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People Whose Work I’ve Been Enjoying Lately

Presented in no particular order:

  • Shivam Bhatt (Twitter, Tumblr) — He wrote a personal, important reaction to Wizards’ recent unveiling of the new plane of Kaladesh from the perspective of both a fan and a deeply passionate advocate for diversity and representation beyond a simple re-skinning of fantasy tropes. Since reading it I’ve begun to follow him on Twitter, and he strikes me as someone smart, authentic, and passionate, who is really good at being a fan of problematic things, and who wants to help make the things he’s passionate about even better.
  • Alexis Kennedy (Twitter, Website) — A writer whose work I’ve admired since I stumbled across Fallen London, a game that was instrumental in helping me move on from Warcraft addiction. He recently went freelance, and just announced that he landed a guest writer gig with BioWare and subsequently had this wonderful interview with PC Gamer and this succinct piece on games writing for Gama Sutra.

    Now all I want to do is hinge owls and play the Cultist Simulator.

    (Bonus round: Sunless Sea, the last game he worked on with the company he founded, has an expansion coming in October. This may be the kick in the pants I need to pick it up and explore.)

  • Mikey Neumann (Twitter, YouTube) — He’s a writer on Borderlands and the Chief Creative Champion at Gearbox, but where I’ve been enjoying him most lately is on Twitter and his Movies With Mikey series of YouTube video reviews. He’s someone who doesn’t find it worth his time to make content about things he doesn’t like, and that results in a funny, self-aware, yet ultimately affirming series of reviews. Not as “crunchy” on the technical side as some, but I almost always learn something from watching his stuff and his passion shines through in each piece. Entertaining, smart, and positive.
  • Sara Kipin (Art Portfolio) — I don’t know anything about this artist beyond what’s on her portfolio page, but this is an instance where a picture is worth a thousand words. Her work evokes an image of fantasy I had as a child, with a sense of whimsy and wonder that’s simultaneously grim and sedate, primal and proper. It reminds me of the original Evaline Ness cover illustrations for the Prydain Chronicles. Check it out.

Joy as Resistance

I had a moment recently where pieces of a puzzle that had been jumbled up in my mind finally turned and fit in just the right way. If you’d like to follow the same path I did, it starts with this tweet.

In the New York Times piece she links, Jo Chiang writes about how queer relationships are exploited for emotional effect in film and TV, often with tragic outcomes. The constant drumbeat of pain in the lives of fiction’s queer protagonists normalizes a narrative that’s reductive, pernicious, and untrue.

She states that these portrayals don’t match her experience, and argues that it behooves the queer community to bring positivity to the media narrative of their lives. Joy as resistance. Triumph over tragedy.

The specific battle that is personal for her isn’t personal for me in the same way, but what really strikes me about it — her point in the piece, or at least my takeaway from it — is that one can celebrate happiness as an act of social justice.

Ever since I was a kid growing up against a background of good old-fashioned Protestant guilt in a family with VERY high expectations for the quality of my moral fibre, I felt deficient. As my awareness of world affairs grew the guilt grew with it. I continue to be cisgender, male, able, educated… how can I relate to real problems in the world? What is my duty to participate in solutions?

I’ve felt that I abdicate my responsibility as a member of a privileged class because I don’t know how to meaningfully exert an influence for good in the face of a shitty, fucked-up world that seems to hurt everyone more than it hurts me. I’ve used that privilege to turn away and ignore it, thinking it’s just too enormous and awful to bear, building a feedback loop of self-recrimination, willful ignorance, and inaction that I imagine is all too common among those in my situation.

What I realized in reading this article, though, is that there can be nobility in the pursuit of things I already care a great deal for. Most importantly in this context — that by focusing on the positive aspects of things I love, I’m not ignoring or diminishing the real struggles and pain that exist. I’m providing a critical counterpoint to them.

