A Story Of Two Immortal Men: Why Better Call Saul Makes Other Shows Seem Lazy

Better Call Saul features two immortal men who can never die.  For the entirety of Better Call Saul’s existence, Slippin’ Jimmy and Mike are completely immune from physical trauma, because we’ve seen them in Breaking Bad and they’re okay.

The show knows that is a prequel, and more importantly, it knows that you know it’s a prequel.  The show has Mike walking into a room full of angry gangsters with guns, and he is wary – but the show, wisely, does not try to fill it with the tension of ZOMG WILL HITMAN MIKE SURVIVE, because we know he will.  Likewise, Slippin’ Jimmy is currently embroiled in legal battles, and millions are on the line, but his opponents are largely noble men who battle it out in courtrooms.  He’s not going to get shanked over an old-age home dispute.

And yet Better Call Saul is one of the tensest shows I have watched.

If you’re a writer, watching Better Call Saul highlights how fucking lazy “death” is as a threat.  What Better Call Saul is about is excruciating compromise – playing on the tension between the man Jimmy wants to be and what he wants now.  He wants to be a good lawyer because he admires his brother – but dammit, the straight and narrow path has not worked out for him.

So Better Call Saul is a master class in subtle pressures.  There is no reward for Jimmy if he follows all the rules – so he bends the rules a little, just to make way, and it gets him a better job as the kind of noble lawyer he wants to be.  But then one of three things happens:

  1. One of his past foibles requires him to do something even scummier to get himself out of it, or:
  2. Something good and wonderful and beautiful he’s gained by these small compromises is endangered, and the only way he can solve it is by falling back on the huckster Slippin’ Jimmy thing that he is so good at, or:
  3. He does something noble, and loses ground.

That’s pretty much the plan, from a writer’s perspective.  But that tight focus really keeps Jimmy where it hurts emotionally.  Everything he gains, he’s gained because he’s born to be a slimy, double-crossing cheat.  Everything he loses, he loses because he has not been slimy enough.

What’s holding him back is his morality, and the show is about watching Jimmy desperately try to hold onto that human streak – to not betray the people he’s loved, even as they betray him.

And that’s what I find more compelling about Better Call Saul than Breaking Bad – Jimmy is redeemable.  Breaking Bad made the very wise decision early on in Season One to give Walter an out, and watch Walter throw it aside because dammit, Walter prioritized “Feeling potent” over “Fixing the actual problems.” Jimmy, though…

Better Call Saul is a complete train wreck, because you’re watching two brothers actually make each other into what they’re accusing them to be.  Jimmy does have a tendency to fall back on his con-man habits, but his brother’s relentless anger just forces him to be slimier.  Chuck wasn’t out to get Jimmy, but thanks to Jimmy’s anger he sure is now.  And if Jimmy just stopped trying to impress Kim, or Kim cared less for Jimmy, then Jimmy might not keep going to such radical lengths to “protect” her, but…

This is an entirely avoidable outcome.  Take one of these factors away and Jimmy might not become Saul Goodman, late night TV huckster, as he is predestined to become.  Yet what’s driving them is not fate but people who are each battling the tension between who they want to be and what they need now – and the show is relentless at showing them who they actually are when the lights go down.

And all of that is without a death.  (Well, not on Mike’s blood-soaked rampages, but it’s as if the show’s all but admitted there’s not much for Mike to do now.)  Too many shows raise the stakes by reaching for the literal jugular  – which is easy.  Some asshole can always come crashing through a door with a gun, and you apply pressure externally because if these characters aren’t saved, they’ll die!

But that’s so easy.

What’s hard here is watching all the characters in Better Call Saul choose to become the people they didn’t want to be. The violence is purely psychological as they realize that what they’re getting isn’t nice and who they’re becoming isn’t nice and what’s holding them back are those thin scraps of loyalty and decency – and yet they know, every last one, that those scraps mean something and they’re going to be truly damned if they just let them go.

They’re circling the drain.  They won’t die – no, not until their eyes have been truly opened.  They make choices that cost them something every time.

And that’s so much harder to write than some asshole with a knife.

Yet so much more satisfying.

Can Harriet Tubman Punch Out Cthulhu? On Poor Magic Card Templating.

So there’s been a viral post going around, showing women as Magic cards.  It looks like this:

Great Message, Terrible Magic Card

Problem is, you play Magic at all, this card presents some serious worldbuilding challenges.

See those stats in the lower right hand of the card? 85/85? That means this card has 85 power and 85 toughness. These are numbers used to indicate how big and nasty a creature is.

An ordinary human has 1 power and 1 toughness.

A trained warrior can have 2 power and 2 toughness, sometimes.  (Sometimes it’s 2/1.  Even some low-level vampires are 2/1.)  This is good, because a “bear” in Magic terms is 2/2 – in fact, the 2/2 “Grizzly Bear” card is the classic standard for power and toughness.

A top-tier leader of an army is 3/3, who can beat a bear with ease – but at 3/3, you are literally fighting elephants and small werewolves.

At 4/4, you’re getting into the top tiers of Magic creatures, beings so powerful you sometimes don’t get the chance to cast them before you’re overrun by armies of classically 1/1 and 2/2 goblins.  You want an Angel, summoned straight from  heaven?  Here she is.  Hellion elementals are usually in the 4/4ish range as well.  Mid-sized werewolves, too.

