All hail International Tabletop Day!

Apologies for missing a week (or is it two), I am going to make up for lethargy by putting out two posts in the one day. This one is going to be slightly less ranty than the other one, it will be interesting to see which one (or either of them) gets the more interest.

This Saturday, 11th April 2015, will be this year’s International Tabletop Day (www.tabletopday.com). A truly international gaming community event, which will be covered in almost every continent on the planet (last year’s did actually cover every continent with people playing board games in Antarctica)! For those not aware of this monumental tabletop gaming event, it was started three years ago. It was the awesome offspring of the equally awesome tabletop show, hosted by Wil Wheaton on the Geek & Sundry Youtube channel. Just like the web show much of the gaming focus is going to be on board games, then again just like the spinoff show currently in production there will also be roleplaying games and card games (sorry card gamers you will always be a distant third in my heart).

I became aware of the International Tabletop Day through the web show. Having become aware of the Geek & Sundry channel because of Felecia Day, I searched for shows which she was on. It turns out that she for some reason turns up quite often turns up on Tabletop (she’s the co-producer of the show, which probably helps). So I started watching the show because of her and fell in love with the show itself (and developed a slight bro crush on Wil Wheaton, I mean have you seen his beard?). In at least half of the episodes he and his geek mates, many of whom I relatively famous, play a different board game. The other episodes are made of extended versions and gag reels. I am going to make a small confession here, I grew up hating board games. Every Christmas and a few wider family gatherings, the old stalwarts Monopoly and Scrabble got dragged out. Each time they did a small part of my soul died. I came to relate board gaming to the pain of forced Christmas family ‘fun’. If I wanted to play a tabletop game I did roleplaying and any time any of my roleplayer friends suggested a board game I groaned and started clock watching.

Tabletop changed all of that. Suddenly it seemed as though board games might actually be fun (who’d have thunk it). Definitely all those people on the show seemed to think so. It took me a while to did my toe back into the board gaming world and, like computer games, I remain more of a spectator rather than a active participant. My heart still remains with character sheets and funny shaped dice. Rather than on a board my preferred gaming landscape is my imagination, but Tabletop showed me that what I feared as a child was not all that board gaming could be.

Last year was the first time I had a chance to actually participate in International Tabletop Day and pretty much I failed to do that. While there were games being run in a number of local stores (well relatively local stores), because my friends failed to take part, so did I. Instead I watched the live stream out of LA. I watched the entire stream, well into the early hours and I am really grateful that I did (my bank balance was less happy). During the stream I took the chance to help sponsor the next season and possibly even more importantly the roleplaying spinoff. I will finally get to see Wil Wheaton get to GM, though since Critical Roll has turned up on the Geek & Sundry Twitch channel he has a lot to live up to now (seriously if you are at all interested in roleplaying games, check out Critical Role on Twitch, it is possibly one of the best things in the galaxy).

I had hoped to take advantage of this year’s event; sadly it does not seem that it will be possible. Due to a calendar clash instead of being around a table I will be in a field LARPing. That being said, I still aim to get some in character board gaming action going in the evening, in between the monsters attacking the camp. It also means that I will not get to see the stream live, which is a shame. I am sure my bank account will be much happier though.

Tabletop gaming is about bringing people together and having fun. International Tabletop Day promotes this across the community. Even if you have not played a board game in years, here’s your chance to take part in the community. There are games being run in over 80 countries. There is a list of events on the website, which will show you where your nearest games will be held. Really unless you are stuck in a field killing orcs you don’t have an excuse to take part. Even then as long as you can teach the orcs the rules and stop them from trying to eat the other gamers, you can still try and take part!

Why I wouldn’t boycott Gen Con

Apologies for missing a week (or is it two), I am going to make up for lethargy by putting out two posts in the one day. This one is going to be slightly more ranty than the other one, it will be interesting to see which one (or either of them) gets the more interest.

Since I first heard of Gen Con, about  30 years ago I have wanted to go. The fact that it is on another continent and for most of those 30 years I have not earned enough to afford the airfare, let alone the convention has meant that it has remained an unfulfilled dream. I was hoping to attend this year, but the financial reality is that I am not going to make it. I had been consoling myself with the fact that even if I did not make it this year, it did not mean that I could not go in the future. Then Indiana voted to bring in a discrimination law, which would allow businesses to refuse to serve people based on the owners religious beliefs. Even before this law got to a vote Gen Con wrote to the Governor (Mike Pearce) voicing their disapproval and stating that if the law was brought in they would have to think about moving the convention out of the state.

On the one hand this is not an idle threat Gen Con has, in the last few years, ramped up the number of attendees. Last years convention had 56,000 people turning up and it generates $50 million for the State of Indiana. On the other hand they were tied into a contract which ends in 2020. Unless they can find a way of wriggling out of the contract they will be stuck there for the next five years.

