GM Advice: Should I Ban Evil Alignments?

I don’t “ban” evil alignments, but I discourage them without really good reason.

Over my career as a DM, I’ve run across a lot of players who want to play evil characters and end up breaking or killing games. They may be playing badly or take their evil alignment the wrong way or whatever, but the results are the same regardless: that the carefully crafted game falls apart, feelings often get hurt, and the fun shrivels up.

D&D isn’t easy to pull off sometimes, particularly as you get older and the logistics of getting everyone together get harder. So why take such a huge risk if it isn’t necessary for your game?

Evil alignments typically require an experienced, very mature, very respectful player to pull off. In the hands of an inexperienced or self-centered kind of player (a “but I was just playing my character!” type), the character is almost certain to mess up the game for everyone.

I suspect AL forbids NE and CE–only allowing LE, and then only if you’re Zhentarim–for similar reasons. It’s even more apt there, because you’re siting down with a table of strangers, and we’ve all heard stories about con games and the sorts of harassment that can come out of those. Even if no abuse is intended, it’s so easy to misunderstand the motives of strangers and have a really shitty time if they’ve acting up.

So, the answer is Probably, at least until you’re very comfortable with your game and your players.

Gaming Logic: DMPCs

They’re like any NPC, but better–because the DM likes ’em more.

Er.

Before I say this, remember that D&D is a lot of things to a lot of people, and so my opinions won’t necessarily be yours. And that’s ok. It’s a flexible game with lots of potential, and you can make it your way. It’s fine.

Now then:

PC vs. NPC vs. DMPC

First, some terms:

PC” stands for player character. These characters are controlled by the players (usually each player controls one PC) and are, typically, the most developed and sophisticated characters in the game. They have ability scores, attack and defense mechanics, spells, skills, and feats.

They have the most screen time and are rightly considered the main characters of most (if not necessarily all) campaigns.

They usually have backstories and often very detailed physical descriptions. Odds are the player or maybe the DM has looked online for a picture that matches their conception of the PC, or maybe even commissioned a pic of the character.

The game is typically understood to be an ensemble story about these characters.

They are the main characters of the game.

“NPCs,” on the other hand, are non-player characters. These are essentially every other character in the game and are typically controlled by the DM (Dungeon Master).

Depending on their significance to the plot, one NPC might be really developed, while another might be just a name and a couple personality traits that sells the PCs a new sword or some potions.

Villains are NPCs, some minor, some major.

Regardless, NPCs aren’t usually supposed to be the focus of the story in a typical D&D game.

(Note: you COULD play a subjected sort of game where the PCs are all support characters to a NPC that is the “hero” the main story, but even then, odds are most of the game will still be about them.)

So what’s a DMPC?

As commonly understood, a DMPC is a NPC (controlled by the DM) who is elevated above the level of most NPCs both in their mechanical maturity (often they’re about as articulated as the PCs, perhaps having a full character sheet) and their relevance to the plot. They may be there to help the characters directly, fill out the ranks in combat, or maybe they just hang around.

This character is essentially the character the DM would be playing, were they a player. In a very real sense, they ARE playing this character, in addition to DMing.

DMPCs are frequently considered quite negatively, and many players will not play in a campaign that had them.

Some players get REALLY pissed about DMPCs being included in the game, and even if they tolerate them, there are usually a lot of jabs and jokes about these characters. But why?

What’s Wrong with a DMPC?

DMPCs get a bad rap for a number of questionable DMing behaviors, and it’s not entirely unwarranted.

it is incredibly easy to screw up a game by using a DMPC poorly, and it’s even easier to use a DMPC poorly.

We’ve all been at a table where a NPC swoops in and does something super important before the PCs get the chance. Or a NPC who is part of the party but somehow always has the spell they need or never actually fails at an attack or skill check or something. Or a NPC seems to be invincible, constantly surviving for story reasons.

(Don’t worry, guys—I’m not from the DM’s novel or anything! I’m sure I can be hurt just as easily as you! Art by Raymond Swanland)

Maybe a DMPC gets a full share of treasure and XP, which can make the PCs feel short-changed on their own accomplishments.

DMPCs can bog down combat, especially if they have the same level of complexity to their abilities that the PCs have. They have a specific initiative marker and attack numbers, armor class, and sometimes even spells and other abilities that require you to look in the book.

If the DM has to adjudicate all their abilities, that further divides their attention, as though there were another player at the table, eating up an entire turn.

Sometimes the DMPC will be the driving force of the game. And I don’t just mean when the DMPC talks to NPCs, and it becomes a one-man show. They come up with the idea to get into the palace, they talk the party past the guards, they sing the key song at the ball, and then they are the one that finally challenges the big bad evil guy (BBEG) to a duel. The PCs essentially become spectators in the game.

It’s easy to interpret this NPC as getting extra favoritism from the DM, as if they want to make their own character awesome at the expense of the other PCs.

These are obviously bad behaviors on the part of the DM.

What’s the Proper Way to Use a DMPC?

Generally, the PCs should be the focus of the campaign, not any NPC, and that includes the DMPC. They should serve the same purpose as any NPC: to support the story of the overall campaign, whilst not getting in the way.

What’s important to remember is that they should NOT bog things down. Use Narrative Combat techniques: Don’t roll for all a DMPC’s attacks or checks–just narrate the effects. Have your DMPC fight more enemies in the corner or the room or go off into a tunnel to cover the retreat–only roll for their actions if a PC’s immediate status depends on it. Otherwise have them recede into the background while the PCs battle the real threat or conquer the real challenges.

Also? Have the DMPCs fail from time to time. No one ever succeeds at everything they do, and a NPC who never blows a check will just irritate the players and break the immersion.

Reasons to DMPC

There are several key purposes DMPCs can and should serve, if you’re gonna use them, which I’ll illustrate with the aid of some examples from games past.

1. The party needs specific mechanical support:

Sometimes the players build their characters and no one wants to run the cleric or the rogue or some other important archetype the campaign requires. In this case, sometimes the DM needs to run a regular, generally mechanically straight forward companion character who will be with them basically all the time.

For instance, I ran a witch/pirate sort of DMPC in a Seventh Sea campaign whose role was to be the “face” of the party, since no one else was a talking/charisma sort of character. What she would do was go distract guards or hosts or whoever while the rest of the group sneaked in and did their stealthy-stealthy, stabby-stabby thing. And it worked fine.

2. The DM needs an organic voice:

If your group has a lot of discussions and scheming, and/or your campaign is very RP heavy, you as the DM may want a means to participate in the deep party mechanic in an organic way, rather than the voice of the omniscient narrator.

You’re playing the game too, after all, and you can really enrich the experience by being involved directly through a DMPC.

Care must be taken here to avoid violating player agency here. You can steer them or toss out hooks they might be forgetting (your DMPC reminds them about the shrine they saw in the way into town, for instance), but you can’t and shouldn’t make decisions for them. DMPCs should always be secondary to player decisions and even if they really disagree with the decision, they should drop the subject and move on. The last thing anyone wants is a nagging NPC reminding the PCs of their mistakes, as the NPC sees it.

3. You take turns DMing:

Some campaigns are structured in such a way as to have multiple players taking turns as the DM, in which case each DM usually has a designated character they play when it’s their turn to be a player.

My first log running D&D game saw the advent of Whisper, an elven thief (2e) who I would pick up and run when one of my fellow gamers wanted to DM for a while. She was kind of an outsider and occasional backstabber to the group, but her role and presence were very good for the team, I think.

