saying is Biblical scholarship is a really silly version of media scholarship.

The funniest part of all this is that even now, thinking back on it… I still feel like the version of Robin Hood where he’s an actual fox is probably the truest one of the lot?

Game Pile: Diablo III

I have had Diablo III for some years now – years! – and literally never played it after the initial release. A friend bought it for me, a beloved friend, a dear friend, and it was a birthday gift, a special edition with fancy extra bits and all sorts of wonderful, wonderful intentions behind it, and I just didn’t play it. I didn’t play it because it didn’t feel like Diablo 2 to me, it didn’t have my Druid, it didn’t work. Also there’s few things as irritating as playing alongside people who Care A Great Deal about doing things in a particular way that you don’t really mind or care about.

Well, this week – well, not this week, a few weeks ago because I write in advance but the magic of scheduling – I randomly got a hair to try it out. I don’t honestly know why – perhaps someone mentiond it to me or I overheard something about the necromancer class or whatever. Whatever. I went down to the devil’s larder and I busted out some magnificently stinky Blizzard cheese.

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Rules Glue!

This started out as at first, a treatment of the evolution of the rules of Psionics in dungeons and dragons from its inception through to its incarnation in 4th edition, with an eye towards showing how you can respond to mechanical restructures, but it quickly became clear to me that that was both too huge an undertaking and also one I wasn’t all that qualified for. See, I can tell you about 3.5 and 3.0 D&D psionics, and I can tell you about 4ed Psionics, because I was there, I played with them, and I enjoyed and loved them at the time.

I can talk about how 2ed psionics were broken (sort of) because the mechanics of 2ed were broken (sort of). Thing is, that will be always the dissection of an outsider, someone who misses rules as written or worse, misses rules as experienced. Nobody is under any illusion that tabletop games aren’t done with some sort of rules fiddling around.

Thing is, as broken as some things are in a roleplaying game, you don’t actually test large groups of characters against one another. You test small parties against those same small parties, and against the challenges presented to them. It’s easy for me, a player, to recognise shortcomings between two spells, but fixing the weak spells might not be as high a priority as making sure the overall structure of a game is okay. D&D is a rare example in that we have a lot – a lot – of it to work from and that huge volume means we can hold up a lot of examples to be tested against one another.

What happens to make this stuff work though is, at the table, a person communicates the rules to another person. Then, people trust one another to make their rules work out reasonably okay. And that’s why it’s important to make your rules human interpretable. If you have rules that a human can feel comfortable explaining to another human, even if they explain them a bit wrong, things can still work because a human is involved.

Still gunna do a bit on 4e Psionics, mind you.

Steam Cleaning!

I’m trying to go through my unplayed games. It seems a bit of a waste of the time and effort of the people who made the games, then of the time and effort of the people who gave them to me. However, what does it mean to mark a game as done?

There are a few games I picked up or wishlisted because they were cheap. Some, I played a little bit, then decided maybe I’d try them another time, and it wasn’t until months later I deleted them to save space on my hard drive.

It’s not a problem. Not really.

Now I have a simple thing; if I’m done playing a game and feel no desire to come back to play it, it’s done. It’s completed. This may mean some games aren’t great returns on investment, but that’s okay, too. Some games I may play only long enough to learn I don’t want them

But at the same time, it is introducing me to a host of reasons to discard games. For example, I have Bioshock and Bioshock Remastered. I don’t have any interest in revisiting it, so that’s a matter of shuffling the game out of the main library. Some games I played for twenty-five minutes, and didn’t feel compelled to come back. That’s okay. Part of what a game wants to do is get you to play it – and if it doesn’t do that job, then it doesn’t do that job.

We need to be okay with not playing games. We need to be okay with having made small mistakes – I bought this thing I wound up not wanting. I’m not saying it’s not a mistake to occasionally buy things you don’t really want, because of sales or opportunity. But I am saying that it’s worth our while, generally, to be okay with once a mistake is made, that mistake being made.

There’s this line from the original Robinson Crusoe: To be in trouble troubled, is to have your trouble doubled. I think about it a lot: The idea that we can make our problems worse by chasing ourselves around in mental circles. That part of solving our problems is to stop punishing ourselves for having made them in the first place.

Daredevil — Season 2: This Got Silly

Season 1 of Daredevil was a fairly tight, coherent narrative that had a great big mystery to establish, and a story point it wanted to build to. There was the twin arcs together of Wilson Fisk ascending to his status as the Kingpin, and Matt Murdock becoming the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Good work, rounded well, mesh ’em together and you have a solid structure to fill in with incidents and plans and ideas and stuff.

Season 2 did not have any such singular narrative and instead spent all its energy on world-building and narrative construction that was going to matter later. It wanted you to know about Elektra, about Frank Castle, and about yes, finalising the book-keeping of the ascent of Wilson Fisk. There was also some attempt to make the Hand more prominent, to put Madame Gao in position, and to tie up and resolve the question of Nobu, as a character.

What you get as a result is a TV series that has a lot to get done, but almost nothing to say. Instead, the show tries to give you a whirlwind tour of important things while giving you almost nothing to make them hold together?

As with last time, no plot synopsis; no episode by episode rundown. What I’m going to talk about are things the series tried to do, to give you both a potentially interesting insight into the series, maybe a hit of media analysis, or just a way to continue experiencing something you already like. I guess you could also frame this as is there stuff in this that’s enjoyable, if I bother to think about it?

So, content warning about the violence and child death in the series and also spoilers after this cut.
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The Fundamental Superpower

More than anything else, invulnerability is the centerpiece of the superhero genre.

There are characters who can fight other people, characters who can beat opponents, characters who can shoot opponents, characters who can talk others down, plan things around them, characters who can present lethal force and characters who can present nonlethal force, but when there is a character – a heroic character – who walks through what the enemies do, unharmed, when they do not need to fear the people who can do all the others, that is the genesis of the story space that goes towards superheroes.

And what’s more, that invulnerability creates a new moral impetus. Suddenly, when a character is safe, when a character is beyond harm, there becomes a question of what to do with that personal safety? How many stories are about characters who are functionally immune to harm who idle around and boredly don’t do things?

This is one of those things Luke Cage does that I really love. There’s one scene, just the first scene where we’re shown his invulnerability, in action, in practice, and watching the physics-defying nonsense of two people trying to punch and hurt Luke and the action slows and stops and suddenly you just revel in the moment of our protagonist being utterly unhurt.

MTG: Examining A Possible UB Keyword

Hey, WOTC employees! As much as I want you to read my stuff, in the hopes you wind up hiring me to write for your sites like the Mothership and whatnot I have to ask you to not read this one because I’m talking about amateur designs and new mechanics. After the fold, we’re going to discuss The Empty Space For A Blue-Black Combat Keyword.

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