Sunday, June 26, 2016

Character Alignment From A Catholic Viewpoint

Yes, I'm Catholic and I play AD&D. Do come back once you recover from the shock. I'll wait.

One aspect of the game that I've struggled to understand is the alignment system. And I'm not the only one if the shear volume of articles on the subject is anything to go by. Not only are there questions over what counts as 'Good' and what counts as 'Evil,' but where the line is between 'Lawful' and 'Chaotic.' This can lead to some heated, and confusing, debates among people who aren't particularly inclined toward philosophy.

As a Catholic, I recognize the complexity of these questions and the need for further understanding.

As a gamer, I really just want something simple so I can get back to having fun.

Good Is Not Nice

Catholics are supposed to respect the beliefs of others. Still, I get extremely annoyed whenever I run into a discussion of alignment systems that mainly consists of 'get rid of alignment, Good and Evil don't exist.'

Ri~ght. So it won't matter any if I hit you in the face with a frying pan.

First of all, we have to define a few terms. "Good," in the AD&D alignment sense, seems to refer to general morality. For Catholics, morality boils down to two fundamental commandments:
  • Love God
  • Love your neighbor
    • Everyone is your neighbor
This fits fairly well with AD&D and its various homebrew derivatives, which all include 'respect/protect life' in their definitions of Good. Obviously, 'love God' isn't included because not all campaigns are going to include a religious aspect, the ones that do might include Evil-aligned deities, and even in real life someone can be Good and not be Christian. Where it falls apart is when the games start describing Good behavior.

Ideally, everyone of Good alignment would act like Mother Teresa or Mr. Rogers: kind to all, generous, and motivated by a deep longing to better the lives of all people regardless of faith.

Ideally.

In reality, you also have a lot of people like Saint Jerome: passionate, mule-headed, and with a tendency to say things about the habits of women that could easily be taken as misogynistic. (He was actually friends with several women but also strongly preferred the single, ascetic lifestyle and had no qualms about telling everyone exactly what he thought about people, including women, who didn't.)

Yes, he's a saint, but he's also the sort of person who, if friends with, you probably wouldn't introduce to your other friends.

Then there are the people who don't get considered for sainthood but are still Good. If you go to church, or temple, or whatever, take a look around next time and note who you see. Maybe the guy who stole your lunch in grade school is in the pew behind you. The old woman who donated a piano to the congregation but bemoans the influx of 'dirty foreigners' to the community might be front and center. Over there's the guy who just can't get along with anyone who roots for a different football team than him.

Yes, even the old woman is Good.

I've known people like that, one even admitted that she was being racist and that she shouldn't be, she just couldn't stand the newcomers. They talked strange, they acted strange, they even smelled strange. Her whole life, the community had been one particular way. Now it was changing and she didn't like it.

That brings us to a very important aspect of alignment, and one that AD&D is pretty vague on. How do you determine if a character is Good, Neutral, or Evil? Is it by what they do? What they think?

Hoo boy. Those last two questions open a whole new can of worms that I'll be getting to in the Lawful vs. Chaotic section. For now, let's talk a bit about Good's opposite.

Detect What?

From a Catholic standpoint, Evil is the absence of Good, specifically, the absence of GOD. It's pretty much the same as how cold is the absence of heat.

It's also a state of being and the losing side of the great war for creation. Yeah, we're at war with a void. This is one of those headache-inducing parts where Christianity's 'Eastern mystery cult' roots show. For the sake of simplicity, let's go with a boiled-down version of AD&D's definition of Evil: a disdain for, or debasement of, life.

Evil is also a choice. This is extremely important. No one is born Evil. In Catholic teaching, all people are born basically Good but tainted by the effects of Original Sin (the relationship between Original Sin, Jesus's sacrifice, and baptism is a topic for a different article in probably a different blog).

Obviously, this contradicts every game and story that features Evil species.

Note that demons are exempt, as (at least in Catholic reality) they made their choice outside the bounds of time and are thus eternally locked into that state.

Tolkien, a committed Catholic whose stories continue to influence the fantasy genre, never felt quite right making trolls and orcs strictly and without exception Evil. He also never managed to come up with a justification that pleased him.

Looking through his various works, I think he came close. Maybe not for him, but at least for me. Trolls and orcs were ents and elves, respectively, that Melkor twisted into abominations. There's also evidence that Melkor continued to influence their societies, either directly or indirectly, up to the time of the Ring Trilogy. Thus, these species aren't so much Evil as insane and enslaved.

That's an important distinction. A mortal sin is one "whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent." (Catechism 1857, emphasis mine) It's unquestionably Evil.

Also, "feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin." (Catechism 1859)

Here's a somewhat more recent but still fictional example. James Buchanan Barnes, having been captured and brainwashed by Hydra, commits multiple acts of treason and murder. Through all of this, he is aware of his actions and their consequences.

So we've got grave matter and full knowledge. However, and here's the important part, Barnes had close to zero control at the time. There is no deliberate consent. Quite the opposite, as Barnes fights his programming on more than one occasion. This reduces the crime from mortal to venial sin. It still hurts the soul, but it's more of a bruise than a gaping abscess.

