This Isn’t Personal

Listen. Please, listen.

We’ve been friends for awhile and I want you to know that I don’t want to do this. I know it isn’t ideal, but I want you to know that it isn’t what I want. Honestly, it’s a little bit your fault. It’s my fault too. We share the blame really.

I should have hidden this better and you should have listened when I told you not to go snooping around. I told you not to look in the trunk ages ago, didn’t I? And you just went and looked in it anyway. I suppose it’s really all my fault. I’m the one who tried to hide it in plain sight. I should have warded it when I saw you express interest.

I know far too well the draw that the trunk’s contents can have. The effect that they have on people. I’m used to it, I’ve learned to resist. It wasn’t fair to expect you to as well, not when you had no idea what is inside.

But that’s all in the past. Water under the bridge.

I really wish I didn’t have to do this.

Dying from a knife wound isn’t so bad though. It’s definitely one of the better ways to go. I’ll just slide this blade through your ribs quick and then you’ll be gone. Poof. Quick.

If anything, this is going to be worse for me than it will be for you. I’m the one who has to hide your body afterwards. It will probably eat up my entire weekend. Before I do that, I need to make sure that what’s in the trunk wasn’t trying to hitch a ride on your psyche. I’ll have to perform some particularly tricky incantations to make sure it doesn’t gobble up your soul.

Actually, you know what? We’ll do those first, it’s safer that way. I may have to kill you, but that doesn’t mean I want to send you off to eternal damnation. We’ll send you off the right way.

Let’s get started…

What? Look. I don’t know what you want me to do. Neither of us have a choice here. The thing in the trunk is just too dangerous. You’ve seen it and now you’re vulnerable. As long as you know it’s in there it could use you to help it escape.

There. Is. No. Other. Way.

You are my friend; I don’t want to have to gag you, but I will if you make me. If you keep talking like this you will mess up my spell casting. If I get distracted it won’t be good for either of us. So be quiet, please.

Like I said. Knife is hardly the worst way to go. I’ll make it quick. And for what it’s worth, this isn’t personal. It’s just something I have to do.

The Final Frontier

I’ve made a few posts about a one-page roleplaying game that I’ve been working on called The Final Frontier. It’s a simple tabletop roleplaying game perfect for any tired game master who just wants to run a quick oneshot with their players.

While I was designing the game I tried very hard to imagine scenarios that could be solved without violence. The game is meant to put players in control of characters not used to daring adventures and life threatening situations. Instead, players are challenged to use mundane skills to solve the problems before them.

I like to think that I succeeded. In the past few weeks I played several encounters with my players.

In the first one, players encountered a cult worshipping an alien hiding under the ice of Europa. The alien was infecting members of its cult with a psychic virus that allowed it to control them. Its goal was to get enough cult members to build a ship capable to taking it back home. My players didn’t care about any of this. They got back on their ship and left the inhabitants of the Europa colony to their fate.

In the second, my players encountered a strange alien object passing through the solar system. Though they didn’t know it at first, the object was an alien probe designed to test any species it encountered. After years of intercepting transmissions from Earth the object used the harvested data to present puzzles to the characters to help its algorithms ensure that it has been interpreting the data correctly. By the end of it only player character achieved their desired surge in internet popularity and another experienced what he believed to be a revelation and left ready to found a whole new religion.

Why am I telling you all this? Because the game is finally posted on itch.io! You are free to name your own price for the game so please, go check it out be sure to tell your friends about it.

Tales From The Golden Fleece Inn

“Stupid,” Sarah mumbled to herself as she trudged along. “That was stupid.”

She shouldn’t have gotten involved, should have done a better job of hiding those papers. Now all her accounts were gone, and she was alone and cold. She touched her hand gingerly to the side of her face. It was still tender. Would it bruise? Probably.

Where was she?

She looked around. She had taken off running from her apartment and how she was on a street she didn’t recognize, and she was severely underdressed for the weather. Her watch said it was nearly midnight…

This is the first story in a series set in The Golden Fleece Inn, an ancient establishment located outside of the material plane. Continue reading on Wattpad.

