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Modern Mystery Cults?

Originally published at The Experimental Fantasist. Please leave any comments there.

It occurs to me that a Paganism that is a generalized, syncretic, eclectic non-religion isn't necessarily a bad thing, no matter how fuzzy it sometimes makes internet discussions. Perhaps the place for more formalized religion in Paganism is in a role similar to ancient Mystery Cults.

Over at The Wild Hunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters blogs about a study of "spiritual but not religious" folks in the UK. Basically, it seems like the number of folks who are sincerely spiritual without adhering to a specific religious practice is on the rise. What's interesting to the Wild Hunt is that a growing fraction of these folks either identify as Pagan or cite Paganism as an inspiration.

On the one hand, I think the word "religion" gets a bad rap from folks who have run afoul of the abuses of institutional religion. On the other, I do understand the feeling of not wanting to be pinned down to a specific form when one isn't particularly specific in one's practices. Especially if the specific form isn't really anything like what one actually does.

Back in the day, religion was more ambient. The idea that culture, religion, and ethnicity were seperate things came along fairly late. Pretty much, if you were (say) Greek, you worshiped the Greek gods in folk festivals and by making traditional sacrifices at traditional times and places. Because you were Greek, and that's what Greeks do. There were exceptions, of course, especially when you start looking at Ptolemaic Egypt and similar cultures. Still, the generalization is close enough for my present meanderings.

Mystery cults offered people more structured ritual, initiation, a focused mythos; basically a new layer of spiritual meaning, deepening their experience of life. Well, assuming the initiation and rituals worked, anyway.

It occurs to me that a similar role could be played by specific traditions and ritual groups within the larger context of a Paganism full of foks who are spiritual, but not religious.

We are not a nation of individuals.

Our national myth is a story of brave individuals, carving out trails in the wilderness; lone colonies standing up against the British Empire; homesteaders and their little houses on the prairie. That’s not the whole of it though. That’s like saying that a movie is the product of the actors, and forgetting that long list of names that scroll by at the end.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denigrating the accomplishments of singular individuals. We wouldn’t have the auto industry without Ford, or modern physics without Einstein, or Microsoft without Gates. But Gates would not have gotten far beyond his garage without teams of programmers and engineers and salespeople, not to mention millions of customers. Without a community of scientists for peer review and collaboration, Einstein would have died a patent clerk. And where would Ford have been without his assembly line workers?

What we, as a nation, have accomplished we have done together. Those roads we drive on every day? The schools that taught most of us to read and add? Those exist because we, collectively, made it happen. And government was the tool we used to do it.

It’s not perfect, not even close. But if we want it to be better, we have to work together to make it better.

If this nation is to be made worthy of being called a great nation, it will not be saved by brave individuals who head into the hills. Its problems won’t be solved by hard working professionals “going Galt.” It will be made great by those of us who stay here and force it to work right. By those who stay here and work together.


Don't Forget to Breathe

Originally published at The Experimental Fantasist. Please leave any comments there.

It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man's hand and the wisdom in a tree's root: they all arise together.

― Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

Magick isn't, at heart, different from any other art; witch-craft is a craft, like any other. The world the magician sees is the same world the scientist sees, they just look at it through different eyes. This is why I am, or at least try to be, practical in how I approach my mysticism. As human beings, we all need to eat and to breathe, to love and to work, and to have connection with each other.

An obsession with any art or craft or science which interferes with that is a bad thing for a person, and also for anyone who happens to be influenced by that person. This is why I feel that the greatest danger facing the magician is to have eyes so bent towards the strange and the fantastic that they have removed themselves from connection with others. From there, the next vision becomes more important than paying the bills; the next trancendant experience if more important than love.

If you want to be a magician and not be carried off by the fairies into the otherworld, take care to notice the "little" things in life. Appreciate the sun and the breeze, clean out the cat box, and remember to change your oil every 3,000 miles. Life takes strange twists and turns, it hurts and it shocks us. It's sometimes hard to not let that get in the way of really feeling how nice the cat's fur feels under your hand, or the way the compost in the garden stinks, but also smells kind of good.

In the end, it's not your magickal journals and conversations with the angels of the aethyrs that will matter. It's the lives you've touched and the love you leave behind when you go.

Snow White and the Huntsman: A Review

Originally published at The Experimental Fantasist. Please leave any comments there.

As I write this, I'm watching the last act of Snow White and the Huntsman. That I'm doing a review before the show is over says something, I think.

