She Can Fly: By Any Other Name…

Your fandom doesn’t need a name.

The desire to name fandoms could be considered derivative of the label-dependent society we live in, but while personally applied labels for gender, sexuality, and identity can be helpful, it seems that fandom nomenclature, as of late, has been hurting the presentation of fandom and nerds more than helping.

Historically speaking, there have always been fans. The Aeneid is basically a fanfiction response to the Illiad. Purportedly, the first documented ship war was over Jo and Laurie in Little Women. The original Sherlock Holmes fandom was so rabid that the author was forced to revitalize the character after he had killed him off. And, since at least the dawn of modern “slash”, fans have applied portmanteaus to describe who they are by relating the name to what they are interested in (Trekkies being one of the most historically prominent labels).

The Trekkies felt the need to define themselves because the science fiction fandom was not welcoming to them. Some of the most verbal participants in the Star Trek fandom were female; they wrote fanfiction, created fanzines and newspapers, and presented a female perspective on the show (which included what is widely recognized as first slash fic, Kirk/Spock). The boys club of SF fandom (often considered to have, at the time, a 9:1 ratio of men to women) was not interested in having women be a part of their imagined organization, and so the concept of “the Trekkie” (in one aspect) was created.

Since then, fandom, in a lot of ways, has been viewed as specifically female. Fanfiction has been generally seen as a female hobby, with a 2010 survey confirming the 78% of Fanfiction.net’s users identified as female. Fanart is often seen as an inherently female outlet, ranging from fan comics to slash–however, the “male” aspect of fanart tends to be associated with art of female characters being sexualized or engaging in sexual (sometimes non-consensual) acts. Many of the most popular fan vloggers, bloggers, and columnists are women.

Yet, some of the most prominent fandom names of the 2010s thus far seem to be specifically gendered: Jobros. Cumberbitches. Bronies.

Female-gendered fandom names are often derogatory, like Cumberbitches or Pie-Hos, and enforce the idea that woman in media should be presented as objects, like FullMetal Alchemist‘s Miniskirt Army. The names may initially seem clever or funny, but there’s a deeper, underlying current of internalize misogyny.

Male-gendered fandom portmanteaus, like Bronies (My Little Pony) or the newly rumored “Gemtlemen” (Steven Universe), specifically imply that their fandom is for men only. Both My Little Pony and Steven Universe are shows that ultimately focus on presenting female characters (albeit non-binary female-appearing characters in Steven Universe) as real, well-rounded, fully fleshed-out characters. To have men as fans is wonderful, but for men to specifically highjack the media and turn the fandom into a space that is not only unfriendly to children (the shows’ intended demographic), but outright dangerous to women is unacceptable.

Media, especially cartoons with a young demographic, is already staunchly biased against women, presenting them as caricatures and tokens. Networks and companies defend their decision to not have female-led shows by saying young boys can’t relate to female characters, despite the fact that this theory has been criticized and disproved by a number of experts. Add to that male fans taking control of female oriented fandom, and that becomes a whole new layer as to why corporations may not want to feature female-led content.

Male-driven fandom that insists on essentially appropriating female-led shows and subsequently sexualize the female characters, demand that male characters get more screen time, or threaten female fans for “invading their fandom” are contributing to the idea that women are secondary citizens in what once was a specifically female space. To love something is wonderful, but to keep others from loving it is miserable.

dNot all fandom names are bad: for me, the Carol Corps seems different. It’s not just an identity as a fan of a type of media, it’s expanded to include a lifestyle and attitude. Carol Corps is about embracing feminism and personal identity. The name is not gendered or specific to any personal label. The idea is that fans are a Corps, a body of people engaged in similar activities.