Five Wonderfully Mundane Pieces of Star Wars Lore

The best thing about Star Wars is that there is a backstory for every background character, every ship, practically every grain of sand. In the movies, books, and comics we get to see so much more than the lightsabers and the big shiny battleships, and its the inclusion of all these mundane elements that helps make the Star Wars universe feel so lived in. So here in no particular order are the five best mundane pieces of Star Wars lore.

1. GR-75 Medium Transport

Wookieepedia

I just love these ships. Science fiction needs more purpose-built ships that do just one thing well. The GR-75 has a simple design that suits its purpose well, and the visible cargo pods inside its hull are a great feature that draws comparisons to the container ships of Earth while also giving it some measure of modularity. I especially like their use by the rebel alliance as troop transports and support ships. It helps to show how desperate their situation is. I can’t help but think the modularity afforded by the GR-75’s cargo pods could lead to one being made into a capable commerce raider.

2. Hydrospanner

Wookieepedia

Broken down and malfunctioning technology is a common feature of all science fiction. No point in having all those big shiny ships in your setting if they don’t break. The Hydrospanner is a small but vital bit of fluff included in both Star Wars Legends and Canon to explain how spacers manage to loosen and tighten bolts on their ships. Why? Because bringing a wrench into space would just be silly! But seriously, I love that so much detail has been provided on such a tiny tool, so much so that besides an article on Hydrospanners, Wookiepedia has an entire article on a specific model of Hydrospanner. Because of course we need to know the entire history of the tool in the hero’s hand.

3. Moisture Vaporators

Wookieepedia

Not only do they explain how humans and other species are able to survive on Tatooine, moisture vaporators explains why anyone would bother to try farming in the first place. With all the sand people, sarlacs, and krayt dragons about there needs to be something valuable in the desert to make people live so far away from the cities and it turns that thing is water.

4. Banthas

Wookieepedia

The iconic mounts of the Tusken Raiders are such a great part of the Star Wars universe. In Legends the Banthas were found throughout the galaxy. In the current canon (at least as far as I know) Bathas are found only on Tatooine. They’re a wonderfully mundane way to explain how the planet’s natives get from one place to the other and they’re so believable in their design.

5. Pajamas

Wookieepedia

Myself and probably everyone else who is going to be browsing Wookiepedia already knows what pajamas are, but I love that the good folks who update the site included a page on them just in case.

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The Golden Fleece Inn

First established in Rome during the reign of Augustus. For nearly two thousands years the Golden Fleece Inn has been a nexus of the supernatural community.

Located deep within the Infinite Staircase, the Inn does not actually exist on Earth, allowing Patrius to remodel every few centuries without regard for building codes or the laws of physics. There are six locations where the Inn can be accessed directly from Earth. Each of these appears as a rundown establishment at the end of an alleyway or a dilapidated part of town and is heavily warded by Patrius to make accidental discovery by mortals unlikely.

The six cities on Earth from which the Inn can be located are Rome, Istanbul, London, Kyoto, New York City, and Jerusalem. No matter which door a visitor enters through they all find themselves at the front door to the Inn next to the bouncer. Each city then has its own exit door somewhere in the Inn, while the front door also serves as the exit to the Impossible Staircase. The Inn is also accessible via a short journey through the Impossible Staircase from St. Petersburg, Baghdad, Chicago, Cairo, and Mexico City.

Some guests would prefer that the Inn accept currency other than silver denarius. The Stiltskin Trust Co moneylender in the corner is normally happy to exchange currencies, but often attempts to trick customers into making other bargains.

Both the owner of the Inn and its staff are notably eccentric and have a strong desire to look after the wellbeing of the Inn’s guests.

Patrius – a human sorcerer of indeterminant age. Patrius appears as a middle aged man with slightly greying hair and is usually wearing a purple button-down shirt. He is an extremely powerful sorcerer who uses earth magic to extend his own life. Most of his time is spent sitting in his alcove where he can listen in on conversations. If a guest attracts his interest he will normally invite them to sit with him where he will ask about them about themselves and make occasional notes in his guest book. In the early days of the Inn he was known to disappear for years at a time without explanation. Nowadays his absences have grown much rarer and last for a few days at most.