By the time you’re getting to 5/5, well, your generic demon is 5/5.  (Don’t worry, Angels often have heavenly protections to even the odds.)  There’s no earthly creature that can hope to defeat a 5/5 on its own – no, by then you’re talking about crazy monster creatures with intimidating names like Nemesis of Mortals and Polukranos, World Eater.

You want a 6/6?

Oh, you want a dragon.  Dragons are classic 6/6s, though smaller fully-grown ones might be 5/4 if they’re clever.

What’s that?  You want the king of the dragons?  The toughest of the tough, born on a world full of dragons who’s clawed his way to the top through nothing but sheer might?

He’s an 8/8.

If you want creatures larger than 8/8, well, they’re pretty thin on the ground. Wizards spend their whole lives trying to cast them, and usually die before they can do it – which is a fancy way of saying “By the time you’ve acquired enough resources to cast this gigantic fatty, the other player’s usually beaten you.”  But they do exist!  They’re 11/11 Colossuses, or 11/11 Elder Gods summoned from beyond the pale, or a 9/9 archdemon who lords over all the other demons.

The scariest monster in all of Magic, the leader of the gang who’s been the Big Bad in two storylines, a card so potent that you’ll shell out $30 for a single copy of this ridiculously overpowered card?

Emrakul, The Aeons Torn is a 15/15 monster.

But wait?  What about lord dread Cthulhu himself?  Well, that’s basically Emrakul.  But if you want literally the largest creature in all of Constructed Magic, you go for the wrath of Marit Lage, a beast so huge it takes thirty mana to summon him.  (For the record, thirty mana is more than most people have in their entire deck.)  And that huge, terrible, flying rage?

It’s 20/20.

There is only one creature larger than that in all Magic – and it’s a joke, created for an “Un-Set,” which was never intended to be played in serious Magic.  It’s called the “Big Furry Monster,” and it’s a 99/99, and to accentuate how silly it is, it’s literally two cards that you have to draw, and cast, together.  Nobody takes it seriously.

To put it plainly:

According to this Magic card that was clearly created by someone who doesn’t play the game, Harriet Tubman is four times as powerful as Cthulhu.

And while I fully support Tubman on the $20, if she was truly this powerful, I feel frankly that Harriet Tubman, Ender of Worlds, should have done more than rescue slaves when she could have faced down the entirety of both sides of the Civil War and brought the world under her reign of freedom, because this Harriet Tubman could have eaten Gettysburg and never burped.

Which is not to say that I dislike the message.  Go women!  Go “Smash the Patriarchy,” even though that’s not a valid keyword in Magic!  Go you and your unfeasible casting cost of WWWWWUUUUU, which no sane person would ever put in a deck!

I fully admit I’m being a big ol’ wet blanket here, because I play the game.  I know it’s a lot to expect people to make Magic cards templated correctly, but to a lot of us who do know the game – it’s a lot like watching a TV show where the technical guy goes, “Yesterday, Snapchatted with my roommate on Twitter and discussed how to hotwire an IP address!”  You may like the show, but you’re like, “That’s not how that works.  That’s not how any of this works!

Harriet Tubman, I salute you. I think you’re awesome. I think women are awesome.

I’m just not sure all women are literally ten times more powerful in hand-to-hand combat than the king of the dragons.  Call me a misogynist.

“How Do You Function During Your Depression?”

My Seasonal Affective Disorder’s got me by the scruff of the neck, which means I am staring at screens for an hour, unable to function. My wife finds me curled up in odd places around the house, trying not to cry loudly enough to be heard.

This time of year sucks.

Yet on Monday, I finished off the final draft of my upcoming book FIX to hand to my editor, and last night I switched back to continuing the work on my spiritual sequel to Sauerkraut Station, SAVOR STATION (105k words in, hope to finish the first draft before the 15th). And people ask, how do I do that?

Lots and lots of bourbon.

No, seriously, functioning during depression is a real thing. Too many people let everything go to hell when they’re down, and when their body stops pummeling them with feel-bad hormones they wake up to discover themselves jobless and friendless. A lot of depressions are chemically induced, but you can get yourself depressed by not maintaining the shit you need to do in your life.

And here’s the trick I use to keep functioning during depression:

I don’t expect to feel joy from what I need to do.

I just do it.

Which sounds really dumb, but a lot of people seem to feel as though everything they do should bring them immediate satisfaction – they pay the bills, and hey! They feel like a grownup, that’s awesome. They mop the floor and ding! They got a chore done, check that off the list!

Which works right up until you’re mired in anhedonia and unable to envision any joy from anything.

Worse, when you’re in depression, envisioning doing Things You Need To Do may make you feel worse – “I’m a shitty writer, I’m going to fuck up this novel.” “I’m a hot mess, everyone at that party’s going to hate me.” So if you’re a joy-driven person, depression makes you a sailboat without wind – you can’t go anywhere because the energy that motivated you has vanished.

