Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Letter for the King: just adapt the book, not your fanfiction

I recently watched The Letter for the King on Netflix, and thought I'd offer a small thought on the series.

I should preface all of this by stating that I have never read the book.  I had actually never heard of the book.  I looked up the book later on Wikipedia, after watching the first episode.  I might actually read the book.

That out of the way, let me list some positives of the series.  The child actors are great.  I can't say the same about whoever it was playing the puppy-kicking prince, but the others made great performances.  The visual effects were great.  The costumes and props and sets were great.  A lot of people clearly put a lot of effort and thought and care into the series.  It shows through.

But some other people didn't put any effort in.  Namely, the writers.  The writers did not care.  That also shows through.

From episode one, the series is on fantasy autopilot.  It opens with whispered prophecies of dark lords and the chosen one, then cuts to some angsty dark prince doing his best teenage Anakin impersonation.  I half-expected him to rant about sand.  And it stays there resolutely until the final scene of the final episode.  The series is nothing but cliche after cliche.  It plays like A Tough Guide to Fantasy Land put on the silver screen.  You can call what will happen twenty minutes before it does.  Within the first five minutes, I already knew what this was going to be, and was ready to just turn it off.

The writing is crappy.  But it's based on a book.  Maybe the book uses a less heavy hand, and elaborates better on some of these confusing points?  Maybe the book could help me appreciate the screenwriting better?

So I looked up the book.  Apparently, several characters and places from the series have similar names as in the book, and the main character needs to deliver a letter to a king in the book.  And there end the similarities between the series and the book.

This brings me to what I really wanted to say.

The Letter for the King was originally written in Dutch, titled De brief voor de koning, by Tonke Dragt back in 1962.  It has sold over a million copies, and is on its fiftieth print edition.  It has been translated into several languages, including Danish, English, German, Greek, Estonian, French, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Czech, and Spanish.  It was chosen as one of the the best Dutch books for children in the 20th century.  (Or so the 'Pedia says)

The personal fanfiction of the series writers... isn't any of that.

Back in 2018, Netflix went and acquired the screen rights to adapt De brief voor de koning into an original series.  That's why they are able to call it The Letter for the King, and include so many characters with similar names.

They had to pay money for these rights.  I need to stress that.  I need to stress that because Netflix could have merely made their own original fantasy movie about a child on a magical quest and given it a different name, and not have had to pay money for the rights to De brief voor de koning.

But the executives at Netflix determined that being able to adapt this particular story was worth shelling out the money for.

Presumably, they decided this because De brief voor de koning has sold millions of copies and been in continual print for sixty years, translated into dozens of languages, and is remembered by millions of readers.

Unlike -- and again, I have to stress -- unlike the personal fanfiction of whoever wrote the plot of this series.

Which makes me have to question why?

Why would you pay good, solid money to adapt an internationally beloved children's story, and then not adapt the internationally beloved children's story?

Why adapt crappy fanfiction into a movie, when you have a solid, award-winning story right there on hand?

I can kind of understand why calling the movie The Letter For the King when it wasn't might have been a "good" business idea in the past.  Basing a movie on a pre-existing story allows you to capitalize on the fame and fanbase of the original product to sell tickets.  By the time you piss off the fanbase, it's too late; they already bought their ticket.  The worst they can do now is grumble.

It's similar to how certain food companies would put sawdust in sugar bags if they could get away with it.  Imagine if food distributors could pay sugar companies for the right to put the word "sugar" on their sawdust bags.

Well, food companies can't, but movie companies can.

But today, when every idiot has their own blog, when there are automatic review aggregators and sites for fans to leave comments and everyone and their grandma can sound off on their facebook, I don't get why you'd do this.

The series is currently rated at around 5/10, and very many of those low reviews are from angry fans of the book.

You should never underestimate angry fans, and especially not today when they know your twitter handle.  They will review-bomb your film, brigade your facebook page, and send you death threats on twitter.

I have to imagine that many of those angry fans might have watched a children's fantasy flick regardless of its title, and they would have measured it against itself, or against other children's fantasy movies, and it would have fared okay.  But Netflix didn't tell them this was any old fantasy movie; Netflix said this was a fantasy movie based on De brief voor de koning.

