Changing Up the Pronouns: They/them edition

For a long time I didn’t change my pronouns because I’ve spent my life correcting people on pronouncing my name, and it’s exhausting and annoying.

However, revising Chiaroscuro (especially the Sadaz chapters) has had me thinking a lot about pronouns, identity, visibility, and the importance of language in disrupting people’s gender assumptions. For that reason, I’m asking people to start using they/them when referring to me. It’s a small hill on which to pitch a battle, but every inch counts.

And hey, I actually think it’ll be easier to get people to use they/them than it has been to get them to pronounce my name correctly.

Art is not Apolitical

I went to see the touring production of The King & I on Thursday night (in order to get Hamilton touring company tickets, we had to get SHN season tickets, and The King & I is one of the season shows). Just before the King’s song “A Puzzlement,” in a line of dialogue that I don’t recall from any production I’ve seen, the King contemplates the value of building a wall around Siam vs. reaching out to French or British allies who might pose a larger existential threat to his country.

The actor had to pause for several moments while the audience laughed darkly. It’s San Francisco, so it was an audience sympathetic to the particular critique embedded in that line. I’d be very interested to know how it plays at other stops on the tour… if they even leave the line in?

But that moment, and then the performance of “A Puzzlement” right after it, really drove home how political even the classics of musical theater are. I mean, they might seem simple or problematic by today’s standards, but with shows like The Sound of Music or The King & I, Rodgers and Hammerstein presented some fairly topical critiques alongside their earwormy tunes.

The King & I is banned in Thailand for its presentation of King Mongkut as, to paraphrase the Wikipedia article, “a polka-dancing tyrant,” and for the suggestion of a romance between British Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut (though… interesting fact we learned… Anna was likely Anglo-Indian and hid her descent to avoid prejudice against her and her children). However, the show, for its time and genre, makes a solid attempt to give Mongkut layers and to address issues of colonialism in SE Asia even as it critiques human rights issues in SE Asian countries. Yul Brynner (Russian, btw, so there’s a valid yellowface crit to be made against the original productions) was definitely a reason that the King is such an iconic character for many lovers of these classics, but I think the actual conflicts that King Mongkut struggles with in the show are a reason he endures as a memorable character long after Brynner retired from the role.

I’ve been chewing on these thoughts the past two days, thinking maybe I’d write a post about them, and then Mike Pence went to see Hamilton, and the intersectional cast of PoC, LGBT people, and women voiced a critique and a plea to Pence at the end of the show. They could have done something else. They could have refused to perform for the pleasure of a man who has spent his life and political power ensuring that these actors and people like them will be treated as less than human. They didn’t, possibly because they recognized that Pence was only one person in an audience of people who don’t share his prejudice or history of oppressive action, an audience of people they wanted to perform for.

But to expect them to be silent and happy performing for such a man…? No. It’s a sickening thought. If I was one of those actors, expected to perform at the behest of a man who viewed and treated them as subhuman… I would have spoken out, too.

Like Tuptim speaks out to the King at the end of The Small House of Uncle Thomas:

TUPTIM: Topsy glad that Simon die, Topsy dance for joy! I tell you what Harriet Beecher Stowa say that Topsy Topsy say:
“I specks I’se de wickedest critter in de world!”
But I do not believe that Topsy is wicked critter. Because I too am glad for death of King. Of any King who pursues a slave who is unhappy and wish to join her lover. And your Majesty, I wish to say to you…

[King rises in anger, silencing Tuptim]

Your Majesty, and honourable guests! I will tell you end of story. Is very sad ending. Buddha has saved Eliza. But with the blessings of Buddha also come sacrifice.

Hah. See. We come full circle.

Art is not apolitical. Critique is not harassment. And I applaud the Hamilton cast, a cast of one of the most political shows ever to come out of the musical theater tradition, for saying, politely, that the tyrant in their audience – polka-dancing or not – should consider whether it’s right to enjoy the work and efforts of those actors when he has a history of using his power and position to dehumanize and oppress them and is in a position now to do much, much worse.


