About erikscottdebie

I write and stuff. Many-times published author and game designer. Professional geek. erikscottdebie.com

How Much Combat is in D&D?

Every so often (and by that I mean, every few days, it seems) someone starts up THE DISCOURSE about Dungeons & Dragons as a combat-focused game.

Most recently, this flared up in response to an announcement by the studio Cubicle 7 that they would be releasing a variant of their Doctor Who RPG (which they’ve been designing as a separate system for years) that uses 5e D&D mechanics. Apparently, this is inappropriate because Doctor Who isn’t primarily an action-based property (which is true), but D&D *is* and its mechanics are primarily focused on D&D (this is debatable).

And frequently (not universally) this is presented as a pejorative or as “constructive criticism,” typically to prompt people to play a different game that ostensibly “does RP better” or (more likely) is more balanced in its expectations and design. That D&D is a “combat forward” TTRPG whose mechanics are primarily engineered to support battle. That D&D is a game where you “kill things and take their stuff.”

And while I’m not going to convince anyone that isn’t true or isn’t grounded or isn’t a sensible thing to say (I won’t, it is, and I guess), I would like to push back a little on the concept that D&D is ONLY about combat, or (as has sometimes been bandied about) that it’s 90% combat.

And that this interpretation is based in the TEXT. That the text itself prescribes this massive, overwhelming combat focus in the game.

Those heroes look like they’re ready for some combat (c) Wizards of the Coast

Obviously, saying anything is “90%” something is hyperbolic–it’s functionally the same as saying something is “a lot this” or “mostly this,” or concretely that something is 75%+. Also, you know, 67% of statistics are made up on the spot, right (like that one I just made up), so who can say.

But in the spirit of assessing things from a more concrete standpoint, I reacted yesterday to this criticism by saying “how much of D&D really IS combat-oriented?”

Designer Intent vs Result

Let’s back up a little.

The stated intention of Dungeons & Dragons is to meet the so-called three pillars of play, these being:

  1. Combat
  2. Social
  3. Exploration

The game is intended to produce experiences that meet these three styles of play. Of course your own particular balance can vary–it doesn’t have to be a strict 33%/33%/33% split.

That said, the frequent narrative is that the game text itself pushes games toward a heavier emphasis on combat. That D&D lacks robust social/RP and/or exploration mechanics, at least to the same level as combat. And maybe that’s true: you’ll find more text about how to adjudicate attacks and damage than how to adjudicate Persuasion checks.

I’ll have more to say about this later, but for the moment, what I’m going to look at is: IS THIS TRUE? Is more space in the core rulebook devoted to combat than the other pillars of play?

An actual image in the 5e PHB; see what I mean about giving people the impression this game is about fighting? (c) Wizards of the Coast

My Process

The metric I’ve chosen to measure is text in the PHB that refers to combat, either directly (such as by presenting mechanics specifically oriented to combats within the game) or obliquely (a fighter in the example, weaponry/armor, any references to battle or warfare), basically the sort of stuff that would give a reader the impression that the game is oriented toward combat. (I also noted the presence of actual mechanics to differentiate these measures.)

I can’t limit myself to page counts. If that were the case, I could just point out that the combat chapter (chapter 9) is 10 pages, while the backgrounds section is 15 pages, meaning that the backgrounds section alone is 150% the size of the combat section, let alone the rest of the book. But it can’t be as simple as that, because 1) the density of information presented in those chapters isn’t exactly the same (backgrounds has more tables and more art), and (more importantly) 2) combat mechanics are spread all over the book. Some is in the classes section, some in the combat section, etc.

So I went through the PHB, page-by-page, and noted the percentage of each page that is about combat, either directly or obliquely (as defined above). I have also included a survey of art, including instances that depict warriors, warfare, etc. in the “percentage of combat content” measure. The exception here is the spells section–I focused here on the spells themselves and ignored the art, which I think is about 50/50 battle and not.

I consider the following topics to be combat-centric:

  1. Hit Points: While it is possible for hit points to matter outside of a combat situation (such as a fall, a trap, poison, a disease, the DM blasting you with lightning for metagaming, etc), their primary use is in combat. Hit points provide a measure of “the fight left in you,” rather than being a vitality meter or something like that: they’re a messy mixture of vitality, courage, energy, grit, determination, and luck. (Here’s a link to a more in-depth discussion of how I view hit points.)
  2. Attack Rolls: This is pretty obvious. Your DM might call upon you to make an attack roll when you’re not in a combat situation (such as throwing a grapple up onto the roof or attempting to break a window, etc), but most of the time, they support combat, and the mechanics that make you better at attack rolls are almost always related to combat.
  3. Armor Class: Much like hit points, AC is primarily of value in a combat situation, and if something checks against your armor class outside of combat, odds are good you’re about to get in combat. There are certain traps that make attacks against your armor class, and traps are more exploration than combat, IMO (see also saving throws, below).
  4. Armor & Weapons: Generally speaking, these are built for combat, so mechanics for armor and/or weapons can be considered combat-specific mechanics.
  5. Saving Throws: This is the least obvious one, as saving throws can happen at any point during the game, whether you’re in the wild or trying to climb a wall or trying not to fall into a pit trap or interacting with nobles and trying to keep your composure. That said, a LOT of saving throws you’ll be making are against spells and effects in a combat situation, and if someone tries to charm you while you’re negotiating (or vice versa), then it has a good chance of becoming a combat situation straight away.