Netflix did not have to piss these people off.  They didn't have to call their movie that.

Netflix paid for the rights to adapt the book.  Netflix did not adapt the book.  Netflix instead made a movie based on Will Davies' fanfiction.  This angered fans, and gave the movie a lower rating.

In no uncertain terms then, Netflix paid money to have angry fans write them negative reviews on IMBD.

But Netflix paid for the rights to adapt the book, and therefore they could have just adapted the book.

Okay, if you don't have sugar and only have sawdust, you might write "sugar" on the bag anyway and try to sell it.

But Netflix did not only have sawdust.  Netflix had the actual sugar.  Netflix had the book that they paid the money for.  The book that won all those awards and sold all those copies and has all those millions of fans.  The book whose popularity Netflix wants to use to get eyeballs.  Netflix could have adapted that book into a movie.

Because that book has a coherent and engaging plot that people have loved for decades.

Unlike -- and I stress again -- unlike the fanfiction that Netflix made.

Netflix had sugar to put in the bag.  But Netflix put the sawdust in the bag anyway.

And I really don't understand why they would.

Why not just adapt for us the book you paid to adapt?

I first noticed this with the Hobbit, which is arguably a drastically more egregious case of paying huge sums of money for the rights to an internationally beloved movie with a huge and autistic fanbase and then adapting the writers' fanfic instead.

Just put the sugar in the bag.  Just adapt the movie you paid for.  Everyone will thank you for it.  Even the shareholders.  Especially the shareholders.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Wheel of Time and the Well-Tempered Plot Device

Sometime back in 2011, I was handed a complete (used!) set of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time Series from a friend who saw me reading A Song of Ice and Fire.  For several years it sat on my office desk, because I got caught up in other writers.  Then it sat on my bookshelf for a few years as I got caught up in work and research, before I finally picked up the Eye of the World and decided to read it last fall.

With a TV adaptation proposed to come out sometime in the near future, I figured now was as good a time as any for a post about it.

About midway into reading Eye of the World, I noticed a particular phrase being used over and over to explain bizarre occurrences and decisions.  I understood what the phrase means, but its application was pretty arbitrary and inconsistent.  But then I made a kind of mental dictionary, and then the book began to actually make more sense.  Whenever you see the following words in Eye of the World, replace them with

The Pattern --> The Plot

The Wheel --> Robert Jordan

Weaves --> Writes

For instance: Why is this gleeman we just met and know nothing about supposed to accompany us on this dangerous voyage we're not supposed to trust anyone to know about?  Is it because the Wheel Weaves the Pattern as it wills?  No!  It's because Robert Jordan is Writing the Plot as he wills.  This is all part of the Plot.

After I made this discovery (and it wasn't until midway into the book when I made it), it became almost impossible to take the book seriously.  I did keep reading.  And I actually enjoyed it.  Or I enjoyed most of it.  But I kept snickering every single time the Aes Sedai woman spoke, because she was constantly using this line to explain the plot developments.

This idea of word-substitution isn't original to me.  There is a famous article entitled "The Well-Tempered Plot Device," originally published in the Ansible back in 1986 (before Wheel of Time) that criticized many fantasy plots as overly-reliant on plot devices such as "plot coupons" and "plot tokens."  The primary diagnostic of an overdone plot device, according to the article, is if it can be replaced with "the Plot" and not make any difference.  One famous example is "the Force" from Star Wars.  Try watching the first movie, and mentally replacing "Force" with "Plot."  The movie won't change very much, and might actually make more sense.

The world of Wheel of Time felt very real to me, while I was reading.  I felt like I was in streets of medieval towns and staying inside medieval taverns and sleeping in hedgerows along old dusty roads.    But any time something happened, we were told by the characters that it happened that way because Robert Jordan wrote it that way.  And that wasn't very fun.

I have all ten or eleven of them on my bookshelf, unread, and they will probably stay that way.  But this is not the reason why I haven't read the other books.

