Out Sick

If you follow my Twitter feed, you may have already heard that I fell very, very ill last week and had to go to the hospital. I got out on Tuesday and have spent the last few days recovering and catching up on other stuff (including the GLBTQA Gamer Meetup), so the blog has fallen by the wayside. And it’s going to stay there for a while longer. I’ve picked up a cold, I have another chapter of Fall to bang out, and I’m generally not ready to get back into the routine just yet.

Normal posting should resume with a Media Mondays post next week, and hopefully I’ll find the time to clear the backlog of topics I’ve been wanting to blog about over the next week. Sorry for the interruption. Thanks to everyone who’s wished me better health – I’m getting there.



UPDATE, REDUX: GLBTQA Gamer Meetup, April 6, 2012, Boston, MA

As some of you may have already noticed, I’ve added a new page to the blog specifically addressing the upcoming GLBTQA Gamer Meetup. If you didn’t see my previous posts on the subject, no problem! You’ll find all the pertinent information there. I’ll keep that page up to date as new information rolls in, but I may not always post those updates to the blog, so I recommend watching my Twitter feed or checking in on the page itself every few days to make sure you catch any further changes.

I do want to point out that I’m doing my best to step up my fundraising efforts. We’re currently a little over a month away from the event and our total budget is about sixty dollars. I’m extremely grateful to our donors, of course, but I am going to need further help defraying the costs of this event. If you represent a company or organization that might like to help sponsor the event in some way – providing food or equipment or other resources, or just helping with general cash flow – please don’t hesitate to contact me at cassandra DOT lease AT gmail DOT com. If you’d like to donate privately, really, any donation will help at this point – even if you can only give five or ten bucks. I’m accepting donations through PayPal but I’m happy to make other arrangements if necessary. I know money is tight for everyone right now, and I’m doing my best to make this a fun and free event for everyone, but I can’t do this alone.

I’ve also set up a CafePress storefront. Not the most ideal solution, but it’s the fastest and least expensive way to get event merchandise out there, and I think you might find some really great items there. I’ve added a bunch of buttons and shirts featuring the various ‘badge’ emblems you’ve already seen, as well as some shirts featuring a signature design I threw together inspired by the point and click adventure games of old. I’m happy to add additional products on request. Again, direct donations will be most helpful right now, but if you’d like something for your cash, please consider buying something from the storefront. The profits, after CafePress takes its cut, will likewise go to defray the costs of the event.

And, last but far from least, I’m making it official: any excess funds left in our budget after the event will be given to the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth, or BAGLY. While this organization is not really related to the gaming community (and, I must emphasize, has no knowledge of and no affiliation with this event), they are a vitally important group for local teens and young adults who are struggling with their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. As a young trans woman who was in a lot of pain and turmoil in the early days of my transition, I attended BAGLY weekly, and honestly, just having a place to go on Wednesday nights, a place where I was accepted and loved for who I was, kept me sane. They deserve any support we can give them.

As always, I’m happy to talk over any questions, suggestions, or concerns you all might have about this event. In the meantime, that’s where we stand. Despite all the stress, I have to say that I am still ridiculously excited and grinning like an idiot as I look forward to Easter weekend. This party is going to be – dare I say it? – fabulous. And I thank each and every one of you for your support and enthusiasm. It’s meant a hell of a lot. I can’t wait to see you all.

Media Mondays: Once Upon A Time

As you may have noticed, I got a little sidetracked yesterday, and then I was distracted most of the day today, so this week’s Media Mondays post is extremely late. It’s also a bit of a cheat: Once Upon A Time‘s first season is already over halfway done, and most of the reviews are already in. But I’ve been spending most of this time trying to decide whether or not I like it, and why I feel that way, and those thoughts have only recently gelled.

So, short version: yes, I like Once Upon A Time. But not without reservations.

Let’s briefly recap the premise of the show: long ago and far away, the Evil Queen of Snow White fame unleashed a vicious curse upon the fairy tale world, creating new lives for all of the characters we know and love, good and bad alike, and casting them into our world, and more specifically the town of Storybrooke, Maine. The curse would not only change their lives and destinies, but warp their personal stories to prevent anyone but the Queen herself from finding their happy endings. Faced with this terrible curse, the people of the fairy tale world found one small glimmer of hope: the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, who would one day break the spell and set their world to rights. Using a magic wardrobe which could send one, and only one, person on to our world, whole and unscathed, Prince Charming and Snow White sent their infant daughter ahead, hoping against hope that she would find and save them. Years later, that daughter, now grown and going by the name Emma Swan, is confronted with her own son, who she gave up for adoption years ago. This young boy, Henry, has learned all about the fairy tale world and the curse that destroyed it, and he persuades Emma to come with him to Storybrooke, Maine. After some memorable encounters with various people in town – including the Evil Queen, who is now Storybrooke’s Mayor and Henry’s adopted mother – Emma decides to stay and try to bond with her son, despite the Mayor’s opposition and her own distinct skepticism regarding Henry’s beliefs. The story in each episode flashes between our world and the fairy tale realm, gradually revealing more about the show’s characters and their world before and after the curse.

