Monthly Archives: June 2012
Author’s Note: What follows is some brainstorming/intro material I wrote regarding a post-apocalypse-ish setting I’ve been developing for the last year or two. Tentatively titled ‘Tales of the Quiet Earth’, even though there was a novel of a similar title (one of those ‘last man on Earth’ stories, from the 70s, I think). Perhaps I’ll think of a better one, in time. Still, I hope you enjoy.
Of the world I once knew, almost nothing remains, just as nothing remained of the world that came before mine. So few remember the scope of history. I and my brethren regretted this bitterly, once, but now I am unsure whether regret is of any use anymore. We are so near to the end. What would it matter?
We were the last, best chance for this planet. Those of us among the Generation were to bring a new era of understanding and prosperity to the Earth, to raise up our lesser cousins, to inspire the hordes of men to achieve great things in the name of unity. We failed, of course. Much blame can be laid at the feet of many parties, but the failure remains unchanged for all that. All I know is that the wars seemed to stretch on forever. In some ways, they still continue, though the commanders are all dead and gone.
That world will not come again. It was our chance, and we missed it. Humanity is now locked into a very slow, very gradual spiral towards extinction. None of them realize this, of course. They refuse to see the tenuous nature of their continued existence, as has been the habit of humans since life began. Perhaps, to be fair, this is the failing of all life—miserable, misguided optimism. Trust in the bounty of nature.
The world is quiet now. The teeming masses of humanity are gone forever. The great sprawling cities that once touched the clouds are cast down, left as little more than twisted wreckage and lakes of broken glass. The knowledge and culture and learning of that far-off time have been warped and compromised into the crudest reflections of themselves; a child’s replicas of adult tools. Even nature itself has shriveled up; like seeds before the winter, the bounty of this planet has been withdrawn. It waits for a dawning of a new age—an age where humanity no longer troubles it, and it may move on without us.
I have come to appreciate the simplicity of this time. The silence is a thing of beauty, in its way. Magnificent in its power and breadth, I can stand outside my small hut and gaze across the endless dunes and let the silence speak to me. It has more wisdom than a billion human voices in it. It has taken me centuries to learn this.
I am visited by small parties of nomads—scavengers who live among the bones of the past. With them I trade for food and give them wisdom and healing. They call me ‘wizard’. They bring to me tales of the Enclaves to the south and to the east—‘great cities’ they claim, ‘wealthy and blessed people’. I smile at the irony; those that were once cast out as backward, antiquated fools are now, on their acres of sealed-off farmland, the very pinnacle of human civilization. Their little cluster of a few thousand souls here and there are the most powerful settlements of which humanity can boast. To them I do not go and from them I do not accept visitors. I never agreed with their forebears, and I doubt their descendants are more agreeable. Let the fools live in their holes whilst they may. Someday it will end badly for them, just as I told them it would.
No, the only ones with whom I might converse as an equal are the denizens of Everscape, and they are no longer human by even the generous definition I ascribe to myself. They likely know more of what goes on in the world than I do myself, but their understanding of it is warped through a lens I cannot hope to comprehend. They are older than I, older even than the society that gave me birth, and their ageless lives of comfort and amusement have rendered them mercurial, fickle, and cruelly apathetic. No, with them I will only parley under duress.
Beyond them, there is no one. No one of consequence. There are ancient secrets buried, no doubt, and so-called wonders hidden that would amaze the remnants of my species, but they hold little interest for me. I am, for the first time in my long life, content. Some day soon, I shall die—killed, I expect—and I am ready for it. I bear my eventual killer no ill-will; my death has been a long time coming. The silence of this Quiet Earth, above and beyond all other things, has taught me how to accept the infinite and welcome the unknown with dignity, peace, and the knowledge that I, Martyn, have done all that could be expected of me. In the end, that is all any of us can hope for.
Psychics are really popular in science fiction. Almost annoyingly so, actually, given that ‘psychic power’ is in no way, shape, or form scientific. Granted, the properties that tend to make the most use of psychics or psionicists or whatever you want to call them tend to be the ‘softest’ of the science fiction genre, preferring high adventure and excitement over technological or scientific realism (think Star Wars, Babylon 5, Warhammer 40K, Mass Effect, and the like). This works quite well for them.