The reason why I haven't read the other books is that the ending to Eye of the World was a total asspull.  It was the kind of ending where the author realized the main character is in a situation where the main character would die, but the main character can't die, so the author causes something completely unexplained and unexpected to occur to rescue the main character in service of the Plot.  Or, as the Aes Sedai would put it, the Wheel Weaves the Fabric as it wills.  The main character just suddenly and without explanation (before or after) manifests magical powers to defeat the BBEG, which leaves the ending feeling very unearned; that, or leaves the rest of the story feeling very pointless.

Another way to put things is that the ending violates Sanderson's First Law.  Which is ironic since Sanderson wrote several of the WoT books.  Magic I didn't understand or even know existed suddenly came up and resolved the entire conflict of the book in about two pages.  Everything before about the characters and their hardships didn't mean anything because unexplained magic solves the story at the end,

If you read the books in high school and loved them, then I get it.  A lot of my friends did, too.  I came to them as a full-grown adult man, and they just didn't do it for me.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

JK Rowling and Sanderson's 3rd Law

The Harry Potter books succeeded wildly, beyond anyone's imagination.  JK Rowling is the top-selling author of all time.  Not just in fantasy.  Period.  I believe the series did so well largely because of the strength of the characters and their relationships.  Modern people want friendships like we see in Harry Potter and Stranger Things.  So there's a lesson to potential authors. The characters and friendships of Harry Potter are incredible, and I can understand why so many people would love the stories on that basis.

Harry Potter succeeded because of its characters and relationships.  But Harry Potter did not succeed because of its imagination.

I've spoken in depth in the past about why I don't like the Harry Potter books.  All of it can be boiled down to a single statement:

The characters of Harry Potter are unaware of their own universe.

But I stumbled on a more authoritative way to say this, in terms of Brandon Sanderson and his "laws of magic."

The first law is fairly well-known: In order to use magic to resolve conflict in a satisfying way, you need it to be understood.  The magic of Harry Potter is very understandable, so that isn't an issue.  You always know what Alohamora is going to do.

The second law is: the limitations are more interesting than abilities.  The magic in Harry Potter does have concrete limitations, which does create interesting conflicts.  You can't use the time turners to change the past, as an example.  So that isn't an issue.

Brandon Sanderson's 3rd Law has been stated most simply:

Everything is connected to everything else.

This is where Harry Potter fails as a series.  It fails to explore the connections that should exist within the world.  It doesn't consider the deeper ramifications of dark lords with million-person-wide global secrets or ten-year-olds with the ability to kill at will.  Many of the characters in Harry Potter seem to temporarily forget that magic exists and don't use it for some crucial purpose, or are surprised when someone else uses it.

Consider briefly just some of the means of transportation within the Wizarding World of England:
  • In the Wizarding World, everyone is able to get on a broom and fly.  This is already an extremely effective form of transportation, far more effective than ground transportation.
  • In the Wizarding World, there is a special train with its own rail to carry students to and from Hogwarts, because they aren't allowed to fly there.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists at least one flying car that you aren't allowed to fly, or at least not to Hogwarts.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists at least one flying motorcycle that you don't even have to use magic to fly on.  You are allowed to fly this, even to and from Hogwarts.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists a magic powder that allows you to instantaneously teleport between fireplaces anywhere in the world by speaking the name of the desired location.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists a double-decker bus that drives around late at night just in case a wizard gets lost and doesn't have a way home.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists a spell to turn any mundane object at all into a transportation key that instantaneously teleports you to anywhere in the world.  This is a different spell from the fireplace one.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists an old wooden boat that travels underwater.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exist carriages drawn by invisible death horses.
  • In the Wizarding World, there exists a spell that instantaneously teleports you (and a friend) to anywhere in the world, without a mundane object or a fireplace.  This is a different instantaneous teleportation spell from the other two.
Now, I can understand how it might be that all of these might exist: Wizards find better methods over time.  I can't understand how it is that all of these are commonly used at the same time.

This is a failure to consider the connections between one kind of magical transportation over here, and another kind of magical transportation over here.  The lack of connections between the elements of the world make the world flat and unbelievable.

