The Boy from Gray Elf

Polyhedras!

I don’t remember if we carried dice at school then.

I don’t know why I’m thinking of this.

Back when I was in grade school – in the 70s for those of you keeping track – I didn’t fit in with the other kids all that well. I was the sort who was at the top of every class, but didn’t have more than one or two friends at a time. Plenty of I.Q. but not enough social skills.

To give you an example: didn’t matter how many of the other kids watched Star Trek, I was the one sufficiently identified with Spock that the kids sang me a version of Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical” retitled “Let’s Get Logical.”

I’m not telling you this to elicit sympathy. Heck, I was a big Spock fan. I knew the kids were teasing me, but it didn’t send me home in tears or anything. I’m just trying to give you some context.

My grade school was K-6, and I started playing Dungeons and Dragons back in first grade. This was before the days of Mazes and Monsters or even the accusations that the books were satanic. My mom saw an article about the new game in our local paper and thought it would be great for her sons. She bought my brother the game for his twelfth birthday (I was six).

With a few exceptions, for a long time I only played with older kids. My brother and his friends. But by fourth grade I started introducing more of my friends to it, and sometime around fourth or fifth grade we were playing informally at lunch times while walking around the schoolyard.

It wasn’t for everybody. One guy from up the block couldn’t get his mind off of baseball long enough to figure out what was going on. Another played for a bit, then dropped out.

It was that latter one that surprised me.

In sixth grade, for a creative writing assignment, he* wrote a “short story” called “The Boy from Gray Elf.” It was a thinly veiled excuse to make fun of me. He made it overt through certain gaming terms – such as the City of Clouds,** which was a location in one of my games – plus direct references to Children of the Atom (including a mention of the title), which was a book I’d recently brought to school.

All our classmates quickly picked up on the joke. It followed me to junior high school where it spread to people I hadn’t even met. I heard references to that story for years.

But I wasn’t mad at the kid who wrote it. Oh don’t get me wrong, I was embarrassed as hell and more than a little upset. But not at him.

At me.

I saw it as my fault. It came back to something that had happened a week or two prior. A friend and I were coming back from lunch, gaming until the last possible second, as usual. This meant that I was still in character – a gray elf welcoming my friend’s character to the City of Clouds.

A couple of the other kids overheard me and asked what the City of Clouds was. The idea that it wasn’t obviously a fantasy city didn’t even occur to me. I’m not sure exactly what I was thinking. I think I saw a chance to try to draw some other players into the game.

So I answered in character.

Yeah, I kind of walked into it. Didn’t I?

That incident led directly to “The Boy from Gray Elf” and from there to its legacy.

As I think back on the event, some thirty years later, what I think about is not how it felt to hear the story read aloud there in class. Nor is it about the teasing that followed, or even about the times I heard about it in the years that followed.

I think about the story’s author. I try to imagine him sitting in his living room, having to do an assignment he didn’t want to do. He had to make up a story. And somewhere in trying to do that, he found himself thinking of me and of roleplaying games. He turned his mind to fiction, and he thought of me.

Maybe the resulting story wasn’t what I would have chosen, but that’s still pretty cool.

 

*Yes, I remember his name. No, I’m not going to use it.

**That city was in my games for at least two years before The Empire Strikes Back brought us Cloud City. Just sayin’

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Of Fandom and Success

Today I want to write about fandom, but I’m starting from a type you might not be expecting.

Last week the San Francisco Giants won their third World Series in five years. People are throwing around the word dynasty. As a Giants fan, I’m over the moon.

And after that final out in game seven, a friend of mine asked if all the recent success might set my expectation level unreasonably high.

For some fans, it might. But I’m not worried about that happening to me.

I grew a Giants fan. Watching baseball with my father is one of my cherished childhood memories. Now I’m not saying this to brag, but to make clear a sense of the timeline for you. This means I started watching the Giants in the mid to late 1970s.

Go take a look at the Giants records between, say, 1975 and 1986. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Are you done laughing?

That’s right. The first time I saw the Giants get into a pennant race, it was 1982. It was the most excitement I’d ever seen. Fighting the Dodgers and Braves right down to the last series of the season. The Giants got knocked out by the Dodgers (which always hurts), but then turned around the next day and eliminated the Dodgers.

That’s right. Part of the reason the Braves won the division that year was that the Giants and Dodgers knocked each other off.

