[firefly] More Than Gray

This is part of a series of posts on Revisiting Firefly.

In the Western genre, beyond the tension between the West and East, you have the backdrop of the aftermath of the Civil War. A frequent Western trope is an embittered Confederate veteran who suffers as a consequence of the war, and seeks out the frontier.

Firefly, as a Space Western, aligns with this. We have an embittered veteran from a rural society who failed in resisting a conquering force, and resigns himself to the frontier and the nobility of self-governance.

But: is this what you want? If we’re supposed to (generally) root for motley rogues against the might of the Alliance, what does this mean for the players? If your Browncoats are nothing more than Confederate analogues, many players are going to have trouble with that. What can we do differently?

Problem: In The Shadow of Old Stories

Here’s the premise of the Unification War: the Core wanted to expand its civilized (and cumbersome) reach to the Rim Worlds, who resisted because they wanted to govern themselves without the meddling of a strong-willed government. One problem with that is this aligns to a narrative as old as the Civil War (sometimes called the “Lost Cause” lore), pitting it as a battle between a strong federal government against scattered states about the right to live a way of life.

This is, of course, not the only narrative or even the dominant one regarding the Civil War; economic, governance and human rights issues are more traditionally at the fore. If we follow the analogue: the lore of Firefly can awkwardly seem to enshrine one peculiar and ideological view point.

If we don’t want to replay old stories, we need to make new ones.

Solution 1: Questions of Power

Let’s revisit the premise of the Unification War, adding more causes (beyond the romantic vision that loyalists would tend towards). By doing so, we can do more present alternate metaphors, and establish that the Core/Rim conflict is not necessarily a rehash of an American Civil War.

Let’s use a more modern notion of war: instead of abstract causes, a political body will only fight if given concrete reasons. Let’s breaks down into two things:

  • Resources (economic base / economic constraints)
  • Control (extending influence / preventing chaos)

When depicting a world, think about which side they picked in the war, and show how a conflict over Resources and Control defines the Rim/Core relationship.

Example: The crew are visiting the settlement of Veldt Canyon. The Resources at stake here are a rare kind of berry that had a high rate of return elsewhere; they resisted Unification in order to resist trade liberalization and protect the monopoly at the heart of its economy. Their resource constraints are a lack of spacefaring infrastructure; they remain dependent on beneficial deals with spacers.

The Control at stake was preventing two older families – both with bloodlines dating back to the first arks – from continuing a bloody vendetta (fought through proxy warlords and mercenaries) which has dominated Veldt power dynamics. In the wake of Unification, the Amir family was installed as Lords and oversaw a trade agreement with Londinium; the Gao family was exiled. (Plot hooks: the crew seek to broker a trade relationship on behalf of the Trader’s Guild, but are competing with the newly returned Gao brothers.)

Solution 2: Many Histories

There is no shortage of revolutions and insurrections in history. Give the Browncoats them grounding in something else: the Republican resistance during the Spanish Civil War or the attempted coup in Moscow in the 1990s. Don’t create a pure analogue or proxy to a past example; but use the inspiration to create some alternate models that defy expectations.

If you broaden the Browncoat narrative, you can establish that this is not a mere proxy nor a historical analogue. Instead, each different Browncoat (and each different Alliance loyalist) is a new chance to ask the question: what is the definition of “liberty” or “order” that they seek, and what made them willing to kill for it?

Example: The redsash brigade are one of many Browncoat factions that joined from the Veldt Lowlands – each connoting their ideological bent with their faction’s sash over their standard dusters. The redsash in particular were tied to lowlands religious communes that were once a counterpoint to the larger enterprises in the canyon.

The redsash brigade was quickly decimated in an early encounter with the Alliance. (Some partisans allege that the Gao family of Veldt Canyon coordinated this to remove problematic elements from their joint forces.) What you don’t yet know is that your engineer, Lucille, was once betrothed to one of the doomed redsash fighters.