One of my strongest points about the flat worldbuilding is the Wizarding economy, which is completely one-dimensional.  You either work for the government, or you teach at Hogwarts.  Or you pretend to be a chair and squat in a Muggle home.  Those are basically the only jobs.  However, there are all kinds of implications that the existence of magic and magical goods should be having on the economy.  Hermione goes to work at the Ministry of Magic doing something with elf rights, when Hermione could have gotten in to Oxford and become top-of-her-field in any subject she wanted to.  There are people who know how to fly and transmute matter and cast illusions, and they work retail hours stocking books in a magical bookstore.  Wizards just don't do anything, and don't interact with the real world.  There is no connection between one an the other.  And yet we frequently see wizards connecting with the real world.

Hogwarts itself is flat.  There are four houses.  There are four houses because traditional boarding schools have four houses.  One house is good, the other house is evil.  The other house is... I dunno, really smart, and then the last house is...  um... all the rest!  We just need four houses.  All the rest of Hogwarts outside of Harry, his friends and his enemies remains essentially a Potemkin Village.  Hermione should be in Ravenclaw and Neville should be in Hufflepuff, except those are the good guys, so they aren't.Slytherins are evil, Griffindors are good, everyone else is whatever.  The evil professors are Slytherin, the evil students are Slytherin, the evil founder is Slytherin, the evil dark lord is the heir of Slytherin, the evil wizards who help the dark lord are Slytherin.  All of this is to reinforce that Draco = Slytherin = eath Eater = Voldemort = Bad.  Even Dolores Umbridge, the goody-two-shoes who should fit right in at Griffindor, later joins the Death Eaters, and while at Hogwarts uses Draco and his goons -- who are known to be trouble makers that start fights -- to act as hallway patrol.

It doesn't make any sense, because the implications and connections of the school and its four houses were never truly worked out.  Griffindors just are good, Slytherins just are bad, and Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff just are.

The first book can essentially be summed up as "the most powerful wizards in the world continually forget that magic exists."  The most precious treasure in the world, being sought after by a powerful murderous dark wizard, is guarded at least in part by a simple locked door.  There exists a spell, Alohamora, that can unlock doors, and there exist doors that cannot be unlocked by Alohamora.  But the wizards protecting the philosopher's stone only did not use such a door to guard the entrance to the stone.  They did use such a door to guard the stone, just not at the entrance, and then placed the key to the only unopenable door in the same room as the unopenable door, along with a broom to chase it down.  Two of the guards for the treasure are living creatures which can immediately and even effortlessly be killed with the death spell.  The other puzzles can largely be flown over if only you had a broom, and you do have a broom because we left one in the room back there (where we also left the key to the only door you can't unlock with magic).

The denouement of Philosopher's Stone can basically be summarized as the most powerful and evil wizard in the world tries to hold down a 10-year-old boy with his hands because he forgot there are spells that do it better, and decides to perish in his insistence on not using magic to defeat his nemesis.

The connections between the magic being used to defend the Philosopher's Stone, and the magic we know exists in the world, were never formed.

The issues continue.  The characters routinely behave in ways that would only make sense if they did not know that they lived in a world where magic worked.

All of this to say, I now know how to articulate my main complaint against Harry Potter, and have the authority of Brandon Sanderson's name to back me up.  The Harry Potter books violate Sanderson's 3rd Law of Magic.  They fail to contemplate the way that everything is connected to everything else.  They fail to make the connections across the different spells, across the different houses, across the broader world.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sagan's Anti-Dragon

In my garage I have an imaginary dragon.  It's not real.  Its just imaginary.  It's a dragon made entirely of the good thoughts and happy feelings of people who like to think there's a dragon out there, somewhere, watching over them.  But dragons aren't real, and neither is the dragon in my garage.

I tell you this, and you tell me that the dragon isn't imaginary.  You insist it's a real dragon that is really in my garage.  So I take you to my garage to show you that it's only imaginary.

We both immediately notice that the dragon is visible.  You tell me that you can see it, and ask if I can see it.  I can see it.  And it's interesting that I'm seeing the dragon, and certainly counts for something.

But why would I leap to the conclusion that because I'm seeing a dragon, it means there is a dragon in my garage?  It's probably mechatronic.  Perhaps I'm hallucinating?  Perhaps it's a hologram or some other trick of light?  Maybe there's an advanced alien species using science I don't understand to make it look like there's a dragon.  Or maybe this is a purely natural phenomenon that I don't understand.  There's no reason, just yet, to leap to the conclusion that this is a real dragon, especially when there are other possible explanations.

