Friday, May 1, 2020

Waitaminute...orcs are what, now?

This past week, GamerTwitter erupted into a massive feud, ecologically intended to cull followers, block bad actors, and re-affirm tribal politics and practices, by declaring that orcs in D&D are racist. Or, rather, the idea of orcs in D&D are inherently racist. Or, rather, the language used to describe orcs in the official books is the language of oppression and dehumanization used in racist pograms. Or, rather, the historical antecedent of orcs was borne out of racism, i.e. Tolkien was a racist who didn’t like the Huns. Or was it Vikings? Or Asians? Or, rather, or rather, or rather…

Maybe you can see what the problem was, but just in case you can’t, I’ll tell you. Blogger A was arguing X, and Personality B was counter-arguing for Y. Gamer C was really incensed about Z. No one was approaching the subject with agreed-upon terms and criteria. Everyone was talking past one another. Oh, and the name-calling was a nice touch, too. This is why we can’t have nice things.

I saw a lot of people my age and older flip the table at the suggestion that they were racists because for the past forty-five years, orcs have been the default bad guys in D&D. “Why can’t we just play the game?” they yelled. “Why must you people politicize everything?” Setting aside how you might feel about that over-simplification, I think that, if we dial it back a few notches, there might be a useful conversation to have. But it can’t start with, “Um, okay, I think you should know that you’re part of the problem,” because that murders the discourse in its crib.

Let me try this as a way to get into the topic without anyone flipping anything. We didn’t perceive there to actually BE a problem with killing orcs back in 1984, because we were teenagers playing fantasy games, and we weren’t being asked to, nor did we suspect that we even could, examine the cultural implications of what that meant; For a lot of other reasons, but mainly because the game itself has had a moral and ethical compass baked into it (called alignment) that tended to render abstract the underpinnings of everything in the game. There was good and evil, law and chaos. Monsters tended to be evil. People, not really. But only, yes, actually, the players. Well, some players. Most players were good. But there was always that one kid that wanted to play an assassin. Or the bad guys who were humanoid necromancers and raised undead simply because they could. Their goodness or evilness was never examined, unpacked, or sorted through. These stories we were creating together were morality plays, fairy tales, penny dreadfuls. And orcs were bad guys, because they were in the Lord of the Rings, and even back before Peter Jackson, elves were cool and hated orcs and everyone liked them so everyone hated orcs via the transitive property.

If you tell me that Tolkien’s depiction of orcs is racist because the language he used to describe them is akin to racial stereotyping or propaganda, I won’t debate you. I don’t have a horse in this race. I’m not, and never was, a huge Tolkien fan. Those books don’t figure into my creative DNA. I read them because as a D&D player, it felt wrong to not read them. So, go ahead. Throw him under the bus. It won’t matter, as his place in the canon is deeply and firmly entrenched. But, sure, yes, okay. Tolkien used them to make humans inhuman, and thus, easier to hate and easier to kill.

So, where does that leave D&D?

Well, the earliest depiction of orcs we were shown were basically pig men in 1970s D&D. Someone somewhere said there was a linguistic reason for this, but I don't want to chase it down. 

By the mid-1980s, the drift over into more humanoid-orcishness was happening. Here’s the image of orcs from the second edition of D&D, published in the 1980s. 

Games Workshop, meanwhile, was developing a wargame and rpg empire over in Great Britain called Warhammer and their orcs were goblin green and had mohawks and spoke with Cockney accents, like British soccer hooligans. Avocado green. Huge, comical underbites with huge, comical tusks jutting out. 

This is a half-orc paladin. From the Player's Handbook.
You've come a long way, baby.
Successive editions of D&D and other games followed suit, until we have the current depictions that run a full spectrum from scary to sexy. Anime kids, it seems, can fetishize anything. I'm not a fan of TVTropes for a large number of reasons, but this entry for Our Orcs Are Different does a good job of breaking down the nomenclature and the genus and phylum of orcs and orks and all other versions of same. 