Before anyone jumps on me for calling what Bucky did a sin even though he wasn't responsible, what I just said is reflected in the comics and the movies (especially the movies). Bucky remembers what he did. It hurts him. He feels unworthy of Steve's friendship, or any friendship for that matter. That's what sin is, it's anything that hurts the soul. Bucky's sin was thrust upon him by a third party, but his soul still needs healing.

So someone who's Evil knows he or she is Evil, right?

More or less. The Saturday morning cartoon villain whose letterhead reads 'Emperor Quiznic: Evil Overlord,' or what have you, is fiction. The vast majority of people who choose Evil also delude themselves into believing that they somehow aren't responsible or that what they're doing is right. Most of us can agree that the Nazi leaders were Evil. They almost certainly didn't see themselves that way. After all, what they were doing was for the good of Germany and the glory of the Third Reich. This falls under "feigned ignorance and hardness of heart."

That's fine and all, you may respond, but it's still kinda vague. Yes it is. And people have been pointing that out for about as long as we've had fingers to point with. Guess why the Catholic Church has the oldest and longest running legal system in the West.

Law and Chaos

Morality, as discussed above, is the general understanding of what is good and true. Ethics is the practical application of that understanding.

Stretching the definitions a little, ethics also includes cultural norms, those fairly arbitrary rules and customs that have no direct connection to morality, but do help keep society running smoothly. After all, there's no 'good' or 'evil' in what you wear to a party, but if you wear a grass skirt to an inaugural ball... well, chances are you wouldn't be let anywhere near it.

That's where the 'Lawful vs. Chaotic' axis of the alignment chart comes in. Ethics, by definition, involve rules. At its simplest, Lawful characters follow the rules, Chaotic characters don't (or do more by accident than design), and Neutral characters do or don't depending on how it works for them at the moment.

I wish it was that simple.

Unless you're running a campaign, or writing a story, covering a very small geographical area with characters who all come from roughly the same background, you're going to have multiple sets of rules and cultural expectations.

As an example, look at how the the Romans viewed the Celtic and Germanic tribes. These barbarians went into battle naked, screaming like lunatics with no sense of organization or formal rank. It sounds like a textbook case of 'law' vs. 'chaos' until you look at it from the barbarian side.

My ancestors had rituals for dang near everything, including battle. Nudity served the practical function of reducing the number of hand-holds available to the enemy. Before the fight, they'd stand at their end of the battlefield screaming insults and boasts to get themselves psyched up. If they had shields, they'd bang their weapons against them for the same effect. To them, the most honorable form of combat was between individuals, so they had no use for things like ranks or flanking maneuvers.

In short, both societies had a Lawful approach to combat, they just followed very different laws. I honestly can't think of a single society that could be considered Chaotic. Even hippy communes were closer to Neutral since they had certain standards of behavior but were generally laid-back about how those standards were enforced.

The Escapist defines Lawful as deontological ethics while Chaotic is consequentialist ethics.

For those who aren't philosophy majors, deontological refers to judging the morality of an action based on its adherence to a set of rules. Consequentialism judges the morality of an action based on its effects. "The ends justify the means," in other words. Neutral is thus aretological ethics, the idea that adhering to certain rules and habits is a good idea but that ultimately the morality of an action is based on its intent.

So, Lawful focuses on means, Neutral on intent, Chaotic on ends.

Here's where that division shatters on contact with reality, the Catholic Church recognizes the importance of all three. In some ways, intent is the most important. Jesus gave plenty of examples of folks who followed all the rules for selfish gain and were judged on the content of their hearts.

Hego from Kim Possible.
Lawful Stupid Personified
Does that mean the Catholic Church is Neutral or even Chaotic Good? Have you seen the number of rules we have?

I tried thinking of it along 'communal, individual' lines, but that'd just turn all Lawful Good characters into the anal-retentive killjoys the alignment is already stereotyped for.

The true root of the problem revealed itself when I found an alignment chart matched up to the enneagram. AD&D's alignment system tries to combine morality with personality!

So we just drop the Lawful-Chaotic axis and call it a day, right? Not exactly. The folks at TSR (now Wizards of the Coast) had a valid point in that how people approach morality and what aspects they struggle with are partially determined by personality. It's just nowhere near as simple as Order vs. Chaos.

Virtues and Vice

I started out looking at the classic seven deadly sins and their contrasting virtues. Didn't take long to toss those out, mainly because there's so much overlap between them. Lust and Gluttony, for example, are really just subtypes of Greed as far as I can tell. Besides, there's a shorter list available.

The cardinal virtues are mostly associated with the Catholic Church today, but they originated with Plato in Republic (Book IV, 426-435). In Protagoras he also includes piety, which is similar to the Catholic theological virtue of faith.

Prudence discerns true good in every circumstance and chooses the right means of achieving it. "Right reason in action," as St. Thomas Aquinas says (somewhere in Summa Theologica, it's a huge text and doesn't include handy reference points). It's the guide to all other virtues and requires knowledge of what is right and what is wrong.

