How Fantasy Fails to Represent Magic

Magic is not meant to be realistic, it’s a force that is unquantifiable, unknowable, and above all: powerful and mysterious. But is it, really? Too often, magic is simply an excuse to apply modern science to a medieval setting, and often in such a way as to seem completely unreasonable.

In the last fifteen years, The Force has been shred apart by the same roleplaying games that made magic into an understandable science. It makes sense –– you have to understand a trait you’re putting on your character sheet. The problem is that, when coupled with the prequel movies and their exploration of what The Jedi Order is and was, The Force loses its appeal as a form of mysticism or magic and become something more akin to X-Men psionics. But none of that is why Star Wars did magic better than fantasy (to be sure, fantasy mages –– with their fireballs and Wish spells –– are more powerful than Jedi). Star Wars did it better because, within the setting, The Force means something.

In the Eberron setting for Dungeons and Dragons, magic is akin to science in that it is understood, quantifiable (to some degree), and everywhere. They have airships powered by trapped elementals, cities powered by magic…it’s little wonder why such a society hasn’t become modernized: they don’t need to!

But in a setting where any old Joe can learn magic, it loses its meaning as something mystical and on the edge of perception, unquantifiable and unknowable.

Now, Eberron, and settings like it, are incredible fun to roleplay in. Don’t get things mixed: I love fantasy roleplaying in most of its forms (and Eberron is definitely one of those that I’m fascinated by). But they miss the mark on magic for one important reason:

No One Cashes In!

When the internet hit, every Tom, Dick, and Harry threw themselves into the endeavor of figuring out how to make money with it. Storefronts that can blow away department stores went up, search engines were created to help consumers navigate to the most relevant storefronts, and companies like GoDaddy learned to capitalize on your very access to such commerce: by charging money for domain names and hosting.

A reality changing tool was created, and entrepreneurs found ways to make money off of, and limit access to, all of it.

Where are the fantasy entrepreneurs? Why isn’t someone buying up all of the material components of the most powerful spells and selling their wares or services to the highest bidder (especially compelling when the entrepreneur isn’t a magic-user)? This is more inexplicable when the setting has thousands of years of magic traditions –– someone would have capitalized on this by now. Someone would have limited access to it.

In recent years, D&D and others have tried to explain this away by suggesting that most people in the world know of magic but don’t touch it in any meaningful way. Then, in the very same section, they describe how adventurers use magic for everything! And this concept seems to completely ignore settings like Eberron, where streetlights are powered by magic.

How Star Wars Got it Right

While magic isn’t capitalized on in Star Wars (we don’t see any “Force Healer” shops set up to treat the super rich), the “magic” means something: you’re special. If you have access to The Force, then a group funded by the Galactic Republic will come and legally kidnap your children and force them into labor as keepers of the peace.

The Force (magic) is valuable, rare, and has consequences for the entire world: the galaxy-shattering Sith/Jedi wars that spring up every generation.

Not All Fantasy Got it Wrong

Dune has an economy built around a magical resource. Mistborn has guilds and an oppressive government that makes laws concerning the use of magic. My own Jadepunk limits magic by making the material components the most valuable commodities in the world.

Again, I’m not bashing on settings that have ubiquitous magic. Such settings are fun to play in. But there becomes a point where disbelief is no longer suspended because someone would have figured out a way to monetize nexus points and the ley lines that connect them (and why are cities so rarely built on such nexuses?).

Consider the economy and the reaction of enterprising entrepreneurs the next time you sit down to do some worldbuilding. Your readers and players will thank you for it.

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The Best Jedi Master Ever?

Qui-Gon? What? He got pwned the first time he fought a Sith, which his apprentice famously cut in half. How could Qui-Gon be the best Jedi master ever? He was a terrible Jedi. I hear you, but here’s my reasoning, my explanation.

It’s quite simple really.

Qui-Gon is the only master who’s pupil didn’t turn out to be a huge failure.

Yoda’s apprentice, Count Dooku, turned to the dark side and lead the Separatists against the Republic. Although Yoda partially made up for this in training Luke Skywalker, but he didn’t do that alone; Obi-Wan started Luke down the path.