4. Guest players need a character:

Sometimes you have guests who sit in at the table for a session or two, and it can make sense not to have them build their own character (who you then have to incorporate into your game) but rather to play this DMPC that the group has been adventuring alongside for years. That’s instant team-building there, and it can give a new player a chance to see a team at work in the game without a clunky integration process for their first game.

Generally speaking, if that player is gonna join the campaign for the long term, it’s best that they build their own character at some point, but sometimes new players love a NPC so much they keep playing that character, and that’s fine.

5. The story demands depth:

Some games require extremely deep characters who go along with the PCs and need to be very significant to the plot. For instance, in my Persona tabletop campaign (based on the Shin Megami Tensei spinoff games of the same name), the whole concept is a growing group of characters whose number often exceeds that of a D&D party–no way am I gonna have 20 players in the game, but I need that many deep characters, some of whom will be adventuring alongside the PCs.

A key here is that I will only have one or two DMPCs actively participating in combat alongside the PCs. Too many and it’ll get bogged down. (See what I said about narrative combat above.)

Example DMPC:

In my current 5e Realms campaign, I have introduced a character called Red Rosalyne, who is the half-sister of one of the PCs (himself the half-brother–other half–of one of the other PCs), who is a half elf bard/paladin. She has important healing skills, provides a useful perspective in party conversations as a DM insert (I can inject good humor and suggest considerations), and she enriches the story for multiple PCs. Her noble background provides useful ins to certain noble NPCs, and her religion (devout Sune worshiper) leads to all sorts of compelling discussions with the other PCs, one of whom (her brother) is kind of not religious but obviously blessed with near divine charisma and another who is kind of a reincarnated goddess (it’s complicated).

(Red Rosalyne, artist Dan dos Santos)

I like having her in the game, and she provides an important support and voice without distracting from the business at hand. She never takes center stage, and she’s only there to deepen the PCs’ story. She’s also a NPC that a guest player could jump into without much trouble.

Ability Scores, Stat! About Charisma

Charisma is like pornography–I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

Erm, let me start over.

But first, a caveat: Dungeons & Dragons is intentionally open-ended and subject to interpretation. It is meant to spark decades-spanning debates, foster a sense of camaraderie, and sometimes destroy friendships. (Ok, not that last one.) The point is, all this is my opinion and my perspective, honed over 25 years of gaming, since grade school.

What is Charisma?

Let’s talk about what Charisma isn’t.

For a lot of its history, D&D has fostered this impression–not exactly a misconception, but an oversimplification–that Charisma is a measurement of how beautiful you are.

That your physical appearance is the primary factor in how well you can convince people of things, how well you can persuade people, how much people like your performance when you’re rocking it out, and how good a leader you are.

Or, y’know, how effective your sorcerer spells are. Or your paladin smites. Or your warlock invocations. Or basically any magic you do unless you’re a wizard or cleric and thus not one of the cool kids.

Hot damn. She looks like her fireballs would be hard to dodge because she’s so pretty. Wait, what? (Artist unknown, found on Fjcdn.com)

I mean, yeah, beautiful people *are* often very good at lying, and we believe CHA-focused characters (like movie stars) way more than INT-focused characters (like scientists) about things like 1) Is the Earth round? and 2) Do vaccines cause autism? and 3) Who should we elect as president, a racist yam or a competent woman who looks a bit tired?

Ahem. All right, that was too easy. Ahem.

Charisma isn’t just skin-deep.

But what is it?

History of Charisma in Dungeons and Dragons

In the early, halcyon days of kicking down doors, killing people, and taking their stuff we call early D&D, Charisma, that 6th ability score on the list, was an easy dump stat. It typically wasn’t relevant to your adventures, except for the occasional social encounter, when it would give you a static bonus or penalty to the check to determine whether randos wandering across your path would like you or not. Ostensibly, this would determine whether the randomly determined table of prostitutes (no lie, look in the back of the 1e DMG) tries to get you to hire them or tries to stab you and leave your corpse in the gutter.

I’m just saying, game designers can be lonely. And sexist. (Source: D&D 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide)

Otherwise, a high charisma served three distinct purposes: 1) allow you to qualify for the paladin class (Prerequisite: CHA 17? WTF?), 2) fuel how many followers you attracted at high levels (higher charisma equals a better leader, equals more hangers-on, you know, like in real life), or 3) indicate whether a character was female (without fail, every female character in an early D&D book has Charisma 15 or higher–fight me).

In 2e, Charisma didn’t have much purpose other than what I’ve outlined above, and some Nonweapon Proficiencies. You’d get a reaction bonus or penalty with NPCs, so you’re well served to have the charismatic PC be the face of the party. This didn’t always translate into “make the player who can talk good” into being the party leader, and often the more interested and forward roleplayer would end up with the low-to-average charisma bruiser and your kid brother who just wants to be included ends up playing the Chaotic Evil fighter/mage with the high charisma who starts ALL the fights. (True story.)

High Charisma, Zero Chill. (artist unknown, found on Gameforge.com)

When WotC rebuilt D&D for 3rd edition and later for 3.5th (rd?) edition, they decided to make Charisma more significant. They introduced the sorcerer–like a wizard, but for players who didn’t want to do all the tedious spell management and preparation and just liked a few spells they could use to blast things. They introduced the warlock, whose magic worked similarly but was largely dependent upon how clever they were in negotiation their pact with some evil eldritch entity (#Cthulhu #HighCharisma #Chosen). And there were a lot of skills, many of which actively used Charisma. No longer was it the dump stat of yore.

At this point, it became clear that Charisma wasn’t just “how much people like you.” It was still that, obviously, but it had to tap into this RAW STRENGTH OF SELF POWER. You were literally (er, figuratively) walking around with a ring with a heart symbol on it, and you did things BY THE POWER OF HEART.

Around this time, when they were picking races for 4e, WotC decided that Charisma had become so important, and that it was more about COOL than BEAUTIFUL, that tieflings went from having a Charisma PENALTY (in 3e) to having a Charisma BONUS (in 4e)*. Also because darkness is cool, kids. Eladrin (or high elves) had a Charisma bonus. Half-elves had a Charisma bonus. All the races who are cooler than you, a mere human, became literally cooler, on average, than you.

* Note: Tieflings also had a Charisma bonus in 2e. Because those designers knew darkness was sexy.

In 4e, Charisma became important also because it was significant to your defense. You could resist enchantment, compulsion, fear, and other such sorts of effects based on your Will defense, which was calculated either with your Wisdom OR your Charisma. Yes, you could literally tap upon your massive ego to ward off a wizard commanding you to perish with a death spell. Or to remember that you are, in fact, a high level monk on a mission to find a lost scroll, and not a small squirrel that you were just polymophed into. (Though to avoid the polymorph, that’s actually a Fortitude thing.)

High Charisma squirrel. (Found on Tumblr, because Tumblr)

(Come to think of it, I think that’s a DM ruling and not a RAW example, but anyway, you get what I’m saying.)

In 4e you could also take Combat Training (Charisma), which allowed you to use your Charisma modifier AS YOUR ATTACK MODIFIER. You could literally out-cool, out-beauty, out-insult, or out-fox an opponent. With a sword. To death.

5e tripled down on the “Make Charisma the New God-Stat, GTFO-Dexterity” quest, and now, well, everyone can stand to have a few points in this big, complicated, important ability score. Bards (the OGs of Charisma) use it for their performances and magic, sorcerers and warlocks channel it into casting spells, while paladins and even clerics (really? clerics!) use it to reflect the strength of their faith while channeling divine power.