And I hate to quote Nike, but ponder the “Just Do It” lifestyle. Grit your teeth and say “This will bring me no satisfaction in any way at all, but I need to do it because this is a maintenance task. If I let this slide, it will make things worse later on.”

I’m not normally a Dark Side guy, but let your hatred flow. Sure, you’re a terrible fucking writer. Sure, you don’t want to mop this floor. Sure, you fucking loathe the idea of going to friendly get-together where your buddies will probably ignore you.

Do it anyway. It’ll probably take you a while – my current run-up to a task is about half an hour of me staring, breathing raggedly, remembering that it doesn’t matter if I feel functional, if I don’t do this then my life will be worse than when I started out the day.

You know you can talk yourself out of shit. Trick is, you can also talk yourself into shit.

Do it crappily, if you have to. Write 200 words and erase them all, go to the party and pretend you’re coming down with an illness after half an hour, mop sloppily.

Get it done when you can.

You won’t, always. Depression means you’re never going to do 100% of what you needed to do – note my “curling up on the bed and crying” times. There will be days you just can’t function, and beating yourself up because of what you’re supposed to do will only make it worse.  But if you make a habit out of separating “satisfaction” from “do it,” you’ll wind up with a fairly rigid habit-structure of Doing The Bare Minimum that’ll get you by until you can actually feel happiness again.

At which point you’ll be in a place to feel happiness. I’ve seen it time and time again where someone emerges from a months-long depressive state where they’ve holed themselves inside a cave and blown off all their deadlines, only to wake up to a post-apocalyptic world that knocks them back into Sadness Villa again. It sucks. If you can avoid it, do so.

And if you’re thinking of using this technique as proof that depression doesn’t really exist, or that willpower can solve every problem, please set your head on fire and shove your face into a pan filled with bacon grease. Some days the black dog wins. Hell, some weeks the black dog wins. That doesn’t mean you don’t fight the dog, but for Christ’s sake don’t peddle that sickening lie that the dog’s just an illusion and if you believed in Tinkerbell hard enough then that rabid Doberman would stop chewing your genitals.

But the thing is, when you’re depressed you cannot rely on “happiness” to make you productive. You can, and should, consider drugs and therapy to help. But you can also get there by removing happiness from the equation.

As clinically as possible, analyze the Shit That’s Gotta Get Done Or Everything Will Get Worse. (Let go of all the stuff you can let go; don’t try to be a superhero now, man.) Then do those things and don’t expect to feel better for doing them or anticipate a burst of joy or even think that you’ll do them well. None of those are necessarily true.

But what is true is that depression lies, and though I’ve written a lot of shitty words during my Seasonal Affective Disorder, I’ve also written some gems. I’ve not enjoyed going to many parties, but my friends were happy to see me and they kept inviting me to more parties which I was thrilled to attend when I wasn’t sad. The house wasn’t filled with cockroaches.

That maintenance helps. The more you do it, the more you manage to accomplish on automatic pilot, and lemme tell you, when you can successfully automate yourself to Just Do Things like Work and Friendship during a catastrophic depression, then you are way ahead of the curve.

I don’t necessarily feel good about submitting FIX to the publisher – right now it’s a hot mess and I took big chances with the characters and you’re all going to hate it and my editor is going to savage it and tell me I have to spend months frantically repairing its manifest flaws.

But I didn’t do it for the happiness.

I did it because if I blew my deadline, I would feel a lot worse when June came and Happy-Ferrett looked at the smoking ruins of the fall launch he’d planned.

And so I staved off much more sadness by not trying to foment happiness in my time. It worked for me. And if you’ve not been getting much done, then maybe try it for you.

It won’t feel good. But what does?

I’ll Be At Penguicon This Weekend! And Reading From FIX.

As is tradition, I’ll be at Penguicon in Michigan this weekend.  And on Saturday, I’ll be on several panels, as is also tradition – but more importantly, I’ll be reading the first excerpt from my upcoming book FIX, in which our brave heroes accidentally break up a teenaged soccer game.

They interrupt the Morehead soccer league by inadvertently annihilating the town of Morehead, so it’s a little more exciting than I first promised.

Anyway, if you want a taste of FIX (due out in September), then drop on by.

(SIDE WARNING: I am in severe Seasonal Affective Disorder mode, which is why I’m not quite capable of putting together times and panels on Saturday, but I will be happy to see you.  Feel free to dispense hugs and cuddles at will.)

They’re Not Wrong To Want This.

My word is often used to settle debates. Complete strangers will email me with intimate details of their love lives to say, “My girlfriend wants to have bareback sex with Cheer Bear during her Care Bear Stare Cosplay Orgy, is that wrong?” – and, terrifyingly, they’ll wait for my Judge Wapner-like decision to tell them who’s done polyamory wrong.

My answer’s always the same, though:

They’re not wrong.

They may be wrong to want this from you.

Which is to say that I personally would never be involved in a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” relationship, because for me, it’d be a way of hiding my affections from people who deserve to know who I am. But that doesn’t mean DADT can’t work for specific couples.

I personally would never enter a relationship where my partner dated whoever they wanted with no input from me, but Relationship Anarchy is a thing and many people thrive in it.

I personally would never let my girl hook up with Cheer Bear when Grumpy Bear needs the love more, but hey, a true Care Bear orgy is open to everyone except Professor Coldheart.

