Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Bassem Youssef

I haven’t done one of these in way too long, but one name has been at the forefront for a while now: Bassem Youssef. The snapshot – he was wanted for arrest by the authorities in an authoritarian regime (Egypt) for wearing a hat mocking the President, and when he turned himself in, he was wearing the hat.

Baller.

Before we continue, here is a manly picture of Bassem:

Image result for bassem youssef

Bassem Youssef is an Egyptian comedian and political commentator as well as writer, producer, physician and freaking surgeon. He’s like Jon Stewart, if Jon was born in a dictatorship, smarter and more accomplished, while also facing threats to his life as a matter of course throughout his career. (And I love Jon Stewart. But for real.)

Lots of racists and ideologues in the US like to whine about “free speech” and “censorship” whenever someone calls them out for their shitty ideas, but Youssef has had to deal with actual threats to his freedom of speech and actual censorship. In response to this, he has remained relentless funny.

It’s one thing to respond to a violent, repressive regime with violence. It’s another thing entirely to respond to a violent, repressive regime with jokes on television. One thing that Youssef highlights to me is the emptiness of what so many comedians in the United States complain about in terms of ‘political correctness’, whining about how hard it is to do their jobs now because they can’t make as many trans-phobic or ableist jokes or whatever. I look at someone like Bassem Youssef, in all of his manly glory, and it puts those complaints in an entirely different light.

It makes me wonder whether actual humor (and not just vapid alt-right trolling, or mere snark) can insulate us against being radicalized, or reverting to nativism, or falling under the sway of demagogues.

For his combination of courage, intelligence, and humor, Bassem Youssef is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

For more information, you can start with this interview through The Economist from last year:

 

D&D 5E Hack: No Cash

I understand what the designers and developers were thinking when they changed how gold and magic items interact in 5th Edition. Magic items are supposed to be special, and having them available at any old magic item shop makes them less so. They just become another way you level up, a steady incline of power the way that class abilities are, which makes them redundant. I get it.

The problem is that 100% of D&D gaming groups I have ever played with have wanted to go shopping for magic items with their gold. Every single one, to varying degrees, particularly starting with 3rd Edition. What this has meant in practice is that the DMG was missing something when it was missing magic item prices, something players would almost immediately demand, and so along comes Xanathar’s Guide to Everything with it’s downtime option of purchasing magic items. It is OK, I’ve used it, but it leaves something to be desired. It requires a roll every time a player asks how much a particular magic item might cost.

So I came up with a simple hack of 5E where you can get rid of cash altogether.

When a character wants to buy something beyond the incidental – drinks, simple rooms at the inn, meals, etc., they roll using their flat Proficiency bonus. On a success, they can find what they want to buy and can afford it. On a failure, either they can’t find it, or they can’t afford it, or they get the item but go into debt. Debt is like disadvantage, you can only do it once. Once you’re in debt, you can’t go further into debt. While in debt, your Proficiency score rolls to buy things are at disadvantage.

Sometimes, a PC will be Flush With Cash. This means they just went through a dungeon or pulled of a heist or found buried treasure. When Flush With Cash, characters roll their Proficiency bonus to buy things with advantage. The DM decides when the cash runs out, or you can say that the first time you fail a roll, you’re out of the extra cash and back to your usual means.

When you want to buy something, here are the DCs:

  • Something simple and inexpensive, like adventuring gear: DC 8
  • Something mundane but expensive, or a common magic item, like a longbow or a healing potion: DC 10
  • Something very expensive, like plate armor, or an uncommon magic item: DC 12
  • A rare magic item: DC 15
  • A very rare magic item: DC 20

Of course DMs can fell free to not allow players to roll for things that aren’t available. Also, I’d use the normal downtime rules for looking to buy a magic item, and make the PC spend a week looking. Often in a game, time is more valuable than gold anyway.

Oh, and all 1st level characters start the game in debt unless they have the Noble Background, in which case they start off Flush With Cash. 🙂

I also like the idea that the PCs’ standard of living goes up automatically as they level and just have more money lying around. They start off all sharing a common room and end up in the equivalent of 5-star suites every night.

A Card Mechanic for Western RPGs

This is a smooshing together of mechanics from Deadlands and Clockwork: Dominion with a little bit sprinkled in. I’m not presenting it as a Newfangled Thing, but simply as what I think I would want to use if I was going to run a Western game, whether Weird West or mythic or whatever.