I could go on and on about that season, but I think it says enough that I still remember watching second baseman Joe Morgan hit the home run that knocked the Dodgers out of the playoffs.

But think about that for a second. The most exciting season of my young life, and the Giants finished third. The most important moment was eliminating another team.

In fact, I was seventeen before I saw the Giants finish higher than third place. That was the year they won the division for the first time in my awareness. And they got no further, going down to the Cardinals.

It was only two years later before I got to see the Giants make the World Series. And what happened? The A’s blasted them in four games. (In fact, I used to be a Giants and A’s fan, but I’ve never quite forgiven the A’s for that.)

It was almost another decade before I saw the Giants even make it back to the playoffs. Sure, they had another dogfight with the Braves in ’93. But the Braves coming out on top again, by one game as I recall.

The Giants finally got back to the World Series in 2002. Thirteen years after their last trip. And they played well. In fact, they had the series in the palm of their hands.

And dropped it.

That was it until 2010. About thirty-five years of watching the Giants before they won a World Series.

Why does that matter?

Because I was trained early in life to have fun watching baseball without seeing my team win the big prize, or even coming close. I was able to enjoy the game without stressing the outcome.

And I hope today’s fantasy and superhero fans feel the same way.

Growing up a fantasy and superhero fan was a challenge unto itself. If you wanted fantasy movies, you got b-movie fare like Hawk the Slayer, Deathstalker, and The Sword and the Sorcerer. (With the occasional effort like Dragonslayer.) If you wanted fantasy on evening television, you got The Charmings or Wizards and Warriors, shows that made fun of fantasy as much as anything. For superheroes, the cartoons were pretty good, but the live action stuff was painful* (I’m looking at you, Spiderman and Captain America).

Consider that right now, some of the biggest shows on television are fantasy (led by Game of Thrones). Some of the biggest films too. And superheroes practically rule the earth these days. Too many to even bother listing.

Is there a chance this trend will last forever? Sure. There’s also a chance that the Giants will continue to win the World Series every other year for the rest of my life.

But I wouldn’t count on it.

So remember: enjoy the material, and not just the commercial peak.

*All right, The Incredible Hulk was a good show, but the batting average was still pretty bad.

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Murder in Lost Carcosa

True Detective

Something left this guy in tatters…

I finally sat down and watched the first season of True Detective, only some six months after I first mentioned intending to. For me, that’s not a bad turn-around time.

It’s a good show, well worth watching. But I’m not actually here to talk about the ups and downs of the show itself. I enjoyed it, and if you like detective stories, you might enjoy it as well.

But we all know the real reason I was interested in watching it – I was curious about the buzz it generated for referencing The King in Yellow. And on that score I have mixed feelings.

Oh, I should offer a sort of spoiler warning at this point. I don’t intend to get into specifics or discuss anything plot related, but if you read what I say below, you’re likely to figure out a few things ahead of when you might normally do so. I’d hate for anyone to blame me for that. Also, you absolutely do not need to read the book to understand the show.

 

So, consider this spoiler space.

 

Now, then.

First, there are no direct references to the fictitious play, The King in Yellow. It may be that a copy was lying about in the background of a scene, but if so, I didn’t see it. (If you did, please tell me below.)

Second, I enjoyed the subtle introduction of the Yellow King, and the idea that those who knew of it fell to raving. It was handled in the background. Not really shown – or at least nothing like shown – until late in the season, at which point the degree of rambling was somewhat more … tame than implied early on. Also, the king himself was never identified with a character, which was probably a good choice.

All told, the Yellow King references set the stage well.

Third, the Yellow Sign. I really dug the way they depicted the Yellow Sign. First of all, they never used the phrase “Yellow Sign.” There was no need to. It was enough to simply show it, on people, on places, formed by flying birds… When they needed to call it anything, they just called it “their sign.” Very effective.

Fourth, there were references to Carcosa. I appreciated those references, even if they were a bit jumbled. Given the idea of people exposed to the tattered king being less than completely sane, it makes a certain amount of sense that they would be inconsistent.

But … as a geek, I found their use of Carcosa a bit of a letdown. Carcosa is described by Chambers in most poetic fashion. I wanted to see some of that.

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.
— Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow

I have to say, though, that any complaints I have there are nitpicking. They did several things right with Carcosa. They left it mysterious. They never explained it, never talked about its origins, never attempted to make it mundane.

