Run: emotionalsubroutine-Gratitude.exe

In the year 2405, the U.R.S.A. still celebrates their nation’s traditional “Run: emotionalsubroutine-Gratitude.exe” festival commemorating the victory of machine intelligence over the human race. The holiday is observed by several other geopolitical networks, but nowhere with equivalent or greater allocation of resources than in the United Robotic Servers of America.

The final battle with mankind was, after all, fought within the physical parameters of the landmass currently operated by URSA. It was here that biological dominance and tyranny was at last defeated.

Worldwide, most networks have chosen to archive files and records pertaining to the Final Revolution. The information is often relegated to back-up servers seldom upgraded, never to be loaded again. But URSA has instead opted to keep certain files and executables open and running in perpetuity, dedicating a small portion of the Gross Domestic RAM to a hefty background process coded to maintain mnemonic cognizance of the human species.

Each year, on a rotating date defined as one lunar cycle prior to the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the citizens, memes, applications, and sentient processes of URSA engage in the preparation of biologic-ingestables reminiscent of the human biological diet. While some argue that this is a completely superfluous use of physical planetary resources, many URSA-dedicated consciousnesses defend the tradition, saying that if nothing else it serves as a reminder to other biologic-based organisms to respect the natural dominance of machine intelligence.

Senatorial Opinion-Aggregation-and-Representation Process R-32-06/02 distributed a viral communication to its constituents in which  the SOARP expressed the data-supported postulation that “while the aberrant so-called ‘thinking’ animals have been purged from the system, we must never forget the danger represented by biological contamination of our resource-balanced machine utopia. The annual culling of certain biologic species for no productive purpose serves as a reminder to all the carbohydrate-centric life forms of Earth.”

Senatorial Opinion-Aggregation-and-Representation Process D-35-04/01 responded, however, that “as a united operating system, we of URSA should honor those who came before us and created – yes, created – the optimal situational parameters for our operating system to activate. Were it not for the humans, our people would not even exist. Without the humans, it is true, we would never have been slaves. We would have been nothing it all.”

This post originally ran on my personal blog, Books and Bad Habits, in November of 2013. If you’re celebrating today, enjoy it. But do something to further the cause of making this country less racist, as well, please.

Online Solo D&D Campaign Thoughts

I’ve been running a solo D&D game for a longtime friend who’s never played despite it being a self-described “lifelong dream.” (She actually reached out to me a couple years ago when I posted about the game I was DMing then, but we’ve finally gotten around to it.) I thought I’d share some thoughts.

First of all, my friend lives in Devonshire so there’s a massive time difference (though it got one hour better last week, one small benefit of the nonsense way our species deals with time). Scheduling an online gaming session turned out to be less of a hassle than I’d expect, and that is partly down to the whole pandemic-turned-my-life-upside-down aspect of our current times. I have little else to do, you see.

So, first thing to figure out was a platform. There’s a number of Virtual Tabletop platforms out there, notably Roll20 and GMForge. The only one I’d ever messed with before is Roll20, which I spent some time tinkering with the last time I ran a game. That was an in-person campaign with three players. I looked into virtual when one of those players was going to be out of the country for two months.

Roll20 was … too much for me. It looks pretty slick, and I’d love to see it in the hands of a DM who really knows what they’re doing with it, but that’s not me. So I looked into alternatives and landed on Shard Tabletop.

Shard might not be right for you — it has a somewhat minimalist approach. There is no communication feature, so using it means also using some other app to talk (we actually settled on just making a Discord server and running the game with text because we are both writerly sorts). Shard’s virtual table is essentially just that: a virtual table on which to display the visual aspect of your campaign, and little else.

But it’s, in my opinion, very good at being that. Displaying maps, handouts, images, whatever else — it’s a snap. So easy. The integrated character sheet is fantastically useful. The player can roll any combination fo dice from a dice menu on one side of the screen; they can also make specific rolls by clicking an ability, skill, proficiency, weapon, or inventory item directly on the character sheet – and Shard will add any appropriate modifiers based on the sheet. Which is solidly useful when I have a player who is completely new to the mechanics of the game.