Fandom is problematic: from racism and sexism to female characters being specifically disposed of by fans so male characters can be paired together to online and in-person harassment, fandom represents a double edged sword for nerds. It is a powerful tool to connect like-minded people, but it can just as easily be used destroy and harm people. In a lot of cases, the name a fandom choses contributes to the attitude of the fandom. Tacking “tard” onto the end of the titular character’s name is not just insulting to the people who created the content, but also to the people who love it. Being a nerd is about passionately embracing what you love, even if it is looked upon as childish, silly, or dorky. If fans insist on having a portmanteau, following the lead of the Carol Corps seems like the best idea: have a genderless title that emphasizes the idea of joining together out of friendship and similar interests.

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She Can Fly: Stronger Than Ever

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt once seemed like the show was broken: with its weird, dark premise (a woman decides to live in New York City after being rescued from the underground bunker of a doomsday cult), off-kilter comedic cast (Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane), and peculiar pedigree (30 Rock), it seemed like there was too much to live up to and not enough to back it up. So when NBC decided the show didn’t have a great chance for success in their current line up, Universal, Tina Fey, and Robert Carlock were eager to have it make the jump to Netflix.

This happened almost entirely after the show was filmed, during post-production, so Kimmy Schmidt, in a lot of ways, really lucked out. Other Netflix original content is made specifically to expand beyond the restrains of traditional cable shows–a limited run time (usually 22 or 40-some minute long shows), network censorship. While some shows, like House of Cards, seem to adapt well to the lack of structure, other shows are not helped by the freer formatting. Look at Arrested Development’s fourth season, which stretched itself so far beyond the bonds of network influence that the awkwardly long episodes were specifically designed to be binged on and then rewatched multiple times before their humor could be fully comprehended. Because of Kimmy Schmidt’s airing uncertainty, it avoided a lot of the pitfalls that Arrested succumbed to.

Much like Flight of the Conchords on HBO, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does not relish in the gory glory of being picked up by a “network” that offers fare which frequently features cursing, nudity, and sex. Instead, Unbreakable gleefully teases at cut off curses and lacks nudity in a way that only a show which traces its roots to a love of network sitcoms could do.

This sort of joyful attitude is refreshing, especially as the show is set in New York City, a place synonymous with high cost of living, disgusting surroundings, and perpetually angry inhabitants.The upbeat tone is even more shocking when you consider that the Fey/Carlock duo’s last big hit was about as sarcastically sour late-night showrunner, also living in the Big Apple.

While it shares an urban setting and a female lead, that’s essentially where the similarities end; Kimmy Schmidt has little in common with 30 Rock. While 30 Rock was about a show-within-a-show and lampooning current pop culture, Kimmy Schmidt is a coming of age story (albeit, that age is 30) with a sweetly nostalgic fondness for the 90’s. Both shows tap into the current cultural zeitgeist, but in vastly different ways.

Kimmy Schmidt is analogous to that awkward pseudo-generation between Generation X-ers and millennials–Kimmy herself is not a girl, but not yet a woman. All the characters, from Carol Kane’s inspirationally goofy landlady to Tituss Burgess’ lovingly acerbic gay roommate, are in a state of arrested development, and the show is about them growing out of, and into, themselves. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt shares the same sense of 90s nostalgia that you find on tumblr and Buzzfeed, but it also lacks the inherent need to be “plugged in.” After all, the titular character (dubbed a “mole woman” in the first episode by the Matt Lauer in one of the show’s best cameos) has been living under a rock (almost literally) for 15 years. The last internet she knew was AOL dial-up was the internet, cell phones were camera-less bricks, and Moesha is her hippest frame of cultural reference.

Jeff Richmond’s compositions are lighthearted and jovial, but they often feel to derivative of his work on 30 Rock, where the mix of frenetic and energetic soundtrack suited the show, and often offered a humorously optimistic-sounding counterpoint to the show’s staunchly pessimistic lead. That said, the opening theme for the show is some of Richmond’s (and The Gregory Brother’s) best work, perfectly pop-referential, while being both sincere and empowering.