Is it wrong? Well, who’s involved? If you asked most people, “Is it wrong to lock your partner in a box at night while they sleep?” the answer would be HELL YES IT IS, but there’s BDSM relationships where the Mistress locks her pet inside their cage and they’re perfectly content.

It’s wrong to ask Overly Attached Girlfriend for an open relationship, but there’s plenty of people out there who want that. It’s wrong to ask pretty much anyone on FetLife for an monogamous fundamentalist “No sex before marriage” relationship, but thousands of people have had such a relationship and have done so happily.

“Wrong” is all about who you’re asking.

Yet that’s not what’s being asked. The question actually asked here is, “I’m upset by what they’re doing. Is it okay that I’m upset?”

And the answer to that is, “Yes. It’s okay that you’re upset. Your demands may be unreasonable for this partner, but you’re allowed to seek what you need.”

Or to put it another way:

You’re not wrong.

You may be wrong to want this from them.

Why Magic Pros Are Like Professional Writers, Or: The Great Pro Tour Rapture of 2016

So Wizards of the Coast made some really big changes to its Pro program, cutting payouts to its top-ranked players. Basically, if you devoted your life to Magic and played really well, getting to the Platinum Level, you could be guaranteed an appearance fee to cover your hotel costs and plane fare to the next big tournament.

Now that appearance fee has been reduced to $250, which won’t even get you from California to Madrid.

(EDIT: Though apparently, the appearance fee is separate from the travel expenses, which are covered.  Doesn’t matter, as I’ll explain shortly.)

And the Pro Tour players are up in arms about this, because even if you’re really good at Magic, you can lose a lot due to randomness that’s out of your control.  The best player in the world can get land-flooded or face his worst matchup four times in a row.  If you’re trying to devote your life to Magic, well, your incentives just dropped like a rock because attending Pro Tour: Madrid may mean losing cash on plane fares, dinner, and hotel stays if you accidentally 2-5 drop.

The question is, does Wizards care if you make money at the Pro Tour?

And I wonder whether Pros face the dilemma that professional writers face – namely, someone’s gonna do it.

Which is to say that professional writers often experience difficulties getting livable payments from publishers because, well, there’s a million writers desperate to see their name in lights, and it almost doesn’t matter what you do to an individual writer because there’s someone surging up behind you to replace you.

Sure, there’s Neil Gaiman and Brandon Sanderson and Margaret Atwood, but me personally?  I’ve basically stopped writing short stories, and yet somehow Asimov’s and Apex have continued to thrive without me.  Because each of those markets gets literally a thousand story submissions a month, and even if I walk away in disgust because you can’t make a living on short stories alone, someone still wants to be in the big lights.

Big lights for very low wattage, moneywise.

Magic Pros who write articles for Magic websites will laugh when I tell them that a good rate for a short story is eight cents a word, or $120 for a 1,500-word flash fiction.  Professional writers would weep if they knew pros’ column rates for Magic websites, where you can write an article a week and consistently sell it.  (HINT: If you’re a big name, more than that.)

And Magic Pros might be even more astounded to hear that up until a couple of years ago, the “professional” short story rate was five cents a word, which basically hadn’t changed since the 1970s.  Inflation kept goin’ up; the short story market stagnated.

Why?  Well, partially because, like the Pro Tour, there’s an upper limit to the audience.  While the people who love sci-fi short stories adore them dearly, there’s not that many of them – at least not compared to music and movies and other entertainments.  Maybe if they sold two hundred thousand copies an issue they would pay a lot more, but right now Analog and Asimov’s – the top-tier magazines – are around 25,000 copies per issue.

But realistically, the pay is also low because people will accept low pay.

I’d say there are a ton of writers out there who’d write for Asimov’s for free – but it’s worse than that.  Yog’s Law states “Money flows towards the writer,” and that got created because desperate writers will actually pay vanity presses thousands of dollars to be published by people who essentially toss their books into the dumpster.

Magazines get literally a thousand submissions a month.  Slush piles are overflowing.  There’s lots of folks involved.  And here’s my personal paradox….

Writing a short story worthy of Asimov’s or Apex or Clarkesworld is really fucking hard, something that requires intense skill and grinding and, yes, also lots of luck, because sometimes the wrong slush editor sees your manuscript and tosses it, or they just bought a similar story last week, or the editor wasn’t in the mood for military fiction that day.

Like Magic, writing has severe variance baked in.

Yet anyone who’s made a Grand Prix Top 8 or gotten published by Asimov’s has a lot of skill.  Maybe they got lucky, yes, but your skill has to be much greater than your luck to win past those odds.  Everyone at the top is super-talented.

And yet…

My non-egotistic part of me has to admit that if every writer I knew got caught up in the rapture – and I know a lot of writers, including most notably me – the quality of writing in short story magazines wouldn’t suffer all that much, because someone nearly as good would fill their place.

Oh, we’d lose something.  No question.  Unique voices would be silenced when they vanished.  Certain literary greats would never be replaced specifically.  I’d miss a lot of the people I loved reading.

But remember when I said “it almost doesn’t matter what you do to an individual writer because there’s someone surging up behind you to replace you”?