First off from a non-American standpoint, this law is wrong, plain and simple. What it claims to do is stand up for the rights of those with strong religious beliefs. What actually does is allow bigots to pick and chose who they will let through their doors. Here in the UK, there are still bigoted business owners, sorry those with a traditional conservative belief, who every so often try and use these beliefs to deny services to certain people. Now I am sure that most get away with this backward attitude, but when they get (legally) called out on their shenanigans they always lose. There are a few who will stand up for these bigots (people with strong traditional conservative beliefs), even a couple of politicians have been known to speak up for this benighted minority. Thankfully when this happens in the UK, the very best that these supporters can expect is tutting and shaking of heads at their outdated beliefs. Normally they get mocked for the dinosaurs that they are and told this attitude no longer flies in the modern Britain (all the while we know that in a minority not only does it fly, it is the equivalent of a 747 in some areas).

Apparently the law is set so that the poor religious (Christian) business owner does not need to sully themselves with money from sinners. Sadly it is not all sinners, this is no longer the 1960’s and people don’t really comment when an unmarried couple stays in a hotel….well unless the couple happens to be made up of only one gender. You see the definition of sinner is pretty much limited to homosexuals and transgender people. I suspect that given the chance that they would also like to stop people of the wrong religion (Islam) but that would open a different kettle of fish.

Now while I as an outsider find the law offensive, it would affect me if I went to Gen Con (unless there is a religious reason to not allow single straight 40 year olds in an establishment). So I can only empathise with those who now risk being discriminated upon. I can understand why you wouldn’t want to go somewhere where you were likely to made to feel unwelcome. That being said I am saddened that there are calls to boycott Gen Con until it moves out of Indianapolis. There are two reasons why this makes me sad, one of which is entirely selfish. If Gen Con cannot get out of its contract it is going to be stuck in Indiana for the next five years. If enough people boycott it then not only will Indiana suffer so will Gen Con. If enough people boycott it, it might even become financially unviable. While the convention is doing well at the moment, it was only a few years ago that it was running as an effectively a bankrupt organisation. Many of its plans have been based on the hope that not only will it maintain its numbers that they will continue to grow. If the numbers fall then these plans will be scuppered. Personally (and I admit selfishly) it would be very sad if the largest RPG convention on the planet ended because people were acting out of principle and I don’t mean the bigots.

The second reason is that I am not sure a boycott would work. Indianapolis did not want this bill to pass and it seems unlikely that many, if any businesses around the site of Gen Con will be taking up their new legal right. The same appears to be true of the other larger metropolitan areas of Indiana. This law has been passed to keep the more conservative rural population happy. From what I have read this rural population not only distrusts the city folk in many cases they actively dislike them. Yes a boycott will hurt Indiana, but to many people who support this law it will hurt those that kind of deserve to be hurt. Let’s be slightly stereotypical here, most of the people who support this kind of law see us geeks as being slightly weird. People wandering around a city in costume will be seen as freaks, not the kind of people that those supporting this law want around in the first place. So a boycott will hurt the people in Indianapolis most likely to welcome us, irrespective of our ethnicity, gender or sexuality and help remove from sight people who specifically threaten the bigots view of the world. By boycotting it is likely that we will give them the message that they have won, which is kind of the opposite of the message that we should be giving them.

There is an argument some people don’t want politics in their hobby and this is wrong and that we should force politics into it, just like politics is forced into every aspect of life. While it is true that no human endeavour is free from politics, indeed human endeavour is politics, I very much don’t want politics forced into what I do. You see I accept that there is politics in everything I do and think, so any politics that gets forced into my hobby is the type of politics that I disagree with. Over the last couple of years I have been made more and more aware of politics being forced into parts of geekdom that I enjoy. What is happening with Gen Con is simply the latest example. To be honest it pisses me off. The politics I object to is not the possible boycott, nor the people who support the boycott. I see where they are coming from and to a large extent agree with their points. No the politics that I object being forced into my hobby, is the stuff that splinters our community, tells some people that they are not welcome. Worse in this case most of those doing the forcing are not even part of the hobby. In their small mindedness they are forcing us to take into account their backward, prejudiced views. You know what? I really, really wish that I did not have to deal with their hatred, I wish that part of the politics was not included in my hobby. Also I kind of wonder why I should have to put up with it. Really guys, I don’t care if you live in London, the Isle of Skye, Los Angeles or rural Indiana, if you have a problem because of where they were born, who they fancy or their skin tone, please don’t bring it to my table. Also if possible don’t bring it in to the hobby that I do to have fun.

The good news is that Gen Con and other large organisations threatening to stop doing with Indiana (because of their moral beliefs), is causing a quick backpedalling. The law may yet get overturned without any of the threatened boycotts ever taking place. So maybe they are a good idea in principle!