I predict that in 6th edition, everyone will use Charisma all the time, and it will be a primary ability score for all classes. Because social skills are important, kids. Stay in school, but mostly for recess and extra curriculars. (Go Rams!)

What Charisma is, 5th edition:

Charisma is this murky combination of physical appearance, social skills, ego, self-confidence, and awareness of self.

A charismatic person is instantly likeable, instantly noticeable, and draws your attention, affection, or jealousy. They may be eloquent with words, persuasive, charming, or just deeply, emotionally supportive. You’re more likely to click with someone with a high charisma than a low one, and become friends with them quickly. If they ask for a favor, you’re likely to go right along with it, no questions asked.

High charisma people are the people you’re constantly talking about, whether in a good or bad way. They may be drama factories or cool, controlled badasses you want to emulate. You probably believe them easily and want to think the best of them, or if they’ve wronged you, it’s easy to feel manipulated or toyed with by them. This isn’t to say that you instantly fall in love with everyone you meet with a high charisma, or that anyone just becomes a stalker around a person with high charisma. But the odds are you’ll have a more favorable impression of them than some other rando you meet on the Internet, er, street.

You, man. YOU. (Fallout 4, Bethesda)

The higher the charisma, the more pronounced the effect. It’s like fame: the more famous you are, the harder it becomes to avoid notice, and the more stalkers will be drawn to you. Really high charisma becomes a curse in its own way–a lot of people like you, but it becomes difficult to tell if they like you FOR YOU, or for how charming, powerful, beautiful, popular, etc. you are.

Charisma also represents your inner strength and force of will in an offensive sense. In D&D, sorcerers can literally manipulate magic that wells up inside like a spring, and obviously Charisma is the force that does that. Warlocks are much the same way, though that power originally came from the eldritch entity they somehow convinced to give them power. Paladins use Charisma when smiting things. Etc.

Charisma is great. Important.

So what do various Charisma stats mean?

I’m gonna say a few things about each level of charisma, and try and give an example that we can all relate to. We’ve all seen the Lord of the Rings movies, right? Welp.

Charisma 0 is an object. If you have Charisma 0, you don’t know you’re not an object. You can’t tell yourself apart from the world around you.

A sentient plant is CHA 1. If you have this level of charisma, you sort of know you exist, but mostly you’re an automaton.

An animal is probably Charisma 2-3. At this level, you know you’re a separate being from the world, but you see yourself as being a part of others. Your pack, for instance, is also you. You serve a purpose in that pack. The wargs in LotR have this level of Charisma.

Brutish humanoids have Charisma 4-5. At this level, you’re a bit more settled than an animal and you sometimes disagree with others of your own kind. But generally, you do as you’re told by those you see as superior and you don’t even consider having a conversation. What would be the point? The orcs and goblins in LotR typically have Charisma around this level.

Most humans range from:

Charisma 6-7: You have low social skills and limited emotional affect. You avoid others, and they avoid you. You have difficulty relating to people and a weak sense of self. Gollum has this level of Charisma, as do most Uruk-hai (augmented orcs).

Charisma 8-9: You’re gruff, brusque, rude, irritable, just some person most people don’t like very much. People don’t like paying attention to you and look forward to escaping a conversation with you. Gimli the Dwarf has this level of Charisma, as does the leader of the Uruk-hai (y’know, that jerk with the bow).

Charisma 10-11: You’re average, competent, can carry on a conversation, and are kind of forgettable. Many stranger don’t keep track of you if you don’t hang out a lot. Most hobbits in the Lord of the Rings have this level of Charisma, including Frodo and Sam.

Charisma 12-13: You are sunny, interesting, charming. You’re the one people want to be friends with. There are things about you that others want to learn or experience, such as your excellent singing voice or your inspiring bravery. Merry and Pippin have this level of Charisma, as do Eowyn and Faramir–likeable enough, but easily overshadowed by greater presences.

Then you get into the higher tiers, which are increasingly rare and make a big difference. At these tiers, you’re the kind of person who can walk into a room and all the attention goes to them, regardless of what was happening–unless someone with a higher charisma is there:

Charisma 14-15: You are magnetic, compelling. You’re the popular one in the class. You set trends, even without meaning to. You are a competent leader, but you don’t inspire fanatical loyalty. People trust and admire you and try to emulate you. You have your moments of greatness. Arwen and Boromir have this level of Charisma, and Gandalf is probably about here.

Charisma 16-17: You seize people’s attention without doing anything. You might be the beloved leader of an entire community, a great hero, or perhaps a person of great faith or principle. People may get flustered trying to talk to you, and you who can talk most people into doing whatever they want. You can lead a fellowship into battle and they will follow you into peril. This is Legolas’s level of Charisma, and it has most to do with how handsome and graceful he is.

Charisma 18-19: You are a star. People grow happy at seeing you and start crying when you’re upset, people can’t help but love you. You’re the beloved king of a nation. People have a hard time focusing on anything else while you’re there, and often people lose track of what they were saying when engaged with you. You can lead armies into battle. Aragorn has this level of charisma.

Charisma 20-21: You have an unnatural appeal and power that exudes from you like nothing most people have ever experienced. Yours is an otherworldly presence that makes most people either nervous or distracted around you. It takes a similarly strong sense of self to question you or argue with you. Galadriel has this level of Charisma, as does Sauron.

Examples of High Charisma

James Bond, for instance, has high Charisma.He’s very good at getting people to like him, and it isn’t just his sparkling personality. He’s an excellent manipulator and well known as a womanizer, which he couldn’t accomplish without high charisma.

I’ll have those dice shaken, not stirred. (image copyright MGM)

His actual attractiveness is up for debate. I mean, I’m not really much to judge, but I do know that Sean Connery and Roger Moore look fundamentally different. Daniel Craig has a hard, predatory look and riveting blue eyes that might have been chipper from an iceberg and… ahem, like I said, I’m not really much to judge. Regardless, James Bond is one charismatic asshole, emphasis on the asshole.

Speaking of charismatic assholes, Tony Stark. Sure, he’s handsome and all, but it’s mostly the money and the attitude. He just projects self-confidence, which is why he’s most compelling (IMO) when he’s at his weakest in this respect, in Iron Man 3. But I digress. Generally speaking, Tony Stark is the charismatic face of the Avengers.

Lots of money, mostly. (Image by Marvel Studios)

Tony’s charisma doesn’t always help him. Sometimes it gets dangerous people involved with him. He attracts lunatics, and I don’t just mean the big green ones. Whether they’re jealous business partners, dedicated assassins, or creepy stalkers with bad hair, many of Tony’s worst enemies are envious of his success and charm.

Speaking of charisma not always being a good thing, Galadriel.

Yes, yes we will. (Image from New Line Cinema)

Seriously, mostly people can’t even act normally around her, she’s so beautiful and graceful and serene and then when she goes DARK, it just gets MORE and… you know what, I’m going to move on.

I think you get what I’m saying.

Examples of Low Charisma

High charisma is all around us. Kings, queens, paladins, everywhere you look, there’s some charming dude or steely-willed lady commanding hapless rubes to their deaths.

And most people around us just have average charisma. Most of us also have average charisma. We take care of ourselves, we hang out with friends, we try to be attractive if that’s what we’re looking for, etc. But most of us are just a crowd, and the high charisma people are the ones who stand out in the crowd.

What about LOW charisma, though? How is that represented in the game?