With so many people pressing in, desperate to live the dream of being a writer, other unique voices would swell to fill the gap.  And in a few years you’d have some people mourning The Great Writer-Rapture of 2016, but there’d still be a lot of good literature out there because the folks who’d stepped in would have improved considerably.

Maybe it wouldn’t be as good as it had been, but it’d still be okay for most people.  And it would arguably be better in some ways.

And as it stands, people do stop writing short stories, because they figure out that novels are greater and more consistent pay, or they can’t hack novels and can’t justify spending hours on what’s essentially a loss-leader hobby, and we lose writers all the time thanks to this short pay scale and yet the river keeps on flowing.

So when I hear about pros hating this new tier structure, I wonder how much cash specifically a Big-Name Pro generates.  Yes, Pros sell singles by creating exciting new decks and outlining strategies – but like short story writing, if they stopped, would no one else step up to take their place?  Wouldn’t someone else create a cool new deck to showcase the latest set – maybe someone not quite as good, but still good enough to achieve victory at the PTQ?

Is this the Great Pro Tour Rapture of 2016?

Yeah, part of Wizards’ appeal is The Dream Of Going Infinite, but I wonder how much the PTQ-circuit guys really are invested in the cash.  I mean, they like the cash, just like we writers like getting a hefty check for our efforts.  (Seriously, man, buy my books.)  We’re incentivized by cash, to a large extent.  And yet…

Writing/Pro Tour Magic isn’t great or consistent money, and it’s not likely to be great or consistent money.  Yet people do it anyway because they want to be the best, they want to hold that trophy, and so if you’re a business then how much cash do you want to dump into a revenue stream that’s largely based on dreams and not actual payout?

And it’s not to say that the businesses are greedy jerks – they too often got into this crazy biz because of the love, and they want to see great Magic/writing, and they’ve made friends of Magic Pros/writers, and while they may acknowledge the Great Rapture they don’t want to cause it.  There’s often not as much money churning around in the hopper as people believe.

But even if there was, how much money do they want to give away to things that operate on axes independent of the dream?

And yes, I know that the pros will be like “Platinum is the dream!” – and while I’m not as in touch with the average PTQ grinders as I used to be, I wonder whether most of the low-level guys (who, remember, buy all of these cards the Pros supposedly generate demand for) are incentivized by living on the gravy train or are just desperate to get on the Pro Tour in general.

In other words, Platinum’s a severe incentive to the guys at the top already.  But how much of a goad is Platinum to the duder who’s considers coming in 15th in the Columbus PTQ a real accomplishment?  Is he really going, “Wow, I’ll road trip to three more PTQs this season because hey, there’s $2,750 more in it for me if I somehow get qualified and then top 16 the next several Pro Tours?”

I honestly don’t know.  I could be wrong.  Maybe they are largely incentivized by that, but I suspect mostly the dream is get on the Tour and see if I can be like $PRO_TOUR_CELEBRITY.

The terrifying thing is that, just like the short story writers I fanboy over, it may be that $PRO_TOUR_CELEBRITY may be an interchangeable thing.  Sure, it sucks if a specific PT stanchion goes away, but…

Someone else will Top 8 for a while, and they’ll become the New Celebrity.

And remember: the celebrity himself doesn’t move the cards, it’s all the people following the celebrity.  As long as someone’s making PTQ grinders crack open packs like Veruca Salt to get their hands on $NEW_HOT_CARD, how much does it honestly matter to Wizards who that someone is?

And what I see short story writers doing is going Okay, the money’s erratic and shit to boot, what can we do to leverage our  popularity?  And next thing you’ll see writers doing Patreon and Kickstarter and self-publishing and all sorts of things to supplement a sucky income…

Just like you see Pro Magic players experimenting with streaming incomes and endorsements and writing for Magic sites.

Which is not to say that this Platinum reduction doesn’t suck balls.  It does, for those affected by it.  Nor am I saying it’s a good thing.  But I am questioning whether the storyline of PROS ARE WHAT DRIVES MAGIC is as true as Pros think it is, because the truth may well be that Pros do drive Magic but Magic will always have Pros as long as the game itself is interesting, and though Wizards has shit the bed on a regular basis they’ve almost always improved the quality of their cards and their metagame.

I could be wrong on any or all of these accounts.  I suspect some of my writer-friends will be outraged because the Great Writer Rapture would devastate Fiction As We Knew It and how dare you say we’re replaceable I know I’m not, and some of my Pro Friends will tell me But Ferrett, you haven’t considered these ways in which pros help create the PTQ circuit for Wizards, and they’ll probably all have good points.

But both the Pro Tour and short story markets have endured a lot of churn over the past decade.  People go, new people fill their place.  And I wonder if that’s due to so many people wanting to do this thing that they don’t need that much incentive at the lower levels – and by the time you get to the top-tier levels and money starts becoming more critical than the dream you’ve already largely accomplished, the people in charge don’t necessarily have to satisfy you.

They just have to satisfy the people with the dreams.

And I don’t know how to fix that market imbalance.  I really don’t.

You Should Roleplay Characters Who Don’t Know They’re Heroes.