System Basics

  • Initiative and the action economy are managed by playing cards you are dealt when a conflict begins
  • Actions are also resolved by playing cards, where the number on the card is its value and more ability means you have more cards from which to choose
  • Cards that aren’t used, or are played in failed tests, can be retained by the player to store up and build hands
  • Those hands are spent for special effects in the game like introducing new NPC allies, critical hits, and activating special abilities – in this way failure leads to success later

Stolen Initiative

The initiative system for this game is straight-up stolen from Clockwork: Dominion, because that system also uses cards, and also because it is the best initiative system I’m aware of.

When a conflict begins, each player is dealt cards. Actions occur in the order of the cards dealt, from Ace down to the two. If a player doesn’t want their character to act, they can still pass.

In order to interrupt an action, a player can push two cards forward instead of one. Their character’s action is resolved before any other actions, as an interrupt. Yes, you can push two cards forward to interrupt the interrupt.

I’m thinking of maybe one free reaction, and then you spend one card to react or actively defend if someone pushes a card forward to act on you.

The GM gets cards for the NPCs in the conflict, and plays them as if she was just another player. This gets a bit complicated with more than a handfull of NPCs, but that’s true in every system (tonight’s D&D game will have a fight with 28 participants).

Building A Hand

I love when you mark xp with a failed roll in Dungeon World. The way I adapted that idea to this system is to let players retain cards used in failed tests, and maybe cards they don’t use in initiative as well, and use them to build hands to use later in the story. The hands are all, of course, poker hands, and here are my ideas so far:

  • Pair: your hit is a critical hit, or your success is a critical success
  • Two Pair: a trick shot, or a highly unlikely positive result
  • Three of a Kind: you cheat death, when you would otherwise be killed, you are simply taken out
  • Straight: maybe you can use a straight to prevent another PC from dying? You rescue them in some way?
  • Flush: you set a type of scene and stack things in your favor. Maybe even take over narration from the GM for a scene that you just want to see. The type of scene depends on the suit of the flush. Spades: you learn something, or establish something, big and decisive about the setting or situation; Clubs: you stomp the crap out of a host of foes, or embarrass a major opponent; Hearts: a social scene where you get what you want, like getting married, becoming mayor, etc.; Diamonds: you have some kind of big break, like striking gold on your land
  • Full House: add a significant, allied NPC to the story
  • Four of a Kind: rewind time and repeat what just happened, up to four rounds back. “But that wasn’t how it was meant to be.”

Luck

Instead of health, I think of Poker chips that represent a character’s luck. So much in the Old West is deadly, or at least wounding – arrows, bullets, knives, being gored by stampeding cattle, and so on. When your “luck runs out” you are liable to be killed, and there should be abilities for super dangerous NPCs to be able to bypass your luck straight to a wounding or killing attack. I also like that you can potentially spend that luck to re-try a failed test, at the risk of putting yourself that much closer to death’s door.

What’s Missing, and What’s Next

I don’t really have a damage mechanic. I’m not sure what exactly would go on a character sheet. I have the thought that the four suits could be the four attributes, where maybe spades are mental, clubs are physical, hearts are social, and diamonds might be a speed measure, or even resources available to you.

This Christmas, Baby Jesus Is Being Raped In A U.S. Concentration Camp

Matthew 2:13-23

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[a] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

Image result for holy family ice detention art card

Mathew 25:31-33;41-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Let’s Be Clear

This Christmas, Jesus is being raped in a United States concentration camp. His parents came to the Untied States’ southern border, seeking asylum as protected by US and international law. They were captured, their child taken from them, and they were locked in cages in separate concentration camps. Presently in that concentration camp, held in cages with 15,000 other children taken from their parents, Jesus is being sexually abused by concentration camp staff. Mary and Joseph, panicked and sobbing and despairing of ever seeing their child again, are locked in cages a thousand miles away. There is no plan to release them, and there is no plan to reunite them with their traumatized son. He was taken as a baby, and does not speak English, and there are no careful records being kept, so it is unlikely he will ever see his parents again.

This. Is. WhoWe. Are. Now.

If you take the Bible seriously, then this is the conclusion you must come to. Why? For the first reason, which is that the Holy Family fled to Egypt seeking asylum when their lives were in danger, and for the second reason, which is that Jesus says very clearly that how we treat the least among us is how we treat him. There are complex interpretive challenges when reading the Bible, but this is not one of them. This one is simple.

