Justice Playthrough #189: One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk

Huh. Not bad, but not what I though it was gonna be, either. I don’t say this often, but I wish it had been a little more overtly woke than it actually was.

Page 27, Game 18: One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk by Jesse Galena – RexiconJesse

I like using the short description of my next play to, for comedy purposes, make some wild-ass guesses about what’s waiting for me next. But this one worked against me:

“The details that make folk in fantasy TTRPGs unique & fun to play without racist undertones condensed into one page each”

The “without racist undertones” clause is what threw me. I’ve been a gamer nerd for a whole lotta years, and yeah, there are some Issues with races that are “inherently evil.” I mean, it all goes back to the source. I’m having trouble finding it (so perhaps I’m misremembering it), but I definitely remember hearing a quote from Tolkien that orcs were based on the “less desirable” aspects of Asian cultures. And even before him, there’s a long line of creatures in folklore that were simply irredeemably evil, alien, other.

The heroes have to slay SOMETHING, you know.

I’m not gonna sit here and wail on The Old Ways just to try and earn some cheap Internet wokeness points; fuck that noise. Popular culture is a mirror, reflecting both the best and worst a particular time has to offer. A thing does not have to be perfect to be worthy of love, particularly when its flaws are so clearly rooted in simple human failings. Lord of the Rings is awesome, and enriched my life immensely. Dungeons and Dragons and the myriad of games that followed in its footsteps have brought me more joy, more connection with friends and loved ones, than I can possibly recount. They are also, in presenting imaginary races that are inherently evil beyond redemption and exist primarily for the forces of Good to remorselessly slaughter, a bit fucked up. The former does not excuse the latter — but the latter does not negate the former.

We’re all just doing the best we can with the world as we understand it. If our understanding grows in a way that tells us that hey, maybe some shit we embraced yesterday without a second thought actually has elements that are not so cool, that’s called “growth.” Feeling like you understand the world a little better today than you did yesterday is nothing to be ashamed of, even if it makes you see some things you love a bit differently. Quite the opposite. It’s an opportunity to embrace the good bits, and figure out how to move past the bad. It’s a chance to do better.

So based on that simple-ass three-word clause — “without racist undertones” — I was actually looking forward to a bit of a deeper dive into what drives said racist undertones, an exploration of how they can sneak into our fantasy worlds without our knowledge or consent. Hell, I’m taking a stab at writing a fantasy RPG right now, at least when Covid-depression isn’t kicking my ass (which it is more often than not, unfortunately). This sounds super relevant to my interests! In fact, didn’t I see something about a supplement like that a while ago?

Yup, it’s called “Ancestry & Culture“, and I’mma buy that sumbitch as soon as I’m done writing this up.

Because with those three words, “One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk” wrote a check it didn’t really cash.

Look, it’s the Year of Our Lord 2021, and this is an indie RPG supplement I downloaded from a site that ISN’T trying to indulge racist chuds. Twenty years ago, ten years ago, a D&D supplement that dealt with races in a consciously even-handed way would have been notable. But in context, a supplement that is “not racist” is about as meaningful to me as a movie that’s “in color” or is a “talkie.” It’s just what my entitled ass expects nowadays; I’d really only notice if it WASN’T there.

Anyway. This is a perfectly serviceable fantasy RPG supplement — yup, after all that ranting, I’m going straight middle of the road in terms of how much I actually liked this — offering up system-agnostic ideas for how to give fantasy races a little more flair without going into gonzo bugfuck territory a la Troika! or Penicillin. (And as promised, it is in color features talking actors not appreciably racist, so, yay.)

We’ve got everything from twists on old faves (Elves are cold-blooded! Dwarves are literally carved from stone! Halflings are totes narcoleptic!) to Kirkland-brand versions of ents and furries to straight up weird shit I don’t think I’ve seen before, like fungus people or people whose torsos ARE their heads. There are even a few classic monsters like liches and skeletons in there, because fuck it, why not?

Each race comes with a two-page description — which means you can print it on a single sheet of paper, hence the name of the book — describing what their deal is. Translating their deal into stats for your game is your problem, but hey, that’s what I’d expect.