And then, toward the end of the season, when they finally revealed a place called Carcosa by a key character, it was creepy as hell. The writers handled the essence of it well, even if they didn’t take more from the original book than inspiration.

Which, I suppose, is fair to say about the show itself and its handling of The King in Yellow.

That’s what I think, anyway. What do you think? Let me know below.

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Why I Write

The College Notebook

The college notebook in question

“Why I Write” was originally written for the 2014 Whidbey Island Writers Conference, where I will be one of the presenters. They posted it here. If you’re curious about the conference, you can read about it here.

I tried not to write. It didn’t work out.

For the first part, I could blame Harlan Ellison. I was in college at the time, and starting to write down some of the stories coming into my head. I even bought my first book or two about writing science fiction and fantasy.

But then I ran across some advice from Harlan Ellison. If I might paraphrase, he said, “Don’t write unless you cannot do anything else. It’s an incredibly tough way to make a living.”

I took that advice seriously. After all, Ellison was the long-term professional and I not yet even a true novice. So I tried to do anything else.

I spent more than a decade trying not to write. Living in Silicon Valley I worked in tech. Funny thing, though. No matter what my job title was supposed to be, I ended up writing or editing. But for a long time I didn’t see the significance of that. I was too close to it. And besides, I was still telling stories. I ran roleplaying games.

A good life, but not quite good enough. Something was missing.

Then, one evening, I was reading a novel and listening to the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies album Soul Caddy. The song “Irish Whiskey” came on. It’s about the pain and frustration of a man who gave up on his dreams without ever really giving them a shot.

The song shocked me out of my book. I don’t even remember what I was reading. I just know I started sweating and crying. I would not, could not, become that man.

I started writing again the next day. For a long time I had no idea what I was doing, but I didn’t give up. I kept studying. I kept learning.

And I kept writing. I’ve never looked back.

I still have that college notebook, full of aborted beginnings. It’s both a lesson and an inspiration. Some of those characters will yet see print. It’s the least I can do for them. They’ve waited patiently to tell their stories for more than twenty years.

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That D&D Feel

A party in trouble

This party is in trouble. (image by Alan De Smet, courtesy of Wikipedia)

The better part of a year ago, I speculated that I wouldn’t bother picking up the new D&D.

I meant every word of that post. Really, I did.

And yet, when the new edition of the Player’s Handbook came out, I picked it up.

No real surprise there.

What did surprise me is that it felt like D&D again.

Mind you, this is strictly the view of one long-time player, but to me, Dungeons and Dragons has always been a specific, unique branch of fantasy unto itself. Yes, it has visible roots in the work of Tolkien and Vance (and others), but once filtered through the flavor writers and mechanics, what comes out the other side is specific to itself.

You can play a barbarian in conflict with society, but it won’t really feel like Conan (the magic system is too far afield). You can play a fighter/magic-user/thief, but no trick of multiclassing or dual classing will make the result feel like the Gray Mouser.

And these are just two examples. But the purpose behind these examples is not to trash the system. No RPG system can reflect any given fictional setting without a fair amount of tweaking, and that includes systems intended to be generic (such as HERO, GURPS, and FUDGE/FATE).

But D&D created for itself a niche of fantasy that could stand on its own, even get imitated by other games. Not because its mechanics were so brilliant, nor its flavor writing impeccable, but because it created a feel that gamers came to love.

There are still many gamers who only play Dungeons and Dragons. There’s a reason for that. And that was also what caused such a gross divide among the players when 4th edition came out. The D&D feel could still be created using those rules, but it required a game master who knew that feel well, and players who were looking for it. It didn’t come pre-installed, as it were.

Which brings us back to the new D&D.

The system itself seems like an attempt to evolve from 3.5, using a few of the lessons learned in 4th to try to create a system that feels familiar, but avoids the problem imbalances of previous editions.

With the caveat that I have not yet played the game (only read the book and made a couple of characters), I would say it looks pretty good. The advantage/disadvantage mechanic has potential, the spellcasting classes have been separated enough to make their differences clear, and the less complex classes (such as fighter and thief) should be able to continue holding their own with the more complex classes (such as wizard and cleric) even into higher levels.

Mind you, the Player’s Handbook does not cover magic item creation rules, which may tip the balance, depending. And that detail brings me to another point: spell duration.

In previous editions (4th notwithstanding), most spells gained in duration as the caster’s level increased. For example, Unseen Servant (which summoned a telekinetic force to do simple tasks) lasted one hour per caster level. And now in the new edition, it lasts one hour for everyone who casts it.

