D&D Matters

I’m really glad I started playing Dungeons & Dragons again.

It’s taken me the better part of a year to feel comfortable going out-of-doors again. I was walking around like a man with my skin peeled off, and the fresh air and particulates of the outside world stung like a son-of-a-bitch. I had to take that time, in a place of safety and solitude, to reacquaint myself with myself. Take a good long look in the mirror. Start fixing some shit. Get better.

Then I started going out to watch soccer matches again, and I made a friend.

She noticed my d20 ring, a souvenir of days gone by that has only the meaning I’ve given it. No other associations, no bad memories. Just a spinning random number generator for rolling skill checks in the real world. We got to talking about D&D. And she mentioned a game she was in on Monday nights. Without knowing what I was doing or why, I jumped at the chance.

Then I got nervous.

You see, I might have gone a bit too far the other way in correcting myself. I was a little hyper-vigilant. I had trouble trusting my instincts. Here was a smart, lovely, challenging person who saw in me enough value and goodness to invite me into another part of her life, and I was asking myself a bunch of questions — do I have the right reasons for doing this? Am I going to be an invasive presence? Will I get along with everyone? Should I be scared?

In order: yes, no, yes, and no.

My partner told me so. A few times. I can be a little thick-headed; it’s an aspect of myself I’ve had since I was young. Still, the answers were conveyed to me in love, even if they had to be repeated. I finally quieted the head weasels, drew up my character, and headed downtown. My head was on a bit of a swivel before I got into the Raygun Lounge. I didn’t know how my Paladin of Bahamut would go over with these new people.

I guess the best way to put it “like gangbusters.”

He had to leave the party at one point because a fellow party member made, in his opinion, a monumentally bad and immoral decision. So I reintroduced one of my favorite characters, a dark elf necromancer, to the party. Again, he was a big hit. Sure, he was the complete opposite of my paladin in personality and motivation, but therein lies the challenge. And since my life isn’t exactly on hardmode, being the sort of white male of education and relative means that often serves as a poster child for the Patriarchy, I tend to game that way. See also my pacifist/stealth run of Deus Ex Human Revolution’s Director’s Cut that is my current PC gaming ‘project’.

Long story short: I was worried over nothing.

With everything going on, within and without, it’s been difficult to fully engage with my writing brain. Certain parts of myself have lain somewhat dormant while getting better, engaging in self-care and self-correction, and generally being an isolationist hermit have dominated my time. Being with others and collaborating in telling a story about people making bad choices has started reawakening my own storytelling synapses. If nothing else, it’s underscored my need to shift my career path away from banging out code for a living to making words happen. That’s been mostly what I’ve been looking for when I’m on LinkedIn looking for a new job that has nothing to do with start-ups — I am unsuited for such a life. Perhaps I’m just too old at this point.

Anyway. Dungeons & Dragons.

The classic role-playing game matters to me because it hits all of the right buttons. It’s escapism. It’s storytelling. It’s interacting with other humans, revealing parts of oneself in a safe environment and bouncing off of one another and the Dungeon Master in delightful and intriguing ways. It’s taking chances. It’s putting on a performance in the ‘theatre of the mind’ just because you can.

I want to start my own group, and guide people through the bones of a story I construct, and watch them flesh everything out and make it a living, breathing thing that we all enjoy.

Storytelling matters. Collaboration matters. People, their dreams, their imaginations, their fears, their potential and ambition and passion — all of that matters.

All of that comes together in Dungeons & Dragons.

That’s why it matters.

Tuesdays are for telling my story.

Art courtesy Wizards of the Coast

Admiration for an Admiral

“No one is immune from failure. All have tasted the bitterness of defeat and disappointment. A warrior must not dwell on that failure, but must learn from it and continue on.”

I’m trying to think of a villainous character that has affected me as thoroughly and deeply as Star Wars‘ Grand Admiral Mitth’raw’nuruodo.

Writing villains seems deceptively easy. Give them a plan of conquest, add some mustache-twirling or overtly abusive behavior, make them cruel to underlings, plant petards on which to hoist them. Wipe your hands, done and dusted.