As I write this, filled with rage and disgust that has grown beyond words, I find that I have nothing else to say.

Merry Christmas.

Image result for holy family ice detention art card

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #7

Meta-Round-Up

Progress and Drama

In the game text, instead of listing the result of a passed test in a resolution mechanic as “success”, describe it as “progress.” That is, progress is made toward whatever your goal was, or toward winning what was at stake. In parallel, instead of listing a failed test in your resolution mechanic as “failure”, call it “drama”, in that the dramatic tension increases in the scene or in the story. This could almost be the only change in how a system is written, but I think it opens up results in interesting ways.

Let’s say your D&D player does the classic thing and makes an absurd proficiency check – then they roll a 20, and even though there isn’t a “natural 20” rule in 5E for proficiency checks, they still expect something big from their absurd plan (seduce the dragon, pick the lock with mage hand, lie to the Inevitable’s face, etc.). So if passing the test equals “progress” rather than “success”, you can just describe how their absurd plan gets them closer to their goal. Similarly, for all of those proficiency checks where failure just means the story stops, if it is “drama” (or “tension” perhaps, or “threat”) instead of “failure” for a failed test, the attempt can be technically successful, moving things ahead, but they are now worse than they were.

Theme Music

Each player chooses a theme song for their character and queue’s it up on their phone. At any time during the session, they can hit play for the song, play a bit of it, and their character automatically succeeds on whatever it is they are doing. Maybe instead of Inspiration, players can gain bonus uses of their theme music during the session. Similarly, the DM can queue up theme songs for any Big Bads they’ll face, and those enable them to use a legendary save ability to choose to save on a failed saving throw, or to resist death for a round after being reduced to 0 hit points, etc.

Big and Small Advantages with Percentile Dice

This is a layer of complexity that one might not choose, but it occurred to me while listening (and enjoying) another How We Roll actual play of Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition. In CoC 7E there is an advantage mechanic, where you roll the 10s digit die more than once and take the worse of the two rolls. I thought that this made sense for big advantages and disadvantages, but for smaller advantages and disadvantages it would make sense to roll the 1s digit die twice and take the better or worse of the two rolls. This gives you an approximately 1 in 10 change of barely making, or barely missing, the roll, and isn’t a big deal, but could be an interesting tweak, maybe for when the player thinks they should have advantage but the Keeper disagrees. “Yes, but…”

Percentile Auto-Success

Rolling is not always fun. Games usually have some kind of hand-wavey rule about “only roll when it is interesting” or “only roll when there is danger involved” but even in games where that is spelled out enforcement is sporadic. It occurred to me, in particular in a percentile system, that it could be simpler and also more interesting to give each character a number of auto-successes equal to the tens digit of the applicable skill. So, again looking at Call of Cthulhu, your investigator with a Credit Rating of 57 could just have 5 automatic successes on Credit Rating rolls during the scenario (intended to be more than one session). The downside is that you don’t get any chance to advance when using one of these auto-successes, nor can you get a critical success of any kind. Maybe one could ignore this rule in combat, and of course the Keeper would be able to say that it doesn’t apply in a certain situation (like a Sanity roll, or a situation where the danger of failure is really interesting), but I like it as a rule.

Final Fantasy Action Selector

Remember old school Final Fantasy where you had the action selector when each character’s turn came up? It looked something vaguely like this:

  • Fight / Run
  • Magic
  • Drink
  • Item

I was thinking about something like this for new players. Frequently, players at my table forget all of the various things their character can do when it is their turn, especially at higher levels. What if new players had something like this, printed up by the DM, with their abilities on it? Something for a Druid might look like this:

  • Melee Attack
  • Missile Attack
  • Shapechange

And one for a Rogue more like this:

  • Melee Attack
  • Missile Attack
  • Dash
  • Disengage
  • Hide

Of course, the player can put whatever is interesting on the selector, and can always do things not listed, but it might be helpful to just have that at a glance. I’ve seen a lot of new players stare glassy-eyed at their complex character sheet when their turn comes when really they only have two or three viable and interesting options. The problem is that it takes significant system mastery for one to know what those few viable and interesting options are.

 

The Moment of Courage and Despair

One of the things that people commonly underestimate is the depth of grief and despair to be found in the works of JRR Tolkien. This is, without a doubt, a big part of the huge impact that his work had on me, starting as an early adolescent to the present day. I could either say that I struggle with depression, or that I perceive the world around me and feel tremendous grief and despair about it, and either one, or both, would be true.