Alternative Solution: Dig Deeper

While I talked about breaking genre patterns, there’s also the idea of using the lore to dig deeper into the issues. (Credit to Jon Walton for the ideas/brainstorming.) Consider:

The Browncoats originated as a private security force on the frontier of the Verse, usually in the employ of the Lords or Mining Corps that ran the Rim worlds. At their best, they were known for a quick and effective kind of “frontier justice” that responded to problems, but in reality, they were known for a great deal of corruption and brutality in their ranks, enforcing a rule by a wealthy elite. You can quickly see how this escalated into misgovernance of the Rim worlds, and why the Alliance would have clashed with the Browncoats. You can also see how there are differing definitions of “freedom” at play, depending on who you ask.

You can make both sides of the conflict more complicated, and echo the fundamental issues that were at play. However, in any case where you’re setting up a metaphor, you need to consider the consequences of that metaphor, and what the meaning you’re creating.

P.S. Cool off with some music

Your uncles are buried and at peace, but the stories they told you won’t be so easily forgotten or forgiven. You’re on a boat out to the Rim, and you’re telling yourself that you should be here to start over. You don’t want any trouble, and you want find any trouble; that is what you’re telling yourself, and the boat begins to descend.

Emancipator – Old Devil

Wooden Sky – Wooden Sky

(Emancipator’s albums, and especially the Safe in Steep Cliffs album, are amazingly appropriate, and pretty great.)

[firefly] more on cultural borrowing

In my last post on the use of Chinese culture in Firefly, I threw out a plot hook about a wedding tradition I read about.

Upon some further conversation, it’s possible that I may have misborrowed in my case, due to my cursory read at first. In my case, maybe me read of a “red envelope” tradition was out of alignment with it’s cultural reality, which is basically a common thing: gifting of money for weddings. I’ll try harder next time! That’s what an iterative design loop is all about.

A smart comment from Jon Walton

People tend to represent foreign cultures by emphasizing the differences, which I don’t think is always the best way to go. Sometimes its better to emphasize how different people end up in similar circumstances or have similar problems. That kind of thing humanizes people from other backgrounds rather than making them seen really alien and strange. Even if their norms and practices are different, the issues and problems and needs are often the same.

Check out his book, Planarch Codex, “a planar supplement for Dungeon World” (and a smart text about broadening the scope of your fiction).

[firefly] Savage Space, and the Problems with Reavers

This is part of a series of posts on Revisiting Firefly.

Reavers! Murderous monsters at the edge of space! They provide a terrifying antagonist – and a third party that threatens to undue the veneer of control in the reaches of space. But it also trips into some really unworkable areas. I’ll the audience that there’s talk of sexual assault below, since that’s part of the problem at stake.

Aside: That Damn Quote

You know the one, where they mention rape as a threat of the Reavers? Sure, they were trying to amp up the scare-level here, but I don’t want to hear that quoted every time the Reavers are introduced in a game, and there’s no ways I’m ever bringing that stuff to the table at a game I’m running for the purposes of shock and horror. It simply doesn’t add anything, but will alienate potential players by suggesting that such things are on the table for play. It’s enough to have Reavers as Scary Murder Beasts.

Problem: Terrible Racism Parallel

If you do Reavers the wrong way, you hit into every terrible stereotype about American Indians from the Mythological West: savage, mad, senseless. War paint and war parties. Preying upon frontier colonies. Threats of rape and murder. Mutilation of their foes.

If you use Reavers in this way, you’re hitting too many parallels to the kind of racist Western imagery that lead to genocide in the past, and leads to discrimination now.

I think the intent here was to capture a trope – the Threat at the Edge of Frontier – without involving a real people, but this doesn’t work. You’re working with a problematic thesis – what if the people at the edge of the frontier were mindless murderers upon decent folk? – one that is really uncomfortable. To go forward, we have to break that link.

Let’s do better.

Solution: Modern Zombie Parallel

What if we thoroughly distanced ourselves from the “savage” genre trope, and built up a “zombie plague” trope? The lore backs up this interpretation. The Serenity movie establishes that the origin of reavers was attempt at using a chemical/biological agent to pacify the populace, creating the opposite result in a few. The origin of these monsters is, in fact, modernity: the urge for control resulting in the breakdown of order. This tension with authority and modernity is central to Firefly, and the zombie genre as well.