We both also notice that the dragon is roaring at us and making noise.  We both hear it, and we report the same sounds at the same times.

But we can't conclude, just form this, that therefore there is a dragon roaring in my garage.  It's likely just a recording of a dragon being played on speakers.  It may be sounds from tectonic plates underground, or the planks of the house moving.  We may just be hallucinating.  Or maybe it's a race of powerful aliens trying to trick us into thinking that there is a dragon there.  We can rule any of those things out, and a dragon is the least likely possibility.  So there's no reason to jump to the dragon explanation just yet, especially when there are other possible explanations.

You approach the dragon, and stick out your hand, and you can actually touch it.  The dragon is solid and tangible.  I can touch it, too.  This is certainly an interesting fact, that I can apparently touch the dragon, and it counts for something.

But I explain to you, just because I can touch the dragon doesn't mean there's a dragon there.  It could just be mechatronics.  It might be a tactile hallucination or some other trick on my senses.  It might be advanced technology from an alien species halting my hand, or it might be some completely natural phenomenon that we don't understand yet making it seem like there is a dragon there.  There's no reason, just yet, to leap to the conclusion that this is a real dragon, especially when there are other possible explanations.

You say, okay, maybe we can't trust our own senses.  So you get some heat-vision goggles and we look through them, and sure enough, there's the heat-imprint of a dragon.  And this is also interesting, and it counts for something.

But there's no reason to leap to the conclusion that just because we see the heat imprint of a dragon, that therefore there is a real dragon.  It's more likely that this is a malfunction of the device in question, or some natural effect of heat convection patterns we don't understand, or powerful aliens just playing tricks on us.  We can't rule any of these things out.  It would be irrational at this point to conclude that there is a real dragon there in my garage, especially when there are other possible explanations.

The dragon, or at least the apparent appearance of a dragon, then breathes fire.  And things in the blast actually burn, or melt, or catch fire.  My own eyebrows get singed.  And this is an interesting thing, and it counts for something.  I'm certainly curious about this apparent blast of fire.

But I'm still not willing to accept your explanation for why it happened.  You have to separate what happened from the explanation we give for it.  And I don't think we can conclude it must have been a dragon.

It's much more likely that I'm hallucinating this, than that any such creature as a dragon exists, much less exists in my garage.  It's possible we're seeing a purely natural phenomenon occurring that we don't yet understand (strange fires and lights happen all the time in nature), it's possible there's some gas leak in the garage that suddenly caught fire, or it's even possible that an advanced race of aliens is playing tricks on us.  There's no way to conclude, resolutely, that what we're seeing is a dragon, especially when there are other possible explanations.

So you ask me, what would it take to convince me that the imaginary dragon in my garage is a real dragon?  What level of evidence would I accept for the dragon?

And I respond that I don't know.  I don't know what level of evidence I would accept.  A dragon is an imaginary animal, and is the least likely explanation for my apparent observation of a dragon in my garage.  I would rather believe in pretty much any other explanation before believing in a dragon.

Surely the dragon knows what evidence I would accept, and the dragon hasn't bothered giving me that evidence yet.  It must not care.

Of course, it's possible the dragon does know the level of evidence I would accept, and that there is precisely zero evidence I would accept as proof of a dragon in my garage.  Just because I don't know what evidence I would accept, doesn't mean that I would actually accept any evidence for the dragon's existence.

And so you have to ask me:  What is the difference between a visible, audible, tangible, heat-radiating, fire-breathing imaginary dragon, and a real dragon sitting in your garage?

And so for atheists: what level of evidence would you accept for God?  Because even when Christians offer admittedly hyperbolic, hypothetical scenarios like booming bass voices from the clouds calling out your name or people's decapitated heads reattaching to their necks, many atheist thinkers still say that it wouldn't convince you in the existence of the divine.  Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Matt Dillahunty, Michael Shermer, and others have all made public statements to this effect.