Can the Subaltern Kick Ass?


We’re two games in on ‘The Path to Power’ chronicle, and I’m thinking I should have subtitled it ‘Can the Subaltern Kick Ass?’ because the entire party is made up of characters from colonized indigenous groups and allied Others. We have Altani, an envoy from the local nomadic Shoanti tribes who were violently pushed off their land 300 years before by explorer expeditions from the Empire of Cheliax (and by violently, I mean about 75 years of ongoing armed conflict that the book materials mostly gloss over). We have Calendral and Carandolwen, two elves, both displaced in different ways (the local elven homeland forest has been occupied for a few hundred years, so there’s diaspora). We have Arenza/Lady Renata, a Varisian con artist pretending to be Chelish – the Varisians were another group indigenous to the area who are only slightly better treated than the Shoanti. And we have Gundlag Stonetower, aka Skai, a half-orc woman encountering all the ignorant racial intolerance you’d expect from a D&D setting.

Now, the Pathfinder setting-as-written is not critical of the Chelish occupation (nor of the unquestioned racism against orcs, which I’ve re-envisioned as uninformed propaganda). The original explorers who colonized Korvosa are all framed as heroes and adventurers. Large parts of the city are named after them. So yeah, I’ve done a bit of retooling and refocusing to make it clear that the heroes of Korvosa are not unproblematic. To make it clear that the land they ‘discovered’ was very much inhabited, the inhabitants are still around, and hey, they’d kinda like their shit back.

I somehow don’t think the colonizing structures of authority in Korvosa are going to survive the campaign.

What makes this doubly interesting to me is that the players are all white, middle-class (one man, some women, some genderfluid) folks who are very aware of the problems of colonization and their own privileged subject positions. I suppose what we’re doing could be read as taking on a colonized identity so that we can feel properly heroic (which is a topic my ex, David Higgins, has done some solid academic work interrogating in SF/F).

I think it’s more complicated than that. A lot of it comes down to using play as a way of testing out new approaches, models, and solutions. If we were dealing with the colonization of Korvosa, then we could play through stopping it from happening, or change how it was happening. But we’re not. We’re dealing with a thriving port city three hundred years later. The questions we’re grappling with are how to break down the current (nominally local now, but still very Chelish) power structures and make room for the indigenous groups and non-Chelish who have been shut out of power and the structures that support it.

This really wasn’t my intent when I said “I’m just going to run a Pathfinder game straight out of the adventure path. No changes! Just fun hack-and-slash, murder-hobo adventuring.” But then I read the path, and I took exception to how the villain(s) of the metaplot were written. And I pieced together the history of the region and was horrified at how one-sided the presentation of that history was. Hell, I even fixed the population of the city (20k people for a major city that supports three major universities three separate military organizations, and half a dozen temples? Come ON. Venice during the Renaissance had between 80-120k, and there were cities in China that had over a million!)

All of this probably makes the game sound like no fun. I guess I’ll let my players weigh in on that. The first game, they caused chaos at Exemplary Excrebles by releasing all the fighting pit animals (to save them, including two wild griffons). The second game included Skai serenading the griffons to get them to eat pig heads. Skai’s half-brother got an adjunct position at the University of Korvosa (just Intro to Magic Item Use for Non-majors, but he’s the first orc student ever to get a teaching gig!). Lady Renata got into some sneaky caper-shenanigans at a party at the Arkona estate. Also, Altani’s companion bulette, Olon Toms, got a snazzy vest for the party.

See, tons of fun with our postcolonial critique.


T-minus Two Days… and my music isn’t ready

Two days left for the start (restart?) of The Path to Power (my chronicle title for the Crimson Throne/Korvosa game). I still have a long list of stuff to do to get ready. My to-do list, parts redacted for spoilers:

  • Fully outline metaplot/plot points
  • Finish reading/skimming ALL player guides
  • Sort out music/playlists
    • Figure out how to play music at B&Ks
  • Detail out first game
    • Scene order & details
    • Encounters/Combats
    • Character descriptions/introductions
    • Important hooks/information
    • Reminder instructions
  • Prepare combats
    • Draw map of XXXXXX
    • Pull out monster pogs
    • Print out character & NPC pogs
    • Input monster stats for encounters at XXXXXX into combat manager
  • Write up/send Shoanti myths to Adrienne
  • Write up/send area history tidbits to group
  • Send Harrowing interpretation to Bryn
  • Confirm that final character sheets from group are in folders

So… that’s a bit of stuff still to do.

meat dress

All the World’s Meat – For Foodies and Fashionistas!

Tuesday night I ran the characters through a mock combat. It was the ‘All the World’s Meat’ encounter from the Edge of Anarchy path, so it was more than just combat. It was terrain, NPCs fleeing, a few other surprises. It went surprisingly well. I did some damage, they did a bit more damage (so it was well-balanced, I think). Everyone got a refresh on the rules, and our new-to-Pathfinder (and fairly new to gaming) player did very well and didn’t get too arm-flaily over how confusing everything was.

I also used the combat as a way to try out Combat Manager. In the past, I’ve always just pen-and-papered it. That requires a fairly significant amount of prep, and I’ve never found a system of tracking things that I’m entirely happy with. It always feels like my tracking is bogging down the flow of combat.

Holy macrame, where has Combat Manager been all my life? I think the encounter (with one very new player, three somewhat rusty players, a rusty GM, and some breaks between combats for exploration) took an hour and a half. The first fight (CR 1) went two rounds. The second fight (CR3) went five rounds (including some fleeing and catching up and other movement shenanigans). Everything flowed well. There was hardly any downtime that wasn’t ‘what was that movement rule again?’ It was… just lovely.

There are some flaws with Combat Manager. There doesn’t seem to be a way to calculate in feats (like weapon finesse), but there are manual entry things that I can do to fudge the effects of the feats. It crashed several times, but I found the behavior I was doing that was making it crash, and I can do the same thing using another path. Once I figured that out, no more crashes. Sadly, it looks like the program isn’t being supported anymore, but I think I’ll be perfectly fine working with it as-is. I can use it on my tablet (and honestly, the tablet interface is a bit nicer), but I think I will stick to my laptop for the larger screen and east of typing stuff in quickly.

Overall, A++, will definitely use a lot going forward (though if anyone has suggestions for a more robust and supported combat manager, I’m all ears/eyes/senses/whatever).

We were down one player last night because Wendy is at VMworld schmoozing and getting lost. But I think we’ll be in good shape for the first game.

The future saviors/destroyers of Korvosa are:

  • Bryn – Lady Renata Viraudax/Arenza Lenskaya, “Ren” – Human Varisian con artist and social rogue posing as a Chelish noblewoman.
  • Kyle – Calendral Kalessarien, “Cal” – Elven urban ranger, shingle-runner, and son of Persifal Kalessarien, the elven ambassador. Batman with living parents.
  • Lil – Carandolwen Duvanieth, “Cara” – Elven (Forlorn) brawler and newest recruit to the Grey Maidens, the personal guard for Queen Ileosa.
  • Adrienne – Altani (honorifics TBD) – Human Shoanti ‘Shaman’ (class: druid), nomadic princess with a pet landshark, Olon Töms (a bulette runt made with a modified snapping turtle template. His name means ‘hungry potato’).
  • Wendy – Name TBD – Half-orc alchemist (grenadier template) who is currently working at the grotty local circus (Exemplary Excrebles), but will soon be getting a griffon and grudingly allowed to join the Sable Company.

Oh yeah. This is going to go well.

Prep Weekend Post Mortem

I spent most of my weekend in game prep. A good chunk of prep was piecing together what I’d done and what I’d planned to do five years ago. Some of my notes were helpful, some confusing. I ended up sending a timeline to the players that included two game sessions of stuff that we hadn’t gotten to yet because I’d done so much prep for those sessions that I thought we’d actually played them!

Much of the rest of my prep was figuring out (and in some cases retooling) the metaplot. I like the adventure path for setting and encounter details, but the metaplot of Queen Ileosa eating huge bags of stupid-evil for breakfast with a generous dollop of weirdly anti-queer misogyny… just doesn’t work for me. And it wouldn’t work for my players, either. Leaving aside the problematic gender politics, when you have smart players, you need a smarter villan (or set of villains, or in my case, factions of ‘tagonists all with different, complicated, sometimes overlapping, and always ethically complicated agendas).

I had a mini char-gen session with Bryn and Adrienne. Bryn played a social rogue con artist (Renata/Arenzia) in the first iteration of the game, so we spent some time going over the new-to-us unchained rogue mechanics, pricing and selling the treasure that never got sold five years ago, and talking about the long con her character has been running and how it has progressed over the past six months of in-game downtime. She already hates her courtly foil, Lady Melia Arkona, who has set a fasion for wearing gaudy jewelry – lots of it – at court, meaning that “Lady” Renata can’t attend as many functions as she needs to. I suspect Lady Melia is not long for this world.

Adrienne is newish to gaming (she avoided it for years and then fell hard with Bryn’s L5R game), so char gen with her was a little different because she doesn’t have that gamer thing of having grown up steeped in the books and knowing all the possibilities open to her that she’s wanted to play but hasn’t yet had a chance. However, she’s a big fan of the sharks of Same-Z (especially Shumoku). When she jokingly asked if she could have a shark, I took her seriously (my philosophy of GM’ing is that there’s always a way to give a player what they want and still keep things true to the setting — you just have to think creatively). Jigsaw sharks are a thing in this setting and module, so at first I kicked around the idea that she could be a necromancer who only animated dead animals… for ethical reasons?

And then I googled ‘landshark Pathfinder’ and went, “oh right. Bulette!”


Now, also in the setting module, they mention that the local Shoanti tribes (who got booted out of Korvosa by Chelish colonizers about 300 years previous) hunt bulette and bring it to the city to sell. So again, the setting-as-written supports this outrageous idea. Having a Shoanti PC works great for my modified module (because of course part of the story I’m telling is going to be critical of the massacre and displacement of the Shoanti in ways that the real setting materials… aren’t).

So I pitched to Adrienne the idea of a nomad princess with a landshark animal companion (druid, using a hybrid snapping turtle/crocodile template because a real bulette would be so overpowered). She loved it. The bulette is a runt with a hammerhead mutation. His name is Olon Toms (which I’m informed means ‘hungry potato’ in Mongolian?) I suspect he’s going to win a lot of hearts and minds to the Shoanti cause.

Did I say win? I meant eat.

Gaming as Gift Giving

Crimson Throne

I’m going to be running a game. Pathfinder, based loosely on the Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path, but so thoroughly reworked that it really only bears passing acquaintance in form or function.

This is a revamp of a game I started back in… holy macrame, 2011. It fizzled out when I went to Clarion West in the summer of 2012 and never got ramped back up again. This made me sad, because there were a few character arcs I was really looking forward to running my players through.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine (Bryn) asked me to run something for her for her birthday. She has run the past three games I’ve played in, with her current Legend of the Five Rings campaign being one of the best and most fulfilling gaming experiences of my life.

This means she’s hit one of the traps of being a good GM. Pretty soon, you’re always running and never playing (roll reflexes, evasion lets you play half time).

Enter the idea of games as a form of gift-giving. I’ve paid my GM dues. I co-ran a huge, six-year Changeling LARP, and it left me burned out for running games for a long time. Bryn was one of the players, so I don’t feel so bad playing in her games without reciprocating because I already ran something huge.

However, I do like the idea of running a game as a kind of (reciprocal) gift. She puts a lot of work into running games that are fun for me, and I know that I can run a game that will be fun for her. Making it fun for her (and for the other players) will make the work fun for me. In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the gift-giving culture and exchange mentality around fanfic writing in fandom (with an abandoned game being like an abandoned fic).

As for the issue of sustaining the energy (which has been my challenge in the wake of the Changeling game), I’ve let everyone know that I’m running in a 6-game arc format with breaks in between for me to work up my energy. That way, even if I do need to take a longer break, I will have finished a story arc and not left people hanging. One of the worst situations in gaming is when a game fizzles out, leaving a story or character arc half-finished.

I’ve got outlines for the first two story arcs and a more detailed map for the first six or so games in the first story arc. Tonight we’re getting together for char gen for some of the new players and char refresh for people who played in the first game. I expect I will talk more about planning and GMing in the coming weeks, since that will be my main mental occupation.

In vaguely related news, I’ve started up a community on Imzy, which so far seems to be trying to take the best of LiveJournal, Reddit, and Tumblr and mash it together, with a side of active platform discouragement against harassment culture. I miss LiveJournal, I wish I felt safe to post on Reddit, and I’ve never liked the Tumblr interface, so I’m hoping this new thing takes off. So far, I really like the interface. We will see. You can find my new community here: Feel free to ask me for invites to Imzy if you want to set up your own stuff.

Sunk Costs and the 2016 WFC

Back in January, I sent the WFC2016 concom an email letting them know that I would not be attending unless they posted accessibility and harassment policies, as the membership and extended community had been asking them to do for months. They eventually (and very grudgingly) did put up some (painfully anemic) policies, and I decided to wait and see if their disregard for the concerns raised by the membership would continue.

Oops, they did it again.

I just sent another email:

Dear World Fantasy 2016 Organizers,

I’m afraid I will not be able to attend your conference this year. Given Darrel Schweitzer’s ongoing dismissal of (and disrespect for) membership concerns raised about the programming and recent reports that he will not be making any changes to address those concerns, I don’t feel that the World Fantasy 2016 Committee respects me as a member for anything more than the cash I put down for my membership.

I have attended the past several World Fantasies, and I always buy my membership for the next year at the previous year’s conference. Because of your strict no refund policy — which conveniently protects you from any direct protest on the part of the membership — I will be sucking this up as a sunk cost.

Mr. Schweitzer’s statements online have given me every reason to believe that your response to this will be a not-terribly-well-veiled ‘don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’ However, should the committee hold different opinions on the value of the membership and our concerns, I would urge you to take action to correct the issues that have been raised around programming by writers like Anne Leckie, Ken Liu, John Scalzi, Nora Jemisin, Sarah Pinsker, Marie Brennan, Jim Hines, Foz Meadows, etc. I can hold my hotel reservation until the week before the con without any penalty, and if changes are made then I would prefer to use my membership. I am, sadly, not terribly optimistic for this outcome.

Best regards,

Alyc Helms
Howling PC Ignoramus and Outrage Junkie


This isn’t an easy decision, but I’m a writer of pulp adventure fantasy. One of my main focuses in writing The Dragons of Heaven and The Conclave of Shadow is to take the kind of fun adventure tales I love and drag them into the 21st century where I can critique some of the things — like Asian fetishization, colonialism, white saviorism(is that an ism?), sexism, racism, etc. — that were most deeply problematic about the original pulps.

This is me taking the $150 I paid towards a professional opportunity I hoped would be fun, and treating it as a sunk cost. It is the only form of protest I feel is open to me, and I place a greater value on my need to be ethical around these sorts of issues than I do on attending this event.

So… I guess here’s hoping the WFC places some sort of value in its membership. As I said in my letter to them, I’m not optimistic.