A Whole Bushel of Apples

Tim Powers’ 1987 novel of fantastical pirate adventure has had an outsized influence on me despite my only having read it this past month. This is largely to do with Secret of Monkey Island and other films, books, and games that were directly inspired by or shamelessly burgled from On Stranger Tides. The book is quite the ride and having blasted through it, I see why it took on such a legendary status. However I want to use my stage to talk very specifically about this book and that is its portrayal of women, particularly how for much of the book they are reduced to something consumable.

Readers coming to this book familiar with Anne Bonny, Elaine Marley, Elizabeth Swann, or Morgan Adams might be forgiven for expecting to see a similar heroine on display but Powers instead gives us women who are largely passive and while they may inspire the actions of the hero and villains, rarely make decisions for themselves. Beyond that and perhaps of more visceral discomfort is what they inspire, particularly in the villains.

Elizabeth Hurwood is the woman we spend most time with and who gets both more dialogue and agency albeit her most direct and consequential action is saved for the epilogue. Throughout the majority of the book she is unwillingly dragged across the Caribbean by her troubled father Benjamin Hurwood and his unctuous accomplice Leo Friend (who, by the way, if we’re gonna get a real movie adaptation of this book, needs to be played by Josh Gad because come on).

Hurwood, we discover, needs her for an unholy ritual to annihilate her mind and soul and cram the unwilling soul of her deceased mother into her body. Friend has the rather unsubtle plan to just ravage her although it’s not enough to violate her physically (which she is fortunately spared from) but instead wants to become so powerful a sorcerer that he can bend her will and reality to make her crave him of her own volition. Friend, we also come to learn is motivated by a disturbing Oedipal lust which we are forced to witness in various ways before he is, to our relief, blown up in a magic duel.

Elizabeth also comes to the attention of Blackbeard who, very late in the book, reveals that magic has a gendered component and to take full advantage of it, a practitioner needs to be married so as to access feminine magic. To this end, Blackbeard reveals that he’s had a series of marriages that have consumed many women and at the end, needs Elizabeth as his bride since she is the only woman whose blood mingled at the Fountain of Youth. This culminates in the aforementioned epilogue where finally Elizabeth takes direct action and marries Jack Shandy right then and there, amplifying his own magical prowess and denying Blackbeard his nuptial goal.

The trope of the “attractive lamp” is a useful one for thinking of stories that reduce women to objects that the more active male characters trade around, fight over, and obsess about but in On Stranger Tides, women and particularly Elizabeth are not merely desired as ornamentation but to be wholly consumed and used up except by our hero. It creates for a disturbing story and ups the stakes but should not go without pause or consideration about how these stories reduce women down not just to objects but dehumanizes them even further. We can contrast it with the Hannibal series which likewise is about the consumption of others but takes an equal opportunity approach and in a perversion of aesthetics, elevates the act of consumption to art and worship. We are not given such illusions of dignity in On Stranger Tides but instead invited to roll around in the muck and sit with there with our discomfort, like the frequently mentioned toy soldier unable to get back to the store window.

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One of the benefits of living in a college town is having an active gaming club to which I am occasionally invited. This has been the case with their one shot nights where they ask game masters to pick a game to run one session in order to meet new players or introduce folks to games they might never have heard of or are curious about but unable to commit to a full campaign. For an avid RPG collector whose appetite is bigger than his capacity to play, it’s a great chance to bust out games and give them a whirl and this is exactly what happened with Spire.

Spire is a 2018 game by Christopher Taylor and Grant Howitt published by Rowan, Rook and Decard that has players depicting drow freedom fighters/terrorists whose mile high tower city has been conquered by high elves who subjugate their people through humiliation, servitude, and exploitation. The game makes no bones about the tragic nature of this fight and that any gains the players achieve will come at great cost, either personally or collectively. On the surface this may seem like a dour bummer of a game but like with all things in Spire, the surface is deceiving.

Mechanically this game borrows heavily from Powered by the Apocalypse games with classes coming in playbooks of various powers and abilities and dice rolls usually leading to mixed successes that offer nuanced resolutions instead of clearcut successes or outright failures. Dice pools are assembled based on character skills and domains. Where you choose to carry out your adventures can have just as much an impact as how. Consequences are also spread out between various stats rather than simple hit points. In Spire you can take a blow to your reputation or pocketbook as easily as to your body or sanity and this gives a game master options for how they want to threaten their players and provide them with challenges beyond just trying to beat them into unconsciousness.