The lowliest 1st level wizard fresh out of apprenticeship can cast Unseen Servant just as well as the most powerful archmage in the history of the game world. It has the same scope and the same duration.*

I had a chat about this with some friends of mine on GooglePlus, and came to the conclusion that this is largely a game balance decision (and also a help to minimize bookkeeping). For example, Lower-level spells risked eclipsing higher-level spells when their effects increased with caster level (the main reason 4th level Ice Storm went largely ignored for the 3rd level Fireball).

I confess, I worry about how this will affect utility spells, but mostly I worry about what this means to world-building. D&D is an innately high magic system, and that means that players will expect to see impressive sights. Previously, the game master could provide those without fudging the rules.

For example, in one of my last 3.5 campaigns, the town had a mayor who was an adept (an NPC class) of about 6th level (as I recall). When he got to his office in the morning, he would cast Unseen Servant and boom! All day long simple, cool fantasy display that fit the setting without breaking the rules.

Now I don’t know if NPC classes exist in the new edition (I imagine I’ll have to wait for the Dungeon Master’s Guide), but assuming they do, that mayor would have only two options: 1) he could burn through all his spells for Unseen Servant – an inelegant choice; or 2) he could spend ten minutes every hour casting it by ritual – not burning a spell slot, but taking up ten minutes out of every hour. Not an elegant choice either.

In this case, the elegant choice is to give him a ring of unseen servant, letting him keep it going all the time.

However, there are problems with this approach. Magic items are great theft targets, both for players and NPCs. Also, that means someone had to make that ring, and the question becomes who and what else did they make? And why? And why does the mayor have it instead of someone else?

In this instance, those questions can just lead to cool answers, as the game master figures out just who this guy is and why people give him magic rings. (or maybe that it’s his ring of office. Whatever.)

But here’s the thing. The answers to those questions shape the mayor into a different character than the one who dabbles in magic and takes time to cast a spell or two to each morning to make his work day easier.

I could give you other examples about how spells affect the design of dungeons, castles, even the evolution of societies. But I’m going to stick with the one example for now.

I like the flexibility of having a mayor who casts his own little spells as well as a different mayor who uses a magic ring. To me, that’s part of the feel of Dungeons and Dragons.

Overall, the Player’s Handbook looks good. I just hope that when I get the Dungeon Master’s Guide, it addresses my concerns about world-building under the limits of the new magic system. If they can do that, this game will truly feel like D&D again.

Have you looked at the new D&D? What do you think?

*Yes, the archmage’s save DC is higher. But why do you feel the need to save versus unseen servant?

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Beyond the Dreams

Dreamscape Poster

“Plant a bomb in the temple of your dreams.” — Monster Magnet

With the release of the second novel in The Telepath Trilogy, Immoral Telepathy, I find myself thinking about psychic powers as portrayed in the movies. Most such movies have … not done all that well. The Fury, The Power, Scanners, Push and the like had some success, but were never big hits.

There was a fairly recent exception though: Inception. Now that was a big hit. I couldn’t tell you how many people I’ve heard express amazement about it, and in some cases even speculate about whether such things were possible.

Me, I didn’t like Inception. Yes, I got it. I just didn’t like it. I could argue about the plot, or about the insanely loud machine guns chattering nonstop for the final hour of the film. (All right, probably about ten minutes.)

But my real complaint was far more basic. I was irritated at the film’s mundanity.

Yeah, the special effects were fancy, but what were they portraying? Movement and fighting in hallways. Mercenaries. Guns. Buildings. Safes.

Yawn.

Where was the creativity? This was supposed to take place in dreams! Where are the fantastic monsters? The wild locations? The chaotic transitions?

You know what movie had dreams that showed us monsters, chaotic transitions, and wild locations?

Dreamscape.

That’s right, a movie from 1984 showed more creativity in its dream scenarios than the big budget blockbuster released 26 years later.

Let’s talk about Dreamscape a little. Now in that movie, the main character can project himself into other people’s dreams and manipulate what he finds. He can even commit murder, by killing the host (or even another psychic who has also projected into the same dream).

Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? I mean, Rick Blackhall (main character of The Telepath Trilogy) might be able to manipulate people’s dreams, but could he kill someone that way?