The story isn't bad. It's a gritty interpretation that manages to put in dirt and blood while retaining the straightforward roles and tropes of the fairy tale. Visually, the movie is pretty, the music is OK, if not particuarly original. Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron do a good job with what they're given, and even Kristen Stewart manages to act in a few scenes.

What the story is missing is heart. There's no emotional buy-in from me, and honestly the director never really provides a hook for it.

We start with the Good King and his lovely Queen, in a magical kingdom long ago and far away. The Queen wishes upon a rose blooming in winter (thus, presumably, magical) for a daughter with the storied "skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair black as a raven's wing." Of course, she gets her wish, and we're treated to a happy young Snow White and her happy parents in their happy kingdom. But we're never given a way to join in that happiness. It flashes by in minutes, a montage of generic good times, less inspriring than someone else's vacation slide-show.

Of course, things don't stay good. The Good Queen dies, and the King marries the Evil Queen, doubling down on the fairy tale content of the film by invoking the Wicked Stepmother. In less time than it took to tell the last sequence, the Evil Queen murders the King in their wedding bed, imprisons Snow White (because a royal-bloodded sacrifice might be handy, later), betrays the kingdom, and brings a never-ending blight upon the land.

Again, the sequence of the kingdom decending into ruin is as emotionally void as the good-times opening. The Evil Queen's evil is as was the Good King's good, stated matter-of-factly. We don't pity her victims, at least not much, because they're just random extras, predictably slaugtered in a poorly choreographed coup.

Snow White grows up a prisoner. She gets almost no interaction with any other characters, except for a few lines of dialog with a minor character who dies within three minutes of being introduced. By the time she escapes, it's been implied that the Evil Queen had a troubled past that drives her to be nastier and tougher than the world. Of course, it's just a brief mention, sandwiched in between the revelation that she murders young women to maintain her youth and beauty and a scenery-chewing rant in which she decides to sacrifice Snow White to gain immortality. When the Queen's brother goes to fetch her, Snow White escapes into the Dark Forest.

So, at 30 minutes into the film, nothing of any emotional import has happened. There's nothing surprising, nothing new. It's prettily filmed, but that's all there is to it. Every opportunity to give the audience a character with whom they can relate is missed, either for a visual effect, or to hurry on to the next plot point.

At about 40 minutes into the film, the director introduces the Huntsman, spending more time explaining who he is than on any previous character. By this point, though, I don't much care.

The lesson to be learned is this: It doesn't matter how classic and beloved your story, or how pretty your version is. If you don't give the audience someone to care about (whether they love them or hate them) in the first fifteen minutes, it's over.

Batman and the Villain Problem

Originally published at The Experimental Fantasist. Please leave any comments there.

So, I had this idea. I don’t mind sharing it here, as I’m fairly confident that no one is going to pay me to produce a Batman TV series.

I was listening to the Writing Excuses podcast the other day (I heartily recommend them to anyone who writes, edits, games or is in any way involved in the creation of fiction), specifically their episode on the Villain Problem. It’s not really a problem with the villain, because if you have it, it means that you’ve written a compelling bad guy.

The Villain Problem is this: You’re partway into the story you’re writing when you discover that your villain is stealing the show. Of course, it’s not really a problem with the villain. You just need to make your hero more compelling.

One of the things they said makes villains so often compelling is that they’re proactive. The Villain is out to do something, to enact a plan or pull off some caper. Of necessity, the villain’s caper is interesting, and the hero is reacting to it. Since the hero has to stay one step behind until the end of the story, it sometimes makes them look a bit slow.

So, where does Batman come in?

On the podcast, they used Batman’s villains as an example. They’re a wild, colorful bunch of miscreants who can be off the wall in any number of ways. How their manias inform their capers is what makes each story more than Batman pondering his loss and anger while beating up the occasional mugger.

Still, it’s Batman reacting to someone else’s plan. Sure, he comes up with his own plan, especially in the last decade or so, but he still spends a few issues catching up. So I thought, what if Batman was the one with the plan?

Dressing up as a bat and beating up a series of mentally ill thugs is not an effective way to combat crime, really. If Batman is such a great strategist, he really ought to have a better overall plan.

So I thought, if someone gave me the job, I’d make a Batman TV series that focused on Batman and his plan to cripple organized crime in Gotham. He knows no court will uphold an arrest made by a masked vigilante, so he doesn’t catch criminals and give them to the police.