But how is that different from insisting the dragon in my garage is imaginary?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Shaggydog Theory: Why George R. R. Martin Doesn't Want to Finish his Song of Ice and Fire Series

Seven years ago, the last update to the legendary A Song of Ice and Fire series came available, the fifth book A Dance with Dragons.  This book was somewhat disappointing to fans of the series.  The books failed to have any of the juicy details readers actually wanted, being not-so-affectionately labeled "Traveling Places and Administrative Tasks: The Book".  The book was also a major disappointment because it came out over five years after the previous book, A Feast For Crows, released in 2005, despite the promise of Martin that the fifth book would be released speedily since he had already written most of it when he divided the upcoming fourth novel into two separate novels.

And then the fourth book came out five years after the book before it, and was also something of a disappointment.  While the third book had betrayals and kingdom-spanning adventures for the future of the continent, the Feast was much slower-paced and almost seems a tangent compared to the promise of the original three books. Almost none of the plot lines were picked up, meaning it was over a decade, when Dragons was released, that fans got to go back to the characters they last read about in 2000 when A Storm of Swords was released.

In the intervening years, Ol' Georgie has been quite busy.... just not busy with anything to do with the book series that has sold millions of copies and was made into the most-pirated television series in history.  Martin has been instead going on tours and writing all kinds of other stories.  Some are tangentially related to the world of Westeros, others not so much.

In 2018, almost two decades since the end of the third book with all of its promise, with Martin writing stories about gambling dragons in casinos or whatever, I think it is pretty patently obvious to everyone: George Martin does not want to finish writing his series of books.

I repeat: George Martin does not want to finish writing A Song of Ice and Fire.

He told the ending to the HBO series producers and is, apparently, content to let them have the final word on his story.

While it's obvious from his behavior and publication history that Martin doesn't want to finish the series, it's probably baffling to fans why an author who has been catapulted to fame and riches by a book series would just abandon it, especially right before the central plot struggles.

I have a theory as to why.  I call it the Shaggydog Theory.  The theory is most simply stated:

The name of Rickon's wolf is foreshadowing.

Rickon's wolf is named Shaggydog,  For those unaware, a Shaggy Dog Story is a kind of anti-joke, whose humor is in the subversion of the usual comedy format.  In a shaggy dog joke, the teller relates a very long account, assumed by the listener to be a build-up to an eventual punchline.  As the build-up stretches on and on and on, the listener expects a better and better delivery.  Until, at the end, the joke ends in some sort of stupid pun, or worse, a quick and unhumorous resolution.  The listener is left confused, only able to ask "Wait, what?  That's it?"  To those in on the joke, the confused and aggravated response of the mark is the joke.

One popular example of a shaggy dog joke is about a young man who gets insulted by a rodeo clown and made to look like a fool.  To seek revenge, he decides to go to college and studies literature, hoping to learn enough wit to retaliate the next time he's publicly embarrassed.  The story goes on with the young man studying witty retorts in graduate school, earning a PhD in the subject, becoming a world expert on witty retorts, even going on a book tour on late night TV.  Properly told, the build-up can stretch on for almost half-an-hour.  A skilled teller will even insert extra padding, about the expert having martial problems or going on a trip to the pyramids to find papyri or his father contracting cancer -- anything to waste more time and magnify expectations for the supposed payoff.  Then at last, at the end, the expert in witicisms returns to the same circus and gets insulted by the same rodeo clown, and the whole stadium goes deathly silent, waiting to hear how the world's expert will respond.  The real life listeners are also waiting to hear how the various elements of the long buildup are going to connect into some sort of magnificent punchline.  So the man stands up, points at his insulter, and says "F you, clown."

I think A Song of Ice and Fire is a shaggy dog story.

I think Martin knows the ending, and has had it planned since the beginning.  The ending to the series is something intentionally and infuriatingly anticlimactic.  Such as: the Others simply invade and kill everyone, despite all the efforts of the protagonists over seven books.  Something equally as anticlimactic as that.  As originally intended, the ending was supposed to thwart reader expectations about what an epic fantasy was, thinking the epic size would lead to an epic payoff.  Now that the series has become internationally famous, he doesn't want to write the ending he had planned, and he doesn't know how else to end the series.  Martin is intentionally stalling to avoid the backlash the true ending will  get, and he's not going to finish the books. in his lifetie

So that's the theory.  But what's the evidence for it?