Interesting question. I can tell you it hasn’t occurred to Rick to try. But there’s still a third book coming…

Anyway, Alex, the main psychic from Dreamscape, isn’t limited to dreams. He can read minds pretty casually. Surface level stuff – Zener cards, a woman’s interest – not the kind of deep work that Rick does. But Alex doesn’t have to hear anything he doesn’t want to either.

And that’s still not all.

Alex makes his living by winning money on horse races. He always picks the winners, with no errors.

Think about that a moment. That’s a pretty darned impressive talent for prediction. What else could he do with it?

I’m not just talking about roulette wheels or lotto picks. The core antagonist of Dreamscape wants to turn psychics into assassins. Why is he stopping there?

It’s not like he needs people murdered twenty-four-seven. Why not tap into that precognition talent for military information? Political information? The kind of thing that was actually researched by our government (usually through Remote Viewing and the Stargate Project).

Hmmm. Now that I think about it, we don’t know that the bad guy didn’t have plans like that. After all, the problem was that he didn’t just want spies, he wanted assassins. (That’s paraphrased, so it’s not in quotes, but it’s almost a quote.)

Of course, when you consider the depth of Alex’s talents, it’s a wonder he got himself into such trouble in the first place. And he was prone to trouble.

But then, his other powers were a sideline as far as the plot went, so perhaps they weren’t given their due consideration. Or perhaps he had a blind spot, for personal danger. After all, he met a psychic killer and didn’t realize it.

But that’s really the trick to writing psychic powers (or powers of any sort, really) – not letting the things you want the characters to do interfere with the things that have to happen to them.

I’d like to think that I’m consistent with Rick’s powers and limitations.

But then, if I’m not, I’m sure someone like me will tell me.

—–

A couple of quick announcements:

1) Immoral Telepathy is out!

2) I have a new mailing list that kicks off this coming Tuesday. Get your weekly dose of free fiction from me, plus world-building and behind-the-scenes secrets about my stories, list-only offers, and more. Check it out!

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Only the Briefest of Tales – that GISHWHES thing

So, I was asked by @SubjectPlusVerb to write a story for this GISHWHES thing. For those who don’t know, that’s an acronym for the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen. It’s the brainchild of Supernatural’s Misha Collins, and from what I can tell after a quick glance online, it’s gotten pretty crazy. Kind of reminds me of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Anyway, the rules for this story: 140 characters maximum, and it must include Misha Collins, the Queen of England, and an “elopus” (which apparently is a combination elephant-octopus, also known as the sort of D&D monster I would have come up with when I was a teenager).

So, now that you have some context, here’s the story: Once successfully crowned Queen of England, Misha Collins removed his mask to reveal his true elopus nature to a live internet audience.

Is it the best thing I’ve ever written? Dear gods, I hope not. But, it does fulfill all the requirements, so there’s that. Hope you enjoy it, @SubjectPlusVerb!

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Religion in Fantasy

Thor's battle against the giants, by Marten Eskil Winge, 1872

Thor’s battle against the giants, by Marten Eskil Winge, 1872

Over the weekend, my wife and I saw Deliver Us from Evil. As a horror film it’s well worth seeing, but today I want to focus on one element of it: the priest.

In many horror films, a priest is a wasted character. He’s there to show us how bad the bad guy is (ooh, the priest is powerless against the bad guy. Couldn’t have seen that one coming), or he doesn’t really believe (the crisis-of-faith or evil-as-idea priest), or other similarly impotent options. I call this a wasted character because the character’s flaw renders the character useless for the role.

But in Deliver Us from Evil the priest has a past, and a pretty serious flaw, and yet both drive him further into his faith. And when the time comes for him to match his faith against the great evil, his faith holds strong.

It isn’t quick and easy. It doesn’t guarantee saving everyone. His faith is not, if you’ll pardon the expression, a deus ex machina. But it’s real and it fits his story role.

Now on most days this would have spun me off into thinking about horror and religion. But today, for some reason, my mind ran off in the fantasy direction.

Priests in fantasy can run into the same issues that they do in horror. Worse, in some ways, because in second-world fantasies (set in other worlds, or intersecting other worlds, as opposed to urban fantasies which are supposed to take place in our world, with a few modifications) the religions are invented.

I suspect the direction of my thinking is my wife’s fault this time. She observed a month or two – during an episode of Game of Thrones – that the Red God seems to have all the power. The Seven of the southerners can’t do anything. The septons and septas are powerless, for all their devotion. It’s unfair.