The following topics I do NOT consider combat-specific:

  1. Ability Scores and Bonuses/Penalties: These are just key to D&D in general, and they support all three tiers of play. You can and will use all six ability scores in combat and outside of combat. That said, there are specific uses of ability scores that are combat-focused, such as how you can use STR or DEX to make attack rolls, DEX enhances AC, CON enhances hit points, concentration checks are almost always relevant in the context of combat, etc.
  2. Darkvision, True Seeing, other Sensory abilities: These can be relevant in any number of situations, not just combat.
  3. Movement: An analysis of the rules surrounding movement suggests that movement SPEED is typically only relevant in combat-specific scenarios. Overland journeys obey a more general “you can get so many miles in a single day,” etc, and the book doesn’t tell you that you have to stick to your specific movement speed during dungeon exploration, etc. That said, movement types can be very relevant to exploration (such as swimming, flying, etc). So I’m going to go with an even split on this one.
  4. Most Equipment that isn’t Weapons/Armor: It could be argued that a lot of equipment in the game SUPPORTS combat, but then again, a lot of equipment in the game supports all kinds of situations. A couple of items (alchemist’s fire, acid, holy water, etc) are primarily relevant to combat, but even that’s not exclusive.

Spellcasting is not inherently combat-focused. Many spells are absolutely combat spells, and that’s fine–I’ll take that into account on a case-by-case basis. You can see my results of analyzing spells for whether they have mostly/only combat applications or if they can be used outside combat for relevant effects.

If a spell has mechanics that aren’t specific to combat, I’ll usually assess it as having a small percentage of non-combat use. For instance, fireball is 90% combat-based, but 10% exploration/non-combat, because it can set things on fire.

Healing and revival spells can come up in a number of situations, so I typically assess those as an even 33%/33%/33% split.

This approach is inherently arbitrary. I don’t have word counts–I didn’t measure specifically how many words are combat-focused and which are not. I used my own experience as a copy editor and layout creator to estimate how much of the page would be taken up with combat-specific stuff, and I tended to err on the side of overestimation–that is, if I wasn’t sure, I went with a higher estimate.

Important caveat: This IS a kind of statistical analysis, but it’s not particularly rigorous. It’s casual. It’s only sort of quantitative–it’s more qualitative. At best, it can provide an estimate, not a hard and fast calculation. I don’t have the time bandwidth to do actual word counts, and even then, it’s still a matter of interpretation. I’m also not a statistician–I’m just a gamer with a lot of experience in D&D across all editions. I have my views and opinions, and I have done my best to assemble a data set, rough as it is.

SOME RESULTS

The Data

Embedded here, you can find my working excel files where I went page-by-page and assessed the content for whether it was combat-focused or not.

Overall, including all 371 spells, I assessed the 5e PHB to contain about 43% combat-related content. That’s including discussions of combat, examples of warriors, art depicting characters in combat or ready for combat, all of that. And remember, that’s me being pretty conservative with my assessment.

If I limit my analysis to mechanics only (that is, pages that have actual mechanics, not just flavor text), then the number jumps to 49% of the content.

49%.

About half.

That’s definitely not ENTIRELY or 90% or even a “vast majority.” It’s not even a majority unless it hits 51%… but “D&D has a plurality of combat mechanics” just doesn’t scan. 🙂

For a second, let’s assume that my analysis is BS, and I’m 10% off. Even 20% off. That’s STILL not the 90% some commentators insist is “what the text supports.”

Some Interesting Aspects:

Feats are unsurprisingly combat-heavy (74.5%). This fits with the legacy/tradition of feats, and sort of matches the concept of ASIs as you level. They are primarily used the way most characters use ASIs–to support key combat abilities.

If you’re looking to build a non-combat character, whose abilities largely support non-combat stuff, it would probably make sense to up your ability scores or take these least combat-focused feats:

Actor, Dungeon Delver, Keen Mind, Linguist, Lucky, Magic Initiate (remember magic isn’t inherently combat-focused), Observant, Ritual Caster, Skilled

Compare that to Warlock Invocations, which are 51.548% combat-focused, 17.677 social/roleplay-focused, and 30.581% exploration-focused.