A friend recently @ed me on Twitter, wondering what I had to say about eucatastrophe, as I’ve written and thought about it in the past. Eucatastrophe is, in brief, a “The eagles are coming!” moment, as found at the climax of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is an idea that Tolkien first described with that term, but not an idea original to him by any means (of course). Tolkien learned it from Christianity, and would say that his idea of eucatastrophe is merely patterned after the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, he argued that we find ideas like eucatastrophe compelling precisely because they mirror the great story of God saving the world. It come up in his poem Mythopoeia, if you look for it, and in many of his writings. Dig in – I’m not going to cite everything here.

My friend said the following on Twitter:

“Because Holy Christ, do we need a little eucatastrophe right now. I honestly don’t know how else a deliverance from global social media-fueled capitalist fascism will occur.”

Now, this is a Unitarian Universalist saying “Holy Christ,” so you know it’s serious and they’re at wit’s end.

Since he asked me, I thought about what I might say on the topic of eucatastrophe, because I definitely share his despair about the situation of the world. And rightly so – if you are optimistic about the next 100 years for humanity and the natural world, I’m comfortable saying that you are ignorant of, or willfully ignoring, a lot of things. And to be clear, I don’t blame you. If you can’t escape the burning house, you can try to make sense of the flames. Maybe that’s all we can do.

The eucatastrophe is by definition unexpected – it is something you did not anticipate or even imagine happening. Even if you don’t believe that Jesus came back, you can probably agree that after his crucifixion, no one around him expected him to come back. None of his followers behaved as if he was going to come back – not even the women, who were clearly the smart and courageous ones.

Let’s say my friend and I are right, and only an eucatastophe can save us, and millions of other species as well, at this juncture. That means that our current moment is some moment before this eucatastrophe. But what is the moment before eucatastrophe like? The main eucatastrophe scene in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings occurs while the point of view character is unconscious, but let’s look at the one from The Return of the King, starting with preparation for the last battle at the Black Gate in the chapter “The Black Gate Opens.”

During their preparation for the last battle, Gandalf says this:

‘We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dur be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless – as we surely shall, if we sit here – and know as we die that no new age shall be.’

Bilbo growing in courage is a theme of The Hobbit, and courage without hope is a theme in The Lord of the Rings, becoming a more dominant one as the story progresses. Even the small glimmer of hope that Gandalf clings to here is snuffed out in the same chapter, as we will see. But this is the kind of decision-making that occurs before the eucatastrophe – no reasonable hope of victory or success exists, and yet they resolve to see the fight through to the bitter end.

Here we get the admixture that is found in many places in Tolkien’s writing – a combination of faithfulness and fortitude in the midst of a hard task. Here Tolkien drew upon his understanding of Roman Catholic moral theology and virtue, as well as the grim courage in the face of certain death that typified the Germanic heroic literature which was his professional life. It is, in the best sense I think, martyrdom. It is something we can see reflected in, for example, Daniel chapter 3:

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.[b]18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Like many of the heroes we see in The Lord of the Rings, including Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, Theoden in Helm’s Deep, and now the Captains of the West preparing to march on Mordor, here we have the heroes of the story resisting not because they expect victory but because they simply refuse to give up. Being faithful to what they value and believe is more important than winning, and even the hopelessness of their situation cannot turn them aside.

But even the small hope that Gandalf holds out is later extinguished.

When they reach the Black Gate, neither the Captains of the West nor the first-time reader knows what has happened to Frodo and Sam, but the Mouth of Sauron relishes the opportunity to crush everyone’s hope:

The Messenger put these aside, and there to the wonder and dismay of all the Captains he held up first the short sword that Sam had carried, and next a grey cloak with an elven-brooch, and last the coat of mithril-mail that Frodo had worn wrapped in his tattered garments. A blackness came before their eyes, and it seemed to them in a moment of silence that the world stood still, but their hearts were dead and their last hope gone.

As the moment before eucatastrophe is drawn out, even small hopes are extinguished. The hopes of the strongest, the leaders of this last desperate attempt at buying time for true victory, are crushed. Not long after this, battle is truly joined, and everyone’s hope is lost. Now nothing seems to stand between them and a painful, meaningless death.