Emma Swan, Hero of Storybrooke

Let’s start with what I like about the show. First and foremost: I love Emma Swan.

This woman is a complete and utter badass. She’s the only one on the show who seems at all willing to stand up directly to the Mayor/Evil Queen. This is not to say that she is without fear, or without emotion: her friendship with Mary Margaret (a.k.a. Snow White) is genuine, and her love and concern for her biological son, Henry, is obvious. Though she was initially reluctant to become involved in Henry’s life, their relationship has grown organically over time, and the thought of losing Henry now is clearly among her worst fears. But she does not let her fear rule her, or sway her from doing what’s right. Whenever Henry has been placed in danger, Emma has conquered her fear, marched right in and saved the day.

And she has never, not once, needed some man to come running to her rescue. Emma Swan is not a damsel in distress. She’s a knight in stylish leather armor. A Big Damn Hero. Not that she’d ever call herself that – from her perspective, she defends the helpless, upholds the law and chases down criminals simply because it’s the right thing to do. Though circumstances have sometimes prompted her to compromise her principles, she always questions herself, always accepts the consequences of her actions, always shows genuine remorse in the face of her mistakes. She isn’t perfect. She’s certainly made more than her share of mistakes. But she accepts those mistakes, learns from them, and moves on. If you ask me, that’s true strength – true character. For all her faults, Emma Swan is an amazing role model, and possibly one of the strongest, most genuine characters on television today.

I. Want. That. Hat.

I also have to give serious props to Regina, the Evil Queen of the fairy tale world and the Mayor of Storybrooke. She’s wonderfully manipulative and deliciously malevolent. Her costumes (particularly in the fairy tale world) are ridiculously awesome, and her plots are intelligent, ruthless, and horribly effective. As Henry’s mother and the town’s Mayor, she makes an excellent foil to Emma; in the fairy tale world, she is omnipresent, weaving in and out of one tale after the next, spreading her dark influence.

Despite her villainy, she is not without a certain human element. Her deep love for her aged father is obvious in the pilot, and while it’s not entirely clear what she has planned for her adopted son Henry (named, notably, after her late father), she does seem to feel some genuine affection for him, and sometimes seems genuinely frustrated and baffled by his open hostility toward her. Her animosity toward Emma Swan seems to have as much to do with Emma’s role as a rival for Henry’s love as any actual threat Emma poses.

Leaving the main characters aside, I love the way the show toys with and reinvents the Disney canon. Their close association with ABC allows them to play freely with Disney’s interpretations of classic fairy tales; thus, their retelling of Beauty and the Beast features Belle and Gaston, Jiminy Cricket is a recurring character, and Maleficent is one of the Evil Queen’s buddies. And yet none of these characters are quite like their counterparts in the animated canon. Even in areas ruled by ostensibly ‘good’ kings and queens, the fairy tale world is not an idyllic paradise. People are routinely pressed into wartime service, or forced into loveless marriages, or faced with all kinds of destitution and suffering. Prejudice, violence and oppression are not the sole province of the villains. Power corrupts in the fairy tale world, just as it corrupts in real life, and while the reign of Snow White and Prince Charming seems peaceful and relatively equitable, they are an island in a sea of chaos. As our understanding of the fairy tale world grows, we are forced to question, again and again, if it’s actually any better than the reality of Storybrooke.

Then, too, there’s this: for good or ill, the women of the fairy tale world seize their own destinies. Cinderella doesn’t simply accept the help of a fairy godmother who miraculously appears out of nowhere – when her tale goes wrong, she makes a deal with the devil to win her happy ending, and has to face the consequences of those actions down the road. Snow White doesn’t simply flee into the wilderness and stumble upon a band of merry dwarves; she spends years surviving in the wild as a thief before she even meets the dwarves, let alone Prince Charming. Belle chooses to go with the ‘Beast’ of her piece to save her father’s realm from annihilation, and rejects the possessive, controlling overtures of her betrothed, Gaston. Red Riding Hood has appeared in a few tales now, offering a few glimpses of her role as a kind of courier or scout and a friend of Snow White’s; her real-world counterpart, Ruby, is similarly omnipresent, tying a number of the characters together. We’ve been promised a Ruby/Red story in an upcoming episode, and I can’t wait to see exactly what her tale might be.