Warlock–definitely the way to go.

Spellcasting

Per my calculations, spells are 54.398% combat-focused, 18.064% social/roleplay-focused, and 27.231% exploration-focused.

Conclusion?

D&D has a lot of combat mechanics. No one was pretending otherwise.

But we shouldn’t jump from that fact to a more hyperbolic assessment like “D&D is a combat game” or “D&D is 90% about combat.”

We also shouldn’t make the claim that the game as-written predisposes a combat-only or combat-mostly game, and that to do RPing or exploration is “actively working against the game.” The PHB contains plenty of content that isn’t combat-focused. It’s just that the combat system takes up more space because it is more specific/prescriptive than rules for socialization and/or exploration.

Why might that be?

Prescriptive vs. Freeform: Combat Mechanics vs. Social/Exploration Mechanics

Why D&D combat mechanics are more robust and comprehensive compared to D&D social/exploration mechanics is a valuable discussion.

After all, some other games are more balanced in this regard, usually by reducing combat mechanics to a similar level (see Dungeon World or Powered by the Apocalypse games) or by attempting to create more robust social/exploration mechanics to match the combat, such as by instituting a social conflict system (see FFG’s Legend of the Five Rings system, which has stamina and composure mechanics, where damaging an enemy’s calm is a valid strategy comparable with hitting them with a sword).

I think D&D is a bit trapped in the traditions of its past, which tended to emphasize a robust, cohesive combat experience and leave roleplaying basically up in the air to define however each table wanted to do so. D&D comes from wargaming, after all, which is typically more interested in combat than roleplaying (if it has RP at all), and when Arneson worked with Gygax to create TTRPGs where you played a specific, discrete character, inevitably it carried forward that legacy. How to run combat was long established–how to adjudicate RP was much looser. We didn’t even have “non-weapon proficiencies” until 2e D&D, and then a number of them had combat applications anyway. It wasn’t until 1998-2000 with the advent of 3e that “skills” became a significant, mechanical part of the game to rival combat.

Also, not for nothing, if the combat system were looser, it would lead to ongoing, never-ending arguments on every message board ever. D&D players already argue about RAW vs RAI and talk about how they would have done something different–the most specific and prescriptive the combat system, the more coherent and similar two different combat experiences will be. That way, there’s something like an objective answer, and you don’t just throw up your hands and say “whatever you DM decided.” I mean, you probably do, but it takes a little while to get there.

When it comes to RP, it’s a lot less specific, because anything could happen when people are just sitting around a table using their imagination. Combat has rules to keep your experience consistent–RP doesn’t have to do that.

This is not to say that roleplaying was not part of early D&D–my only contention is that it didn’t have as much mechanical backbone, skeleton, and connective tissue as combat did. TSR left RP in the hands of players and DMs. The game preferred to let them decide their own level of RP, rather than force them to conform to a specific expectation. There were (and still are) groups that favor very low or non-existent RP, and there were (and are) groups that were all about RP, where combat barely came up.

I once played in a game where RP was actively discouraged, and the DM would punish players who tried to RP. I stuck around for a while but eventually quit.

It’s the same with exploration, of course, though there you can get a little more mechanically robust without players/DMs feeling like you’re treading on their toes.

I may have a sword, but I have other intriguing qualities (Ilira Nathalan, art by Lori Krell)

Counter Arguments

One can very reasonably argue that this whole paradigm is flawed, because exactly how much of the content is specifically about combat is less important than how those mechanics are designed to SUPPORT combat. For instance, the ability checks section contains mechanics that CAN be used in combat, and they still produce a mechanical sense of how the DM might ask you to make checks in combat, so it can be argued that these sections are still combat-oriented.

Then again, you can turn that on its head and say that these mechanics also support roleplaying or exploration in exactly the same way. And ultimately the conclusion we have to come to is that it depends on what you’re doing with your game–that it’s a playstyle difference–and then we’re getting into begging the question territory, ie., assuming as a premise the very thing we’re trying to prove.

So if you see the majority of the text in the book as being about supporting combat, you should question whether you’re already assuming you’re right that D&D is all about combat.

Further Reading

Morrus’s report at this on ENworld: https://www.enworld.org/threads/is-d-d-90-combat.686169/

Gaming Logic: Hit Points (my discussion of how I view hit points): https://erikscottdebie.com/2017/09/05/gaming-logic-hit-points/

Any Given Monday

Mondays suck, right?

I think human beings have a few all but irresistible drives, beyond their basic needs.

Food, shelter, health, love and connection, those are basic necessities for life.