Let’s be clear here, however: psychic power isn’t real. It’s not. It isn’t as though we ‘haven’t discovered it yet’ – it’s not like FTL drive or anti-gravity (which, though currently impossible, at least have theoretical divisions of physics that might, somehow, lead to their creation). Psychic power does not and cannot exist without violating reason and sense and physical law as we know it. Even if I’m being really generous by saying that maybe, perhaps things like telepathy might be possible, stuff like telekinesis just isn’t. You can’t move crap with your mind without getting your arms or legs involved. We don’t have secret magic buried inside our brain. None of us is going to wake up and realize we’re Jean Grey or Professor X. Psychic power in sci-fi is just a way to get wizards into space, full stop.
Still, it is cool.
So, if it isn’t naturally occurring and there is no way our little brains (or even an alien’s big brain) is going to levitate on the power of good intentions or melt steel with their bad ones, how, then, could it be made to work? In other words: is there any way theoretical science or technology could be applied to create the same effect of psychic power without, you know, us having to pretend there is a Force? Well, I suppose there is probably some way. Let’s consider it, discipline by discipline.
Psychokinesis: The power to manipulate objects around you with your mind (covering telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and the rest of it) might be achieved through the use of a kind of advanced nanotechnology. Say you emit a kind of cloud of nanites around you–perhaps tied into your sweat glands or maybe your breathing cycle. With a control transceiver of some kind and a sizeable power source bionically implanted in your brain/body, it’s possible you could ‘command’ the nanites to move or ignite things with powerful magnetic or electrical fields. A stretch, yes, and the power would have severe limits (not to mention the fact that you’d be a giant electromagnetic capacitor, which is probably unhealthy for your dancing partner), but it might just work.
Clairsentience: The ability to see the future or observe distant places would be impossible in the sense that it’s impossible to actually see the future. Still, if social sciences become hard sciences (as described in my post here), then you can start predicting behavior with a complicated computer in your head. As for seeing distant places, that’s what Google Earth is for. Get yourself a direct neural uplink and you’re basically there.
Psychometabolim: This is the division of psychic power that involves manipulating your body – going into hibernation, dislocating your hand bones to escape traps, making yourself weightless, bulletproof, or regenerating limbs, etc., etc.. Of all of the psychic powers, this one is the most achievable. Partially, we’ve already done some of this stuff in hospitals and others can do it at circus sideshows. Beyond that, a healthy dose of nanotech could easily make your wounds repairable or toughen your skin. Don’t expect to look especially human if you do that, but still, it’s definitely possible. No making yourself weightless, though, unless antigravity technology is available and small enough to get stuffed into your legs or, more likely, torso.
Telepathy: So, above I hinted that this could be an actual thing. I say that because there is some research being done into reading minds as we speak. It’s a long way off, but it isn’t beyond the bounds of reality. Our brains are, essentially, computers that run on electrical current. It isn’t beyond the bounds of science to suggest that, if you can ‘hack’ the brain and manipulate the way the thing operates, you could control someone’s mind or read their thoughts. To do it, though, you’d need some pretty powerful hardware wired to your brain yourself. Again, I’m thinking nanotechnology would probably be involved – send a bunch of microscopic robots into a guy’s brain, and next thing you know you have him dancing and singing show tunes.
There you have it then – some loose possibilities to make psychic powers actually possible. You know, assuming we’re not all trapped inside a computer program and the laws of physics aren’t real things, anyway.
Just finished John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. It had been recommended to me by a variety of people for years, and has received glowing praise, including one guy – a writer and industry insider I met – who called it ‘the best military scifi out there.’ Now, I’d been hearing a lot about Scalzi in general, as he’s very popular, and I’d read a couple short stories he’d put out in various venues (which were okay, but not fabulous), so I picked up Old Man’s War to see what all the fuss was about.
As it happens, I’m still not sure.
