Thursday, July 24, 2014

Characters I Love: Luke Skywalker.

 Luke: "I'll not leave you here. I've got to save you."
Anakin: "You already have."

 I don't know about the rest of you, but my fandom tends to be cyclical. There will be times in the cycle where you cannot get me to shut up about Doctor Who, or other periods where tabletop roleplaying games are the most important thing ever, but eventually the wheel turns and I find something else to obsess over. It's been that way for as long as I can remember, I've always been the Kid With The Book, the kid who'd sit up late watching VHS tapes of movies seen dozens upon dozens of times before. But certain stories, certain characters, they stay with you. They become part of your own internal architecture, foundation stones that help define who you are and--maybe more importantly--who you'd like to be.

 If there are two pillars to the infrastructure of my psyche one would have to be Superman, of course. I've spoken of my admiration for the Man of Tomorrow elsewhere in the blog, and believe me, I can always say more. He was the hero who I encountered first as a child, and I imprinted on him. But standing beside him, like some colossal duo of statues a la the sequence post-Moria in Fellowship of the Ring, would be the figure of Luke Skywalker. Star Wars has been a part of my life so long it's like discussing an essential element or fundamental force, like water or gravity. But of all the characters, I identify with Luke the most. Why is that?

 Part of it's likely due to the fact that, well, we're all supposed to identify with Luke. He's the viewpoint character in Star Wars (A New Hope if you want to be technical but I'm Old School, so I'm calling it by it's original name), the everyman who leaves the world of his humdrum life and gets caught up in the affairs of droids, Jedi, smugglers, and princesses. He's the embodiment of the Hero of Myth, and given that Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces was a major source of inspiration for George Lucas, it's not hard to see just how easily Luke fits in with other heroes of yore. Of late though, George seems to have come around to thinking that the six primary Star Wars films are the story of Anakin Skywalker; his fall from grace and redemption over the course of the saga forming its foundation. And while I can agree that a case can be argued for Anakin as the protagonist of the prequel trilogy, and certainly an important figure as Darth Vader in the original three films, I would argue that the hero of Star Wars remains Luke Skywalker. He is the best of a galaxy far, far away.

 I'm an Arthurian fan through and through. I love the stories of chivalry, and the stories of the Knights of the Round Table are some of my favorites (from Thomas Mallory to T.H. White). But that love got its foundation through the Jedi Knights, the Guardians of Peace and Justice in the Old Republic. Note that phrase, it's going to be important later.  The depiction of the Jedi in the original trilogy; this mixture of warrior and wizard, the lightsabers, the notion of using your power for knowledge and defense, never for attack. . .it was all so wonderful.  And then the prequels happened.

 Take it easy, I'm not going after the prequels and I'm not joining in the haterdom. Indulge me for a moment or two and let me explain.

 The Phantom Menace may have its faults (midichlorians and a Jar-Jar Binks that isn't the funny character I laughed at in the underwater craft being among them) but the thing it does have in abundance is Jedi Knights that are absolutely bad. ASS. C'mon, tell me you didn't love that opening sequence as Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi just lay waste the battle droids, storming the command deck of the Trade Federation ship and only being driven away at the last second by the droid equivalent of a tank. That opening was bananas, and I was on the edge of my seat. I loved it to death. The rescue of Queen Amidala, the journey to Tatooine. . .I was hooked. Then we meet Anakin. . .and find out he's a slave. And that the Jedi are aware of this. And it is tolerated. In a universe with the Jedi. The guardians of peace and justice. And yet there are slaves. Guardians of peace and justice. Slavery. You can begin to see the cognitive disconnect here.

 Over the course of the prequels we come to learn that, yes, the Jedi Knights are protectors all right, but they've become so tied into and bogged down by their dealings with the Republic that they've become little more than the enforcement arm of the Supreme Chancellor. They've gotten so used to being seen as Wise and Enlightened and Strong that they've essentially bought into their own hype, to the point that they cannot see what is happening directly in front of them. Its even mentioned in Attack of the Clones that the Jedi Order's ability to use the Force has diminished. The source of their power has found them unworthy. And yet they continue in their belief that their logic and way of thinking is right, to the point that they go into a galactic conflict with an army whose origins are mysterious at best and outright sketchy at worst and a for the cause of . . .what exactly? People wanting to leave a Republic they feel is corrupt? The guardians of peace and justice become the agents of dogma and the status quo. To the point that even after the Jedi Order is gone, Yoda and Obi-Wan are still so locked into that way of thinking that they don't consider just leveling with Luke and telling him the truth. No, they feed him a mixture of half-truths and point him at Vader and the Emperor like a gun. It's all part of their plan, which is to counter Palpatine's plan. There's just one problem.