There are lots of ways to explain a lower charisma.

A character or creature with low charisma suffers from a significant deficit in one of the things Charisma represents. They might have zero social skills. They might have very little sense of self or be extremely timid, lacking confidence. They might have hideous deformations, scars, or other wounds. These might all combine to produce a low charisma character.

For example, a low charisma character might have grown up far removed from society and have no ability or interest in that society. If your wood elf has a charisma of 4, for instance, then odds are they really aren’t good with people at all.

If I were designing this character, I’d go the feral route. Your wood elf would be little more than a beast and probably doesn’t have much interest in being treated otherwise. Completely out of their depth in etiquette, social interaction, or even basic conversation. They frequently offend people even when they’re trying to be nice. They might not be house trained or able to stop themselves from making a mess of their surroundings. They might relieve themselves in public or just take their clothes off without regard to the situation.

Did you ever play Final Fantasy III/VI? Do you remember Gau, that wild kid who lived out in the wilderness, was raised essentially by wolves, and could emulate enemy attacks? IMO, that’s an example of a low charisma character.

Remember me? Me friend! (Image by Square Enix)

Privilege Feats

I’ve said something like this before, but I was thinking about it this morning.

This is just my perspective, but I think of sorts of privilege as being like initial feats your character has. You don’t choose these feats–they are assigned to you and operate whether you want them to or not. 
(Though you could in theory take actions later in the game to modify how they operate, more on that later.)

All of them have different effects, and some are more broadly useful than others.

Having the “white” feat is almost always to your benefit, except in certain situations (wandering through a street in a black neighborhood late at night, trying to discuss racial issues with a room full of POCs, hiking in the mountains of Afghanistan or Iraq, etc). As with “straight” and “male,” it’s a pretty great, extremely OP feat that is almost always useful. (Possibly the only more OP feat is the relatively rare “Wealth” feat.)

If, on the other hand, you have say the “black” feat or the “gay” feat, it is of much more limited utility, and you run into significantly more situations where it either doesn’t help or actively injures you. Worse still if you have a bunch of underpowered feats, like a “POC” feat, “female,” “trans,” etc, which have a chaining effect. Your character’s going to run into a lot of issues in the adventure. 

As I said above, you can’t modify what feats you start with. You’re born white, you have the white feat. You’re born gay, you have the gay feat. You may be able to hide one or more of your feats (particularly the “not-straight” family of feats or “trans,” “NB,” “genderqueer,” etc), but over the long term that hinders your character quite dramatically.

You can take additional feats and skill trainings to modify how these feats operate, however. You could take the “ally” feat (which is more complicated than one might think before taking the feat) or the “feminist” feat (whose prereqs are easier if you have the “woman” feat, but doable for all). If you have skill training in Diplomacy and Empathy, then your “white” feat can be put to good use, and you might be able to take the “wealth” feat at some point despite not having the “white” feat, but it’s really, REALLY hard to get (mostly because other people with the “white” and “wealth” feats actively discourage you from getting it).

Anyway. If you’re trying to wrap your head around privilege, that might be a useful way to look at it. 🙂

Facets of Alignment: Chaos

Standard caveat: Alignment discussion is an ongoing, unending battlefield morass of discussion and debate and argument. (And, I would argue, it’s been purposefully set up that way.) You can and should develop your own perspectives on this subject, and if you disagree with what I say here, that’s cool. By all means, let’s talk about it.

Chaotic Good

Chaotic Good people run the gamut from political revolutionaries struggling against an oppressive regime to good guys who don’t much care about the rules to rugged individualists soaked in beneficence. They consider the good of people more important than the actual law, which they view with distrust or contempt. They’re often impulsive and disorganized, trusting instinct over planning, and often never run the same con or strategy twice.

Chaotic Good aims to misbehave, but always for a good reason.

Chaotic Good individuals are susceptible to their anarchic influences, and can easily end up skirting that moral line. Chaotic Good adventurers tend to be good at improvisation when their loose plans inevitably fall apart, and they consider adaptation more important than strictures. They tend to run from responsibility or authority, though sometimes they embrace it in the end because it’s the right thing to do. Their loyalty is to a cause, not to an authority.

Examples: Aragorn is Chaotic Good. Robin Hood is Chaotic Good. Zorro is Chaotic Good. Malcolm Reynolds is Chaotic Good. The Dread Pirate Roberts is Chaotic Good. Elminster is Chaotic Good. Garin Ravalis (from the World of Ruin series) is Chaotic Good.

Chaotic Neutral

Chaotic Neutral revels in chaos and disorder. A Chaotic Neutral person is unpredictable in the extreme and rarely repeats the same stratagem–if they even see it as strategy. They act on their whims and feelings and rarely edit themselves. They rely on themselves alone, take people by surprise, and often take pride in doing both. A Chaotic Neutral person generally has no use for law or authority and make go out of their way to frustrate the efforts of lawful characters and institutions.

Chaotic Neutral is independent, free, and only relies on itself.

A Chaotic Neutral person is marked by a streak of amorality–rarely do they side with a good cause, nor do they let the evil of an action make them hesitate. They need more compelling reasons than “it’s the right thing to do” to prompt them to action. However, despite its reputation, Chaotic Neutral isn’t intended to be carte blanche for “do whatever you want, whenever you want.” Yes, there is that, but Chaotic Neutral goes further. It is a lifelong commitment to defying expectation, trusting your instinct, and undermining expectations.

Examples: V from V for Vendetta is Chaotic Neutral. Deadpool is Chaotic Neutral. Harley Quinn is Chaotic Neutral. Catwoman is Chaotic Neutral. Ilira “The Fox-at-Twilight” Nathalan is Chaotic Neutral. Mask (from the World of Ruin series) is Chaotic Neutral.

Chaotic Evil

Chaotic Evil is our classic sense of what evil is–unpredictable, monstrously bad–and that seems to be intentional in the setup of the nine alignments. In truth, though, it’s no more or less evil than any other evil alignment–just often more obvious about it. This goes to how we pathologize mental illness, and we often make our villains out to be “crazy” and “chaotic,” but that’s another discussion for another time.

Chaotic Evil: Because some people just want to watch the world burn.

Just as Lawful Good isn’t necessarily Lawful Stupid, neither is Chaotic Evil necessarily Chaotic Stupid. We’re all familiar with roving, mad monsters that sow destruction and chaos for pleasure, but one can be quite a bit more subtle. There’s nothing about the alignment that says you have to be loud and bombastic. As long as you work toward the common ill, sow confusion and revel in setting people off their ease, pride yourself on being unpredictable and only serve your own interests, odds are you’re Chaotic Evil.

Examples: The Joker is Chaotic Evil. The drow, orcs, and many monsters are Chaotic Evil. Demons are Chaotic Evil. Ramsay Bolton is Chaotic Evil. Lilten Dlardrageth is Chaotic Evil (though he’s urbane about it). Fayne is Chaotic Evil, though she evolves to be more Neutral over time. Alistra Ravalis (from the World of Ruin series) is Chaotic Evil.

Thinge I learned at GenCon 50

1. I’m getting older but I can still stay up drinking and talking about totally random stuff until midnight every night. Because GenCon.

2. Even when I think I’m not networking, I am. People want to hire me for things. Just last night, I ran SotDL with some friends, which turned into a couple Sentinels of the Multiverse games, which turned into a good little chat with my oldish friend Christopher Baddell, the creator of the game, who may or may not need some design for his forthcoming Sentinels RPG. (Can neither confirm nor deny.) I have a bunch of threads there, and if you’d like some work, hit me up. I’m always open to chat and I rarely say no, because I love writing.