Not so with Thrawn. Yes, he’s diabolical in thought. He’s ruthless in executed action. He’s the direct and diametric opposite of our heroes.

But, especially in the “new canon” — the Rebels animated series and especially his origin novel by the inimitable Timothy Zahn — there’s something admirable about the admiral.

The Empire, in Star Wars, is just as much a stand-in for Nazi Germany as Sauron is a stand-in for the Kaiser, or Adolf Hitler. It is a brutal, xenophobic regime, dedicated to a ‘purity’ within the galaxy and the utter destruction of unrestricted thought and the usage of power, not for its own sake, but for altruism and introspection. The Empire is always looking without, never within, and assaulting the opposition and the misunderstood with seething hatred and disgusting self-congratulation.

And hither comes Thrawn, an alien, a warrior, and seemingly, the last thing the Empire would want.

Thrawn is a free thinker. He is just as much a philosopher as a tactician. He is aware of how clever he is, but he applies that cleverness to his goals, which is always the defeat of his enemy. He has his moments of weakness, and of failure, but he uses those moments as lessons to be applied to future encounters. He respects his enemies. He despises incompetence and foolishness in his would-be peers. In an Empire full of hotheads, egomanics, and demagogues, he is cool, measured, respectful, meticulous, and, in species as well as thought, alien.

I find these qualities admirable, and I wonder: is he truly villainous?

Yes, he works for the villains. Yes, he exhibits ruthlessness towards the heroes. Yes, he employs occasionally brutal tactics to achieve his desired goals — which, as befits a warrior, is the destruction of his enemies.

But does he do these things out of malice? Blind hatred? Ignorant, projected rage?

No. He wages war because he’s good at it, he finds it a fascinating application of his abilities, and, in the end, he likes it.

Not inflicting pain, mind you. He’d much rather defeat an enemy expediently, demonstrate that they will lose, and offer them a chance to surrender and save lives. He is an artist, his medium is warfare, and his materials are the ships, troops, and officers at his command. He’s loyal, dedicated, charismatic, and cool under fire. He has the wherewithal to admit to mistakes he makes, admire his opponents, and do whatever is in his power to improve himself and those around him for the betterment of all.

Aren’t these qualities we often find in protagonists, in heroes?

We don’t really attribute honor, introspection, and respect for others to the Empire, or the Nazis for that matter. More often than not, it is those we admire and those cast as positive protagonists in our stories that exhibit such qualities. And, according to Zahn in the new canon novel, Thrawn may indeed be more than just another villainous tool in the Emperor’s arsenal. I’ll put this bit behind a spoiler tag.

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Thrawn explains to the Emperor that he was exiled from the Chiss Ascendancy due to his use of pre-emptive strikes. This is a lie. The Chiss sent Thrawn as a scout, to suss out the Empire’s abilities and strengths and evaluate them as potential allies in battling threats from deeper within the Unknown Regions. This is a huge risk for Thrawn: if he is caught or killed, he will be unable to relay anything to his true superiors. That, to me, is a heroic undertaking. By the same token, he shows a great deal of trust in Eli Vanto, sending the human officer to the Chiss as a contingency a calamity befalling Thrawn personally. A friend and confidant, Vanto can inform the Chiss of a great many things, and bridge the gap between the galactic powers if Thrawn is unable to do so.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m biased towards antagonists who favor brains and cunning over brawn and bluster. Maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see; there are aspects of Thrawn that personally speak to me. The same way that Sherlock Holmes or Tyrion Lannister are characters who rely on cleverness and discernment to achieve their goals, Thrawn is defined by his brilliant mind and careful application of deduction and strategy. I know I could use more of that in my life.

Either way, I’ll be sad if the last season of Rebels is the end of Thrawn’s story. He’s mentioned in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy (now available in paperback, go buy some books), but his fate is left ambiguous. It’s unclear to me, in the end, if Thrawn is truly a villain, but in this case, he’s certainly cast as one.

But not all those cast as villains truly allow evil to fester in their hearts.