So what’s not to like about the show? Well, the storylines are still somewhat contrived, and some of the writing can be awkward. The show has steadily improved, to be sure, and I’m more than willing to give it a chance to find its footing – lots of series have awkward first seasons. With such luminaries as Jane Espenson on the writing staff, I have high hopes for Once Upon A Time‘s continued evolution. Even so, some stories are still distinctly lackluster. This past Sunday’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast was particularly disappointing; though I enjoyed some aspects of the tale, I was left wondering exactly what Belle saw in her love interest and exactly what kind of message the show was trying to send. The Beast flirted with Belle, to be sure, and was not always horribly unkind to her, but he also threw her into his dungeon upon a whim, and generally treated her too poorly to be worthy of her affection.

And as much as I love the way the female characters of the fairy tale world are portrayed, I find their counterparts in Storybrooke similarly aggravating. Snow White is a badass. Her real-world counterpart, Mary Margaret, is horribly passive, rarely showing Snow White’s backbone in any respect, and hewing closer to the animated Disney princess than her own true self – for heaven’s sake, the pilot even had her releasing a bluebird out a window! I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with kind, gentle female characters, but I’d like to see Mary Margaret stand up for herself more and show a little more inner fire. Ashley, the counterpart to Cinderella, was very much a damsel in distress when we met her, and her legitimate problems with her boyfriend are all forgotten when he surprises her with a proposal. Belle’s real-world counterpart isn’t even really present in her showcase episode. And Ruby’s omnipresence in the town – at the diner, at the bed & breakfast, as Ashley and Mary Margaret’s friend – is virtually her only defining characteristic, aside from her distinctly racy attire and her contentious relationship with her grandmother (whom we haven’t even seen outside the pilot). While I accept that the Evil Queen’s curse distorted their histories and their destinies, I’m not sure I love the way it’s seemingly changed their personalities and left Emma and Regina as the strongest, most active, most interesting female characters on the show.

Still, all in all, I’m still watching, and I expect I’ll finish out the season. While I had slightly higher hopes for Grimm (which has completely failed to hold my interest, to be honest), and I still wish ABC had gone ahead with the proposed adaptation of Fables, Once Upon A Time has turned out to be far more compelling than I expected, and I’m eager to see where it goes. The show has a great premise, fantastic characters, and a hell of a lot of potential, and I truly hope it lives up to its promise.

Sex, Gender, and D&D

UPDATE: Wizards has now posted an updated version of the poll which does not include gender-based ability caps. They have also stated that they did not intend to implement “such a pointless rule” and that they never meant to present it as a serious option. While I appreciate their efforts to set the situation right, the conversation’s been started, and my opinions on the matter stand. My original post follows.

Some time ago, Wizards of the Coast announced that they were officially putting D&D 5th Edition into development – and, moreover, that they were appealing to the fans to help them shape the new generation of their classic role-playing game. I’ll be honest: I haven’t been following the development process too closely. The announcement prompted me to officially sever all ties to 4th Edition, as I hadn’t run the game in months and didn’t really expect to run it again in the foreseeable future, but I’ve had my own projects to deal with, and I didn’t really want to spend all my time debating the finer points of D&D with the fan community. I’d see what WotC came up with, and if I didn’t like it, I’d happily stick to running the many, many other RPGs weighing down my shelves.

Sadly, in the immortal words of Veronica Mars, every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.

(Yes, people, I do know that’s actually a line from The Godfather: Part III. I just prefer Veronica.)

Let’s flash forward to today. Monte Cook posted an article discussing the process of unifying the various editions of D&D – figuring out what they should bring with them and what they should discard. Now, to Monte’s credit, he started the article by saying that it was difficult to imagine certain things – including gender-based ability score maximums – making a comeback. But ‘difficult’ does not actually equal ‘impossible’. To make matters worse, someone at Wizards decided to go ahead and post a poll at the end of the article asking fans which features they’d like to bring back to D&D. And gender-based ability caps were among the poll options.

Which I checked the results earlier, something like 350 people had voted for the return of gender-based ability caps. That was just a small fraction of the people who had voted on the poll overall, and most of the votes were going to the other options. I can’t tell you what the results are now, because WotC has hidden them away. What I can say is this: it’s insulting that Wizards of the Coast even put this up to a vote. As Logan Bonner pointed out, the other options – THAC0, saving throws, feats, etc. – do not make half the population feel excluded from the game. They are not rooted in bullshit ideology or long-standing social prejudices.

Mr. Bonner’s own short opinion on the subject agrees with my own. Simply put, these rules have no place in D&D. Most of us know they have no place in D&D, and most of us know they’re not going to make a comeback. Opening them up to a public vote just opens a big sexist can of worms. It invites misogynists back into the conversation and that’s not going to be pleasant for the game’s more enlightened fans. It’s already been distinctly unpleasant.