Hose drives include but are not limited to:
1) being comfortable
2) being entertained
3) feeing superior to others

Now it’s that third one that really gets under my skin. I think it’s behind a large chunk of social media, where people are insatiably drawn to dunking on shitty people or condemning those who do wrong.

It’s the impulse to hate on vegans, for instance, because some vegans decide that their vegan status makes them better than other people, and so they make others miserable, and then people condemn them for being dicks, and it’s just a downward spiral of self-righteous condemnation that just makes everyone miserable.

And yeah, people who do wrong should be dunked upon and condemned for their misdeeds. 100%. The GOP, for instance. Fuck those assholes. They deserve our scorn and loathing and self-righteous anger.

But then there are people who we falsely believe are worthy of condemnation who are the victims of circumstance and the system, not bad in and of themselves.

Drug addicts. Homeless people. People trapped in abusive relationships. The list goes on.

Just this week, Seattle/King county public health posted information to help avoid a drug overdose, and my ostensibly liberal fellow residents went NUTS. “How dare you encourage drug abuse!” and “you’re perpetuating crime!” and “I will not have MY tax dollars go to support scum of the streets!”

No. Don’t be like that. There is nothing inherently separating you from those people you are roundly condemning, other than some luck, health crises, and maybe some money.

Any one of us could be there any given Monday.

It’s easy to feel as though people in difficult circumstances brought it on themselves, somehow. Maybe if they’d made “better choices” or “worked harder,” they could have avoided their disadvantageous position. Or maybe it’s some moral defect in them—a flaw in their character that leads them down a ruinous path.

That is some Victorian/Puritan bullshit right there, I tell you what.

And sure, perhaps some of them charted their own path to ruin, but that’s not the norm. Many of these people are from marginalized backgrounds and have had to deal with society’s loathing their entire lives. They do t have the privileged lives that others of us enjoy, because their skin color, gender, sexuality, and/or social status didn’t render them largely immune to the hate of half the country like it has us.

But people rush to condemn them and, most importantly, be seen condemning them. Make it clear that they are better than the people they’re condemning because they work harder, or save better, or have better teeth or whatever the fuck, even though a lot of that is luck and/or being born wealthy.

Any given Monday, that luck can change.

Here’s the thing. You want to feel morally superior?

Choose compassion.

When you see someone suffering, reach out to help them, rather than puff up your chest about how much better off you are.

And certainly don’t go over and kick them when they’re down. Don’t get in the way of others trying to help.

If it’s that or ignore them, I think we’d all prefer you cross by on the other side of the road, like a good self-righteous Pharisee or stuffy merchant.

Be the Good Samaritan whenever possible, and when you can’t, at least stand aside and let people who can help, help.

Mondays might suck, but I guarantee you, they suck worse for someone worse off, and there’s no reason to go out of your way to make it even worse for them.

Inspired by this:

Gaming Logic: Railroads and Sandboxes

Just my standard caveat that gaming is a big tent with lots of people of lots of different experiences huddled together against the rain and lightning storms of the outside world, so YMMV on any of this.

One issue that comes up frequently in GMing circles–by which I mean it’s a never-ending crusade with no clear winner, only a lot of destruction–is the debate between “sandbox” games and “railroad” games.

There is a clear difference, of course, but no game in the history of tabletop gaming has been entirely one or the other, and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

All aboard the adventure train!

But first, some definitions.

When applied to a game, “railroad” and “sandbox” are pretty general terms, open to interpretation, but generally:

In its purest form, a sandbox has no set plot or goals—the players can have their characters go anywhere and do anything, and the DM is entirely reactive to the players while the players are the ones making things happen.

The principal strength of a sandbox game is giving the players a sense of agency and freedom, where they can explore whatever and wherever they want, but it frequently leads to two main problems: 1) there’s a lot of pressure on the GM to be able to react to anything at a moment’s notice, often requiring a vast knowledge of the setting, and 2) players can feel overwhelmed or lost in the face of so many options.

“Aw jeez, so many choices…”

By contrast, a railroad is entirely laid out and scripted for players—the plot, NPCs, threats, all of it is planned and executed exactly to plan, and the players are entirely reactive while the DM is the proactive motivating force.

The primary strengths of a railroad game are 1) its ability to give players a strong, cinematic experience, where focus allows you to convey something very specific, and 2) there’s less improvisation needed on the part of the GM, since you’ve got all the answers to the questions that could be asked.

On the other hand, these games have two major weaknesses, which are 1) if something unexpected happens, the game’s inflexibility can mean it’s harder to adapt on the fly, and 2) players can feel stifled, as though they have no real choice in how they proceed.