3. The Writer’s Symposium continues to be one of the best things about GenCon every year. This year we sold 10k tickets (yes–ten thousand!) and had all kinds of huge names and crowded events. If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it.

4. Elaine Cunningham is as cool as I expected, and it was excellent to meet her in person (finally) this year. Also read the book “How to be a Tudor” on her recommendation.

5. If you want to make a splash on the con floor, run a manually operated (as in people inside it) vending machine as your storefront, ala the Exploding Kittens people. See the video (on twitter until I can get it embedded here).

​​https://twitter.com/erikscottdebie/status/900020780951453696

6. My perpetual roomie Brian Cortijo is one of the nicest, hardest working guys in the industry and the Forgotten Realms community, and he always takes good care of me. Highly recommended as a friend. (Does Facebook do reviews?) Also, we should all be rooting for him to win the powerball because of reasons.

7. I was a writer panelist at one of Zombie Orpheus’s Gamers Live events, and it was fantastic. Must contact Chris and Sarah to do that again.

8. Larry Dixon and Mercedes Lackey are just as cool as the last time we hung out 10ish years ago. Larry remembered me and my work, too!

9. It never becomes less awesome to meet a stranger who has heard of you or likes your work. I’ll never get over that feeling.

10. If you want to push artists over the edge from “breaking even” to “turning a profit,” buy their stuff! That’s what I did with Claudio Pozas, whose work I will be displaying on my office wall shortly.

11. Food: Marriott breakfast is a bit better than the Westin’s, primarily because you can order a fresh omelette. Didn’t eat at Palomino’s this year–must make that a priority. Keep Sunday lunch at Granite City and Monday breakfast at Patachou’s an annual tradition.

12. Demo more games! It’s fun and energizing. And you never know what cool things you’ll discover. It’s so worth it.

Cheers

Facets of Alignment: Lawful

Caveat: This is a topic that has been, is being, and will be argued for time immemorial. So YMMV, of course.

I think of “Lawful” as a pattern of behavior that is organized and relies upon rules and systems to make things work. Discipline and “the rules” are how lawful people live their lives. Lawful people tend to be methodical, rigorous in sticking to a routine, and follow a very specific pattern of how they do what they do. Sometimes this makes them predictable, though sometimes they are very adept at outside-the-box thinking that can surprise opponents. While that may seem like a fundamentally chaotic thing, it only appears that way to an outside observer: a Lawful Neutral bounty hunter’s MO, for instance, might always include finding new and innovative ways to surprise a mark.

I’m going to give examples from comics, video games, and my own books to exemplify these alignments–note that these aren’t necessarily perfect examples, as many of these characters have had countless iterations and visualizations and you can argue lots of exceptions. A lot of these characters (particularly the LN ones) have good or evil tendencies, and that’s fine. In the case of Geralt, for instance, choices you make while playing the games he’s in can push him in a good or evil direction–he isn’t strictly neutral. These characters are sentient creatures who aren’t uniform in their behavior. Alignment isn’t a straight-jacket–it’s a general tool for describing behavior and outlook.

Lawful Good

A Lawful Good person believes in law and order being tools for the benefit of all, and will follow the laws of the land so long as the higher ideal of justice is served. A Lawful Good person has a strong sense of compassion and prioritizes helping those in need, even if it’s dangerous to do so. They are often extremely driven people, unable to tolerate injustice or stand by and do nothing.

Lawful Good types will be extremely uncomfortable with the very concept of bending the rules, much less breaking them, even if it’s for the greater good, in a way that a Neutral Good person would not mind as much, while a Chaotic Good person would advocate for breaking oppressive rules as the best course.

Superman, Defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Examples: Superman is Lawful Good. Obi-Wan Kenobi is Lawful Good. Daredevil is Lawful Good. Triss Merrigold is Lawful Good. Kalen “Shadowbane” Dren is Lawful Good.

Lawful Neutral

A Lawful Neutral person believes in law and order for their own sake, basically “those are the rules and we should obey them because they’re the rules.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that a LN person always obeys the laws of the land they’re in, particularly as a traveler, but they always have a set of strictures or a code that they follow to the letter, and generally they default to a basic respect for the laws of the land, as in “those are the rules that others follow, and they follow them for a reason.” They are often thought of as mercenary or “just following orders” types.

There is a hierarchy of rules: a Lawful Neutral person will only violate an existing law if it comes in conflict with a more important law, and then usually with great discomfort. They may or may not put on the appearance of being good and are sometimes described as being amoral or unfeeling (which is sometimes accurate).

A True Neutral person doesn’t cleave to the law in this way, while a Chaotic Neutral person may have similar priorities to a Lawful Neutral person (getting paid to do a job, for instance) but goes about it totally differently, ignoring or violating rules and expectations as a matter of course.

Geralt of Rivia, Witcher

Examples: The Punisher is Lawful Neutral. Mace Windu is Lawful Neutral. Dexter Morgan is Lawful Neutral. Gerald of Rivia is Lawful Neutral. Levia Shadewalker (Shadowbane 3) is Lawful Neutral.

Lawful Evil

A Lawful Evil person believes in law and order as a means for securing their own power and dominance. The rules are important, primarily because they can be exploited to disadvantage others. A Lawful Evil traveler pays only lip service to the laws of the land that conflict with their own personal code and set of strictures, and will ignore those laws they consider to be weaker than their own or worthless. A Lawful Evil person seeks power through organization and alliance, relying upon others to provide them the support they need to achieve their goals, which involve crushing their rivals.

Neutral Evil people may take advantage of laws but don’t feel much compunction about violating them or working outside them at the drop of a hat, while Chaotic Evil people usually revel in defying laws and rules and will gleefully shirk them whenever possible.

Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith

Examples: Lex Luthor is Lawful Evil. Two-Face is Lawful Evil. Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia are Lawful Evil. The Red Skull is Lawful Evil. Doctor Doom is Lawful Evil. Darth Vader is Lawful Evil. Vengeance (from Shadowbane 3) is Lawful Evil.

Norwescon 2017

Here is my schedule for Norwescon 2017!

Easily downloadable version here!

THURSDAY

Make A Villain – Fantasy Edition – 9:00pm – 10:00pm @ Cascade 3&4
G.R. Theron (M), Crystal Connor, Erik Scott de Bie, Esther Jones, Frog Jones
Join our panelists as they work with the audience to create a relatable, compelling antagonist.

 

FRIDAY

Let’s Build a Dungeon – 5:00pm – 6:00pm @ Cascade 9
Ogre Whiteside (M), Dylan Templar, Erik Scott de Bie, Ann Shilling
A dungeon? Of course! Where else are we going to put all the fiendish monsters and devious traps? I don’t have anywhere else to put all these chests and this huge family of mimics that looks like chests, do you? Join the panelists and other audience members in what’s sure to be the creation of one of the most bizarre dungeons of all time. It takes a committee to really make a monstrosity, right?

 

SATURDAY

Toxic Masculinity as Villain – 2 to 3 pm @ Cascade 11
Joseph Brassey (M), Erik Scott de Bie, Elliott Kay, Marta Murvosh
Masculine tropes are commonly used in the depiction of heroes, but toxic masculinity is increasingly being explored as well. What is toxic masculinity, and how does it lend itself to the writing of villainy and evil?

