Arrested Development: My Troglodytes are Different

Some time ago I brought up the issue of technological progress and magic. The gist of post was a contemplation on why most of “fantasy” settings seem to stuck in perpetual middle ages. The obvious in-universe answer is of course “because wizards”. After all, who needs expensive and unreliable steam engines if you have magical portals and flying carpets? Why would you go to trouble of arming your army with muskets, when even an apprentice mage could cast “invoke dampness” spell over the battlefield rendering gunpowder weapons unusable.

One interesting assumption we were making in that thread is that for some reason magic only becomes relevant at the cusp of industrial revolution and not a day earlier. While it does make perfect sense that it would retard the development of of gun powder weapons and steam engines, it does not explain why it wouldn’t have the same type of chilling effect on all prior technology. For example, medieval metallurgy, masonry, architecture, husbandry and agriculture were all pretty vibrant and dynamic fields without which we wouldn’t see castles, plate armors, mounted cavalry and any other fantasy staples. But these fields never seem to be affected. So we must conclude that magic is irrelevant to these fields (which is silly, because we know you can make enchanted armors, flying castles and etc..) or it only becomes prominent after these mundane technologies are already well established.

Naturally, we know the meta-narrative reasons for this: we enjoy stories about knights, wizards and dragons and so we construct the worlds in which they can exist. That’s a given. But when we talk about in-universe logic, we must assume that magic is simply discovered and popularized late.

Here is a thought experiment: what if it wasn’t? What if “magic boom” happened not in the middle ages but way back, at a tribal hunter gatherer stage? What if tribal shamans were able to achieve the kind of power level as Fantasy battle mages? How would access to that kind of magic shape the society, and how it would affect the development of technology? And just to make things more interesting let’s say we are not talking about humans here. Let’s take Fantasy’s quintessential, low-tech, cave dwelling species: the Troglodytes (also known as lizard bros).

Lizard People

Lizard People

Let’s establish some background here: Troglodytes start their civilization as just about any other species. They are cave-dwelling, hunter-gatherers who just recently figured out how to make primitive tools out of stone and bones of their prey, but not much else. There are probably other sentient species in the area, like Gnolls, Kobolds and maybe even some Humans that are at about the same technological level. Sometimes they trade, sometimes they fight, other times they ignore each other. Then, Troglodyte shamans discover magic and everything starts to change for the better.

At first the changes are subtle – the healing and combat magic gives them an edge in battle against their more territorial neighbors and so their communities grow and prosper. Soon Shamans discover that magic can not only be used during the times of war, but that it’s real utility comes into play during peace. Instead of spending days gathering fruit and nuts in the forests, the Shamans can simply make those plants grow in and around their settlements. Instead of spending days tracking beasts of prey, magic can be used to lure them into traps or simply have them walk into the Troglodyte village and lay down waiting to be slaughtered. Magic also frees the lizard men from dependency on natural cave systems for shelter. They can now drill out houses in the stone, or burrow in the ground as they please.

As this knowledge spreads from community to community there is a good deal of social unrest. The hunters caste are very upset that they are being made irrelevant. They are very concerned that their professions will disappear the same way the “fire keeper” caste did when the magic users learned how to light and extinguish fire at will. At the same time the Shaman’s can barely keep up with the demand for their services: the communities start to rely on them for everything. They are healers, builders, warriors, food providers, community leaders and etc. The shaman caste realize that further growth is unsustainable. Their magic is helping their communities to grow and prosper, but as they do, the shaman are being spread thin. After much deliberation, they decide to invalidate and beak the vows of secrecy surrounding their craft, and teach it to everyone willing to learn.

Troglodyte Sage

Troglodyte Sage (formerly shaman caste)

Luckily it turns out that Troglodytes are all attuned to magic: it flows freely through their bodies and almost all of them can use it. And so hunters learn spells and incantations that let them lure, distract and control prey. Gatherers learn magic that allows them to influence plant grow, and tend wild gardens outside their cave villages. Builders study magic that allows them to crush, sharpen and move stone and earth to create tools and living spaces for the Troglodyte communities. Warriors study enchantments that will make their natural scales harder than stone, and make their wooden or bone spears unnaturally sharp. The former shamans take a back seat an assume a role of teachers and keepers of knowledge which they share freely with others.