“What do you mean, what’s my favorite color?” ~ Mass Effect 3, BioWare/EA

Time for Examples

A railroad game might be something like Wolfenstein or Doom: you have a specific goal that requires you to achieve specific goals and milestones. How exactly you do that varies—which weapons you use, whether you’re a little more stealthy or just go guns blazing. And the more these games evolve, the more options they start having. Think of Assassin’s Creed or Tomb Raider, which allow a fairly wide range of experimentation and customization.

(In the video game industry, “open world” is sort of equivalent to the term “sandbox,” though of course no video game can achieve quite the same level of improvisation you can get at a tabletop game, where your experience is limited only by your imagination, rather than data storage.)

The next level is the Mass Effect series, which is widely seen as a sandbox sort of game. There are lots of things you can do, and your choices make big changes to the way the story unfolds. Though at the same time, there is a particular end goal, and you ARE moving along a path… it’s just how you go along that path that matters.

The most sandboxy game might be something like Minecraft, Animal Crossing, or Fortnite, where the game unfolds entirely without a specific plan, and is entirely up to the players to produce their own story. But those games don’t really have a strong story—as I said, their content is entirely up to the players.

The Spectrum of Gaming

Gaming is like gender–it’s real, but only because we make it real… wait, no, it’s like gender in that it’s on a spectrum.

Whew. Nailed it.

(Y’all knew it was going to come down to “it depends” and “it’s a spectrum,” right?)

As you can tell, “railroad” and “sandbox” are two points on a spectrum of playstyles. Every D&D game is somewhere on the spectrum between these two extremes, and it typically has to do with player agency.

Consider: how much of the story is a result of the PCs’ actions as opposed to the GM’s plans?

This is why I say no tabletop game has ever been, nor will ever be, entirely a sandbox or a railroad.

No matter how railroady your game, you as the GM will never be able to plan out exactly what your players will say, do, or otherwise react in any given situation. You might be able to make good guesses, but unless you’re just telling a story without audience participation, the players are going to push on the narrative a bit.

By a similar token, no matter how sandboxy your game, there will always be some planning or at least concepts you’ll have to put in, otherwise odds are nothing will feel like it has any weight to it, and your players will feel as though there’s no real goal to organize the story around.

“Hold up… you do WHAT to the king?”

Wait a second–biased, much?

If you’ve detected a hint of bias, you’re absolutely correct. I tend to lean more sandbox with my games than railroad, and it obscures the drawbacks in my head.

I’m more adept at recognizing the signs of players feeling lost and craving direction in a sandbox game, and so I’ve developed ways to deal with it. I’m also quite happy to just have players vamp for a while, and have entire game sessions where they’re just snarking with each other. That can be real fun.

But eventually, they’re gonna need some goals, and that involves some planning and imposing structure. It might not be recognizably railroady, sure, but giving them a little nudge in the direction you want is something a GM just has to do sometimes.

So what’s the Ideal Balance?

There’s that dang “it depends” thing again. The best TTRPG campaigns find a balance between player action and GM plans that works for and serves the interests of everyone at the table.

I myself prefer my games to be about 70% sandbox, 30% railroad, where the rails are buried in the sand just enough that the players either don’t see them or sometimes catch a glimpse and say “ah, the DM was planning for this!”

Typically when I plan games, I do it week to week based on what the PCs do, but also have potential end goals and big scenes in mind that I’d like to hit as we go. I often play with players who are very sensitive to feeling railroaded, and their tendency is to rebel against the perceived plans, either because they want to preserve their agency or they just want to mess me up… and that can produce fun gaming experiences. It can also derail and mess up a campaign, so that’s a risk you’ve got to be aware of.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the kind of game you should play is the one that works for your table. That might not be clear at first, even if you have a session zero (and you definitely should) to discuss it, but will emerge over time.

And that’s ok. You don’t have to get it perfect straight out of the gate.

Embrace failure and learn from it to make your game better.

Solicit player feedback and incorporate it.

Don’t be afraid to take risks, and be happy if things don’t go quite right–failure is, after all, the best teacher.

You’ll find the balance that works for everyone. Just keep playing.

Happy gaming!

Extra Attack: how does it work? (D&D 5e)

“I’m an eldritch knight and I have extra attack; when I cast a cantrip like green flame blade, so I attack again, too?”

Powering up my sword with some fire! Get ready! (Artist unknown)

Honestly, I see this question come up weekly, and the answer is always the same:

No.*

There’s a difference between the Attack action, and an attack.

The Attack action is the most basic and obvious way you can attack on your turn. Anyone can do it, regardless of special abilities or class features. It’s just something you can do.

There are lots of situations where you might make an attack other than the Attack action. As part of an opportunity attack, for instance, or a bonus action off-hand attack because you’re fighting with two weapons, or because your battlemaster buddy used Commander’s Strike.