Ted – the hulky, shirtless, tattooed bouncer sitting in the broken recliner is a troll named Ted. He takes the Inn’s no fighting rule very seriously and doesn’t care about much else. A few years ago someone introduced him to Chinese food and became addicted. Now regulars often bring him offerings of egg rolls and lo mein. Ted is almost never seen without his trusty silver battle axe which stands almost as tall as he does.

Gib and Gob – the kitchens are run by a pair of scaly green imps named Gib and Gob. No one actually knows which one is which. Regulars insist that their cooking is second to none, and they are right as long as the two have had a few years to practice their new recipes.

Dan – A tall and skinny young demon with four arms and horns growing from his forehead. Dan tends the bar and is an amazingly talented mixologist. His true passion however is for coffee and he has several customs blends that he makes for guests.

Bog/Boggie – the Inn’s resident boggart who takes care of the housekeeping and serves as a messenger for Patrius. It takes the shape of a large cat with a silver collar around its neck and a chain that drags along the floor. When it’s not busy it can be found sleeping in front of the fire in Patrius’s alcove.

The staff are exceptionally loyal to Patrius and the Inn, but the place wouldn’t be the same without its regulars.

Nathan – an NYU graduate student studying creative writing and folklore. Nathan is not magical in least but wandered in by accident on day. He’s been coming to the Inn ever since and it has become his favorite study spot.

The Captain – an old mariner who always smells like fish and wont stop talking about the time he wrestled a polar bear. He appears to be some kind of ocean demigod but has never revealed who his parents are.

Doug – the president of the NYC chapter of the Black Dog Motercycle Club. He and his pack come nearly every night.

Arito Taisho – a shinto priest and talented psychic. He comes to the Inn regularly to play cards with Doug and the rest of the pack.

Belesunnu – a middle eastern woman of few words. She has a talent for wind and earth magic and mostly likes to challenge over-confident men to games of darts or archery contests.

Gerark – an elderly bugbear who works for Stiltskin Trust Co. He sits in the corner most days with his magic circle, ready to exchange currencies and seal magical contracts.

Jasmine/James – a shapeshifting succubus/inccubus who runs a small escort business. They have helped people hide more than a few skeletons and is generally the one to go to for information about the current state of the supernatural. They are often seen smoking with Patrius in his alcove, drinking with Nathan, or giving Dan feedback on his newest coffee blend.

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Twenty Questions to Ask About Your Fictional Country

  • What is the climate like?
  • Is it landlocked, coastal, or an island?
  • What resources are present?
  • What is the terrain like?
  • Are their any natural barriers that would impede movement?
  • Where are the sources of water?
  • How many languages and ethnic groups are present?
  • Have any of these people been recently displaced?
  • How is society organized?
  • What form of government is there?
  • Do the people look favorably on the government?
  • What religions are practice?
  • Is there a state religion?
  • Who are the country’s neighbors?
  • Is this country more powerful than its neighbors?
  • What are the country’s major industries?
  • Is the country dependent on its neighbors for any important resources?
  • Does the country have any colonies abroad?
  • Are any parts of the country’s territory contested by its neighbors?
  • Does this country have any historic rivalries?

The Best Things About Bending

Elemental magic is hard to do right. The four classical elements are so ingrained in us that we all are likely to add elemental worldbuilding into our first settings, but it’s hard to do well. The four elements have been done so much that it’s hard to be original. It’s hard to make elemental magic feel like it’s really a part of the world and not just a later add on.

Yet the elements are so pervasive that the internet is full of people showing off their elemental magics systems where they very creatively include their own elements like shadow, mud, or even magma.

There is nothing wrong with making an elemental magic system. It comes naturally to us for a reason. But if you want to your elemental magic to work it’s going to take a lot of effort.

Of the very limited selection of examples I have been exposed too I have only seen two instances of elemental magic done well; Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and Avatar the Last Airbender.