Geek fans can be awesome

This time round, to lighten the mood, I thought I would look on something positive. In many ways the internet is like looking at the real world, but under a microscope. The bad stuff is much bigger and bolder and quite often it really gets in your face, luckily so does the good stuff. It is this good stuff, especially the fan reaction to it which not only makes the internet worthwhile it also makes my life feel more positive.

Despite being a dinosaur (I might have mentioned feeling like a dinosaur before), more and more of my free time is spent on the internet these days. I still own a TV but it hasn’t been switched in over a year. I watch all my TV and movies online and not just the stuff coming out of the traditional outlets. YouTube and the like have some great stuff on it and I don’t just mean cat videos (though cat videos are obviously great). There are people producing some fantastic original shows on YouTube. These are shows that the traditional outlets would never produce, stuff that is kept alive by the fans.

For quite a while I was like most people, I watched the stuff I would even subscribe to certain channels (mostly because it made it easier to find the new videos), over time though I got dragged in. I was not simply watching this stuff, I was, in a very small way, helping to get it made. As soon as I made that leap I found this hidden layer of fandom awesomeness.

My first step into this new level was watching the International Tabletop Day 2014 live stream on YouTube. For those who don’t know (and shame on you if you don’t – only kidding), Tabletop is a show where Wil Wheaton invites his friends to play board games. While I don’t recognise everyone who guests on the show, there are enough I do and people from shows that I like, that the people playing the games are almost as much a draw as the games themselves.

Anyway each year they organise an International Table Day and it is truly international, they even get people in Antarctica taking part. Last year was the first one that I became aware of and due to poor planning on my part, I failed to take part in any local games. So instead I decided to watch the live stream. Since the live stream was taking place in Los Angeles and I live in Essex, I had intended only to watch part of it. Well that intention got thrown out of the window, especially when Wil made his big announcement. He announced that they were planning on doing a third season, but they needed the fans help to fund it. Possibly it was the fun I was having watching it, possibly it was the late hour, I am sure it had nothing to do with the whiskey, but I backed the third season immediately. I wasn’t the only one, people were throwing money at Wil and during the stream the total donated just went up and up. It might sound strange, but it was truly a glorious thing to watch. Not only did you get to see firsthand how much the fans loved the show, you also got to watch Wil’s surprised delight.

For the first time I felt truly connected to something that I was a fan of. It was just like being a Kickstarter backer of my current fave roleplaying game. I felt important, I was doing my bit to make sure something that brought me enjoyment continued to exist. There was also some added bonuses, somewhere on the set my name is written down, I am literally part of every show. Also because the fans supported campaign so much, we are going to get a Roleplaying spin off game. Wil Wheaton as a GM? Who could say no to that! I may not have helped much, but my small contribution made that happen.

Now Tabletop is part of the Geek & Sundry family, Geek & Sundry was a Youtube channel that (shockingly) put together a whole host of shows. Many of these shows were written specifically for G&S and a few they host for other people. I say was, not because it has stopped being a YouTube channel, but because it has expanded beyond that. I always knew that Geek & Sundry had a huge fan base, in small part due to it being headed by the lovely Felicia Day, it was not until they launched their Twitch channel that I (and I think they) realised how big and dedicated.

Twitch is a website where people playing games, including roleplaying and board games, but mostly computer games, get to stream these games. I only discovered Twitch from watching Felicia and her brother Ryon playing a computer roleplaying game. Something about watching two siblings argue with each other (and in Ryon’s case merciously trolling his sister) as they play a game which is surprisingly addictive.

So Geek & Sundry decided to launch a Twitch channel. To do this they decided to run a 48 hour marathon and not just a marathon but a charity run. For those who don’t know (and before this event I didn’t) Maurissa Tancharoen, co-producer of Marvel: Agents of Shield, and wife of Jed Whedon, suffers from Lupus. Lupus is a vicious auto immune disease, where the sufferers own body attacks them. The aim was to raise a modest $20,000 for a US Lupus charity. That target was broken within 12 hours, the next three targets $50k, $100k & $150k were all passed. There were people who were donating multiple times (I may have done that) and donating a lot of money (I may not have done that). Sure if you donated a modest amount you could make the presenters dance like your puppets, but you also got a rather unnerving computer voice reading out a message. Every message was positive and in the onscreen chat, people were praising not only the presenters and their guests but also the people giving money.

Unusually for the internet the community was almost universally positive and any of the normal trolls who try and wreck these things were quickly dispatched. While I was there to watch people play games and dance, I became as interested in being part of this awesome community. Part of that community, inspired by a throwaway line by Ryon, has taken this experience even further. Team Hooman is probably the best community of geeks, online or in real life that I have ever been part of. It is universally positive and supportive. It is just a nice place to hang out, which on the internet is such a rare thing.