SF/Fantasy Battle Royale! – 3 to 4 pm @ Evergreen 3-4
Matt Youngmark (M), Erik Scott de Bie, K.M. Alexander, Jason Bourget
Who would win in a fight? A fast-paced, bracket-style, breathtakingly unscientific showdown to determine this year’s Ultimate Fictional Champion. Ready… Fight!

Comic RPG Smackdown – 5:00pm – 6:00pm @ Cascade 5&6
Spencer Ellsworth (M), Erik Scott de Bie, Matt Youngmark, Adia
Bring your favorite comic characters in mind, and our crack team of comic know-it-alls will develop stats for them to battle it out in an RPG Comics Smackdown to End All Smackdowns!

Why Do Villains Look Like That? – 6:00pm – 7:00pm @ Cascade 5&6
Julie McGalliard (M), Jeremy Zimmerman, Jaym Gates, Erik Scott de Bie
Is there a reason that, when they become bad guys, characters like Loki and the Riddler seem to be drawn smaller, more slender, and dare I say, more fey? Why do we use stereotypically feminine traits to code for villainy in comics?

Reading: Erik Scott de Bie – 9:30pm – 10:00pm @ Cascade 2
Erik Scott de Bie (M)
I’ll be reading from MASK OF THE BLOOD QUEEN and/or my forthcoming Stormtalons novel!

 

SUNDAY

Genre TV is Everywhere! – 11:00am – 12:00pm @ Cascade 10
David Fooden (M), Ogre Whiteside, Donna Prior, Erik Scott de Bie
With so many shows on TV and streaming networks, what should you be watching? Let’s discuss what’s currently on your TV, computer or portable device.

Tabletop RPGs: What’s a Story Game? – 3:00pm – 4:00pm @ Cascade 7&8
Ogre Whiteside (M), Jeremy Zimmerman, Scott Hamilton, Erik Scott de Bie
Just like what it sounds like! We’re talking about games long on story, shorter on mechanics.

 

Iron Fisting, pt. 2: Conclusion

So I finished IRON FIST.

A lot of people don’t like this show, and for a number of good reasons. A lot of people *do* like this show, and for understandable reasons.

What needs to be remembered here is that 1) You like what you like, and that’s ok, no matter what the content, 2) criticism of something you like is not a personal attack on you, and 3) we can criticize elements of things and still like them. Being a fan of something does not require fanaticism–not anymore, anyway–and you don’t have to assert that something is 100% amazing or it’s 100% crap. One is allowed to take a nuanced stance.

Art is subjective. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise–usually as a prelude to shaming you for liking something you did, or for not liking something they think is objectively awesome–don’t listen. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.

If you liked IRON FIST, great–I’m happy for you. I’m jealous, in fact, as I would have loved to have a 100% positive experience with the show.

(And this review will contain spoilers, because hey, finally something happened, and I’ve gotta talk about it.)

OVERALL

Generally speaking, this show was hit-or-miss for me.

It had a number of flaws, was somewhat entertaining, and could have been a lot better. I’ve seen a number of suggestions that production was rushed, and it feels that way. Early draft writing that didn’t see a lot of development. Disconnected ideas. Plot lines that don’t really go anywhere (maybe Bakudo is a set-up for the Defenders?). Very limited flashbacks that don’t tell us much about K’un-Lun. Superficial characterizations. Danny is always right, Colleen is almost always wrong, etc.

Don’t get me wrong–there are things I enjoyed about this show. But mostly it felt like a meandering mish-mash of other Marvel shows that never really broke out into its own thing.

THEME

Overall, IRON FIST could never quite decide what it wanted to talk about, and the result was a little bit of a jumble. LUKE CAGE was definitely about racial tensions and the intersection between identity and politics. JESSICA JONES was definitely about trauma, relationship violence, and PTSD. DAREDEVIL was mostly about guilt: survivor’s guilt, catholic guilt, guilt about acts of commission and omission, etc. And all of those are very true to those character from the comics. At their best, that’s the power of those characters, and they deliver memorable stories about those themes on the page.

Iron Fist, on the other hand? This show never spent enough time on any given theme to do it justice.

Was it about conflicting cult mentalities? The show brought this up a couple times, particularly when Bakuto and even Colleen Wing tried to convince Danny that Kun-Lun had brainwashed him into believing something about another group that wasn’t true, but it turned out to be true almost immediately, vindicating Danny’s cult upbringing. (It is yet another example of “Danny right, Colleen wrong,” which this show does a lot.) Yes, the monks were a cult in some way, but they seem to be 100% correct in their beliefs and aims. It’s not generally ambiguous: they were right Danny’s apparent destiny, they were right about the Hand, they were right about the need to defend the pass, etc. *Maybe* their insistence that Danny kill people without regard for morality is pushing it, but frankly, every time Danny doesn’t fulfill his mission to *destroy the Hand,* it gets worse for him. If the writers were trying to talk about the danger of cults, they didn’t take enough risks or really delve into the subject to say something lasting. (Not like THE PATH, for instance, a Hulu exclusive you should absolutely check out.)

Is IRON FIST about mental instability? There’s certainly a lot of time spent in mental institutions and we see gaslighting and other manipulative tactics from several of the characters. But again, I don’t think they go in depth enough to warrant this. Ward’s descent into madness, paralleling Danny’s misadventures with mental treatment, seems like it will be a major arc for him, but it doesn’t get a lot of resolution (other than Ward using a gun on the source of most of his problems, which didn’t work out so well when he did it before with a knife). I don’t know, this felt like a minor plot element, hardly treated all that seriously by the writing.

Is IRON FIST about PTSD? Sure, that comes up periodically, but after JESSICA JONES handled it so primarily and brilliantly–after a show saturated in trauma and regret and pain and coping–the short shrift it gets in IRON FIST seems like way too little, and way too redundant. It dabbles unsuccessfully and doesn’t earn this as a narrative hook. I guess there had to be *something* to keep Danny grounded, as he doesn’t seem to suffer all that much. Occasionally circumstances conspire against him, but he always punches his way out eventually. He suffers no lasting repercussions for his actions, and always has a safety net of friends and/or money to fall back into. There are a couple of low points–when he’s wounded escaping the Hand, for instance, or when the DEA is after him in the last episode (a really, *really* late development that was basically never explored again)–but in both those cases, he had friends to help him through, and his own righteous anger.

Anger seems to be just as important a part of this Iron Fist as the power itself, which suggests that maybe this show isn’t actually about Eastern Philosophy, either. For having spent 15 years ostensibly learning to control his emotions, Danny demonstrates a remarkable tendency to lose control and throw honest-to-Stan tantrums that his more mature friends (i.e. *all* of his friends) have to do the emotional processing to manage. He’s like a child–a literal man-child who gets frustrated and whines when he doesn’t get his way, and those around him make allowances to soothe and appease him until he calms down.

Is lack of control what K’un-Lun teaches its students? Is this what growing up among the monks gets you? Maybe it is, because we see some of that from Davos when he’s chatting with Claire. I half-expected that scene to turn into some mild flirtation, because honestly, he’s a chaste monk, but she’s Rosario Dawson. But instead, we got an insight into someone else who’d gone through K’un-Lun re-education, and he seemed just as unbalanced and seething with rage as Danny himself. This is obviously setting up Davos as a foil to Danny, but he’s used so little in the show as to seem more like an after-thought. I guess we’ll see more in season 2.

