Constitution, We The People

Reality Check

Reposted from my Tumblr:

Nothing frustrates me more than people who talk about whether a presidential candidate would be a “strong leader”. People who want to be led are and always have been the single greatest danger to freedom.

The role of the President is not to lead the country.
The role of the President is to serve the country.

If you think the United States is “choosing a leader” tomorrow, you do not understand American democracy.

The last year and a half has been a job interview.

Who do you want to hire?


Every Day I'm Tumblin' Tumblin'

In the year or so that I've had my primary Tumblr account (, I have made good use of it: I've expanded my horizons into a wide range of blogs covering a wide range of interests. I follow blogs focused on art, comics, politics, science, comics, movies, science fiction, comics, diversity, activism, and comics.

I like a good deal of what I find there. I reblog a good deal of what I find there.

I generate very little original content, however, and what I do generate is either buried in a long chain of posts and commentary that ultimately leads to someone else ... or is buried even deeper amidst the dozens of entries I deem worthy of passing on. is a pretty good reflection of what I like, but not really of what I think.

With this in mind, I have started a second Tumblr: Athelind Speaks (

This is where I intend to post MY thoughts, the essays on art, comics, politics, science, comics, movies, science fiction, comics, diversity, activism, and comics that used to fill the virtual pages of my LiveJournal ( I will cross-post said Original Content to that self-same LJ (I paid for a Lifetime Subscription, and by gum, I'm going to get my lifetime's worth). I will not use the GRAUPH account to follow other Tumblrs or reblog anything but the most relevant references.

So, here we go. New Year, New Blog.

tell it like it IS, benjy

The Hoard Potato: The Forever Mark

Last week, Your Obedient Serpent let slip the single nerdiest thing he has ever said, or, in all probability, ever will say. Those who have spared even a cursory glance at this journal will understand that this is a high bar indeed.

I compared the Cutie Mark Crusaders to the Forever People.

This, dear readers, is a transcendent moment of nerdity. For one brief, shining moment, I achieved Nerdvana.

Ah, but I can tell by your expressions that this bon mot was sufficiently inbred as to be incomprehensible to any but my fellow Nerdisattvas.

As I have noted in the past, there is a tendency for fans of Jack Kirby's Fourth World Saga to neglect the Forever People, a series about a band of youthful, colorfully-garbed "gods" of New Genesis who can only be described as "Space Hippies". While the Fourth World as a whole is a product of its time, it's the Forever People who are the most dated. They're earnest. They're optimistic. They're corny. "Serious" readers find them embarrassing, and prefer to ignore them or sweep them under the rug, preferring even Kirby's work on Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen to this gaudy gang of star-born striplings. Alas, some of those "serious" readers include comic professionals who attempted to continue the King's Magnum Opus.

This is unfortunate, because it is in the pages of the Forever People that Jack clearly spells out, over and over, the key concept of the epic, the Anti-Life Equation -- a MacGuffin that those "serious" readers insist that the King "never really explained". Those embarrassing space hippies are the ones who most often directly confront the Big Bad of the Fourth World, Darkseid, and encounter not one but two individuals who actually wield the Equation itself.

By the same token, there is a tendency amongst Bronies (the Periphery Demographic that helped to catapult My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic from a thirty-minute toy commercial to a global phenomenon) to dismiss, ignore, or just roll their eyes at the episodes centering around a group of secondary characters dubbed "The Cutie Mark Crusaders". The Crusaders are younger than the main cast (a.k.a. the "Mane Six"), being portrayed as schoolchildren. Originally, they were planned as a spin-off aimed at an even younger audience, and, well ... they're earnest. They're optimistic. They're corny.1

It is also in the Crusader-centric episodes that writing staff clearly spells out the key concept of the "Cutie Mark", the mystic brand that adorns the hindquarters of each adult pony. A Cutie Mark appears when a pony finds her True Calling, the vocation or avocation that that will bring her the most fulfillment in life. The Crusaders, last in their age group to achieve this milestone, are determined to do everything they can to hurry the process along.

The puberty metaphors are not accidental, but are, ultimately, incidental. The Cutie Mark is more than just a metaphor; the magic of Equestria may not be rigorous enough to satisfy Sanderson's First Law2, but the Marks and Callings nevertheless play an important role in its operation -- particularly in Season 5, currently underway as of this writing.

More than one Brony rolled over a few Saturdays ago, went back to sleep when they remembered that a CMC episode was scheduled for the day -- and discovered upon awakening that they'd missed one of the Big Episodes of the Season. Given the themes of Season 5, I would not be surprised if Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Bell turn out to be major players in resolving the crisis in the forthcoming season finale.

Is there a point to all this? Probably not, other than an amusing confluence of easily-dismissed side characters in obscure pop culture.