For a lot of us being a geek has historically been a lonely thing. Also the online communities both geek and otherwise can be horribly judgemental and toxic. But my experiences over the last year shows me that this does not have to be the case. It reinforces what I already believed, we geeks can be awesome. Even better when we come together we can make great things happen, just with our positive good will. In a world that often seems dark and depressing just knowing this makes me smile a little every day.

Oh and on geeks being awesome, Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion (of Firefly fame) have partnered up to write and produce a comedy programme. It revolves around two friends who were on a science fiction show, cruelly cancelled by a network before its time (which sounds familiar). One is now a big star, the other not so much and the show is about conventions, the people who go to and run them and the stars who attend them. It is going to be called Con Man and as writing this has already raised $1.9 million with 25 days to go. This is a project that would never have happened without the geek fan base. If you are interest in doing your bit go to: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/con-man . And no I am not sponsored by Nathan Fillion, though if he offered I would probably accept!

A Strange and Painful Series of Losses

It has been a slightly strange few weeks for me, visiting a grave and two deaths of people that I never met have left me sad, grateful and thinking about my past and what these men who I never knew, who I never spoke to, have done to shape my life and how much I owe them.

I am always slightly suspicious about the near cults of personality that grow up around celebrities. How people seem to hang on every word of people whose major talent is either acting or writing (or those who seem to have no discernible talent whatsoever). How these people seem to be taken as almost spiritual advisors to some, to the point where their fans seem to believe that they are owed something. I am a major fan of Felicia Day, but the demands of attention from her other fans are sometimes painful to watch and read. Okay peeps she does not know you, so telling her how much you love her is just slightly creepy.

With this in mind, possibly it is slightly hypocritical of me to so emotional banged up over the death of two geeky celebrities, to feel the need to explain how much their loss leaves me feeling upset and pain. The thing is these two men and the man whose grave I visited last week, really did help hale my life, not only that it was a shared appreciation of their work that helped form bonds between me and my parents.

Last week I had the chance to visit Highgate Cemetery, as well as looking for the grave of Karl Marx, because hey it’s Highgate Cemetery and that’s hat you do, I also searched out for the grave of Douglas Adams. Douglas Adams, or rather the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy holds a very special place in my heart and my life’s journey. When I was eight I had a major operation, which means that I was kept at home for 6 months to recuperate. Luckily my Mum was a  teacher and she ensured that my education did not suffer. Though I can’t now remember the name of the series of books (hey its been 32 years), the tales of colour specific pirates and dragons gave me an interest in reading that I had never had before. It was not that I could not read, it was just that until these books I didn’t enjoy reading. These books changed that and when I returned to school my love of reading continued. The trouble was the books in school library were not that interesting, they were kids books and I had already moved on beyond that.

I managed to find in the library the original novelisation of Star Wars, and since I loved Star Wars I quickly read that. Then I found the Trials of Heracles (which after reading that led to my eternal hatred of the character being called by his Roman name Hercules, the Hera part of his name is important to the story people) but after that I ran out of stuff to read. Thankfully at home there was the hard back of Hitchhikers. I suspect that it was my Dad’s, he claimed to have loved science fiction, though this was the only book of the genre in the house at the time. So at age 9 I read the whole of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it blew me away.

I suspect that I did not get all the jokes, actually I know I didn’t, but it changed how I looked at the universe. It also changed my reading habits, from that moment on I was never without a book to read. Until much later the only novels that I read were science fiction of fantasy, even now those are the genres that I almost always go to. Without Douglas Adams that might never have happened and in no small way I have him to thank for my love of reading. He has helped to broaden my mind and made my life more filled with the fantastic.

While my Dad may not have had that many science fiction books he did love his science fiction TV. He and I watched Doctor Who together, then again so did the whole family on a Saturday evening. Star Trek was something different, Star Trek was on the evening that my Mum visited my maternal grandmother, Star Trek was something that I and my Dad watched together. While we watched the whole of the Next Generation, it was the original series where this bond grew. This was a bond that remained during my teenage years, when everything else between my Father and I pretty much broke down. Between the arguments and disagreements there was an hour of peace, where we watched Star Trek.

When Leonard Nemoy passed away a couple of weeks ago, I remembered this bond. It is especially important to me since the relationship with my Father has remained especially cool since I have become an adult. Politically he is pretty much my polar opposite and the embodiment of political ideas that I find repugnant. Any discussion we have has the very real possibility of descending into an argument and not the fun kind. I almost lost my Father last year, he was very ill and at one point we were given the 24 hour warning. Because he is an obstinate S.O.B. he managed to pull through and is still annoying me to this day. Leonard Nemoy passing allowed me to remember the time when we were closer.

It also gave me the excuse to rematch the original series, something that I have not done in well over a decade. I had forgotten how good those stories were. Sure they have dated, the costumes the women are forced to wear are a tad eye rolling. The actual stories though are solid and in no small way this is down to Mr Spock. To me more so than Kirk, Spock is the main hero. He also embodies principles that I hold close, logic over emotion and a questioning attitude to the universe. While I am not that much like Spock, it was only rewatching these episodes that I realised what an inspiration he had actually been. By some kind of osmosis he had influenced my way of thinking.