We’ve all heard horror stories of groups that decided to penalize female characters’ Strength or Constitution or even Intelligence, throwing them a bone by perhaps boosting their Charisma in the process. (Because women are pretty, of course; this is our sole purpose, and women who are not attractive to men are useless. Oh, my, I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.) There are gamers who will happily argue that women cannot be soldiers, cannot be knights, cannot effectively fight. There are others who will argue that women are inherently bad at math or science, indicating an inferior intellect, meaning they can’t be wizards or scholars. Some of these people might turn around and penalize men’s Charisma or Wisdom or some such, to try and ‘accurately model’ the differences between the sexes, but more often than not, these ridiculous little rules apply only to women.

I’ve made a joke of that, in the past. Because it’s simply ridiculous on the face of it. If you were to look in the bottom of my t-shirt drawer, you’d even find an old -1 STR, +1 CHA shirt that I used to wear all the time. But the more I interact with these people, the more I realize that, no, they’re actually serious, the more I realize it’s not all that funny.

A lot of these folks try to back their points up with science. Let’s be clear: there are differences between the sexes, though these differences are not always as clear-cut as people like to believe, and arguably we may need to reconsider the man/woman dichotomy and admit the possibility of additional sexes. More importantly, however, we do not yet understand what the actual differences between the sexes are – and we don’t know how many of those differences are due to nature and how many are due to nurture. For a great deal of our history, women were not encouraged to pursue careers in math or science. Women were not encouraged to engage in athletic pursuits. Women were not given the same advantages as men. And, even today, women are still treated differently, still burdened with profound disadvantages in pay, education, and career opportunities. Despite claims to the otherwise, we still live in a male-dominated world. So until we have complete social equality, until women and men are able to seize the same opportunities and compete on truly equal footing, don’t tell me that ‘science’ has proven women to be inferior. Science relies on repeated observations under controlled conditions. Our society has yet to eliminate all the many, many factors that impact our physical, social, mental and sexual development and send us spinning off into a myriad of directions.

And yet, despite these problems, extraordinary women have found their way into a variety of traditionally male careers. Are you seriously going to tell me that women can’t excel in math and science? Why don’t you tell that to Augusta Ada King, a.k.a. Ada Lovelace, arguably the first computer programmer? Or Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, United States Navy, creator of the first program compiler and the first person to come up with the very concept of programming languages? Or poor Rosalind Franklin, robbed and slandered by James Watson? Or Marie Curie, or Lise Meitner (blatantly robbed of her Nobel Prize), or Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (who thankfully did get the credit and the Nobel Prize she deserved for her research, in 1995), or Harriet Brooks, or Jane Goodall? In fact, why don’t you take a look at this whole damn category? If these women are outliers – and in some cases, they certainly are – then I would argue that it’s because it’s really damn hard to make it as a woman in the sciences, or in any male-dominated profession, and that’s only starting to change.

Women can’t fight? Well, it’s true that there are fewer female warriors than scientists in our history – but nevertheless, they are there. There’s Renée Bordereau, for example. Or Julie d’Aubingny, the French duellist better known as La Maupin. Or the numerous women who disguised themselves to serve on both sides in the American Civil War. There’s Princess Pingyang, who led an army against the old Chinese capital of Chang’an and played a key role in conquering China for the Tang Dynasty. Then we have the ancient Norse Shieldmaidens, and the Dahomey Amazons. And that’s just scratching the surface. The role of women in war continues to expand.

But hey – let’s ignore all that. Let’s pretend for the moment that women can never be as strong or as resilient as men. Let’s assume there really are physical differences that no amount of social equality, athletic training, or physical conditioning can overcome. (I will not for a second concede that women are less intelligent, because even I, dear reader, can only put up with so much bullshit.) Here’s the thing: that should still have no bearing whatsoever on any tabletop RPG.

Here’s the thing. RPGs are escapism. While I sometimes enjoy exploring difficult themes and concepts in the course of my escapism, I generally prefer to, well…escape. To leave all the shit I have to put up with day after day behind me and enter a world where none of that matters. As I said on Twitter, the great promise of D&D – the great promise of all RPGs – is this: you can be anyone. You can do anything. You can reshape the world. When you inject sexist preconceptions into your game, you break that promise.

And that’s something I cannot abide. As a GM and a game designer, my philosophy boils down to three words: maximum player agency. Yes, sometimes you have to tell the players no, but I don’t like to start from that position. I certainly don’t want to tell them they can’t play ass-kicking female paladins or supergenius gadgeteer superheroines or female space marines fighting hideous alien bugs. And I don’t want the rulebooks we’re using telling them any differently. No, not even as an optional rule. Sexism has no place in a game intended for general release. None.