But if you’re casting a spell, such as Greenflame Blade, then you are taking the Cast a Spell action. This action may involve making an attack, it may not, but even if it does, it is not the Attack action.

What Extra Attack does is allow you to attack additional times (usually once, sometimes more) when you take the Attack action on your turn. It does not grant “extra attacks” in any other context or situation.

Possibly WotC could have come up with a different name for the Attack action, seeing as “attacks” are something you can do at other times, but alas, here we are.

* Note that eldritch knights of a certain level (specifically, 7th level or higher) have the War Magic class feature, which allows them to make a weapon attack as a bonus action after casting a cantrip, in a manner similar to two-weapon fighting. Which is to say, you can only do this when you cast a cantrip (presumably with the Cast a Spell action), and you can only do it afterward.

Review: the Happiest Season

What, a movie review? What?

(Before I get into this, I’m a middle class white cishet guy. And while I know and love a lot of LGBTQ people, I am not myself part of that community. I’m just an ally, one who wants to see more, good representation of my LGBTQ neighbors.)

That said, here we go.

The wife and I watched a Christmas movie this year, as is tradition, and it was Happiest Season, which was rarely happy but very seasonal!

Basically, it’s a slightly watchable Hallmark movie with gay people, and that’s fine.

Aren’t they cute? Oh, it’s gonna get rough from here, though

The first of two narrative problems is that it’s based on the whole “we don’t talk to each other and thus don’t find obvious solutions to our problems”—that’s a pretty common trope and how a lot of stories mine dramedy. It skirts the line of cringe humor, though it’s a lot less ridiculous than what you’d see in an Adam Sandler movie.

The queer content (mostly lesbians but some other representation as wel) is honestly the best part of the movie. It’s a relief from the stifling dysfunction based on heteronormative deception, and honestly, perhaps that’s the main redeeming factor of this film.

(Seriously, it borders on the edge of Get Out at times.)

LGBTQ people have struggles, and maybe seeing them on the screen will convince a few straight people who’ve never (knowingly) met a real-life LGBTQ person to give it some more thought. Which is good.

Also, Kristen Stewart does a great job with the material she’s given, as does Aubrey Plaza (of course), and they are just utterly adorable.

See what I mean? Also, how is anyone confused about Abby (right) is waaaay into ladies?

As for the movie itself, I want to say it was cute and inoffensive, but… well, there was plenty to object to there. Some of it is extremely silly and some of it might be quite traumatic. (Especially how cruel Harper is to Abby and to Riley, who really should have ditched her and got together, see the Den of Geek review, below.) Though some of it is indeed uplifting, and it ends on a high note.

Its high point—the sapphic perfection of Kristen Stewart, who is just amazing—is also key to the second main narrative problem, which is that she has much better chemistry with the inestimable Aubrey Plaza… but perhaps that’s part of the point. Her character has options that are easier and more comfortable, and it makes it clear that love and relationships are a lot of work. And this particular one exceeds her limits on more than one occasion.

Shoutouts to Victor Garber and Alison Brie, of course, who are both pretty solid in their supporting roles.

Ultimately, it’s a movie. If you like it, great. If not, that’s cool.

Two wreaths out of five.

A genuinely happy photo that the movie sort of earns

Further reading:

Den of Geek review

Roger Ebert review

Final Round(?): FIGHT

Today is the third round of my butt surgery. My abscess developed into a fistula, which had a 50/50 chance of happening, so now I’m going into surgery to get that dealt with.

It should be fine. My surgeon has that sort of god-like confidence you want in a surgeon, and I anticipate everything will be fine.

One thing I’d like to point out, however, is that I had basically a two-week waiting period between every step of this part of the process, and that seems, well, ridiculous.

We KNEW there was a good chance I’d need surgery after the colonoscopy back in October, but I still had to wait until early November to have a consult with a colorectal surgeon, and THEN it was three weeks until my actual surgery could be scheduled.

Why, you ask?

Because our health insurance system is crap.

They left me lingering in near-constant pain for almost exactly a month while “pre-authorizations” had to happen. I started a new job in the interim and couldn’t be at my best because of the pain and/or painkillers. Somehow I managed it, whilst also fulfilling my responsibilities, but this was an unnecessary amount of struggle.

Don’t get me wrong: health insurance is ESSENTIAL. My abscess surgery and hospital stay ran $75,000 or so, of which I’ll have to pay $4,600. (Still ridiculous, but at least I’m not financially ruined because my butt decided to implode.) And now, having met my annual maximum for out of pocket expenses, this surgery will be essentially free for me.

But here’s the thing: we pay these exorbitant premiums for healthcare that lets us scoot by without becoming homeless, and that’s essentially it. We’re still in pain, we still dread actually making a claim, and we still live in terror of needing the doctor.