But Obi-Wan’s actual apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, destroyed the Jedi Order! So Obi-Wan isn’t in the running for best master, though he does get the mantle of best Jedi (though Luke may be changing that in the recent movies, but both of them beat Anakin’s black-clad buttocks, so no points for Luke beating Vader).

And Luke Skywalker’s apprentice, “Emo” Ren, preferred his grandfather’s methods and slaughtered Luke’s new Jedi Order.

Just going off the movies (which I loathe to do because the EU –– I’m coming around to the term “Legends” –– is my favorite part of Star Wars), the only successful Jedi master we see is Qui-Gon Jinn, whose apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi, didn’t fall to the dark side, didn’t slaughter younglings, and didn’t disobey the Jedi Code. He was a real Jedi’s Jedi.

But Obi-Wan is no perfect master, because of the aforementioned failure of his apprentice (but then…he never wanted to train Anakin, and only did so because it was Qui-Gon’s last wish, so maybe Obi-Wan could have been the best master and the best Jedi).

That’s why Qui-Gon Jinn, who’s a terrible Jedi, is actually a great master. I guess those who can’t do teach.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

“Good Enough”

I began reading Star Wars: Ahsoka last night. I’m 70 or so pages in and it’s great so far. And by “great” I mean that, if it keeps the quality up through the rest of the book, it will earn a place on my shelf next to my all-time favorite series: The Ranger’s Apprentice (John Flanagan). What struck me about Ahsoka wasn’t all of the Jedi awesomeness (there’s plenty of that, too), but the authenticity, especially in regards to how Ahsoka interprets the world around her.

One statement, in particular, stuck with me. While she was thinking about becoming a droid mechanic on this new planet, her thoughts were of how she wasn’t as good a mechanic as Anakin. No, she was “good enough” but not “prodigious.” And just being good enough, she found, was what most beings in the galaxy (outside of the Jedi) were at their professions. It took her some getting used to in every aspect of her life outside of The Jedi Order.

This concept, “good enough,” meshes quite well with my personal mandate to not let perfect become the enemy of great. She wasn’t doing that. In fact, she was open with her first customer about not knowing how to fix it, but trying to do her best. What a great lesson in humility. And even better, on the part of the customer, what a great lesson in not expecting other people to be perfect (I’m looking at you, person who yells at your barista to “get it right!”).

Every now and then, you read something in a book that speaks to your soul, that tells you it’s okay to not be okay. “Just do you and everything will work out,” this text seems to say to me. I dig that!

There are so many quality thoughts in this book. I’ve never read any of the author’s other works, but I’m keen to if this quality keeps up.

Again, major disclaimer, I have not finished the book (I haven’t even gotten to the inciting incident yet), but I’m (greatly) enjoying what I’ve read so far.

Want to read it with me?

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How I Fell Into Game Design

Believe it or not, and probably unlike others in this industry, game design wasn’t my first choice for creative outlets; I sort of fell into it. In fact, it wasn’t even on the radar until a few months before I launched the Jadepunk Kickstarter. And after that Kickstarter happened, I fell into the gaming industry…hard.

I’ve always been a game hacker, whether it was Mutants and MastermindsGURPS, or Fate Core; whatever I’m playing tends to get a warped around my preferences. The reason is simple: no one was making the games I wanted to play.

What I Actually Wanted to Do

This can be found on the Fate website somewhere, but I only looked into game design to find someone to make a game based on my fiction. I didn’t think I was capable of making a game because the task seemed so…professional (I had no idea that indie games even existed back in 2012).

What I’ve always wanted to do, since I was 10, was be the next Marvel Studios. My first love is comic book writing. But when Marvel and DC closed their open submissions back in ’09, I felt like I needed a different route to break into comics. Maybe if I published a novel, which must be easier than breaking into the Big 2 (yeah, right!), then I could have my agent pitch me to Marvel. But then I got hold of self-publishing, moved down that route, and overplanned the release of a book that didn’t even exist yet (remember those posts about letting perfect be the enemy of great?).