The wind blew, and the trumpets sang, and arrows whined; but the sun now climbing towards the South was veiled in the reeks of Mordor, and through a threatening haze it gleamed, remote, a sullen red, as if it were the ending of the day, or the end maybe of all the world of light. And out of the gathering mirk the Nazgul came with their cold voices crying words of death: and then all hope was quenched.

And we, as the reader, are privy to Pippin’s last thoughts, which hint at eucatastrophe for us. But from Pippin’s point of view, this is his death, ending in defeat as he thought would happen all along, crushed and suffocated beneath the weight of a troll-corpse, one more lump of carrion for the crows.

‘So it ends as I guessed it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. And then even as it winged away into forgetfulness it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above:

‘The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!’

For one moment more Pippin’s thought hovered. ‘Bilbo!’ it said. ‘But no! That came in his tale, long long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!’ And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.

We see that there might be some hope to keep us reading, as we look at see that we have 3/4 of the book left to go through (including Appendices) before we’re done. We know the story continues, but Pippin does not. As far as he knows, all of his friends are dead or will soon be killed, and the Shire will be destroyed, and all the known world will be plunged into darkness.

Wrath, Grief, and Ruin

The moment before eucatastrophe is a time of wrath, grief, and ruin. Wrath, as we see Gandalf seize the tokens from the Mouth of Sauron, in memory of his friends, and then he drives the ‘Messenger’ off in terror. Fine. There is no hope. Gird up your loins, then, because we are coming for you.

Grief, because in learning that Sam and Frodo are apparently captured, sentenced to long, slow torture spanning years until they are utterly broken, Gandalf is losing two beloved friends and companions. Not only the hope of the world was with them, but Gandalf’s love, concern, and friendship. Pippin can’t help but cry out, revealing that they know to whom those things belonged, and the Mouth of Sauron delights in their pain as eagerly as if he was wearing a red MAGA hat.

Ruin because this was the end. At that point, no one in leadership had any expectation of survival. They came to terms with the fact that all they had left to do was to go down fighting.

So then, if we are in a similar moment, what is it that we can look toward that will save us from social media-fueled capitalist fascism?

Nothing.

Fight anyway.

The Means at the End

This is a dangerous place to leave the discussion, because one could easily imagine the MAGA-bomber giving a similar answer – that wrath, grief and ruin drove him to the last desperate act of political assassination. Any number of people, driven to horrific violence, might tell a similar story of perceived loss, and of what they saw as courage in the face of terrible odds.

For this reason, any movement that seeks to resist social media-driven capitalist fascism, or however else you imagine the looming end, must be nonviolent. 

Because a terrible end to this human story seems so inevitable; because the odds are so overwhelmingly stacked against any such resistance; because the forces of evil are so thoroughly ascendant, there is no other option that has any hope of leading to moral ends. In the story of The Lord of the Rings, violence didn’t work. It didn’t bring hope or lasting victory. In our current story, we thought that we defeated the Nazis back in 1945. Little did we know that millions of Americans would support a President who our own Nazis would see as their last, great hope, who would sing the praises of authoritarian dictators and vilify the press, campaign on explicit bigotry and nativism, and basically follow the blueprint of 1930s Germany.

In the face of wrath, grief, and ruin, driven to extremity, human beings who hold up violence as an option will almost invariably turn to violence. This is where the imagery in The Lord of the Rings falls short in applicability to our situation today. We aren’t fighting orcs, we are fighting other human beings who are on the wrong side of history for some human reason. They are not driven by the supernatural will of the emissary of a fallen angel, but driven by recognizable, human motivations like fear, addiction, greed, cowardice and apathy.

The means with which we fight must be humane above all else. 

Here, radical ideologies are often unhelpful, but Christianity might be a powerful resource. Earlier, I described the moment before eucatastrophe as martyrdom from Tolkien’s Roman Catholic point of view, and the martyrs, as far as I know, died resisting nonviolently. (Know a lot about martyrs? Comment below)

To live in this moment before eucatastrophe, we need much more MLK Jr. than we need Aragorn. But to see and understand this moment, I think we can look to the works of Tolkien, to understand our current moment. If it is the moment before eucatastrophe, we will of course not know, but the heroic thing is to fight anyway, with or without hope.

Epilogue

‘Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.’

The above quote from Gandalf is not quite accurate, given climate change, but important nonetheless I think. There is always another evil – we are only responsible for the fields that we know.