Now, I’m not saying that the book is bad – it’s not and, indeed, as an introduction to the subgenre that is military SF, it’s a great place to start – but there really isn’t anything all that exceptional about the book. I liked it, more or less, but it was kinda…well…boring. I felt like I’d read it before. There was nothing flashy, nothing new, nothing to get my blood going. The science he discusses was interesting, but most of it I’d heard elsewhere before this (from sources published prior to Scalzi’s book) so it wasn’t precisely riveting. The dialogue was snappy, but it seemed like everybody was approximately as clever as everybody else, which sort of made it bland. The characters weren’t flat, really, but also fell just short of compelling. I wasn’t fully engaged with the struggle of the main character, John Perry, mostly because he didn’t undergo any kind of change and encountered precious little conflict. It was a book that seemed to avoid creating an antagonist.
If I felt like I’d heard this story before, it’s because I have. It’s been told a lot, actually, and it’s the basic ‘join the army, go to war, change your perspective’ thing that’s shown up over and over again in both the military SF genre and military fiction in general. It started all the way back with All Quiet on the Western Front (or possibly earlier, though that is the most influential book for the modern era), continued with The Dirty Dozen and its WWII cousins, went on to be showcased extensively through the Vietnam War era with movies like Platoon and then, later, with Full Metal Jacket. Robert Heinlein did it with Starship Troopers, and, when it was made into a movie, Paul Verhofen did it again, but gave it a distinctly different feel. The short-lived Fox series Space: Above and Beyond did it, as did Timothy Zahn in the Cobra War series and William C Dietz did in Legion of the Damned. Basically, if you’ve read or seen any of those books or movies, you’ve essentially already read Old Man’s War.
The trope shows alarmingly little variation. It goes like this:
Step 1: Guy joins army for reason (x), but doesn’t really know what he’s getting into.
Step 2: Guy goes to boot camp, wherein he meets Drill Sergeant (see figure A), who is tough and mean but who whips the group into shape and, even, comes to begrudgingly respect his recruits.
Step 2A: Guy bonds with buddies in boot camp.
Step 3: Guy goes to war, feeling he’s tough, but then meets real soldiers, and realizes he’s wrong.
Step 4: Guy gets in first engagement, earns respect.
Step 5: Guy’s friends start to die. This has (x) effect on guy.
Step 6: Guy is finally involved in The Big One–some pivotal battle–and manages to achieve some manner of distinction (only guy who survives, guy who saves the day, guy who saves his buddy, etc., etc.).
That’s it. Story over.
Now, the good Military SF stories shake this formula up a bit in various ways. Heinlein, of course, is the template since he’s the guy who ported this story into science fiction first. How you change and/or depart from the template is the way you distinguish yourself from the pack and add something new and interesting to the story. Additionally, since the external conflict in the story is so abstract and impersonal (especially in sci fi, where the enemy is mostly inhuman and noncommunicative), the really important aspects of the story are the internal conflicts and/or the message being conveyed by the author about war.
War is, at its heart, a deeply political subject and most authors tell this story for the express purpose of engaging with it. This can be very interesting, and creates a lot of variation in the structure. Zahn in the Cobra Trilogy, for instance, deals with PTSD in cybernetic super-soldiers. Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front, seeks to expose the cruel lie of a ‘glorious or just war.’ Deitz’s story is one of redemption, wherein you have a former criminal coming to terms with his new role in life. Scalzi’s is about…
Being old and in space? No, could have been about that but nothing was really done with it. Finding the love of your life again during wartime? Nope, not really. Kinda, maybe, but, again, that plotline doesn’t go anywhere. Is it a political message about the necessity of war? No. Again, potentially, but not really pursued. Is it anti-war or pro-war? Errrr…ummmm…I sort of have to say both? There are moments where either side is supported, but the author doesn’t really come down on one side or the other. This would have been okay, if the general thrust of the story was to show some kind of moral ambiguity or conflict over the necessity of war, but that was very much absent. It’s more like Scalzi just doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s more interested in battle scenes and blowing things up and fancy technology – all of which is cool, mind you, but the lack of anything else leaves the story a bit thin. Light. Hollow.
Perhaps, in the end, I just had really high expectations that weren’t met. I was looking for something that would cement this story in the pantheon of scifi lit for years to come, but it wasn’t there. This isn’t literature – it’s a fluff tale of explosions and battles and, for all that, it isn’t even as full of Awesome as some other stories in the same category. It was just another story about a guy (in this case, an old guy) who leaves home to join the army and has random adventures against a rotating cast of aliens. You know, that old yarn.