I still had the plan on using books to break into comics even after the Fate Core Kickstarter, but then I impressed so many people with my Fate articles and Fate Core Star Wars implementation, that it just seemed like launching a Kickstarter for one of my fictional settings was the thing to do.

But then Jadepunk was so well received, and I was just slammed by thinking that this is what I do now. I’m a game designer. And really, that felt odd. I’m a helluva game hacker, but gaming theory…I took a game design 101 during my time at the Art Institute. But I’m a systems guy. All my life, I’ve taken martial arts systems apart, figured out how they worked in relation to their why, then put them back together, often with some pretty great results. For me, game design is another exercise in this process.

But, with all the self-reflection I’ve been doing in my most recent posts, I believe I have begun to pick myself up from my hard fall into this industry.

Gaming is a Part of What I Do

I’m not about to leave the industry behind. I have come to enjoy playing with systems and, the best part, interacting with other gamers that I would never have met were it not for my launching Jadepunk. But I think I know where gaming belongs in my life.

That post I made on settings vs. systems last week hinted at it, but I was exploring the concept for myself (you all just got to read along with my internal monolog). Releasing a systemless setting gives me the starting point for all kinds of things: system conversion documents, supplements to explore the fictional worlds, and (the best part for me) an ability to easily bridge out into all kinds of fiction (prose, scripts, even poems, if the muse descends). Sure, I could do that with a game/system combination, but then I would feel beholden to the fanbase of the system, kind of like how I’ve been with Jadepunk and the Fate community. But while Fate is bigger than Jadepunk, Jadepunk is also bigger than Fate. I’ve got more stories to tell with that setting and several others.

So I’m going to continue making games (especially those I’ve promised to continue producing for, like Jadepunk), but I’m going to be shifting a large part of my activities toward my true passion: fiction.

Have you ever “fallen” into something that you really enjoyed, but knew that it really should have been your side gig?

Why City of Heroes was the Best MMO

I started playing massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) during the beta of Star Wars Galaxies in 2003. And while SWG had mee hooked for over a year, it couldn’t compare to City of Heroes. Make your own superhero? It’s like they made the game just for me. But there are other reasons why I considered CoH the best MMO yet.

While working at a cyber cafe, I walked behind someone who was decorating his wookiee’s house, and I thought “they made a Star Wars SIMs?” Once he explained to me what I was looking at, I got onboard in a big way. Within a week, half of the cyber cafe – and all of the staff – were running through the Tattooine desert on our way to Jabba’s Palace (thank God for auto-run during those days before speeders).

And I still hold that Jump to Lightspeed was the best video game expansion of all time – nothing since has even come close to that (and it blew EVE Online away, even a decade after it was released). Once I was able to get into space in an excellent first-person space simulator, I never touched the ground game again.

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It was a great year, one in which I gained a solid ten pounds of soda and chips around my midsection.

Then I Became a Herocity_of_heroes_key_art_2_by_pixel_saurus-d550gtu

When City of Heroes launched in 2004, I happily bid the galaxy far, far away a fond farewell. After growing up on comic books, this game was a dream come true. I got to create my own superhero and go to town on villains in a way I had only managed in my imagination in the front yard or (much safer) at the dinner table playing roleplaying games.

CoH’s graphics blew SWG’s away – though both are nearly 8-bit pixels by today’s standards – and the combat system was top notch. Unfortunately for me, I expected the same level of quality from future Cryptic Studios games, which resulted in several instances of buyer’s remorse.

But it wasn’t just the combat system or graphics that made CoH better than even World of Warcraft, which also launched that year (and which I played for about eight years). It was the level of customization.

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Everyone in SWG and WoW looked the same, fought the same, and had the same skills – pretty much whatever was “OP” at the time was picked up by everyone. But CoH, at least at launch, only had six types of consumables, and that was the only gear you got. There were zero “gear raids” and even superheroes with the same power sets looked drastically different.