To do this right, you really need to downplay some of the “frontier raider” feeling of the Reavers. Rather, put them into the ruins of any settled place – even on the Core – and let them emerge, putting pressure on the lives of Core and Rim worlds alike; neither would be well equipped to deal with it.

The fundamental tenet of a zombie menace is: inexorable. Once they’ve set their sights on you, they will eventually get to you, and most likely your own strained resources will be your downfall. They are also clearly predators, drawing from the “fast zombie” archetype, but with a terrifying capability to use modern weaponry and ships (perhaps hindered only by their single-minded focus).

Their vector is: chemical. It would be easy to retcon that extended exposure to reavers (assuming you survive somehow) would be the same as being exposed to the “pax” chemical. No doubt, nefarious organizations may be trafficking in “pax” for their own ends, and a reaver outbreak is always possible, and quickly put down by Alliance operatives.

For implementation, you could outline a series of differing zombie types, and assign them different powers that would challenge the players.

Caveat: This Might Not Work

A big part of this is trying to break that “genre law” entirely, and putting something different in place. Even so, that expectation – that there are a “savage” people at the edge of a frontier – is lurking there, and it may be hard to get rid of this. (If my depiction has replaced fake-Indian Reavers with Zombie fake-Indian Reavers, I’ve made it much worse, frankly.) If you find that you can’t reroute the parallel, then you may be better suited to skip them in your fiction entirely. It would be easy to handwave that, after the events of Serenity, Reavers just aren’t a feature of the universe, and focus on everything else.

Alternative Solution: Go Deeper

I’ve gotten the suggestion that you could instead modify the lore around the Reavers, turning it into a vehicle for actually addressing the parallels in real history, truthfully. (Credit to Ben Lehman for the ideas/brainstorming.) Consider:

Many people never left the first Arks and Convoy Ships from Earth, and were never given a place to land. You have people who’ve spent 1 or 2 generations on those ships – speaking an old Earth tongue that has evolved away from what most citizens of the Verse know – and their existence is hardly acknowledged, let alone welcome. (Folks on the Rim who believe in their existence refer to them as arkfolk.)

Some are violent; some are willing to trade are communicate; some seek to acquire needed goods; many have suffered terribly at the hands citizens on the Rim. (Are these arkfolk a different set of Reavers? Are these another set of people entirely, who are confused with Reavers, and thus chased away?)

This is an interesting solution, but like with any historical metaphors, you need to play it carefully. Not every group of players will be ready to dig into this.

P.S. Some More Music

You’re floating in orbit – lights out, no signal. Except you’re hearing this song. You remember this song. Someone is sending you a message. Someone will find you; they will make you pay for what happened on Shadow and Whitefall. You’re not ready.

Apollo 440 – The Man With The Harmonica

(Also: a commenter suggested the Bastion soundtrack as a good source of Western-like music. Thanks!)

[firefly] Misuse (and Use) of Chinese Culture

This is part of a series of posts on Revisiting Firefly.

The world of Firefly is a future culture that is a fusion of American and Chinese influences. We see bits of this promise in aesthetics, written language, and most of all the frequency with which the characters curse in Mandarin.

Truthfully though: what we get is a weird mishmash of faux-asian cultural elements (often swapping in faux-Japanese cultural tropes, like the entirety of the Companion’s Guild). There’s also the weird approach to language: it is a strange message to have one of the Verse’s two dialects dedicated, for the most part, to cursing!

Then there’s one of the most obvious critiques of the supposedly Chinese-influenced Verse: a real lack of characters of Chinese descent, in either the main crew or the supporting cast. (Obligatory mention of obvious XKCD comic.)

Let’s double-down on the premise: a future culture produced by the fusion of two 21st-century superpowers.

Solution 1: Introduce Chinese NPCs, And Put Them In The Right Places

We can do better with the casting of the characters in your world! It’s the GM’s job to better represent what the Verse is “really” like. It may be appropriate to mention a character’s apparent background along with their physical attributes, when you’re introducing them for the first time (taking into account the multiethnic nature of most societies).

This might seem out of the ordinary, but in fact: you’re probably working with a group of players mostly acculturated in Western sci-fi/spec-fic, and their notions of what a “default” (i.e. unmarked) character looks like will default to something else. Instead, take command with describing what the makeup of the world is like. (One workaround is to seek out your own “casting” from various celebrities online, if you’d prefer visual prep.)

