Witchers Gonna Witcher (ep 4-6)

I had originally planned to write a single review post for each episode of the Witcher TV show, but two things happened:

1) A lot of these episodes spark the same sort of reaction (i.e. more of the “who is the monster, who the human?” theme.

2) I really enjoyed it, so I just watched it.

So I’m going to write a post about episodes 4-6, and then I’ll follow it up with a post next week about episodes 7-8.

Also, since chronologically this show is so wonky, here’s a link that might help clarify: https://www.vulture.com/2019/12/the-witcher-timeline-in-order-chronology-explained.html

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Life is hard when you’re in a grimdark fantasy world.

Toss a Coin to Your Witcher

Much like the anthologies upon which the first season of the show is based, Sword of Destiny and The Last Wish, the show’s plot is a timeline-agnostic look at Geralt’s life. Some of this is intentional, as Geralt is such a long-lived individual (though Yen is older), and the older you get, the more time flows together. What we’re seeing are the highlights of his “glamorous” monster-hunting career, though they are, indeed some highlights.

Dragons? Check.

Djinn? Check.

Hot, dangerous sorceress to whom he’s bound by destiny? Check, check, check.

Doppler? Che–wait, that was Ciri, never mind.

Seriously, I did not expect to get this much world building in terms of the monsters and political figures and such. I imagine it’s a bit hard to follow for folks unfamiliar with the books and games, and I’m sorry for that. The books and games are *also* complex–they’re more like an invitation to learn about the world of the Witcher than a guide to that world, and honestly, you might want to read the Wikipedia about it to get some more context. The show, as a lot of fantasy/scifi shows are, is mostly intended as a way to get you emotionally invested–to go “wow, this is cool!’–and thus engage with it as much as you want to. It’s not going to give you an instruction course in the world, just a glimpse of that world, which you can explore as you choose.

Was this the best approach? Should they have attempted a more comprehensive exploration/guide? Maybe, but I suspect that would have bogged it down in a lot of exposition that wasted a LOT of time. It’s all about balance, and I think this series is a little closer to the “figure it out” end of the scale than the “welcome to the wonderful world of XX” end. Did it throw you enough bones to hook you? I suspect everyone will have a different answer.

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I don’t always hunt monsters, but when I do, it’s clothing-optional.

Steel for Men, Silver for Monsters

As I said in the first review I did about this series, one of the major themes of the Witcher is whether the “monsters” he encounters are any more monstrous than the humans he encounters, and vice versa. The world Geralt occupies is populated with fairy tale creatures and magic, and fairy tales are frequently seen as black and white morality plays with clearly defined “people” and “monsters.” Not so the Witcher, where not only does our main character live in both worlds (human and monster) but so do his supporting characters (except for Dandelion/Jaskier, who is the most human character in this story). It is a world of greys and moral ambiguity, where the “monsters” are often the most moral and relatable characters, and the humans seem like the monsters.

The story of the knight and the hirikka (a creature from the books, albeit a bit different on the page) is a minor but direct nod to this theme, where “noble” Sir Eyck of Denesle (bit of a prick, honestly) “nobly” kills this starving “monster” that they could have just fed and it would have gone away, and the most we get out of him is a rehearsed “for glory!” line. Yeah, who’s the monster here, you big doofus? (Also, he passes up a chance to canoodle with Yennefer? Clearly there’s something wrong with him.[1])

And of course, the reveal in episode 6 is DIRECTLY ON THE NOSE of this theme. This was one of my favorite stories in the anthologies, both because of what happens and because it’s about Geralt and Yennefer, and I’m pleased with how it manifests in the show.

[1] Yes, yes, I know, it’s a toxic expectation of men to be always DTF–my joke here is not intended to be taken seriously. Eyck is a weirdo for a lot of reasons. The thing about refusing Yennefer’s advances (in a very condescending, patronizing way, btw) is explicitly showing how bound up in toxic masculine attitudes Eyck is. I’m just pointing out he’s a toxic dick.

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Yen: You came on this job just to spend time with me, didn’t you? Geralt: …… fuck

The Last Wish

(Caveat: The relationship between Geralt and Yennefer is one of my favorite aspects of the overall Witcher story–I am here for the rancor–so please forgive me for dwelling on this a bit.)

The destiny binding Geralt did with regard to Yennefer deserves some discussion here, as is their volatile relationship. When I initially read that story in the books, I thought it was generally “ok, I guess this is a thing that happened,” but it wasn’t until I saw Yennefer react to it in the show that I came around to her perspective on it. He basically forced himself on her against her will–his presence, that is–and that has some troubling implications as regards consent and the establishment of a relationship between them. Particularly with Yennefer’s emphasis on self-actualization through freedom of choice.

(The way she fights to save that baby in episode 4, then the emotional outpouring–the hate and bitterness and sadness–wow. Ok. If she wasn’t already best girl, she definitely is now.)

Now, let’s be clear: Geralt did not wish for Yennefer to *love* him. He didn’t enchant her or compromise her choice in that regard. His wish is never *exactly* spelled out, but the best summary we get comes from Borch (what a badass, honestly): that he wished for their destinies to be tied together. It’s a bit unclear why that “saved her life” and such, but I speculate that the Djinn couldn’t just kill Geralt, so it couldn’t kill Yennefer either, so it left. Was it the best solution? Nah, definitely not, but Geralt was in a situation where he had to think quickly and under duress, so he went with his heart, as damaged as it is by his mutations. And I choose to believe that he sincerely had deep feelings for Yennefer, which is saying something, considering his low emotional affect.

And so begins one of the strangest, most fraught, and volatile relationships in fantasy fiction: Geralt and Yennefer essentially get married blind in their first encounter, and they only afterward build affection, trust, and romance. And like you’d expect of an essentially forced marriage, it’s difficult and awkward, prone to fits and starts and messy break-ups. Geralt and Yennefer dump each other many times over the course of their lives, as well they should, but they always seem to find their way back to each other, the way they do in episode 6, for example.

Are they good for each other? Yes. Are they bad for each other? Also yes. Do they change each other? Absolutely.