I’m a rather timid person. I’m not good at getting angry, or at being angry. Anger can be a potent force for change, and my ineptitude at building and shaping that emotion has left me feeling unsuited to the task of speaking on issues of social justice. I AM upset about what I see, but not only am I bad at converting anger to positive action, I’m also held back by doubts about the authenticity of my perspective or the validity of my speech as someone who’s not directly under attack. As someone who considers themself to be an ally, silence is not an option. How can I speak out in a way that is authentic to me while honoring the experiences of those I claim to support?

This is how. Joy as resistance. Anger isn’t my strong suit — but I am good at being excited, and explaining why I like the things I like, and why I think they’re important and significant and useful and valuable. And the things I like? Sure there’s a bunch of fluff and chrome in there, but there’s also the righteous, impassioned speech of others. Radical, queer, authentic creations across the spectrum of human experience and emotion. Things that are just and good and true. And those are things I can talk about.

So, more cards on the table. The speech I’m talking about here is often literally about cards. Games. Pastimes and diversions. Things WAY up the hierarchy of needs, that those in far more dire straits would find a luxury to even contemplate. I grapple with that every day, and I acknowledge that the space I’m operating in is completely removed from the biggest, most fundamental problems facing humanity right now.

But I believe that in its own way, creating and fostering a space where everyone feels comfortable and represented and invited to imagine a better future through play is a valuable pursuit. A place where otherness can be explored in safety. Where conflict can be writ small and solutions can be found that don’t involve buying guns or building walls. Where empowerment comes from self-actualization through modes of fantasy that while escapist, also point us to better versions of ourselves.

The world needs women in reasonable armor and men in elegant dresses. It needs black Iron Man and Muslim Ms. Marvel. It needs fanfic where the Avengers have happy, stable relationships and go out for coffee together. It needs balance, nuance, and normalcy in depictions of queer lives. Joy doesn’t have to be blind or sanctimonious, but in a world where tragedy sells and violence against marginalized groups is the grim status quo it needs constant, active representation.

And that’s a battlefield where I can feel at home.

The Quantum State of Fandom: a Triptych

Over the past couple of weeks a series of posts have emerged, initially sparked by the surprise change of allegiance in the latest Captain America comic reboot, that represent a spectrum of perspectives on the current state of fan culture.

Faraci’s initial polemic is useful as a springboard for discussion, but I think the pieces at The Daily Dot and The Mary Sue paint a more nuanced and hopeful picture of the way fandom is interacting with the creations that we adore. I agree that a sense of entitlement exists among some segments of the fan community (as Faraci rightly points out), and that it isn’t creators’ responsibility to cater to this in the least. But there’s a bright line between entitlement and valid criticism, and another between the creator’s canon and derivative fanworks.

I believe that on sum, active engagement of creators with fans (and vice versa) is enriching the medium and the cultural space we inhabit, and the more voices that are heard, the more we all benefit. Having a few strident bad apples caught up in the mix is a price worth paying if we must, because today’s most passionate fans are the ones who’ll be producing the transformative, genre-defining works of tomorrow.

(Also, slice-of-life fanfic where beloved characters get to lead normal, happy lives is pretty much the greatest.)

Tibor and Lumia Commander: Super Flying Wizard Tribal Beatdown

The following is an introduction to the Commander deck I’ve had the most fun brewing over the past couple of years, in the hope that you, too, may enjoy nuking your opponents from orbit with the power of the mighty Wizard tribe.

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The story of this deck begins with an experience made possible in a game from long ago. Before Skyrim and Oblivion, there was The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, which for my money is still the best in Bethseda’s series of Fantasy RPGs. Beyond its configurable UI, complex (and satisfyingly metagame-able) leveling system, and seamless open world travel, Morrowind included a spellcrafting system that allowed a practitioner with skill and knowledge of the proper effects to combine them in new and powerful ways.

By the end of the game, a wizard could build a 100-yard radius fireball that dealt enough damage over time to completely annihilate the residents of a small village, and could craft a spell of flight that brought her high above the town to rain destruction at her whim (followed, inevitably, by restoring from a save to revert the deaths of critical NPCs).

It’s this feeling of soaring high to unleash doom across the landscape that I had in mind when building with Tibor and Lumia, the capricious Izzet mages who “trace the horizon in a dance of wind and fire.” To get there, the deck requires several key card packages.