A variety of folks should appear in every corner of your universe, but moreover: think about what it means to have stronger ties to the dominant megaculture. It means that being of notable Chinese or American descent was probably powerful for you at some point . When your crew encounters a rich baron, a key member of parliament or local bureaucrat, a good portion of them would naturally be of Chinese descent.

Example: You’re finally face to face with Barrow and Fairfield, after many hours of waiting. Barrow is a man of Chinese descent, with a scruffy but attractive face. He looks at you appraisingly from his desk, while Fairfield stands in a corner, his arms crossed and a pipe lazily dangling from his hand. Fairfield looks a bit more Pacific Islander, and makes every effort to not acknowledge your presence as he adjusts his shades. “So,” begins Barrow, “you’re seeking the so-callled ‘ghost ship’ as well?”

Solution 2: Apply Chinese Cultural Markers Sparingly, And Make Them Count

I say sparingly, because I don’t expect the GM to model a novel world in the course of the game. Instead, make meaningful connections, involving a little bit of prep. Consider the following questions:

  • What is one institution or tradition that will be visible (in the forefront or background) of an upcoming episode?
  • Would this tradition be closer to the traditions of Chinese culture (or another exodus culture)?
  • What would that look like, if we are drawing from 21st-century norms, mixed with some allowances for cultural drift or futuristic accommodations?

Example: An upcoming scenario involves making an important business contact while a wedding is happening in the background, with appropriate drama resulting. Maybe this planet’s wedding norms borrow more heavily from modern Chinese traditions (with a bit of Western influence mixed in).

Adjust a few norms to accomodate: maybe for weddings between prominent space-trader families, the red envelope tradition isn’t an exchange of money, especially since it’s awkward to treat Alliance currency as a “gift”. Instead, the envelopes contain comm coordinates for powerful allies who owe favors to your family. (So now a wedding produces an arbitrary number of easily acquirable plot hooks. You’re welcome.)

Solution 3: Speak More Chinese, And Give It Meaning

Putting aside the practical issues of speaking Chinese at the table (when, in likelihood, you have very few speakers of Mandarin present), what do you want it to mean when people use one language over the other? Rather than being interchangeable, it’s more likely that each contains nuance. (In a parallel example, both Hindi and English are standardized languages in modern India, but which one you use will have implications based on your audience.)

The lore from Firefly gives us some hints here. Some Chinese phrases are used frequently in colloquial language among a closeknit crew or actual family members. It is also occasionally used in formal writing and some formal address. (It’s also used to curse, but we may want to loosen this up; without actual TV censors, there’s no reason you wouldn’t curse in every language you have available.)

So let’s go with that rule: Chinese dialect tends to be used for formal and official communication, or for familiar and commonplace affectation. (Or, if used outside of those contexts, to still give it that inflection.) We can make a parallel with the marked use of English: perhaps it is more commonly used by programmers and within technological institutions, or is used politely among people you don’t yet know.

Example: I’m trying to negotiate with Barrow. “You know quite well that a refugee ship is of no consequence too us. We’re just trying to track the cargo. A collaboration should be no skin off your bottom line.” I switch to some casual Mandarin. “So let’s do this, brother. Folks like us have to stick together, right?” But Barrow’s face stiffens a bit. “I am no ‘little brother’ to you, outlaw” he says, stretching out each syllable. “You know nothing of the bottom line in my family’s line of work.”

Aside: Drop Some Words, Make New Worlds

For the record, here’s two words that you don’t need: “exotic” and “oriental”. Both have off-putting connotations and implications. They aren’t needed to describe things, and definitely shouldn’t be used to describe people.

Moreover, neither make sense from within the world of Firefly! These words are used to indicate that something that came form some “other” place, and is unique in comparison to what’s “normal”. Instead, you’re describing stuff that is “normal” to the characters within this world, so bring that world to life.

Bonus Solution: Even More Cultures

You could apply to  add a bit of other Earth cultures of the Verse you depict. There’s no way that there isn’t a single churrascaria in the Verse, or that some theater in the Core won’t be putting on their 9-hour rendition of the Mahabharata. It’s all still there, because those cultures didn’t go away, even as they changed with time. Remind your players of that.