Unlike Avatar, Codex Alera has six elements, not four. Each element has it’s uses, but some elements are clearly more useful that others. To be fair, the characters are at war for just about the entire series and for obvious reasons the characters are most interest in the elements that help them to kill the enemy. In Avatar the elements have a place in daily life and each can easily contend with the other. As much as I love Codex Alera, the world of Avatar just feels more alive.

Physicality

This is something that can really only be done in a visual medium, but Avatar does it so well. Not only is each of the four based in a different marital art, different styles have their own variations.

For me the most obvious example of this are the pro-benders. Their quick jabs and evasions evoke images of professional boxers, and the bending they do reflects that. They’re all about quick attacks and evasions and it shows. Against a real fighter not constrained by the rules of the ring they quickly fall short. There movements are of peoples trained to do one thing well rather than master their element.

What’s the best thing about this? For me it’s that practice gets results. In most fantasy it can be hard to show characters getting better with magic. In Avatar their magic is so tightly linked to their movements and thinking that it’s almost impossible not to. A bender’s philosophy and mindset impact their bending in a very visible way.

Balance

Elemental magic is so common that it’s hard not to have prejudices.

Earth, Water, Air, Fire. Which would you choose? Which is the best?

In fantasy that has a four element system we don’t always get an equal view of each element. Everyone expects fire to be aggression or water to be healing. Avatar may not give every element the same amount of screen time, but they each have the same amount of potential. Every element is shown to have its own limitations and strengths but none is ever made to look weaker than the others.

In fact the best benders, like Iroh, take the time to learn from the other elements and see what practices they can incorporate into their own art.

Incorporation

Each of the four nations is inseparable from their element.

Too often in fantasy, magic is treated as something separate from the rest of society. In the Avatar universe magic is inseparable from the larger society. The trains and mail in Omashu are moved by earth benders. The builds in the Norther Water Tribe are clearly built with the help of water benders, and the the Fire Nation could not have had its industrial base without the fire benders to power the furnaces.

This arrangement brings obvious inequalities to mind. What can a normal person do when bending is so prevalent?

It’s an important question to ask and one that doesn’t get enough attention in the Legend of Korra. What do non-benders get?

Even so, the prevalence of bending in these societies becomes even more important. What happens when technology progresses? What happens when the non-benders no longer need the benders? While not fully addressed in The Legend of Korra, it’s still an interesting question that fantasy should address. What does magic do when it can’t hide?

Conclusion

Avatar the Last Airbender is an amazing series. I’ve loved it since I first saw the pilot in a hotel room when I was ten. Any time I thought I might want to make an elemental magic system I’ve turned to the wiki and realized that I simply couldn’t beat it.

It’s not the magic, or setting, it’s how real everything feels. The entire world is infused with the love of its creators and speaks to the wonders that can be achieved by a few dedicated worldbuilders.

What I most love about Avatar is that the otherwise cliché elemental magic can be innovative in the right context. Any magic, any idea, can feel real in the right setting. It speaks to the strength of good worldbuilding and it has been in my mind ever since I saw the first episode.

Really though, the best part of Avatar is that the magic doesn’t feel like magic. It just feels like a part of the world.

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Is The Legend of Korra Any Good?

Maybe.

I began watching (several years late) knowing that fans have a love/hate relationship with the show. Nevertheless, I tried to keep an open mind and managed to make it through to the end. And I have a lot of thoughts. I struggled writing this post, I tried to write a coherent essay about the Legend of Korra. Instead have this listicle.

If I had to sum up my thoughts about what was wrong with the series it would be this. It had a lot of potential, multiple good moments, and a lot of missed chances.

The Bending

If you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll know by now that I love magic systems and bending is no exception. The world of Avatar is one of the few examples of a fantasy world where elemental magic doesn’t feel like the cliche. It feels real and it’s an integral part of the setting and culture. Getting to see subsets of bending reach maturity, especially metal bending, is just great.

It was also great to see an airbending master let loose. Don’t get me wrong, Aang is great, but he never really put his airbending on full display like Tenzin does in this series.

I guess airbending is good for something other than marble tricks after all.