Few generations pass, and the caste systems of old are all but forgotten. Most Troglodyte communities are now societies of specialized wizards. Where other civilizations turn to mundane technology, they simply use magic. When Gnolls develop bronze tipped javelins, Troglodytes simply enchant their bone spears to fly further. When humans start making weapons and armors from iron, Lizard men simply beef up their protective spells, and develop armor piercing incantations. In a way they can work faster than their neighbors because harnessing mundane technology takes years of research, practice and require raw materials. Spells on the other hand are basically just focused thoughts which can be disseminated immediately after being developed.

Troglodyte

Troglodyte with an enchanted bone tool of unknown purpose

While other species develop complex writing, and graduate from stone tablets to paper based media, Troglodytes stop at a fairly simple system of glyphs suitable for carving them in stone or bone. They use it mainly to make sign-posts, labels, record names or for decoration. They don’t write books, or codify their stories because they have better ways of preserving knowledge using magic. The most common method of preserving knowledge or experiences are memory charms, usually made by enchanting skulls of small animals. The creator of the charm can imbue it with thoughts, emotions and memories and it will act as permanent storage device. Anyone can access the stored memories by simply touching the charm to their forehead (though some charms can be protected by a password that has to be whispered to unlock them). Compared to bound paper volumes produced by humans, memory charms are both inexpensive, trivial to produce and easy to use.

To facilitate the exchange of knowledge, as well as better resource management Troglodytes also develop a mass-transit system in the form of Way Stones. They are created by taking a massive stone slab, binding it with strong magic and then cleaving it in half. Anyone stepping on one half of the stone is ten magically transported to the other one. Communities wishing to establish a permanent trade link typically create a Way Stone pair, and then mark them with appropriate glyphs so that travelers can know which village it leads to. Not all Troglodyte communities are connected to each other, but most ave at least one or two Way Stones that link them up to some of their neighbors creating a vast network of connections.

Way Stone

Troglodyte using a Way Stone

Way Stone network allows the Troglodyte communities to specialize and grow in very peculiar ways. Because food and resources can be transported instantaneously between Way Stone connected locations there exist communities that produce no food or resources locally and simply trade for them with neighbors. This allows Troglodytes to live deep underground or in otherwise inhospitable areas such as desolated wastelands, magical swamps, or even underwater in magically sustained air bubbles.

No one really knows the extent of the Way Stone network as there exist no accurate maps that would include all the stones. After a few centuries of growth, the Troglodyte civilization is assumed to have over a thousand active nodes all over the world. Most communities only know the layout of two to three hops away from their home village and new Way Stones are created all the dime connecting new and established communities. Most traveled Troglodytes can probably tell you the shortest way to their Capital City (shortest in the sense of fewest Way Stone hops not actual real world distance).

To other races, Troglodytes look like primitive savages. They wear almost no clothes, and their tools are made almost elusively from wood, stone and bones. Those who trade with them note that they seem to be profoundly disinterested in anything made out of metal – including weapons, tools, armors and even jewelry. The truth is that they have no need for these tings because most Troglodytes knows a sharpening spell that can temporarily turn a bone staff into a razor-sharp weapon capable of cutting through a plate armor. They don’t use bows and arrows, because they put homing spells on their spears extending their range, and ensuring they always strike their target. They build no houses, because they can drill shelters directly into mountainsides, complete with stone shelves, stools and other furniture built directly into the interior. Where they have no rocky surfaces to work with, they dig underground or weave trees and vines to create spacious halls and huts for the citizens.

Their capitol city is said to be hidden deep in some inhospitable swamp jungle. It is said to be a gigantic cave city drilled into the sides and throughout an ancient mountain. It is said that every inch of the mountain has been carved by magic, and that from afar it looks like a cross between a stone anthill and an ancient pyramid temple.

Those who have visited the Troglodyte communities usually remark on how in touch with nature they seem to be. Those who lived among the Lizard Men usually quickly realize that this is not true. They exploit the nature to their own ends just like most other sentient species – their excesses simply do not look like conventional agriculture. The capitol for example is incapable of supporting it’s population with local resources, and so there exist many “hunting” communities that make a living hunting and gathering for the capitol and delivering food in bulk. Their daily “pulls” of game can easily deplete the local ecosystem within weeks, at which point they pack-up their Way Stone and move to another area.

And there you have it: a race of primeval lizard people who appear primitive, because they rely on magic for all the things we usually use tools for. All the modern comforts are provided by means of enchantments and spells which sharpen bone knives, or make stone soft and warm enough to comfortably sleep on. My Troglodytes are different. What do you think?