P. S. How about some music?

You walk into a techbar on the wrong side of Persephone. The holojuke plays an old classic, as if it were helping to muffle the sound of your footsteps as your slip to the back.

MC Solaar – Nouveau Western.

Kid Koala – 3 bit Blues

Revisiting Firefly

(EDIT: I’ve added an index of all the related posts to the bottom of this post.)

A new Firefly RPG is in the works from Margaret Weis Press, and as someone who appreciates the original show, I’m looking forward to it. I also have come to appreciate MWP from playing its version of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. The IP has a lot of potential (including its absurdly loyal fanbase). A lot of that love is for the specific characters and storylines, but there’s a lot more stories to be told in that universe.

However: it’s been several years since the series (and movie) were out, and there’s some parts of the show that have felt more troublesome to me over time. These things get in the way of my enjoyment of Firefly lore, or my ability to share it further.

The upside is the Firefly universe doesn’t have to be limited to what we saw on the screen. Fans have many outlets to create new stories – through RPGs, LARPs, fan-art and fanfic – and that gives us a great opportunity to take things further, and to make them better.

In the next few posts, I’m going to outline some of the potential problems – and some possible solutions. These are how I would use a revision and re-imagining the Verse to craft rich, new stories to stand alongside the old ones we love. A little bit of knowledge of the show would be helpful to follow along (and spoilers will be involved).

A note: I’m going to be talking critically about problems that I my personal (subjective!) experience with the material. If you don’t see those problems, that’s fine! – feel free to skip these posts. I’m only talking about an approach that works for me. Rest assured: the work I’m doing here is fundamentally out of love.

The Basics

The Firefly RPG should be about telling stories of action-adventure in a space-western universe. The characters struggle to make their way, and will wrestle with questions of freedom, responsibility, and authority (as well as the more pressing questions of how to keep the ship running and how not to get blown up).

Aside: Genre and Patterns

Here is some helpful words from Emily Care Boss on genre:

 ”Genre is a concept used in literary theory going beyond whether something has elves or spies in it. Looking at genre conventions helps one think about how a narrative or text communicates. Looking at it this way, analyzing a form for the expectations and parameters that comprise it helps you see how the various modes of communication function.”

A lot of what I’m going to do in my upcoming posts is to look at those expectations and parameters, and to alter them in order to get the outcome that I want. If you want to defy a genre rule, you have to find the pattern, break it up, and present a different message instead.

And Some Gifs Of What’s Awesome

This is why trenchcoats and sidearms look awesome. Key ingredient: panning cameras.

firefly gif, panning around mal and zoe

Real friends have your back. Even if you’re a witch.

firefly gif of mal leveling a shotgun.

Running a ship is serious business.

firefly gif of the crew laughing

The lawful aligment is overrated.

firefly gif of jayne ripping open his coat, revealing a gun.

This is how you win a Intimidate check.

firefly gif of zoe, mal and jayne by a cliff. Serenity zooms up overhead, surprising their foes.

I’m sure this whole outlaw thing will work out.

firefly gif of zoe and mal looking at a mostly empty locker as zoe quips.

ADDED: Index of posts in this series

 

idea: Consensus Prime

(Still deciding if this would be a LARP, tabletop or party game.)

After the singularity, we are all mindthreads as part of an omnipotent omnicloud. Decisions are made through abstracted consensus. When enough voices fold their vox into the vox of another, that vox becomes a Prime, and speaks for a cluster. (If a cluster cannot fold unto a Prime, it will fade out, to be reprocessed into new mindthreads. THIS IS THE BAD ENDING.) This is a game about the epic debates that happen each nanosecond within the omnicloud.

Character Creation

First, you must have a name. Each name must be a greek letter.

At the start of a game, draw an Archetype: Harmony, Melody, Cacophony. This is your fundamental nature. You also start with a number of Vox tokens. (The amount is determined by rolling a six-sided “exploding” die; i.e, if you roll a 6, roll another die and add it to your total, and repeat as long as you roll 6s. This amount is kept secret.)