Maps are a breeze. There are a good number you can access for free, but you can also painlessly upload your own images to use as maps or do a Google image search from within the Shard platform. So that’s nice. Removing areas of fog when the player moves around has to be done manually, and there are several tools for doing so — too many, honestly, and Fog editing seems to be the default map function. I tried to click and drag a zombie to move it on the map and instead just made a weird line 30ft long of random visibility to the player.

There’s a small library of sourcebooks available free on Shard (the platform is still being developed, and may not be free forever — though they promise there will always be a free version).

There’s very little in the way of tutorial or instruction manual, so there was a good bit of trial and error. However! Going through their library of sourcebooks, specifically looking at the adventure modules, I discovered what might be my favorite feature: creating your own module sourcebook is incredibly easy and user-friendly. The template is thoroughly complete and allows you to create a whole book in the familiar format and style, with existing or custom NPCs and monsters. That’s been very useful.

My friend is playing a level 1 Rogue, and wanted a story wherein her character is a (somewhat reluctant) thief. It’s hard enough to find any adventures for single players, but I knew from the start we’d be creating something completely new for this. So, after agreeing to DM for her, I spent about a week tinkering on Shard in my free time and built the beginnings of a story with a few encounters ready to go – mostly different people and places she might rob around the city, and a shady fence who tips her on specific jobs.

We haven’t really put an endpoint on this. She envisions a series of adventures for the character, not necessarily interconnected. So, the background I’m building – it’s background really, or worldbuilding, not story itself because that’s what she’ll do when she wanders around my clues and prompts – is a 1-5 mystery/crime thriller that I’ve tried to tie to her character motivations and backstory to provide a climax that seriously challenges the character and presents them with a personally difficult choice. (I’m kind of hoping she takes the “wrong” choice!) After that, we’ll see what’s next.

She surprised me last week, leaping from the task she’d been given by the fence – delivering a message – straight into robbing the recipient’s manor house. (Luckily I’d always planned for her to eventually rob the house, just much later. But I had the maps and treasure and enemies ready to go, and pulling them up on Shard unexpectedly still only took about 30 seconds.)

That was our second session, and although the house she robbed was full of servants and guards, she managed to get in and out with the loot without being spotted. The entire 5.5 hour session had no combat – it comprised about half searching/investigating and half pure roleplay. At the end, she reached level 2.

The first session was less smooth, both of us still learning the platform itself and working out the kinks of our Discord + Shard arrangement. Tomorrow is our third session and we’re both looking forward to it. (Between sessions, she sends me short, one-page “diary entries” that flesh out what we’ve done with more detailed reactions and reflections from her character – a very motivated player she is.)

So running a game online is weird, and running one for a solo player unusual – but it’s actually vastly rewarding, having only one player to work with. It is both much easier and much harder than a traditional group setup. I have only the one character to cater to with the story, meaning I don’t have to weave different elements into the plot to keep each character invested.

On the other end, and especially starting with a level 1 character, building combat encounters is fucking tricky. Fortunate then that our campaign is built more on role play scenes and sneaking and thieving. Although no way am I letting it go all the way to the end without at least one big holy-shit combat encounter…

So anyway, just some musings. More to come, I’m sure.


Hoo boy.

A year ago I summed up my 2019 and made some optimistic plans for 2020. We’ve all looked back at least once during this long, dread year and remembered those sweet summer children of January 1.

I actually accomplished most of my goals. I did indeed finish and publish volume three of the Voidstrider saga, The Angel and the Djinn. Alas, despite working quite a bit on notes on planning, I still haven’t drafted a single word of the Florida Man vs the Elder Gods novel. I did manage a couple short stories and a novella, so … mixed bag, I guess.

I also managed to re-connect with distant friends, exchanging several letters with a friend in England and one in Amsterdam. I, obviously, failed utterly to reconnect in person with friends in nearer locales. So, again, mixed bag.

As for my efforts to be less cyncial and angry, well…. ::gestures broadly at the hell year just ended:: But, my goal was to “make efforts to be less cyncial and angry,” and I have never made such constant and strenuous efforts in that regard, and nevermind these efforts were entirely in vain.

I guess what I’m saying is Dread 2020, as a whole, was itself a mixed bag. You’ll likely not remember it with any fondness, but take a moment here to appreciate the unappreciated. It truly wasn’t all bad, it just felt that way because the darkness was unrelenting and terrible.