At its most basic, this is thinking before we act, including taking council with others. Dismissing the advice of those who do not completely agree with us goes against prudence as they may know something we don't. Prudence would thus be opposed by recklessness.

Justice "promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good." (Catechism 1807) Unlike charity, justice focuses on the exact distribution of what each person is owed.

This includes not only debts to be paid, but the observation of natural and legal rights. Natural rights outweigh legal rights in cases where the two come into conflict. Justice would thus be opposed by bias or bigotry.

Fortitude acts even in the face of fear, a strong resolve to resist temptation and stand up for what's right. This isn't recklessly throwing oneself into danger at the slightest provocation. All life is precious, after all, including our own.

On the other hand, this virtue provides the strength needed to "sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause." (Catechism 1808) Fortitude would thus be opposed by cowardice or indecisiveness.

Temperance "ensures the will's mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable." (Catechism 1809) It can include the avoidance of certain pleasures all together, such as a priest's vow of chastity, but that isn't the primary focus. Remember, it's self-control, not self-denial.

While temperance is mostly associated with the material, it also applies to mental and spiritual habits. Someone who constantly wallows in self-pity is not following this virtue. Temperance would thus be opposed by indulgence.

That sounds like a fairly universal set of virtues.

Just on the European side we have the mottos of the Fianna, Ireland's legendary warrior bands, which included things like 'action to match our speech.'

Prussian virtues include courage, religious tolerance ("Jeder soll nach seiner Fa├žon selig werden," literally "Everyone shall be saved in his own way"), and restraint. It's really too bad these virtues got associated with the Nazis to the point that post-war Germany abandoned the code entirely. It's a great set of virtues that the Nazis didn't even come close to following. If they had, we probably wouldn't have had WWII.

For us Westerners, the most well-known set of Asian virtues is bushido, which includes courage, righteousness, and self-control.

Yeah, haven't really found a tidy parallel to prudence. The 'think before you act' virtue seems to get divided up into many virtues connected to specific forms of action.

This is also starting to look a bit like the Myers Briggs system, specifically the four dichotomies. There are worse ways of building a game character's personality. Just don't expect everyone to spend much time looking up the various types. And then there's the complication of trying to play within type without feeling constrained.

Now, I could just make these pairs simple binaries that the players select when building their characters. That might be a little too simple. What if a character carefully considers his options before acting but has difficulty taking the word of others into consideration? He wouldn't be entirely prudent, but he wouldn't be all that reckless, either.

No. Instead, I'll probably put the virtues and vices at opposite ends of four continuums that can be randomly rolled if the players wish. I'd also like to add modifiers based on the character's ability scores. For instance, a high Wisdom score would give a bonus to the character's base Temperance score. The virtue/vice scores could have their own modifiers to things like saving throws and reaction rolls.

Obviously, this needs a lot more refining, but it's a good start. If anyone decides to use this idea in their own homebrew game, I'd love to hear how it works out.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Putting The 'Fun' In 'Functional' Part 1 — A Magical Study Fueled By Desperation

Note: This started out as a project exploring AD&D's magic system. That's still the primary focus, but it can apply to other story forms as well.

If given a chance in a video game RPG (which apparently includes games originally intended for computers, that was not the case when I was a kid) I will almost invariably pick some flavor of magic-user, usually one with a lot of protection and ranged-attack spells. My reflexes are horrendous, so if I have half a chance of killing a monster before it can get close enough to take a swipe at me, I'm all for it. Heck, if the game has some sort of software-assisted targeting system, I'll take any ranged weapon. Magic, especially combined with a large area of effect, is my saving grace more often than not because the one thing that's worse than my reflexes is my aim. (Something that becomes painfully obvious whenever I try to solve puzzles in the various Legend of Zelda games. The only reason I can think of for not letting you auto-target those stone braziers in the Gerudo Training Grounds is that the game designers were feeling particularly sadistic that day. At least it isn't as bad as the ranged weapon mechanics in Morrowind. Ye gods, why has no one fixed that?) Any spell that causes massive damage within a certain radius of the caster instantly goes to the top of my must-have list.

That's video games. My first character in AD&D was a fighter. A simple, base-rules fighter who, within a few adventures, accidentally invented the Molotov cocktail and picked up herbalism as a proficiency. Almost 20 years later I have yet to play any sort of magic-user in a pen-and-paper game. There's a simple reason for that and it goes to the very heart of the D&D magic system. Even the 'alternate' systems presented in AD&D's Players Option: Spells And Magic are merely slight variations on a theme.

Long before I first heard the term 'Vancian magic,' requiring the memorization of spells to be used during the day (and then only being able to use each spell once because the mage 'forgets' the spell once it's cast) didn't make sense to me. It makes even less sense now even though I understand why they designed it that way. Limits are necessary if you don't want your game to start looking like every shonen manga ever written.

Just so you know, I like shonen manga, but just try to imagine DMing a game where half the PCs can level a city whenever they want. Or pick up some of the books in the Star Wars expanded universe. The lack of limits on what can and can't be done with the Force resulted in some serious narrative messes.