Over the years, I’ve seen D&D drift more and more into the lanes of playing exotic monster races, including goblins and orcs, as well as minotaurs, yuan-ti, and any other creature type that was perceived as a “monster” but intelligent and thus, capable of free will. Even the original “dark elves,” the Drow, are playable, alongside other races of humanoids from the Underdark. You can even play...*shudder* people...if the DM will let you. Hint: I will not let you.

But D&D is still D&D, and that means at first level, you are probably going to fight goblins (Tolkien's other name for orcs, but let's not further muddy the waters). And when you’re strong enough, you’re going to graduate up to orcs. And then minotaurs, and medusae, and eventually dragons, demons, and so on and so forth. It’s how the game has been played forever.

Except, it hasn’t, not really. There’s no one way to play the game, as you will see if you join any of the hundreds of Facebook groups dedicated to D&D. There’s no one way, no “right” way, and there never has been. And moreover, anyone who says so these days is roundly shouted down, pilloried, and beaten with sticks. Every DM is different. Every game table is different. Fifth edition in particular leans into that assertion and customization of D&D is now a feature of the game.

One other note: D&D 5th edition’s artwork is an inclusive cornucopia of skin tones and, if not a fifty-fifty mix of men and women, at least a lot MORE women than in past editions, and no perceived class bias, either. The illustration for the Fighter is a black woman in armor, looking as cool and capable as any D&D player character could. This was largely applauded, and the current rules state that skin color and sexuality are open in the game and have no bearing on mechanics or the world itself. Humans are humans. Everything else is a player’s choice.

I am willing to bet you a million dollars that, when they were working all of this out in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, that they would have ever dreamed that one day, they’d be raked over the coals on Twitter because the orcs aren’t woke.

I must confess, and I realize that I’m opening myself up for this, but I read the original tweet that started the firestorm, and I think this is a non-issue. Or, rather, this is only as big a deal as you want to make it. This, right here? It was  two paragraphs from one of the supplemental books called Volo’s Guide to Monsters. This is a book you do not need in order to play D&D. It’s not part of the core of rules. It’s optional, an add-on, non-essential. You have to seek this book out.

One of the main features of this book was taking many of the humanoid races that have been deemed “monsters” and opening them up for role-playing by players. Those two paragraphs are immediately followed by the background traits tables that all players use to flesh out their D&D characters. They include personality traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws. 

It seems to me that whatever orcs maybe used to be, they aren’t really that now, and that's been 100% by player choice, and if the rest of the 10-page entry on orcs and not just the two paragraphs above are any indicator, this is supported by the game itself. I’m not saying that orcs maybe aren’t differently problematic for some people, but I think it might be worth acknowledging what D&D got right this time before you tell the 40 million people playing it that they are doing it wrong.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Cancer: The Devil Defeated

In the middle of all of this insanity comes the best good news we've had in a while: Cathy is through with her course of treatment on the Red Devil. That doesn't mean we are done with chemo, or done with cancer. Only that we are done with the horrible poison they were putting into her body for the past seven months. Or to put it another way: we're not out of the woods, yet, but the deranged mutant bear that has been pursuing us this whole time finally gave up the chase and we can take a minute to catch our breath before resuming the hike to get out of these woods.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Health Update: Cancer and Quarantine

Cathy and Sonya, rocking the matching sweaters.
It's been a while; too long, in fact, and I sincerely apologize. 

We're all friends here, so I'm just going to dive right in. 

I'm not in a good place right now. About two month ago, I realized that with the stress of the recurrence of Cathy's cancer so quickly on the heels of the successful surgery, and the subsequent difficulty of Cathy's chemo treatments on her (and by extension, me) this time around, I had slipped back into a state of depression. 

I wish I'd caught it sooner. This self-diagnosis was a result of some tangential health concerns popping back up and me realizing that I'd not been addressing them like I had been before. Mostly therapy stuff, but also some physical symptoms, too. 

Man, this whole ordeal has just sucked. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Rise of Skywalker with medium-sized spoilers, casually thrown hither and yon

I’ve been reluctant to try and set my thoughts down on paper about the ending of the Skywalker Dysfunctional Family Drama, also known colloquially as The Star Wars Saga. I knew I would need to write about it, but I didn’t have any idea how I was going to get into it. Then a funny thing happened as I was recovering from my surgical procedure; I realized we were at the Fin-de-Siecle of sorts.