So there we were, roleplaying Call of Cthulhu: there was a haunted graveyard where Bad Things happened at midnight.  Two of the PCs had boldly decided to wait among the tombstones, cameras and guns in hand, to see what happened.

My wife and I were at the bar.

Oh, we were playing in this game – but she was a historian and I was an ex-jock who owned a sportswear chain, and we had decided we were not equipped to handle spooky tentacles in the witchhouse. So while the other two nuts had gone off to bold adventure, we guzzled gin and tonics.

Which was one of the greatest decisions, as it turned out.  We got to rescue the poor schmucks in the graveyard by dint of not being inside the magical sigil when it fired up in the moonlight.

Now, our PCs weren’t cowards – obviously, we charged in boldly when we heard our friends torn to death by witches! – but they were people who didn’t know they were the heroes of the game.  They feared unknown danger.  They didn’t metagame to know that this was the first session of a longer campaign and the GM would go easy on us. They didn’t go, “Oh, that’s a cultist, I know how many hit points they have.”

They were ignorant, and it made for beautiful roleplaying moments.  That bar became a watershed moment of the campaign; it changed our goal from “BEAT THE BAD GUYS” to “Explore these people, see what they’d do in weird situations.”

Because beating the bad guys, well, that’s a very similar path: you gain power and knowledge, you level up, you confront the bad guy, and you beat them.  I mean, it’s a satisfying enough path, as witnessed how many times it shows up in cinema, but…

I think of how that bar led to my wife’s PC becoming a rampant alcoholic in the face of the trauma of, well, being the hero in a Call of Cthulhu campaign.  I think of my ex-jock hero desperately trying to manage a chain of clothing stores while his sanity fragmented.  I think of both of us getting into a severely dysfunctional relationship, where we had absolutely nothing in common at all except “monsters kept finding us,” and how in some ways the squickiest thing in the entire campaign became how we unhealthily clung to each other simply because we had no one else who understood.

None of that would have happened if we thought tactically.

We played ignorance, because even though we knew things, our characters didn’t.  We made terrifically unwise decisions.  We ran when we could have fought.  We fought when we should have run.

Which, to me, is what makes a roleplaying game a roleplaying game.   I’ve been in too many combats where the PCs played as though they saw everything on the board – they knew the bad guy had retreated because the GM had said so, they counted hitpoints, they acted with a perfect knowledge of all the spells and powers everyone possessed.

And those decisions propelled us towards victory, but they never led to anything interesting.  We won.  A lot.  But the winning never revealed anything about the people we were pretending to be aside from “We like winning.”

Me, I think the gold standard of a roleplayer is when someone knows all the tactical moments on the battlefield and says those important words:

“My character wouldn’t know that.”

That choice opens up whole worlds of exploration.  Your character wouldn’t know she’s slated to win tonight. Your character wouldn’t know that after emptying seven rounds of clips into this gelatinous beast, the eighth was going to finish the job.  Your character wouldn’t know that dragon’s breath attack, wouldn’t know why she should get involved with this crazy scheme, wouldn’t know why she should like the other PCs.

Once you start asking and acting “What doesn’t my character know?”, then you get to see what happens aside from victory.

That’s often way more unique than another bad guy dead at your feet.

Hi, I’m Broken For A Few Weeks

“You silly person!  You were just downstairs!  Why didn’t you get the movie we were going to watch while you were down there?”

Those are not words that should bring tears to my eyes.

They are not words that should cause me to go hide in the bedroom for fifteen minutes while everyone else watched television, trembling with anxiety and fear.

Hello, Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Right now is my annual trip into severe mental illness, where my self-doubts swell and the slightest criticism becomes a hidden message for “FERRETT WE HATE YOU PLEASE DIE.”  All my suicide attempts have occurred during this time frame, and most of my self-mutilations.  I’ve learned how to navigate these waters thanks to years of experience, but it’s never easy.

So I’ve been quiet, and probably will be quiet for a bit longer.  (The fact that I’m polishing up the final draft on Fix doesn’t help, either, as that’s a lot of time spent bringing Paul and Aliyah’s story to a close.)

Still.  As a sweetie of mine said last night, without this depression I don’t know if I’d have as much compassion.  For three to six weeks out of the year, I get a window into what serious mental illness feels like.  It’s a humbling reminder that my baseline mental acuity and health is, largely, luck of the draw.  I can, and should, work as hard as I can to continue to function, because that’s my best chance at getting ahead of a stacked deck – but some people get dealt worse hands than I do.

Given that I suffer from mild depression on my best of days, I might well have gone around swaggering that I beat depression and it’s all a matter of attitude and if you can’t beat it that’s because you didn’t really care and the similar bullshit that many people fulminate about.  But for a month out of every year, the game changes for me, and my brain makes a serious attempt to kill me, and I get reminded that the effort I put in for eleven months out of the year is completely insufficient when the real SAD comes knocking.

And again, the effort I put in helps.  It keeps me alive.  It keeps my wife from leaving me and my daughters from hating me.  It’s useful.

It’s just not a panacea.

I know, deep in my bones, that what works for me does not necessarily work for other people, because during this horrid season, what works for me does not work for me.

So I don’t know. I look for blessings.  This is a hard cloud to mine for silver, but I try, and if the lining exists then that’s it.  It gives me humility.  It gives me compassion.