 Luke Skywalker is a hero.

 From the beginning, Luke's compassion is prevalent. Yeah, he may be a little whiny and a lot green about the gills, but he's concerned for his friends, be they organic or synthetic, and his first thought upon seeing the fragment of Princess Leia's message (beyond the creepy in hindsight attraction) is his notion that he thinks she's in trouble and immediately wants to help. This desire to help others gets a bit bogged own by his sense of duty to his aunt and uncle, but  even when he's trying to turn old Ben down his responses are half-hearted at best. And upon losing the only family he's ever known to the Empire. .that moment where Luke sees their twisted, burnt corpses, looking away before raising his head as the John Williams score swells. . .that moment right there is when Palpatine lost. 

 Everyone loves Han Solo, but the thing of it is, without Luke Han is kind of a scumbag. Luke's earnestness and his desire to help is the impetus that gets the smuggler to begin his slow slide back up the idealism scale from anti-hero to a full-blown, bonafide heroic figure. And when they manage to get away, Han's first impulse? Take the money and go. He's not in this for a principle. He's in it to get paid. He did the job, it's over, moving on. Luke immediately leaps into the rebellion, and his belief that Han is better than he thinks he is allows for one of the most badass Here Comes The Cavalry moments in movie history.
Luke has a fundamental compassion that he simply cannot ignore. What's the impetus that sets him to his disastrous confrontation with Vader? The fact that his friends are in pain. The smart decision, the Proper Jedi decision, would be to accept their suffering as an inescapable truth of the universe and train to be the best weapon he can be in order to defeat Vader and the Emperor. But Luke is a hero, and he goes off anyway, half-trained at best and woefully outmatched. And then, on top of everything, on top of the merciless beating, on top of the sight of his friend frozen in carbonite, on top of the sheer terror of staring down the man who killed your father. . .you find out that the entire basis of your worldview is built on a foundation of lies.

Vader: "Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father."
Luke: "He told me enough. He told me you killed him."
Vader: "No. I am your father."
Luke: "No... No. That's not true. That's impossible!"
Vader: "Search your feelings. You know it to be true."
Luke: "No! No!" 

Imagine it: you have a vision in your mind of the father you never knew. A brave, confident figure who had adventures alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi and fought in the Clone Wars for the cause of all that is right and true. And then you find out that no actually, your father was a murderer, a butcher and monster beyond the darkest nightmares of any sadist. And he wants you to join him. And the people you trusted to help you, to prepare you for the challenges of life as a Jedi. . .they never told you. Moreover, they lied to you. And they expect you to not only accept this "certain point of view", they want you to move forward, be a Proper Jedi, and kill your own father. This is the plan. This is what will work. But again, the last of the old Jedi Order fail to recognize a fundamental fact about their new hope: Luke Skywalker is a hero.

Vader: "The Emperor has been expecting you."
Luke: "I know…father."
Vader: "So, you have accepted the truth?"
Luke: "I've accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father."
Vader: "That name no longer has any meaning for me!"
Luke: "It is the name of your true self. You've only forgotten."

 Luke's first thought isn't that he must destroy the monster his father has become. It's the fact that even though Vader has belted him around Bespin like a living pinball, he wants Luke to join him. That there is still a flicker, even a trace of humanity left in this husk of a living thing resonates with Luke, to the point where--flying in the face of all logic--he believes he can redeem the most fearsome killer in the galaxy. And he's right.
  Not only that, Luke is the one to take the ultimate stand against the Emperor, to see the trap of the Dark Side for what it is and to have the sheer guts to throw aside his weapon and state proudly that he is a Jedi, like his father before him, and he will. Not. Submit. That stance, his compassion, and his faith in his friends all allow him to accomplish feats the previous Jedi Order could never conceive. The title of the sixth film has a deeper meaning, the Jedi have returned, but returned as they were meant to be, not what they'd fallen into. A guardian for peace and for justice, embodied in the idealism and compassion of Luke Skywalker.
 And that's why he's my hero.



Sunday, July 20, 2014

Let's Roll Part One: An Introduction OR Every Saga Has A Beginning. . .


  Tabletop roleplaying games have been a part of my life for over thirty years now. My first encounter with the medium took place almost by accident at the age of eight. We were visting my friend Owen's house in Fort MacMurray, Alberta and I discovered some orange-spined books featuring monsters on the cover belonging to his father. Being a voracious reader even back then I dove into them, and discovered in short order that this wasn't a traditional book. There was no story, just a collection of monsters, their backstories, and some odd series of numbers I didn't quite understand. This was my first encounter with the Monster Manual of first edition Dungeons & Dragons, detailing everything from goblins and kobolds to Zeus and Great Cthulhu. In the span of what had to have been a few hours visit my fate was sealed forever. Unfortunately, as I was going to Catholic school at the time (an irony not lost upon me today), my grade school self would have to wait a few more years until I could come into my own and discover roleplaying games properly.