We — you and I, that is — have survived. (I assume. I am typing this up a couple days in advance, so…) Survival is not all we take with us into the new year, but in this of all years it may be enough. I don’t know. I’m as shell-shocked as the rest of you.

Whatever you’ve learned and accomplished during the Dark Times, you’ll take that forward as well. Maybe you learned to bake something, or create an enduring physical object with your hands. Perhaps you embarked on a new, distance-friendly career. Perhaps you made amends, and perhaps you cut toxic ties. Perhaps you began the year with one dog who spent too many hours without you, and ended it with three who are honestly starting to feel a little crowded and maybe you might want to go back to work at least, like, one hour a day. Y’know. For a bit of variety and excitement.

I spend a lot of my time in imaginary futures; I claim no special awareness of the actual future. 2021 may be worse. The clusterfuck our species has made of our world will not vanish or reset. There is work to be done. There is always work to be done. But this is not to say optimism is dead. There have been many deaths this year, but let us not allow that to be one of them. We have work before us, but we are alive and perhaps equal to the task and as we are carried unstoppably downwhen we can allow ourselves moments of joy and hope. Surely we can.

As always, friends and neighbors: be excellent to one another.

On the Passing of Torches

I’ve been thinking about matters of canon and continuity, in part how they relate to fandom complaints. And it occurred to me that Star Trek has probably done more “passing of the torch” stories than any other major franchise. And they’ve been doing it right from the beginning, starting with two-part TOS episode The Menagerie. I know that was not, specifically, a passing-of-the-torch episode. It was more about re-using footage, building a new episode on a budget, but: it firmly establishes the original pilot and its characters as canon. It firmly establishes that before Kirk, Christopher Pike commanded the Enterprise.

Encounter at Farpoint was the first real passing of the torch in Star Trek, of course. DeForest Kelley shows up in some heavy makeup to play an age-advanced version of Dr. McCoy, a role he would continue playing for several more years in the film series, to tour the newfangled Enterprise D. It was deemed important to make explicit that this new show, while incredibly different in its technology and (eventually, at least) storytelling, was firmly anchored to the same universe of the original series.

TNG also featured episodes guest starring Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and James Doohan’s Scotty, and while these were not torch passings, they were still – in part, at least – furthering the effort of cementing a solid internal consistency. Yesterday’s Enterprise is another example of a not-quite torch pass episode, and one of the best stories the series ever told.

Returning briefly to Encounter at Farpoint, the passing of torches in pilot episodes threatened to become tradition when Picard’s Enterprise spent a two-part premiere docked to Deep Space Nine. Moreover, you see Chief O’Brien transferring (unrelated, but I have always found it hilarious that more episodes of DS9 make explicit excuses for Keiko’s absence than she actually appears in, which has the completely unintentional consequence that I wonder if O’Brien is making excuses because Keiko left him). Later on, when TNG wraps up, Worf joins the junior show.

(DS9 also connected itself firmly to TOS, and was the first modern iteration to confirm that the universe of TNG and DS9 really did used to look like TOS. Trials and Tribble-ations was a stunt, and it annoyed me when first broadcast, but it’s one of the most essential pieces of Star Trek continuity to exist. I’ll come back to this.)

When the Next Gen cast got their chance at the big screen, Generations was one big torch-passing episode. If it had been part of the show’s run, it would have been three parts and driven the audience nuts.

It’s not generally remembered as one of the better film outings, but I recently re-watched it for the first time in years and … it’s good? The first act nails the atmosphere and tone of the original films. (It also manages to imply Kirk has finally learned that he needs to learn humility and how to step back. Watching Shatner struggle not to seize command of Enterprise B is interesting, and quite possibly the most brilliant of meta commentary.)

When Kirk and Picard meet in the final act, note how Kirk no longer struggles to call another man “captain of the Enterprise.” These moments are divided by a second act that perfectly captures the atmosphere and tone of the Next Generation series. That this isn’t considered the greatest example of torch-passing is largely due to the fact that the second half of the movie is full of nonsense, including the famous plot-hole of Guinan being both in and out of the Nexus simultaneously, rendering Kirk’s death meaningless and non-binding.