So I got where TSR was coming from, but I was equally convinced that there had to be a better way. Thus, I decided to take the spells and schools of magic and simply write my own system around them.

That lasted a few days, mostly out of stubbornness. AD&D magic is a wreck. Half the spells in the Evocation school can just as easily go in Alteration. The other half can either go in Alteration or Conjuration. A substantial number of the Necromancy spells seem to affect undead more as an afterthought than as a product of their nature. The 1st-level 'chromatic orb' demonstrates a complexity and potential power on par with the 9th-level 'prismatic sphere.' (Yes, you can't access the really potent stuff until later levels, but it's still a huge spell for 1st-level.) You can detect magic at 1st-level but you can't dispel it until 3rd. 'Protection from evil' is 1st-level but 'protection from cantrips' is 2nd-level. You don't get protection from something as mundane as a rock until 3rd level, though I'll give them credit for giving 1st-level mages a general purpose shield spell (it's just not terribly effective against physical attacks, the most common source of injury to a low-level adventurer). Despite a 4th-level mage being able to do things like create life from shadow, understand languages, practice a form of no-error teleportation, and change the physical form of others, telekinesis isn't available until 5th level.

And it just keeps going! It's one of Hermaeus Mora's Black Books without the Lovecraftian spawn. This is what happens when dozens of people revise and expand on an already unwieldy system for over a decade.

Don't know who Hermaeus Mora is? Look him up. Or better yet, play Skyrim with the Dragonborn DLC installed. Pleasant dreams.

I've now chucked everything from AD&D in terms of magic except for things discussed separately, like saving throws (I'll probably get to those later after I've worked the bugs out of everything else). I've also kept Mr. Gygax's Dragon Magazine (#59) article "Cantrips: Minor Magics For Would-Be Wizards," though I've modified the cantrips based on the Far Realms descriptions since, among other things, a 1" casting range is just pathetic. I might as well just pinch the guy myself instead of casting a spell. I just really like the article and I'd like to keep some of the basic ideas if nothing else.

So what does that leave me with? Honestly, not much. That's what this first article is for. I'm going back to the source.

It's Supernatural

And that's not just a Katy Perry reference. If we're going to make a magic system reflecting real world traditions (which is what I want to do) we first have to acknowledge that it's based on paganism. Actual, old-school paganism, not this neo-pagan weirdness that seems to take up over 90% of the Google results whenever I try to search for anything related to the Celts. Crazy, crystal-worshiping hippies. The Moragan was not an all-loving fairy flitting around promoting peace and grooviness. She (or they, there may have been three of her) was a war goddess who sent her ravens onto the battle field to eat the eyes out of the heads of fallen warriors. She was badass.

(I worship One God and One God Alone, but mess with the gods of my ancestors and you will feel my wrath.)

Ahem. Take a look at the words we associate with magic. You'll probably first note that most of them are from Latin. The big thing is that they're almost all derived from words meaning 'to sing,' 'to appeal to,' 'to talk,' 'to make an oath'... See the pattern? Even terms not of Latin origin (and much less well known) follow this line. If you've played Skyrim, you may remember the Gauldur Amulet from the 'Forbidden Legend' quest. The name is derived (like many of the names in Skyrim) from Old Norse, in this case galdr, a form of ritual singing. Songs are magic. Love songs were forbidden in much of Old Norse country because it was believed to ensnare the mind of the recipient. Didn't stop a lot of love-sick Vikings from waxing poetic about their best girls. Related, both the Celts and the Norse believed that writing was intrinsically magical, which is why we don't have any written records of what druidic practices actually were aside from some highly biased Roman observations.

In short, words are important. Even more important is keeping your word. In a very real sense, every time you promise something you are casting a spell on yourself in the form of an oath. If you broke an oath back in the old days, the world made sure bad things happened to you. It didn't matter if you made the oath to a god or a normal human (though the consequences of cheating a god tended to be much steeper), a broken oath was a very bad thing. (Okay, the world is still like that, it's just not necessarily quick or obvious.)

A similar principle was at work in a traditional geis (the Scots spelling, 'geas,' may be more familiar), which bears no resemblance at all to what's portrayed in the anime Code Geass and its derivative manga. At least AD&D is pretty close with their 'geas' spell. A real geis is actually a form of taboo. Observing the restrictions of a geis was believed to bring power while breaking the restrictions would bring doom, probably in the form of death. Typically, the geis was placed on men by women (who may or may not have been disguised goddesses).

Remember that famous bit in Macbeth about "no man of woman born" being able to harm the title character? That's another form a geis, one prophesying how a person would die so that he could (theoretically) avoid those circumstances.

Another thing to keep in mind, related to the topic of oaths, is that 'casting spells' nearly always required the cooperation of spirits. The villagers wanted to clear some trees to make room for crops? They were worried something might go wrong? Then someone with the right credentials (a village elder, a priest, someone with authority) would go to those trees and convince the spirits living there to let the villagers cut them down. Usually some kind of deal similar to a business transaction had to be struck. The villagers were allowed to cut down the trees if, say, the first five sheaves harvested from that field were offered to the spirits in return. Or maybe the villagers had to build a shrine for the spirits as a replacement home.