And I’m not saying it’s good or bad. I’m just assessing it as a major plot element, one that introduces a huge amount of narrative tension in the story. (Personally, I feel binding someone to you without so much as consulting them, and indirectly against their wishes, is a profoundly immoral thing to do. It was a bad choice Geralt made, but I think ultimately a lot of useful, intriguing story came out of it. You are, of course, free to make your own judgments or not.)

Whether the bond between them is real or not is a major theme of the books and the games, and is explored in some depth. Toward the end of the Witcher 3, there’s even a side quest where Geralt directly confronts this question: he and Yen catch up with the same Djinn (or possibly a different Djinn, I could be misremembering) and wish to break the bond of destiny between them, thereafter to see if the bond between them was “real” or was just inspired by magic.

And what’s the verdict? Well, it depends–the games give the player agency in this regard, and whether Geralt and Yennefer stay together depends on your actions regarding her throughout the game and what Geralt says to her at this point, essentially whether he loves her or not. It feels sort of organic, where her feelings aren’t strictly based on button prompts but more your actions, which you don’t always know are relevant, but still basically you the player decide whether they really do love each other or it was all just magic. (And I know a lot of you sneaky dastardly broke Yen’s heart and went with that red-headed home wrecker, Triss, don’t even play. #teamYen)

For me, I went into the Witcher 3 fully intending to go with Yennefer, and every encounter I had with her just reinforced that perspective (like I said, I have a type). But I never felt like it was really *right* until I helped her break the Djinn’s magic, finally freeing both Yennefer and Geralt from their bound destiny. Only then, when she was free to choose, could they truly be together or part, and they *chose* to be together. And that made their relationship deeper and more real.

(For specific values of “real” and “choice” as regards characters in a book and a video game, of course, but YMMV.)

If the show will ever do something like this, well, I guess we’ll see, but in the books, Geralt and Yennefer remain bound together by destiny up until the end, so we never really find out.

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Don’t mind me, I’m just wandering through the woods, like I have basically this whole time.

What about the Child of Destiny?

Ciri is getting some short-shrift in this show, but that’s fairly true to the books, too. She’s barely in the anthologies–she only really shows up at the very end of The Last Wish, which I suspect will happen at the end of season 1. But then she’s a BIG DEAL in the actual novels, where she plays double-duty as the overall McGuffin (seriously, everyone is trying to find Ciri basically the entire time) and the main character/narrator. Yes, these books are called “The Witcher”, but it’s like Sapkowski got to this point and decided Ciri was his favorite character, a bit like Martin deciding Tyrion and Dany were his favorite characters.

Amusingly enough, the anthologies are where you get the most Witcher action. It seems like the rest of the books are a LOT of sorceresses plotting things, Ciri doing stuff and/or suffering, and Geralt either injured or traveling overland and being worried about running into a company of soldiers.

(She literally narrates most of one of the books to some old guy in a swamp. No lie.)

Also? Ciri is a badass. At some point in the books proper, she has a degree of Witcher and magical training, though her magic basically progresses as the speed of plot–it does what it has to do when Sapkowski needs it to do something. The show has basically followed suit. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily–this is a fantasy story–you should just be aware.

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Geralt: ………………….. FUCK

The Verdict?

Strap in, episodes 7 & 8 are the Battle of Sodden, and it’s gonna be a doozy.

A Sorceress’s Tale (The Witcher, ep 2-3)

I held off on the next review until I had watched what I expected would be the fulfillment of Yennefer’s backstory, both episodes 2 & 3. And I was basically right, though she still has some development to do–getting her “sexy” body isn’t going to be the end of her journey, not by a long shot.

Or at least it shouldn’t be, let’s see where the show goes.

And that’s what I want to talk about this time–the main character of these episodes, Yennefer of Vengerberg.

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Yes, that’s… that’s what I said.

The Witch in the Last Story in The Last Wish

I don’t have a copy of The Last Wish on me (I’ve given most of the books to my equal-intensity fantasy fan of a father, who I credit with turning me into the geek I am today), but as I recall, we see NONE of Yennefer’s backstory.

Indeed we aren’t introduced to her with all that much dignity or sexy mystery, as Geralt comes upon her when she’s sick and/or drunk abed, hoping to get her help for dealing with a Djinn (and not Robin Williams or even Will Smith). Of course it’s more complicated, because Yennefer wants to bind the Djinn for herself, but she can’t take control of it because Geralt is technically its master, and he has one wish left and, well, I’m not going to spoil it further. This might come up in the show. I hope it does.

The only real hint we get about it is Geralt’s observation that most spellcasters have dramatically changed their appearance upon acquiring their power, and he wonders what she used to look like. It’s something about her eyes, I think–he sees this cruelty and self-loathing spawned of decades of abuse–and he makes the connection that she was a hunchback (I guess they have very specific eyes?). That’s it. We don’t see her as a hunchback, she doesn’t much talk about her past, and she’s all volatile-and-somewhat-wicked sorceress all the time.

I love her. Team Yen all the way.)

(Again with me gravitating toward the complicated bad girls. I must have a complex.)

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The Piglet Worth 4 Marks

In the Witcher TV show, however, we see Yennefer from an early age, before she knew anything of magic, let alone had her transformation into the long legged temptress who has a thing about unicorns. We see her here as a beleaguered peasant girl with a twisted spine–clumsy, little loved, and constantly abused. Not something we saw in the books or the games, but rather than simply be told about this, we see it.

I’m not going to weigh in on how they treated her prosthetics and appearance, or on the ethics of portraying such a disabled character on screen (that’s a whole other topic), but I will say this gives us the viewer a rare insight into Yennefer’s character. We get to see her being, well, human, and not just in the context of occasional displays of warmth toward Geralt or later Ciri. The long drawn-out backstory invites us to inhabit her perspective and see exactly how much she’s struggled with, even if it’s only two episodes wherein we see her, mostly at weird/kinky Polish Hogwarts.