On the Other Claw, perhaps there is. Perhaps it's worth taking a second glance at the overlooked and unappreciated side characters in the media we all so adore. Perhaps there are more works where the real themes and key concepts are explored by the side-characters, since, after all, the protagonists and antagonists are busy protagonizing and antagonizing. Perhaps, in many works, all that foreground action is just a carrier wave, and it's the Big Bears and the Apple Blooms, the Merrys and Pippins, the Neville Longbottoms and the Etta Candys who really embody the signal.

1 There is also an unfortunate tendency for the earlier CMC episodes to hinge heavily on Cringe Comedy, though this thankfully diminishes as the seasons progress.
2 Did I just invoke Sanderson on top of Kirby and MLP? Trifecta!!
tropes, WARNING: TV Tropes

Understanding Athelind's Argot: Everlasting Gobstopper

The Everlasting Gobstopper* is Your Obedient Serpent's own rhyming slang for a "Neverending Doorstopper", the most egregious metastasis of Trilogy Creep.

To qualify as an Everlasting Gobstopper, a work must have most or all of the following traits:

  • Each volume in the series will run around a thousand pages, putting each individual installment firmly into Doorstopper territory.

  • There is no clear end to the progression of installments: while the saga appears to be telling a story, there is rarely a hint of actual resolution. It is, in short, Neverending.

  • The characters rarely manage to accomplish anything of significance. They are tossed around from event to event, becoming increasingly mired in events outside their control.

    • Corollary 1: The more sympathetic they are, the less they manage to accomplish.

    • Corollary 2: Any minor "victories" will happen early on in the series. As it progresses, the characters become increasingly less effective, as the author finds it easier to play on readers' sympathies tormenting characters rather than advancing the story.

  • Readers often develop Stockholm Syndrome. After investing so much time and energy into a work, they are not going to walk away and leave it unfinished, no matter how much of a slog it has become or how little they care about the characters anymore.

  • As the work continues to expand, it becomes increasingly likely that the author will walk away and leave it unfinished.

While these symptoms are most commonly found in Fantasy Literature, the contagion has spread to other genres and media as well. HBO's Game of Thrones, of course, is the most obvious example, being a direct adaptation of one of the quintessential Everlasting Gobstoppers.

An example native to television might be Supernatural: after the resolution of its original story arc and the departure of the creators, the series has continued without actually progressing, to the point where one can tune into any random episode from Seasons 6-10 without being able to determine if it is, in fact, a rerun.

In the world of comics, Hickman's multi-year run on the Avengers titles spiraled into a Gobstopper. Hicman managed the rather impressive feat of making the defeat of a vast alien armada seem ultimately meaningless. Geoff Johns' tenure on Green Lantern and its spin-offs deserves a mention, as well: it even outlasted the original author (though Mr. Johns is, thankfully, still with us); after his departure from the books, those who followed him kept spinning out the plot threads he set in motion, stretching them ever-finer and more tenuous.

Note that an author can crank out novel after novel about the same characters for decades, but if the characters resolve the issue at hand in each installment, it's not a Everlasting Gobstopper. The continuing adventures of Philip Marlowe, of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, or even those of Harry Dresden do not qualify as Gobstoppers. Yes, Harry's saga has an ultimate over-arching story arc, but each volume is largely self-contained; he and his friends resolve the most immediate of threats and dangers, and even multi-volume plot threads are resolved every few books. Butcher lets his characters win now and then, and that big looming metaplot actually progresses as we learn more about it.

I am ... not a fan of Everlasting Gobstoppers, and I try to avoid them. I get sucked in on occasion, of course; the Agent Pendergast series seemed like a tidy batch of fairly self-contained superhantural thrillers until it swallowed its own tail diving into the protagonist's dysfunctional family background; ultimately, I walked away from that one and haven't looked back. More recently, after thoroughly enjoying the tidy trilogies and done-in-one works of the preposterously prolific Brandon Sanderson, I picked up The Way of Kings ... and discovered, as I was immersed in the second volume, that Sanderson intends to run that series for at least ten full doorstoppers.

Coyote help me, I am looking forward to them all.

*The phrase, of course, is borrowed from Roald Dahl's masterpiece, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
tropes, WARNING: TV Tropes

The Hoard Potato: It's Time To Meet The Muppets

I watched the first episode of The Muppets last night.

First impressions: where the classic Muppet Show had backstage wackiness, The Muppets, thus far, has backstage wangstiness.

This is not to say I’m not interested to see where they take it. They haven’t lost me yet. They’re just patterning themselves on sitcoms that I already don’t watch, and, well, it’s hard to parody shows that are already parodies. I'm not going to whinge about dragging "children's icons" into the morass of "adult humor"; I am well aware that the Muppets have always relied on multi-level appeal and getting crap past the radar.