Protection from evil spirits usually worked by either enlisting the help of benevolent spirits or taking advantage of some idiosyncrasy inherent to the 'evil' ones, such as tossing cucumbers into water believed to be infested with kappa. Note that spirits weren't usually evil as a hard and fast rule. Dangerous and frequently hostile, yes, but if treated with respect, they could be quite helpful. The previously mentioned kappa, for instance, best known for drowning children, could be a great help to any farmer willing to put in the effort of befriending one as the spirit would help irrigate the fields and otherwise bring good fortune. They're also said to know a great deal about medicine and to have taught humans how to set bones.

Aside from protection and negotiating property rights, the most common use of traditional magic was divination. It's believed that the Norse 'seidr,' a variety of (probably) shamanistic ritual primarily practiced by women, is related to the Proto-Germanic 'saidaz,' which is in turn cognate with the Lithuanian 'saitas,' meaning "sign, soothsaying." It's also related to a number of Celtic words for magic and all of these go back to the Proto-Indo-European word for string or rope. (Kind of an odd jump there, but since distaffs were apparently associated with seidr practice I guess it makes a kind of sense.) Being able to predict everything from bad weather to wars was even more important back when a bit of extra planning meant having enough to eat through the winter.

None of this is the dazzling display of mystic shock and awe that modern fantasy fans are used to. That kind of magic is very much a product of the 20th century and is probably related to the movie industry, though comic books certainly helped. It also has the potential of making a lot of people very uncomfortable. (I can almost hear my readers groan about having a hard enough time convincing loved ones that RPGs aren't Satanic without stuff like this popping up.) It gets better. Trust me!

Obey The Law

"Science is a way of talking about the universe in words that bind it to a common reality. Magic is a method of talking to the universe in words that it cannot ignore. The two are rarely compatible." Neil Gaiman, The Books of Magic
While Mr.Gaiman has a point, any fictional magic system has to have certain rules, restrictions, and other easily recognizable features that are consistent throughout a work. In prose, it allows the author to answer the inevitable reader question, "Why didn't he just ___?" In a game, it's necessary if you want anyone to play it more than once. Lucky for me, and everyone else trying something similar, real-world magic traditions come prepackaged with a set of rules that have been studied by people who might benefit from a little less naval gazing and compiled by others with more practical intentions.

Every magic tradition has some laws, but no one magic tradition has all the laws. A few are nearly universal, though.

Contagion No, you can't catch magic from someone like you can a cold. This is the idea that a part is still connected to the whole even if not in physical contact. It also applies to someone's possessions and the more important the item the better the link. So someone's trash isn't much use but someone's favorite hat or an old toy is great and hair clippings or a tooth are ideal.
Sympathy This can be used instead of or in combination with Contagion. It's the idea that something that resembles something else can be used to affect the something else. It's involved in the onmyodo practice of shikigami. Combining this with Contagion is the basis of 'Poppet' magic (the most commonly known form being voodoo dolls).
Correspondence This is the basis of astrology and applies to more than just people. Herbs and other living (and non-living) things can have astrological profiles as well. If two things share a profile then they'll probably work together. It's also similar to the (discredited) Doctrine of Signatures, though apparently whether using a target's name is Correspondence or Sympathy depends on who you ask.
Consent This is either that magic works better on people who believe in magic or that it's possible to consciously resist magic and therefore far easier to operate on a willing target. The latter interpretation is almost certainly the basis for saving throws.
Equivalent Exchange If you've read and/or watched Fullmetal Alchemist, you're probably familiar with this term. In brief, it covers the idea that you can't make something from nothing. It also applies to various shamanistic practices, as demonstrated in the scenario I described of the villagers with trees they needed to clear. If you're dealing with intelligent entities, it's important to make sure you know what you're paying before sealing the deal. A monkey's paw is when the price far outweighs the benefit (assuming there's a benefit in the first place).
Reciprocity Karma or, if you prefer a more Christian term, Natural Law. The idea that actions have consequences for good or ill. Though the Arcana Wiki is correct in there (generally) being no such thing as 'white' magic, 'black' magic is very real. As in out-here-in-reality real. You may look at me funny but, as mentioned earlier, I'm Christian, the existence of spirits both good and evil is part of my belief system. Another part of my belief system is that attempting to contact spirits, regardless of intent, is much more likely to get the attention of the evil ones. You will not like the results. Now, the magic we're talking about in this article is primarily just a tool. If it's good or evil is up to you. Might as well blame the hammer for the door falling off your cabinet.
Reversal Basically, if magic did it magic can undo it. No idea why this is a controversial idea, it seems pretty basic. Possibly the controversy comes from the "without having to be physically destroyed" part. It runs somewhat counter to the whole 'toss into the depths of Mount Doom' approach we've become accustomed to. I'd save the drastic measures for the big magic, though, and leave dispelling more everyday magic to this rule.
Distortion This one I can actually see as causing controversy as it's basically a fancy way of describing 'No Ontological Inertia.' (TV Tropes will devour your soul.) On the other hand, it's a pretty good way of describing magical effects that require constant focus or rely on the existence of some item or set of circumstances to work. If you knock Melvin the Magnificent unconscious while he's levitating you and the rest of the party over a canyon you better hope someone has a way to break your fall without breaking every one of your bones (and that particular someone is willing to save your idiot hide).
Balance Related to Equivalent Exchange and Reciprocity, it not only deals with the idea that magic can't create or destroy physical things (just move them around) but that it can't make immaterial things like good fortune, either. If you cast a spell of good luck now you're just going to deal with an equal amount of bad luck later. It seems to mostly be a modern phenomena, existing particularly in stories, and is amusingly described as "the Marxist theory of magic."
Backlash To quote Arcana Wiki, "If you don't know where it's pointed, it's pointed at you." Who here's seen The Sorcerer's Apprentice? (The live action movie with that guy who later did Hiccup's voice in How To Train Your Dragon.) Okay, remember the musical Tesla coils? Now imagine your spell as being the electricity generated from one of those coils. That energy has to go somewhere, but you forgot to set up another coil (or anything large and metal) to take the hit. Wait, there's a lightning rod made of meat right there. Zap! And this is why wizards need safety gear. Sure, the 'safety gear' is more likely to be a poppet in the caster's likeness rather than an orange hardhat, but the principle's the same. (The poppet gets flash fried instead of you, the hardhat gets split like an over-ripe melon instead of your head.) Of course, it generally isn't practical to bring a poppet or two (or three) with you on every dungeon crawl, let along set it up properly for every casting, so it's a good idea to double check your targeting data before pulling out the mystic bag of tricks.