Yesterday I heard of the passing of Sir Terry Pratchett and more than the others this one hit home hard. It seems that I need to dust my flat more often because reading about his death made my eyes sting. It is an odd feeling (well for me at least) to be almost moved to tears over the loss of someone that I never met.

I first came across Terry Pratchett through a friend, we were playing D&D and he kept quoting this book. Turns out that the book was the Colour of Magic and once I read it I understood why my mate was quoting it. It was great, it was a fantasy book, but it was also funny, really funny. I started buying and reading everything that Pratchett wrote, and I wasn’t the only one. My Mum had always been a bit eye rolling about my hobbies and the books that I read. When she saw me reading the Colour of Magic though she became intrigued and borrowed it. That started a trend that continued for years. I would buy a Terry Pratchett book and then lend it to my Mum. After the trend reversed and it was my Mum getting the books and me borrowing them. It became a running joke that each birthday or Christmas, I would buy my Mum the most recent Pratchett novel. It is a sad thing that this tradition will now have to end, that there will be no new novels for her get as presents.

These three men as well as a host of others who are still living helped shape who I became, they also helped me be closer to my parents during my teenage years, where otherwise we may have drifted more apart than we did. They helped spark my interests in reading especially science fiction and fantasy. Terry Pratchett especially, with his humorous but well thought out critique of the modern world and the ills that plague it, helped reinforce my political world view. I owe each of them a huge debt and that is why their passing has hit me so hard. As I said on Twitter this is a bad time to be a geek, too many of our heroes are passing too close together and we need to treasure not only their memories but also the heroes who are still with us. Just don’t tell them how much you love them, because peeps that’s still damned creepy!

So Why are Comics Important to Me?

Earlier this week I was asked to contribute the Comics Empower Project and explain why comics were important to me and what they had done to make me the person I am now. To be honest despite reading comics since I was about nine, it was not really something that I had really given much thought to. After some contemplation this is what I wrote down:

I bought my first comic during a family holiday to Wales. It was the Justice League and they were fighting Starro. At the time I only recognised Batman and since it was the climax of the story, it really did not make much sense. But that one comic started a love of comics which is still going strong over 30 years later. Even before I started reading science fiction and fantasy novels and before I started playing roleplaying games, comics transported me out of my own boring life.

 

I was the stereotypical nerdy kid, thin, wore glasses and was rubbish at sports. I also had big ears that stood at right angles from my head. All of this made me an easy target for the school bullies. Comics gave me an escape into worlds where the underdog not only got cool superpowers but was a hero. For a long time I wanted to live in a comic book world (sometimes, if I am honest, I still do).

 

Over the years my interests have changed, though I still remain a geek at heart and I still love my comics. These days I am both a Marvel zombie and a fan of independent comics. Marvel gives my four colour superhero fix and independent comics allow me to explore strange new worlds from the comfort of my chair. Even with a more hectic life, I still get the chance to escape my life and experience the same delight I did all those years ago.

Well that is definitely part of the story, I do remember on a family holiday to Wales reading my first American style comic. Before that I had tried the comic strip style ones like Beano and Dandy, but really they were never my kind of thing. What it took was a visit to Swansea to meet my uncle and aunt. Let’s just say that visiting relatives in a wet Swansea was not the height of excitement, so the chance to read a comic with Batman in was just the escape that I needed. This though was not the Batman that I remembered, I had watched the reruns of the campy TV show; the Batman I was reading was a proper superhero and until that point I had never really come across that outside of cartoons. At the time I had no idea who these other characters were, but I wanted to find out.

There was a slight problem though, at the time American style superhero comics were not really that common in the UK and mostly they had to be purchased from speciality shops. It was only later that I discovered that there was one in the town we went shopping in almost every Saturday. For almost a year I scoured the local newsagents for more superhero comics. Ironically it was my grandmother that helped out, finding me a copy of Secret Wars, just before I went on the next family holiday. I can’t remember where we went that year, but I do remember scouring every shop that I could find to locate the next issue of Secret Wars. I remember it because I remember the disappointment of not succeeding.

Actually it was roleplaying that actually got me into collecting comics. In Basildon there was a store that I visited regularly to get my new roleplaying goodies, well actually since they were kind of expensive I used to go and look at the goodies and plan what I would get when my pocket money came in. Sadly like many roleplaying shops it closed down, but my friends told me of another one, one that I had missed. What I discovered was not one shop but two, one sold roleplaying games, the other sold comics. Not just a few comics but more titles than I could have imagined that existed. This was when Image was just getting off the ground so as well as Marvel I tried out some of their comics and really I have never looked back.