 

The show’s biggest fault lies in the fact that it is 30 Rock’s little sister. It will never be able to break away from the shadow of its big sister. Certain characters feel like vague call-backs to 30 Rock: I can’t help but wish that Chloe Grace Moretz played Kimmy’s sister Kymmi (but Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka makes the caustic teen her own, and provides a wonderful foil to Kimmy’s sunny nature). Martin Short’s Dr. Franff feels (and looks) quite a bit like Prince Gerhardt Hapsburg, but Short’s delivery falls…well, short, especially when compared to Paul Reubens. And John Hamm, while great in his cameo, seems to have become a pre-requisite for all Fey and Poehler productions (so, next up: Broad City?), which makes his role seem slightly less special.

But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn’t trying to be 30 Rock, and that is also the show’s greatest strength. It’s obviously going to follow in the same weird footsteps, but it has different goals in mind.

At its core, Unbreakable is a story about women (and, to a lesser extent, men) breaking free from the bonds that have been forced on them; literally (in Kimmy’s case), self-imposed (the kept wife Jacqueline, Titus’ fear of rejection), or socially enforced (Dong versus U.S. Immigration). Every character is deeper than they initially appear, and while the first season had some slip-ups in dealing with the presentation of race (with one especially odd, but almost justifiable narrative choice presented in the third episode), because of Netflix’s guarantee of at least two seasons for the show–and likely more to come, due to the critical acclaim the show has received thus far–there’s a great likelihood that everyone will get their shining moment and plots that seem awkward in the first season will find more nuanced resolution.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is an anthem to empowerment. In what sometimes seems like the darkest timeline, this show is a ray of light that proves television can still be fun, uplifting, and exciting, even for the most cynical viewers.

GAME THE GAME: Friday the 13th Age and Beyond

It’s the 13th Age. 13 Icons. There are mentions of prior Ages, and prior Icons, I got to wondering, did the 1st Age have only 1 Icon? Will the 21st Age have 21 Icons?

Icons Who Came Before

The Fool
Grandmaster of Flowers
Grandfather Assassin
The Inquisitor
The Sliding Princess
The Summoner
The Wizard King

Some of these Icons and their brief write-ups greatly intrigue me. When Acts of Geeks ran an extensive playtest of 13th Age, our game ended at Epic Level with the PCs assuming their place as Icons, replacing some of the current Icons!

It was perfect and awesome and beyond Epic (was there a 3.x book that detailed beyond epic?).

But, extrapolating beyond the 14th Age (with potentially 14 Icons), I imagined a far future (isn’t that how Shadowrun came to be) with awesome new Icons, though some of the current Icons would surely still be around.

The Lich King of course. The Emperor.  The Priestess.

But what new Icons would take their place? With forgeborn being a thing, are cybernetics that far behind?

Stealing from my own game, I present:

gg_logoG33k Grrl

If her stories are to be believed, she is all natural. Her ability to interface with technology, that is. And the rest too, get your minds out of the gutters. She is the ultimate information broker. She talks to machines, she jokingly calls herself the computer whisperer, but few would dispute the veracity of her claims. If it is out there, somewhere, she can access it. She is a great friend to have, but she doesn’t make friends too easily.

QUOTE

“Who is buying me drinks? You? Yeah, your husband knows about your girlfriend already, I don’t want to deal with that.”

 

 

 

GAME THE GAME: Friday The 13th Age Monk

The monk has always been anomalous in the inherent, implied setting of D&D. While every other classic character class has a clear high-fantasy analogue, the monk is clearly rooted in eastern traditions. Given the release date of AD&D, I can only imagine that Mr. Gygax was a big fan of the television series Kung-Fu. But, as cool as the idea of the 1e monk was, they were ultimately all the same. Yes, stats might differ, but the abilities would be the same. As game design has moved forward, players were given more choices, and we have seen many different iterations of the monk, some hewing closely to the original, and others changing with the times and edition.

gtgma13th Age, a game written from the ground up to make sense of and integrate all that came before, presents, in my opinion, the coolest, most versatile, fun to play monk yet. My index cards for my character are great fun. I have one card with my opening moves (jab), one card for my flow attacks (punch), and on for my closing (kick). I can easily imagine my monk doing awesome stuff worthy of any martial arts film. If you want to ensure you have the Flurry of Blows prevalent in many previous iterations of D&D, you can do that, but if you want to fire a bow, or do wire-fu, that is there too. One can easily imagine creating multiple schools of monks, each with their own specialties.Shoot fireballs DBZ style? Check! Jackie Chan? Ding! It’s all there, and my monk will be different than your monk.