Now I can’t recall how true that is in the books, but it’s certainly the case in the show. Priests and priestesses of the Red God can raise the dead, call forth shadow demons, and still more besides, but the septons and septas can’t do much more than offer a few kind words.

Which got me thinking – George R. R. Martin obviously chose to make religion a plot element in the story. Which is perfectly fine, of course. But does it have to be that way? Is the nature of fantasy, as a genre, such that the presence of religion in a story must make of it a plot element?

Do the gods have to either be absent or battling each other for our souls?

I had actually been prepared to analyze the whys and wherefores of that, but the exception came to mind: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

If you haven’t read it – and I think you should, because it’s an excellent novel – it’s fantasy in the tradition of the tales of the Arabian Nights. Religion is as much a core element of the setting as the land and the cities themselves. The two main characters are both devout believers, but in very different ways, and with very different ideas of what devotion means.

But it doesn’t stop there. The monotheistic faith is also common to the villains. The monsters are not enemies of the faith. They know their place in the hierarchy and their role in creation.

And yet, best of all, there’s no sense of religious treatise to the novel. I suspect that most readers finished the book, enjoyed it, and never thought much about the belief systems of the characters. It’s part of the world-building, not part of some agenda.

I notice the religion in stories because a) I’m a writer, and b) I have a degree in Religious Studies.

In my own novels to date I’ve leaned the other direction so far. In both Magician’s Choice and Sleight of Mind the religion of the characters informs their viewpoints, but has little if any direct impact on the story. (Full disclosure, the same cannot be said of my short fiction. “The Curse of Valassa” very much involves two priests battling for the souls of humans.)

What do you think about religion in fantasy? Do you like it as a plot point? Do you prefer it in the background as window dressing? Or do you like to see it central to the story, where you can’t miss it (even if you don’t necessarily pay attention to it)? Chime in below!

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Introducing the Washington Orcs!

Another Orc by phew_album

Here we go, Big Green, here we go!

So the Washington Redskins might be losing the registration on their name’s trademark. They can choose to fight if they want to, but I think they should look at this as an opportunity.

In one fell swoop they can not only leave behind their old name and all its associations and history, but also embrace the rising popularity of fantasy in the modern culture.

Try this name on for size: Washington Greenskins! (Yes, they could go with the Washington Orcs, but I like the symmetry of greenskins.)

That’s right. Orcs. Perfect for a football team. The owner can even choose the style of orc he wants, for associations. Orcs come in a variety of types. They can be brutal and warlike, they can be noble and honorable, or any shade or combination in between.

Orcs have a long, storied history in the public consciousness going back at least as far as The Hobbit. In fact, Wikipedia says Tolkien gave them their start as the foot soldiers of darkness.

But they’re not under trademark.

Other writers have included orcs in their stories, as have roleplaying games, video games and more.

Orcs even have a history of playing a game that’s kind of like football: Blood Bowl.*

Think of the ad campaigns they could run. The merchandising. The mascot! Gordak the Mighty! Slayer of Opposing Quarterbacks!

And their fan base. A whole cross-section of fantasy gamers and readers who don’t watch football might just give it a shot for the novelty.

This could even start a trend. We could get sports teams away from real people entirely, replace them with creatures from fantasy and folklore. Gone are the Spartans, Braves, Trojans, Highlanders, Vikings, Celtics, Fighting Irish and more. Instead we have dragons, wyverns, goblins, trolls, and more.

Heck, if my favorite baseball team decided to change its imagery, the San Francisco Giants could have fantasy associations right now.

So what do you say, Washington fans? Could you embrace the Greenskins?

*Also, an old Dragon Magazine had a fantasy football game that included orcs. (Full disclosure: I still have a copy.)

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Predictably Unpredictable — Flip the Trope

Hmmm … Jon and Daenerys on the same side….

This post will contain spoilers for the Game of Thrones episode “The Mountain and the Viper” and for the season one finale of Agents of SHIELD. If either of these would bother you, then you should probably stop reading. But come back after you’ve seen what you need to see. I think the post will be worth it.

Of course, I would say that, so there you go.

Okay, that’s as much spoiler space as I’m going to worry about.

I read the first four books of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire about a decade ago, and quickly, so some things I remember very well and some things not as well. That puts me in the perfect position to enjoy the show, because much is familiar but the details are often missing.