But right now it’s giving me an urge to harm myself, so I’m retreating for solace.  If I’m not responding to your emails or texts, I’m sorry, but there’s a good chance I’m trying to not talk to people while I’m in a state where I have previously fucked over good friendships before.  (And don’t tell me I don’t owe any explanations to people, it’s my fucking journal and giving explanations is what I do.  You should know that by now.)

I’ll be back.  I usually am.

Just not today.

Batman Vs. Superman Vs. The Box Office

I chose not to see Batman vs. Superman when I heard that a) Jimmy Olsen gets shot in the face, and b) Batman brands criminals to let other criminals know it’s okay to shank them in prison.

That did not sound like a Batman I would be happy seeing, no matter how awesome the spectacle was.

So I stayed out.  Yet I’ve been fascinated watching how BvS went from DC boldly claiming “This one might be Oscar material!” to 28% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Charting its box-office performance drop from “We’re going to beat Avengers with $1.5 billion” to “We’re still making a billion” to “We’re going to release the R-rated version in the hopes that we’ll crest $900 million” has been a guilty pleasure of mine.

Which, don’t get me wrong, if any of you would care to gift me with $900 million, my PayPal is open to you.  But if Avengers had made only $900 million, we might not have seen the Marvel Universe Stage 2.  Adjusted for movie and marketing expenditures, Batman with Superman made less profit than Superman alone.

And it’s a weird thing to watch, because:

On one level, this is a tremendous success.  Millions of people paid money to see it.  Marketing did their job supremely well getting asses into the theaters.

Yet asses did not stay in the theaters, witnessing from the steep week-over-week drop.  People went in, and did not recommend.  The folks stayed home.

Friends of mine have told me that Batman vs. Superman is not nearly as bad as it’s made out to be – and some have been mad that the media narrative became “It’s terrible,” which drove fans away from a good movie.  But that didn’t happen.  Literally millions of people went to go see it.  If they had all thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, then it would have kept going.

Instead, what I generally hear is “It’s not as bad as they say!” – and when you’re looking at an expensive movie ticket, “It’s servicable” is not what gets people’s asses to the theater.

I think what we’re seeing right now is a rejection of grimdark, which I find to be secretly beautiful.  People aren’t particularly inspired by a Superman who is trapped in a world that punishes heroism, nor a Batman who is murderously angry.  I don’t doubt that some people really get off on this idea, because they like the change of pace –

– and maybe in time, Batman vs. Superman will be hailed as a masterpiece.  That happens to a lot of movies that flop.  Expectations play a critical part in how audiences initially react to movies.  The reason some films perform terribly initially is that people wanted Harrison Ford to play Han Solo and he gave them Deckard from Blade Runner.  They thought Brad Pitt was a boxer, and instead they got Fight Club.

And what I suspect happened is that people went in hoping for fun heroism and got a faceful of gritty anger.  And they went, “Nah, not what I wanna see.”  And maybe in time, we’ll warm up to this newer, more murder-happy Batman, and this Superman who can fly halfway around the world to save Lois but can’t save Congress from a bomb in the same room, and the doubtlessly dark-and-gritty Wonder Woman.  Maybe in time, we’ll come to appreciate this movie for what it is, not what we thought it was.

Or maybe it’s an overambitious film that reached for greater heights than it could actually climb to, and the notion of heroism it peddles to people is as repellent as I find it, and the truth is it’s not very good.

Which is not to say someone won’t love it.  Once enough people see a movie, it will always acquire fans who adore it.  M. Night’s The Last Airbender has some rabid admirers.  Whether a movie is “good” for somebody inevitably comes down to “Does this movie hit my personal movie-kinks?” (note that I will personally adore any movie that has logically consistent time travel, which is why I’ll stand by both Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Primer) – and “Are the flaws of this movie ones that don’t bother me?” (maybe Charlton Heston’s overacting seems overblown to you, but by God I love him, so when Leo and Kate went the full Heston in Titanic, I said, “LET MY PEOPLE GO.”)

Batman vs. Superman has the advantage of “It’s a really unusual take on the characters” and “It’s really pretty,” which will attract some people, and lots of people don’t care about plot holes or pacing or the murderverse or any of the things that personally bother me.

And Batman vs. Superman opened up so big that the question is not, “Did anyone like it?” – because if you suckered a Batman vs. Superman-sized audience into seeing “Catwoman,” I guarantee you there would be a thousand folks touting the genius of Halle Berry – but “What percentage of people liked it?” and “Will that percentage grow, or shrink, over time?”

At this point, nobody knows.

I suspect BvS’s future looks a lot like Man of Steel’s past: People saw it.  Some people liked it because it was pretty and things went boom.  Some people really found the themes compelling and now it’s their favorite version of these heroes.

Most people watched the pretty go by, and forgot about it in a year, and maybe they’ll pick it up in the $5 DVD bin because hey, it was easy on the eyes.

But come the day they want comfort watching, most people are gonna choose the Avengers.

See ya, Supes.


What Donald Trump’s Campaign Can Teach Us About BDSM Consent

So Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, grabbed a reporter’s arm.

He went to jail for this.