 I'm going to assume that a lot of people here are familiar with tabletop RPGs, but on the off-chance you aren't here's the thumbnail sketch: imagine the games you played in childhood (Star Wars, superheroes, GI Joe, or even the traditional Cops & Robbers) carried over into adulthood, but with a formal rule structure based around the outcome of die rolls as final arbiter of certain situations or actions ("I hit you!" "Did not!" "Did too!"). D&D is the most famous example of this, based around fantasy settings a la Lord of the Rings, but there are other mediums too. Science fiction, superheroes, Weird Westerns, Steampunk, Planetary Romance, if it's got a following chances are good there's a system to make it happen.

 My next encounter with tabletop games happened a few years later after I'd moved back to Nova Scotia. Being a nascent geek, I instantly gravitated toward the emerging comicbook stores/games shops that were on the rise in the greater Halifax/Dartmouth area, and one day while at one of these shops, I discovered the volume TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES & OTHER STRANGENESS. Understand, by this point (1988 or 1989, details blur) I was a huge TMNT fan. I had the Mirage trade paperbacks, tolerated the cartoon adaption (which wasn't nearly as cool, but hey, points for robot ninjas and the Technodrome), and the notion that there was a game where I could not only play one of the characters but build my own badass mutated animal hero? Where do I sign?! I also made another discovery that Palladium Games(the company which produced TMNT&OS) also produced the ROBOTECH roleplaying game. I was hooked, and hooked hard.

 Of course, the problem of any RPG  is finding a group with which to play, and in Nova Scotia in the late '80s to early '90s, that was hard for me. My cousin Nathan ran a few Robotech games for myself and my brother, but his heart wasn't really in it. I played a couple more games through junior high and high school, but it never quite took off into a regular campaign.

 And yet I would continually purchase roleplaying games, from the hefty core rulebooks to supplementary tomes. Like the ant in the fable with his friend the grasshopper, I kept hoarding these gamebooks for reasons quite beyond me (and beyond my parents and my own Wallet, to say the least). Even today I'll still buy a games system, though most of them gather dust on my shelf or sit idle in boxes. Why is that?

 I think  it stems back to a couple factors. My family moved around a lot and I was an introverted kid, spending a lot of time inside my own head. These books weren't just collections of stats and figures, they were a window into another world, where I could be more than just The New Kid. On Krynn I could be a Knight of Solamnia, in the Outer Rim I could be a daring smuggler one step ahead of the Empire, or I could be the newest costumed hero to take the fight against evil to the mean streets of Gotham City. They were an escape, and I used them to put myself into places and worlds where I felt more dynamic, more confident, and more together than I did at the time I bought them.

 But a lot of these systems never got played. They sat on shelves and while I enjoyed them, I never partook of them, except for a few online excursions and play by e-mail. Well, that's going to change. This column (which will be released on a more-or-less-regular basis) is going to be me examining the game systems I own. From old favorites to recent purchases, it'll be an effort to understand why I got them, what I hope to gain from them, and maybe even how I'll run them for my friends. At the very least it'll help me put all this spent time (and money) to a productive use. At the very most it'll help me provide you with some insight on game systems you might want to try out for your own amusement. Plus, being in public and making plans about a game forces me to, y'know, actually produce something, which can only help a born procrastinator like yours truly.

 So join me next time as we discuss a game system, why I got it, what's good about it, and whether or not I run it. And if you've got a favorite system you'd like to hear me talk about, comment on the blog and if I own it (I own a bunch, so its probably on my shelf somewhere) I'll be happy to rap about it.

 Until next time,


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On happiness.


Tricky word, that.

 Trickier still to encapsulate in the span of a facebook post. I don't like putting such things up and out in public; despite my extroverted persona among friends I'm actually a pretty private person when you come down to it. Still, it was asked of me and I always endeavor to at least try to grant the requests of others, albeit with varying degrees of success.

 There's a great line in a comic book that's stuck with me over the years. It comes from the oft-overlooked-but-still-pretty-good mini-series BATMAN: YEAR TWO. A lost love of Bruce Wayne's comes back into his life and he asks her if she's happy. She replies "I'm content. It's more than most people have."