What he does is pick the worst places to hit the criminal syndicates, where a quick, hard strike will disrupt operations in the worst ways. He coordinates with Commissioner Gordon so that the police can take advantage of the chaos, hitting the gangs while they’re focused on the trouble Batman is making. It’s a crime drama about a masked man offering the police a way to work outside of the box.

So the first season is all about Batman gaining Gordon’s trust, setting up the deal that allows them to share information and plan so that Batman’s strikes do the most good. They spend a few episodes selling the district attorney on the plan. It starts working, and working well.

That’s when the Joker shows up, and causes chaos of his own. Batman has spent years planning his war on organized crime. He relies on the business-like structure of the syndicates and their predictable rivalries. This clown comes out of nowhere, striking unpredictably, and ruining Batman’s plan. Maybe I’d even take a page from Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and have the Joker offer to kill Batman for the mob. Maybe not, I’ve always thought the Joker was scarier when no one knew what he was about to do next.

So the focus shifts from Working the Plan to Rescuing the Plan. At the end of the first season, the Joker gets captured, of course. Still, the board has completely changed, and all of Batman’s careful planning is out the window.

Which sets up season two, in which Batman tries to figure out his Plan B while a gang war rages and the Penguin tries to take over Gotham’s underworld.

Yeah, I’d watch that.

What I Want At My Game Table

Originally published at The Experimental Fantasist. Please leave any comments there.

While I was making breakfast this morning, I was asking myself what, as a game master, I want from a gaming group. It comes down to five points, all of which are variations on “proactive players.” Nothing in gaming gets me going quite like inventing NPCs and folklore and history on the fly. On the other hand, nothing slows me down quite so much as a  table full of people sitting quietly, waiting for me to bring the fun ; worse, a table full of people sitting quietly on Facebook or IM or playing Minecraft or anything but focusing on the game we’re playing.

There’s a school of thought that says it’s the game master’s job to provide motivation and direction. This works all right, when everybody’s into that. I find it leads to games on rails, where players aren’t so much choosing what their characters do, but whether or not to resist the GMs plot hooks.

See, what I really do well at is reacting to what the players choose to do. I hate starting cold, finding an excuse to get the characters all into the same inn, or the setting-appropriate equivalent thereto. The player who sits up and says, “My character is doing…” gets the spotlight, because then I and my world can react.

I like characters who have agendas, and who actively pursue them. The bonus here is that it gives me a clear idea of what kind of game the player is looking for, an idea of what kind of challenges and situations to prepare for a session. More importantly, even if the player doesn’t give me an NPC to be that character’s personal antagonist, I at least get hints as to what kind of antagonists to create.

I like characters who have strong, play-driving relationships with each other and with NPCs. By “play-driving,” I mean that players will have their characters act on behalf of those relationships. Sure, it drives if I have the bad guys kidnap someone’s lover or what have you. It’s better if the player has the character choose to go on a quest to impress her lover, or challenge his brother to a duel for blackening the family honor.

I like players who are active in exploring the world. As the GM, I consider the game world my main character, and (like everybody else at the table), I love it when another player engages my character in the action. I want people to look at the setting I’m presenting and go, “ooh, I wonder what’s over there!” Then, go there and find out. This forces me to invent the answer, and I (as I wrote above), I love that.

I like players who are active partners in world creation. I like it when players contribute their own creativity to the creation of the setting. I’m always trying to get folks playing clerics to tell me about their character’s religion, or folks playing aliens to tell me what their home-worlds are like. Sometimes, players don’t like doing this, because they’re playing to discover these things, not to create them. That’s OK, I like creating these details, but I’d rather have a back-and-forth co-creation than have to be Mr. Exposition all the time.

I like players who engage the mechanics of the system. I’m a rules hacker. I look at the rules and see what chefs see at the market, what home improvement DIYers see in the aisles of hardware stores. So it’s great when my players get into finding out all the ways they can use the rules to make their characters awesome. It certainly beats having to stop in the middle of all that creative back-and-forth so that I can look up what kind of dice someone has to roll for something.

I’ll probably come back to these, eventually, and talk about what I’ve found that works for encouraging players to bring this kind of play to the table. Until then, I’d love it if you’d share some of that with me, in the comments.

I'll Be At BayCon This Weekend

Originally published at The Experimental Fantasist. Please leave any comments there.