Posted in rpg and tabletop | Tagged | 5 Comments

Stop Reviewing Bad Movies

Michael Bay’s Tr4nsformers came out few weeks ago and judging by the box office numbers, every man woman and child in the country has seen it at least once already. This includes me unfortunately. Sometimes you’re out with friends, and they really want to see a bad movie, and you just get roped into it. That said, you might have noticed I resisted live tweeting that atrocity. I am currently resisting the urge to review it. Which is not that hard actually.

I literally have nothing to say about it other than that it was utterly forgettable. Michael Bay is really good at manipulating movie building blocks such as tropes, stereotypes, archetypes, pop-culture references, set-pieces and action sequences into functional entertainment spectacle that is almost like a real movie but completely devoid of any kind of consistent message. He is like a human Markov chain generator blindly remixing pop culture into original scripts.

The movie is artless, sexist, racist and problematic on many levels, but so are most of the other blockbusters that came out in the last few months. This is of course not an excuse, but I’m no longer sure if he is actually the worst offender, or just the most visible one. Or perhaps it is because he does not seem to have any filter or creative oversight, and so his prejudices can flow freely onto the celluloid without him ever giving them a second thought. Which further cements his image in my mind as some alien robot who has learned to efficiently manipulate movie tropes into configurations that focus test very well, but who does not really understand their context or implications.

Have you ever seen that episode of TNG where Data is trying to learn how to do stand-up comedy but he can’t quite get it right because he does not fully grok humor? I think this is kinda like that. Bay has nothing meaningful to say about human condition. He is not interested in having his movies stand for anything or explore any high concept ideas. He is primarily interested in creating a compelling visual spectacle, and he uses whichever human emotions, notions, ideas or moral truisms that seem to be appropriate for any given scene, without any deeper awareness or insight. He uses them like he uses product placement, carefully arranging them between explosions for maximum effect and exposure. At the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with that but it makes for a rather empty experience.

meh

meh…

I left the movie theater wandering how a film with so many explosions could be so utterly boring.

But I can no longer blame Bay for this. I used to think of him as the embodiment of all that was wrong with the movie industry. But can we really blame him for making the kind of movies that people really, really want to see? Can we really blame him for not wanting to be an artist, when each of his soulless, artless productions makes him barrels of money, and bring joy to millions of movie goers around the world?

Regardless of the objective quality of his movies, Bay is definitely an auteur. He has a very distinctive style, that is unmistakably his. It is artless, soulless, commercial, prejudiced and vulgar but it is unique to him alone. If anything, he is consistent. We all know this: especially those of us who write movie reviews. And yet, we still go to his films, we still live-tweet them and write blog posts feigning shock and disgust at his latest exploits. And for what? It has already been established that Bay’s long running franchises are immune to criticism. Regardless of how many thumbs down and one star scores they receive, people will still go to see them in droves. In fact, the venomous, negative reviews help to build the hype for his movies. Among the folks who pay to see Bays films there are those who genuinely enjoy them, and then there are those who watch them out of morbid curiosity.

At this point in the game, calling Bay out seems almost counter productive. Movie critics treating Bay movie reviews like performance art, competing with each other trying to invent the most innovative and hilarious ways to trash his work only draws more attention to his work. When the internet reviewers unite to spit on the latest installment of his silly 3 hour toy robot commercial, average Joe can’t help but wander what is this all about. Our vitriol and hate only fan the flames of morbid curiosity that pushes people to spend money on something that is only vaguely entertaining at best. So I’m just not going to feed into this vicious cycle.

I’ve seen it and it was awful, but you already knew that. You knew it was going to be awful long before the movie even came out.

I’m not saying that we should stop calling out movie makers on the things they do wrong. I’m not saying we should stop reviewing all bad movies. All I’m saying is: look, this is a long running franchise which started bad, got worse, made loads of money anyway, and whose creator is not interested in changing or improving the formula. What can we really say about it that was not said in the reviews for the last three installments of the series? At this point the most constructive way to approach Transformers reviews is to use them to psychoanalyze Michael Bay’s weird personal quirks and hangups. But even that shtick is getting stale these days, because does not vary his game at all. There are new revelations there to be had, and the whole thing starts to border on ad hominem attack on him as a person. So what’s the point?