There are some weird assumptions baked into the book, like the fact that pretty much everything can interbreed with everything else. Okay, fine, half-elves and such are totally a genre staple, but if you’re gonna go this far to make everything race so unique, I’m not sure that works particularly well. Like the Formless (Kirkland dopplegangers), whose flesh is a kind of non-Newtonian fluid. The description indicates their transformations are into other creatures are no more than skin-deep, but their reproductive systems are somehow compatible?

Does this weird universal interbreeding extend to, like, EVERYTHING in this implied universe? Is a turducken the result of a regrettable barnyard orgy? Does the threat of human-faced lambs keep lonely perverted shepherds from doing anything nasty?

Eh, whatevs. It’s all perfectly fine. The copyediting is a little sloppy in places and there are examples of “This is clearly an X but with the serial numbers filed off” than I would consider ideal, but what the hell, it’s a perfectly cromulent indie RPG product. It didn’t dazzle me, but if you’re looking for some ideas for how to give some tropes in your RPG a little more weird kick, it’s very likely to be worth your time.

And it’s totes not racist. Even though it lists reasons why Gnomes are an innately apathetic people. Which, given that it’s telling me why a personality trait is actually an inherent part of a sentient race’s physiology, is just a teensy bit yellow-flaggy to me. But there are no monoculture races devoted to the destruction of all that is Right and Good, so I’m pretty sure it cleared the bar it was setting for itself.

Up next: Ancestry & Culture. Just downloaded it. Boom! Totally gonna give that a good read-through.

But I gotta have a justice game to check-out next, too. Will this next one invent a word like “craniothorax” and then use it so often it actually becomes a weird distraction?

Page 11, Game 18: Blitz Breaker by Boncho Games

“A fast paced platformer without…running?”

Ooh. Somebody wants to break one of the core rules of their genre. I’m intrigued.

Justice Playthrough #188: I Signed Up To Be The Substitute Familiar Of A Struggling Witch To Pay My Bills And I’m Just Now Realizing What I Got Myself Into

That was quite thoroughly pleasant. Which is way, way more than I feel I have any right to expect of a self-published novella. (Complete with perfectly competent anime-esque illustrations from the author!)

Page 27, Game 3: I Signed Up To Be The Substitute Familiar Of A Struggling Witch To Pay My Bills And I’m Just Now Realizing What I Got Myself Into by Alex Zandra Van Chestein

This is the story of M, a young adult largely adrift in life who stumbles upon a strange opportunity: let a witch transform them into a demon, and then spend three months living with a different witch. See, in this world, witches and magic are totally a thing and it’s no big deal. M tried magic a while back and really sucked at it, but they’re not torn up about it or anything. Witches often have demon (think made-of-magic demons, not hellfire demons) familiars who are a BIG help in doing magic stuff, particularly when it comes to artificing work.

Penelope is a witch who really knows her shit, and her kid sister Amanda is getting her magic feet under her. Problem is, Amanda kinda sucks at magic too, and can’t hack even a simple familiar-binding spell. (Why? I don’t think the story really explains that; she seems perfectly capable-ish. Maybe demons just think she has lousy taste in footwear and get all snobbish about that stuff?) So, Penelope’s solution: demonic ringer. Pay-off a regular ol’ mortal human to get transformed into a demon critter, and let Amanda summon a beastie that is getting paid to do whatever it takes to help her out. What could possibly go wrong?

Answer: nothing.

Whatever complications you think might arise from that scenario, you probably don’t need to worry about it, because it’s not an issue. Yes, even that one. And that one.

I’ve mentioned it before, but since I have no reason to believe anyone other than me reads these in chronological order (or, like, at all), I’ll mention it again: I’ve read a LOT of unpublished/self-published fiction. Writing stories of any length that don’t suck is HARD, much harder than than anyone who’s never dipped their toes in those waters would believe. Most of the un-/self-published fiction in the world is hidden behind impenetrable gates for a very, very good reason.

So, yeah, when I say that this novella doesn’t suck, no bullshit: I mean that as praise. When I say it was actually pleasant and enjoyable to read, please recognize that as very, VERY high praise indeed.

It’s enjoyable. The prose flows smoothly, the characters are sympathetic and engaging. It’s all very pleasant.

Relentlessly pleasant.

Overbearingly, suffocatingly pleasant.

Ruthlessly stripped of conflict to the point where the characters occasionally don’t even register as recognizably human pleasant.