Firstly, Martin's own testimony that A Song of Ice and Fire is inspired by and based on the other series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, by Tad Williams.  Anyone who has read MST knows this already, but it might surprise fans of the HBO series, or readers less into fantasy, to know that the world of Westeros is almost entirely borrowed from Osten Ard of MST.  The history, the characters, the central conflict of the world, the in-fighting between brothers for the kingdom, the exiled elven-like creatures who live in the northern woods -- all of it is from Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

If so much of ASOIAF is borrowed from MST, including the central conflict between humanity to the south and the Others to the north, it stands to reason that the resolution of the conflict is also borrowed.

Now, MST does not have an anticlimactic ending.  But it has an ending that throws a wrench into the usual expectations of epic fantasy.  (I'm being deliberately vague because I won't want to spoil the series -- if you read the books, then you will understand where I'm going)

I think Martin intended an ending similar, but different, to the ending of MST.  An ending that subverts our expectations, but does so by dashing all of our hopes to pieces.  I think ASOIAF has the ending that Williams would have given to his series if he had been more willing to enrage his audience.

But what about textual evidence?  Is there anything in the series that would lead us to suspect that Martin intends to build up our hopes and then dash them to pieces?

I don't even really need to ask that, do I?

But here are a few examples:

1. Ned Stark, who we are led to believe is the main protagonist, dying almost halfway through the first book.

2. Robb Stark, who we are led to believe is the new main protagonist out to avenge his father, dying almost halfway through the third book.

3. Renly Baratheon, out to avenge his own brother, raising an army to usurp the mad boy-king Joffrey, only to be unceremoniously killed in his tent.

4. Bran Stark, who overheard the plot of Cersei and Jaime in the tower, forgetting everything and never remembering any of it, ever.  Not even suddenly recalling the plans just in the nick of time.

5. The Viper, fully channeling Inigo Montoya, suddenly being crushed to death at the very end of his fight against the Mountain, technically losing and thereby condemning Tyrion to death.

6. Arya Stark, losing her dire wolf but hearing hints of it in the countryside, and then never, ever finding it again.

7. The Brotherhood without Banners, the only noble, decent people on the entire continent,  fighting with the spirit of Robin Hood to right the wrongs of the world, becoming just a bunch of thugs who go around killing people for no reason.

I could go on.  So many of the threads in the story are clearly echoing tropes, playing on expectations.  We almost fill-in the stories ourselves before they're over, then suddenly they go nowhere and are all abruptly cut short by reality.

This all is Martin preparing us for the ending.

Do you remember where you were when you read the Red Wedding?

I do.  I was in my old room in my parents' old home.  And I was furious.  I threw the book across the room.  I cursed.  I questioned why I was even reading it.  I almost just gave up on the series.

But it was a small detail that suddenly crept into my memory that made me continue going.  The little hint Danaerys sees in the House of the Undying.  Martin was planning the Red Wedding since at least the second book.  It was set up.  He had primed his audience to expect it, and had left little hints in the text that it was going to happen.

All of these dead-end plot threads and frustrations and dead characters and losing heroes are all training, so that at the end of the story, when we read the anticlimactic ending with Dany and Jon simply dying and the Others overrunning the continent in eternal winter, we will close the book and not be able to say that we weren't warned about it.  "Of course it ended that way," we'll eventually say.  It will still hurt, and we'll still be pissed we wasted 20 years following these stupid books and rereading them every five years when new ones come out, but we won't be able to say we had any right to expect anything other than what we got.  And in a book series filled with epic stories and quests that ultimately fail and lead nowhere, we'll look back and see it, right in front of our faces the whole time, the name of Rickon's wolf: shaggy dog.

Except that the series became extremely popular.  Martin's reimagining of fantasy was his first foray into the genre, and he probably wasn't expecting the reception he got.  His books became an international bestseller, falling into the fantasy canon alongside Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Earthsea, Harry Potter, Lovecraft, Conan the Barbarian, or Wheel of Time.

Writing the planned ending will, possibly, destroy the esteemed position of his book.

This is why he is willing to let someone else finish his grande opus: because it is not really his grande opus.  It is instead his attempt to readapt a different series to have a  grittier, more subversive ending that will definitely piss off all of his readers.  Best leave it to Hollywood to jam a traditional, boring, happy ending into it.