As I said in my short piece to the Comics Empower Project, I was the stereotypical weedy geek at school, even though I did not know what that meant at the time. I was stick thin, rubbish at sports with big ears that people liked to take the mick out of. For much of the time I was lonely and miserable, but alongside roleplaying and reading science fiction novels (hey I said I was a geek) comics gave me an escape. Marvel especially was filled with characters who were picked on or victimised, outsiders who because they were special were heroes instead of being victims. I wanted to be just like them. Not that I wanted to be Peter Parker, it was only years later that I decided that Spider-Man wasn’t lame, no I wanted to be an X-Man. Someone who didn’t need to hide away those things that made them different. I think trying to be that brave, to not only accept my geeky side, but make it my identity, wear it as a badge of honour has in part made me who I am today.

Since before I was a teenager I have been quite open about being a geek, long before it became almost socially acceptable. I have read roleplaying books and comics on the train and bus. Taken them with me to work, so I can read them in my lunch break. Even had lengthy discussions in the pub about ongoing story lines and which character is better than another one. Sure I have gotten comments and looks from other people. As I have become older though, I have discovered more and more people of my age, who did roleplaying at some point, who read comics and carried on reading comics long after they were kids. They were like Peter though, they hid away their geeky side, whereas I was an X-Man from the start.

As I have got older I have discovered more and more layers to comics, they’re not all just four colour, spandex wearing superheroes. As a late teen I spent three weeks locked away reading every issue of Sandman. I read V for Vendetta and the Watchmen long before they were made into films. These were stories that not only entertained they also made the reader think. That being said it was always the spandex wearers that drew my greatest attention. Even here though, through Grant Morrison’s book, I have come to realise that these are not just stories for kids, these are the modern versions of the legends and fables told in ancient times. Heroes and gods fighting the forces of evil and sometimes falling to them. Beyond the colour I have come to appreciate what they tell us about ourselves and the people that we want to be.

So that’s why comics are important to me, they give me another avenue to escape the humdrum mundane world and show me a way to be a better and braver person. Also they are cool to look at and who doesn’t wish at some point that they were Deadpool!?!

The Loss of Privacy

For years we have been warned that ‘Big Brother was watching us’ from CCTV surveillance to the chips in our phones and cards being tracked by government satellite. More recent ‘shocks’ that government spy agencies are regularly tapping into our emails and apparently have ensured that the manufacturers of the firmware in many if not all are infected with malware which allows them to access all our digital data. It seems that like free speech and free will privacy has become an illusion, in the 21st Century.

Anyone who has worked in a company big enough to have an IT department should be aware that said department can monitor all your work emails and access your computer’s hard drive. Loyalty cards, debit and credit cards and websites like Amazon track your spending habits and often sell this information to marketing companies. Even simple search engines like Google build up a profile of their users, so they can better target adverts. Cookies not only allow easier access to websites, they also track visitors and some of those cookies have for decades been placed there by government agencies. Go to the wrong website and your details will get pinged up on a watchlist.

All of this sounds like a paranoid conspiracy nightmare. Indeed many of the people who voiced their concerns about where privacy was going, were called paranoid. Looking around the web (being careful not to get on the wrong government watchlist) will find people with dire warning for the future, that this apparent nightmare is only the beginning. Now many of them are indeed paranoid conspiracy theorists, but by no means all of them. Despite this many people simply ignore these warnings.

The slow loss of privacy was speeded up by one event, a terrible event that has shaped the world far more than even those who carried out could have imagined. Even those people living in caves (especially if those caves are in Afghanistan) know what happened on 9/11. To protect us governments brought in sweeping changes to our civil liberties and privacy, all in the name of safety. We were expected to accept these losses to our freedom, to ensure that freedom was not lost. In the early days those who spoke up were shouted down as almost (sometimes outright) traitors to the principles of democracy and free speech. While the law makers and politicians seem as focused on those events, and the minor (though still horrible) terrorist attacks that have followed, the general public has either become more apathetic or disenchanted with the continuing changes.

Social justice campaigners have taken on the task of trying to expose the various governments on just how far they have gone and just how much their agencies have lied to the general public. Some of these campaigners have been punished for their attempts to expose the lies, others have simply used it to further their own agendas and increase their personal celebrity. While the general public is more aware, and if you ask pretty much anyone (with the exception of those whose agenda is to promote the expansion of monitoring of the populace) they will voice concern at the apparent increased monitoring that they are under and exactly who is looking at this information and why.

Just a couple of years ago I was one of those who very concerned with exactly what information the State was gathering on me. The idea that they might require me to hold an ID card irritated me. Then I realised that pretty much all the data that would be on this ID card was already held on my passport; everything else was held on government databases. Before it was eventually scrapped I still had one remaining issue with the ID card as laid out, I was going to have to pay for it. I don’t like the idea of paying for something that I am forced to have.

