Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Orcs are evil

Orcs are a fantasy monster.  While Tolkien may have standardized them as the basic low-level mook hounding the protagonists, the idea of the orc goes back millennia before.  The word "orc" is an Anglicization of the Italian word "orco", which is a kind of monstrous demon of Italian fairy tales that feeds on human flesh.  This is identical to "ogre" in classic French fairy tales, which became its own type of monster in the modern era.

The orco takes its name from Orcus, one of the Roman gods of the underworld.  Orcus was particularly associated with torment and punishment, and therefore also associated with evil and demons.  He was normally depicted as a giant hairy monster.

Tolkien's orcs are likewise demonic monsters who eat human flesh.  Tolkien never settled on one particular explanation of their origins.  The movies actually show us two of his proposals: one, as corrupted elves who were bent by Sauron's dark powers, and another as monsters created by evil magic and birthed from pits of mud and slime.  In the Hobbit, orcs are just very large goblins.

Orcs cannot stand sunlight.  They hide from daylight in caves and holes underground, and only emerge during the dark of night to slaughter and plunder, and drag their victims back to their lairs to be devoured.

Whether demons of a dark god of death, or spawned from a wizard's slime pit, orcs are evil.  Orcs are inhuman monsters.  Orcs don't exist in the real world; but if they did, orcs are exactly the thing humans should hate and kill.

Orcs are more intelligent than the wolves they partner with.  But not much.  Orcs can use weapons and tools and battle tactics and have fighting prowess equivalent to a man.  This is arguably what makes them such an ideal opponent in fantasy.  They offer the challenge of killing a human-like foe, but without the moral ambiguity of murder.

Because you can't murder an orc.  You slay an orc.

Orcs are irredeemable monsters of bloodlust, hatred, and violence.  They have nothing to offer to people, except the adventure of slaying them.

Orcs are a projection of something even older than the word, something older than Tolkien, something older than the Romans, something living in the human psyche.  Orcs are a manifestation of the notion of evil monsters dwelling in darkness and emerging only at night to steal, kill, and devour.  They are the thing from your childhood nightmares, put into a certain form, to entertain you in fantasy escapism.

Why am I saying these mean things about orcs?  Because that's the way orcs "are".  Obviously orcs don't really exist, and therefore "exist" only in a kind of tertiary sense.   But in so far as orcs are postulated in fairy tales and fantasy, that is what orcs are.

Now.  This topic of orcs and their portrayal is currently trending on twitter.  So if you just read any of the things I said about orcs, and your thought was "how dare you say that about black people"... then you are a racist.

And I can hear you back-pedaling.  No no, you don't mean that you think of black people when you hear those descriptions (even though you made the association...).  What you mean is that the kind of language I am using to describe an inhuman monster, is the same kind of language used by racists in the past to dehumanize people.  When books or games describe orcs, they lean on racist language used in the past.  It's those other people (whose thoughts you can read) who are thinking of black people when they describe orcs.

But that assertion has the order of things reversed.

DnD isn't using racist language to describe orcs.

The reality is that racists use orcs to describe other humans.

Racists often try to cast their fellow man as an orc, as a savage monster without a conscience.  Racists try to pretend that another group of humans are creatures from fairy tales and nightmares.  Racists want it so that when you think of their particular pet group of people to hate, they evoke in your mind the fiends that will drag bad children into the darkness to be eaten.

It is dehumanizing language.  It is dehumanizing language precisely because orcs are not humans.  Describing people as orcs is literally describing people as inhuman monsters, because that is what orcs literally are.

If you think you can counter racist descriptions of black or brown people, by portraying orcs as favorable depictions of minorities, then you are doing what the racists wanted.  You are linking a group of humans to the thing lurking in my childhood closet.  You are strengthening the association that the KKK wants us all to have.

When you try to portray orcs as peaceful, thoughtful souls with a beautiful and rich culture of oral histories and excellent pottery, you aren't doing anything other than saying you think some group of humans are a reasonable stand-in for inhuman monsters... but inhuman monsters that have your sympathy.

Trying to humanize orcs means asserting that a man-eating monster birthed from slime pits with barely more intelligence than a dog could properly belong to the category of "human being."

Orcs are evil.  They do not represent humans.  Their depictions as savage monsters stems from areas deep within the human mind and the common childhood fears we all share, expressed in myth, legend, and folklore.  It does not stem from white supremacist language or colonialists.  Orcs are equal-opportunity butchers, who murder and devour humans of every race equally alike.

Portraying humans as orcs, or orcs as humans, is wicked and racist.

But no one needs to apologize for portraying orcs as orcs.

Monday, April 20, 2020

How I came to DCC and the Old School of Gaming

Smaug, from the only feature-length adaptation of the Hobbit
My dad is a Tolkien nerd who grew up in the 70s.  Therefore my dad played DnD as a teenager.

I also grew up a Tolkien nerd, watching the Rankin/Bass version of the Hobbit (which is still the only movie version of the Hobbit) until I was old enough to read it.

One day, between about 8 and 11 years old, I discovered my dad's copy of Gary Gygax's original DMG for AD&D (the one with the metal-girded demon abducting a maiden), and his copy of Dr. Eric Holmes' Basic Ruleset (the blue cover with the dragon on his hoard of gold).

I was immediately sold.