I think Martin's plan is to compile notes and wait until he dies so that someone else can pick up the story and finish it the way he originally intended, without Martin having to live through the backlash that will come from it.  The readers will be disappointed by this ending.  For most, though, the ending of the TV series will be the only ending to the series, and I expect that ending to be much more upbeat and typical.

So that's my theory.  The books are a shaggy dog story, and Rickon's wolf is there as foreshadowing of it.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

How to Save Soccer and the World Cup

I'm not really a soccer fan.  Really, I'm not much of a sports fan at all.  But I'm married to a Central American, so every now and then soccer comes up.

Right now the World Cup is going on in Russia.  And from what I understand, there's some problems going on.  I admit I don't know much about it, really, but a friend of mine recently told me his proposal to fix the rules of the game to make things more fair for all the countries involved in this globally important sport.

I think my friend's proposal is pretty brilliant, and thought I'd share it.

Firstly, you break each game into two distinct segments.  I know, the game time is already split in half.  I mean that now, there will be two distinct parts of each game.

In the first half, you play the game commonly known as football or soccer, and try to score as many points as possible by kicking the ball into your opponents' goal.  The only real change during this segment is that there are no penalty kicks.

In the second half, the field is cleared and a stage is dragged out.  Each team picks their three best actors, who will go on the stage and give their most dramatic performance of a person who has been injured in a sports game.  Just really ham up the anguish and imaginary pain on stage for all the world to see.  A panel of 5 judges will score the performances, and the top three performances will be awarded three points to their teams.

Your total score is a combination of how you did at playing the game known as soccer or football, plus how well you can do at pretending to have boo-boos.

I think this will help in some real ways.  Right now, the rules are written to already award points to players for giving their best performance of injuries on the field.  But the rules aren't explicitly written this way.  This hurts teams that think they're supposed to be playing soccer, and don't know that they're supposed to be rolling on the ground screaming because the mean man touched them.

However, certain teams obviously greatly rely on the acting talents of their thespian players.  They have such talent at rolling around, grabbing limbs, and contorting their faces into perfect masks of torment, and it would be a shame to not continue awarding this exceptional ability.

Acknowledging this very important part of soccer with official recognition will go along way to helping both kinds of players.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Giving Clerics Their Due

In the DCC RPG ruleset, many have noted that Wizards are given an extraordinary level of awesome, whereas Clerics sort of get shafted.  A huge amount of space is dedicated to Wizard corruptions, spells, how they find spells, and Wizard patrons.

Clerics have fewer official spells, all the deities get a single line in a table with just their name and alignment, and all Clerics for all deities are given a single Disapproval table that they always roll on.  This contrasted with pages and pages of example patrons with complete flavor text descriptions, invoke patron results, patron taints, and patron spells.

In a recent episode of Spellburn, one of the hosts went so far as to say Clerics are useless, suggesting that they should just be combined with Wizards.

All of this is massively unfair to the Cleric class.

I think it's possible to make Clerics just as cool and flavor-filled as their arcane comrades.  In fact, the rulebook already contains  everything you need to build on, but I never see them built on explicitly.

A deity should be just as complicated, or moreso, than a patron.  A patron is a lone supernatural eccentric with twisted plans and motives who works through mortal tools, but is otherwise largely hidden.  A deity is an established super-supernatural entity made known to mortals in the world and worshipped by some sort of established organized religion.

You need to customize your deities, similar to how you make patrons.

When making write-ups for deities, here are some things to figure out:
  • deity's holy symbol
  • deity's mark of disapproval, given to fallen priests
  • sacred texts of this religion
  • moral requirements and membership requirements
  • particular lists of unholy creatures and allowed weapons
  • a custom Disapproval table based on this deity's religion
  • the spells that this deity grants to a Cleric
  • the particular deity spells that only this deity will grant
  • name of religious order(s) devoted to this deity, and its hierarchy
All of these things are going to have actual impact on the gameplay.

I'm going to flesh these points out with some examples, but TL;DR, the most critical things are moral requirements, custom Disapproval tables, and custom deity spells.  (And much of this isn't limited to DCC, but also applies to D&D and other RPGs)