And even within those power sets, heroes were often different. In CoH, you got to pick two primary power sets that determined how you fought, and then secondary power sets that could customize your character further, and included things like travel powers. (Flying is way cooler than riding a speeder through pixelated terrain or having a griffon take you on a predetermined route.)

Even DC Universe Online failed to offer the same level of customization – though they got close with their costume design, they failed miserably in power design (and their custom powers were atrocious and practically unusable).

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DCUO could have been great if they had given the fans what they wanted and were not beholden to the whims of a particular game developer (“super strength isn’t a superpower” puh-leeze!). The fact that you couldn’t mimic almost any of the Justice League characters with your power sets (Flash with fire powers? sure. Superman with…ice? You got it.) was bad enough, but then you throw in the fact that you are second stringers in the universe, acting as “support crew” for the big heroes, and you have a recipe for a mass player exodus, which happened, just not as quickly as I suspected it would (I even held out far longer than I should have because I wanted to like the game).

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Champions Online, created by the same studio that designed CoH, tried to step up to the plate after CoH started to show its age. It promised a lot and did give me many hours of fun, but it was launched, like so many other Cryptic Studios games, in an incredibly unfinished state. They knew that PvP was a big deal to CoH players, who had to wait years before it was implemented, but Champions launched it too quickly, with far too many unbalances (anyone recall katana bleeding?).

The level of customization was top notch, though you had to pay for most of the good stuff (consumers of the industry had not cozied up to the idea of microtransactions yet). But the real let down for this game, which had an incredible setting (probably because it came from a tabletop RPG), was the lack of finish at launch. It didn’t get its legs until the mass exodus had already happened.

And both DCUO and Champions had a similar problem: the entire game was practically solo-able. If you can play it by yourself, then you don’t need the moniker “MMO” do you? CoH, on the other hand, had incredible team and role mechanics, with an incredibly innovative sidekick system that allowed for low-level heroes to play with their more super friends in high-level content. The game thrived on group play and had the population (for most of its years) to capitalize on it. Only WoW had almost as good of group mechanics with a population to support it for so long (but even WoW raids can’t match the elated feeling one got while playing on a team with a tank, blaster, controller, and healer who knew what they were doing).

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Just as it is unlikely that there will ever be another game with a crafting system that can rival SWGs, there is likely never again going to be a superhero MMO that can rival City of Heroes. I consider it a great travesty that so many other games are supported by their game design fans through mods, but CoH was left in its digital grave. A Kickstarter was launched that promised to create a similar experience, and I did back it…years ago. Nothing yet, unless you count an amount of lore that suggests the designers should have been novelists instead. And with the speed that they’re moving, it’s probably best to wait for Marvel to bankroll a real MMO and not the MOBA game they’re passing off as one.

There were some runners up for my favorite games, Guild Wars 1 and 2 were both fantastic, and I greatly enjoyed the level of customization in Black Desert (maybe too much customization?), but they still didn’t compare to CoH.

What about you? What was your favorite MMO? (If I trashed it above, please realize that this is an Op-Ed piece based on my experiences.)

Your Fandom Opinions Are “Correct”

Few discussions can drive a wedge between nerd friends than one person admitting they liked the Star Wars prequels.

Why is it that fandom is so terrible to those minority members who like unpopular things? Why do we feel the need to be gatekeepers of the things we love or love to hate; dissenters be damned?

Isn’t it possible that the minority could be right?

My Introduction to Fandom and Pop-Culture

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My childhood was steeped in a particular concept of Superman. I was introduced to comic books in 1992 with the X-Men cartoon series on Fox. That started a (very expensive) fascination with superheroes.

I owned quite a few Superman books, but never really got into the character until Doomsday killed him. A lot of people didn’t like the four Supermen that replaced him, but I felt they were fresh and, in the case of Steel, really damn cool! Superman, for me at the time, was old and boring, but Steel was a complicated character who could be challenged by writers in ways that Superman could not. I dug the character when a lot of people back then just called to have their old boring Supes back. But when he did finally come back…I liked him. The stories they told in that post-death era were fantastic. And the early 2000’s storylines were amazing!