In their quest to make the characters more "sophisticated", however, they seem to have thrown out the subtlety and slyness that really was sophisticated. Worse, they've taken characters who used to be lovable because of their flaws and are busily making them unlikable despite their virtues.

Seriously, if they want to take a cast of over-the-top archetypes who indulge in broad slapstick and introduce sophisticated, emotionally-intense story arcs that appeal to an adult audience, they’d be better served by following the lead of the current crop of Precious Cinnamon Roll cartoons, rather than stuff like 30 Rock or The Office.

If the Steven Universe writers had written the Kermit/Piggy break-up, it would have been heart-wrenching. It would have pulled you closer to both characters, rather than feeling alienated from them because of their pettiness.

I am going to give it a few more episodes to see where they take this.

Eye of the Dragon

The Hoard Potato and Cyberpunk, Part 1

... okay, over on Tumblr, fuckyeahcyber-punk just reminded me that Johnny Mnemonic came out just three years after Lawnmower Man.

Johnny Mnemonic is still filed under "relatively new movie" in my head, even though it's TWENTY YEARS OLD NOW. Lawnmower Man (1992, BTW) just ... feels so much older.

Maybe it's just that bad. It's got nothing in common with the Stephen King short story of the same name, of course, and the CGI was embarrassing even by 1992 standards, but the entire structure of the film, the pacing, the conflict ... they all relegate it eternally to the era of renting B-movies on VHS.

hoard potato, tv, movies

The Hoard Potato: Baby, It's Better/Down Where It's Wetter

Dungeons & Dragons is infamous for having a lot of minutiae that "nobody's ever going to use".

This is a long-standing tradition in the game: as a single example, Greyhawk, the first supplement to the original D&D rules, contained elaborate modifiers for comparing specific weapons to specific kinds of armor that almost every player dismissed as an unnecessary complication.

Blackmoor, the second supplement to the original D&D rules, had a whole section about "Underwater Adventures" that almost always gets lumped into this category. There are pages of underwater combat rules, the effects of casting spells underwater, pelagic and benthic monsters galore, and no small supply of aquatically-themed magic items.

Most players looked at all of this and immediately decided that they would never, ever, EVER venture underwater. The most obvious obstacle of Not Drowning was the matter of least concern, easily handled by spells, potions, or magic rings; the Monsters of the Deep were formidable, but no more so than those found in other, drier regimes.

No, it was the matter of sheer inconvenience.

The normal strategies and tactics of a typical band of adventurers would be severely curtailed in the Undersea World; the mainstay offensive spells, Fireball and Lightning Bolt, were ineffective or uncontrollable; heavy armor limited one's swimming mobility; swords, axes, and other weapons that relied upon swinging were severely penalized, in favor of stabbing and thrusting weapons like spears and (of course) tridents). Bows and slings were useless; the only viable ranged options were heavily-modified crossbows. A party from the surface had a choice between fighting in hobbles, or abandoning their precious arsenal of magical toys.

And for what? The same gold and jewels that every monster hoarded, with the added bonus of overspecialized magic items that were of very little use on dry land -- or in the underground corridors whence most characters in those ancient days spent the bulk of their careers.

All in all, it was deemed far too much trouble for too little reward. Not "risk", mind: D&D players have never minded taking crazy risks with their ultimately disposable, but they have always HATED being impaired, disadvantaged, or "nerfed". A Dungeon Master who dragged his players into an underwater adventure risked horrible retribution: I have heard stories that I hope are only an urban legend about a disgruntled gaming group that added anchovies to the DM's pizza, in order to "maintain the theme".

(Excuse me, I need a moment. Brrr.)

Alas, D&D is also infamous for failures of imagination.

There is a lot of underwater-themed material in Blackmoor -- more material than a DM might need to take a party of surface dwellers on one or two dips in a pond.¹ There's enough there to build an entire campaign around, a long-running game centered around aquatic adventures. If players hate getting dragged underwater once in a while, though, who'd want to pull their party under the waves on a regular basis?

Here's the thing: Blackmoor is also full of intelligent aquatic creatures, many of whom would be entirely viable player characters.

Why not have a whole party of aquatic characters?

Merfolk, Tritons, Locathah, the inevitable Sea Elves.

If memory serves, the section even includes underwater options for the various PC classes -- again, sections that "nobody would ever use" if they were only thinking in terms of surface dwellers descending to an especially damp dungeon.