Intrigued? Interested? Seeking enlightenment? Pick up a copy of 13 True Ways, as always, it is my opinion that you will not be disappointed.

She Can Fly: The Starfire/Raven Dichotomy

I grew up consuming pop media rabidly; the 90s and early 00s was a great time to love cartoons and comics. Anime had started its journey into the mainstream, classic cartoons were easy to find on repeat, and new shows seemed to debut all the time on venues like ABC’s “One Saturday Morning” and Cartoon Network’s “Cartoon Cartoon” block.

Still, being a female fan was always difficult. Often women and girls were relegated to being side characters, mainly moms and love interests. Some shows featured a single female character surrounded by men. When we were really lucky, and media featured more than a single token female character, there were usually two female characters to every three male characters. When this happened, shows often relied on a dichotomy between the two characters that caused conflict because of how different the two women were.

TV shows and comics often still follow these rules.

Look to Archie comics: Betty is the sweet, smart, athletic girl next door while Veronica is rich, snooty, and did I mention really rich? Scooby Doo has the beautiful, but dull Daphne and the smart, but tragic looking Velma (a dichotomy that has, in recent years, been subverted by newer iterations of the franchise). The Snorks relied not on competition between kind Casey Kelp and fashionable Daffney Gillfin, who were shown as good friends, but still instinctually pitted the tomboy against the girly girl. Kimberly and Trini in Power Rangers were essentially pallet swaps of one another in terms of how they were written, their most defining characteristics were that the Pink Ranger was a slightly girlier gymnast Pink Ranger and the Yellow Ranger was a slightly more tomboyish martial artist. Batgirl was a smart, good girl; Catwoman was a pretty, bad girl. X-Men Evolution had goth Rogue and her polar opposite, valley girl Kitty Pryde. The Powerpuff Girls, a show widely lauded for being  female friendly and featuring well-defined characters with depth, relied on stereotypes to characterize the main characters, which put them at odds with one another. A friendship is implied between Honey Lemon and Gogo Tamago in Big Hero 6, despite the fact the two never say a word to one another (but at least a subplot about the two girls competing for the attention of the same guy was dropped pre-production). Princess Bubblegum is smart and girly, Marceline is tough and cool. Even Katara and Toph in Avatar: the Last Airbender exhibit the stereotypes of the pretty, kind girl and the tough tomboy.

While stereotypes and broad generalizations can be helpful in creating the outline of a character, media seems over-reliant on the two female characters being polar opposites: pretty girl versus tomboy; optimist versus goth girl; smart one versus rich one, and so on.

The first time I really noticed this dichotomy was with the Teen Titans cartoon that debuted in 2003. The show is fondly remembered, and for good reason; one of the first American-produced shows to really adapt an anime-referential style, while still retaining its Western-based roots, the DC Comics cartoon told complex, layered stories that went beyond the classic definitions of good and evil, and tackled topics like character motivation, the origin of true strength, and the power of friendship. The show also used the classic 2:3 ratio, opting to initially feature Robin, Cyborg, Beast Boy, Raven, and Starfire as the core cast (sorry Wonder Girl, Flash, Aqualad, and Speedy).

Every girl I knew who watched the show was either a Starfire or a Raven—which is to say, they preferred and identified with one character, and the other struck them as kind of a mystery. “Starfires” were bubbly, optimistic, outgoing, and liked having fun, while “Ravens” were private, smart, brooding, realists with a tendency to be pessimistic.