Elemental, My Dear Watson

Hold off on the torches and pitchforks, my fundamentalist cousins, there's one more magic tradition to discuss and it does not involve the channeling of spirits.

Well, it might, but they would be the fermented kind. I'm talking about alchemy, which is actually the scientific precursor to our modern chemistry, which still uses alchemical devices and symbols. No joke, once you get past the sometimes vaguely gnostic philosophy and occult trappings, alchemy was a serious pursuit of understanding the workings of the universe. It was also expensive, so many alchemists with more hutzpa than ethics turned to conning gullible nobles with false claims of turning lead to gold. (A claim, I might add, that may have been false but not by much. Lead and gold have a very similar atomic structure, so it is possible to transmute one to the other. It would just be far more expensive than the resulting gold would be worth.) So there were some valid reasons for villainizing the practice but it still stands as an important milestone in scientific history and as a fun model for fantasy magic.

Alchemy dates back much further than the Middle Ages, though. A form of it may go back as far as 5000BC in Ancient Egypt. It was certainly a going concern among the Greeks and Romans. Our word for it comes from Arabic and much of what the Late Medieval and Renaissance practitioners didn't get from Greek sources they picked up from the Islamic Golden Age.

This association with Greece also brings up a related principle, the four classical elements. (Five if you count aether, most seem to ignore it.) Fire, air, water, and earth are not limited to the Greeks, either. The Egyptians also used this elemental model and it was part of at least some Indian traditions, as well. All substances in the mortal world were said to be composed of these four elements in different ratios, with both physical and spiritual aspects. Our current understanding of the elements includes a much larger periodic table, but it's interesting to note that the classical elements correspond to the four known states of matter.

Fire — Plasma
Air — Gas
Water — Liquid
Earth — Solid

The best part of all this is that alchemy provides a scientific foundation for a magic system that already comes with a variety of disciplines that can be re-imagined as "magic schools." And it provides lots of room for spectacular pyrotechnics! There is no down side!

Well, maybe if I go with a precise definition of alchemy for the magic system since it would just replace having to memorize the spell 'fireball' in AD&D with carrying around Molotov cocktails. Not necessarily a bad thing, but who said I was going with strict adherence to real world alchemy? There's nothing in the basic principles that disqualifies the rest of the magic traditions I already touched on. The difference is in how one goes about reshaping the energies of the world.

So, am I missing anything? Hmm. Considering I've brought alchemy into this, I should mention Hermetic magic. This variety is fairly new as magic traditions go. While Kabbalah is supposed to date back to the time of Eden and there are connections to some ancient beliefs, the actual Hermetica (writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, supposedly a combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth) only dates to the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Otherwise, most of the information comes from the 15th century at the earliest, mainly because of a guy named Paracelsus. He may have been the first to come up with the idea of elementals. His fire elemental was called Vulcanus, but for reasons I don't understand it's almost universally translated as 'salamander.'

This still doesn't give me, or anyone else, a coherent fantasy-magic system, though. There's a lot of pieces here, but the puzzle still has to be put together. Which is what I'll get to in the next article.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Crimes Against Characters: Captain Nope And Practical Decisions


I'd been debating with myself over starting a blog like this for a while. The main reason I didn't go ahead is, well, do I really need one more project? And it's not like what I have to say is all that important, grand scheme of things.

Then this happened.

Not my Captain America. Never. And I still didn't make the connection because I was too busy being angry, hurt, and pretty much every other possible emotion because I saw that right after watching Captain America: Civil War.

That was not a good week for me.