The people who want to see these kinds of rules restored to D&D are a tiny, tiny minority. I firmly believe that. I also believe they’ll never go away. That’s fine. They have brains, or so I’m told. If they want to spew their sexist bullshit around their battered tables or in their horrible little chatrooms or on their awful little forums, they can go right ahead. That’s what house rules are for. But D&D itself should not – cannot – embrace that kind of utter crap. This is WotC’s world. They have the ability to make it a world free of the sexism that plagues our own. And they should never hesitate to exercise that option.

When you’re writing a period game that clings tightly to historical accuracy, sure, there’s a place for sexism and social pressure – as a setting detail, and one that can be resisted, albeit with consequences if you’re discovered. But D&D is not a period game. It is, by default, a fantasy world with little or no connection to Earth’s history. We can accept elves and magic and dragons. We should be able to accept women who can do anything men can do.

Sexism has no place in D&D. Period. And I do not want to have this conversation again.

Fangirl Fridays: Commander Shepard, SSV Normandy

If you follow basically anyone connected to Mass Effect on Twitter (by which I mean writers, developers, community managers, fans, voice actors…literally anyone), you probably already know that today is FemShep Friday. See, a while back, BioWare promised us a Mass Effect 3 trailer focused specifically on the female version of Commander Shepard, the protagonist of the series. This was pretty huge news, because despite the female Commander Shepard’s large and vocal fan base (most of whom affectionately refer to her as, you guessed it, FemShep), most of the promotional videos and images use the default male Shepard. But BioWare has finally started recognizing FemShep’s many ardent fans, and for the third and final entry in the Mass Effect trilogy, they’re giving her a little more of the spotlight. The Collector’s Edition of the game will feature both male and female Shepards on the box art, for example, and a prominent Facebook poll allowed the fans to select the female Shepard’s appearance in the game’s promo art (more on that later). The highly anticipated FemShep trailer was the latest piece of the puzzle, and it just went online today.

I’ve played a hell of a lot of Mass Effect over the past couple of years, and with one exception (a male Shepard I created to romance Ashley and later Tali), I’ve chosen the female Shepard every time. That’s probably not a huge surprise to anyone who knows me. Given the choice, I will almost always choose to play a female character. I empathize more readily with female characters and strongly prefer to take on that kind of role. But there’s something special about FemShep.

Commander Chloe Shepard, Renegade Spectre

Maybe it’s the fact that she’s a total badass, no matter how you play her. You expect that with the cold, ferocious, trigger-happy Renegade options, but even Paragon Shepard is courageous, uncompromising, and dedicated to her mission. Her compassion is a strength, not a weakness. (It is generally accepted among fans that anyone who doesn’t hug Tali during a certain sequence in Mass Effect 2 – you’ll know it when you see it – is an utter monster. I agree. It’s not a moment of emotional vulnerability, it’s a moment of strength for someone who truly needs it right then and there.) It certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s voiced by Jennifer Hale, a truly talented voice actress who goes above and beyond the call of duty to deliver a Shepard who feels vital, complex, and real. No offense to Mark Meer, who voices the male Shepard, but FemShep steals the show in any scene because Jennifer Hale is just that good. If I wasn’t already inclined to play female characters, I still would have rolled up a FemShep the first time I saw a single clip of her, because her work on this game is so incredibly amazing. Whenever I actually get around to playing Star Wars: The Old Republic for real, I think I’m going to have to roll up a female Republic Trooper just to hear her voice again. And I am not normally a tank at all – not by choice.

I call it "The Shepard Shuffle".

But enough about my massive crush on Jennifer Hale – let’s get back to FemShep. Because there’s a hell of a lot more to like. Like the fact that there is almost complete gender equality in the Mass Effect universe. I can think of one NPC in ME2 that even makes a gender-related crack, and you can shut him down HARD when he does. Ashley Williams? She’s a straight-up Marine who’s also a beautiful woman and first shows up in pink armor, and no one gives her crap about it. (And you can get that same pink armor for the male characters as well, by the way.) And FemShep? She does everything the male Shepard does, certain romance options aside. She can knock back ridiculous amounts of liquor. She can hurl bad guy after bad guy to the floor. She can headbutt a krogan. She even does the same dorky little shuffling dance at various nightclubs in the game, which I absolutely adore. In ME2, you can (with certain DLC) get a formal outfit for FemShep that consists of a black dress and heels – but she keeps walking like a soldier while wearing them. She’s clearly uncomfortable and it’s awesome. The BioWare team could have come up with a bunch of titillating animations full of booty-shaking and swinging hips and mincing around in heels, but they didn’t. They recognized that they were creating a soldier, first and foremost. Someone who has spent her adult life in the military, someone who isn’t always great with social niceties, someone who almost certainly did not put a lot of emphasis on her physical appearance or sexual body language. Oh, she can speak pretty smoothly, sure. She can even flirt. But she is the dorkiest dancer ever, and I love it. It’s adorable.