Ditto for the upcoming TMNT movie which looks just as loud, hideous and artless as Tr4nsformers. I highly doubt that there is anything one could possibly gain by reading or watching a review of it. Unless of course you are into critics feigning shock for the sake of comedy or find the annual ritual of Internet Bay Bashing to be cathartic in some way.

Instead of complaining about the silly robot or turtle movies, let’s talk about things that may be worth watching. For example, has anyone seen Snowpiercer? I have yet to see it, but from what I heard this is the movie we should all have seen instead of Bay’s robot extravaganza. I had it described to me as a blend of Hunger Games and Those Who Walk Away from Omleas with plot hooks of Speed (if Speed was actually a good movie) and raw brutality of The Raid 2. I think you will agree that is a hell of an elevator pitch.

Aubrey Plaza has a new dark comedy Life After Beth coming out which puts a new and original spin on the old and tried zombie movie tropes. Terry Gilliam has quirky and off-beat Zero Theorem due to drop soon, and it will be worth watching because… Well, Terry Gilliam. Even when he fails he fails in interesting ways.

We are also days away from the premiere of Guardians of Galaxy which I am really excited for. It’s not just because it is another Marvel movie (and those have not been bad since The Hulk), or because it has all of my favorite actors in it. I think I’m most excited for the fact that if it works, if it becomes a box office success, then it will open up the door to the crazy-ass SF side of the Marvel comic-verse with it’s larger than life villains, and epic plot lines. The success or failure of this movie will heavily influence the direction Marvel is going to take with Phase Four movie batch, and will ultimately play into the post-Avenger planning discussions they are doubtlessly already starting to have.

What movies have you watched in the past few weeks? What movies are you excited for?

Posted in movies | 9 Comments

This is Marvelous

I was planning to write a short blurb about the new Batgirl costume design, and then Marvel decided to be awesome and this redesign is no longer even relevant or important. But let’s talk about it for a few seconds before I go gushing about the more important changes in the comic-verse. When the new Batgirl design dropped on the internet we briefly had this conversation about how amazing it was. Her new costume was simple, sensible, practical and even fashionable while at the same time it completely rejected the common super-heroine design tropes. You know, skin-fitting spandex, boob windows and the like. The new Batgirl takes subdued selfies in the mirror instead of striking the spine-breaking, anatomically impossible Hawkeye poses.

The New Batgirl

The New Batgirl

In retrospect it is kinda sad that this design is considered progressive. That a superhero in a leather jacket without a cleavage window and boots instead of ten inch combat stilettos is newsworthy. Unfortunately, we as a society we still have a tendency to draw our comic-book women almost exclusively from male gaze perspective.

I might have mentioned this elsewhere on this blog, but I will soon to be an uncle to a little girl. I’ve been thinking a lot lately on how I could one day introduce her to the world of general geekery / nerdism, and whether or not this would even be a good thing to do. Getting men and boys to be fans of dorky stuff is easy: you just show them how cool said stuff is and they will either get it or not. There aren’t many hidden downsides and there isn’t even that much stigma associated with it anymore. These days no one will really give you much shit for enjoying video games, or being excited for the latest Avengers movie. Besides, male nerds can easily find support systems helping them deal with any possible residual stigma attached to their hobbies and obsessions in the form of message boards, comic book stores, game stores and etc.. If you’re a girl however, being a geek almost always comes with a side order of abuse. Women are typically not welcome in traditional nerd communities. Game and comic book stores are usually man-spaces protected by vigilant gate keepers that insist on all women who enter proving they are not “fake geek girls”. The most vocal members of online communities usually welcome women by saying “tits or gfo” and police their brethren who refuse to join them in the harassment by calling them “white knights”.

Granted, there are communities that are friendly and welcoming to women, and there exist safe spaces where girls can geek out together. But unfortunately these are not the norm. When you introduce women into the world of fandoms and geek hobbies this is something you have to prepare them for and warn them about. If you don’t, chances are the first time they go out there and try to interact with the community they will get burned.

So this has been something on my mind lately, and it almost seems that the universe is conspiring to provide me with resources and solutions to make this work. To wit, Sam Maggs just wrote a book titled Fangirls Guide to the Galaxy which is essentially a survival guide for young women getting into all kinds of nerdy hobbies for the first time. It was written, illustrated and published by women and for women and is full of practical advice, first-hand accounts and it should be a fantastic resource.