Finally, I was glad to see the creators stick with giving each style of bending a distinctive visual. Pro Benders, the professional athletes of the Avatar world. have a very distinctive style regardless of element that shows a focus on quick attacks and agile dodges. That this style of bending rarely holds up outside of the confines of the arena is a nice touch.

The main issue with the bending in this series is Korra’s weakness. Already at the beginning of season one it’s implied that she has already mastered three of the four elements. Yet throughout the series she repeatedly get’s brushed aside by her opponents. This is especially apparant in season one when she starts Pro Bending and apparently forgets everything she knows about bending in the process. Her fights with the Equalists are filled with quick jabs like those used in the arena when she could have just brought the building down. By the end of his first season Aang was sinking entire fleets on his own. With the exception of an incredibly cartoonish fight in season 2 we never get that from Korra.

The Villains

None of the villains were bad exactly, at least the ideas for them weren’t. It makes sense that non-benders would begin demanding equal treatment or that established forms of government would be overthrown or forced to change. Or that people would forget to honor the spirits and cause backlash by doing so.

The problem with these villains is that we never really get to explore their motives. In her role as avatar Korra takes for granted that the world is already the way it should be. In season 4 it’s finally said that Korra helped get better treatment for non-benders but that’s not something we ever see her caring about in the first season while she is fighting Amon.

In Avatar the Last Airbender the protagonists dealt with concepts like imperialism, war , refugees, gender roles, and disabilities to name just a few. Legend of Korra introduces its own ideas, but never really deals with them in the same way. Time and time again Korra sees the problems that gave rise to the villains she has to face and each time she turns the other way.

Not Doing the Thing

So conflicts could have been resolved if the characters had done the sensible thing. I realize that if characters never made mistakes we’d never have story, but LoK has some really spectacular mistakes.

Why for example did Suyin Beifong refuse to restore order in Ba Sing Sei after the Earth Queen’s death? Morals aside, she at the time ruled one of the most advanced cities in the world with dedicated cadre of trained fighters. She had at this point already took her forces out of the city to help the avatar and the fledgling air nomads. Her refusal to help led directly to Kuvira’s rise to power.

While we’re on the topic of inaction. Why in season four was the Fire Lady so unwilling to take action against Kuvira? Given all the work Zuko put into rehabilitating the nation’s image after the war this attitude makes sense to a point. Did she really forget that her son is a part of the army that would very likely have to fight Kuvira on its own if the Fire Nation refused to help?

For a country seemingly dedicated to inaction the United Republic has a lot of warships.

And why didn’t General Iroh just order his troops to fight Kuvira? I understand that the president had ordered him to surrender but it’s not like he wouldn’t have been able to see what a terrible idea surrender was. Plus as a member of the Fire Nation’s royal family he isn’t lacking in career options. After the role he played in season one, his part in season four was just disappointing.

The Spirits

I actually enjoyed Avatar Wan’s story. I know a lot of people did not. But it didn’t actually contradict any of the existing lore, if anything it gave it greater context, and the different art style made it clear that the story was being told with some embellishments.

The problem I have is with how the spirits were portrayed in the rest of the series. in the Last Airbender the spirits had gravitas. They were forces of nature or strange creatures bordering on being eldrich horrors. LoK’s spirits are essentially neopets that get angry sometimes. It’s no wonder the people of the Avatar World stopped listening to them.

I do however like that Iroh was able to live on in the spirit world. It made sense for his character and as a big fan of Iroh I was glad to see him come back.

The Tech

At first the huge jump in technological progress that happened between ATLA and LoK was jarring, but it grew on me. The series has a wonderful steampunk/magitech aesthetic and the ways that we see bending and technology intermingle is just great.

Almost none of this tech got used after season one and that’s a tragedy.

With all the advances in technology I don’t quite understand why we don’t see as many non-benders taking part in conflicts as we did the ATLA.

The Verdict

The Legend of Korra had some good moments and a lot of bad moments, but it’s still a fun watch. If you want to see powerful benders driving around in shiny cars then this is the show for you. Like most things, it helps if you watch it for fun and don’t question it too much.