Well, friends, it seems I’ll be a talking head at BayCon this weekend. I’m on nine panels across three days, mostly back-to-back. I’ll likely be brain fried at the end of each day, but it will doubtless be fun.

This is actually something of a dream come true for me. For the longest time, I’ve had this feeling of being on the outside of something, in fandom. Like there was some unseen velvet rope marking the boundary between the actors and the audience.

When I lived in Iowa, I always worked the local SF con, and helped found the gaming con. When I moved to California, though, I didn’t work the cons. I had grad school and a regular life to live, and I was staff at the summer Pagan festival, so I wanted to take the rest of the cons to relax as a regular con-goer.

Turns out that wasn’t quite what I really wanted, even if the break was what I needed at the time. As one might expect, the Bay Area cons are bigger than the local cons in Iowa. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd, harder to actually connect with guests and speakers, at least it is for me.

So being busy on panels is a good thing for me, bringing back some of that inside feeling. It also helps that this is my first con as a professional editor, giving the whole thing an “inside the industry” feel for me. Like I’m now more a part of what I’ve loved for a long time.

I like this feeling.

Anyway, here’s where I’ll be over the weekend:

1. Alternative History: Other Religions on Friday from 2:30 PM to 4:00 PM – A discussion of the other religions that might have gone "viral." What if the Zorastrians had migrated West? Or East? Or even North?


2. Current Science Fiction Television on Friday from 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM – Panelists discuss current SF/F TV broadcast now on ALL networks, not just the Syfy channel. It's all prime time now!


3. How to Create a Good RPG Character on Saturday from 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM – Beyond the die rolling and stats – what makes a good RPG Character? What detracts from a character?


4. How to Be a Better Game Master on Saturday from 2:30 PM to 4:00 PM – Being a good GM takes more than the ability to describe a 10' x 10' stone room with an orc guarding a chest. Come listen to experienced gamers share their favorite tricks to take their players beyond the piled pizza boxes and immerse them in the game world.


5. BoF: Doctor Who on Saturday from 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM – Welcome to the mumblety regeneration of the Dr. Who BoF. Come mingle with other fans and swap obscure Whovian references while keeping an eye out for statues. Warning: Couches will not be provided. In case of Dalek activity, attendees must locate their own cover.


6. Once Upon a Time, Brothers Grimm, Fables, and Other Looks at the Modern Fairy Tale on Saturday from 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM – These are not your grandmother's fairy tales or even your mother's. They show the story behind the story and more. Explore the new look at Fairy Tales in the Modern Age.


7. Defining Alternative Lifestyles on Sunday from 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM It's not just about who you sleep with. Panelists discuss alternative lifestyles that have worked for themselves and others, as well as how to avoid pitfalls.


8. Erotic Science Fiction and Fantasy on Sunday from 2:30 PM to 4:00 PM – Boy meets girl meets robot meets vampire: what makes for good erotica in worlds with different rules than ours?


9. Alternative Lifestyles and Sci-Fi/Fantasy on Sunday from 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM – From Heinlein's line marriage to Ethan of Athos, a discussion of alternative lifestyles, chosen or otherwise.


A Game is a Machine Made of Words

Originally published at The Experimental Fantasist. Please leave any comments there.

Games are things in their own right, and not just a set of tools for creating a shared experience.  I’m not just talking about games-as-artifacts, though a well-made game book is a beautiful thing. Mostly, I’m talking about the rules as a structure, as a machine made of words.

I began playing role-playing games back in 1983. My mom bought me the box set of the Holmes edition of Basic Dungeons and Dragons, because she thought I would be a good dungeon master. I’m not sure why she thought that at the time, as we’d never done anything like it. For that matter, I don’t know where she picked up the game, or how she knew what it was.

I didn’t play in a proper campaign, by which I mean the serial adventures of a group of continuing characters in a persistent world, until college. My high school gaming buddies lived out of town, and getting together regularly was often difficult. What we did was more like con play; someone would get a new adventure, and we’d make up characters and run it.

That didn’t stop me from buying games, though. Within a few years of getting that first box, I had acquired a set of AD&D books, Top Secret, Gamma World, Traveler, and Star Frontiers. I read the books over and over, made endless notes on campaigns I’d play one day, and even spent hours designing house rules to cover gaps in games I’d never played.