Have you ever seen the old sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet? If not, see it. It’s a pretty brilliant film, very Star Trek in its feel, though a good many years preceding Star Trek. It also has Leslie Nielsen, but he isn’t behaving like an idiot, which is novel in and of itself if you grew up watching Zucker Brothers films. It’s a kind of sci-fi retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which should give you snooty folks an excuse to take a look.
Anyway, I’m going to be talking about the movie here and digging into it, so if you want to watch it you really should before I ruin the whole thing for you. So, off you go.
Seen it yet? I’ll wait.
Okay, here we go: the central foe facing Nielsen and the gang is, essentially, the subconscious thoughts and primitive urges of the Prospero character (Morbius), primarily since Nielsen falls in love with the Miranda character (Altaria), and things go downhill. You see, Dr. Morbius was working with the ancient artifacts of a long-gone civilization (natch) called the Krell who disappeared in a single night. How, you ask? Well, they created the technology to make anything they thought of into something real, but forgot a pretty key fact: their primitive subconscious. Creatures from the Id.
This idea touches on something truly elemental in literature, which is carried out through every story of love gone wrong or rage gone unchained from Oedipus all the way to the Hulk. The id – that little monster inside of us that wants to get out and raise hell, consequences be damned. Science Fiction and Fantasy lit, in particular, is fairly obsessed with the problematic existence of the id. Think about all the demons and aliens and monsters out there who are, ultimately, just distilled representations of our emotions running off the rails. The Warhammer universe (both fantasy and 40K) has the Warp, which is *exactly* that – the reflection of living things emotional and pent-up primitive urges made real.
We specfic folks are usually disturbed by the id. We see it as unhealthy, uncontrolled, and dangerous. It makes us stupid. It’s for that reason, after all, that the Bene Gesserit of Dune administer the gom jabbar. That’s why we love Vulcans. That’s why the elves are prettier than the dwarves and why Hudson gets killed in Aliens and Hicks doesn’t. We know (or think) that losing our cool, letting the beast off the chain, is a Bad Idea.
Simultaneously, and unavoidably, we have a deep-seeded love of the kind of pathos whipped up when Banner goes Hulk or the Punisher exacts vengeance. We like Klingons, too, you know, for all their id-laden passions and poor impulse control. They, though, aren’t the lead characters. We don’t want to be them, precisely, so much as revel in their release and quickly get things back under wraps. If Bruce Banner is the Hulk all the time, the character loses something that we miss (or maybe not – were the ‘all Hulk, all the time’ comics popular? I remember finding them lame).
The trick, though, seems to be getting those passions under control. I borrow from Nietzsche here when he says, in “Morality as Anti-Nature”:
All passions have a phase when they are merely disastrous, when they drag us down with the weight of their stupidity – and a later, very much later phase when they wed the spirit, when they spiritualize themselves…destroying passions and cravings, merely as a preventative measure against their stupidity and the unpleasant consequences of this stupidity – today this strikes us as merely another acute form of stupidity. We no longer admire dentists who “pluck out” teeth so that they will not hurt any more.
What this means is that, ultimately, you can’t get rid of the id without destroying yourself, without killing that part of you that makes you alive and makes you human. The Vulcans, ultimately, are the tragic ones in a sense, or at least just as foolish and troubled as the Klingons. Yes, they have all the science and the knowledge and the logic, but what good is it to them? Science is a ‘how’, not a ‘why’. The passions (and, by extension, their disciplines, known as literature, art, music, and the like) are needed to give us purpose and drive and imagination. The Creatures from the Id can be demons and monsters, yes, but they can also be angles and muses, guiding us to that distant light that logic and ego, for all their clarity, cannot yet see.
How can a people who have so much always be trying to get things? Where are they going to put all the things that they want? If their house burns down or is washed away in a storm, how will they carry the things away? Why, if they have so many things, are they so upset when one of the things is taken or goes missing?
I have seen so many starving humans steal small things from rich humans and then get badly punished for it…by humans different than the humans who were stolen from. This makes no sense. Why do those humans care if the rich humans are robbed of the tiny things they shouldn’t need anyway? Why don’t the rich humans, if they are so mad, track down the poor humans and kill them? That would make much more sense. This way is stupid.