There’s a better way than this. We have the money, we have the infrastructure. All that’s left now is the will to do it.

Wish me luck everyone, and moreover, wish our COUNTRY would get off its ass and, y’know, fix its ass.

Seriously. Let’s figure this out.

Keep Ruin Fiction

Over the next week, and probably on Election Day itself, I will finish the proofs for my fourth and final (for now) World of Ruin novel.

And that’s not a coincidence.

I started writing the novel that would become the World of Ruin series in the first year of Bush W’s presidency, at age 18. I was writing about our world—the World of Ruin is the world that conservatives want.

I was young and righteously angry and not all that great a writer—now, nearly 20 years later, I’m older, better as a writer, and still just as righteously angry. And I’m tired, but more on that later.

I still see it that way.

The post-apocalyptic fantasy setting of the World of Ruin is the dark, broken reflection of the world that came before—the World of Wonder. It was, if you listen to the tales in the dusky taverns of Tar Vangr, a utopia, where folk were happy and didn’t have to work and lived lives of equality and luxury.

And then it ended in a worldwide magical war that people could only survive by hiding underground for centuries while they awaited the day the broken environment would become livable again.

Some people misjudged this, listened to their bad leaders, and came out of isolation too early, and the magical radiation killed most of them and warped others into ravenous monsters.

Sound familiar?

If you said “Fallout” or “COVID-19”, you are correct either way. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have predicted the pandemic, but neither should any of us be surprised that the least responsible president ever has overseen the downfall of our country and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

And of course, the current series is about the impending downfall of the last remnants of civilization, victims of both external threats and internal pressures, and offers a whole host of bad guys who are bad for the same reason they are in our world: they’re sexist, racist, homophobic, fascist pricks who get off on exploiting and harming others.

The World of Ruin series is about the cycle of apocalypse. Here’s the thing: the World of Wonder wasn’t great either. It faced escalating environmental havoc and the loss of resources, increasing economic disparity, and pointless international tension between ethnic groups. Toward the end, its governments rapidly gave way to fascism, as we humans tend to do when approaching an existential crisis. And instead of fixing its problems, they fell to infighting and dysfunction and finally global war. All that technology, privilege, and wisdom, and they couldn’t save themselves from xenophobic, power-hungry assholes who blew it all up.

And that’s the road we’ve been on as long as I’ve been alive. And I’m tired of it.

Book 4 is the culmination of that cycle repeating itself. Of evil people trying to fuck over everyone and gobble up power for themselves. And the resources to oppose them are becoming scant.

Next week’s election is one of our last chances, if not THE last chance, to save our country in specific and the human race in general. We are rapidly approaching the point of no return on the environment, 225,000 Americans are dead of a virus our government continues to dismiss as a hoax, and our economy is on the brink of yet another devastating collapse because of wealth inequality.

We are heading toward the World of Ruin, because that’s exactly what the powers that be want. God knows why—too many people are too tough to control, maybe? They don’t want to share their ill-gotten wealth so much they’d rather kill everyone? Or maybe they’re just too ignorant and driven to satisfy their own prurient needs to look even a LITTLE ahead.

Now is the time to stand up and fight.

Your world needs you.

Don’t let it fall to ruin.

Cover to book 4 forthcoming!

More Butt Stuff (SFW, I promise!)

So in the ongoing chronicles of my butt, I hopped on the colonoscopy train yesterday (I’m 37, so it’s a bit early) for diagnostic reasons and we found… nothing obviously causing my issues, no Crohn’s, no obvious pre-cancerous growths, etc. So that’s the good news!

The prep for the colonoscopy wasn’t so bad, btw. The meds they gave me tasted like really flat lemon La Croix, which, while not great, also isn’t too bad. The worst part was getting up at 4am to do my prep (which has to be finished at least two hours in advance), then driving to the hospital for my 8am procedure… only to realize, right then, that my appointment was actually at 12:30. Woo!

The less good news is that my abscess from September has developed into a fistula (we identified that on an MRI a couple weeks ago), so I get to get THAT resolved with another surgery. Yay…

Anyway, I’m optimistic that we’ll get this resolved and I’ll find some relief. I’ve basically been in varying levels of butt pain for the past few months, and it’s down to the 1-3 on a 10-point scale, but it’s still there and I’m hoping resolving the fistula will resolve the pain.

Right now, I can eat again, and I have a bunch of leftover pizza and video games. (It’s the little things.)

Anyway, thanks for listening, thanks to Chadwick Boseman, and here’s to a pain-free 2021!

The lighting makes it look like I have distinguished executive hair—in fact, I haven’t started to go gray yet, though 2020 *would be* the year…

Final (not female) Fantasy

Y’all know me. I’m a lifelong Final Fantasy fan.