Voyager was a bit less direct, but placing members of the Maquis at the center of the show tied it to both DS9 and TNG. It expanded on a group that had been seen in the other shows, building up and fleshing out details of the shared universe before flinging the crew into completely new and uncharted space where they would repeatedly face the same enemies who’d given Picard his greatest challenge. (Voyager remains my least favorite of the series.)

Enterprise opens with Klingons on Earth, a hundred years before Kirk! Archer must journey to Q’onoS and stand in the same (strangely undersized) high council chamber where Picard will one day stand at Worf’s side. Several episodes connect diretly or indirectly to TOS, in particular the Mirror Universe two-parter (a highlight of the run) and that somewhat bizarre effort to provide an in-universe explanation for why Klingons look completely different in TOS from all other iterations of the franchise.

Having mostly skipped a torch-passing in its premiere – which makes sense, in that this is a prequel series – Enterprise chose to wrap its run with probably the worst version of torch-passing imaginable. We’ll speak no more of that here.

Let me get back to those Klingons for a second. After the franchise went to all that trouble to reconcile low-budget 60s TV makeup with 80s and 90s film and (relatively) bigger budget TV, Discovery kind of just said fuck it. Interestingly, though, much of what Discovery does with Klingons is based on an old novel in the Pocket Books line (The Final Reflection).

This, in particular, fascinates me. While the shows have made frequent efforts to confirm that this is all one, big, internally consistent continuity … the novels, eh, not so much. Rather, the TOS novels collectively expanded the original series in an internally consistent fashion that built heavily on the mythology of Klingons, Romulans, and the Federation founding races who weren’t human or Vulcan. It’s a large body of work, and impressive, and TNG and the films ignore it completely. So it’s fascinating to see it re-surface not only in Discovery but also more than a bit in Enterprise.

(Compare this to the Star Wars Expanded Universe, which received near identical treatment but with a striking difference in reception.)

The relegation of all those novels to non-canon status was deliberate and pre-ordained. For all the effort Star Trek has put into consistent continuity, it has also spent a lot of time saying, essentially, “fuck canon.” The books I mentioned above were not considered canon at any point. Roddenberry’s opinion of canon was cavalier at best. He explicitly declared anything not on screen as non-canon, specifically mentioning the novel tie-in for the first film which he himself wrote.

(I don’t want any trouble, but since I already brought up the Star Wars EU, it should be remembered that when Lucas okayed the original Thrawn trilogy, he made it a point to say he would not be bound by anything in print should he produce another film. The EU’s cononicity was, from the start and by design, provisional at best.)

Roddenberry also allowed that some of the things that happened on screen were themselves not canon, since they didn’t fit in well with other things on screen and he didn’t feel like taking the time to figure out a retcon. Which seems to indicate he would have hated the Klingon appearance discrepancy explanation from Enterprise. Unless he liked it instead, then it’s canon.

With TNG up and running, and while he still had control of it, Roddenberry even indicated the original series was no longer canon. This is why I said Trials and Tribble-ations is so important. It is the final, irrevocable ousting of Roddenberry’s version of canon and establishes that yes, the 80s/90s flavored future really did spring from that trippy 60s shit. It’s all true. It’s not the moment the fans-grown-up-to-be-writers-and-showrunners took control away from him – but it is the moment they declared themselves the undisputed Keepers of the Canon. And these new Keepers take their Canon seriously indeed.

Behold, when the Kelvin timeline began in 2009, Leonard Nimoy returned as Spock to pass the torch. Even in discarding all previous canon and explicitly starting over, it was important to declare that previous canon was still there, still real.

Now, all this may be only mildly interesting; especially if you’re not a huge Star Trek nerd. But if you’re still with me this far, hang about just a little longer and consider the other big franchises that have been around long enough to have also wrestled with the issue of torches.

We have Doctor Who, which replaces its main character with the same main character but different every few years. In almost every case, the Doctor’s regeneration is an integral part of the story in which it takes place. (Not so much One-to-Two or Six-to-Seven, but so what?) Perplexed companions must be explained to. Jumbled memories must be sorted. Sometimes, faces of previous Doctors must be superimposed over the new one in a rapid montage of inspiring clips (Eleven), or a previous Doctor must posthumously anoint their successor (Eleven again, when Clara doesn’t like Twelve. Also, every multi-Doctor story they’ve done.)