After all, it’s not every year that several major franchises wrap up long-time over-arching storylines, is it? We didn’t really celebrate the actual 21st century event horizon, since we were all too busy making sure Y2K didn’t happen. And then 2001 sucked all of the oxygen out of the room and, without getting off on a tangent, knocked us back into the 1980s in a lot of ways that we are only now seeing come to light.

All of the last 20 years feels like a virtual reality simulator designed by Cold War scientists to simulate what the Matrix was trying to provide us with; a reality fraught with strife, held together with flashes of popular culture, and an ever-expanding arsenal of shitty things to react to so that we stay miserable and jaded.

It’s fitting, really, that the last six movies in the Star Wars saga should be completed during these dark times.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Cancer: The Devil You Know

The water she has to drink
prior to the CT scan
It's been a while since an update, and that's because we've been overwhelmed with the new chemo cycles and the crippling downturn of the entertainment industry this year. I'm used to not being busy due to high school football, but it's been worse than that, and for months instead of weeks. We are both dealing with life, the best way we know how. My way, for example, includes bourbon.

At the last visit to the oncology center, Cathy was chatting with one of the nurses she's gotten to know better and we found out that there's a cool, fun nickname for the melted Flavor-Ice looking stuff that she gets at the beginning of each new cycle.

They call it "red devil."

I wish I was being funny.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1960s

The sixties were a decade of extremes. The joys of The Beatles and the British Invasion, the hipster excess of Frank Sinatra’s Ratpack, the birth of Marvel Comics, the Space Race, and trippy, free-loving hippies were opposed and even overshadowed by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy Assassination, The Martin Luther King Assassination, the Viet Nam War, and dirty smelly evil hippies. Historian Mark Kurlansky alleges that 1968 is when things took a turn for the sober because it is the year that television started showing uncensored and unfiltered images of the Viet Nam war and other important news from the other side of the world, and those real-life horrors certainly colored and shaped the events of subsequent decades.

I don’t think that the decade of the sixties was ground zero for the birth of pop culture as we know it, but I do think it started to codify around college campuses and having access to more forms of mass media. Books were cheap. Comics were everywhere. Nearly everyone could read and most folks had access to a television. Airlines were flying people from Los Angeles to New York. Pop art was emerging. The Cult of celebrity was nascent. It was a groovy, happening time, driven mostly by the ever-mercurial “Youth Market” and it drove the first tentative wedge between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers.

This decade, then, was the battle ground between generations, as the protests on college campuses later in the decade would attest. Things changed, seemingly overnight, and the world became a darker, more frightening place. It made the Elvis movies and the Beach Romp Teen Comedies seem more vacuous and out of place, but there were suburbs everywhere that these movies were playing to packed houses.

In some ways, the decade was also the last hurrah for the American Dream; the bill of goods that Generation X would inherit bore little resemblance to what the Greatest Generation or even the Baby Boomers had access to. The myth of America had been exposed, but it would take a few decades more to fully die. The horror of the 1960s is largely about exposure, metaphorically or otherwise and commentary on our collective impressions of the status quo. We don’t know who the monsters are anymore, and that’s because we are the monsters.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1950s

Post-World War II, American tried desperately to return to normal. The problem was, 1940 was ten years ago, before the atomic bomb, secret Communists teenagers running amok, and science greatly overstepping its bounds. The artifice of the 1950s can be seen in popular culture, at every level from newspapers and magazines on up to radio and television. The military-industrial complex seamlessly transitioned from ammunition to space-age toasters, and thanks to the G.I. Bill, everyone could afford a house and get cracking on the business of having a job, having kids, hosting cook outs, and living that American Dream.

It was all weapons grade baloney, of course. In the midst of all this prosperity, the threat of encroaching Communism was portrayed as very real and something to fear. This was the time of the Hollywood Blacklists, the start of the Cold War, and real-life Cat and Mouse games with Russian spies.