And I suspect we’re meant to see her conversion into the symmetrical beauty we get at the end of episode 3 as triumphant–she does suffer and sacrifice and cheat and deceive to get that reward–but the show did a pretty good job making her sympathetic as her normal self that when we finally get to the finish project she seems oddly diminished. She has lost something–some measure of fundamental humanity that we saw her fight to assert in the previous episodes. This is a new person, one who is turning her back on what she managed to pull together for herself: even as she thinks she’s got what she always wanted, she’s lost just as much.

Which is, of course, thematically right on the nose, because…

The Worst Monsters are the Pretty Ones

I don’t think it’s a coincidence Geralt faces Foltest’s Striga in the same episode that Yennefer undergoes her transformation. Remember, this show is about the line between human and monster, and that question infuses both the story of the Striga and Yennefer’s ascendance.

(Oh, and Geralt does a thing with a Sylvan and some elves and a bard who for some reason they don’t call Dandelion near a city that looks like something out of a video game. It’s not a big deal, other than it being thematically on the nose and an interesting discussion of imperialism, colonization, and racial oppression. But I digress.)

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Oh and Triss is there too. More on her in a subsequent entry.

The Striga is about a monster who thinks she’s a monster (and she is), for whom Geralt fights really hard to break the curse and turn her into a human. And it works, though, I mean, she still bites, so watch out.

Yennefer’s story is about a human who thinks she’s a monster (which she isn’t–yet) and so she does increasingly cruel and inhuman things to become the human she always wanted to be, but once she gets there, is she really a human at all?

But of course Yennefer has AGENCY in her own evolution, whereas the Striga is just following her own instincts and actively tries to AVOID having Geralt forcibly change her. And making one’s own choices and fighting for what one wants is a distinctly human trait…

Anyway. This is a fascinating dynamic, and I look forward to seeing where it goes.

What am I missing…

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Oh yeah, Ciri’s in this show, too.

The Lion Cub of Cintra

Though Ciri is mostly running through the woods, lost and confused, the way a princess who’s only a *little bit* prepared for the world would be, there’s still plenty of room for her to advance the “monsters vs humans” narrative, too.

She’s befriended by an elf boy, who is literally the only other decent person in her whole story arc at this point. We shortly thereafter see her enter the camp of some humans, who seem nice but very quickly are shown to 1) kill elves and wear their ears on a necklace–yikes, and 2) bully the shit out of a halfling servant (slave), who gives up his shoes so Ciri can have new shoes. This is presented as a kindness on the part of his human masters, who reassure her, “don’t worry, he’s one of the clean ones.”

(Don’t worry, halfling slave bud stabs the hell out of his owner eventually, and there’s a bit of catharsis there.)

So… this show is dealing with race in a pretty big and specific way, which is to use the fantasy peoples (elves, dwarves, halflings, etc) as stand-ins for human ethnic groups. (Which is, of course, a big part of the books and the games.) There’s nothing surprising or even uncommon about this, as fantasy has been doing that since Tolkien’s day. (And Tolkien wasn’t the best about it, see greedy dwarves that are Jewish caricatures, “the dark men from the east,” etc.) But Sapkowski, from the beginning, went quite far into the racial metaphor, and it’s good to see this show honoring that.

They’re not necessarily doing it very WELL (that’s a whole other topic), but they’re going with Sapkowski’s original vision, and it’s definitely relevant to the grimdark world on the screen. We’ll see how it unfolds going forward.

The other thing I want to say about race in the Witcher is that the games had a not-undeserved reputation for including only white people (some darker complexions, sure, but all of the folks on the continent were basically white people), and a lot of folks defend this decision as “historically accurate”… as though the Witcher is about an actual historical period, or that a fantasy author isn’t 100% on tap for what they choose to include or ignore about the world, or that black people weren’t around in Europe during the Middle Ages (they were), etc., etc. (And of course it connects to modern Poland’s increasing move toward right-wing racial purists and nazis-in-all-but-name, so…) Heck, there are fake geek boys all over the internet RIGHT NOW screaming about how Yennefer isn’t white enough or whatever bullshit they want to spew in their racist idiom.

Also, isn’t it frankly INSULTING to think so little of Poland as to limit it to an all-white ethnostate for its entire history (even the grimdark fairy tales period)? The ignorance that is white supremacy must be laughed out of the building when it can, or stamped out when its marching in the streets with swastikas, JESUS CHRIST…

Oof, I’m gonna have a heart attack.

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Hold up, is that sorcerer BLACK? I think he is. 🙂

The point is, the show isn’t doing that all-white-everywhere BS. This is an AMERICAN show (or possibly a BRITISH show), and we frequently at least make an effort to cast diverse actors. Often, all our lead actors are lily-pale, but that isn’t the case here: Yennefer has a very dark complexion, and Triss has an even darker one. Frangilla is DEFINITELY a woman of color. We see a range of skin tones, and that is fantastic, and I’m glad it happened.

So… suck it, racists.

The Verdict?

Still quite fun, and I will definitely keep watching.

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I’m sorry these weren’t your episodes, Geralt, but I’m sure you’ll be the focus later!

 

 

End of the Beginning aka “Snow Red” (The Witcher, episode 1)

Hail and well met, readers!

As a fan of both the books and the games (well, specifically The Witcher 3, I didn’t actually play the first two), I greeted the announcement of The Witcher TV series, based on the best-selling Polish sword-and-sorcery fantasy series of the same name by Andrzej Sapkowski (yes I looked up the spelling of his name, I was mostly right the first time) with a mixture of interest and trepidation.

I’ve spoken about adaptations before, and the long and short of it is, adaptations are never going to give you the same experience as you had with the initial story.

Games turned into movies aren’t the same thing as those games. Books turned into TV aren’t the same as those books. And vice versa, of course. Novelizations, games based on movies, movie tie-ins to TV shows, video game movies… all of these things have a not-entirely-unearned reputation for often being mediocre at best, pretty terrible most of the time, or offensive to fans at worst.

And why is that?

Well, they’re a fundamentally different thing, now aren’t they? They’re a fundamentally different genre, with different rules, different storytelling strengths and limitations, and very rarely does something survive the adapting process. (For confirmation, I offer you the Resident Evil movies, The Golden Compass, E.T. the video game, and let’s not forget… you know what? Nevermind, you’re welcome.)

The Witcher (the show, I mean) has a unique heritage, because it has seen three adaptations (yes, three), not counting the books or this new show.

[1] For a dissertation on adaptations, see my review of the erstwhile Tomb Raider movie, a movie I thought was ok, though it could be better, as if you needed further confirmation about my garbage-tier taste.

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Ah yeah, let’s do this! Witcher! Wooooooooooo!

A Brief History

The books, which are a point of national pride in their native Poland[2], consist of two anthologies of short stories about Geralt and his adventures, as well as five novels which tell a cohesive story, then a standalone novel (I admit I haven’t read that one). They acquired what we in America would call a cult following, because they are essentially telling the folk history of Poland in a cool, exciting, and compelling way. (Apparently, the language Sapkowski uses and his authorial voice are particularly lovely in the original Polish, and very clever.)

The books were popular enough to see a movie called Wiedźmin (or ‘The Hexer” in English) created and, eh, it wasn’t a rousing success. Then a Polish TV show of basically the same name which is mostly an expanded version of the movie (I think you can find episodes on YouTube if you really want to).

It might have stayed that way, with the Witcher being a hit in Poland but largely unknown outside the country, except that the game development company CD Projekt Red (I know, I know, that sounds like three random words, one of them describing a style of listening to music that was very popular in the 90s and early 2000s, for all you Gen Zers out there) purchased the license to make a video game based on the book. Their games would be set AFTER the 5 books had ended, rather than being based on the books themselves, allowing CDPR to tell an all-new story with the bones Sapkowski laid down in his books.

Allegedly, Sapkowski was not keen on video games (still doesn’t like them, it would seem), and he chose to take a lump sum, rather than royalties on the games, which is a pretty good deal if you expect the game to flop.

Which is the opposite of what happened.

The Witcher, the Witcher 2, and especially the Witcher 3 were MASSIVE successes, that third one a console generation-defining open world RPG that really pushed the limit of what games could accomplish. I know, I know, some people don’t like them (you know who you are, my English-Canadian friend), but the games were extremely popular, and their popularity translated to book sales in translation in English-speaking countries. It’s not like the books were *non-existent* in America before the games, but the games led to a massive upturn in sales, and The Witcher is now an international bestseller with some 33 million copies sold.

To what do we credit this rousing success? Sapkowski’s clever work and sharp authorial eye? CD Projekt Red’s coding skills (well, as of The Witcher 2, anyway) and plotting ability? That, through Geralt, you can hack apart armies of smelly pseudo-polish dudes and monsters and also sleep with practically ever female character in those games with a few button prompts?

It’s a mystery.

 

Anyway, when the time came around to make the show (hey, we’re America, of course we’re going to make a TV show, and with British accents, obviously), CDPR isn’t involved, Sapkowski is a consulting producer, and the show is based on the BOOKS, not the games. And we’ve previously established that Sapkowski wasn’t too keen on how the games played with his world–he considers his vision the pure and true Witcher story. (And arguably, he’s absolutely right.)

 

And if the first episode is anything to go by–which adapts material pretty faithfully from The Last Wish and the Blood of Elves–the show is definitely weighted toward the books, but it has been created under the long shadow of the games, and that’s where the bulk of the audience (English-speaking audience for an English-speaking show with an English main actor) knows the story from. So clearly, there’s going to be some influence, right?

 

[2] Seriously, Polish students get to read these books in school, which is a fair sight better than English classes where they force you to read Shakespeare–no one should be FORCED to read Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is intended to be experienced on the stage. No quicker, more effective way to kill a child’s interest in reading than to make them read something they don’t want to read.
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So I went a little hard on the monster killing juice, ok?

So How About That Show?

Well, I watched the first episode, and generally speaking, I really liked it. It’s like Game of Thrones, but more fantasy, less rapey, and you get the sense good things might eventually happen to someone at some point (unlike GoT).

The first episode is pretty well plotted, I think, or at least it worked well for me. You get a very comprehensive look at what you can expect from the Witcher: grimdark, visceral fighting, some sexytimes, and tough, agonizing choices.

I’m going to talk about Geralt specifically, since the first episode is about introducing him, his character, his story, his style, and his aesthetic. (And to a lesser extent Cirilla, Princess of Cintra, but more on her later.)

First it’s the eyes. Witchers have cat eyes, which is more noticeable the closer you get to them. The eyes here are pretty nice, subtle when they need to be, but they flash at certain angles. The way Henry Cavill carries himself works with the eyes and his natural size (mustachioed Superman is a beefcake) makes him stand out from the people around him. He looks and moves in a slightly alien way, but not enough to trip the Uncanny Valley. He seems like a real person, albeit mutated.

The voice is pretty great—reminiscent of the games but also its own. Cavill is, apparently, a big fan of the games, and he’s playing up the gravelly, slightly Batman voice to good effect here. He sounds like Geralt but also like himself. It’s effective. The dialogue seems right, too—Geralt is taciturn, droll, but clearly has some heart. You could see the Geralt from the books saying these things, as well as the Geralt from the games.

The most striking dissimilarity is that the show doesn’t use the two swords conceit that the games do, which is more true to the books. Geralt doesn’t need two swords in the books, but in the games, it makes for good game mechanics. (And more opportunities for item customization, you know how video games work.) Also his amulet is different from the iconic ones he has in the books, but meh, no big deal.

The music I found kind of distracting at the beginning–loud and brash and not the recognizable, iconic stuff I like, but it cools off and becomes much more subtle and atmospheric.

Here Episode 1 Spoilers Begin

I found the opening very unexpected, and I didn’t much like how the first monster looked, and the struggle lasted longer than it needed to. But the resolution was dead right, and Geralt’s interaction with the deer was absolutely dead on. I came out of that scene going, yeah, this is definitely The Witcher.

I’d have thought they’d go for the iconic striga opening, which is a story from the books and also the opening of the first game, but maybe they’re working up to that. It’s a good story, about a cursed princess who… oh, wait. No spoilers.

Speaking of female characters, I was worried there wouldn’t be female characters involved other than the main ones (you know, Ciri, Yen, Triss occasionally coming to moon over Geralt, etc), but fortunately they not only included female characters right off the bat, but really good ones.

The Renfri subplot is both straight out of the book and very true to one of the main themes—the greatest monsters look like humans. Geralt has a hard choice, with two compelling stories. It hits you right off the bat with the “dark, brutal fairytales” aspect of the Witcher story, as Renfri is, of course, a dark mirror version of Snow White. She’s even got the red color associated with her, which is very striking. She’s damaged, not quite right, but really compelling. Man, I thought she was great.

(But then, I *am* the guy who wrote Arya Venkyr, Ilira Nathalan, and Ovelia Dracaris, so yeah, obviously I thought Renfri was great.)

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Renfri, you will always be MY Snow White

The early scene at the pub was very efficient at telling us about Geralt. We understood his oddity, how others view him, his taciturn nature, his strange appeal to certain folks like Renfri (who is drawn to him like a moth to, um, another, older moth that’s on fire?). There’s a LOT of world-building here, some of it overt, a lot of it subtle. We see Geralt having difficulty reading emotions, because he has such low emotional affect himself–a low empathy score, if you will, because of the Trial of the Grasses.

But I digress.

Oh, it’s Blaviken. I’m sure some such butchery will happen here.

I love the evil speech. Evil is evil. Lesser, greater, middling. All the same. He follows up with that if he has to choose the lesser between evils, he prefers not to choose at all, but as we will see, that won’t always be his choice.

The sword fighting, oh man, it’s stylized as all hell, but it’s fantastic. And I’m pleased to see a lot of techniques, including the half-sword, ie gripping the blade to maximize thrusting power. You rarely see that in fantasy. My friend Joe Brassey could probably say more on this subject, being a swordsman by trade—maybe I’ll chat with him about it.

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You made a BIG mistake drawing steel against Geralt.

About Cirilla

No complaints, she’s great. She’s a kid but also dealing with some *very* grown-up stuff.

Her magic was interesting in how it manifested. I don’t recall the book well enough to say if it fits, but it seems in keeping with her character. Barely controlled magical potential.

I remember a big to-do among certain fans (ahem) who were concerned Ciri might be portrayed by an actress of color, and they obviously didn’t do that. They could have, but they didn’t—missed opportunity? We’ll see. This actress seems capable and engaging, and I look forward to seeing how it goes. Her eyes are really intense.

The casting of Calanthe was interesting. She seemed worn and tired, more of a real person than the legend people tell. Very compelling.

One thing about the Cintra subplot was the extremely rough suicide-by-poison/etc scenes. Jeez, don’t spare us any details.

This is a DAAAAAAAAAARK show, just in case you were curious.

freya-allan-as-ciri-in-the-witcher

Sorry Ciri, it’s not gonna get much easier for you, uh, ever.

Verdict for Episode 1?

Solid effort. 8 out of 10. I will keep watching.

Random Identity Table, draft 1

So here’s my *in-progress,* *first draft* of my FR Randomized Identity tables. This takes into account how I view the Realms and also the novels and stories and games I’ve consumed.
 
This is for when I’m building an NPC on the spot, usually an NPC adventurer (hence the inclusion of the class and background columns)–or if you want the full experience of being born with no control over how you’ll turn out, you can roll on the table, potentially offering an interesting experience analogous to how people in our world deal with their identity.
 
But the most significant part of this table (other than how common fighters are compared to bladesingers, for instance, about 20x as common) is the bit about sex, gender, and orientation.
 
Looking at sex-assigned-at-birth shows that most members (90%) of humanoid species are assigned either male or female at birth (with a slight imbalance favoring female people), but fully 8% of people in the Realms are intersex, and 2% of people are naturally shifting (as in their physiology literally changes).
 
When we get to gender identity, though, my Realms’ rate of cis people is only 70%, with genderfluid being 10%, trans being another 10%, nonbinary 6%, and agender 4%.
 
In my realms, it has always been the case that bisexual/pansexual is the *most common* sexual orientation, considering the panoply of creatures of various gender orientations in the Realms. On my table, you’ll observe it’s about 40% likely. Comparatively, about 15% of the population is heterosexual (that is, mostly or only interested in a different gender than their own) while about 15% of the population is homosexual (that is, mostly or only interested in a gender that matches their own). People view those orientations as interesting and unusual, without any stigma about it–in the realms, you like what you like.
 
That leaves 30% of the population who are omnisexual (defined here as “attracted to a wide variety of not necessarily compatible beings), demisexual (“attracted to certain beings under certain circumstances”), and asexual (“not sexually attracted to any beings) in just about equal numbers.
 
That is to say, 10% of beings in the Realms are omnisexual, 10% are demisexual, and 10% are asexual. Dramatically higher rates than what’s reported in our own world, but hey, that’s the Realms for you.
 
Finally, when you get to races, classes, and backgrounds, you are most likely to be a human (27%) fighter (20%) or wizard (18%) or possibly a cleric (10%) or rogue (10%). Your chances of being a drow (2%) are nearly as low as being a deep gnome (1%) or a Yuan-ti Pureblood (1%), and slightly lower than being a tiefling of some extraction (3%). Half-elf is a full 10% (half the chance of being a human). The rarest classes are Bladesinger, Diviner, and Thaumaturge, but Wizard itself has an 18% (it’s just split among the various schools).
 
At 9%, soldier is the most common background, while you have only a 5% chance of being a knight, while it is only 2% likely that you will be a noble (either of the Noble background or the Waterdahvian Noble background). I thought that was a fairly reasonable spread.
realms priests

Pretty sure these are all priests, but you get the idea. Copyright (c) TSR

 
As I said, this is a WORK IN PROGRESS, and I would be most pleased to receive some feedback on this, particularly regarding terms and concepts. Feedback very welcome.

Gaming Logic: Perception and Investigation

“How do you adjudicate passive vs. active Perception checks?”
 
Passive Perception is for noticing things out of place, hidden creatures, secret doors, traps, and other clues. It assumes the character is just moving along, being aware of the world at average capacity, which might be very high for high Wisdom or trained characters.
It also assumes the character isn’t rushed or distracted; if the character only has a few seconds to peer into a room or see a useful handhold before the cliff collapses, I’ll call for an active Perception check.
 
My threshold is about a minute: if a character has a full minute to notice something, I’ll allow Passive Perception to kick in; otherwise it’s active checks. Likewise, if the character is in combat and ends up in a new room, I’ll let them look around with an active Perception check; passive Perception doesn’t apply in that case, unless they’ve been fighting in the room for about a minute.
Perception and Investigation

Original artist unknown (Wizards of the Coast?); Meme from Hack & Slash: http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/2014/08/on-5e-perception-and-investigation.html

 
“What about other passive skill checks, like passive Investigation or Insight?”
 
Passive Investigation isn’t a thing at my table. Though having a high Passive Perception can clue you in that an Investigation check might be useful.
 
Similarly, Passive Insight isn’t a thing at my table. If a player expresses some doubt that an NPC is telling the truth or is hiding something,
 
The only skill that can be used passively at my table is Perception. Even on the frequent occasions when my characters are being passive-aggressive, that’s still an active check. 🙂
“What does it mean to *fail* at a Perception check?”
 
Remember too that skill checks are rolled to determine if something happens in the game, when the DM and/or players aren’t sure how something will resolve. They are not exactly a measure of your character’s aptitude, though obviously that plays a part. Having a high modifier makes something more likely to happen when you attempt it, which is always through a combination of skill, circumstance, and luck.
When we’re talking about Perception, failure doesn’t mean you’re clueless or that you never pay attention. If you fail a Perception check, that can mean one of several things: 1) the thing you didn’t notice is hidden well enough to escape your keen eye, 2) you looked away at exactly the wrong moment, when you would have otherwise seen it, 3) you were distracted by something else, so you didn’t notice the thing, 4) you saw the thing but didn’t understand what it was or that it would be useful (i.e. you briefly glimpsed the candlestick but didn’t put together that if pulled, it would open a secret door).
In that last case, an Investigation check might give you that information. If you had succeeded on a high Perception check, you might notice that something about the candlestick seems odd, but you’re not sure what it is. Maybe it’s shinier than the others or there are small scratches near the base. This would be a situation where you’d follow up the Perception check with an Investigation check (possibly with advantage, depending on the clues you noticed) to figure out the connection between the candlestick and the secret door.
“What is Investigation?”
Investigation is a new skill in 5e, and it causes a bit of confusion, particularly for us old players. I’m not sure I understand it either, and I spent a lot of time ignoring it, since it overlaps with Perception a lot in my head. But I’ve been making an effort to call for it more in my games, with some success.
Perception picks up data. With Perception, you might notice a clue, but you don’t necessarily understand what it means. For instance, a room is unusually clean, even though you’re in the heart of a dungeon. Or a faint acrid smell, like something astringent. Or faint squelching sounds like something viscous burbling against rock. Any of these might be useful clues, but you aren’t necessarily going to be able to put them together.
Investigation takes the next step, putting together the data and formulating a conclusion. It also fulfills in 5e what the Search skill did in previous editions of the game: you spend some time searching a room or place and, if your check succeeds, you find what you’re looking for or at least something interesting. Investigation takes time–generally at least one minute at my table, sometimes upwards of ten minutes or an hour.
Perception, by contrast, determine if you happen to notice something on a brief glance; see above. Passive Perception might see a hidden item that you would have found with Investigation, but the DCs to find hidden things are usually high enough that few characters have high enough passive Perception to find them.
Insight does the same sort of thing, but usually it’s specific to interactions and RP. Figuring out if someone is lying to you or conveying information that isn’t on the surface. Perception might set up advantage on one of these checks as well, such as if you noticed signs that a person might be desperate or their heart is racing.
(You know, the way Daredevil does it.)
daredevil-radar-sense-640x353

Passive Perception 30? Jeez! (Daredevil Copyright Marvel Comics)

“Skill Synergy: How do Investigation, Perception, and Insight interact?”
There is some overlap among these skills, and that suggests we should use them to complement and support each other. Perception can feed clues to support Insight or Investigation checks, while Insight and Investigation can feed each other in either order, For instance, if you use Investigation to turn up incriminating evidence against an NPC, that might aid your Insight check when you confront them, or if you observe something off about their clothes with Perception or get a weird vibe from their mannerisms with Insight, that might aid your later Investigation.
Now, do I insist that you use Perception or Insight to find clues, then Investigation to come to a conclusion? No. You can use Investigation by itself to search an area by itself without ever making Perception checks, and you can use Investigation based on a previous conversation to glean some information you didn’t have before.
But, and this is important: if you’ve made successful Perception or Insight checks that are relevant to your Investigation, you might gain advantage on your Investigation check (or vice versa).
Of all of these skills, Perception is the least supported by previous work. Doing Investigation or making an Insight isn’t necessarily going to help you notice something, unless that previous legwork has told you what to look for, such as a signet ring or red mud on the NPC’s boots. In that case, you might have advantage on your Perception check.
This serves two purposes: 1) to reward characters you make good rolls or are very thorough, 2) to encourage multiple characters to participate in a meaningful way, since Int/Wis builds aren’t especially common, and you’re likely to have one person who is very perceptive, one person who is very insightful, and one person who is very deductive (with a high investigation modifier).
cumberbatch-holmesjpg

Sherlock Holmes undoubtedly has both high INT and WIS stats. (As well as a decent STR stat; I see you, fellow book geeks!)

Happy gaming!

 

Adventuring on the Spectrum

Come with me for a second.

So, I’m putting together a new D&D campaign. It’s got everything D&D usually has: orcs, elves, dwarves, dragons, etc., etc. Violence, destiny, romance, epic quests, magic swords, fireballs, and all that good stuff.

In this campaign, though, you can only play one of two classes: Fighter or Wizard

I know that seems arbitrary, but hey, those are the classics, right? If you look back at 1e D&D, there were three classes, Fighting Man, Priest, and Magic-User. Combine those second two into a single class, and you basically get the Fighter and the Wizard.

Oh, and ability scores are rolled straight down the line. None of this “assign as desired” business. We’re old-school. 3d6, straight down the line.

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The only acceptable fighter is a hulking brute in heavy armor with arrows sticking out of him.

What? Didn’t get a high strength or a high intelligence? Not my problem. You can play a less effective character. Just pick the path with the lesser bad score. The one you resemble *better,* so maybe your character could at least *pass* as a competent fighter or ok wizard. Like a high Dex or high Con Fighter could be useful, and a Wizard with high Wisdom and high Charisma? Fine.

What, you rolled a 16 Dex and an 18 Cha? Um, well, I don’t know what to tell you. No rogues in my game.

15 Con and 17 Wis? No, no clerics either.

No, no, no, let me be clear: No other classes. They’re just distractions. Bastardizations of the core concepts.

I mean, maybe that’s ok. Maybe you like Wizards or you like Fighters. I mean, in a world of only Wizards and Fighters, if you’re a Wizard or Fighter (preferably a decent one), that’s probably cool.

Here are a few more things about the setting:

Culturally-speaking, the only acceptable Wizard school is Evocation, and anyone who picks a different school is considered a lesser Wizard. If you aren’t great with evocation spells or, worse, can’t cast them at all, people WILL shame you. A lot.

Same with Fighters and Battlemaster. NPCs will constantly rag on you about what tricks and feats you can pull off in battle.

Certain races are assumed to be one but not the other. For instance, in this particular setting, most people assume halflings are wizards because they don’t think they have the strength to be fighters. A halfling fighter is generally considered pretty weird. Most people laugh at elven fighters, telling them to stop dressing like strength characters, and most people assume half-orcs aren’t intelligent enough to be wizards.

Also, you can play an Eldritch Knight, but every NPC in the game will get confused and attack you on sight. (You get pretty much the same result from taking any class features or subclasses not in the PHB.)

sorceress

Only evokers, please.

Sounds fun, right?

I agree. That’s super fun. In fact, all of the D&D I run is going to use this, from now on. (I wonder if I can petition WotC to make this the case with all their game books?)

Wait a second, hold up, where are you going? You don’t want to play in my game?

What if I were to tell you that you didn’t have a choice? Because this is D&D 6e, when the only choices in the game will be fighters and wizards–no other classes. No other options. Just those things.

Why are you frustrated?

(Hold onto that frustration, by the way. It’s gonna be important.)

This is just the way it’s always been: fighting men and magic-users.

Because when you boil it down, isn’t it really just those two? It’s Conan vs. the bad guy cultist of the week. It’s the 12 members of the Fellowship of the Ring plus Gandalf. It’s a guy who solves problems physically, and a gal who solves problems with magic. A girl with a sword vs. a boy with a wand. The male fist and the female somatic component.

Guys and gals? Boys and girls? Male and female?

(Hold up, when did we start talking about that?)

But you know, now that you bring it up, this does seem a little like the gender binary. I mean, if you live in a world of fighters and wizards, and you’re a fighter or a wizard, I suppose that’s cool. In much the same way, if you live in a world of men and women only, and you’re a man (as I am) or a woman, that’s fine, right?

Remember that frustration you were holding onto a minute ago?

IMAGINE IF THAT WAS YOUR WHOLE LIFE.

Imagine if you aren’t a man or a woman, or if you have the stats/equipment for one but you identify as the other, trying to navigate this world, where you have to be one or the other… and most of the time, your choice is made FOR YOU, based not on what you say or how you act but HOW YOU LOOK.

About 1% of human beings are intersex, that is, possessing characteristics commonly associated with male and female genders; intersex people are much more difficult to characterize as male or female, and it’d be silly to even try. 1% is same percentage of people who have green eyes, but we don’t run up to green-eyed people, shake them, and scream “there are only brown and blue eyes!”

No, I’m not trolling you. I’m not trying to upset you. I’m trying to open up your perspective by attaching it to something that’s deeply relevant to all of us–D&D. Gaming. This is a sacred thing we’ve been doing, some of us for decades. You have an emotional connection to it, just like I do. You love it, you value it, and of course you feel uncomfortable when it’s perverted. You argue, you rant, or you walk away.

But in the real world, trans people, enby people–they don’t have those options. If they argue, they get hated on. If they rant, they get attacked. And they can’t walk away.

And they shouldn’t have to. They have every right to live in this world that you or I do–just as all of us have every right to play the games we love.

So maybe next time someone talks about trans rights or fighting transphobia, or about we should be more respectful with gendered language, think about the frustration and irritation you felt reading through this.

Because limitations are shitty, and life is too short to be limited like this.

Captain Marvel is Here, and She’s Got Nothing to Prove to You

(No spoilers. I’m going to do my best to avoid spoiling anything, which is tricky, since the movie thrives on secrecy and reveals.)

Captain_Marvel_poster

There’s a moment in Captain Marvel powerfully reminiscent of a moment in another recent geekdom movie owned by the House of Mouse.

It’s cold, it’s dark, all hope seems lost. The hero seems defeated, the bad guy is on the verge of getting what they want, and a lot of people we’ve come to love are in danger.

Then the music swells, the lightsaber veers away from Kylo Ren’s grasp and propels itself into Rey’s hand, and she stands before us revealed for the hero she is. Not because she is powerful (though she is) but because she is willing and ready to claim that power for herself.

Captain Marvel has a similar moment, which profoundly affected me in the theater. It not only captures who Carol Danvers is and what she stands for, but also the whole point of the movie and the entire narrative thrust and power of this character and her story.

This is a story about female power: about controlling it, restraining it, and fearing it. About what awakens it, unlocks it, and strengthens it.

And make no mistake, Carol Danvers is the mightiest hero we’ve seen in the Marvel Universe. I won’t qualify that with “female” hero–there’s nothing about her power that is distinctly female, other than that it is hers, and that makes ALL the difference.

In a way, it is nothing new: we have seen this narrative over and over again, the hero called to the quest, awakening to the power inside them, and finally learning to harness and unleash it. But in almost every case (95%+ of the time), it’s a male character undergoing this quest, and the female characters are secondary. They’re love interests, companions, or wise elders. They might even be heroes in their own right, but they don’t claim center-stage in the story, and even in the rare instances of those who do, usually their quest isn’t about them as women.

Captain Marvel is about a female hero, from start to finish. She faces patriarchal methods of control at every turn: warnings about allowing emotion to overwhelm her logic, for instance, or being chided to smile and insulted when she doesn’t. There’s a whole segment in the movie about struggling to use her power despite literal shackles. Her overall story is about realizing the bondage placed upon her and breaking free. Demanding and claiming her right to go higher, to go faster, and to go further.

A note also about the setting: This is a very 90s movie, full of 90s music that resonates so well with the action as well as lots of 90s jokes that really appealed to a 90s kid like me. From the trailers, I thought it might just be a gimmick, but upon seeing the movie I finally realized WHY Marvel set this movie in the 90s. The cultural context was pivotal to the story and its themes: the 90s wave of feminism and female empowerment, the pressure on military services to accept female pilots and soldiers, all of that is key to making this story make sense.

I do want to acknowledge that this is not a perfect movie. It isn’t entirely ground-breaking: Wonder Woman broke a lot of this ground a couple years ago, so Marvel missed its chance to be first to the punch. But Captain Marvel offers us a different view of female empowerment and heroism than WW did, and both movies are extremely good at what they do.

There’s your typical supply of what, at this point, we can call “Marvel Cheese.” Some of the jokes, some of the slapstick, etc, reminded me of watching a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and the dynamics among the aliens were very much in that vein. So if you liked GoG (and statistically speaking, you probably did), you’ll probably love the tone of this movie.

There’s the humor you expect, though not always from the people you expect. Clearly, Samuel L. Jackson had a GREAT TIME with this movie. His Nick Fury is surprisingly fun and warm, something he hasn’t been allowed to be in the other MCU movies. Saying more might head into spoiler territory, but some unexpected humor is unexpected but ultimately effective, I think.

(Also, I totally saw Kelly Sue DeConnick in her second-long cameo! Rock.)

Now, because, ugh, let’s talk about this: There’s a whole movement out there by a LOT of dudes who hate women (and especially hate women in their superhero movies) who have a weird fixation on Brie Larson not smiling (I know, ironic, isn’t it?).

At first, her portrayal worried me that she’d come off as relentlessly grumpy or prickly, the way clearly feminist characters sometimes do, but give her a minute, and you start to see the meaning behind her Carol Danvers’s behavior.

She is a woman who has been relentlessly bullied and cowed into being emotionless (as if that’s a strength) and expected to be a perfect little servant who always does what she’s told. Her experiences throughout the movie show her growing, breaking free, and finally harnessing her feelings and the power that comes with them. Her development is emotional, wrought with the aid of friends both male and female, as well as metaphysical.

(Also, all the haters are wrong, and EVS and his Comicsgate minions played themselves yet again by bashing on this movie. What fools.)

Ultimately, Captain Marvel is a great, fun, powerful movie and one that Marvel sorely needed to add to their line-up. That this movie didn’t happen five years ago and the MCU hasn’t put out half a dozen women-led films since is kind of a shame, but at least it’s here now, and it sets a precedent for the universe going forward.

The future is here (well, the future by way of 25 years ago), and while that future may not be entirely female, it is female-led, and that is a hopeful, marvelous thing.

What is True About Me

Featured

I am a storyteller.

My creative voice and vision are key to my identity, and they are the engine that drives my life.

For sixteen years, I’ve published my own creative work, mostly fantasy and science fiction, mostly novels but also short stories and novellas.

I’ve worked in others’ sandboxes and my own: five of my novels take place within an existing IP (the Forgotten Realms, owned by Wizards of the Coast), five are totally creator-owned (Eye for an Eye, Scourge of the Realm, and my World of Ruin series), and one was written originally in a shared IP but is now creator-owned (Blind Justice). I am adept with both sorts of writing.

I’m a known commodity in the tabletop gaming industry, and have an array of credits to my name on such games as Dungeons & Dragons, Iron Kingdoms, Red Aegis, and others.

I’m also a lifelong gamer, on the console or computer or tabletop. I’ve run games since 5th grade, and my first creative writing exercises drew directly from those experiences. Unsurprisingly, my favorite games tend to be RPGs and action-adventure games.

I’m not a coder or a programmer.

I’m a writer and an editor.

I’m an ideas person. I have built dozens of worlds myself for my own use, and I’ve worked closely with others to build worlds, flesh them out, describe them, and bring their stories to life.

Dialogue, description, characterization, plot—all of these things are the fundamental building blocks with which we convey dreams from one mind to another.

I’m a Human Being.

I care deeply about my fellow human beings and the environment we live in. I advocate strongly for social justice and a progressive direction to our culture and politics. I will stand up and defend those who are under assault as best I can.

I believe in good and justice and kindness.

My work is built on a foundation of respect, representation, and truth. I know the power of my voice, and I will not shirk the responsibility that comes with it.

Join me.

Let’s explore this world together.

Gaming Mastery #1: Fun

In 2019, I’ve decided to try and post a bit of Gaming Mastery every day of the year. That’s 365 tips, all of them organized around a monthly theme.

January’s theme? The basics of running a game.

And we’ll start with the most basic of basics for Game Mastery:

Fun.
 
Fun is the first rule. You’re getting together to play a game to have fun. If the players aren’t having fun, you’re not doing your job. If you make a decision that doesn’t add to the fun of the game, either immediately or over the long term, you’ve made a mistake.
 
This doesn’t mean the players should always be happy. Indeed, setbacks and conflict and frustrations can be important elements in setting up fun gaming–we have can have great fun *overcoming* our obstacles.
 
How do you promote fun in your game? Well, that’s the tricky part, and that’s what the rest of this series will be about.
 
But whenever you’re running a game, ask yourself: is this promoting the fun?