There was also the (un)healthy consumption of Justice League cartoons, Superman animated movies, and, of course, Smallville, that took far too many hours of my days and colored my perceptions of who Superman and his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, are.

Enter Man of Steel

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When I walked into the theater to see the Superman reboot, Man of Steel, I carried all of my preconceptions of who the character was with me. My introduction to the character colored my perceptions, and I hated the movie. I felt betrayed by the producers, writers, and the director. I felt they assassinated the character of Superman and Jonathan Kent…because they were different from what my preconceptions said they should be, and I loved those preconceptions so much (especially Jonathan Kent, Smallville version, in whom I saw a lot of my grandfather) that I could not reconcile with the new movie.

My friends who had a wider range of Superman preconceptions, and who were more willing to suspend their prejudices to see a new take on the character, loved it. Who was right? I thought I was. But was I?

Marvel Did it “Right”

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I have as many Marvel comics as I do DC, and far more Image and Wildstorm comics than either one of the Big 2, but I like the Marvel movies much better. They do their movies “right.”

How can I say that? How can I be an authority on what is right or wrong regarding subjective material? I shouldn’t be able to…but I can. I can because my “rightness” is subjective too.

The Marvel movies are not objectively better than the DC movies, but they hold up to my preconceptions of the characters much better than the DC movies do. When I see The Avengers on screen, I don’t see someone’s interpretation of them; I see what I would have done with those characters were I in charge of the production; I see my childhood, my preconceptions given form on the silver screen.

On the other hand, some friends of mine detest Thor because he isn’t “magical” enough. That’s their preconception of the character from years of reading comic books. Who am I to say they’re “wrong” for having that opinion about a character they love?

Star Wars: The Elephant in the Room

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Many complain that the Star Wars prequels were terrible and failed to live up to the Original Trilogy. I believe they’re probably right, based on what their preconceptions about the movie and the galaxy far, far away were.

When I went to the theater to watch The Phantom Menace, I carried no preconceptions with me. I had never seen a Star Wars movie and had no idea who Luke, Han, or Leia even were. For me, I wasn’t watching a prequel to an old trilogy; I was watching Star Wars.

After I had watched Ep1, I enjoyed the concept of Star Wars, but it wasn’t until Ep2 (still having not seen the Original Trilogy) that I truly fell in love with it. Then I watched the Original Trilogy, expecting something out of this world, but it fell flat. It felt nothing like the Star Was that I knew. It was dark and tragic and terrible (up until then, the tragedy in the prequels was limited to Anakin’s mother and Qui-Gon).

Since that time, I’ve delved into just about every piece of Star Was fiction that’s out there – I’ve even written several game hacks of the setting, like this one for the Fate Core Roleplaying System. But even today, I still favor stories centered around, or just before, The Clone Wars.

Because of how I was introduced to the franchise, the prequels were not the backstory of Darth Vader, and the Original Trilogy was not the core story. For me, Star Wars is a story about a shining republic, flawed but great; a tragedy about how one corrupt politician can drive a great nation into a post-apocalyptic cautionary tale, which is how I interpreted the Original Trilogy when I finally saw it.

That’s not everyone’s experience with it, but the internet seems to assume that everyone’s experience is the same. I’m happy to agree to disagree because I’m not every Star Wars fan. I’m one person who took the long way through hyperspace to the galaxy far, far away.

It’s All Subjective

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There’s no right way to enjoy art. Whether you love it or hate it has as much to do with your preconceptions as it does with the execution of the artists, as flawed as that execution may be.

For me, I’m done hating on works of art, because I know that someone came to the experience with different preconceptions than I did (and there’s a real person behind that artistic expression with feelings and aspirations and a love of the thing – poor George Lucas). For me to run down a piece that someone else likes is almost as bad as me running them down for having a “wrong” subjective opinion. Nothing could be more asinine.

So I’m going to let people like what they like. As my good friend, Antwan Hawkins, has said many times, “it’s incredible that we even get the chance to have these conversations about things we love being made as movies.” I’d have to agree.