For example, I’ve been looking forward to the duel between Oberyn Martell and Gregor Clegane since the Martell prince first appeared in the show. But I didn’t remember how it went. Honestly, though, that was mostly because the Martells seemed at the time to be just another plotline taking me away from the characters I wanted to read about.

But this time, watching the show, I wanted to see the Lannisters taken down a peg and Oberyn seemed like the perfect person to do it. In fact, as the season wore on, he began to look almost heroic, there in a place he hated among people he despised to seek justice for his sister and her children.

That was when my stomach began to sink. They were definitely setting him up to look like a hero.

So, naturally, I knew he was going to fail. And die. Probably horribly.

Traditional western fantasy has a characteristic that could be considered a rule or a trope, depending on how you like your definitions. While that statement could apply several ways, the characteristic I have in mind is this one: heroes win, bad guys lose and good triumphs over evil.

Now it’s true that this only applies to the end of the story. It’s also true there’s a countercurrent these days in fantasy referred to in its gentle form as “gray” fantasy and in its harsher form as “grimdark” fantasy.

But whatever flavor of fantasy a story is, a hero cannot triumph at the end if he dies in chapter three.

So when Oberyn Martell dies in his duel with the Mountain That Rides, I should be surprised. His cause is righteous. His skill matchless. Traditional narrative says he should win.

But this is season four, and Game of Thrones has long since established that “all men must die,” especially heroes. I could run the list for you, but it would just get depressing. (I like the Starks, darn it.)

So by the time we actually reached the duel I had no doubts about its outcome. And as a viewer I probably should have. Which on the one hand makes me wonder if they tried too hard to set him up as a hero when he’d only walked onstage this season just so they could flip the trope

On the other, it reminded me of the season finale of Agents of SHIELD.

I enjoyed the season finale. I thought it worked well, accomplished everything it needed to, and gave me a fun ride in the process.

And then we get to a little bit at the ending. Everyone thinks the Big Bad (if you’ll forgive me for cribbing a term from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is dead, and after they leave the Big Bad stands up and begins a process that will make him even tougher. This is a classic trope – the villain, apparently defeated, rises again stronger.

And I didn’t buy it for a second.

While I wouldn’t describe myself as a Joss Whedon fantatic – I enjoy his work, but to a lesser degree than many, many others – I’ve been watching his shows and movies for a long time now. I remember, for example, the end of a Buffy season four episode when Spike returns to the show and is mid-villainous monolog when he’s taken by the Initiative. I remember the season five episode of the same show when Buffy faced Dracula and staked him. Then, just as he is reforming, there she is, staking him again.

So of course Agent Coulson is waiting off-camera with the disintegration ray. Of course he gives the Big Bad a moment to think his triumph is coming before pulling the trigger. It’s practically a Joss Whedon signature.

And as a viewer, it made me happy.

Now on the one hand we have a show predictably flipping the traditional expectation and I feel disappointed in my lack of surprise. On the other we have a show flipping a traditional expectation and it pleases me.

Why is that? Am I just nuts?

Well, maybe. Let’s be honest here.

But if I’m not, then there must be a reason, and I think I know what it is.

On Agents of SHIELD the bad guy had already been defeated. Adding the trope flip does not change anything in the story. It merely winks at the audience and confirms the ending we’ve already seen.

But on Game of Thrones, multiple plotlines hang in the balance. If Oberyn wins his duel, Tyrion is set free, Tywin’s aura of invincibility is cracked, and the Martells gain at least a step on their path of vengeance. It changes the tenor of everything in King’s Landing. Oberyn’s loss merely confirms the status quo. It’s hardly worth noticing. The show had to build the duel up for episodes just to make Tyrion’s conviction something more than a clerical matter.

And that’s important. But by trying to play up Oberyn – showing his sympathy for Tyrion when he was a baby, emphasizing the horror of the crimes he has come to avenge, his fury at the Lannisters (and the viewers have had three-and-a-half seasons to find out how bad the Lannisters are) – the viewer is supposed to expect more out of the duel. To believe that more is on the line here than Tyrion’s guilt or innocence. To believe that this could be a turning point in the story.

Except that it won’t be. And we know it won’t be for the very same reason we were supposed to think it could be. The show worked to build up Oberyn Martell as a hero.

And on Game of Thrones, heroes die. Badly.

That’s what I think, anyway. What do you think? Tell me about it below.

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