And let’s not forget the emergence of youth culture, too: rock and roll became big business, thanks to Elvis Presley kicking the door down for everyone that followed. Teenagers suddenly mattered, and that was terrifying to the establishment. Why, they’d only recently gotten control of juvenile delinquency by publicly “encouraging” (by way of televised Senate Sub-Committee hearings) the comic book companies to self-regulate, thus putting an end to crime and horror comics, presumably forever.

It’s no wonder that pop culture pushed back. The fifties saw the rise of counter-culture, the codification of what would become known as Film Noir, and the popularity of darkly pessimistic novel writing, in particular hard-boiled crime novels from authors such as Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, and James M. Cain.

I don’t think anyone was really buying what America was selling, but the mindset was one of wanting to conform, to belong, to fit in, even if you don’t feel like you do. Horror movies moved from the gothic into the modern age, and made scientists and generals the patsies and the fools who usually exacerbated, if not outright caused, the monsters to roam free.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1970s

Cinema Verité. The death-throes of the studio system. Docu-dramas and New Age Woo conflated with UFOs, Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, the pyramids, the Moth-Man, and a variety of urban myths into a muddled roux of pseudoscience and fictionalized academic speculation.

It was a great time for monsters. Or rather, it should have been. Unfortunately, while the horror movies had a wealth of history and tradition to draw on, they instead relied on quick camera cuts, shaky, hand-held footage, and confusing storytelling to hide the fact that the mutant bear was, in fact, only a guy in a suit, and not a very good suit, either.

There was a lot going on in the 1970’s, both at home and abroad. Television had finally become ubiquitous in American households, and the networks wasted no time showing everyone the horrors of the Viet Nam war, the Manson children trials, the tragedy of the 1972 Olympics, and of course, the Watergate investigation. People were protesting on campuses, and four of them were killed at Kent State. The economy was in a recession and we were in the midst of an energy crisis. Is it any wonder we needed to escape to the movies?

Horror movies in this decade were largely reactive, and carried a verisimilitude of realism that wasn’t quite an imitation of reportage, but had enough leading headlines cobbled together to make it seem like the events could have happened. All pretense of decency was abandoned, and with it came shockingly realistic depictions of violence like what was shown (or implied) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Exorcist (1973). It’s not surprising that some of the most iconic and influential horror movies of all time were from this decade.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1940s

The 1940s found America engaged in the business of war, and for four and a half years, business was good. Then in 1945, all of the active service men came home and everyone was expected to pick up where they left off, before they had seen the atrocities of war. Most of the horror movies during this decade were produced by Universal, who had a growing stable of now-classic movie monsters to menace earnest young women, when they weren’t engaging in their own turf wars for supremacy.

The modern world was rapidly intruding on the gothic sensibilities of the previous decade’s horror movies, so Universal obligingly dropped the monsters into a more contemporary setting. Apart from the change of scenery, the monsters still grappled with their inner demons. What the 1940s horror movies seemed to be most preoccupied with was keeping it together. This would have real and fictional repercussions a decade later.

The optimistic propaganda of early wartime America was quickly subsumed in the aftermath of the atomic bomb drops that signaled the end of World War II and would soon usher in the Atomic Age and the Cold War in equal parts.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1980s

 Mullets, keyboards, and Day-Glo Swatches. Also, Dungeons & Dragons, Heavy Metal, and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. It should come as no surprise that with all of that going for it, the 1980s were a kind of Renaissance for movie (and TV) horror; the genre was popular on every medium from comic books to TV, movies and of course, the VHS straight-to-video market that sprang up to meet the seemingly insatiable need for more tapes.

I was part of this, however briefly. My family ran a video rental store in my small town and I worked there from 1985 to 1988. It was the best of times, to be sure, and I got to see (by acquiring for the store) lots of stuff that wasn’t making it to Waco, Texas, for some reason or another. Because I just liked this stuff, I was somewhat indiscriminate, which made our horror section the best, most eclectic selection in the area. As a consequence of this, many of my initial viewings of classic 1980s horror were on good old VHS magnetic tape.

The decade was one of weird contradictions; the surface, Cosby Show normalcy was a cover for the AIDS epidemic, a weakening of the public trust in government, drugs and crime in record numbers, and the dawn of Big Media in the form of cable television. MTV told us everything was going to be all right, but we didn’t really believe it.