I started thinking about geeky heroes that young girls could identify with, especially in the realm of comic books. It struck me how even the superheros who were designed from ground up to be (at least to a degree) feminist icons, like Wonder Woman or She Hulk still prance around battlefields in bikinis, and are still expected to contort their bodies into impossible configurations to satisfy the male gaze. And then the new Batgirl with her “leather, not spandex” jacket, combat boots showed up. And she makes a terrific counter-point to the common, sexed-up-vixen costumed female hero stereotype. She is not someone’s sidekick or a background decoration, nor is she some idealized icon. She is a character with quirks, flaws and an Instagram account full of goofy selfless.

And then, Marvel went “that’s cute” and dropped the news that Thor is now a woman.

This is Thor

This is Thor, deal with it.

That’s the big thing that I mentioned at the beginning of the post that has eclipsed Batgirls cool new get up.

I didn’t get just one cool female superhero this week. I got two, which is absolutely fantastic. As neat as Batgirl’s new costume and attitude might be, female Thor is real big news. Thor has always been sort of archetypically masculine and never actually had a proper distaff counterpart (Thorl Girl doesn’t count, right?) which makes him a perfect choice for this sort of gender swap. It is a bold statement which has been rippling throughout the community. My Twitter feed is full of comic book nerds, many of whom no longer follow the adventures of Marvel superheroes on paper, but this past week I have seen countless excited tweets about this development. Everyone has an opinion, and folks who have not bought a comic book in decades are now ready to jump back into it, even if only temporarily to check out this new development.

This plays into another thing I’ve been pondering recently: who is Marvel’s equivalent to Wonder Woman? DC and WB went on record saying they are too chicken-shit to make a modern Wonder Woman movie (which is probably for the best, considering the quality of post-Nolan DC movieverse) so Marvel can easily beat them to the punch. But which female super-hero could carry a solo movie of her own? The closest conceptual match to Wonder Woman we probably have is She Hulk but she is nowhere near as popular as the Amazonian queen. Not only that, the Hulk doesn’t translate well to the silver screen, unless written by Joss Wheedon and allowed to beat up Loki. If I had to pick the most iconic and popular Marvel heroine that people who are not into comics heard about, I would say Storm, but Marvel does not own the movie rights to her. We do have Black Widow, but she kinda lacks in the “super” department. This might be just wishful thinking, but I can’t help but wonder if this is Marvel’s way of strategically positioning themselves in such a way, that when DC eventually does make a fumbling attempt at a solo Wonder Woman feature, they will be able to respond in kind with “Thor 4″ or whatever.

Chances are that angry comic dudebros will get their way eventually, and at some point Marvel is going to return Thor to the default male version. But you know what? This will still be cannon. We will always have this run where Thor was a woman. And that’s pretty great. I might be able to give my niece a Mjolnir toy one day, and she will be able to associate it with an A list Marvel hero who is like her, and who she can easily identify with. Not a distaff counterpart, not a sidekick, not a side member of a superhero team, but a fully fledged solo protagonist of a long running series.

Also, this happened, which is equally exciting:

Captain America

New Captain America

I might be reading too much into it, but there is a lot of symbolism here. Think about this: Steve Rogers has been the embodiment of the American spirit for decades now. He was our best superhero, and the only one we saw fit to wear our flag as a costume. He was also a white man with blond hair, who was a member of the greatest generation. He is now passing his shield and costume to a black member of gen x. This is the passing of the guard, from old to young, from a place of privilege to that of none. This is great.

Granted, this is not entirely unexpected. Marvel has been experimenting with diversifying their super hero roster for a number of years now. People who were blindsided and outraged by the Thor and Cap announcements this past week must have slept through the time Miles Morales became the Ultimate Spider-Man, Kamala Khan became Ms. Marvel and Carol Denvers took over the mantle of Captain Marvel. Then again, those were less prominent fringe titles, whereas Captain America and Thor are established mega-heroes with their own movie franchises. The fact they are willing to make these changes to their most precious and valuable heroes indicates that they are done “experimenting” and are now committed to creating a diverse setting that’s open and welcoming to everyone, and not just white males.

I know that comic books tend to go in these cycles of good and bad periods. I see this as one of the good ones. Marvel is doing something really cool here: it is trying to break the mold and is actively working to subvert age old tropes, and go against stereotypes. Ultimately we all win, because having more diverse hero roster will allow them to tell new and interesting stories and approach old subjects from new perspectives.

Posted in comics | Tagged | 3 Comments