I would like to think that if Thrawn truly feels emotions like hate, he can examine, disassemble, and reorient those energies. His few moments of anger are still incredibly restrained by Imperial standards, and it shows a quality of character rarely seen among the one-dimensional jackbooted thugs around him. It speaks to someone who is more than the sum of their parts, more than the mere sketch of the role into which they are cast.

And, in the end, who among us isn’t more than they seem or are reported to be?

500 Words on Politics

Courtesy DC Vertigo

This may be one of the most politically charged times in our history. Resurgent Nazis, nuclear threats, incompetent and greedy rulers, obstructionist legislation: all of that and more comes around on a daily basis. It’s understandable to want to get away from it.

We can’t.

I don’t mean the larger politics in play. I mean politics in general. We humans are social creatures, and with society comes hierarchy. It’s been that way for millennia. We are only just now starting to look for inherent value in others as individuals, rather than pushing others — and ourselves — into specific socio-political strata. It’s common to worry about how we are perceived by others when we make decisions and take action. The more people who can observe these things, the more that fear can drive the decisions we make in turn.

This leads to uncomfortable questions. Do you choose what is right, or what is popular? Which matters more to you, your reputation or your integrity? What, or whom, is worth sacrificing or destroying in the name of your advancement within the power structure in question? Do you help another, or do you pursue your own ends?

When we step back and examine decisions we’ve made, it can be difficult to see which are “right” and which are “wrong.” It’s a cost-benefit analysis that involves human lives, relationships, and decisions rooted in anxiety and fear of isolation or abandonment. None of these things are easy to examine. Even resolving to make better decisions, to be a more inclusive and compassionate person in lieu of popularity and social standing, is painful. We remember what, and whom, we’ve already lost. We fear the shifting web of allegiances we may alter with future decisions. At what point does your desire for better personal integrity finally outweigh the politics of a social circle? When do we finally decide that we’re fed up with a system that obliterates one person for another’s personal profit?

“Mostly, I’m tired of people being ugly to each other.” — John Coffey, “The Green Mile”

I won’t stop wanting people to do better. It’s what I’ve wanted others to want for me. To believe in others as I’d want to them to believe in me. It pisses me off when people let me down — they make selfish decisions to preserve their station, or worse, cloak those selfish decisions in compassionate words, or do what they do in the name of a nebulous “greater good.” It’s the very definition of hypocrisy.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, my gorge rises at such utter bullshit.

We’re surrounded by injustice. We’re trapped in a world corrupted by politics and selfishness. We’re responsible, in measures large and small, for the mess we are in. We’ve made decisions that have contributed to the shitpile, and we’ve even tried to ignore the smell because it’s warm and familiar.

You can stay there, if you want.

Or you can break out, take a shower, and realize just how much it fucking stinks.

It’s your choice.

On Fridays I write 500 words.

Spider Jerusalem created by Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson.

For a more in-depth examination of politics, watch CGP Grey’s “Rules for Rulers” here:

No Pity

Courtesy Adult Swim

Good media doesn’t just entertain. It invites us to take a long, hard look at ourselves and our world. It shows us things that can change, or need to change. And, sometimes, it points the way to the tools required to make that change, to be that change.

Take Rick & Morty. In the midst of all of the cruel cutting humor and Cronenbergian body horror, there are moments of true introspection and insight. “Pickle Rick” provided wonderful for-and-against arguments regarding therapy. We’re seeing Morty grow and change, standing up to Rick more often and seizing opportunities to be his own person. And now, in “The Wirly Dirly Conspiracy”, we more closely Jerry, the sad sack that exists mostly as a punching bag, a savage take on the typical “everyman” character, and the unwitting catalyst for the family problems that are just as important to the storylines as Rick’s alcohol-fueled mad science.

“You act like prey, but you’re a predator. You use pity to lure in your victims. It’s how you survive.” – Rick, to Jerry

Maybe it’s just me, but I had to pause the episode, step away, and take a long moment to think about myself, my past behaviors, and the changes I’ve made.

At some point when I was very young, I developed a titanic guilt complex. I would be extraordinarily hard on myself. I would emotionally (and, at times, physically) beat myself up, punish myself, for making a mistake. I think that part of my motivation for doing so was that if I punished myself hard enough, other punishments would pale in comparison.