I like most people have a Facebook account, I use Twitter, Google networks, my company (I am one of three directors) even has a YouTube channel. I constantly put out my thoughts and feelings on the internet, for whoever ever is silly enough to read them. Every time I update my Facebook status (unless it is a cat video) I sacrifice my privacy. In many ways the modern internet user is a very (in most cases very, very) minor celebrity. We want people to notice us. Just like celebrities, who court attention to help maintain their career, we like some attention but not others. We only want those people we want to read our random thoughts, strangers and worse the authorities seem like voyeurs and stalkers. Like your underwear on the washing line, you might put this stuff out there, but it doesn’t mean you want someone to take notes of how many blue underpants you have.

Privacy isn’t dead, you can have your own secret thoughts and desires. You can make plans, even write them down and never have Big Brother peering over your shoulder. You can, but that means not placing them in the electronic world. Unless the NSA has developed some fantastic mind reading device my thoughts remain my own. All those campaigns that I never ran, in notepads, will remain forever unread by anyone else. My blog, is a different matter…..though admittedly not by much. The thing is I decide to do this and if Big Brother wants to take an interest, really they have as much right (possibly more, some people write some deeply unpleasant things in their blogs and sometimes the authorities should take note) as anyone else.

The final thought that keeps me feeling happy and safe in this increasingly less private would. I live in a country with nearly 70 million people, the vast majority of whom are active on the internet. The security forces, especially those poor slobs tasked with monitoring internet chatter are probably about focused on their jobs as I am in the office. These two points the vast numbers of people to watch and human nature meaning that those watching are probably only doing so in a half arsed manner, almost definitely means that nothing I do or say in the internet gets noticed by the authorities. Which makes them on the same level as 99.99999999999999999% of the world population in regards to my random internet ramblings!

My Issue with Fantasy Gods

This has been inspired by me writing up a pantheon for a setting I am thinking about, which was in turn inspired by the various excellent ‘Kobold Guide to…’ books by Wolfgang Baur’s Kobold Publishing.

As a those poor maligned few who actually know me in person will attest I am not a religious person. Actually I am a stone cold atheist, but one with an interest in religions and mythology. Roleplaying inspired my love of mythology, which is kind of ironic considering how slap dash and poor religion is handled in most fantasy games.

Ancient mythology is a fascinating thing, it tells you as much about the society that created it as it does the gods, goddesses and monsters that are included in the stories. On the surface these religions seem monolithic entities and that is how they are used often in fantasy settings. The gods and goddesses set in stone, their roles simple and straightforward. The thing is these religions existed within societies that lasted hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. Just as the societies they came from changed, so did the religions and even the deities within them. Some gods rose and fell and others changed their roles as needed by the changing culture.

Checking out various myths will bring up stories that contradict each other and have clearly changed over time. Far from being simply a god of war, you will find that Mithra had other duties based on earlier myths and legends. No deity of the ancient world was as ever as one dimensional as most fantasy settings want you to believe. Unless as a designer of Games Master you want to spend more time researching your gods and their religions, than designing adventures, you will never get the nuanced, layered religions that actually existed. Most players are not interested in the minute details of the rites and rituals that made up the cultures of the ancient worlds, which is understandable, if not slightly disappointing at times.

Beyond this overly light touch that most (not all and I will come back to those that break the mould) designers seem to have, there are two great ‘sins’ that fantasy settings often have when it comes to religion.

The first is that they get pantheon worship wrong, okay they only show one kind of worship, the kind that was rare at best in the real world. These pantheons are made up of a number of different gods, each one having their own portfolio and often a narrow portfolio. There will be the god of the sea (though rarely will he also say be the god of horses) and you have priests and followers who only follow that god. Poseidon was one of the Olympian Gods, brother to Zeus and Hades. Sailors would pray to him for calm seas, Alexander the Great did so before the battle Issus. The idea that Alexander only prayed to Poseidon though does not make sense. Like most people who followed the Greek Gods Alexander prayed to the relevant god at the relevant time. What Alexander practiced is called kathenotheism, as did most people who followed a pantheon based religion.

Instead what we get in most fantasy settings is henotheism. If you follow Thor you only follow Thor and despite the fact that Thor’s portfolio does not cover everything, you ignore those gods who might be relevant. Henotheism was far less common in the real world, well possibly until the rise of the neopagans, yes you got priests of Jupiter and people who favoured him above other gods, but even these recognised that Jupiter was but a single god in a family of them and if you believed these gods existed, you did not go around ignoring them, if no other reason that you did not want to annoy them (these gods and goddesses were not chilled out dudes and took offence quite easily).