And that vision of Shepard’s personality bleeds into character creation as well. Sure, you can kind of overdo it with the makeup (and they did overdo the makeup in that trailer), but other than that, the player is offered a selection of short, efficient hairstyles that all make sense for an active soldier. No pigtails or Farrah Fawcett hair here. That might, admittedly, have more to do with the limitations of the graphics engine (and a desire on the part of the animators to avoid dealing with long, freely swinging hair) than anything, but it’s still a nice touch. There’s also a broad selection of facial scars, which you don’t tend to find on your average character creation screen.

Ohhh, Edward...I mean Thane...

The truth is that Shepard can’t help being a badass career soldier. Case in point: a while back, I rolled up a female Shepard just to romance Thane, the one male love interest I had any interest in. Since I tend to be more interested in lesbian romances (obviously) and didn’t really expect to enjoy this playthrough quite as much, I decided my poor, straight, throwaway Shepard would be named Bella and act like a total Paragon Mary Sue. (I think I owe Courtney Stanton the credit for that idea.) But I quickly found it was totally impossible to ignore or dismiss Shepard’s pure awesomeness. Even when she was playing nice, speaking diplomatically, choosing the goody-two-shoes option each and every time, she was brave and bright and occasionally sassy. She still faced her enemies without fear. Jennifer Hale’s voice still brought her to life, bringing depth and meaning to the most straightforward dialogue. I ended up playing well past the point where Bella consummated her relationship with Thane, finishing all the side missions and running through all the DLC. I’ll probably bring her back for ME3, just to see how her story ends.

This is not to say that FemShep is perfect. The level of customization available to the player certainly isn’t. The various options in character creation are pretty white-centric, for example – you can give Shepard darker skin tones, but there’s not a lot of variation in her facial structure. You can’t change her body at all; she’ll always be a fairly slender, fit young woman. Certainly an active soldier would be fit, but it would be nice if you could have a stockier Shepard, or a taller or shorter one. The makeup in that trailer up above is pretty ridiculous, and I don’t love how they’ve made Shepard look younger than before. She’s a grown woman and an experienced soldier who’s lived through the events of two fairly epic adventures – adventures that probably ate up at least a couple years of her life. She doesn’t need to look like a dewy-eyed twenty-something.

And, of course, I’m still annoyed at the lack of same-sex romance options. Unless you hack (and effectively break) the game, you have no same-sex romance options as a male Shepard, and you can only romance asari (who only have one biological sex and only seem to have female gender identities, though that hasn’t been explored in depth) or human or alien men as a female Shepard. We’ve been promised more same-sex romance options for both Shepards in ME3, but we’ve been promised those options before and they’ve been cut each time. Personally, I’m rooting for a Shepard/Tali romance – when Tali tells you in ME2 that she would happily share her suit environment with you (an intimate gesture among quarians), that’s not just subtext, that’s text. And Jennifer Hale reads more than a few lines in conversations with female crewmates and NPCs in a distinctively flirty way. It’s past time those potential flirtations got some follow-through.

This may seem slightly hypocritical – a couple paragraphs ago, I lauded Mass Effect for limiting player choices in certain ways, giving Shepard’s history and personality weight and meaning regardless of the player’s actions. Now I’m complaining that these options are too limited. But the fact of the matter is that the Mass Effect team’s decisions have, to some extent, ended up excluding people who already face exclusion and oppression in real life. A whole lot of us play games like Mass Effect to escape this grim reality – but the Mass Effect series has, thus far, failed to embrace everyone who wishes to escape.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still obsessed with the series, and I’m still psyched for the next installment. Bella, Chloe and Michael Shepard are all waiting in the wings, and I’ll be starting another runthrough soon to reconstruct my gay Paragon Shepard, Moira (who was sadly lost when my previous computer crashed and I was unable to recover the save files). I love Mass Effect, and I love FemShep. I just think there’s room for improvement – and I sincerely hope BioWare seizes the opportunity.

UPDATE: GLBTQA Gamer Meetup, April 6, 2012

57 days to go. 29 tickets left. Holy crap. This is quite possibly one of the biggest things I’ve ever done, and I’m amazed at how quickly it’s all coming together.

That said, I’m definitely going to need some help with this one. We’ll still need to borrow or buy some extra equipment – controllers, batteries, coolers, that kind of thing. And we’ll need a whole lot of snacks, soft drinks, plates, cups, utensils and napkins. We may need some other stuff as well. I’m trying to work out some sponsorship agreements but I can’t say anything for certain yet. If your company or organization would like to help sponsor the event, or if you’d like to donate to help defray the costs involved, please e-mail me at cassandra dot lease at gmail dot com.