The world of Spire is weird. Delightfully so. The city is towering and Babel-esque, filled not just with elves of various hues but humans, gnolls, giant corvids, goblinoid… things, psychic mantis cultists, and even weirder denizens. The whole structure sits atop the pulsating and demonic Heart which provides the setting for Spire’s sister RPG of the same name that swaps out urban heists and political revolution for more familiar if not completely traditional dungeon delving. Algae vats, fungal farms/cemeteries, belching factories, entrepreneurial temples, street theatres, dockside taverns, and a geometrically impossible subway system all jostle and tangle together and provide no shortage of backdrops for the intrigues, assassinations, subversions, or whatever else the players deem necessary to bring about the downfall of their hated enemies and the freedom of their people. Also there’s an entire appendix dedicated to goats.

The secret wonder of Spire is that it is a genuinely funny game. It’s not obvious at first glance but as you read through the setting or look at the different powers players can wield, it becomes very apparent that there is a dark humour that slinks through the game like veins in a rich and pungent cheese. That tension between the dire reality of trying to create political change when society is stacked against you with the humour that can be found in every nook makes this a truly fantastic game.

The core book is more than enough to play but there are a number of additional materials folks can acquire, including a useful GM screen which comes with a conspiracy kit and a deck of NPCs and locations to have at hand as needed. The Magister’s Guide offers up a buffet table of optional rules and enhancements to take or leave. I am particularly fond of the Liberty stat which acts as a communal “hit point” for society at large that goes up and down as players upset the status quo and has impacts on how freely they can move around and carry out their dark deeds.

When I introduced it to the gaming club, I was nervous and apprehensive about how it would be received but within minutes of passing out the character sheets and hearing the genuine joyful laughter and gasps of horror, I knew I had a winner and I look forward to spreading the dark message of Spire with other gamers.

Support my reviewable gaming collection here!

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This accurately depicts our feelings

If you were to suck out my brain, render it into a slurry, analyze its contents, and then use that information to put together a TV show most likely to hit every single one of my pleasure centers, it would look a lot like Andor. I love Star Wars, depictions of soulless bureaucracy, and stories about people sacrificing everything they are and love for a cause that may or may not be fruitless. And yet, like the precision of stormtroopers, the actual reality falls short of the promise.

I enjoyed Andor but I did not love it. It was an engaging intellectual experience showing how the Empire functions behind the scenes and giving us an expanded look at the fractious, questionable nature of the Rebellion but it was missing something of the joy and wonder which is at the heart of Star Wars. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! We have lots of stories of plucky rebels and conflicted Jedi having all sorts of fun adventures and there’s space for a more serious look at how this Galaxy far far away functions.

Despite its tight storytelling and fantastic production values, something is fundamentally missing and it can be summed up by Michael in the Good Place:

Andor has family and it has community and it has comrades in arms but there are few to no depictions of friendship. We don’t see vulnerability and affection and comfort, just mutual ground down exhaustion, ideological solidarity, or respectful paranoia. That absence colours the whole show and gives it a very unique tone but it’s not one that often draws me to Star Wars.

A through line in most of the movies and shows is that the galaxy-spanning conflict and stakes are all grounded in the immediate connections of our characters. Luke wants to rescue Han and redeem Vader, Mando wants to find a safe home for Grogu, Hera wants to keep her crew together while finding “quality time” with Kanan. The consistent message of Andor is that the personal is subservient to The Cause and while that message does get pushed back against and tested at times, it’s still more present than The Reason Is Friends.

In The Pale Moonlight

I think a fair comparison is Deep Space Nine. DS9 took the utopian qualities of Star Trek and questioned and problematized them. We saw black markets operating in the shadows, the Federation’s spy network undermining their nobility and ideals, our heroes lying and murdering to do what Must Be Done. Even then though, DS9 was always grounded in the messy relationships of the ensemble which gave us emotional safety net amidst the cynicism. That net is absent in Andor.

I am curious about where Andor goes and what sort of stories it will tell but even as its most target of audiences, I can happily wait.

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Pretty game!

The hills are alive with the sound of Discourse! As of this writing, the gaming community is in a tizzy over the leaked changes to Dungeons and Dragons’ Open Gaming License and as such there is a great deal of interest in alternate games. I had not intended to participate in said Discourse but as chance would have it, I received the RPG Symbaroum for Christmas and I think it’s worth listing as a suitable alternative for folks who want to play something familiar but not too familiar but not too unfamiliar.