This means instead of a working pantheon what you get is a series of competing monotheistic faiths, all of which are significantly less effective than the monotheistic faiths that are more the norm these days. These multiple monotheistic religions lack the omnipotent gods that make up the Abrahamic faiths. Instead of participating in something that actually feels like a working religion, players get a list of patrons that give them specific power ups, especially if they happen to play priests. Choosing a faith becomes choosing which cool powers and spells you want to have, which I find kind of irritating. It also means that you rarely, if ever, get people playing the priests of the less cool gods. Gods of war, by the bucket load, priests of nature gods sure, especially if they give you companion animals or the ability to shape change.Gods and goddesses of agriculture, harvest deities, you know the ones that people would actually call upon most often, heck no. After all who wants to power of making sure that crops grow? Like overly long skill lists, these deities become the dump gods, with little actual reason for being included, other than for background.

The reason that this happens and why it also tends to take place with neopagans, is because of the culture most of us grew up in. The dominant major religions of the current era are monotheistic and the three biggest share a single deity, though they disagree on how He should be worshipped. Even within these three big religions you get divides and schisms, with competing denominations. With Christianity especially, you even get the chance to chose a minor semi divine being, who has a minor portfolio as your patron saint. Even if, like me, you decide not to play the religion game our culture is shaped by these beliefs on a fundamental level. It shapes our language, philosophies and morality in ways even atheists cannot honestly deny. It is not a surprise then that if influences setting designers and even neopagans who rebel against these monotheistic religions. We are given the choice of picking and choosing the god or goddess we can follow, but it feels more ‘natural’ to chose just one or maybe a couple.

The thing is though that there are plenty of classical examples of how societies with pantheons thought and acted. The Iliad and Prose Edda describe not only the actions of the mortals of these tales but also the gods who looked over them. These ancient gods, especially the Greek ones, loved to play with mortal lives. The Greek legends are filled with gods coming down, sleeping with mortals, creating demigods and general being pains in the rump to any mortal unlucky enough to draw their attention. Now to me having heroes having to deal with petulant deities as well as monsters and villains sounds like fun.

The other major sin, started in Dungeons and Dragons but found even in games where the alignment system has been dropped is that gods get pigeon holed. This is especially true about whether the god or goddess in question is evil or not. Now Ares was a bit of a jackass, but the Greeks did not see him as an evil god. Even Hades brooding away in the Underworld was not a one dimensional, moustache twirling villain. As for good gods, pretty much any mythology that you can read will show that even the most beneficial deity could be a right bastard at times. Just like the God of the Old Testament, whose tales were first written down at the same time as the Egyptian and Greek gods were being worshipped, keep them happy and the gods would protect you, upset them and they would really ruin your day. The thing is unlike the more impersonal and distant deities of later Monotheistic religions, the ancients showed their gods more like real people, with failings as well bits that were to aspire to.

Yes there were beings, gods and/or demons considered evil. Also having an arch villain, one way above the bog standard bad guys that your characters meet at the beginning of the campaign is always a good move, though it might not be the best move in EVERY campaign. There has to be a reason though why someone or something would worship such a being, more than just because fate has decided that these worshipers are also evil. Only the desperate and/or insane worship Cthulhu, making whole countries and species that desperate or insane seems a bit simplistic. Even evil gods need to be well rounded to offer their worshipers a legitimate reason to worship them.

Not every fantasy mythology falls into these traps. The major example is Glorantha. The world of RuneQuest and HeroQuest is incredibly detailed with a major focus on the mythology that underpins it. Then again Glorantha did not start as a roleplaying setting, it was started in 1966 by Greg Stafford as an experiment to create a mythology. The story goes having read every book on ancient mythology at college, Greg Stafford decided to see if he could create his own. Nearly 50 years later the experiment is still on going. Greg may have taken a step back these days, but designers are still working on his momentous work. Many of these designers are now game designers.

The beauty of Glorantha is that if you want your characters can interact with the mythology that literally underpins the world, even to the point that you can change the myths. While there are evil gods, many of them have not always been seen as such and some (depending on which age you are in) are universally regarded as being evil. As with real life it comes down to your culture’s viewpoint.

A more small scale version is Wolfgang Baur’s Midgard setting, where not only are pantheons worshipped complete with priests dedicated to the pantheon as a whole, but the gods themselves are a mysterious element. In Midgard there is only a limited number of actual gods, far less than are worshipped. This is because the gods where masks, an idea taken from the Roman’s assimilation of gods they encountered. According to the Roman’s this new local god, was actually one of theirs, but wearing a mask. In Midgard it is not always clear which god is wearing what mask and it is possible that two gods who hate each other, is actually the same god just wearing two different masks. Again how much you use this is left up to the Games Master, but the fact it is there is an added bonus missing in most fantasy settings.

There is a wealth of real world inspiration, as well as over a century of fantasy novels that deal with religion and mythology in a much more nuanced way than it gets in the majority of fantasy settings. Taking the easy route regarding the options available, seems, to me at least, doing gamers a disservice. Just because most players are happy not to have a detailed religious aspect to their games does not mean that all of us feel the same way!