In the interests of full disclosure and accountability, I’ve set up a public spreadsheet detailing the donations and expenditures connected with the meetup. I’ll be updating the sheet regularly, and anyone can view it whether they’re signed in to Google or not. If you’d like to donate, but would prefer to stay anonymous, please rest assured that you can – I’ll only put your name on the spreadsheet if I have your permission to do so. The main point of the sheet is not to keep track of the donors, but to give everyone an opportunity to review the figures involved.

While I can’t say for sure if we’ll have any excess funds after the event, I’ve been giving some thought to what I might do if there is any cash left. I’m giving serious thought to giving any excess to BAGLY, a wonderful local organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and allied youth. I was a regular fixture at their meetings in my younger days and I think their work is of vital importance. That said, I certainly welcome feedback on this issue. If you have suggestions for alternative charities, or reservations about giving any excess funds we have to BAGLY or to any other organization, please let me know. You can comment here or e-mail me privately as you prefer.

That’s all I have for the moment. I hope to have some more news for you all very soon. In the meantime, I would definitely urge you to register just as soon as you’re certain (or reasonably sure) that you’ll be attending the event. We might have room for some extra people at the door, but I can’t promise that. If your plans change suddenly and you realize you CAN’T come, please let me know so I can release some extra tickets to the pool.

See you all in April!

Writing Wednesdays: Modern Mythology

Looking back, I’m amazed to see how my first novel, Fall, has changed and grown. As I’ve said before, I started with a rudimentary premise: I wanted to write a queer supernatural romance, a fairy tale in which people at least a little like me were not only represented but celebrated. I joke about “Twilight for lesbians,” but in truth, that’s not far off my original intent. Though I also wanted to incorporate some ideas from an Irish folktale that had fired my imagination, my original focus was almost entirely on the star-crossed lovers at the center of my tale. Though that folktale is still key to my tale, and the central characters remain, under new and different names – Bree was, I think, originally Siobhan; her sister Kira was originally Aisling; their mother, Queen Deirdre, went through half a dozen names; I’ve quite forgotten what I originally called Maddie – these elements are now the seeds from which a great big plot has grown. My story now is about a fading people clinging to the past, and what happens when that past strikes them full in the face and forces them to change their ways. It’s a murder mystery, to an extent, and a story of conspiracy and deceit, and should I be given the opportunity to write the intended sequels, the beginning of a grand quest. It is still a tale of love, of course: the love between Bree and Maddie, the bonds of friendship they form with others, the sometimes misguided love of family. But if it all comes off as I hope it will, Fall will have a taste of the epic. In the best tradition of urban fantasy, it will offer up a modern mythology.

To create that mythology, of course, I’ve delved deeply into the past. I’ve wrestled with Celtic mythology and European folklore and worldwide fairy lore. I’ve made countless lists, filled a notebook or two with mad scratchings, stayed up late in a fever trying to figure out what must be included and what should be dismissed. I have cut and sculpted and pounded pieces into place, slowly building a coherent myth, a coherent world. You can drive yourself mad with research, and I might have come close once or twice. And you can drive yourself mad trying to make sense of the senseless.

I am reminded vividly of something I heard in an Irish folklore class, many years ago. We were discussing chants and charms against the Good Folk, and my professor cited one particular chant that really caught my fancy. I forget how it goes exactly, and have been unable to find it since, but it went something like this: “Today is Monday, tomorrow is Tuesday, the day after Wednesday. You folk who live in the hill over there, stay in the hill and leave me be.” There is a recurring theme in folklore that fairies somehow disrupt the natural order – sometimes deliberately, sometimes just by existing. Time flows strangely around them. Things fall apart. And so it makes sense that such chaotic creatures could be neutralized through cold, relentless logic, by the ritual recitation of the order of things. Today is Monday. Tomorrow is Tuesday. The day after Wednesday.

When I was first thinking of writing of fairies, and in the urban fantasy genre to boot, I had the amusing notion that one of my characters might recite the stops on the Red Line to hold their enemies at bay: Davis, Porter, Harvard, Central, Kendall, Charles, Park Street and so on. Alas, that is not the story I’m writing, and I don’t know now if my characters will even be going into Boston, though the book is set in Massachusetts. An idea for another tale, perhaps. (Truth be told, anyone who’s had to live with the vagaries of the T, as I have, know that it’s hardly a paragon of order to begin with.)

I’ve wandered away from my point, which is this: you think fairies are chaotic? Try researching fairy lore. You’ll find a dozen names for the same thing. You’ll find creatures that just don’t make any damn sense. You’ll find ridiculous degrees of specificity in one area and horrifying vagueness in another. Modern fairy stories are so very versatile because you can twist the folklore into just about any shape you like. It’s as delightful as it is frustrating.