Commander (1)
Tibor and Lumia

As described above, the deck’s primary game plan is to:

  1. Make wizards.
  2. Make wizards fly.
  3. Cast a giant X damage spell and copy it as many times as possible to nuke everything from orbit (hopefully not dying ourselves in the process).

Beating our opponents senseless with an army of flying wizards is an acceptable Plan B. Tibor and Lumia help with both of these goals by granting flight (albeit to only a single creature at a time) and dealing damage to the pedestrian creatures left below.

Perhaps more critically, helming the deck with Tibor and Lumia presents a less threatening multiplayer profile in a color pair and tribe that are often seen as highly dangerous at a Commander table.

Flight Synergies (6)
Student of Elements
Archetype of Imagination
Paragon of Gathering Mists
Levitation
Diviner’s Wand
Mudslide

Giving our wizards flying isn’t just an aesthetic preference — it protects them from Tibor and Lumia’s wrath, and makes the majority of our Earthquake-style nukes asymmetrical. Wizards that grant flying themselves are perfect here, and Levitation is a shoe-in. Mudslide is a rediscovered Ice Age classic (?) that works as a pseudo-Prison effect (especially effective with Archetype of Imagination).

Spell Copy (7)
Nivix Guildmage
Echo Mage
Meletis Charlatan
Sigil Tracer
Melek, Izzet Paragon
Uyo, Silent Prophet
Dualcaster Mage

A self-imposed restriction in creating this deck was that it only contain creatures of type Wizard. In other contexts this could be seen as pretty threatening — wizard tribal allows for repeatable countermagic (Ertai, Wizard Adept, Patron Wizard) and insane card advantage (Azami, Lady of Scrolls as Commander). While we do include plenty of card draw, the role of wizards in this deck is balanced around ‘leveling up’ our combo with another core wizardly proficiency — the ability to copy instants and sorceries.

Finishers (9)
Comet Storm
Earthquake
Fall of the Titans
Fault Line
Magmaquake
Molten Disaster
Rolling Earthquake
Starstorm
Dark Sphere

Our deck deliberately avoids some of the standard finishers and board control cards in blue and red — no Insurrection, Rite of Replication or Cyclonic Rift here. Instead, we rely on a suite of red X spells to get rid of pesky opposing creatures and, ultimately, other players. The best ones are those that hit everything, since our goal on the turn we go off is to do enough damage simultaneously that it all gets burnt to a crisp.

Dark Sphere helps us not die to our own nukes, and may be the most important card in the deck if we want to actually win the game (though drawing cataclysmically is a satisfying alternative).

Ramp (18)
Basalt Monolith
Sol Ring
Grim Monolith
Pyromancer’s Goggles
Izzet Signet
Mana Vault
Worn Powerstone
Thran Dynamo
Everflowing Chalice
Gilded Lotus
Hedron Archive
Mana Crypt
Dreamstone Hedron
Thought Vessel
Trinket Mage
Goblin Electromancer
Apprentice Wizard
Aphetto Alchemist

To get there, in addition to our spell-copying wizards we need ramp: lots of ramp. Blue and red are challenged here, so we must resort to the best artifact mana available. In this context Trinket Mage is usually a tutor for Sol Ring or Mana Crypt, while Aphetto Alchemist acts as a Voltaic Key.

Card Advantage (18)
Braingeyser
Stroke of Genius
Blue Sun’s Zenith
Mind Spring
Invoke the Firemind
Azami, Lady of Scrolls
Mercurial Chemister
Jushi Apprentice
Sage of Fables
Magus of the Future
Nin, the Pain Artist
Jori En, Ruin Diver
Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius
Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind
Arcanis the Omnipotent
Vedalken Aethermage
Snapcaster Mage
Etherium-Horn Sorcerer

I’ve discovered in play that the deck often stalls after deploying its opening hand, so ways to refill and keep building for the finish are critical. Two types of card draw fit naturally with the themes of the deck: X spells (like Braingeyser) and wizards (like Mercurial Chemister). I’m still working on finding the right balance of these.