Now, the charge he’s going to trial for for is simple battery, which is defined as “1) Any actual and intentional touching or striking of another person against that person’s will (non-consensual), or 2) the intentional causing of bodily harm to another person.”

And some of you are going, “Jesus, he just grabbed her arm, that’s a lot to go to jail for.”

Yet if you’re smart, you can learn a vital lesson about consent and BDSM from this.

Because depending on who you talk to it was a hard arm grab or a trivial one, it left deep welts or it didn’t, it was meant to hurt her or it wasn’t, whether he’s a serial abuser or whether this was a genuine mistake.

Which is a lot like any BDSM consent violation: there’s always a swirl of conflicting facts after the event, with people debating precisely what happened and whether the victim should (or should not) be upset by this, and hauling out the credentials that “X is a good person, they’d never mean to hurt someone.”

That’s the usual storm of uncertainty. It comes standard with any consent violation – and you can debate whether it should be society’s modus operandi, but at this point in time this is how humans currently operate.

Yet what isn’t in dispute is that after it happened, Lewandowski denied anything bad happened, saying that Michelle Fields made it up. Trump’s campaign denied anything bad happened. Trump denied anything bad happened. And when presented with video evidence that something happened, they doubled down and said, “Nothing happened, and even if something did happen, she’s crazy.”

And a funny thing happens when your first reaction is “WE DID NOTHING WRONG NOTHING HAPPENED WE’RE GOOD PEOPLE SHUT UP YOU’RE NUTS”:

The people you’ve tried to erase will sometimes go to great fucking lengths to prove you wrong.

And so Michelle Fields got angrier and angrier at watching her pain get written off. As the Trump campaign rebutted her denials with “NOTHING HAPPENED,” she was left with a choice: quietly agree she was as irrational as they claimed, or go balls-to-the-wall to prove that yeah, something happened.

She found enough evidence to make Corey Lewandowski’s life hell.

Which, again, is a common failure mode in the BDSM community – something bad happens during play, the top screams “I’M NOT A BAD PERSON ONLY BAD PEOPLE VIOLATE CONSENT THEREFORE NOTHING BAD HAPPENED,” and the victim of the consent violation is faced with a choice: stay quiet and agree that they’re a liar, or to go to great lengths to refute the person who injured them.

It usually doesn’t end well for the top when the victim goes volcanic.

Which leads us to the actual lesson:

Do you think Corey Lewandowski would be in jail if his initial response had been “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to injure you, we’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again?”

My answer is, “No.” He’d have people calling for him to be fired, of course – but this is politics. You’ll always find someone calling for someone’s resignation.

And I’ve watched enough consent violations happen to watch the difference between the Big Domly Doms who believe their reputation rests on perfection, and the folks who went, “Aww, man, sorry you got hurt, are you okay?”

Now, nothing’s a guarantee. Your apologizing doesn’t mean the person who got hurt is obliged to accept your apology, and anyone who thinks that apologies equal forgiveness is generally a manipulative person. Sometimes you apologize and someone still escalates and yes, that’s a reality no one should deny.

That said, in practice, most people will accept an admission that something went wrong, whether you intended it to or not.  A “Sorry you got hurt. I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again” often prevents someone from escalating to, you know, bringing the cops in.

Sane people understand that BDSM involves risk, and bad things can happen when good people misread one another.

Yet what happens in the Big Domly Dom world is what happened in Big Domly Trump world: there is a huge hubbub about how much of an injury is necessary before you should apologize, and really isn’t this so-called “victim” a big baby, and nothing really happened anyway so why are we discussing this?

I personally think that apologies aren’t so precious that they should be doled out according to a perceived need. If I intended to do nothing bad to you and you wound up hurt, jeez, I’m sorry. (And particularly if I’m doing a BDSM scene with you, where I intended to bring you satisfaction in some way and you instead experienced trauma, then yes, I am very sorry.)

But if you have to be the hard-edged Domly Dom who refuses to apologize unless there’s good reason to, ponder this:

The good reason is that apologizing, even for incidents you consider trivial, is often the best way to defuse potential drama coming down the line. Maybe you don’t think you did anything wrong – but someone is hurt regardless, and if you choose to erase, belittle, or undermine their hurt, *they may decide that you are their enemy*.

That “I’m sorry” often protects you.

Which is, as so much of my advice is, giving practical reasons to be a nice person. You can debate all day exactly what happened between Corey Lewandowski and Michelle Fields – but his refusal to acknowledge that anything happened, even if it was trivial, was a factor in Michelle going to the cops weeks later.

A trivial hurt can still be worth an apology.

And I predict a slew of Domly Doms going, “Nah, she woulda gone to the cops anyway! Women like that are hysterical! They’re out to get us!” At which point I will suggest, gently:

Next time someone tells you, “You hurt me,” try leading with “I’m sorry” and “I’ll try to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” (And then, for optional credits, instead of blustering about that crazy person, look at your habits and determine what might have gone wrong to bring this person pain. For optimal results, start with the assumption that the hurt person is not a vindictive wuss.)

Try apologizing when someone complains.

You might be surprised by what happens when you’re not an asshole.

(Inspired by this excellent FetLife Writing.)