No, I was just going to boil in my own impotence until I read this response. (The only source I know of is an image hosted by Pinterest, though it looks like a Tumblr post. If I knew where the original was, I'd link to it. All I've done is correct the capitalization.)
Nativehueofresolution:

Let me explain something

Even if this is brainwashing

Even if this is just an act

Even if this gets retconned

Even if this is nothing more than a dumb publicity stunt

It is part of an on-going trend at Marvel that shows the appalling lack of respect they have for Jewish characters and creators and the bizarre, sickening romanticizing of Hydra, a Nazi organization.

Steve Rogers is the creation of two Jewish men who took a stand against Nazism at a time when it was not popular to do so, and they received many threats for doing so. He was intended to be political; the first thing you see him do is punch Hitler in the face. Even if this new twist ends up being reversed or made into an elaborate ruse, we now know that Marvel is willing to jeopardize this legacy for publicity. They don't see it as disrespectful to toy around and twist the creation of two Jewish men like this.

Wanda Maximoff and Pietro Maximoff, the Jewish-Romani children of Holocaust survivors, are actively having their Jewish heritage erased by Marvel higher ups who say thing [sic] like "Can you point me to a single story, just one, in which the 'fact' that Wanda and Pietro come from a Jewish background is in any way relevant?" Not only this, but their Jewish identities are being erased in the MCU and replaced with Christian identities (Wanda has a cross hanging in her room), while also re-imagining them as Hydra Nazi volunteers. This from the same MCU that routinely hires Jewish actors and actresses and then erases their identities such as with Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, RDJ, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Paul Rudd; in the cases of some Jewish actors like Jon Berthanal, they actively replace his Jewish identity with a Christian one by making the Punisher a (lapsed) Catholic.

All the while they continue to glamorize the Nazi organization Hydra, playing up the meme of "Hail Hydra," having their employees wear Hydra merch and describe themselves as Hydra in their Twitter bios. They even released a comic about an agent of Hydra, intended to be a comedy, slice of life thing. You were intended to feel bad for Hank, the protagonist, because he just saw it as a job and joined because of the tough economy, ignoring the fact that this was the case for many real world Nazis as well. Magneto, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, was villainized and basically held responsible for endangering the world because he attempted to kill the Red Skull, a Nazi who was setting up new concentration camps. It was also the title in which his paternal relationship with Wanda and Pietro was erased. The series name was Axis.

This is not cute. This is not the type of stuff that can or should be ignored. This is just further proof of a seriously alarming trend going on at Marvel, where they think flirting with Nazi organizations is fun and ignoring and actively erasing the identities of Jewish characters and the contributions fo Jewish Creators is okay. Do. No. Ignore. This.
Hoo boy. Where to begin?

First, I should mention something about myself. I haven't read many of the comics. Hardly any, in fact. There just weren't that many brick-and-mortar stores that sold comics of any sort around where I grew up and even if there were, I didn't have the cash. Buying online is an option now, but it wasn't when I was a kid and there's still the matter of my nearly nonexistent personal funds. So a lot of what I know about any comic book character comes from the various adaptations and fan pages. Also a few books on comics that I picked up from the library.

So, on to this 'alarming trend.'

Let's start with Magneto. Was the Axis series written so the readers were supposed to see Magnetto as the villain, or was he just treated as the villain in-universe? The original post doesn't say, though I wouldn't be surprised at the latter. Marvel has a long history of making the good guys hated by those in power. Just look at almost all of Spider-Man's appearances or, better yet, The Hulk. One of the central themes of the X-Men is discrimination, primarily the mistreatment of mutants at the hands of normal humans. In Captain America: Civil War, Cap and the other Avengers are treated like criminals almost from the first scene, but they're still the heroes. Magnetto himself, what I've seen of him, comes across as less a hero or villain and more an example of what happens when you let hatred consume you.

As for his children, being ethnically Jewish doesn't mean the twins follow that faith. As far as I'm aware, Wanda and Pietro have never had a terribly good relationship with their father, or even each other depending on the adaptation. I can easily see a few versions of Wanda converting to something (anything) else just out of spite.

There's also the matter of age. As a Holocaust survivor, Magnetto would have to be pushing 100 right now. That's pretty old to have children as young as Wanda and Pietro are usually portrayed (teens to mid-twenties at the latest). Nativehueofresolution doesn't say if Magnetto still has a familial relationship with the twins in Axis, just that the paternal relationship was retconned. He could be their grandfather for all I know.

They certainly aren't related to Magnetto at all in the MCU simply because Marvel doesn't have the movie rights for that character. Or any of the other X-Men. Heck, they can't even say the word 'mutant' in their movies.