Humans always seem to be getting other things to do their jobs for them. They have ‘servants’ who are supposed to bring them food. They have ‘armies’ who are supposed to kill their enemies. They have ‘courts’ who solve their problems. In the Taqar, we solve our own problems. If I am hungry, I kill something and eat it. If there is a gnoll who has angered me, I hit his face until he admits I am in charge. If there is a dispute, I wrestle with the other one until I win or I lose, and that settles that. This way is simpler.
Perhaps the trouble is that there are so many humans and they all live in the same place. The human nomads who live on the Taqar are more like us than their sea-dwelling cousins, though even they are strangely obsessed with owning and controlling things. Perhaps if humans spread out more or had fewer pups, everything would be better. Then, though, a lot of humans would have to die. This usually upsets them. Not always though. Why they cannot leave their dead for the birds and rats is also very confusing. All that trouble to bury or burn perfectly good meat? If they did those things on the Taqar, they would probably starve.
Anyway, the only thing I have is a human sword and a gnoll sling. The sling is more reliable, and I don’t need to worry about it rusting. The sword, though, is useful for killing humans, which I have to do a lot. I am frightening to them, which is the smartest thing about them, and it is useful to kill them from time to time so they know not to trouble me. I carry their skulls around, which is annoying, but I got tired of trying to explain about all the ears I had collected. The skulls do not need explanation. They still say I am a bloodthirsty monster, but they would say that anyway without the skulls, and at least this way they know that if they try and touch me, I will rip off their heads and wear them on my belt. This lets them know where they stand, which is good for all creatures to know.
In some ways, it is unfair that the humans fear me so much. They are far crueller than I am. I do not kill pups, or those bearing their tiny human litters. I do not kill those who have not harmed me. I do not steal from those who have little. I do not destroy things unless I have good reason. How am I the monster, then, when I have seen human armies torch poor farm villages and sell the survivors like they were things? This is cruelty.
I may be a bloodthirsty monster, but at least I am not cruel.
Is it sacriligeous for me to say that I’m not a huge Ray Bradbury fan? I don’t mean to imply that I thought him talentless, mind you - he was a marvelous writer with a prolific imagination and the accolades poured upon his name are sufficient to summon the respect of even the most cynical critic. That said, in reflecting on the great writer’s passing, I am having difficulty thinking of something he wrote that really resonated with me. He is not, I can say with a degree of confidence, one of my inspirations. Nevertheless, I mourn his passing along with the rest of the speculative fiction world. He was one of the greatest among us; he helped make this genre and its cousins into something more than just primetime radioplay doggerel.
I admit to not having read all of Bradbury’s stuff (there is a *lot* of it, after all). The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and various and scattered short stories of his are all that springs to mind. Many of the titles of these stories have faded from my memory, as well; I think I started reading him in grade school and stopped when I hit other, bigger, more personally inspiring works – Tolkien, Asimov, Heinlein, Howard, LeGuin, Card. I re-read The Martian Chronicles in college for a class, and I remember it paling in comparison to the next read – Herbert’s Dune. If you had asked me a few weeks ago what I thought of Bradbury, I probably would have shrugged and said, ‘eh.’
Then again, upon reflection, I find images from his stories floating up. The image of the dog, mad with hunger, in “There Will Come Soft Rains” always chills my bones, as does the cruelty and selfishness of the children in “The Veldt”. The specific line in that story describing the ozone wafting off the daughter’s clothing as she comes inside has, for some reason, never left me. There is the children of Venus and their raincoats in “All Summer in a Day;” the crushed butterfly in “A Sound of Thunder.”
There is a certain, elemental simplicity to Bradbury’s storytelling that gives it power. It is plain, clear, and devoid of unnecessary embellishment; a kind of spartan, modernist beauty, like the set of a Star Trek episode. When I think of him, I think of the colors of the Golden Age of scifi–silver, gold, gray, brown, red. He is the 1950s, cleft-chin, clear-eyed, faith in science and hope for humanity’s wisdom (even though so much of his work doubted that self-same wisdom’s existence). With him I think of moon rockets and my childhood subscription to Odyssey magazine. I think of lying on the carpet, staring through the skylight, and thinking of astronauts.
Perhaps it is premature of me to dismiss him as an inspiration. Perhaps, instead, the inspiration he gave me runs so deep it has become difficult for me to separate it from the essential nature of my being. I am more than inspired by him; I am built out of him. He gave me, and so many others, a framework upon which to hang our wildest dreams.
May he rest in peace.
Saw The Avengers finally last night. Great superhero movie – tons of fun, lots of good stuff for comic book fans, enough for non-fans to enjoy, and with snappy dialogue and good pacing. A popcorn movie, certainly – nothing terribly profound or emotionally compelling about the whole thing – but the exact kind of movie the big screen does so well.
Anyway, it isn’t a spoiler for me to point out that, at some point in the movie, a whole bunch of bad guys attack New York city from a portal they open above it. If you’ve seen the previews, you can surmise as much. It also isn’t much of a spoiler for me to reveal that, through much trial and tribulation, the Avengers win the day and the portal assault fails. This failure, however, I feel has as much to do with poor planning on Loki’s part as it does with the interference of the Avengers. Indeed, Loki is committing the same errors that every portal assault plan executed by every alien/extradimensional being has made since they started doing this portal thing.
The Portal’s Advantages
The primary benefit of using a portal to teleport your army into battle is that of surprise. Since you can get your army to show up anywhere, this is a useful way to hit the enemy where and when they least expect it. I suppose, in the long term, it would also serve as a logistical benefit, as well, since supplying your troops could be as easy as trotting down to the Stargate room and lobbing through some sandwiches and spare clips of ammo. Given that I’ve rarely seen a portal assault go well enough for this to come into play, I’ll leave that part by the wayside for the nonce.
Anyway, surprise is great. Surprise can turn a battle in your favor. Surprise is a big deal. Surprise, however, is not the only factor you need to consider. You also need to consider when and how to use surprise to your best advantage. Attacking New York City, for instance, is a crappy place to utilize this surprise attack. Why? Well, New York City isn’t a direct threat to your invasion. It’s not a fortress. It isn’t an armed camp. Hell, the place can’t even feed itself. If you conquer New York City, you don’t ‘win’ the battle for Earth automatically. You definitely ruin the investment portfolios of many millions of people, but that’s much different than conquering the Earth. Plenty of military forces still out there, ready to mess you up.
Besides, attacking New York City from right out of a portal isn’t likely to work, anyway. This, however, speaks to the portal’s various disadvantages.
The Portal’s Disadvantages
Portals suffer from a number of very important disadvantages. First among these is the size of the portals themselves. Typically (such as in the Avengers) they are portrayed as being only large enough to admit a relatively small number of troops at a time. Now, any general will tell you that trickling your forces through a narrow space into a hostile landing zone is a great way to get yourself walloped, as the Persians learned at the Battle of Thermopylae. This is part of the reason why amphibious assaults are such dicey propositions and require so many resources to successfully execute – you’ve only got so many guys in so many boats. Each boat you lose means you lose a proportionally large part of your assault force.
Related to this, portals also suffer from the ‘eggs in one basket’ problem. If you’ve only got one portal and the enemy closes that portal, you instantly lose the battle. Bummer. Why, then, do the bad guys always seem to open these portals in places that are easily accessible to the enemy, in positions that allow the enemy to easily engage them, and at times when, far from surprising the defenders, gives them sufficient time to organize a counter-attack?
Well, bad planning, obviously.
How to Do it Right
If you want to bring in your otherworldly invasion force through rifts in space/time, then I have some advice for you:
- More than One Portal: You are going to need more than one portal to deliver your forces. These portals need to be operated in a decentralized fashion – i.e. if one is taken out, the others still work. This kind of redundancy is crucial in warfare, and why the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy in lots of little boats instead of one big giant boat.
- Establish Beachhead/Regroup Forces/Invade World: Don’t have your alien locust swarm stumble in all disorganized and piecemeal right into the jaws of the enemy. Pick a better spot–one softened up beforehand somehow, or one that is relatively undefended. Move your whole damned army through after your shock troops punch a hole, get everybody organized, and then attack all together at the target of your choosing. For this to work, you need to put your portal somewhere less obvious than, I don’t know, floating in the sky above the most populous city in the US. Idiots.
- Set Realistic Early Invasion Goals: Conquering a city of millions takes a lot of time, no matter how many damned space jet-skis and aero-whales you have. You aren’t going to conquer the place in an afternoon. Probably not even for a week. Pick something else. I’d, personally, advice ambushing the forces most likely to toss you back through the portal. SPOILERS: I suppose Loki was going for that in the movie when he took on SHIELD HQ, but he didn’t do a very good job of it. That would have been a much better place to open the portal on or near–then you can use your space-whales to eat the main threat without the distraction of shooting random people going to the mall. Once you’d focused your power on eliminating them, then you can worry about conquering New York.
So, there you have it. The best way to use your portals is to use them carefully and, ultimately, with a mix of caution and long-term goals in mind. Shock-and-Awe only works if you are dropping hundreds of portals producing hundreds of thousands of soldiers into the mix, so if that’s not in the cards, don’t try it.
Let’s face it: anybody old enough to remember and love classic action movies admires John McClane. The flatfoot New York cop who, with his wits, grit, and wise-cracking mouth manages to foil professional mercenaries, terrorists, and renegade special forces operatives.
All by himself.
That’s the key, right there–himself. John McClane needs nobody, because everybody else is an idiot or a screw-up or actually working for the bad guys. Granted, the other cops in Die Hard: With A Vengeance had his back, but they were always a couple steps behind McClane. He was the real show. He made it all happen. And it was awesome. When I was a kid and, admittedly, even today, I often sit there and think to myself: if there were terrorists with machine guns storming this building right now, how would I get out of it? How could I get myself a machine gun (ho ho ho?)?
The Die Hard Effect
In RPGs, when a PC winds up having to go it alone against the bad guys with limited resources, I call it (and have heard it referred to as) ‘the Die Hard Effect’ or ‘Die Harding’. It can frequently be a lot of fun–it lets the player who is Die Harding feel both stressed out and really cool at the same time, and the other players who are playing second banana get to, essentially, watch a really suspenseful couple minutes where they hope their buddy has the chops to rescue them/find them/win the day, etc.. It has to be used responsibly, however and with caution, since there are a lot of problems with doing this without forethought.
Problem One: There is More Than One Player
It is pretty rare that you’ll be running a game with only one player present. If you’ve got a room full of people, spending a couple hours with only one of them playing is a bit rude at the worst or potentially boring at the least. Even the player getting all the attention can feel bad about it, sometimes.
The solutions for this problem are two-fold: First, limit the period of time the Die Harding would take. Less than an hour and you can probably get away with doing it in one shot and not overly ruffling anyone’s feathers. Second, have things for the other players to do, even if they’re less essential. Break up the Die Harding with other stuff (and there was other stuff going on in those movies, you know).
Problem Two: It’s a Big Challenge
Sometimes, even though you did your best to keep things fair, the PC who is Die Harding is hopelessly over their head. This sucks for them, and has the opposite effect intended. This becomes a prime opportunity to use the Idiot Ball or, conversely, give the player time to think out of their situation by switching to what the other players are doing (heck, the other PCs may even be able to help somehow). Whatever you do, don’t have the player feel embarrassed or stupid or like a failure–bad plan. If they fail, at least try to make that failure dramatic, cathartic, or spectacular in some way so that they will be talking about it for weeks to come.
Problem Three: “How Can The Same Shit Happen to the Same Guy Twice?”
Don’t Die Hard all the time. Just don’t. It’s a once-in-a-while thing to change the dynamic of the game for a session and make things exciting. If everybody is off doing their own Die Hard thing all the time, the end result of the Die Hard effect (feeling awesome) is diluted. It winds up being like at the end of the third movie, when McClane says ‘Yipee Ki-ay Motherf—cker’againand we all roll our eyes and think ‘get a new line, dude.’ Die Hard sparingly, and only in extreme moments where the stakes are high enough to justify the departure. I’ve found getting the rest of the party captured is a good excuse, or having one player get captured and have to escape alone. There are lots of other ways, too, but make sure whenever you do it, it is a departure from the norm rather than the norm.
I’ve had players Die Hard in my games frequently over the years, both in good ways and bad ways, both successes and failures. When it works, it’s some of the best moments of the campaign. When it doesn’t, you look around the room when you’re done running the session and see a lot of bored people and disappointed faces. I do recommend trying it, but do it right. Think ahead. Get everybody on the edge of their seats, and you’re doing fine.