If you liked the first series then you should definitely watch this one, as long as you don’t raise your expectations too high you should still be able to enjoy it. I still don’t think it at all measured up to the first series, but at least I had fun watching it.

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All the images here were sourced from the Avatar wiki.

Worldbuilding: Sparrows

A few weeks ago I made a post about Flicker Lamps. Magical communication devices used in the early days of exploration in my Sprawling Iron series. While they became an essential part of managing large empires they were hard to mass produce and had several properties that made security difficult. Furthermore, the could only be given to specific individuals and could not be distributed by governors as needed.

This limitation proved to be especially inconvienient when it became more important to be able to communicate with agents sent to unexplored lands or diplomats dispatched to negotiate with local governments. Eventually, sorcerers devised a new means to rapidly communicate over long distances. Sparrows.

These ceramic birds are small enough to fit in the palm of a person’s hand and infused with a minor air spirit capable of animating the clay and providing it the power of flight. A person wishing to send a message via sparrow must first hold an image of the intended recipient in their mind as well as their general location. Once they do this the sparrow will animate and the user can speak their message allowed. After the sparrow hears the message it will take flight and attempt to find the intended recipient, once it does it will repeat the spoken message and be ready to used again. In some cases, written messages and maps may also be tied to small loops on the bottom of the construct.

Sparrows are small enough that ships, armies, and individuals can carry many of them and allow regular reports to made. But they do come with some limitations.

  1. Distance – sparrows have a limited range, typically not more than a few hundred kilometers. For longer messages they are typically sent to a central administrative hub the possess a flicker lamp or telegraph office capable of passing on the message.
  2. Recipient Identity and Location – the sender must know the recipient and their general location. If either of these are incorrect the sparrow will not be able to deliver its message and will not give its message to anyone else.
  3. Message Erasure – once the message has been repeated there is no way to get the sparrow to repeat it. Recipients must be sure that they are paying attention and hope that they are in a quiet place.

To get around these limitations, many governors and administrators have at least one person on staff tasked with receiving sparrows and accurately transcribing these messages. Oftentimes they are given special quarters and offices in secluded areas to ensure that they have access to a quiet environment and are relatively free from intrusion. These sparrow handlers are often targets of bribes and even assassinations as eliminating or compromising them can disable an enemy’s communication network.

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Worldbuilding: Flicker Lamps

Now I just need to assign meaning to the trinkets on the bookshelf…

When the nations of Oliad and Danacia began to realize their imperial ambitions they were faced with a challenge that they had never confronted before. As their colonial holdings expanded they were faced with the question of how their central authorities could quickly send directives to their scattered generals, admirals, and imperial governors. This was in the time before the invention of Sparrows and the telegraph, and neither kingdom had access to the Soul Stones used by older empires.

The solution that both nations settled on were the Flicker Lamps. These devices were made by taking a fire spirit and splitting it into many parts. Each part could then be sealed in a glass lamp and sent overseas to important governors and military commanders with at least one remaining in the homeland.

An individual with the proper training could then operate the lamp by causing it to flicker in coded patterns that would then be repeated by every other lamp in the set. This allowed messages to be quickly sent across great distances.

There were drawbacks however. The first being that they were expensive to make and required at least some sorcerous training to operate. Because of this they were typically only issues to important governors and high ranking military commanders who were responsible for passing messages on through more conventional channels.

There was also no way to send a message to just one lantern in a set. A message intended for just one person would be sent to all connected lanterns. Every set of lanterns was expensive to make and traveling with multiple lanterns, especially while on campaign was difficult. To address this most nations using these lamps created special codes that would be known only to certain lamp holders. This was not a perfect system and often led to information leaks when outdated codes were used, but it worked well enough for most communications.

With the later invention of the telegraph and Sparrows these lanterns fell out of use. But they are still kept as museum pieces and curiosities, and sometimes still employed by enthusiasts and secret societies.

This is the first bit of worldbuilding that I’ve posted in awhile. Don’t worry! I plan to post more in the coming weeks. Check out this link here if you want to see what else I’m up to. You can also follow me on twitter @expyblog!