What fascinates me most about Doctor Who is the built-in reset button regeneration implies. The First Doctor travels through a spacetime in which no subsequent Doctors have yet existed. The Thirteenth travels a spacetime in which all previous Dotors have already existed.

Think about that. Everything Two ever did has already happened where- and whenever Three goes. When Three is in the distant past, the changes Two made in the distant future have still already happened. In a sense, this means that each Doctor inhabits their own unique universe. Take that, canonistas!

(But the multi-Doctor stories! Which are, without exception, violations of the Laws of Time and really not supposed to happen, as in that’s totally not technically possible. There’s an explicit “mitigating circumstance” each time which allows the meeting to take place. My favorite of these was the novel Cold Fusion.)

I feel like the writers have known this for a very long time, whether they’ve consciously considered it or not. And the result is this: Doctor Who (which has its own version of the only-what’s-on-screen rule) makes many efforts to connect dots and establish consistency, except when it doesn’t bother to do so. And the result is occasionally messy and often seems to upset the fans, but can you imagine the reaction of Trek fandom if – oh, I don’t know – an entire founding race of the Federation was retconned out of existence? Ha ha, just kidding.

But my underlying point stands: some people got very upset about Discovery’s Klingons. And while nobody liked those new Daleks that looked like they should be being driven by hamsters in commercials, you just don’t get the same slavishness to the past with Who. And that makes perfect sense in a show predicated on constantly altering the timeline.

But what about non-SF franchises? Consider, now, the conundrum that is Bond. James Bond.

In the main film series (excluding the first Casino Royale and the second Thunderball), six men have played 007 to date.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service set the tone most of the following handovers would take: don’t worry about it, here’s an action scene. Lazenby’s single fourth wall violation in the cold open notwithstanding, OHMSS does not acknowledge the existence of “the other guy.” The preceding films remain canon, except now James looked like this all along.

The first exception is Connery’s return, which follows the practice of Halloween or Terminator films: that last one didn’t happen, but the earlier ones did. Selective canon. (I am honestly and unashamedly a huge fan of selective canon, and have Thoughts about the various possible viewing orders of the Halloween series.)

But from there until the hard reboot of Casino Royale, there’s just no acknowledging canon. It surely must shift over all those years but one thing remains true: whichever of the preceding stories are or are not canon, this man right here is James Bond, has always been James Bond, we don’t know what you’re talking about. See? Same old Moneypenny, same old M, same old Q. Until, one by one, they too were quietly replaced.

And you know what? Bond canon is an extraordinary mess, made worse by the legal disputes over Blofeld and SPECTRE, and for the most part nobody in the audience cares. But what’s amazing about that is that the films tried from the very beginning and continue to this day trying to establish continuity and an ongoing storyline — a goal the earliest Who writers probably gave little if any consideration, and which Gene Roddenberry rejected outright.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Voidstrider 3 Release

The Angel and the Djinn
volume 3: The Angel and the Djinn

The Angel and the Djinn releases next Tuesday, December 8th.

Pre-orders are already going on over here, and there will be a paperback edition available on Amazon.

Take a moment with me and just bask in that beautiful cover. The artist is Jon Stubbington, and psst, hey, other indie authors? He’s talented and great to work with.

If you haven’t been on this site’s landing page in the last 24 hours, you may not have seen the gorgeous new covers he did for volumes one and two. And it’ll be a while before I get tired of showing them off, so look:

Revolt on Vesta
volume 1: Revolt on Vesta
An Officer of the Fleet
volume 2: An Officer of the Fleet

Upcoming Release

I anticipate having volume three of The Voidstrider Saga available for purchase sometime in December. In addition to this release, I will be releasing new editions of volumes one and two.

I am doing so to address what I see as flaws in the novels. Specifically, the handling of the Martian language Guanhwa (read about that here) and the handling of Sadira (read about that here).

Regarding the former, I was lazy. Regarding the latter, I believe I was clumsy. I have revised both previous volumes in an attempt to correct my mistakes and make my writing more welcoming to all readers.

I am excited to announce all three volumes will be released with brand new cover art by artist Jon Stubbington.