The setting is one of dark fantasy and delving into sinister woods and ancient ruins on behalf of questionable forces back in “civilized” lands. Characters can be brave knights, cunning barbarians, compassionate witches, zealot priests, goblin pickpockets, tragic changelings, etc all jostling with the various fractions trying to tame, exploit, or protect the deep wilderness and its many secrets. The monsters and challenges as written all have a grim, Slavic aesthetic with deadly plants, giant abominations, feral trolls, undead horrors, and the like. What points of light in the darkness are either outright traps or hiding perilous secrets.

Symbaroum is both a game and a game setting so there is nice synchronized theming but one could easily lift the core rules and apply them to a homemade world. Its core mechanic has players only rolling with the GM responding and pushing threats. You’re looking to roll low on a single d20 with other dice used for damage. Characters have 8 attributes ranging from 5 to 15 and when taking an action attempt to roll under the relevant attribute with modifiers either adding or subtracting from the target number to adjust difficulty. Characters start with 3 to 5 abilities (plus any traits based on their species or heritage) that determine the fun things they can do like cast spells, dual wield, command underlings, etc. There are three “archetypes” which stand in for classes – Fighter, Rogue, and Mystic – and each one comes with suggested attribute ranks and abilities but they are only guidelines and there are no mechanic differences between choosing one of these three.

Magic is potent but risks accumulating Corruption which is a game-defining mechanic. The deeper characters delve or the more secrets they uncover, the more Corruption they take on. Like sanity loss in Call of Cthulhu or Dark Side Points in Star Wars, gaining corruption can be profitable in the short term but risks altering your character, giving them unseemly qualities, and ultimately transforming them into an unplayable mess that fellow players suddenly will find themselves contending with.

Symbaroum will appeal to folks wanting a Skyrim-esque game of exploring an ancient, lived-in, and dangerous world with factions vying for their assistance and allegiance. It’s a tidy complete package with gorgeous art, clean design, and a lot of room for expanding out but provides a complete experience with just the core book. If you want something that scratches the D&D itch but with some edge, simpler rules, and a nice amount of specificity, I think you’ll enjoy it.

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Wrapping up 2022

The Kesslers In a Civilized Moment

This has been quite the year! Rachel taught her first Old English Class, Leeman ended his ten year run of Ask Lovecraft, and we even managed to get to Toronto and Disney while we were at it. In the meantime, we successfully refrained from eating our darling children even when they absolutely deserved it so all in all, I think we can call it a success.

Folks who miss our regular banter can still find it on occasion over on tiktok where the Nerdy Priest and Mayor Lovecraft find time to collaborate and interrupt each other as is their wont. Leeman’s radio show The Mayor is also fulfilling his podcasting-need to be heard and loved by multitudes. As our covid-smoothed brains allow us to read more and engage with pop culture in something approaching an intelligible manner, we hope to share with you all of our various discoveries and the profound wisdom we obviously bring to The Discourse.

Some end of year recommendations!

Leeman has discovered the Murderbot Diaries and fallen head over heels. Severance also quickly became his favourite TV show since… ever? He also got the chance to run a one shot of the dark steampunk game of colonialism and tragedy that is the Spire rpg and heartily recommends both.

Rachel has plunged face-first into the new Willow series on Disney+ and finds it a creepy yet fun-loving break from the more dour and serious epic fantasy offerings. Book-wise she has been enjoying Babel and The City of Brass trilogy and gives both big thumbs up.

Keep watching this spot for more updates in 2023!

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On To the Next Adventure

my very patient priest

Ten years ago when I first started filming Ask Lovecraft, I briefly recruited Rachel to do camera work which she very graciously did for the first few episodes until my fussy artistic nature and burdensome filming schedule proved incompatible with her lifestyle of having a real job. Over the decade since she has been a stalwart and patient support without which this show would not have been possible. I have had a lot of creative projects and endeavours over the years but this by far surpasses all of them in scale and that’s due to having Rachel’s encouragement at every step. With regular production of the show ending, it was only fitting to bring her back to film the finale. I am beyond grateful for all she has done and so excited for what comes next.

For now you can find her wisdom over on tiktok.

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Saying Goodbye

Mike Griffin captured a touching moment between old friends

In June of 2012, I awkwardly stood in front of a bed sheet with a flip-cam and filmed the first episode of Ask Lovecraft, a project born out of the success of a stage play I had performed in called Monstrous Invisible by Stephen Near and a subsequent guest spot on a now-defunct media review show by my friend Darla Burrow. In nearly ten years, Ask Lovecraft has brought me into contact with an entire world of authors, artists, filmmakers, game designers, and fabricators of the weird and fanciful while unlocking doors I didn’t even know were there. I’ve performed in Portland, Providence, San Pedro, Santa Fe, and even Guelph. I’ve met heroes and been humbled by opportunities I never envisioned.