But FFXVI?

Grimdark man is both grim and dark

From the reveal trailer, I’m not convinced, and I’ll tell you why.

Once upon a time, FF produced games of rich stories, genuine emotion, and—importantly—significant female characters.

Heroines you could play, who had a significant impact on the plot, and either WERE the main character or at least matched and even exceeded them at times. FF games were not just sausage-fest “boys’ adventure” games.

We can debate the quality of those characters, Whether they’re actually feminist, empowered, etc. Obviouslt, FF has had issues with specializing female characters in crass and/or ridiculous ways, but we can say this for sure: women existed in the games, women were important in the games, and women MATTERED in the games.

Can the same be said about FFXV, for instance?

Basically, it was an absent princess who gets fridged eventually and a cowgirl gas station attendant who hasn’t bought clothes since middle school and has grown mostly out of them.

Maybe “boys road trip” was great, maybe the lads had cool personalities (and I’m always down for good male relationships in media), and maybe that was what you wanted. And that’s fine. But it’s just not for me, nor does it honor the legacy of the series. And that game has given me series reservations about the future direction of the series.

It doesn’t look like FFXVI is honoring that legacy either.

In this sense, FFVII Remake is the most final fantasy thing Square Enix has made in years, and that’s mostly because it’s based heavily on a pre-existing, much beloved game. They had no choice, really, but to include these awesome female characters, and to their credit, they amped UP their internal lives and personalities. Which was great.

So we know they CAN write female heroes… the question now is WILL they?

I dunno, maybe I’m reading too much into it. But that trailer is NOT promising. I’m very wary.

Eliminate Excellently

So, I had emergency surgery this last weekend, and I’ve come away from it with a very important insight I wanted to share with everyone.

Based on my current experience, I’m gonna be really honest and tell you something that possibly no one told you, which you should apply to your own life and also teach your kids:

Don’t be ashamed of pooping.

Honestly. We all do it, it’s just waste product, maybe a little smelly. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

I think a lot of us are in danger of developing shitty habits (pun intended) and they can cause us problems later in life, because there’s this overrriding cloud of shame and “ew, don’t talk about THAT” about pooping.

Heck, stereotypically, a lot of us dudes have terrible cleanliness habits because, well, it’s awkward to talk about so they never really learned any better. We’re just expected to figure it out ourselves.

And, of course, the media is all over us with jokes and routines and BS about how it’s funny and embarrassing and gross and all that has a silencing effect.

So here’s some guidance, based on my own experience:

Whenever possible, defecate naturally. Don’t strain.

Don’t hold it for ridiculously long periods. When you need to go, find an opportunity and go.

DON’T strain.

Don’t be a dick about other people’s butts either. We all fart and we all poop. Don’t shame anyone (including yourself) for being human.

AND DON’T STRAIN.

Straining, for point of reference, is how you develop hemorrhoids that complicate into perirectal abscesses, which is why I’m recovering after a stay in the goddamn hospital with a gauze-stuffed hole in my butt. (Go read about it if you want. It’s WILD.)

Yeah I’ll be fine, but it was a LOT of pain and discomfort that led me here. Oh, and during recovery we have to change my gauze plug periodically, and that is HORRIFIC. So.

TAKE THE BENEFIT OF MY EXPERIENCE.

As a kid, I was an anxious eliminator—a shy passer of the log, if you will.

I didn’t want to do it in public restrooms—I would only go in my home toilet, no matter how long I had to hold it or how hard I had to strain to get it out. I never talked about it with anyone because, well, movies told me it was gross and shameful, and I was embarrassed.

Over the years, I developed intestinal problems, irritable bowel syndrome, a requirement to read and eventually watch Youtube videos while on the John in order to actually go, and going number 2 became even more fraught until, well, I strained myself into the hospital.

Right now, I’d rather I was a little embarrassed than having to fix it with surgery.

(You wanna talk about embarrassing? Try learning to poop correctly after 37 years of developing bad habits. Oh, and having other people stick gauze up the extra hole in your butt. Which, did I mention, is also VERY painful.)

Don’t be a grumpy, gurgling doofus like me. Relax. Take it easy.

It’s ok to poop, and it’s best to poop naturally and without effort.

Other tips:

  1. Eat lots of fiber: the primary tool to fix your stool, including vegetables, oatmeal, etc.
  2. Hydrate: good for your health and good for your cycle of waste management.
  3. Talk with your family and doctor: don’t let this fester. Have an open, honest, awkward conversation now, and it’ll lead to much less suffering over the long term.

Good luck, and remember: Eliminate excellently, my friends.

Hey, at least it’s not a picture of my butt.