I was a Starfire. I liked Raven’s intelligence, but the rest of her character seemed foreign to me. While the show was focused on explaining why Raven was the way she was (and why Starfire acted the way she did), sometimes that was lost in the bustle of the other characters and plot lines. I didn’t actively dislike Raven, but I honestly didn’t care about her, which is actually probably worse—indifference is the opposite of love, after all.

But Teen Titans combated the idea that women always had to be at odds with one another. Switched, which was the 7th episode of the show, did something really unexpected; Beast Boy, Cyborg, and Robin were essentially non-players in the episode, and it focused on a body switching trope which is often a cliché used with dichotomous characters. But, instead of being about the two characters just getting back to their own bodies, it became about the two of them understanding one another on a deeper level.

After seeing that episode, it started to click with me that disliking Raven made no sense. I shared attributes with both Raven and Starfire. Who I was could not be summed up with one generalized character.

Girls are often forced to choose who they are from one of two characters, instead of being allowed to see themselves in all characters. Part of it is societal, emphasis on competition between women that can be seen in media from the Bachelor to Taylor Swift, but another part of it is that media plays into the trope of girl on girl violence. Many of these duos are shown in competition with each other (for boys, grades, a role in a drama club production) in a way that is never truly resolved.

This dichotomy and simplification of female characters (really, of all characters) is a necessity for storytelling, but it needs to be done well. Princess Bubblegum and Marceline’s initial strife in Adventure Time came not from their differences, but from their similarities: they are both confident, powerful rulers and that put them at odds with one another. It’s not to say that the characters always have to understand each other, but their differences can’t be the only cause of conflict within the story.

The best thing that can be done with dichotomous characters is to show them as friends, and many of the examples I’ve posed do just that. The dichotomy is used as a place to derive conflict from, but also as a story telling gateway to greater understanding. Subversion of the dichotomy trope is a beautiful thing. When it turns out Daphne is not only pretty, but also smart and capable, or that Velma is smart, but also a romantic, it creates complex, well-rounded characters that anyone can relate to. A character is only the sum of the parts she is written with, so don’t make those parts all come from clichés.

GAME THE GAME: Tell Me About Your Character (Actual Play Edition)

AoG Editor Mike has started up a 13th Age game. AoG columnist Kim is dealing with her impressions , and I thought it’d be a wonderful time to share my thoughts on some big picture gaming stuff, with opinions that might enlighten, anger, or even bore you.

The genre of D&D (yes, it is a genre, it is not Fantasy, it is not Swords and Sorcery, it is D&D) is very firmly rooted in the concept of leveling-up. You start as an inexperienced character, and advance in power and prestige, making the world a better place.

This leveling-up is the most intrinsic part of a D&D game across all iterations.

And, yes, 13th Age is a D&D game, make no mistake.

As I reflect upon our second session, which Kim has detailed her take on here , I wanted to share what I feel are some insights into gaming and leveling-up and D&D in general.

My character (c’mon, it’s a D&D game, it has to include the phrase “my character”) is a monk.

I have run panels on gaming and GMing, and I always encourage folks that less is more. Let the characters develop through play. A character doesn’t need 10 pages of back story, his story is one that is about to be told.

My character was selected by his order to do a job. I have some additional thoughts, but his story is starting with him leaving his monastery and heading out into the Big World to accomplish his goal.

I had some more thoughts about what he was like, but I didn’t necessarily verbalize them.

This article is my reflection on that process, and advice for other gamers and GMs.

Let your character and personality develop through play.

If you have 10 pages of back story, you are focusing on the past.

Focus on the present and the future.

Be surprised by the things your character does.

Old School D&D players will swear by the alignment system. It guides their characters and informs us what we can expect. My character is (imaginary) flesh and blood, he has a moral compass, and he will make choices. And, how many of us, can say that we are the same as when we were in high school, or college. People mellow. People change. Conservatives become liberal. Listening tastes change from Ministry to NPR.

Instead of having your past drive your character and their choices, allow your character to make their own way.