Of course, since tabletop gaming never throws anything away[¹] (except THAC0), the vast bulk of this material was inherited by AD&D, D&D3/4/5, and Pathfinder. Despite this, in the forty years since TSR published that book, we've seen official, published D&D campaign worlds set in a Hollow World, on a dying world, in the Romulan Neutral Zone of Gods and Demons, and far more, but to my knowledge, neither the Lads in Lake Geneva nor their Coastal Successors have ever published a campaign setting based on the adventure potential of three-quarters of the surface of a typical Earth-like fantasy world.

Other than GURPS Atlantis, I don't know of any other game companies doing so, either for their own systems or during the turn of the century's explosion of third-party d20 products.[²] The SFRPG Blue Planet might qualify if you're not too picky about that line between "high fantasy" and "hard science fiction".

I have never even heard of anyone running their own aquatic campaign. I've proposed such a thing myself a few times over the decades (including a superhero variation using Champions), but each time, it's been shot down in favor of more traditional game milieus.[³] Did you really expect me to go a whole post without a single TV Tropes link?

I honestly don't understand this. Mermaids are perennial and iconic elements of fantasy and folklore -- more so than faux-Tolkien elves. The ocean is a beautiful and varied environment even before you start dropping fantasy magic and fish-people into it. The generation that turned this oddball hobby into an industry grew up on Captain Nemo, Aquaman cartoons, and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

I mean, I get why some of my other pet ideas have no traction in the gaming world; even I can see that playing a squad of inch-tall CMDF agents might have a limited appeal.

This one, though, seems like a natural.

Magnum Opus

RST: Introducing the Rune Star Tapestries

Okay, I'll bite. What's the Rune Star Tapestries?

It's the blanket title for the Sword & Sorcery Magnum Opus* I've been tinkering with on and off since the early 1980s. It stars several of the characters I played in godhi's Corongond Campaign, the first big, ongoing tabletop RPG campaign I was ever involved in.

Yes, characters. It was the Dawn of the Nerd Age, before Dallas Egbert was lost in the steam tunnels, in the days of the Great Dice Famine. In those days, playing more than one character at a time and having characters who jumped from campaign to campaign was still fairly common. Game mechanics have matured and evolved a great deal over the last four decades, but in that cusp between the Seventies and the Eighties, between Carter and Reagan, between Eldritch Wizardry and the Player's Handbook, gaming culture was equally embryonic, and many of the customs and conventions now taken for granted had yet to emerge. Many off-the-cuff, ad-hoc decisions made in a convention hall's game room about how a fantasy world might function went on to shape not only game settings but fantasy literature as a whole.

(Had we known we were setting precedent as binding as the Common Law, we might have made different decisions.)

I have dithered around with these ideas and these characters for almost four decades, developing and discarding settings that just didn't work, haring off after misguided attempts to write a "proper" Quest Fantasy Trilogy despite a set of decidedly improper protagonists. After the untimely demise of my friend, Jim, who was an important part of that antediluvian tabletop chronicle, and who never stopped encouraging me to bring my characters to a wider audience than the gaming table, I realized that it was well past time to get serious about this saga.

For the last few months, in fits and starts, jotting down notes at work and in the evenings, I have striven to do just that ... and I'm ready to start sharing.

That's ... informative. But what IS the Rune Star Tapestries?

Well, let me tell you what it *won't* be:

It won't be a Trilogy Quest, where the protagonists have basically One Big Adventure to overthrow One Big Bad, and that's it, they're done. That's the end of their story.

It certainly won't be an Everlasting Gobstopper: those Neverending Series of Thousand-Page Doorstoppers, which drag characters through tragedy after indignity without ever really *accomplishing* anything. [Cue Portentious Violins over Clockwork Maps.]

It won't be a Grand Epic about Destined, Prophesied Chosen Ones.

I plan a throwback to the classic days of Sword and Sorcery: an episodic, picaresque collection of short stories and novellas about a trio of well-meaning troublemakers, three misfits seeking their fortune in a world of magic and high adventure. I feel no obligation to write them in chronological order, any more than Howard or Lieber did. It will be character-driven and setting-driven: the core theme will be exploration and discovery, as Our Heroes seek out interesting and exotic locales and interact with them.

And those ad-hoc decisions I mentioned, up above, that turned "Dungeon Fantasy" into its own subgenre? It just might be a chance to play with some of the eccentric, off-the-wall wildness that didn't wind up as Common-Law Precedent for the ISO Standard Fantasy Setting.

The most quintessential fantasy cliche is the tale of a Heroic Knight-Errant who rescues a Fair Princess from the clutches of a Wicked Dragon.

The Tapestries begin when a Plain Servant Girl rescues a Noble Dragon from the clutches of Errant Knights and would-be Heroes.

They take refuge with a band of Goblins, and that's where their adventures *begin*...

*Yes, that icon is Opus with a Magnum. Thank you, Derrick Fish.