Cover of Holmes' Basic Rules
I had no idea how to play this game I was reading about, or who I would play with it were I to play, but I spent whole afternoons locked in my room reading over different traps and fantastical items in a dungeon, the horrific monsters
lurking in the shadows, the powers of these beasts and what items players should use to defeat them.  I was even mesmerized by the opening discussion of bell curves vs uniform distributions with dice.

Most of all, I loved the art work and the maps.  I loved the skull mountain view.  I loved the thief left to die in a pit trap by his companions, and the lizardman rider.  I loved the rat caves and the underwater rivers.  I loved the gnome abducted by the ghouls.  Even without playing the game, the books stole me away to these magical worlds, where I became lost in it all.

Eventually I thought I had absorbed enough of the gist of the game that I tried to play with friends.  My version was extremely simplified, and had my own modifications, and my dungeons were linear and nonsensical, but it was still fun escapism at its best.

Eventually we moved, and I had trouble making friends.  I tried to get games together, but none of the people I hung out with were really interested in the game.  Most of my friends throughout middle school and high school weren't nerds, but the sort of bubblegum punk scene that was the style in the 00s.  I went through most of high school without getting my hands on the game, except maybe for the sort of second-tier experience afforded by Neverwinter Nights.

When I got into college, I finally had enough friends (and close enough friends) willing to play that I started trying to get a game together.  By this time, the game was in the 3rd edition.

3E was a radical change to the game.  Many of the changes persist, and many of the changes are objectively better.  Changes like ascending armor class instead of tables and THAC0.  No matter how much I read, I never ever understood what THAC0 was, until after I had a math degree and a masters in physics.  I'm not saying descending AC is wrong, just that it's more work to explain and keep track of and an immediate conceptual hurdle.

Many of the changes in 3E were better.  But some of the changes weren't better.

There were tons of major changes.  There were lists of skills and feats, and rules for selecting feats, and special abilities, and all these new races, and all these new classes, and so many things to consider.  I tried to get a handle on it, but it was too much to keep track of.  I felt like I needed a computer to keep track of all of these rules and conditions in the game, and this game was supposed to be the more immersive alternative to playing games on a computer.

The rulebook was also like $60 and I couldn't afford it.  I had to get my information from free d20 resources on the web.

We tried playing, and got a few sessions in, but this wasn't the same game.  It was too much like a video game, and not like structured imagination.  We stopped pretty soon.  It was too much effort, and I didn't bother putting together any new games.

I tried again later in college, after I transferred to a state university (from a community college).  The rulebooks were still ridiculously overpriced and there are like four of them, but the box set claimed to be all you need to get started, and was pretty affordable.  So I got it.  The cover art was redolent.  I planned on getting a game together.

This was the era of the much-maligned 4E.

What was wrong with 3E, was magnified in 4E.  There were too many rules, too many special powers to keep track of, so much specialization and special builds.  Moreover, there was a complete change in... tone... in feeling... in theme.  The artwork was very high quality.  Yet it lacked the heart and soul of the amateur line art I remembered.  The races and classes I remembered were straight out of the books I read growing up.  I could point to them in the pages of the stories I loved.  Now there were all kinds of things whose origin I didn't understand; they seemed contrived just for the game.

I couldn't even understand HOW to play.  Do I have to get rolls of giant grid paper and draw giant table-sized maps of extreme detail?  I need figurines for every monster I want to include?  I don't have time or money for that, and if I did I'd just play Warhammer.

I tried yet again when I was in grad school.  I had some highly nerdy friends who were very close.  It would have been perfect.  I started arranging a campaign, I realized I could just use the basic d20 SRD (and avoid 4E), and I started making my own campaign world that stayed far away from all the campiness of 4E and later 3E materials.  But it was still too much.  There were too many rules, and I spent too much time just trying to figure out how everything works and we never got to play the campaign I planned.

It was a few years ago, on a whim, that I found myself in a friendly local game store.  And I saw on the shelf an absolute tome of a book, covered in tie-dye colors with a heavy-metal wizard glaring out from the spine.

As soon as I opened the book, I knew what I was looking at.  I was back again in my childhood home, reading about the fantastic worlds of magic and might and the rules that governed them.

The rules were a vastly simplified form of d20.  It kept many of the benefits, but threw out all the chaff.  Skills became a single mechanic: your starting occupation.  Feats, necessary to give the fighter some power, became a single mechanic: roll this one die every time you attack.  The magic became, once again, magical.  It was twisted and arcane and absolutely other.  The departures from the usual vancian system all worked to make it even more unreliable and powerful and align more perfectly with the archetypes of legend.  Even the funky dice, imagining polyhedral solids beyond the standard eight, brought up the memory of the first time I saw my dad's icosahedral d10, with one side painted red to be a d20.

I was immediately sold.

Of course, DCC is just one example of games comprising the OSR, the Old School Renaissance.  It's not a true card-carrying OSR game because it isn't a mere retroclone, and instead sticks fairly close to d20.  But I see in it the same game that enchanted me as a kid reading his father's books, now perfected with the design benefits of the d20 system for simplicity of play.

The part that caused me to freeze up and never play in my past forays -- the overabundance of rules -- was explicitly absent.  I was expected and encouraged to make up my own rules, and run things however I wanted.  I didn't have to memorize lists of things like Mighty Cleave and Flurry of Blows and Hit the Guy Twice.  If I didn't know how grapple worked, I could just make it up.

That is how I ended up in DCC and the OSR, after years of trying to get back to the game I used to play as a kid.

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.