CHARACTERS AND SUB-PLOTS

Danny Rand

I’ve said a lot about Danny in the past, and it holds true through basically all of the series. Even in episodes 12 and 13, he’s whining and throwing tantrums until the other characters (usually female characters) concede to his way of thinking, and he pulls everyone down his sinkhole of grumpiness until they have to take care of him. And that’s really disappointing. I know I’ve been like that at times–by virtue of my entitle white boy upbringing–and it’s something I hate about myself. If it were played as a flaw, I’d be more intrigued about this characteristic in the show, but no, Danny essentially always gets his way after enough angsting and groaning.

I guess, what do we expect from a 10 year old raised for the next 15 years by monks who have no concept of parenting and even less interest in doing so?

An emotionally stunted man-child who never learned to deal with his emotions, except by repressing them and pretending they don’t exist.

Finn Jones said on Twitter that maybe we don’t like Danny Rand because of Donald Trump–that we don’t root for rich white guys any more. And maybe he’s partly correct. Maybe the thing we don’t like about Trump, and thus about Rand, is that he whines to get his way, and everyone just capitulates.

At least he doesn’t complain about it being cold outside.

I’d like to say this gets better, but, eh, not really. He doesn’t really do anything to address his child’s way of processing emotions. He just adds a little more sense of responsibility, when he realizes that accomplishing his purpose to “Destroy the Hand” requires him to do some things that not everyone is 100% on board with (particularly but not only murder). Unsurprisingly, Claire is the voice of reason/conscience for Danny, and kind of pulls him back from the unrestrained Id driving him to kill and destroy the Hand. (Along with a healthy meta-dose of the old “heroes don’t kill” yarn.)

And as I implied, this makes sense in the context of his upbringing, but this is one of the difficult elements of this particular story. Marvel wrote itself into a corner with Iron Fist: an entitled rich white boy goes to the east to learn martial arts, does martial arts better than all the easterners, literally appropriates a great source of power, then returns to New York to punch baddies in alleyways with it. And in the 1970s, when we were less sensitive to racial politics and everyone was super keen on kung fu movies, Marvel could get away with it without loud criticism. And there’s a significant percentage of their fanbase that 1) doesn’t get why this is a problem (“but Iron Fist was white in the comics! why wouldn’t he be in the show?” *) or 2) doesn’t care. But Marvel is now writing in a more culturally diverse, socially aware time. This was an opportunity to address this issue, and Marvel just didn’t.

(* As though they haven’t seen Much Ado about Nothing with Denzel Washington. Or the Avengers with Samuel L. Jackson. I mean, c’mon.)

OK, enough harping. Some good stuff.

Finn Jones does a decent job with the material he’s given to work with. You get the sense he really does care about the character and story, and if he’s not conflicted, exactly, he gets across the sense of rudderless, disoriented hero pretty well. He’s never really belonged in any world–not K’un Lun, not New York, and (for a while, anyway) not Colleen’s arms. He’s looking for his place in the world, and Jones acts up to that admirably.

Some of Jones’s best work comes when he’s dealing with other people’s issues/problems without trying to lecture them. When he’s earnestly expressing concern or fear for others, then his compassion shines through. If and when Iron Fist is to continue with season 2, the writers would do well to play up Danny’s growing sense of compassion.

I’m also hoping that his time with the Defenders is helpful for him.* Based on his comics incarnation, Luke Cage is in the best position to make Danny grow up, but Jessica Jones has a LOT to teach the kid. Specifically about how other people can be damaged by trauma and are worthy of respect and compassion. Daredevil is probably too damaged to be all that useful, but maybe Danny can garner a few insights. Talking less and listening more can only help him going forward.

(* On that note: I’ve gotta admit, I have trepidation regarding the Defenders. Danny and Luke, best friends in the comics, seem galaxies apart in the show. Luke is a grown-ass man, and he feels like an adult who has suffered through shit in his past and has managed to deal with it. Danny, on the other hand, feels more like an immature 20-something who is just now starting to experience emotional problems. How will those two fit together? Unless Danny is radically different in the Defenders . . . and is he ever going to get with Misty, the way he does in the comics? Seems unlikely, since she’s a grown woman and he’s, well, him. I don’t know, I guess we’ll see.)

The stunts–meh, it’s not the best fight choreography, but he makes a good faith effort. I’m no expert. I’ve done a fair deal of fight training and have several friends who are fighters. I’m an enthusiast. I know nothing about kung fu, really. My assessment is that the fighting in this show seems slow and plodding and not particularly stylized and made super entertaining. It looks real and efficient, if not engrossing. It’s a different type of stage fighting from what you’d expect in a more action-focused show. Whether that’s a strength or a weakness depends on what you’re looking for in your entertainment. Me? I wouldn’t mind seeing flashier and cooler kung fu in a show about a kung fu master.

Tangent: What would have been gained by making IRON FIST Asian-American?

Plenty.

I think of the way the comedian Aziz Ansari dissected and told us about being Indian-American in America in his show MASTER OF NONE. Which was fascinating and compelling.

IRON FIST could have been that for comic books–about an Asian-American boy far removed from his cultural heritage who has to struggle with the feelings of isolation and uncertainty that come with having that identity in America. This fourth or fifth generation Chinese-American Danny Rand feels unconnected to his culture, and then he gets suddenly dunked in K’un-Lun, where he grows up for 15 years, learning a different way, and heads back to New York, where he’s just as much an outsider as he was before. He doesn’t really belong anywhere.

You get the same story we currently have with Danny Rand (the eternal outsider), but you add that whole element from the perspective of an Asian-American person: a group that all too often grows up with feelings of being perpetual outsiders in their own home.

That would have carried the same level of powerful commentary as JJ and LC, and it would have held true to the themes of the comics IF whilst also addressing the problematic orientalism embedded in the story during a time when Marvel didn’t know any better. This show could have taught us something or at least made us think about something not in our common experience.

(Who would they have cast? I don’t know–Lewis Tan, maybe?)

So much potential, but Marvel took the safe, boring option. Alas.

And maybe–MAYBE–if the white audience currently being pandered to by IRON FIST used the character to see what being an outsider in your own home felt like, that would be something. A silver lining and purpose behind a white Danny Rand, but I don’t think we get that from this show. He may suffer a few inconveniences, but essentially his handsome pale visage gets him through it all, even if he couldn’t talk or charm his way out of a paper bag. That’s white privilege staring us in the face, but as usual, we don’t see it.

Colleen Wing

She remains pretty much as cool as she seemed at first, though she loses a little of her luster when she falls under the spell of the IRON FIST. (Ahem. Euphemism.) Basically, after her inexplicable attraction to Danny Rand puts them in bed together, she either immediately or eventually sublimates all her own impulses to pave his way. She compromises her standing with her chosen family (the Hand, which turns out to be as awful as Danny told her it would be), doesn’t kill Bakuto (she’s very ambivalent about it), and essentially devotes all her time and energy to fulfilling Danny’s quests and interests. I mean, I know he’s the hero and all, and the plot requires you to be his unflinching support, but c’mon, Colleen. Take a night out for yourself. Go hang out with Misty and do some Daughters of the Dragon thing.

And when you go fight crime, please wear the white suit, Colleen. 🙂

The show attempted to do something about this by outing Wing as a member of the Hand (the ostensibly softer, gentler Hand that was all about empowering people to get them off the streets and infiltrate them into hospitals and mayoral offices and… oh shit, evil!), and thus taking away a pillar of Danny’s support, but he doesn’t stay angry at her for very long, because she helps him almost immediately. There’s no showdown between them–no physical confrontation filled with pathos and hurt feelings. (And wouldn’t that have been cool? Colleen Wing vs. Danny Rand? But I digress.)