Combo Protection (5)
Force of Will
Pact of Negation
Venser, Shaper Savant
Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
Vandalblast

In the initial build of the deck I had a lot more countermagic in the form of wizards with built-in counterspells (Kheru Spellsnatcher, Voidmage Prodigy, etc). In keeping with my personal Commander philosophy I ended up winnowing these out. Force, Pact, Venser, and Teferi are still in, but only to help ensure our game plan of world annihilation can be safely executed.

Lands (38)
Mirrorpool
Tolaria West
12 Snow-Covered Island
Snow-Covered Mountain
Command Tower
Wandering Fumarole
Temple of Epiphany
High Market
Sulfur Falls
Steam Vents
Cavern of Souls
Reliquary Tower
Vivid Crag
Vivid Creek
Homeward Path
Shivan Reef
Temple of the False God
Izzet Boilerworks
Ancient Tomb
Swiftwater Cliffs
Riptide Laboratory
Cascade Bluffs
Izzet Guildgate

Our mana base is pretty standard Izzet, with a few notable on-theme inclusions such as Mirrorpool and Riptide Laboratory. Tolaria West is most often used to tutor for the protection of Dark Sphere when we go off.

As mentioned at the top, this is the Commander deck I’ve had the most fun brewing over the past couple of years. Thematically it’s a blast, and when it works it really evokes the “nuke everything from orbit” feeling. It fits my Commander criteria of doing something strong while not inhibiting the play of other decks at the table, and its big plays are always memorable.

I haven’t had enough experience with the deck to know whether it consistently performs the way I’d like, so I plan to update this when I’ve had the opportunity to get more reps in with the current version (last updated with cards from Battle for Zendikar). As a work of deck design it’s the concept I’m the most proud of, and I hope to prove that it stands up in the various metagames I’m a part of.

For my next Commander deck tech I’ll be tackling Horde of Notions Elemental Tribal, the deck I’ve consistently had the most fun playing since my Commander journey started four years ago.

Quiet Contemplation Episode 4 – Meta Narratives

In which William and Dave discuss Shirobako and the appeal of stories that are about the telling of stories, and the craft of media.

Things referenced in the show:

Pathfinder Reboot: Episode 3 Recap

When we left our heroes, you had just finished dispatching multiple waves of zombies swarming from the shadowy confines of a ruined lighthouse.

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Entering the lighthouse, you encountered a pale spectral figure: the revenant spirit of Archon Thaddius, the stonemason tasked with its construction long ago.

He explained that he was part of an expeditionary group of settlers who had attempted to start a Chelish colony on the island over 60 years before. For awhile the small town flourished, but as it began to send trade back to the north the cannibalistic fishmen—sahuagin native to the waters around the island—took notice.

Many bloody battles with the fishmen resulted in the demon-worshipping settlers being pushed back to the brink of extinction. Instead of surrendering their bodies as food, those that remained poisoned themselves in ritual suicide. Only Thaddius rebelled, barricading himself inside his impregnable stone refuge, where he eventually wasted away into the revenant you encountered.

Chelish zombies now roam the marshy swampland to the northeast of the lighthouse where the settlement of Moak Harbor once stood. The forboding jungle looms to the northwest, while the beach where you landed snakes back around to the south and the wreck of the Garamond. Rocky islands jut out of the water further west, with narrow sea channels between them and the equally rocky coastline.

At the very end of last session, Thaddius granted you access to the cache of weapons stored on a lower floor of the lighthouse. It includes well-preserved short bows, long bows, and crossbows of each standard type, along with barrels of appropriate ammunition.

So armed, you feel more ready to face the challenges that lie ahead. Do other remnants of civilization cling to this cursed island? Will you find a way to escape these dismal shores? And what karmic retribution has fallen upon you that you should have landed in such a place…

Pathfinder Reboot Codex: House Rules

Perception and Knowledge

Perception checks work with some significant differences in our house variant rules. Instead of placing ranks in the Perception skill, when the GM issues a challenge related to observing something hidden or subtle, characters may roll a d20 to perceive. Outside areas of their experience, characters have a base 10% chance (a roll of 19 or 20) to spot the inconsistency. If actively seeking, this chance increases by 5% for each minute spent in search.

If the character is experienced in the area, they have a base 30% chance to spot inconsistencies (roll 15-20 for success). If actively searching this increases by 10% per minute, or may simply result in immediate discovery.

Experience in a field of perception may relate to the character’s class, race, skills, feats, background, or adventuring history. Encountering a similar situation in the past prepares a character to observe such subtleties in the future. Experience is granted at GM discretion, but players can make the case why their characters should be considered experienced in a given situation at any time.

Knowledge Skills

Knowledge grants experience (as defined above), and experience grants knowledge. If you have a knowledge skill in a particular area, odds are very good the GM will rule you have experience in that area for the purposes of perception checks. Likewise, if the GM rules that your character has experience in an area, odds are you have some knowledge of it and can roll checks based on that knowledge to bring information to mind that is relevant to the topic.

Unlike perception, ranks in knowledge skills are worth having.

Also noteworthy in this regard: training in non-knowledge skills confers some knowledge of topics related to the skill. Often this will be very specific (“does this cliff look climbable?”) but if you can propose a creative use for the knowledge a skill confers, the GM may allow it (“I’d like to use my experience as an Escape Artist to see whether it looks like he’s faking the knots on the ropes holding him.”) There are some special cases to this; see the note about Knowledge: Arcana below, if you’re a spellcaster who likes detecting magic.

Detecting Magic

Ahh, good old Detect Magic. As a cantrip, it’s effectively been reduced to the CRPG minimap radar ping of Pathfinder. Because of that, we’re changing how it works a bit for our campaign.

The cantrip still works as advertised the first round you cast it: you get a “yes/no” answer to the question “is there magic in the direction I’m facing (60° arc, out to 60 feet), or in the item I’m examining?” Notably, doing a 360° sweep to yield this binary information takes six rounds (36 seconds) to complete.

If you would like more information than this, house rules start kicking in: the concept of experience as outlined above works similarly when detecting magic. As you hold your detection on a single object or direction into a second round, the GM will ask what sort of magic you’re looking for. You can describe it either by the effect you think it might have (“I think this might be cursed”, “I’m looking for runes or wards”) or by naming a school of magic. The GM will then ask how you’re experienced with this type of magic.

Your ability to detect the type of magic you seek depends on your experience with it. Experience in magic can come from your class, race, background, spell portfolio, or Knowledge skills, and it’s your responsibility to keep track of the types of magical effects your character is familiar with. Knowledge – Arcana is no longer a catch-all for this: to round out your magical knowledge, you’ll have to place ranks in the various schools or effects you want to study (“Knowledge – Transmutation”, “Knowledge – Curses”, “Knowledge – Illusion”, “Knowledge – Pyromancy” are all valid options).

Knowledge – Arcana still functions as knowledge of magic in the world and the ways it works.

If you’d like to detect the exact name and nature of magical items, Appraisal and other knowledge skills will come into play.

As an alternative to the above, you can cast Detect Magic by powering it (with a custom metamagic feat) to the level of more potent Divination school effects; this consumes a spell use at a higher level equivalent to the power of the divination effect you’re trying to achieve. Identifying a magical item cold (with no supporting knowledge or experience) is the equivalent of a 4th level spell.

Detecting Evil

Evil exists in the world. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to root out as casting a level 1 spell. Most of the time, you’ll have better luck determining a person or creature’s intent using the Sense Motive skill (or simply judging them by their interactions with you).

Most evil is far too mundane to be discovered by the Detect Evil spell. However, it still functions in the case of supernatural evil: creatures native to planes defined ideologically by pure vileness or creatures ancient or alien enough to possess inhuman moral codes will glow like rotten beacons to the eyes of a good-aligned cleric or paladin. Thus, the spell retains some usefulness in discovering such creatures who hide their identities (via polymorph, for example), and it grants the wielder the experience bonus to perception when observing them without the aid of the spell.