Yeah. When I call this motherfucker “pleasant,” that is actually far and away my biggest beef with the whole thing.

The story’s big hook is that it’s actually trans allegory. Our protagonist M is … is there a word for someone who really needs to dump their current gender identity but has yet to truly grapple with that reality so is just grudgingly going by their assigned-at-birth gender as an awkward default? What pronouns are appropriate for that person? Whatever. M is male-ish, neither happy about it nor willing to confront it; but when they find themselves in the body of a female demon-mouse (who gets named Emilynn by pure coincidence), it’s liberating in a way they — she — has never experienced before. This is a story about discovering and creating a new identity for yourself, about cannonballing into a completely new world and finding love and acceptance within it. Those are the parts of the story that work. Those are the parts that charmed me.

The problem is, as mentioned, that this process of discovery feels shockingly devoid of any sort of risk or stakes, and it’s taking place within a world that’s only barely sketched with the broadest of outlines. I mean, there’s some really hefty ethical shit going down here, but most of it barely gets mentioned let alone explored. Setting your sister up with a faux-demon familiar without her consent? That feels like one hell of a violation of trust! To say nothing of learning that your adorable new familiar is actually a male-bodied human in demon-mouse drag!

And all of that is, from a storytelling standpoint, good. VERY good! This feels like the sort of thing someone with big-time magic power might do, overstepping boundaries to act in (what they perceive as) the best interests of someone they love. That’s interesting. That’s a rich vein of drama just waiting to be mined.

But, no. Conflict of any sort just doesn’t fit the novella’s oppressively wholesome tone. So everything that might be worrisome, that might make someone question their actions or choices, will at best be mentioned and glossed over. It’s fine. Everything is fine. Very, very, very fine. So fine.

And that’s honestly a damned shame.

The novella is also very, very light on the sort of details it needs to truly come alive. For instance, in one scene, Amanda is preparing breakfast. What kind of breakfast? Can Emilynn smell sausage cooking in a pan? Is Amanda chopping up veggies for an omelet? Is she a Cap’n Crunch kinda witch? No idea. It’s Breakfast. Just some perfectly ordinary Breakfast. Don’t worry about it.

This lack of detail permeates the novella, to its detriment. More problematically: Amanda wants to be an artificer, to craft magic objects. WHY is she so intent on being an artificer, even though prior to Emilynn’s help she was quite rubbish at it? No idea. WHAT sort of magic devices does she want to create? Well, erm, bolts that glow, I guess. Oh! And a hairbrush that can make your hair different colors! That’s one’s really dope, actually! That was a really compelling, interesting detail!

As far as I know, Amanda’s goal is to open a magic shop that exclusively sells light-up hardware and brushes that make your hair different colors. I’m really feeling like she needs to stay on Magic Etsy until she diversifies her stock a bit. But that’s just a detail, and this novella doesn’t really bother with nearly as many of those as it needs to. (Yes, it’s possible to go way too far the other direction and get bogged in superfluous details. At this stage in the author’s career, that is emphatically not a worry.)

If I were in a critique group with this author, this is someone whose work I’d genuinely look forward to reading while completely understanding why she keeps getting form rejections from all but the semi-est of semi-pro markets. There’s a lot to like here; reading this novella is not a chore, and “Not A Chore” is a mountain all too few amateur writers ever manage to conquer. But to be really compelling, to write stories that I’d want to seek out, this author has some growing of her own she yet needs to do.

I hope she manages it. The best version of Alex Zandra Van Chestein is absolutely an author I’d want to read.

And, hey, it’s self-illustrated! I’m not an Art Guy, but the anime-inspired illustrations all helped to solidify and ground the world in a way that the prose sometimes struggled to accomplish, and were a welcome addition. This lady has some chops.

Will this next entry in the list feature a surprise subplot with a polyamorous demon-cat?

Page 27, Game 18: One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk by Jesse Galena – RexiconJesse

“The details that make folk in fantasy TTRPGs unique & fun to play without racist undertones condensed into one page each”

Hmm. Fantasy races stripped of racism? As a middle-aged nerd who now holds some small degree of embarrassment at having been attracted to chicks cosplaying in Drow-face (oh, yes, sacrifice me to your dark spider god, baby), you may consider my interest piqued.