Is it interesting that X happened to your character? Or, is it more interesting when your character responds to something at the table, during the game, in a way that surprises your fellow players, the GM, and yourself.

I had a paladin. He had a daughter. The DM at the time was lamenting the fact that characters never had families. So, I took him up on this “challenge.” Other members of my paladin’s order decided that my daughter was “the one” or some such. They took her from my wife. My wife was upset. This made me upset.

I found my daughter, and took her back, turning my back on the order.

LG on LG violence?!?

Yup.

This surprised me.

I ran a Star Wars birthday game for a friend. He wanted an alt-reality where Luke joined his father and they united, and thee was all sorts of badness across the universe. And, he wanted to be a dark jedi.

So, it was a dark game.

A game of villains.

Killing those rebel scum.

And then, Luke asked the player, his student, to strike down the weak Lord Vader, so that they might rule together.

And, the player refused.

This wasn’t what his character wanted. He thought he wanted it. I gave him the chance.

And he bowed his head and declined.

And that player surprised himself.

Be in the moment.

In our 13th Age game, there were some orcs. They wanted something. Their army of thousands set up camp outside the town we were in. They were not attacking… yet.

monk01So, while some of my fellow players prepared for war, prepared for a battle we might not win, because these were orcs, and orcs are bad, my character, the monk named Ash, went out to talk to the orcs, accompanied by the tiefling druid.

We had a parlay. I asked what they wanted. They wanted an axe. Ok, what were they willing to give up for the axe? What did we want for the axe? There were some negotiations, communications with the higher-ups (Icons), and it was determined, if we secured the axe, they would deliver the Orc Lord’s head on a platter to the Elf Queen.

This made the Elf Queen happy, as the Orc lord long ago had killed her husband. The Orc Lord didn’t necessarily know this plan, but the orc who orchestrated was seeing a bigger picture.

So, the orcs got the axe named “Elfkiller”, there will be a new Orc Lord, and everyone in the village was safe.

When Ash left the confines of the monastery walls, I had no idea what the world had in store for him. I have a mission. But, along the way, it seems I am going to do some things that surprise me.

Likely, Ash will call himself orc-friend, and this makes the orc-haters mad. But it seemed the honorable thing to do.

Because, maybe we all need to just share a Coke and a smile.

If you are playing (or creating) a game about XP, then your game needs to reflect this.

Awhile back, several of the AoG staffers played some Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

There were some neat things in this game, but after three or four sessions, Black Panther had leveled-up quite a bit due to the XP system, to the point where has significantly more powerful.

So, what you are telling me is that through the over 1600 appearances T’challa had made in comics up to the point when he was statted up and he was being played in this campaign he had achieved X power level, yet in 3-4 sessions, he was not significantly more powerful? That didn’t work for me.

ff01And Johnny Storm? For the over 4,000 issues he has been in he doesn’t even have a d8 in Combat? I can accept that, however, I cannot accept that after 3-4 sessions, now he does, and ultimately, having even a d8 in MHR makes a significant difference.

MHR needed to figure out what is was about as a game? Was it about XP? If so, what did XP promote? What could one do with XP? I appreciated the Milestones, and what they encouraged, but they didn’t synch with the rest of the system.

D&D is a genre about leveling up.

It’s cool that your character has a backstory. Mechanically, does your backstory make sense? With 4 ranks in a specific background or skill, can you accomplish what your backstory proclaims?

Does your system understand this?

If I am a former soldier, possibly even an officer, in a 5e game, why does a single kobold scare me at 1st level? Or rather, why is a single kobold a threat to me? This doesn’t seem to synch either.

In D&D 1st level characters come to the table full of potential, hopes, and dreams. Likely, they haven’t “done” much, their stories are going to unfold through play.

Is your background, be it 10 pages, or 10 sentences, supported by the game system?

Ash had potential, that is what the monks saw in him.

Since our game is not quite an “open-secrets” table (see the Morley-Wick method of gaming) , I’m not quite ready to reveal what that potential is, but it is there, and the mechanics of the system support it.