I still do that, now that I think about it. I have shelves of games (a whole damn library, if you include the PDFs) that I’ve never played, and probably never will. Games I bought to support the designers or because I was curious about how they implemented rules for one thing or another.

I collect games the way some computer geeks collect hardware. Just to pull them apart and see if I can build something fun with the components. Perhaps gear-heads and cars would be a better analogy, but the image of having role-playing games on blocks in the front yard is a bit much.

This is not to say that I don’t want to put a project up on blocks where everyone can see it. That is, in fact, exactly what I propose to do. I want to design a fantasy role playing game on this blog, a post at a time. I want to brainstorm my design goals, hammer out the mechanics, and build the setting all here, out in the open, with input from anyone who stops by to read.

I don’t know if what comes of this would be a commercially viable product, but that’s not the point. It’s more about exercising my design skills and having a conversation about how these machines are made.

It’s all about the journey, yeah?

Art, Magick and Imagination

Originally published at The Experimental Fantasist. Please leave any comments there.

In his graphic novel From Hell, author, magician, and professional mad bastard Alan Moore wrote, "If there is one place that gods inarguably exist . . . it is in the human mind, where they are real, in all their grandeur and monstrosity." He has since spent a good deal of his time exploring that idea and its implications for spirituality and magick.

Beginning from the idea that thoughts are real events, and that concepts are real things (if not objecitive, physical things), Moore goes on to suppose that there is a greater Imagination which connects and enfolds the imaginations of individual humans, much as an individual person may have a home, but there is a world outside that person's door. From there, he suggests that there may be creatures native to that world, which are just as real as the thoughts and concepts of which they are composed. Magick, then, becomes the exploration of the greater Imagination, interacting with the beings that live there, and bringing back ideas and inspirations to be made manifest in life.

It is for articulating thoughts like these that Moore is one of my favorite living magicians. If you want to read more of his ponderings on this idea, I recommend his comic series, Promethea, now collected in five volumes.

In 2010, he expanded on this during a lecture in the Ecology, Cosmos & Consciousness series. Fortunately for us, the folks who organized that series recorded the lecture, and put it up on Vimeo. I've embedded the video below, but you can also watch it and others from the series at the EC&C page, here.

At about 1:04, Moore talks about a friend who worked to manifest his goddess as a visible presence in his daily life. The way he did this was to retreat from mundane society and spend as much time as he could visualizing this goddess as a presence in the world around him. Eventually, he found that he could see her in his imagination as clearly as he could see anything else with his eyes. They spoke and interacted as if she were a physical person in the room with him.

Around 1:08:40, Moore tells the story of the evening he spent with his friend and his friend's goddess. I have to say that it sounds to me just like any of the times I've spent with my friends who are mystics, whose gods were real (if subjective) presences in their lives. Well, minus the mushroom trip.

It occurs to me that this process isn't all that different from the way anyone who is of a religious or mystical bent brings their deity into their life. You imagine them with you, you talk to them, you listen for their response. You surround yourself with things that remind you of them, things you think they'd like to have around. Eventually, you feel their presence. Maybe you start to experience odd coincidences that seem like the sorts of things you'd like to think your invisible friend would do for you. Some people even start to hear and see their gods. Really, the only difference between the everyday mystic and Moore's friend is the retreat from everyday reality. Sometimes, not even that.

The Damned Horse

Originally published at The Experimental Fantasist. Please leave any comments there.

Well, there are three things I’ve learned from my first two weeks of “serious” blogging.
First, my service provider will fail at times. This will screw up my posting and sometimes my existing content. When it happens, fix it and get back on the horse.
Second, life will sometimes interfere with creativity. Sometimes, this interference is a good thing (as when my son is home), other times, not so much (as when I get sick). Having a backlog of posts written ahead of time will help with this, to an extent, so far as keeping content flowing. Still, the backlog will run out, and it’s time to get back on the horse.
Third, if I want to do this as a serious creative project, it means that I can’t do it only when I feel good, or only when life allows me spare time, or only when my various technical issues are running more-or-less smoothly. It means I do it on a schedule, whether I feel like it or not, whether I can publish that day or not. Whether I can meet my ideal of five posts a week or not. And when I fail at any of those goals, it’s time to get back on the damned horse.
I have noticed that there’s a single solution to all these issues: Get back on the horse. Don’t brood on failure, don’t lament the lack of time, and don’t obsess about the word count or the number of comments or anything. Just write, publish, and get on with it.
C’mere, horse. Nice horsie…

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