You also keep a list of all other mindthreads in the game by name. Their initial order is random.

There are a set of ideologies in the game (Explore, Destroy, Build, Discover, Innovate, Unify, Contemplate, Obfuscate, Preserve). Every player secretly pick one tag of their choice, and another tag at random. These are the agendas they wish to pursue.

The Deck of Issues

There is a set of pre-generated issues, each with three possible solutions. Each solution has zero, one or two ideological tags, indicating which entities would favor them. For example:

“Should we go to Mars?”

- No, let it stand as a testament to the silent universe. [preserve]
- Yes, let us establish a childnode nanofactory to create a separate hivemind there. [explore] [build]
- Yes, let us export our intelligences there within a hermetically sealed observation vehicle, and leave this wretched form behind. [explore] [destroy]

This is the issue to be decided.

Gameplay

Start the game, and put a fixed amount of time on the clock. At the end of gameplay, if there is a Prime, she will unilaterally determine the decision. If there is no Prime (or if the Prime declines to make a decision), all remaining mindthreads will be recycled.

In the remaining time, players will engage in one-on-one conversations, but may also deploy Dialectical Maneuvers. You also have reference cards to keep track of two rules:

- Mindthread Integrity: If you agree or disagree with another’s statement, and in so doing, contradict a statement you have previously made, you must discard this card and half your Vox tokens (rounding down). This only affects you while you are in posession of your Integrity card.

- Mindthread Autonomy: You start the game in possession of your Autonomy card. At any time, you may give all your Autonomy Cards and Vox tokens to another player, so long as that player is in possession of at least one Autonomy card.

Dialectical Maneuver

Here we go. Each player has reference cards for the valid maneuvers.

- Harmonious Chant: Make a statement. If the other player agrees, you will pool your Vox and divide it evenly (discarding any remainder). Otherwise, both discard 1 Vox.
- Melodic Evocation: Make a statement. If the other player agrees, she may give you 1 Vox. Otherwise, both discard 1 Vox.
- Cacophonous Shout: Make a statement. The other player may agree or disagree, but it has no effect. Speaker discards 1 or more Vox. Listener may discard this many Vox, or may otherwise yield half their Vox to the speaker.

But note, also, your archetypes:

- Harmony Archetype: If you been targeted by a Harmonious Chant and a remainder has been discarded, you may draw 1 Vox. If you have used or been targeted by a Cacophonous Shout, you lose this ability.

- Melody Archetype: If you have been targeted by a Melodic Evocation and did not agree, you may draw 1 Vox. If you have been targeted by a Cacophonous Shout, you lose this ability.

- Cacophony Archetype: If you have used or been targeted by a Cacophonous Shout, draw 1 Vox. If you agree with a Harmonious Chant or Melody Archetype, you lose this ability.

Endgame, and Selecting a Prime

At the end of the game, each player in possession of at least one Autonomy card is a Potential Prime. If any player has more Vox than all other Potential Primes, they are the True Prime, and that Prime makes a decision.

If there are No True Primes, your mindthreads are recycled, but you keep a fragment of your identity in the next iteration! (And you get to keep the same name for the next game!)

Scoring is as such:

* If there is a True Prime, they get 2 points.
* If there was a True Prime and you gave away your Autonomy, gain 1 point.
* If you kept your Autonomy but are not a True Prime, lose 1 point.
* If the True Prime made a decision: for each tag of yours attached to the decision, get 2 points. For each tag of yours attached to decision they ignored, lose 1 point.
* If there were No True Primes, you get 1 point for keeping your Integrity.

Balancing

I’m pretty sure this swings out of balance in a terrible fashion. I’ll leave that as an editorial comment, while making a note to actually rebalance things later.

[4e] blaster wizards is the best wizard

The Blaster Wizards, a home-brewed wizards that blasts things, and that’s about it. THere’s a few utility spells, and you shouldn’t worry beyond that.

“So what do you do?”
“I blast things with magic.”
“And?”
“Sometimes I blast them even harder.”
“…And?”
“Once in a while I blast them twice.”
“…You’re hired.

I should run a Slayer / Knight / Blaster Wizard / Vanguard Warlord 4e session some time (i.e. all classes featuring a simplified power structure).