 Dennis Leary also put it another way, stating that happiness comes in small doses(like a cigarette, a chocolate chip cookie, a five-second orgasm). You smoke the butt, you eat the cookie, you. . .well, y'know. . .and then you go back to work. Happiness is something to be cherished and savored in the moment, because all too often it seems like life has the sole mandated purpose of taking a person with hopes, dreams, and aspirations and ruthlessly grinding their respective faces into a mixture of equal parts gravel and broken glass. We're all adrift on this planet spinning at ludicrous speeds through the black of space. The only certainty in life is that everything is uncertain. That the universe was here long before us and will be here long after us. Everything else is a matter of personal perspective. Happiness is a candle against the darkness, it keeps us going and helps us maintain. Happiness, courtesy, and deceny are the three pillars to getting out of this madcap existence--well, not alive, but at least with some semblance of dignity and sanity intact.

 Here then, in no particular order, are the things that make me happy:

 1) My family. I was born to loving parents, have a sibling who is easily the best friend I will ever have (don't tell him I said so, I'll never hear the end of it), and grew up in a community of relations that--while I don't see near as often as I like--I care about a great deal. There's the old saw about it taking a village to raise a child, I was raised in a community of witty men, strong women, and excellent peers who were and remain a comfort to me in spirit if not always in the flesh. Nova Scotia is in the heart, wherever I go she's always with me, and the family there I love and adore even if I'm not always vocal about it.

 2) My friends. Old, recent, and otherwise. I'm an introverted extrovert by nature; I learned quick as my family moved about the country that if I was the Funny One, people would tolerate me, if not always accept me. Over the years I've made some amazing friends, all of them warm, caring, funny, and giving people who for reasons that perplex me still find time to tolerate a slightly standoffish pop-culture junkie loudmouth. I sometimes become irritable with being made to leave my solitude, but it's at those moments Common Sense tends to smack me upside the head and remind me "Hey, dickhead, these people care about you and want to spend time with you." That tends to put things in perspective.

 3) The Fanboy Power Hour. Something that was started on a whim has actually become a source of pride to me. When we started out I had no idea what the hell I was doing. Now. . .okay, I still really don't know what the hell I'm doing, but I'm proud of the accompishment of not only starting something, but sticking with it for 3 years. It's a labor of love for myself, Ryan, and Cody, and while we may or may not blow up to Smithian or Wheatonian proportions, it's still fun to sit around the table, talk, and laugh with these guys.

 4) Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror fiction. A lot of you never met my cousin Nathan, but you know the impact he had on Ryan and I in a big, bad way. Nathan was my age, but always seemed older somehow, more together. He was a fan of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and hip-hop, and those things have left a lasting impact on my psyche. Nathan helped turn me on to the Dragonlance series, to Heinlein, to Warhammer Fantasy and then straight on to Tolkien. He ran the first roleplaying game I ever played, and we watched ARMY OF DARKNESS in the basement of my aunt and uncle's place and my love of wiseass heroes was forever set in stone. Nathan pointed me to the path that led from being a kid who happened to read science ficiton and fantasy into a fan of such things, into a reader who embraced genre and wasn't afraid to read 'those weird books' as my mother called them(but who never once kept me from reading). Sometimes I sit and wonder what he would have made of today's pop culture landscape. I expect he would have dug it to no end.

 5) Writing. Lately my schedule has been up in the air, but writing is so much a part of the background noise of my life that no matter how much life slings at me, I'm always working on something. The revisions on the novel, the short stories, they're all something I am intensely proud of. Yeah, I'm no John Grisham or Stephen King (hell, I'm not even a John Saul), but you learn something as you go through the motions and sit down to the blank screen or sheet of paper. It isn't about that. That is all extraneous bullshit. Because in that special, sweet spot you hit when the words are moving through you and the scene is spinning out before you and for one brief, flickering moment it doesn't feel like this is a creation of your mind but almost like a window into somewhere else. . .it's a feeling adjectives struggle to convey, but if you've been there, you know it exactly. I may never be anyone of note, but as long as I get to feel that feeling, like I'm fulfilling the function I was made for, in the place where I belong, I'll be a happy man.

 6) Laughter. Being able to make people laugh is something I live for, and being able to joke around with friends is something that helps me maintain. If I'm making someone else laugh, if I'm providing a sliver of joy on a given day, my own worries seem a bit more trivial and a lot more managable.

And there you are. There's other stuff of course (comics, movies, Doctor Who, Babylon 5, Star Trek, Star Wars, etc), but those are the key things. The things I can rely on to make me smile even when the world seems to want to treat me like a disposable commodity, when the darkness is closing in and all reason says that I'm nothing like what I thought I'd be and its far too late in the game to try. When the shadows close in and I feel the old familiar misery trying to settle onto my shoulders, I think of these things. And I get by. Here's hoping you get by too.