Case in point: the cold iron conundrum. You would not believe the time I have spent on this one problem. In the world of Fall, iron neutralizes fairy magic, and fairies find it generally unpleasant. Without going into details, this simple fact is the key to a number of vital plot developments. Now here’s the problem: iron is everywhere. It’s in our food. Our water. The air we breathe. Most of the metals we use. It makes up a third of our planet.

Those of you who know something of fairy lore may be wondering why I don’t limit myself specifically to cold iron. Though some stories and role-playing games (I’m looking at you, Changeling: The Dreaming) have claimed that cold iron refers to some specific method of manufacture, such as beating iron into shape over a mild heat source, the truth is that cold iron is nothing more than a poetic turn of phrase. It’s like saying “hot lead” when you’re talking about bullets, or “cold steel” when you’re talking about a sword. This was simply understood in the original tales, and it feels cheap to try and narrow the definition now. Your next question might be this: why not pure iron? Because there’s no such thing. Iron ore pretty much always includes impurities that can’t simply be removed. Even steel is basically iron with a bit of carbon added in, and there is iron out there tainted with enough carbon that it might well qualify as steel already. So if ANY iron is ANY good at all against fairies, then impure iron must necessarily count. All iron is cold iron; all iron is pure enough to affect the fairies.

Every author who writes about fairies must find their own way to deal with this problem. In Holly Black‘s Modern Faerie Tales, iron irritates and even hurts fairies – even the iron in, say, an average car – but their magics can offer them some protection. In Seanan McGuire‘s October Daye novels, iron is never really defined to any specific degree. In Charlaine Harris‘s Sookie Stackhouse books, fairies actually wear some kind of protective skin covering to shield them from the iron in the world around them. And some authors simply drop the iron thing altogether, but for various reasons, that was not an option for me.

I probably spent far more time on this than I should have. For a while, I thought perhaps that only iron directly touched by humans would pose a problem – hand-forged weapons, or items made of iron or iron alloys that saw frequent use by mortals. That worked in some ways and posed even more plot problems in others. In a period of utter desperation, I considered replacements for iron – silver, various woods, various herbs – but none of them quite offered what I wanted. In the end, I fell back on the central theme of my story: change or die. And that answered a hell of a lot of questions.

How would creatures totally vulnerable to iron survive in a world filled with it? They wouldn’t. Not without adapting. I soon decided that some fairies were invulnerable to iron – though they had other vulnerabilities to make up for it – and, further, they possessed certain magics that could make iron and iron alloys safe for the others to use. Further, they had been able to lay enchantments upon various factories, ensuring that mass produced items made of iron or iron alloys would also be safe. At the same time, the other fairies had built up a certain resistance to the iron in the world around them, in their food, in their water, and so forth. I had already decided that their powers had diminished somewhat over the centuries, and it made sense that the iron all around them might be the cause. Their resistance could be overcome, of course, but it would take more than trace amounts of iron to do it. I’m not sure it’s a perfect solution, but for now, it works for the story I’m trying to tell.

That core concept, change or die, also helped me cut through the confusing mass of fairies found throughout European folklore and determine which specific fairies would have a place in my story. I realized that each distinct type of fairy would have adapted to the world in different ways. There were fairies who hid themselves beneath the waves or in the depths of the forests. There were fairies who learned to resist and even manipulate iron, though at a steep price. There were fairies who looked like humans and fairies who could look like almost anything at all. If I could find a niche for them, they were in. And if there were other similar creatures out there with completely different names, well, it was bound to happen. (I also ended up limiting myself primarily to the lore of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and the various surrounding islands. That narrowed things down considerably.)

So I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and hopefully it’ll lead to a richer, more compelling world. That said, there’s a cautionary tale here. Research is great. You want your story to feel authentic. If you’re setting your tale in a real place, or using real people or things, you certainly don’t want to get any major details wrong. And if you’re drawing on existing mythology, you definitely want to tell a story that could fit vaguely in with your sources. But don’t get carried away. There comes a time when you have to put down the books, stop writing notes, and take the reins once more. The fact of the matter is that you can get away with taking creative licenses. This is your story we’re talking about. Your world. Don’t be afraid to put the books down and make a stand.

The truth is that I’m a bibliophile by nature, and more than a little obsessive at times, and research was shaping up into a pretty major pitfall. I needed to take some time to figure out the finer details of my world, but honestly? I could have spent a lot of that time writing Fall. So, while all those old, dusty books are still waiting for me on my shelf, or by my bed, or at my local library, and I’ll doubtless consult them again, I’ve set them aside for now. I have my notes, I have my story, and I have my world. I’ve spent quite enough time with the folklore and mythology of ages past. It’s time to get back to writing my own.