The Colleen Wing of the show has the same sort of moral distance (geek alert: true neutral? maybe) she seems to have in the comics, which is great. But the writing makes her too infatuated with Danny Rand, and for no real reason. It honestly would have made more sense–and made their eventual reconciliation more powerful–if the Hand had instructed her to seduce Danny and she’d come to develop real feelings for him and regret her actions. But no, instead the show expects us to believe she wanted the Iron Fist before she realized it was the Iron Fist because . . . why? (Maybe it was the hair.)

Anyway, despite this weakness in the plot, Colleen Wing remains one of the best elements of Iron Fist, and her arc about being true to herself persists throughout the show. I think she ends up in a pretty good place, even if her climactic showdown with Bakuto isn’t entirely resolved. (And I’m so glad she got to fight that guy at least mostly on her own.)

I mean, I wouldn’t have minded seeing her dye her hair red and wear the white jumpsuit more, but this was a pretty true and cool interpretation of the character from the comics.

(More about how Colleen Wing is the Hero Iron Fist Deserves)

Claire Temple

Thank STAN this woman is in the show. She is the moral center and the voice of reason, and she also provides some much needed levity. I’ve noticed she tends to take a much larger role in these shows as time goes on, having appeared in just a few episodes of Daredevil Season 1, like 2 episodes of Jessica Jones, and then a few of Luke Cage, etc. As of Iron Fist, she’s a major supporting character, and the series benefits from her presence.

REALLY, guys? Seriously? Let’s think this through just a little bit.

In many respects, she’s also the voice of the audience. She’s the one who will get in Danny’s face and say “slow down, think this through,” etc, and she is basically the only reason he doesn’t get arrested, shot, accosted, or otherwise fail his mission half a dozen times in the course of the show. And does she get thanked for her efforts? Well, the show doesn’t kill her, so I guess that’s a thank you in and of itself. And Danny *does* get around to being appreciative–eventually. (And at least there’s no romantic connection between Claire and Danny. That’d be a little much after her fling with Daredevil and near-tryst with Luke Cage.)

I’m also glad and intrigued to see her sharpening some fighting skills. The clawed gloves are a nice touch. A friend suggested to me that Marvel-Netflix might be pointing her down a path to become White Tiger, which is an interesting concept that bears further consideration.

The Meachums: Harold, Ward, and Joy

The writing seemed to do pretty great with these three characters, and even if their arcs weren’t perfect, they were solid.

Regarding the patriarch of the family, David Wenham is very well cast as Harold. (Faramir as a villain? Sure!) He does an admirable job throughout the series as a morally ambiguous manipulator with serious rage issues. Which only get worse every time he dies and comes back (long story). He plays the role with such palpable menace, oozing anxiety producing pheromones that set everyone around him on edge. Watching him keep all that darkness seething just below the surface–outrage born of undeserved power, moral turpitude, and trauma–makes Harold an excellent bad guy. He might show up on camera a little too much for my personal tastes: I’m not sure I want to see him humanized as much as he is.

That said, I don’t think his portrayal quite matches up with D’onfrio’s Kingpin or Tennant’s Killgrave. I think of the episodes about Wilson Fisk staring at the mostly white wall and listening to the symphony coupled with flashbacks to his childhood, or sociopath Killgrave’s struggles with what emotions are supposed to be like, and I shiver. Harold didn’t have a stand-out scene like that, at least for me. He’s just a superficially charming bully from the beginning, and he remains that way.

The most poignant part of his story is when Danny accuses him of destroying both his (Danny’s) family and his own (Harold’s), because Danny is absolutely right: Harold is a victim of toxic masculinity, the way so many men are. He has poisoned his own family by attempting to sculpt it the only way he can: through violence against his son and invalidating his daughter. He beats Ward to “toughen him up” and casually keeps Joy at arms-length “for her own good” and is extremely controlling of her actions and invalidates her agency at every turn, treating her like some sort of doll. I believe he genuinely loves both of his children the only way he knows how, which is destructive to both of them.

Ward is a victim of his father, who was in turn victimized by his own father. The cycle of violence continues, with Ward bullying Danny for no better reason than that’s what he went through. And with Ward, we see the devastating consequences: it has driven him to drink and pills, and plays a significant part in his mental instability. (See themes, above.) I started off the show with zero sympathy for Ward and finished it with about 20% sympathy for him. He’s still a raging asshole, but at least you get a sense of why he is the way he is (at least part way). Even toward the end, I wasn’t sure if he was doing the right thing because he had an awakening and realized it was the right thing to do, or he was still trying to manipulate Danny. He just needed more story to fulfill–shooting his abusive father off a building is not a satisfactory resolution to his story. Maybe we’ll see more in Season 2.

I was pleased to see Joy‘s evolution toward an antagonist. She started off the show as tentatively and hesitantly going along with her brother, but she had a front-row seat to his self-destruction and reacted very much against that. Instead, she reached out and grabbed what she really wanted, and I can’t fault her for that one bit. Things came to a head when Ward betrayed her and got her shot, and then she didn’t accept his apology or let him back into her good graces. (I wouldn’t have either.) And fortunately, she didn’t get enough time with Harold to see him for the monster he had become–just a few glimpses here and there, which may or may not haunt her going forward. I’m expecting good things from her in the future.

OTHER CHARACTERS

I was actually somewhat intrigued about Davos. As I’ve said before, I know the comics only in a very limited scope, but so far Davos seems true to what I expect. He has a certain Baron Mordo quality to him–an indirect antagonist acting out of something like jealousy buried in righteous indignation. He’ll be a bigger deal in Season 2.

Bakuto I hated from the minute he showed up (and Wing basically calls him “bae,” which was a little unsettling), and I kept hating his smarm until he dies (kind of). That’s not to say I didn’t think he was an effective villain–quite the opposite. I think the show didn’t give him enough time to be a significant force, but I’m sure we’ll see him again.

Always good to see Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth, and she had some legitimate warmth and humor in this show. I’d like to see her more in these shows, rather than just as a small cameo.

Madame Gao really came into her own in this series. She’s been a lurking, sinister presence in other series, but she lent some gravitas and genuine menace to IRON FIST. And I’m glad they didn’t wrap her up as a character. She’ll definitely be back.

THE ENDING

Ok, so I’m very glad it ended the way it did, with *something* happening to K’un-Lun and it being kind of Danny’s fault for not being there to guard it. *Finally* he has no choice but to be accountable for his mistakes. And it leaves this intriguing plot hook.

We’d probably have cared more about the mystic city if we’d seen more of it, but I wonder if Marvel was operating under too strict budget and time constraints for that to happen. Maybe next season.

OVERALL

I’m not going to condemn this show or advise anyone not to watch it. In fact, quite the opposite: you should check it out. You might like it, and that’s perfectly ok. Or you might turn it off after a few episodes, and that’s perfectly understandable.

At times frustrating, at times boring, punctuated by quick bursts of action and some goofy dialogue, IRON FIST is the weakest of the Marvel Netflix shows. But that still places it at a cut above a LOT of SFF TV out there, including a lot of superhero fare. If Arrow is too depressing for you, for instance, IRON FIST might scratch that itch.

It’s worth a watch.

Cheers,
Erik

Further Reading:

Here’s part 1, based on the first third or so of the series: https://erikscottdebie.com/2017/03/18/iron-fisting-pt-1/
Don’t miss my “Iron Fist is an Entitled White Boy Jerk” quick entries: