Category Archives: Non-Fiction

The Outer Worlds: Peril on Gorgon

Adventures, Morality, and the Outer Worlds

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Why is it that adventurers often fall into the “murder hobo” archetype? It’s a facet of the kind of game we are playing: in Dungeons and Dragons, it’s a combat-focused game, so the problems that we get presented are primarily combat problems. Computer role-playing games have a large debt to tabletop RPGs and, perhaps especially, to Dungeons and Dragons. It’s not just that games take their inspiration from role-playing, they take their inspiration from combat-focused role-playing. That’s the reason we have games like the first-person RPGs from Bethesda and now from Obsidian. But there is a big problem here.

The problem is in the “role-playing” aspect. Specifically, it’s in the kind of moral choices we’re expected to make in these games. I’ve just finished my second play-through of Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds. I did enjoy the game but one of the reasons I could enjoy it was that I did not let myself view the moral choices presented as real. This wasn’t how I went into the game, though. I got very frustrated at the morality of the game immediately, and it was from there that I decided the entire structure was the issue. I’ve picked at this problem from the moment it started to needle me and I think that I can finally elaborate on the issue with this type of storytelling.

So here’s the incident that pissed me off: Parvati and Edgewater. In my first playthrough, I was running a more standard hero who picks the good boy options 9 times out of 10. However, you get presented with a choice here: you have to reroute power either to the town (with an oppressive work system) or to the deserters (who escaped from the town). The one you don’t send power to will fail as a community. From what people said, especially Parvati, it seemed like the deserters were doing a decent job. My idea was to divert power to the deserters, then the people of Edgewater would become a community with the deserters. Okay, cool. We go through the dungeon and I’m about to do The Thing that diverts power, then suddenly Parvati’s like “wait a second no actually don’t power off Edgewater”.

First of all, what the fuck? Parvati is pretty solidly pro-deserter all the way up until this point. Never mentions a problem. But okay, fine, she has her say, I send power to the deserters. I go back to Edgewater to get a quest thing and the mayor is like “look, fuck you, I have my guys down there and they’re gonna shoot you if you get the quest thing”. So I’m like well I have to get the quest thing, so fuck you, dude, and I shot him. Parvati is horrified and nearly leaves the party. But I’m just like eh fuck that, so I reloaded the save. I don’t shoot the mayor this time. Instead, I just go down and gun down all his goons. Parvati doesn’t blink an eye.

And it’s at that point that I realized the game just isn’t set up to deal with morality in the way it wants to.

Thinking more about it, though, I realized it’s not a problem with Obsidian or the Bethesda style in particular. It’s actually a problem with how we construct adventures. It’s a problem that’s shared by Dungeons & Dragons as well and, in general, with all adventuring games that try to deal with morality in the usual ham-fisted way.

The basic issue is that it’s just not the player’s fault for being in these shitty situations. When building the adventure, game makers & dungeon masters tend not to take any responsibility for the situation. In the Edgewater situation, I can’t say “okay well I don’t want to power either of you off, can you like call your people and we can get a quest thing ordered, I’ll wait”. More importantly to me, I can’t tell the mayor “why don’t you guys go join the deserters?” (it turns out that the “good deserters” are also basically fascists, which I won’t get into in this time, but suffice to say this is not at all apparent before the climax unless you ask a ton of questions). The game constructed both the situation and the viable options. I can’t interact with the quest in any way other than what I’m given. Yet when a character says “I am going to kill you” and I kill them instead, Parvati is horrified about it and I’m supposed to feel bad?

If Parvati was going to be horrified, why doesn’t she shed a tear about the people down there who are going to be killed? Why doesn’t she try to stop the mayor, or to convince me to go another way? It’s because of the entirely artificial reason that she’s just there to accompany you on the adventure. You’re not supposed to kill the mayor, therefore she reacts badly to it. You’re supposed to kill the new guards, so she gives zero fucks.

Basically, the game pretends it has an all-encompassing morality but does not allow me a full latitude in reacting to situations, then judges me based on the constrained decisions I make. It tells me that I can either be a capital-G Good capital-P Person or an evil villain, an outcome that relies entirely on who I decide to murder. (They lampshade this in the Halcyon Helen DLC but lampshading doesn’t make a problem go away.) It’s utterly ridiculous and, to me, the only honest response is to simply not engage with the game’s nods at morality.

But I am trying to get at a larger point. One way to solve this would be to expand the non-combat portions of the game, allow the player to fully engage with the world and think of different solutions. If you wanted to do this, though, you probably shouldn’t play Dungeons & Dragons; there are plenty of other RPG systems which are better equipped to handle the kind of looseness you’d need for this. Some computer games have approached this as well; I haven’t played Vampire the Bloodline: Masquerade but everything I hear about it makes me think that it’s more social than combat focused.

Again, though, I’m not suggesting all games need to broaden out. I’m suggesting that games need to choose. If you are going to ask me to pick any sort of morality I want, you have to allow me to back that up. That means, necessarily, you can’t construct dungeons as the main obstacles. If you’re going to make a combat-focused game, you as the game maker or DM should constrain the narrative so that the players aren’t being expected or even allowed to be paragons of virtue or sons of Sam. Don’t present situations that end up in this kind of schizoid where players shift between being dead-eyed spree killers and goody-two-shoeses, especially not if everyone around them is somehow fine with this.

The clearest example that I have for this idea is actually not social interactions, though. It’s stealth. This particular problem is more apparent in single-player computer RPGs, mostly because party interaction is a minimal part of the active gameplay; in other words, you’re not there with your friends who are reacting to you, at best you’ll have NPCs/bots.

Stealth is an issue for these kinds of games because what they involve is, in essence, not playing the game. In the Outer Worlds, every dungeon is set up as a shooting battle, in other words a combat problem. Whenever you take the stealth “option”, though, you essentially decide to not play that, which leaves you with very little. When you’re in a fight, you are employing spatial awareness, pattern recognition, hand-eye coordination, reflexes, and so on. The problem is engaging and exciting and tense. When you’re using stealth, you’re waiting, watching, shuffling around until you finally reach the end and then if you have put enough points in the proper stealth skill, you can just end the entire encounter at once.

Solving the problem with stealth is never as satisfying as powering through with guns in these games. This isn’t because stealth is inherently uninteresting but because the game is not built around stealth. To a large extent, stealth is more about skill checks than strategy, which means there’s little creative thinking you need to do. All you have to do is be able to press the button at the end.

When I shifted from Normal to Hard on the Outer Worlds, there was a point where I was utterly baffled by how tough the combat got. Eventually I learned that the stand-up shoot-from-the-hip style just wasn’t going to cut it. I started to run away more and take pot shots, have less pride and more efficacy, and it presented an interesting challenge. Stealth, on the other hand, mainly tries your patience. There’s little active challenge in it. The goal is usually to find a fairly obvious secret passage and follow that. If you have your Lockpick and Hack skills high, plenty of the challenges just won’t exist.

Great example from the run I just finished. This is a minor spoiler, I suppose, but once you get there you’ll be able to figure this out immediately. When you get up to the final boss, there’s a locked room next to you with a high difficulty. Now, if you just go through and fight, it’s a fairly tough fight because the boss can wipe your party out pretty easy, there’s a bunch of assholes flying around and running interference, and so on. I think it took me five or so tries to beat. However, if you have a high enough Lockpick, you can get through that door I mentioned without going in to face the boss; then, if you have a high enough Hack, you can just sit back and watch the boss be destroyed.

A big, dangerous, somewhat interesting fight or two skill checks under zero pressure. That’s what I mean by “not playing the game”.

Social stuff is almost worse in these games. With stealth you do have the slight tension of watching the notice icons on people you’re trying to sneak past. Social stuff requires absolutely no though, just skill checks. You never have to do things like dress appropriately, say the right things, present gifts, or so on; just have a high level in an appropriate skill and you can say whatever you want, you’ll get through. If you decide that you don’t want to slaughter a group of people and instead talk them down, congratulations: you’re playing even less of the game than if you tried to sneak past.

Every time I got the opportunity to talk somebody down from fighting I did it, but I immediately felt like I was just choosing not to go on a ride at a theme park. I could just fail the check and have the shooty time that the game is clearly built around, or I could pass and not play this part of the game. It’s a fairly ridiculous choice to ask the player who bought the game to make, but the game acts as though this choice is one that’s meaningful in the moment. It’s like buying NBA 2k21 and it gives up a warning: “If you play this game, you’re asserting that you love Mark Cuban and you want to kiss him, but you can pick audience mode too and then it means you don’t love him”. That’s idiotic, I bought NBA 2k21 to play the game, now you’re telling me the only good boy choice is to not play? That’s a choice made outside the game.

Now, I do want to give a few hold-ups here. I’m not saying that stealth games or social games are not good or not fun. I’m saying that D&D and computer RPGs are mostly not made as stealth or social games, they are made as combat games. I’m also not saying that games can’t critique the kind of experiences we’re engaging in when we play a shooty or a fighty. Critique is an important part of artistic expression and you can do that without act as though the player is at the root

My point is two-fold. First, if you’re going to treat me as though I have total moral agency and could be a shining holy man or a dirty dirty dawg depending on my decisions alone, you have to allow me to interact with situations more fully. If you allow me to do that, you need to make those parts of the game actually interesting. This means a game with either a huge scope or uniformly pretty simplified mechanics, and I understand that. It actually leads into my second point.

This second point is that if you are going to present a combat-focused game, you should structure the storyline around that specifically, rather than pretending as though the whole spectrum of moral agency is open to the player. In TOW, for instance, you could have been locked in as a criminal or a military person, someone who would be expected to “get their hands dirty”. As you work for Phineas, you should either have to keep that quiet or have people judging you for working with a terrorist. People shouldn’t receive you like a savior (the way they do in game), they should treat you like a dispensable butcher (the way combat forces often are by their employers). The idea that you could be seen by Edgewater as a savior & good person after turning off their power and killing a bunch of people is ludicrous. Should you be forced to make that choice? Sure. Should people react to you as if you could have been pure? Absolutely not.

If Parvati would be horrified about Reed, she should be horrified on at least 70% of the missions. The game isn’t equipped to handle this kind of moral agency. The game realizes this, that’s why Parvati doesn’t follow through on our morality. Instead of trying to hammer these big questions into a very narrow frame, lean into what the frame gives you and ask the questions that arise out of that.

Not every game has to present us with the possibility of being the best or the worst. Sometimes, we can just ask tough questions and give tough answers in a tough world as tough-minded people.

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Still from Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021): Hannah holds a distressed Connor

Those Who Wish Me Dead: What Is a Neo-Western?

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I’ve always felt the need to defend my love of westerns as a genre, and I think that if the makers of Those Who Wish Me Dead are also primarily western-lovers, they also feel this need. I bring it up because I did see this movie described as a “neo-western” which is an obviously meaningless term. If a story is “neo-western” isn’t also “neo-Civil War” or “neo-Americana” and so on? The point of using neo-western is to indicate that you want people to have a kind of western genre idea in their mind, even though you might not be doing important details associated with westerns. Said another way, describing something as “neo-western” does not necessarily mean that you’re actually constructing something that could be considered a western, it only means that you want people to think of it as a western.

Don’t worry, I do have a point.

The westerns I am most familiar with are spaghetti westerns and Eastwood westerns, though I have watched pretty widely in the genre. When I feel I have to defend my interest in westerns, it’s for the same reason that Those Who Wish Me Dead defends it: because people see westerns as just loving cowboy aesthetics, and we feel compelled to show that westerns are about more than that. However, what I felt separates this film from something that I would truly call a western is not the setting, it is the thrust of the movie. Despite advancing the setting, I think that Those Who Wish Me Dead is only concerned with the aesthetics of the western genre, and for that reason I think that it misses what truly drives westerns as a genre.

Those Who Wish Me Dead centers around a kid who is being hunted by hitmen and a forest firefighter who happens to become his protector. It involves a lot of violence that is very well-done. I think everyone’s performance is good. As far as the plot’s structure goes, the only thing that I felt off about is how lightning was used, oddly enough. Twice, lightning strikes drive the plot forward in ways that are too convenient; for instance, given that touchscreen phones exist in this world, it seems odd that an firefighter would be in a place where lightning would fry all the instruments and have no back-up. However, in their defense, these beats weren’t unnecessary, even if I think there might have been a less-ridiculous way to achieve it. I’m bringing all of these elements to say that none of them are the reason I wouldn’t call this movie a western.

When I defend westerns to people, what I emphasize is that the idea of The West in a western is an area in which people are more on-their-own than they are in so-called civilization. In a city story, someone who wants to stand up for themselves can go find a group, or call on their family, or appeal to authorities, and so on. In The West, these things are less possible. The main players in westerns are always lone figures who embody their entire capacity. Take The Godfather, for instance. Vito Corleone’s power as a mafia boss was not that he himself was the best shot and the toughest guy, it’s that he had control of the mafia and its resources. In A Fistful of Dollars, there is no higher appeal that can be made. There’s no sure help. This sense is not of loneliness, because it is hard to imagine The Man With No Name or Harmonica as truly, sorrowfully lonely. It’s more of solitariness or singularity, of all things in a character being intrinsic to their own person.

Obviously, this idea of solitariness is played with by almost every western. Even the most textbook western story will deviate in some way, because what we put in the textbook is going to be a general sense of the idea, it will not all be drawn from one specific work. However, I think it’s the baseline assumption of the western genre. What makes someone potent as a person is their level of singularity, the amount to which they have all capabilities residing in themselves. To need a family is somewhat weakening, but it’s seen as a worthwhile trade. To need a hive of bandits makes you despicable. The civilization of crowded cities and railroads is always an evil for The West, bringing the kind of society which will always reduce these singular capable beings to something lesser. The threat which white settlers perceived from Native peoples became a test of this potency, one where destroying the Natives while outnumbering them would equal a personal failure.

In reality, a person cannot become a hero by personally murdering a dozen other people. In westerns, especially when considering certain kinds of people as the target, this is possible. I raise this not to try and lessen these acts but only to note it and to argue that, despite the alienating nature of these murders, their function in western-as-genre is at least in part to reinforce the core western idea of solitary/singular. In this way, they are of a piece with encroaching civilization and the hardship of self-sufficiency.

Those Who Wish Me Dead attempts to do this in many ways. Its principal characters — the kid Connor, the firefighter Hannah, the two assassins Jack and Patrick, and the couple Ethan and Allison — all have no important connections. Ethan is a police officer but he could very easily have simply been a known & respected local outdoorsman for all the role it plays in the plot. Hannah is stationed alone in a tower in the middle of the forest for the summer. Without spoiling more, you get what I’m saying: despite this being a modern setting, these characters are as isolated as they can be. I think it’s successful in constructing these isolations, but I think it misses the real beating heart of the solitary/singular concept.

What makes the best westerns memorable, what makes them pulse, is that all the characters are not only familiar with the situation, they are intimately involved in it. Especially for the characters that are actually active in the conflict, their own personal stakes in the actual matter of the situation is what highlights their singular qualities. This is the part where Those Who Wish Me Dead falls down. Almost no one is actually concerned with the main matter of the plot: the secrets which Connor’s dad held. Connor has no idea what the matter could be about really, neither does Hannah. Jack and Patrick do not care about what it’s about: their job is just to kill people. Ethan and Allison both want to protect Connor if they can find him and also to simply stay alive. Everyone’s motivation is on their own track, so they never converge.

The tests in a western story are engaging because they pit the entirety of the wills of various people on achieving the same thing. All of their drives naturally head to the same point. In Those Who Wish Me Dead, Allison would have been perfectly right to simply ride off and try and find other police. Hannah could have just said “uh, okay kid, keep running I guess” when she saw him; she didn’t know that he was alone or that anything had happened. Ethan could have just been like “ahhhh I guess I’ll just keep driving and call in this shot woman, don’t think it’s a good idea to just get out of the car”. No one had to meet. The fact that they do isn’t bad, it demonstrates that they are brave and conscientious people, but it just isn’t the same thing. The desperation that each character feels is not involved with the other characters’ desperation. Every person’s story is their own in a way that doesn’t provide an interesting intersection.

I think that Those Who Wish Me Dead fails to be a western because it doesn’t provide that visceral interest that comes from each character driving ahead this single focal point. What makes everyone meet is the plot, or to be generous, coincidence. Coincidence is a fine driver of plot, too; as long as you don’t break your audience’s engagement, it can be effective. However, since there’s nothing to this plot but coincidence, it just doesn’t grasp what I feel westerns are about. Given what I said above, it may be a neo-western. That is, it might get you in the right mood if you think of it as being an updated western. It’s just let down by isolating all the characters without giving them a converging point.

That paragraph was going to be the final one, but I do think I need to answer a question: why isn’t Connor’s safety the converging point of interest? I don’t think his safety works in that way because the interest that people have in Connor’s safety is not personal. Though Connor is Ethan’s nephew, Ethan never gives the impression that they are very close, he’s not out of his mind with worry, and conceivably Connor could have been anyone’s kid that Ethan just decided to help. The fact that Connor has these secrets is only important because it’s the reason that Jack and Patrick are hunting him. They could have been hunting him for literally any other reason and the story would move the same. The reason Connor’s safety is important is because he’s a person in danger and, more importantly, a child. It doesn’t even rise to the level of “I’m after your bounty”/”I don’t want to die”, because at least in a cheap bounty story the stakes are explicit and known by everyone. In this, it’s very difficult to know if we’re supposed to ultimately be concerned with Connor or the secrets; without going too much longer, both have reasons to discount them, and that just makes the Connor/secrets idea too confused to be effective.

A fine movie, it is not a bad way to spend your time. I simply wanted to highlight why “neo-western” is not especially useful if what you’re after is the major non-aesthetic themes of the genre.

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Sumanguru Is Here!

Sumanguru Zine Cover

The zine of thrilling adventure

is now available!

Four cuts of exciting escapist writing to get your brain charged!


Fantasy (regular)
Science Fantasy
Role-playing ideas

Fiction by Ashe Thurman and Jesse Harlin
Non-fiction by Ian Williams
RPG material by J Onwuka
and cover art by K. Thor Jensen

How You Can Get It

There are 3 ways that you can get a copy of SUMANGURU: Paypal ($5) for hardcopy, Patreon ($1-5) for electronic copy, or E-mail (FREE) for an electronic copy


Send US$5 to and list Sumanguru in the note. I’ll send you an e-mail to get your shipping address, then send you the zine post haste! (I will be treating any money sent in without a note as a simple donation, so if you are expecting a zine in the mail, please make sure to put the note there or send a follow-up email to Also, you’ll get a PDF copy free of charge!

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Magic: The Gathering

Bad Magic: Planeswalkers

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It’s been a while since I’ve been as charged-up as I am recently, and there’s one reason: Magic. Not stage magic, not rituals, not alchemy. Magic: the Gathering. I haven’t played the game since a few matches played with friends at college, and that was over 10 years ago now. I was never that good but I was always having fun. I introduced my little brother to the game and my mom drove us to the local DCI tournament which was maybe an hour away. Back then, I played a blue-red deck that me and my best friend had worked on. It was a really annoying land destruction/bounce deck with a bunch of enter-effect kavus; if you played like 20 years ago this might mean something to you. I got stomped out early and my brother got a round further. I wanted to win but I didn’t play to win, I played — even competitively — because I was having fun.

Now I’d love to blame this resurgence for me on COVID… so I will. Being stuck inside meant I was watching more YouTube than usual and I came across videos by Spice 8 Rack, Alpha Investments, and Tolarian Community College. At first, I just wanted to buy a couple packs maybe, or a big pack, and just have some cards again. I actually had a short return a couple years ago when I bought some cards just on a nostalgia trip, but I didn’t play back then. This time, I fell all the way in. I started solo-testing decks while devouring videos. Right now I’m playing Magic Arena and I’m getting really interested in Commander so I’m looking for places online to try that as well.

You could say that I’m having fun.

The game is different now than what it used to be. Nothing stays the same, I get that. But as much as I still enjoy playing, when I look at the trends of the game I honestly ask myself if I will be playing for long. The trouble I’m feeling could just be wishing for earlier days, but I think it’s more than that. The way that the game is changing is honestly really alienating, but in the most neutral sense. There’s a wall being built between the player and the game. I’ll explain what I mean. The best way is to talk about the biggest problem I have with modern magic: planeswalkers.

Spice 8 Rack’s videos are mostly based around the current lore of Magic: the Gathering and I think that it’s fascinating. One of the very first fantasy books I ever read was Rath & Storm edited by Peter Archer. I’m not sure if I read the book before playing or vice versa, but I do know that the stories of Gerrard, Sisay, Karn, and the Weatherlight resonated strongly with me. They were some of the first things I was interested in when dipping my toes back in. Characters like these plus Teferi, Urza, Mishra, Yawgmoth, and others have always been at the center of Magic’s written lore. They have not, however, been at the center of the game itself.

When I first heard about planeswalker cards, I swore off playing the game again. Obviously I’ve broken that since, but I still don’t like them. I don’t play them in my current Arena deck. When I face off against a planeswalker it’s always tough but I’ve gotten past them. I say all that to say that I think they are very powerful, maybe even overpowered, but they are beatable. My issue with planeswalkers isn’t that they are overshadowing the game (well, not entirely). It’s that they change my relationship with the game, and that changing relationship does have echoes within the game.

Suspension of disbelief is a huge part of how I played Magic and, from what I’ve observed, it’s central to how a lot of other people play as well. We don’t just play the categorically best cards. We play cards and decks that speak to us personally. Back in the day, even 10 years ago when I had those few games using older cards, the feeling of being a planeswalker casting spells was a major draw of Magic. The stories of the Weatherlight and Yawgmoth and Karn and Memnarch were happening in the background of what I was doing, a totally unrelated battle between unrelated sorcerers who were the main characters of our own stories. These important characters did appear as legendary creatures, yes, but it was sparing and those creatures didn’t dominate play in the same way that planeswalkers do. Now, both planeswalkers and legendary creatures have become the centers of play.

Planeswalker cards were introduced in Lorwyn (2007) and for a while they came out somewhere between 3 and 7 per set by rough estimate. At that time, the levels of planeswalkers + legendaries was pretty steady, with comparatively few legendaries; the pre-planeswalker Kamigawa block was heavy on legendaries but this was an outlier, more of a block gimmick than a trend. It wasn’t until around 2016 until we saw a big upswing in legendaries being printed and it has absolutely skyrocketed since. Compare the 30 new legendary cards printed in Core Set 2021 or the 62 in Dominaria (2018) to just 9 in Magic 2015 and 19 in Theros (2013, still post-Lorwyn). A large number of these legendary cards are planeswalkers and creatures. We’re getting a Magic: the Gathering game that is much more focused on the fictional personalities than on the players.

I happened to come across an article written in 2013 by WotC R&D Sam Stoddard where he stated that they wanted to balance the spells of earlier Magic with creatures going forward. I can get behind the idea of making creatures a more exciting prospect than they might have been before. However, what I’ve seen since playing is that most effects that could have been spread around before are now directed straight at creatures. Abilities like hexproof (which is pretty prevalent, especially in black) completely prevent using spells to affect creatures and, in general, spells have been reduced in power such that creatures feel much more safe on the board. Instead of being a game about slinging spells and casting cool magic, a scenario where we as the players are powerful, we’re now entering a game era where we hide behind our monsters and call our A-lister pals in to help us out.

This fact distances me as a player from the game that I’m playing. One of the effects of putting these cards so prominently in decks is that I no longer feel as though I’m writing my own story. Instead, I’m a bit character in the wider story that I read in the books. This difference goes to the heart of what draws people to fantasy and science-fiction and what people don’t get out of sports. One of the greatest things about escapist fiction is the ability to put oneself into the scenario. In a lot of forms of fiction, we as readers do have to live vicariously through characters created for us. In games, we have the ability to embody a character who is, for as long as the game lasts, part of a completely foreign, fantastical universe. There’s a strong draw in sitting down to get immersed in a fantasy conflict. That part of the draw is being chipped away by the insistence of putting every story character directly into the cards and making those cards powerful. We’re no longer writing our own stories, we’re sort of acting in side-stories between the novels, things that are ultimately of no importance.

Why is sports relevant to this discussion? Recently, I did a tiny bit of searching around to try and figure out what draws people to sports cards. And you know what it is? Liking the sports. Shocking, I know. But what I’m getting at is that when you’re collecting sports cards, you’re looking at something that already exists — sports — and prioritizing those cards that are connected to the top players or the top moments in that sport. If you buy a card and you save it up because hopefully it’ll be worth something, you know that it will only end up being worth something if the card is of a star.

Unfortunately, that’s the model that Magic appears to be moving to. Watching Alpha Investments gave me a basic understanding of the fact that Wizards of the Coast (and their parents Hasbro) are likely trying to move into the sports card space. Stuff like the extra fancy VIP Masters set, full-border cards, extra levels of rarity, all of that is mimicking the crazy rarities and extra versions that sports are into. And what Wizards clearly believes is that in order to push this type of product, they have to push their story characters. The NBA is the canon for basketball cards. The MLB is the canon for baseball cards. The written Magic: the Gathering lore is poised to be the canon for Magic cards.

I want to go on a short tangent here. The financial argument is really secondary (or even tertiary) to my case here, but on the financial aspect, I don’t think that WotC’s methods — which I honestly believe are going to be harmful to the game by changing it too much from its core experience — are necessary to move into the sports card type production. The biggest value cards in Magic have never historically been character cards. They’ve been cards that were really good in the game itself. Instead of spicing up named planeswalkers, WotC could focus on doing exquisite-quality prints of cards that have performed well in tournaments, regardless of whether or not they are characters. Let’s make the game the main lore of Magic again so we don’t have to rely on half-assed novelizations to find cool things to latch on to. I think that if the game dies, these specialty versions are going to die with them, so they need to not put the cart before the horse.

MTG dying seems like a far-off possibility but these things tend to creep along very slowly for a long time then suddenly crash into hell. To (haphazardly) bring another idea from the MTG finance world, it feels a lot to me like WotC/Hasbro are trying to lock in the profits. Rather than trying to nurture a game for the long-run with fun and interactive spells and an immersive experience, WotC are trying to hike the prices on those already playing to squeeze everything they can out, not really giving a shit about attracting new players. They’re not on the brink or anything, but once your business model turns to putting pressure on the whales, you’re no longer thinking about what brought you to the dance: the game itself.

I believe that Magic is ultimately going to outlast Wizards. Perhaps not long. Perhaps only as a niche game. But there’s so much Magic out there that we could probably keep playing for at least a decade without needing new printings. People like the game far more than they like the company that makes it. People have largely accepted planeswalkers and the power creep of great creatures, but it seems like a pretty frequent complaint. For me, I know I got out because the sets were offering me less engagement, and even now I’m not sure if my burst of excitement for the game is going to last too long. I’ll be keeping my eye on Zendikar Rising for sure.

Do I think planeswalkers have to go away completely? I won’t lie, I’d love it if we only got story characters as an occasional legendary creature again. However, I don’t think the cards are too wacky mechanically. I think there should be a bit more planeswalker-directed removal and bounce, or other ways to get rid of them, but that’s just my preference. Planeswalkers are just a symptom of the problem. The problem is WotC putting the focus on the creatures by taking the focus away from the player. When the best way to win tends to be playing a bunch of strong creatures, we end up basically playing Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon with rules that aren’t made for that.

This is going to sound dumb, I know, but I want to be a wizard. I wish there was still a game that let me live that fantasy.


Okay yes I originally titled this article “Bad Magic: the Gathering” of course I did


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Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Bad Magic: Ninefox Gambit

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This book is bad. I’m not going to talk about why the book in general is bad but you should know that I think this going in. I had enough issues with this book that even if the magic system had been revolutionary I wouldn’t have liked it. But the magic system wasn’t revolutionary, it was complete and total nonsense. The rest of this piece is going to explain why.

I’m talking about the book Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. If you haven’t read it this piece won’t spoil much, so don’t worry. I will give you a brief summary, though, if you haven’t: We follow a soldier named Kel Cheris who is chosen for a strange mission by her government the Hexarchate. This mission means that she will have the consciousness of a dead general called Shuos Jedao implanted into her mind; his mind will ride sidecar to hers, which remains in control of her body. Jedao (given name) is responsible for a massacre far in the past which made him the most despicable war criminal in the Hexarchate, but his military prowess meant that they didn’t want to execute him forever. Together, Cheris and Jedao have to try and get their way into an impossible-to-assault fortress.

First I’ve got to step back and talk about spoilers. I said I wasn’t going to spoil much. There is a main effect of the magic that I would classify as a minor plot point that I do have to talk about. If you think you’ll have a good time with this book, the reveal may be a bit deflating, but it’s not character-based in the slightest. The reveal is on the order of finding out a letter marked for “TOD” actually said “TODAY” originally. Anyway, last warning.

Second, I am only reviewing Ninefox Gambit‘s magic system. I’m not touching the rest of the series. I would hope/assume that the system develops further in later books but, for one, I barely dragged myself through this one a second time (it’s bad) and, for two, I think a book should develop its magic (and everything else) enough within itself for me to appreciate it, I shouldn’t need to do homework on a novel. Alright, here we go.

Basically, the problem with the magic in this setting is that the saying “science sufficiently advanced is equivalent to magic” is taken to heart but with the wrong message. This is the charitable reading. The uncharitable reading is simply clumsy and unfocused writing. Though the setting is extremely future-tech, it’s just impossible to describe the “exotic effects” in the story as anything but wish fulfillment magic because we never get a handle on anything. We have people interacting in mechanical ways with the magic — performing equations, finding shapes, plotting trajectories — but we are never given even the slightest shred of context for what the equations mean. You could cut out all the descriptions of how things happen in this book and not lose any understanding of the story.

Reading this book is a lot like listening to jazz musicians talk about playing jazz but not having any grounding in music. If you’re just in the crowd of a show, you can enjoy the music just fine without knowing about music. If you’re listening to them talk about how they played, though, the conversation is totally incomprehensible unless you know about notes or feel or swing. If those concepts don’t mean anything to you, you get the words but you don’t understand how they are put together. Even if the people involved find it very interesting, you can’t do anything with it.

What parts of the context aren’t we given? Fundamental things about the way magic works in this setting are simply not explained. The magic in this story is based around the calendar that a given society believes in, and believing in a different calendar is heresy to the Hexarchate. The calendar has a set number of days in the week, and they also have feast days and “remembrances” (all we’re told is that people are tortured on these days and some people don’t like it). There’s no further information. Take the fact about the days of the week. We are told that changing the days can make one type of magic not work in a specific area, but even rebels against the Hexarchate generally stick with the Hexarchate calendar. Changing the days provides all kinds of problems. Does it provide any clear bonuses? Not really, no.

The first thing you’ll say is that obviously changing the week length protects rebels against the Hexarchate, but it doesn’t. In the first chapter, Cheris has her squad using calendrical swords in a situation where her calendar was not in effect, but the swords still killed who they needed to kill and they got the mission done no problem. This type of malfunction also never comes up again. So what did changing the week’s length really achieve?

One thing I wondered was if having a 6 day week was somehow more stable than having a 7 or 10 day week, or if it powered different types of effects, things like that. The book doesn’t say. If calendars are changing something called “calendrical rot” occurs, but beyond the simple fact that it’s bad we don’t get any information on what it does. Does calendrical rot make people becoming heretics more likely? Does it actually shut down magic in a way that just having a different calendar type doesn’t? We aren’t told. We’re given no information at all.

I hate infodumps as much as anybody and I’m not saying that the issue was that we didn’t get enough infodumps. The issue is that there are no consequences for anything that’s brought up in the story. I’ve already mentioned how calendrical rot didn’t ever seem to hinder anything. There’s also invariant ice, which is built up as a major bugbear of a defensive system because it blocks across calendars, but then they find out – gasp! – it’s not invariant after all! So what was the point of all this? We didn’t get a chance to see how the magic works against something it can’t fight head on, we just turned the set-piece around so everyone could see it was cardboard and then tore it down.

The best example of all these issues in the story is the threshold winnower. It’s played up as a badass weapon that kills anything in an x-mile radius (again, no details!) but we really learn nothing about it other than it can kill a lot of people and sometimes it can shield a small area. That’s it. Here’s the only physical description of it:

The winnower didn’t look like its function. If you didn’t realize what it was, you might mistake it for a pretty kinetic sculpture, all looping wires and spinning wheels and interconnected shafts.

That’s it. Does it shoot anything? No idea. Does it just radiate lethal energy? No idea. Where does it get energy from, how is it powered? Shrug. How many people need to operate it? More than one, I think? How big is it? Don’t know! We’re told that they can break easily but this never matters because every time they need to use it, they have like three or four of them and only one malfunctions, so they always kill everybody when they’re supposed to. I mean, it’s a good job by Hexarchate logistics but it doesn’t tell us anything about the threshold winnower at all.

Basically, this is not technology. It’s not “sufficiently advanced technology”. It’s a fucking 3rd grader’s popsicle structure that goes bang and knocks down all the action figures. It works because its job in the story is to work, not because there’s anything to get about it. Therefore it’s just not interesting at all.

So why is this a problem? I’ve certainly read, and loved, books that don’t describe magic much at all. I’m one of the few you’ll probably ever meet who will defend Tolkien on prose. The issue isn’t simply that the magical properties aren’t described, it’s that the story itself deals with them intimately. To bring back the jazz conversation analogy, what we’re doing in this story isn’t listening to Gandalf and his cool cats playing a standard, we’re listening to them talk shop, and since we never got the understanding of rhythm or melody it’s impossible to enjoy that conversation.

Gandalf and Lord of the Rings magic works because we really don’t interact with it at all. Gandalf just does things and we see that they work, but he never says “hmmm if I move the two pebbles on the right over here perhaps I can see into the future”. It has a wondrous quality precisely because we interact with it almost like it’s a personified act of nature. Even the person doing it might not necessarily understand it, the way that we don’t think about firing up each of our nerves one by one when we want to move our bodies or have a thought. The mysterious nature of the magic is borne out by how it’s treated in the story itself.

The Wheel of Time takes the opposite tack. Channelers like Nynaeve know exactly what they are doing and they do precise things with the One Power to achieve their magical effects. They can take a concept and apply a little fire and a little air and make it something else, and we get the descriptions of how this is done. Obviously, we can’t get a scientific understanding because this is fictional magic. However, we are given clear principles for the magic to stand upon: fire does things associated with heat and combustion and perhaps anger, water with healing and emotion, earth with solidity and cohesion, and so on. We understand how people can gain access to the One Power and how they can lose it, what they can use it on, etc. We understand what society feels about magic and the authority that channelers had. Therefore, when we watch Nynaeve working out how to heal something that’s thought unhealable, the description has meaning for us.

In Ninefox Gambit, we get descriptions of how Cheris is plugging in equations, how she’s interacting with field grids, how she’s worrying about her formations, but again we have no context. We don’t know the extent of what formations can or can’t do, even theoretically. We’re told that certain formations are heretical but never why. We just don’t have any context for the fake detail that the story goes to. And I say fake detail because, like the winnower description above, every description of what’s happening is just vagueries thrown about and technobabble that could just as easily be a part of Star Trek or 2000s Battlestar.

This lack of consequences for the magic system even goes into character reactions. In the first chapter, Cheris discovers that her squad is under an assault that the orthodox formation won’t handle, so she has to change it. Apparently, the formation she’s changing to is slightly heretical, so some people in her squad object. She cuts them out of the formation and they get vaporized. How does this make any sense? Surely, every person must know that their only protection in this situation is staying in formation, which means following the leader or at least the general flow (and these objecters were in the minority). If the whole point is that they’re suicidal (which I don’t believe is the case), why would they commit what’s basically a senseless suicide in the middle of battle? They would definitely not be blamed, even if they had some kind of reprisal later. Also, wouldn’t the people in her squad know that sometimes the formation needs to be changed to compensate for bad situations? There’s never any indication that acting in a different way would ever succeed. So again, the fact that the formation failed etc is just because at that time it needed to fail in order to tell us something about the formations. The problem is that since there are no rules at all ever established, this actually doesn’t tell us anything. What can we glean from this? The soldiers are dumb? Cheris is heartless? There’s really nothing great to pull out of this scene at all.

“Calendrical magic” could be an interesting system, but if it isn’t developed, it’s just a buzzword. We don’t even get scenes of how the masses are having to obey the Hexarchate to keep this going. We’re not around for a feast day or a remembrance. None of the things about this system that could have been interesting are ever delved into. Wouldn’t it have been interesting if Jedao’s influence got stronger on some days and weaker on others? Or what about if they couldn’t fly their ships on Sundays because that was the day of rest and even the spaceships couldn’t be flown, so that changes their whole military strategy? There are interesting ideas you can pull out of this system if you want to. You just won’t get any of those ideas in the book itself.

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