Another part was that if I was outwardly hard on myself enough, others would take it easy.

I, too, preyed on pity.

Writing that out is at once damning and freeing. It’s something of which I am deeply ashamed. I am struggling to put into words just how insidiously toxic such behavior can be. I think about my past behaviors and actions, impulsive decisions I made; the knowledge that those choices hurt people I love, respect, and care about hurts.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about those things I did. That I don’t turn the evidence over in my hand and look for things to correct and change. There isn’t a day that passes where I don’t admit to myself how afraid I was of being abandoned should these things come to light — and how much I still fear.

Courtesy HBO

Fear is no excuse. There is no excuse.

I cannot take pity on myself any more than I should expect others to have pity on me. The things inside of me that served as the roots sprouting that poison fruit are not excuses. They are explanations. When a tree in your garden is rotten, you have to deal with it, before it lays waste to everything. You salvage what seeds you can. Then, you cut it down. You burn it.

You plant anew and you move on.

I’m still hard on myself. I still examine myself more closely and more exactingly than I do those around me. But that is because I am still growing, still changing. I do wish, deep down, that those who were affected by my actions could see — maybe even appreciate — the changes I’ve made and the ones I’m still making.

However, the only validation that truly matters is the validation I find and give to myself.

Other people will always think how they wish to think, feel how they wish to feel. For whatever their reasons, the way they look at me is something beyond my control. It doesn’t matter if they choose to be “on my side” or not. All I can do is show up as the best version of myself I can muster, own my mistakes in the name of doing better, and be present for people I want to be present for me. How they deal with that is up to them.

They cannot and should not have pity on me. Neither can I.

I will talk about how I think and how I feel. There are others in the world who fight similar battles against depression, anxiety, PTSD, all sorts of head weasels that clamor and screech for attention. It is my hope that being open and honest and up-front about these things can inspire others, or at least reassure them that they are not alone. In the past, that would not have been my motivation. But that is what it is now.

The line between asking for help and begging for attention or pity can be a fine one. And if you’ve done the latter in the past as I have, there are those who may not believe that you are engaging in the former.

Look within yourself. Do whatever you can to remain on the side of the line that will lead to you changing and growing. Distance yourself from the people and things that would drag you to the other side.

This is not easy. For me, it is one of the most difficult things to admit about myself and one of the hardest changes I’ve made.

And I am never, ever going back.

There is no pity in my soul’s city.

Tuesdays are for telling my story.

Flash Fiction: We Are One

From territory to territory we have roamed. We prefer the warm, the dark, the places with circulation and room to expand. There are explosive moments, expulsions that carry us forth to new homes, and no matter how few we might be when we move beyond the blinding like back into the darkness, we grow stronger and in number until we are ready to expand once again.

The new territory is unlike anything we’ve experienced. We had more room before. Things were relatively stable. The sounds were soothing, the feeling comfortable. Now, things are chaotic. There are violent, explosive noises within. Other noises are without, things we do not understand. And then we, as one, our people and our home, are moving faster than we’ve ever moved before, a longer distance than we’ve ever known.

Strange, caustic chemicals flow through our territory. We die in droves. We struggle to survive. We avoid the places where the death pumps in towards us, gather our strength, shelter our numbers. When we’re ready, when the time is right, we strike. The territory convulses. We fly free. And we find new homes.

We multiply, we continue, we spread. This territory is vast and varied, but similar enough. The warmth helps us grow. The movement takes us far. Even as one part of the territory does dark and cold, others gather and we find new, warm, dark places to take root and grow.

Never before could we have imagined being so many. Not in our wildest dreams did we see ourselves being this spread out. From one to another we speak, we strike, we grow. We embrace our manifest destiny.

Though our territories may wither and die, we remain strong.

Some believe these resources are finite. At some point sooner or later, they say, the fuel will run out, the territory will no longer be vital, and we will cease to exist.

Perhaps. But until then, we thrive.

We rise.

We are one.

For GISHWHES I was challenged to write a story from the perspective of a virus.

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