And now I’m looking to pack up the suit in the closet, fold up the tripod, and let what has been a decade-long labour of love finally rest come this June. For a while, I darkly joked about doing this project until I was 46, the same age Lovecraft died but that mostly would have been a joke for one so instead I settled on the even decade. It’s neat and clean and requires little explanation for most.

For those unsatisfied by that reason, allow me to offer a few more. Ever since adding a second child to parent full time and getting involved in local politics, I became keenly aware that my energy and focus was limited. In September of 2019, I went from my mind-boggling three episodes a week schedule down to the more manageable one which allowed me to keep things spinning for another three years. Another reasons was finding the limits of my niche. This project has always been something of a boutique situation that inspires remarkable devotion among a few but never spilled out onto the larger scene. Adding Patreon allowed me to justify the time and costs the show took and I’ve appreciated the voluntary subscriptions but the cost-return balance has shifted with time and frankly, to keep charging folks, I feel I would need to provide more than they currently receive and I’d rather free up those dollars to go to other artists and creators.

As something of an eldritch sign of where things might go, over the last few weeks and well past when I made this decision, I began to garner a lot of attention over on TikTok with my tales of strange Ohio lore known as Always Has Been. I have no idea what this might turn into or where it will go but it’s been quite the exciting ride and I’m very curious.

This has been a remarkable decade and I can never adequately convey the gratitude I have for everyone who was watched, shared, donated, or sent a kind word. The show isn’t going completely dark. I hope to provide the same weekly delights up until our finale in June and then after that, I imagine there will still be occasional interviews, special episodes, and taped live shows to share. Please feel free to follow me on twitter or keep up to date with my website.

Thank you all again. I am beyond grateful for the support you have given to me and my family over the years. I’m excited for what’s next.

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What Gaming Has Taught Me About Being Mayor

I became mayor of a village in rural Ohio for the same reason I’ve often wound up a game master: no-one else showed interest in the job. Now the specifics, as always, are more nuanced than that but broadly speaking that’s what went down. Like many GMs I’ve had, the previous mayor decided they had put in their time and were ready to do something else but in keeping with the best of GMs, they encouraged others around them to step in and I was fortunate enough to receive her mentorship and encouragement. I was also fortunate to have been encouraged to get involved in other aspects of municipal governing, starting on the Planning & Zoning Commission before getting elected to Village Council. This way I had some experience with the mechanics and saw her example of doing the job so when it was my turn to take the hot seat, It wasn’t like the time I was 8 and tried to teach myself how to play my brothers’ Star Frontiers game with no assistance.

The months leading up to actually becoming mayor can be like the fervent excitement GMs put into planning their campaigns. They think about all the possibilities and just what they want to see and do. Then the job actually begins and much of that planning goes right out the window. Month by month and week by week, so much of what happens is based on what happened previously and the contradictory ways that government can both be slow and methodical or change suddenly and without warning and there is a sense of dancing on ball bearings to make sure everything goes smoothly and doesn’t fall to pieces. Villagers and council members resemble D&D players in that they all have their own agendas and interests and while they might be happy that you are there to do your job, they’re not particularly invested in what you have planned and want to play the game they want to play. Luckily, much of the disconnect or frustration can be mitigated by maintaining steady communication and managing expectations all around.

Sessions of council are where the practical skills of a GM really come to light. So much of my job is to manage this specific chunk of time and make sure that everything moves at a decent pace while ensuring that the folks around the table are able to do what they want to do without it proving a detriment to others. If you’re talking too much, chances are that folks are not going to be invested in what’s happening. Time management, encouraging folks to speak up, politely redirecting folks who might be dominating conversation, all of these skills and more are key to running both a good game and maintaining an orderly democratic process.

Should every game master get into politics? Based on my experience, that’s a definite no but I do think there is something to encouraging folks who are interested in politics to find places where they can practice the skills they will need to serve the public and manage others and you can do worse than have some experience wrangling paladins and necromancers.

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Episode 86: Kenyon Geekiness

On this week’s episode, we look back to how our college years formed our geeky credentials.

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Episode 85: Happy Endings

This week, Mother Rachel and Mayor Leeman talk about all the shows that have ended since the last time we podcasted and we talk about what makes for a good ending.

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