This gets into the crazy world of licensing laws, which I'm not even going to try to fully understand or explain. Short version, when Sony wanted to make X-Men movies, Marvel agreed and sold them the exclusive rights to use those characters in live-action films. Same thing happened when Fox wanted to make Spider-Man movies. Now that Marvel can make their own movies, they're trying to get control of those characters back. Grandually. Legally. In a way that won't make those other companies hate them. That means negotiation and compromise

In the case of the twins, that means changing their shared background and not using their codenames. Note how just about everyone else is called by their codename at least once and the ones who aren't have their name referenced in some other way. Instead of being the children of a holocaust survivor, they were fairly normal teens in a tiny Eastern European country, probably Slavic, that's been at war with itself and its neighbors on and off for most of its history. An agent of Hydra shows up and tells them he'll give them power to fight against their oppressors. Did they know they were signing up with Hydra at the time? Remember, Hydra's infiltration of SHIELD wasn't made public until after the twins were enhanced. They easily could've thought they were working for SHIELD until it was too late.

As for them being Christian, that just further separates them from their X-Men counterparts. Maybe it was unnecessary. Maybe it was part of the deal with Sony. I don't know. No one's raising a fuss over the changes to Zemo's backstory and personality, which are much more obvious than the changes done to the twins.

So, what about Hank the Hydra Agent? I haven't read the comic, so I don't know any more about it that what's said here. One thing that popped out immediately was this line, "he just saw it as a job and joined because of the tough economy, ignoring the fact that this was the case for many real world Nazis as well."

Were they ignoring that fact? History lesson time!

World War I left Germany a complete economic wreck. The Treaty of Versailles seemed intent on destroying what was left of the country. Then the Great Depression hit and everyone suffered. Adolf Hitler set himself up as Germany's savior. He gave them a reason to feel pride again. Many people joined because they could get jobs, they could do something that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Hindsight is 20/20. You'd think people would know better now, but a lot of us don't. People easily forget the lessons of history. People often overlook how something affects others because it isn't affecting them. Sure, maybe Hank's sympathetic, maybe he's just a work-a-day slob who isn't evil and really doesn't fully understand the kind of monster he's working for.

May I direct your attention to this 1943 Disney short, Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi.

While the short avoids humanizing the Nazi leadership by use of grotesque characture and having all the dialog in unsubtitled German, it does a great job humanizing the little boy Hans. I, at least, felt sorry for him and his mother and the last shot of the gravestones brings home that there are lots of little boys like Hans, all brainwashed into thinking exactly what the party wants them to think. Thankfully, the Third Reich didn't last long enough for Hans' generation to reach the battlefield. Still, the people dying on the fields of Europe weren't the true villains, the adults were subjected to many of the same kinds of pressures.

Hank in the comic obviously wasn't brainwashed from childhood, but he could've easily been lied to and cajoled, especially if he isn't a particularly bright or well-educated guy to begin with. For all I know, his comic could be roughly equivalent to Disney's Education for Death short.

Next, the accusation that the the MCU is 'erasing' the Jewish heritage of their various actors. I have honestly no idea what is meant by that. Yes, Natalie Portman is using a stage name. She had that name long before her role in Thor. (In case you don't know, she played Padme/Amidala in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. She's credited as Natalie Portman.) It's also a common practice among actors with 'odd' names. Bruce Boxleitner, of Tron and Babylon 5 fame, is notable for not using a stage name at a time when that would've been almost required.

Kat Dennings is also using a stage name that originated long before she got a role with Marvel.

Robert Downey Jr. is ethnically Jewish on his father's side. I've seen no indication that anyone in his family is a practicing Jew.

Based on the comment about the Punisher's actor (whose name is spelled Bernthal, by the way) the closest I can come to a guess is that Nativehueofresolution's problem is that Jewish actors are playing non-Jewish roles. That is beyond rediculous. Despite the various memes and comparisons, Marvel actors are not Marvel characters. These are roles, and when the cameras are off I'm sure they're just as observant as they were before getting the part.

Good grief, most of the cast of Hogan's Heroes were not only Jews, but had fought against the Nazis in WWII. That includes those playing German characters. General Burkhalter was played by Leon Askin, who immigrated to the United States in 1940 and served as a staff sergeant in the US Armed Forces. Major Hochstetter was played by American born Jewish actor Howard Caine. Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink) fled Nazi Germany after spending three years in a concentration camp. His parents died there. John Banner (Sergeant Shultz) has a similar story. Mr. Klemperer defended taking the role thus, "I am an actor. If I can play Richard III, I can play a Nazi."

And if Mr. Klemperer can play a Nazi, any other Jew can play a Christian. These actors are hired based on talent and the needs of the part, not on religious affiliation.

Now, I don't know if certain Marvel employees are required to identify as Hydra on social media, but the only ones I've seen do so play Hydra characters. All the actors get into character once in a while online. Selling Hydra T-shirts seems less okay, but, remember, it's been possible to buy Star Wars Stormtooper costumes for Halloween long before the prequel trilogy was even planned. The Empire's entire aesthetic was heavily influenced by Nazi Germany with the Stormtroopers named after the English translation of the Nazi military units.

I'm certainly not going to defend Marvel for everything. Turning Cap into a life-long Hydra agent is tasteless at best. Be angry at that. Better yet, let Marvel know you're angry. Let Marvel know just how thoroughly they've screwed up with this one. But, please, before making this into a conspiracy or accusing them of anything greater, remember that Marvel is a business. There's a lot more writing comics and shooting movies than just the story.