In addition, another category that the spell detects (at GM discretion) is that of the most devout mortal followers of evil deities or ethea. High level clerics, antipaladins, oracles, and other divine spellcasters become akin to outsiders in the purity and extraordinary nature of their evil, as do even higher level lay worshippers (warlords, generals, and kings). Conversely, party members (or others) who attain high level in good-aligned classes will be much easier to spot for anyone using the Detect Good spell.

Critical Hits and Critical Fumbles

We’ll start the campaign using variant crit rules associated with the Critical Hit and Critical Fumble decks from Paizo.

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The threshold that triggers use of the cards is something we’ll feel out through play (this post will be updated as more detailed conventions are adopted).

Spellcasting

With (at least) five of our party members able to invoke arcane or divine power, there is going to be a LOT of magic in this campaign. This is a good time to refresh ourselves on some of the more snarly bits of magic-related game in Pathfinder:

  • Concentration Checks — These are a thing! All of our casters are Charisma-based, so to make a check, roll d20 and add your caster level and your Charisma bonus (and any applicable feats or other abilities). You’ll have to beat a DC of 10 + the level of your spell if jostled, or 10 + damage taken + the level of your spell if injured.
  • Spell DCs
  • Armor Check Penalties — These are a thing! If you’re wearing mundane armor and attempting to cast spells with somatic components, you have a chance of failure as listed in the armor’s description. This can be avoided by casting spells without physical movement requirements, or by using a metamagic feat to cast a spell that normally requires movement without it.
  • Spell Components (Verbal, Somatic, Material, Focus, Divine Focus) — These are all things! If you don’t have the proper components or are otherwise impeded from casting a spell that requires them, the spell will fail. Metamagic feats can circumvent this.
  • Metamagic Feats – All spellcasters have access to all metamagic feats in the game for free. Costs of using the feats (in spell levels added) and effects of the feats are unchanged.
  • Counterspells – I’d like to figure out a new, more streamlined system for this.

Gear, Encumbrance and Practical Life

In this campaign you’ll be earning every piece of gear, every item, and every gold piece you acquire. Your characters will become hungry and thirsty, and may become exhausted or sick if overexerted. I won’t be a stickler for precise encumbrance rules, but items you carry — including currency — will have mass and weight. You’ll have to figure out where to stash your stuff, or how to get rid of it, if you accumulate too much to realistically cart around with you.

As with real life, using items you find in your environment to deal with challenges may sometimes be the only way (or the most practical way) to resolve them.

Leveling Up

Max HP are received at level up; no more die rolling. Elements that contribute to HP at level up:

  • Class Hit Die
  • Constitution Bonus
  • Favored Class Bonus (if leveling in a favored class and opting for 1 HP over 1 skill point)
  • Toughness Feat

Pathfinder Reboot Codex: The Cosmic Background

Gods exist.

Scholars say that they dwell in dimensions of their own fabrication, aligned to ideals of pure justice, kindness, valor, selfishness, greed, cruelty — receiving power from the voices of their worshipers on the distant Prime Material Plane of Golarion. In return, they grant sacred boons to their followers in the form of magic to bless, curse, smite, or heal their foes.

So it has been for eons.

But with the appearance of the Spire above Absalom, scholars have fallen silent. Rules of cosmological order once thought immutable are now in question. High clerics of all faiths have retreated into a trancelike state from which they cannot be stirred, and followers of lower rank report cryptic, ominous echoes as the only answers to their prayers.

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The spiritually attuned still receive the blessings of their gods — punishment and reward are still meted out according to their teachings — but the oracles most closely aligned to abstractions of ethical virtue report an almost stifling closeness. Could it be that the barriers between the worlds of gods and men are weakening? Such thoughts find exchange in hushed whispers from the cathedrals of Sothis to the alleys of Riddleport.

Quiet Contemplation Episode 3 – Pen to Paper

William and Dave discuss this week’s topics in geekery (listed below), and wax nostalgic with stories of their first PnP RPG experiences.